Monday, October 13, 2014

God Gives You 'Every Dog-Boned Morsel': Sermon for Thanksgiving Sunday, October 12, 2014

The LORD your God is bringing you to a wonderful land, a land with streams of water, springs, and wells that gush up in the valleys and on the hills; a land of wheat and barley, vines, fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey; a land where you will eat food without any shortage—you won’t lack a thing there—a land where stone is hard as iron and where you will mine copper from the hills. You will eat, you will be satisfied, and you will bless the LORD your God in the wonderful land that he’s given you.

But watch yourself! Don’t forget the LORD your God by not keeping his commands or his case laws or his regulations that I am commanding you right now. When you eat, get full, build nice houses, and settle down, and when your herds and your flocks are growing large, your silver and gold are multiplying, and everything you have is thriving, don’t become arrogant, forgetting the LORD your God:
the one who rescued you from Egypt, from the house of slavery;
the one who led you through this vast and terrifying desert of poisonous snakes and scorpions, of cracked ground with no water;
the one who made water flow for you out of a hard rock;
the one who fed you manna in the wilderness, which your ancestors had never experienced, in order to humble and test you, but in order to do good to you in the end.
Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me.18 Remember the LORD your God! He’s the one who gives you the strength to be prosperous in order to establish the covenant he made with your ancestors—and that’s how things stand right now.
Deuteronomy 8:7-18, Common English Bible

What I mean is this: the one who sows a small number of seeds will also reap a small crop, and the one who sows a generous amount of seeds will also reap a generous crop.

Everyone should give whatever they have decided in their heart. They shouldn’t give with hesitation or because of pressure. God loves a cheerful giver. God has the power to provide you with more than enough of every kind of grace. That way, you will have everything you need always and in everything to provide more than enough for every kind of good work. As it is written, "He scattered everywhere; he gave to the needy; his righteousness remains forever."

The one who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating will supply and multiply your seed and will increase your crop, which is righteousness. You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God through us. Your ministry of this service to God’s people isn’t only fully meeting their needs but it is also multiplying in many expressions of thanksgiving to God. They will give honour to God for your obedience to your confession of Christ’s gospel. They will do this because this service provides evidence of your obedience, and because of your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone. They will also pray for you, and they will care deeply for you because of the outstanding grace that God has given to you. Thank God for his gift that words can’t describe!
2 Corinthians 9:6-15, Common English Bible

Last week I took the train to Montreal for a meeting. And we got talking to a couple waiting for the train at Cornwall, and it turned out that the man is from Carleton County in New Brunswick, from a town near the one where my father’s family is from, and in fact his mother had changed my cousin’s diapers. So we talked all about who we knew and who is related to whom, who is still farming potatoes and who got out of farming. And that reminded me of the harvest season down home.

When my father was a boy in the 1930s in New Brunswick, in the days when you ate what you grew, they had wheat, buckwheat, barley, oats, turnips, and beans on the farm. And I assume there were potatoes, because potatoes are grown on pretty much every farm in Carleton County. In the fall they would have threshers come for the harvest. After that Grampy would load several bags filled with wheat, and several filled with buckwheat, onto the wagon. About four o’clock in the morning he would use the light of a kerosene lantern to hook up the horses to the wagon for the annual trip to the grist mill. My Dad and uncle never saw the mill, because they were never allowed to go. But my uncle George Hayward wrote this story down in his collection Growing Up in Simonds, and told how they remembered the lantern light and shivering in the cold fall air and wondering why Grampy didn’t want to take four and six year-old boys along.

It was a 20 mile round trip with a team of horses on gravel roads from the farm to the mill. It was a mill with a water wheel, like the one at Upper Canada Village. Grampy had the wheat ground into whole wheat flour, wheat hearts, and bran. The buckwheat was ground separately into meal. This was before you could buy pancake mix in a box, and before anyone knew that whole grains are better for you.

Grampy returned from the mill long after dark, and would water, unharness and feed the horses. The next morning he would bring the flour into the house and place it on tables in the parlour. That room wasn’t used in the cold months as it was unheated. Each table leg stood in a two foot-long section of metal stove pipe, to stop mice climbing up to get at the flour. Mice were a constant threat to the harvest on the farm. That whole wheat flour was used by Grammy Hayward to bake bread, the wheat hearts went into cream of wheat porridge, buckwheat flour became pancakes, and wheat bran was used muffins but most of it was fed to the cattle. Both the family and cattle ate turnips, too. The Haywards in the 1930s had little or no money, and food wasn’t fancy, but it was wholesome.

That’s a good harvest story. I could also tell you, from Uncle George's descriptions, about pulling the turnips by hand and chopping off their tap root and stalks and leaves. Or about pulling up the bean plants, letting them dry before beating the pods with a flail, and then pouring the beans into a wooden mill to clean the chaff off them. Those beans were white with a reddish-brown marking. In the Maritimes and New England these are called soldier beans, which is the name my family uses for them. Saturday night suppers on the farm were usually baked soldier beans and potato salad.

Now, these stories make it obvious that the harvest involves lots of hard work. Many of us here have lots of personal experience with that. There’s an old movie called Shenandoah, about a farm family in Virginia that tries not to get involved in the American Civil War. It seems I’ve had a lot of Civil War stories in sermons lately. The head of the family was played by Jimmy Stewart. And he says grace at supper, and says:

Lord, we cleared this land.
We ploughed it, sowed it, and harvested it.
We cooked the harvest.
It wouldn’t be here, we wouldn’t be eatin’ it, if we hadn’t done it all ourselves.
We worked dog-boned hard for every crumb and morsel, but we thank you just the same anyway, Lord, for this food we’re about to eat.

This attitude, that we have done all this by ourselves, is what this morning’s reading from the book of Deuteronomy is about. Moses is giving the people of Israel a warning. They have been in the desert for four decades after being brought out of slavery in Egypt. They haven’t even entered the promised land yet. But Moses knows these people. He knows that, even though God brought plagues on Egypt so their oppressors would let the Israelites go, even though God parted the sea so they could escape, even though God made bread appear on the ground to feed them and made water flow from a rock in the desert, the Israelites complained. In the TV comedy show Family Guy, there’s a scene where Moses adds another commandment: “There’s nothing I can do about the sun.” That isn’t in the Bible, but it sounds like something Moses might say, trying to get the complaining Israelites through the desert. They are completely dependent on God for survival, but Moses is still trying to get this across to them after 40 years.

Moses knows that when they get to the new land, they will have wheat and barley, grapevines, fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil, and honey, that in this land there will always be food on the table and a roof over their heads, their flocks and herds will grow, and everything they have will thrive – and then, Moses knows, they will be tempted to forget the lesson they were supposed to learn during their time in the wilderness, that they rely on God. Don’t become arrogant, he tells them. Don’t think to yourself, My own strength and abilities have produced all this prosperity for me. The Message version of the Bible translates this as, “I did all this. And all by myself. I’m rich. It’s all mine.” If Moses had heard Jimmy Stewart’s character in the movie, he would have said, "Don’t say to yourselves, We wouldn’t be eatin’ this food if we hadn’t done it all ourselves. We worked dog-boned hard for every morsel."

Jesus tells a story about this attitude, about a rich man whose land produces a bountiful harvest. The man says to himself, “What can I do? My barn isn’t big enough for my crop. I know. Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones for all my grain. Then I’ll say to myself, ‘You’ve done well. You’ve got it made and can now retire. Take it easy and have the time of your life.’”

Moses is warning Israel against pride. He is trying to tell them that, despite what people think and what Jimmy Stewart’s character and the rich man have to say, they didn’t do it all themselves. It may be their labour that plants and tends and harvests the wheat and barley, grapevines, fig trees, pomegranates, and olives, but they didn’t invent these things or the natural processes that cause them to grow. As our reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthian believers says, it is God who supplies seed for planting and bread for eating. Jesus tells another little story, about scattering seed on the ground, and the seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, Jesus says, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain to be cut at the harvest.

A lot of us are now pretty removed from the harvest, These days we may bring in vegetables from our own gardens, or we do what I did on Friday, go to the grocery store and buy a turkey and vegetables and potatoes and bread that someone else raised and grew, dressed and processed and baked. But we can still fall into the trap Moses and Jesus are speaking about, of believing that we can take all the credit, of thinking that any wealth we may have is the result of our own striving, or because we are better than others.

Remember the Lord your God, Moses says. God gives you any ability you have to produce food or anything else. And when we remember God and that everything comes from God, when we recognize that we are dependent on God for all that we have, when we realize that we have not achieved anything on our own, then we have to accept that what comes from the earth is not ours to hoard for ourselves. God has given it to share. The Corinthian church is told, you will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous in every way. Such generosity produces thanksgiving to God.

So at this harvest time, remember the Lord your God who gives seed that becomes food for us, who gives us gifts we can give away, which grow into well-formed lives, grounded in God, rich in generosity, giving God the glory, producing abundant and bountiful gratitude to God. Let us show our thanksgiving through our generous offerings to our needy brothers and sisters. That’s how we can bless God in the wonderful land God has given us.

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