First Things First

At our worship on the Day of Pentecost, the folks in Crafton Heights read two accounts of what happened during that celebration: in the original context, as recorded in Leviticus 23, and after the ascension of Jesus in Jerusalem, as described in  Acts 2

This is a photo of someone else hand-pollinating a passion fruit flower. It’s not my hand, nor my flower. Who would pollinate passion flowers? That’s just uncalled for…

This is a curious and wonderful season, in some respects, for me. If you’ve had the privilege to pass by the alley behind Cumberland St, or to see me from the next-door-neighbor’s yard, you’ll have seen me wandering from one paw paw tree to the next with a Q-tip and a small paintbrush, trying to pollenate the trees and bring forth fruit. Every day for the past week, I’ve come home and walked through the house into the back yard, looking to see if today is the day that the kiwi vines are blossoming, and whether this year is the year that the male plant will finally mature. I’m measuring the new peas that my granddaughter and I planted last month.

Every day I come home, I walk out of my house into a land of promise. There is no more fruit, there are no more vegetables there now than there were in December, but at least now I can imagine them. These are months of promise, anticipation, and imagination.

It occurs to me that this is, for me, a season of luxury and of bounty. Will I get cherries this year? Will the blueberries ripen? Great! If not, well, I’ll have to buy them. That will be a disappointment and an inconvenience.

subsistence_farmingMuch of the rest of the world knows nothing of that kind of luxury. We are now in what subsistence farmers around the world call “the hungry season”. The crops that we grew last year were taken in and stored and have gotten us through the winter. We took some of that precious harvest and planted it a few weeks ago, and now the pantry is getting a bit bare. We can see what is coming – the plants are beginning to appear – but nothing is ripe yet. We look at our diminishing reserves, and at the calendar, and at the weather forecast, and we wonder: will there be enough? Can we make it until the harvest is ready?

Again, most of the people in this room know nothing about that kind of lifestyle, but it is the rhythm of the seasons for billions of your neighbors around the world.

It is also the culture that was called to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, or, as it was called by the Jews, the Feast of Weeks. Seven weeks (or fifty days, hence the Greek name Pentecost) after the first barley was harvested, all able-bodied men were required to journey to Jerusalem and worship, bringing with them the first fruits that had appeared in their gardens. These fruits, having been converted to loaves of bread or quarts of olive oil, would be offered freely in worship, with joy and thanksgiving to God.

Think about that for a moment – about the chutzpah of a God who says that the first fruits are what is required to worship fully. Not “some fruit”. Not “whatever you’ve got in your wallet when it’s time for the offering.” But the first. The ones that I am looking for right now as I wander past and wonder whether my Q tip strategy will have worked on the paw paws, or if Lucia’s sweet peas will take hold.

What if those first fruits make it to the harvest, but then there’s a hailstorm that destroys the rest of the crop? What if it doesn’t rain at all in July, and the first fruits make it in in time, but the rest of them shrivel in the heat? I’m supposed to walk past my hungry family, to ignore the worries that my rapidly-emptying pantry brings to mind so that I can offer God that which comes first?

redcordImagine a farmer walking on his acre or two. He’s examining his crops, not with the idle curiosity of Pastor Dave checking out his odd assortment of fruit, but with the desperation of the hungry season upon him. He hears the whimpering of his children, and he sees the evidence of the first barley, or wheat, or grapes, or figs, or olives becoming ripe. And when that farmer sees the evidence of those first mature plants, he reaches into his pocket and he pulls out a red cord and he ties that cord around the earliest part of the harvest, indicating that this portion of the harvest belongs to God.

Weeks later, when it’s finally ripe, he’ll walk through the fields again and collect these first fruits, called bikkurim, into a special basket made of wicker and decorated with strands of color. And these first fruits would not be eaten by the family, but would be prepared and taken to worship.

Bikurim-or-Bikkurim-Basket-of-grapesIt’s a holy day, because it’s the day that we remember that God gets what is first because it is by God’s grace that we’ve made it this far. God gets what is first because that’s a way of demonstrating our trust in the fact that God will continue to provide, as God always has. It is a time of promise, of anticipation, and imagination.

It is no accident that the Holy Spirit came upon the people of God during the Feast of Weeks. Most folks believe that there were about 120 followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem that day, and that these individuals represented the first fruits of a new harvest – the beginning of something new that God was doing.

In Jesus of Nazareth, God had come to this creation and fundamentally changed the nature of our relationship with himself. As John’s gospel reads, “the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood”. He lived, he taught, he healed, he was crucified, and he died. He was “planted”, quite literally, in a borrowed tomb, around the time of the Passover celebration. And then, three days later, he burst forth from the ground as dramatically and as surely as little Lucia’s sweet peas have done. Jesus is, as Paul says, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (I Corinthians 15:20) The resurrected Jesus was the beginnings of what God intended.

I was unable to find the name of the artist responsible for this piece.  If you know who did it, I would love to credit appropriately.

I was unable to find the name of the artist responsible for this piece. If you know who did it, I would love to credit appropriately.

And then, seven weeks later, the rest of the harvest begins to emerge. The followers of this resurrected Jesus, gathered in a place that was familiar, but not really “home”, experience an inrushing of the Holy Spirit. The little band of Jesus-followers – not yet even called “Christians” – finds themselves equipped for new aspects of life and ministry. It is, indeed, a time of promise, of anticipation, and of imagination.

God chose to inhabit a very old celebration – the Feast of Weeks in Jerusalem – in a very new expression of his will, his intention, his purposes for the world. He chose to do this as a demonstration that things like promise, anticipation, and imagination are not only in the past, and for those who came before us, but that promise, anticipation, and imagination are God’s modus operandi. God calls, God delivers, God saves; Christ comes, Christ teaches, Christ rises; the Holy Spirit explodes, the Holy Spirit equips, the Holy Spirit sends out. Again and again and again – in each generation, we can see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit moving in these ways.

Let me say those last two sentences again, because they sound pretty good from the pulpit: God calls, God delivers, God saves; Christ comes, Christ teaches, Christ rises; the Holy Spirit explodes, the Holy Spirit equips, the Holy Spirit sends out. Again and again and again – in each generation, we can see God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit moving in these ways.

Doesn’t that sound nice?

But doesn’t that sound pretty distant to many of us?

Here’s the truth, beloved. Not many of us really have gardens. None of us in this room really depends on a garden to get us through the entire year. But every one of us knows something about “the hungry season”.

You who are teachers or students have come a long way from the idealism of your youth or even the dogged determination of October. Those things have been replaced by teaching to some sort of a standardized test that has to be taken on a certain day, and then watching video after video as you are counting the hours and waiting for the days to stop.

You who are in another profession may know the uncertainty of transition. There’s been a reorganization and you know that some positions will be lost. Will yours be among them?

You may have been caring for one who has suffered illness for far too long, you may see your SNAP benefits run out six days before the end of the month, you see the roof leaking and wonder how much they’re going to want to even take a look at it…

We are unfamiliar with the agrarian cycle in which so many around the world are living, but you know what it’s like to be stretched thin and to wonder, “will there be enough?” Will there be enough of me? Will there be enough for me?

You know the hungry season in your heart.

And yet, beloved…and yet…

Can you look for the tender shoots of new growth? Can you see some place in your life where silently, mysteriously, roots are taking hold and change is coming? I know, it probably doesn’t look like much right now. There’s no way that these little sprouts could really change much of anything, let alone be “enough”. But is there something happening?

Can you wander through the thin places in your life and see those tender shoots and gently, carefully, place a red cord around them? Can you see this new thing and say, “I’m not sure what, if anything is going to happen here, but this new thing – this is God’s. This first thing? It belongs to Jesus.”

Can you ask God to work something new in your life – and can you trust him to bring it to bear fruit? Can you ask God to act in you, and to act through you, in the hopes that your world and this world and our world will change as a result?

That kind of trust is not easy, you know. And that kind of growth is not without pain. In fact, 11 of the first 12 followers of Jesus did not die natural deaths. But every one of them would do it again in a second.

Can you give your first, your best, your tenderest, to God? Can you set aside a portion of your income, your time, your energy and ask God to use it in the service of promise, anticipation, and imagination?

Beloved, if you know me at all, you know that I have seen a lot of hungry seasons. I have seen them on African and South American farms; I have seen them in American nursing homes; I have seen them in troubled schools and bankrupt personal lives. And time and time again, I have seen God make a visitation in the midst of a hungry season. And most often, I have seen that visitation occur in the lives of those who are characterized by the attributes mentioned in Acts 2: those with glad and generous hearts. I have come to believe that living this way is, in fact, the only way to survive the hungry seasons of life.

First things first, people. We live in a world of promise, anticipation, and imagination. Let us respond with glad and generous hearts. Not because of who we are, but because of who God is, and his willingness to send a Pentecost to us, here and now, in this hungry season. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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