Today’s suggested reading from the Book of Deuteronomy invites us to hear instructions about an old tradition that stretches far back in the history of the Jewish faith, which was meant to accompany a time of harvest celebration.
It is an interesting passage for us to read on this particular Sunday for a number of reasons. Today, after all, is the first Sunday in the season of Lent; it is the day of our annual meeting which will follow our worship service; and it is a day on which we celebrate the Sacrament of Communion.
And so, I would invite us, for a moment, to hold all of these different events together – this harvest tradition from Deuteronomy, the start of Lent, the annual meeting, and our celebration of communion – and realize that there is a common dynamic that is meant to undergird each of these seemingly different activities.
The passage from Deuteronomy is set within a series of commands about laws and practices that the people were to embrace as they settled in and established themselves in the land that they had come to inhabit after their long journey in the wilderness.
And then, in the opening verses of chapter 26, we read, “when you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name.”
They were to present those offering baskets, filled with the first fruit of their work, to the priest, and as they did so, they were instructed to remember what God had done for them in the past by reciting and recounting the story of their journey into Egypt and their liberation from slavery. We read, “when the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien…”
And with those words they were to begin to recite the story of their oppression, and the ways that God had intervened, on their behalf; the ways that God had led them from slavery to freedom, from deprivation to prosperity, from languishing in the wilderness to liberty in the Promised Land.
And that act of remembrance was meant to move them from simple reflection on the past to a state of gratitude in the present. Having remembered what God had done for them in the past, they were to move from remembrance to thanksgiving for all that God was doing for them in the present, blessings so abundant that they were able to offer gifts drawn from the best of their labours.
But their celebration was not meant to end in this act of remembering or in the grateful offering of what blessings had been poured out upon them. Rather, verse 11 states, “then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.”
Which is a fascinating movement in this act of remembrance and gratitude. That is, their remembering, and their grateful offering, was meant to serve as the foundation for a celebration in community – and it was meant to be a celebration in which all would share in those blessings. The author of Deuteronomy’s specific comment that the celebration was meant to include “the Levites and the aliens who reside among you” was meant to be a reminder that the act of remembering and the act of giving was meant to be a blessing not simply for the giver, but for all who were dependent on those gifts, and for those who did not necessarily have much to give. The Levites were the priestly clan who were not given a portion of the Land, but who were to be cared for by the other members of the community as the Levites attended to the needs of the Temple and the spiritual life of the people. The Levites, as such, would not have had agricultural produce to offer, but the gifts of others were meant to provide for the Levites as well. And, in a similar way, the “aliens who reside among you” were those who did not have status, who did not have access to agricultural lands, whose identity was “other” but whose presence in Israel was not meant to lead to exclusion but rather to embrace. And the Levites and the aliens were meant to share in the celebrations of the blessings that God had poured out on that community.
Remembrance; thanksgiving; community.
It is interesting to note that it is these same three components that meet us and shape our understanding of what happens at this Table. That is, the tradition that we know as the Sacrament of Communion is, similarly, rooted in remembrance and in a recitation of what has happened in the past. We are called to remember, and even to recite the story of what happened when this Sacrament was first instituted. “On the night before he was betrayed, Jesus took a loaf of bread…”
And what were the words that stood at the heart of that simple yet sacred action?
Do this in remembrance of me.
Like the ancient people of Israel who were called to celebrate “in remembrance” of the story of their Aramean ancestor going down into Egypt and how God intervened to bring them to a place of liberation and liberty, so too the followers of Christ were called to remember and to recite the story of how God, in Jesus, intervened in human history to bring us to a place of liberation and liberty from the terrible effects of sin and death.
And alongside this act of remembering stands the invitation to thanksgiving. In fact, at the heart of the Sacrament of Communion is a great prayer of thanksgiving, a Eucharistic prayer, in which we call to mind all of the ways that God has blessed us in the past – in the gift of creation itself, in the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah and their descendants, in the wisdom and visions of the prophets, in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the gift of the Holy Spirit and in the Spirit’s ongoing work in the church and in the world.
But just as the ancient Israelite’s acts of remembrance and thanksgiving were not complete in themselves, so too our acts of remembrance and thanksgiving in the Sacrament of Communion are not complete in themselves. Rather, just as that ancient harvest celebration was meant to lead to a renewed vision of a community in which everyone – even the “Levites and the aliens who reside among you” — would find a place, so too the Sacrament of Communion is meant to remind us of the gift of community that is formed and re-formed, a community in which there is a place for all.
Which offers us a beautiful opportunity for reflection as we come to this Table.
Because even though we might not look at each other, or lump each other into categories like “the Levites and aliens who reside among us” – the point is the same. This is a Table meant for all, a celebration meant for all, a Sacrament meant to be celebrated by all and with all and for all. Remembrance and thanksgiving are meant to form community.
And you can experience that, even today. As you come up the aisle to receive these simple elements, try to simply be aware, be mindful, be conscious and be grateful that we come to this Table together – as young and old, as rich and poor, as strong and weak, as friends and strangers, as citizens and as immigrants, as longstanding members and as newcomers to the household of faith. And it is only together that we can be and become what this Table intends to make us – that is, it is only together that we can be and become the living Body of Christ in this place and in this world.
We will remember; we will give thanks; we will be re-formed as the community of Christ’s followers, together in this place.
And then, we shall go into the annual meeting. And once again, this same dynamic will meet us. We will remember what God has helped us to accomplish in the past year, and in all the past years of this congregation; we will give thanks for the gifts and abilities, the resources and the energy, the people and the groups that work together to accomplish so much in this beautiful old congregation called St. Andrew’s; and we shall rededicate ourselves to being community together – to being a place where all find welcome, where all find inspiration, where all find grace, where all find compassion.
A long, long time ago, in a harvest celebration, the people of Israel were called to remember what God had done, to give thanks for what God had done, and to celebrate together as a community.
At this Table, we are called to remember what God has done, to give thanks for what God has done, and to celebrate together as a community.
In the work of the church, we are called to remember what God has done, to give thanks for what God has done, and to celebrate together as a community.
And as we journey into this season of Lent, as we journey together towards the horror of the cross and the joy of the empty tomb, we are called to remember what God has done for us and for this world in the person of Jesus Christ; to give thanks for what Christ accomplished in his life, his death and his resurrection; and to celebrate together as the community of his followers, that we serve a crucified and risen Lord who calls us, as a community together, to reach out to serve this world in the power of his Spirit and in the joy of his love.
So let us remember; let us give thanks; let us be his community together.