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Sermon Manuscript | First fruits and last fruits
Text: Leviticus 23:9-14;22
Speaker: Joel Miller
Anytime the primary reading of the day comes from Leviticus, you know you’re in for a treat.
Much of what’s written there doesn’t exactly have direct application for the present day. Parts of today’s reading are no exception, involving the particularities of priestly duties – an offering of a year-old lamb;, a grain offering measuring two-tenths of an ephah, mixed with oil; a drink offering of wine measuring ¼ of a hin. They don't teach that in seminary anymore.
But Leviticus is also the source of one of two teachings Jesus cites when asked about the greatest commandment: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Leviticus 19:18. Upon this teaching, Jesus said, hang all the law and prophets. With this, Jesus was affirming what other rabbis like the great Hillel, had already taught. That same chapter goes even further. Leviticus 19:34 - “You shall love the stranger, the sojourner, the foreign born resident, as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
The reading we just heard comes soon after this. We have moved from more general ethical commands to the appointed festivals and holy occasions. One of these is the first fruits offering.
From Leviticus 23:10 – “When you enter the land that I am giving you and you reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the first fruits of your harvest to the priest.”
In other words, since barley was the earliest grain crop, each year, rather than getting right into the harvest, landowners were to bring the first sheaves of the first fully mature barley to the priest. The priest would raise the sheaf as if giving it back to the Deity who brings the sun and rain and is the ultimate owner of the land as Leviticus also claims. The priest then makes these other offerings with the correct symbolic measurements. Lamb, grain, wine. Only after this full ritual could the harvest begin.
This is the first fruits practice of ancient Israel. It’s how the harvest season was to begin every year. It’s so important that the text sums up by saying: “It is a statute forever throughout your generations in all your settlements.” Leviticus 23:14
This practice of first fruits is what we’ve named our annual congregational pledge season. Sheaves of barley have given way to dollar bills and checks, which have largely given way to electronic funds transfers of many varieties.
First fruits giving invites us into a particular kind of relationship with our resources, as we often call them. Or, to take a broader view, first fruits giving invites us into a certain kind of relationship with the substances and forces that keep us and this world alive.
In a first fruits world, our first act, our initial and therefore primary way of relating with these life-sustaining forces, in an act of letting go. An act of giving away what is ultimately not ours in the first place. And here, and for the rest of the sermon, I’m talking not just about making a pledge to the church, but the way we pledge ourselves to be in this world.
The spirit of this letting go is counter-cultural enough to our consumer and accumulation based society that I’m not convinced first fruits is a strong enough way to frame it. Getting off to a good start is, a good start, but what then?
It seems like we need a little more to give shape to all this. Before looking at this Leviticus passage again recently I hadn’t noticed that it seems to agree. It doesn’t just leave off with first fruits and set the harvesters loose to do as they will.
After detailing the first fruits offering, then moving into the festival of weeks which was another harvest celebration, the text says this: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.”
I knew this was in the Torah, and it is in fact mentioned multiple times, but I’d never noticed it included here, right after first fruits. We’re going to call this verse last fruits. For the first fruits you actively harvest just a bit and dedicate it to God with the hope of having the blessing of a good harvest and being reminded that anything you have comes from the Source of Life. But that’s not the full package. There’s also a last fruits commandment. Last fruits is a commandment of inactivity. You, in essence, don’t complete the harvest. You intentionally disrupt the process of maximizing the largest yield possible, the largest profits you can make, the fullest you can fill your own barn and bank account. And instead, you keep it available for the poor and for the alien.
In other words, you dedicate yourself to an economy and an ecology where everyone has access to enough. You leave the edges of your field unharvested, the edges of your bank account unspent. And, maybe most radically for us, perhaps you leave the edges of your calendar unscheduled.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes of a similar practice among Native peoples around the Great Lakes. She’s the university trained scientist / member of the Citizen Potowatomi Nation who wrote the book Braiding Sweetgrass. One of the chapters in that book is called “The Honorable Harvest.”
She writes about how early European colonists on Turtle Island were amazed with how bountiful the land was. Around the Great Lakes settlers encountered an abundance of wild rice, but were confused by the harvesting practices they witnessed. She cites one journal entry that noted this: “the savages stopped gathering long before all the rice was harvested…The rice harvest starts with a ceremony of thanksgiving and prayers for good weather for the next four days. They will harvest dawn till dusk for the prescribed four days and then stop, often leaving much rice to stand unreaped.” (p. 181)
Back to the present moment Kimmer tells of a well-intentioned engineering student she once met who had the opportunity to participate in the rice harvest of his friend’s Ojibwe family. After noticing that over half the rice they tried to gather was falling back in the water, he decided to design a capture system that would enable them to get 85% more rice. His hosts responded by saying: “Yes, we could get more that way. But it’s got to seed itself for next year. And what we leave behind is not wasted. You know, we’re not the only ones who like rice. Do you think the ducks would stop here if we took it all?” (p. 182)
So there are practical aspects to a first fruits and last fruits way of life. Personal financial planners often have the good advice of paying yourself first to build the habit of savings, which can also be applied to paying others first through the habit of giving. Giving money toward the organizations we strongly believe in is a way of furthering their mission even if we can’t give them our time. Leaving the edges of one’s field for the poor helps build a stable society that ultimately benefits everyone. Leaving rice in the marsh expands the community of everyone to include ducks and the rest of the natural world. First and last fruits living is a form of enlightened self interest.
Along with these practical habits and benefits, I hear Leviticus, and Robin Wall Kimmerer inviting us into a spiritual conversion, especially we who have arrived lately on this planet and undergone the catechism of consumer culture. The conversion is not just rebalancing the ratio between what we give away and what we keep for ourselves. The conversion is reimagining what we mean by our “selves.” Escaping the hyper-individualist notion that we are a purely separate self, independent from the web of life, the Source of Life, the flow of oxygen and water, energy and love, giving and receiving. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is the center of the commandments because in following the commandments we discover that the self and the neighbor are not as separate as we once imagined. We all eat from the same field. We all canoe through the same marsh.
I’d like to end with a guided meditation on first and last fruits.
You’re welcome to close your eyes or keep them open. You can start by paying attention to your feet resting on the ground. Notice it holding you up. Notice your body having a place to be. Notice the air entering, and leaving your body.
I invite you to imagine a field. It could be a barley field, a marshy field, or something else entirely. This field is your life. In this field is everything under your care. Your money, home, and belongings. Your relationships. All of your abilities – the skills you’ve developed and the things about you that just came with being you like your sense of humor or ability to diffuse conflict or your passion to confront injustice. And your time. Your precious, invaluable time. Your time is also in this field. In standard stewardship lingo, this field would have three sections of treasure, talent, and time.
Imagine a first fruits offering. Before enjoying the bounty of this field, we gather together now for a thanksgiving. We gather and bring the very first fruits of the harvest. We offer them to God, to the community, to the cosmos. For the first conscious breath we take each day, we give thanks. May every breath be holy. For the first bite of food or drink, we give thanks. For the first four hours on a Monday, potentially the most dreaded time of the week, but for first fruits living, our 10% tithe of a 40 hour work week. Even for this we give thanks. May the money earned during these hours go toward the greater good. For the first and best of our creative stores of energy we offer thanks and make them available to the Source of all Energy. All these we lift up, that our spirits may be lifted toward the Great Spirit. That our eyes might be directed toward the one who taught us the greatest commandment, Jesus our brother and guide.
And now the harvest has begun. We go about our weeks. We work, we rest, we care for those dear to us, we spend, we save, we play, we study and learn, we explore, we build and maintain and beautify our home, we volunteer, we care for our bodies and our mental health, we gather in the harvest of what has been sewn.
But not the whole harvest. Not every last hour of the day, not every last dollar of the budget, not every last ounce of energy we have left.
It’s time for the last fruits. Let us imagine leaving some of what could be harvested alone. Let us imagine leaving spaces of the calendar that could be filled, open. Let’s imagine some of that rice, maybe even more than half, slipping gracefully through our nets and floating down into the dark water where it will reseed and feed other life. It’s not for us. At least not this year. Let’s imagine giving some of that time to advocate for better public policy. For good health care access. For racial equity. For affordable housing. Let’s imagine some of those funds left unspent being made available to organizations helping resettle refugees or rebuild after natural disasters. Let us welcome others into the edges of the field to do their work with the good grains that remain.
Let us see the first and the last fruits as a holy hug, surrounding everything we have been given. Making the in-between fruits, all the harvest, a holy venture. Every effort. Every dollar. Every hour. Every breath.