2 Kings 5:1-3,7-15c; Luke 17:11-19
This has been a week of sadness for many of us in the St. Andrew’s family. We gathered here yesterday to celebrate the life of our friend Deacon Peg Ruth, who’d been part of this parish for more than 62 years as a member, staff deacon, source of wisdom, and bearer of love. As we proclaimed our faith, and her faith, in the power of resurrection, we also shed several tears.
In addition, this week brought us news of Hurricane Matthew and its devastating effect on southwestern Haiti, home of our ministry partners in Maniche and Les Cayes. We don’t know the full scope of the damage, but it’s no stretch to say our friends there have lost more than we can imagine, their fragile homes, their crops, and their possessions literally scattered to the winds.
When I prayed about Haiti this week, the image that came to mind was the offertory at the 150th anniversary celebration of the Episcopal parish in Les Cayes. As you may remember, when we returned from Haiti in the spring, I talked about this amazing offertory procession, with people dancing their way down the aisle to bring their first fruits to God’s altar: bananas, mangoes, and corn; beans, rice, and peppers; even goats and chickens – all of it brought as a sacrifice of thanksgiving to the Lord who had provided it in the first place. At this point, our friends in Haiti have precious little to bring to God’s altar, and their struggles will only intensify with the disease and deprivation we know will come in the storm’s wake.
But Haiti is one of those thin places between heaven and earth, a place where our lives and the kingdom of God intersect in surprising ways. Our friends in Haiti need our prayers and our ongoing support, but I have absolutely no doubt that before long, they will once again be bringing their first fruits to God’s altar. It’s just what they do, because they know God will call new life into being there. And they’re right. That’s just what God does.
Offering first fruits to God is a pretty good description of Peg Ruth’s life, too. Peg gave her loving presence here so generously – one of those parishioners who does nearly everything there is to do at church and does it with a servant’s heart. Whether you’d known Peg for 60 years or, like me, only a decade or so, you couldn’t help but be moved by the generosity of her spirit.
A few months ago, Peg was interviewed in the Messenger about why she put God first in her life – why she offered her first fruits. She said, “I simply wanted others to have the faith I knew to be very real.” So she packed up neighborhood kids in her car and brought them to church along with her family. She served on a million committees, including the Vestry. She led the Altar Guild. She said “yes” to God’s call and pioneered the way for other women to serve in ordained ministry. She supported St. Andrew’s and its ministries financially. She visited you in the hospital; and whether you were a friend and neighbor or a patient with AIDS, she would take off her sterile glove, and hold your hand in hers, and pray that you would know Christ’s healing love.
Each of those gifts Peg shared with us was a first fruit. It’s a concept with a long history, one deep in our DNA. Our spiritual ancestors, the people of Israel, would come to the Temple in Jerusalem every year to offer the sacrifice of their first fruits, the produce they’d inherited when they came into the Promised Land: wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, dates, wine, and olive oil. It sounds like that offertory procession in Haiti. Those gifts supported the Temple’s operation; but more important, they were an antidote to amnesia. They helped people remember that the land and its produce was God’s gift, not something of their own doing. And those offerings helped the people remember their side of the Covenant, too: As God provided land and blessing, the people offered fidelity and thanksgiving.
Here at St. Andrew’s, we’re beginning our season of stewardship this morning. For the next five weeks, you’ll be hearing from clergy and parishioners about what it means to put God first, to honor God through the offering of your first fruits.
But in another sense, this season has been underway for months already. Think about the stories you’ve read in the Messenger and the bulletin about members of this church family putting God first – Morgan Olander, Dr. Stan Shaffer, Audrey Langworthy, Bob West, George and Carolyn Kroh … and Deacon Peg Ruth. Each has his or her own story of what it looks like to live a generous life in terms of time, talent, and treasure. All of them are pledgers to St. Andrew’s, but that certainly isn’t the only mark of their faithfulness. For Morgan, generosity has looked like mentoring Boy Scouts. For Stan, it’s looked like building partnerships in Haiti. For Audrey, it’s looked like years of public service in the legislature. For Bob, it’s looked like civic leadership in universities, libraries, and health care. For George and Carolyn, it’s looked like ministry in education, community gardening, and Haiti. And for Deacon Peg Ruth, it’s looked like a life of servant ministry and servant leadership. As Peg said, “Being a Christian is sometimes a tough road to travel, but choosing the easier path is not what the Christian life is about. Jesus said, ‘Take up the cross and follow me.’ I can’t say, ‘No, wait, it’s too heavy.’”
Can we follow those models of faithfulness? Can we follow the lead of the people of Haiti who bring their first fruits to God’s altar despite the risk that their homes might be destroyed in a few minutes’ wind and rain? Can we follow the lead of Deacon Peg and the others we’ve been profiling? Can we live a generous life despite the temptation to see scarcity everywhere we turn?
I believe the answer is simple and yet simply astounding, and here it is: I will, with God’s help. It’s our answer to the five questions God asks us in the Baptismal Covenant: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and the prayers? Will you persevere in resisting evil and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord? Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? And will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being? As Stan Shaffer said in his interview, those promises of the Baptismal Covenant capture the Christian life in microcosm: Sacrifice. Forgiveness. Celebration. Service. Respect. That’s our job description as followers of Jesus, and we can’t let his call scare us away. After all, if we’re followers, that means we’re on a journey. We can’t expect to walk it as faithfully today as we will tomorrow. But still, each day, we can take a good next step, following his lead.
How? I think the key is the practice of thankfulness – the active, outward, concrete, sacramental practice of thankfulness. Not just being thankful, but doing thankful. Now, this may not exactly come naturally to us. Think of the examples in our readings today. Naaman, the Syrian leader with leprosy, was angry that he didn’t get enough personal attention while God miraculously healed him. In the Gospel, the nine Jewish lepers didn’t bother to say thank-you to Jesus for their healing; only the outsider, the Samaritan, lived out his thankfulness by coming to the place of blessing at Jesus’ feet. We’re not so good at “doing thankful.” We need God’s help, and we need practice.
That practice of thankfulness happens across the scope of our lives, as we’ve seen in those profiles in the Messenger. It’s about time and talent and treasure because God blesses us with all three. God asks for our first fruits not as transactions of blessing but as tokens of blessedness. The Israelites gave God their first fruits not to purchase good fortune but to help them remember where their Promised Land had come from and what faithfulness God expected in return. We need the same memory aid to remind us that we cannot live for ourselves alone but for him who died for us, and rose again, and now uses our hands to hold the world in love.
In the next few days, you’ll be receiving information on how to “do thankful” here at St. Andrew’s through pledges of time, talent, and treasure. All three are equally important – prayer, and service, and financial gifts – because God doesn’t just want the first fruits from your wallet. God wants first place in your life, as Peg Ruth modeled. As she said in her interview, “I’m trying to live the message, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
She could say that because Peg knew who she was and whose she was. She knew God’s claim on her life. She knew the costs that faithful living brings. But she also knew the joy that comes in the morning, the joy that comes when the storms clear, the joy that comes from putting God first.
So do you. So do I. But we need help, sometimes, to remember.