A note about this sermon:
This sermon is written for the congregation and friends of First Baptist Church of Moorestown on the day we dubbed "All In Sunday." Our hope is that our community of faith, in its entirety will come together for one large service, consecrate our pledges for next year, and hope/plan/pray for the future. We will renew our community covenant, and rededicate ourselves to following the teachings and ways of Christ- put ourselves 'All In! '
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 God's name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to the priest, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that God swore to our ancestors to give us.” 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, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and God brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house.
A tribe of stateless people, wandering in the desert since the day they had been liberated from 400 years of cruel oppression, and Moses led the people out of Egypt. God had given the people a long hoped for, but unexpected gift through the exodus and in this passage they are about to enter the ever illusive 'promised land.'
They had waited and wandered 40 years to find this place. Along the way they made mistakes. They grew impatient and turned to other Gods, they turned on Moses, they turned on each other. And so God gave them time to grow into a people before allowing them to enter the 'land of milk and honey.'
Now, as they prepare to posses the place they are to call home, they receive and invitation to worship the God who freed them, assembled them, instructed them, protected them, and would continue to provide for them.
The invitation is to organized worship. Worship gave a symbolic way for the people to show gratitude and thanks to an invisible God; a God who's presence shows up in pillars of fire, and clouds, and manna from heaven, and water coming out of a rock, and the parting of the sea. And here are the instructions for worship: "At harvest time, the farmer takes part of the fruits of the earth and brings them to a place consecrated to God, a sanctuary or temple. He gives them to someone set apart for this, a priest, who accepts the offering in the God’s name and transmits it symbolically to God by placing it on the altar, a meeting-place between heaven and earth. Then, the gift is made to disappear in one way or another, by burning or by consuming it."*
This is what "sacrifice" is, in the Bible. Over the centuries people have made sacrifice into a different kind of word. Sacrifice to God sometimes gets wrapped up in, we have to give up the good parts of our lives, we need to go without, we need to work harder and put everything before ourselves, in some cases even put up with abuse, or deny ourselves and who we are, ignore or confess wants or desires- and overall sacrifice means misery, i mean, if you aren't sad about giving up something than its not sacrifice right?
But originally this was not the case. Sacrifice meant that the people took a look at what God had given them, and were glad. Then, out of their thankfulness enter in to this ritual of bringing the best of what they are thankful for, to God. And 'joyfully' remind themselves of their part in the covenant- that God will continue to provide for them, and that God's plan for them to be everything God said they would be, is in fact true.
By giving to God the best of what they had, or what the bible calls the 'first fruits,' it helped the people understand that they have, not because of anything that they did, but because of what God did, and will do. That no matter what happened, God would continue to be there for them, and continue to provide for them. How freeing and how comforting is that? No wonder they were joyful. Giving to God reminded them whose they were- no matter what!
That's a whole different take on sacrifice, isn't it?
So today, on Thanksgiving Sunday, on All In Sunday, I thought it might be a good idea to remember who we are, where we've come from, and what we truly have been given by God in this congregation as a people that we are thankful for. Because I don't want us to be here together just a short time- we are here for the long haul, amen? And I don't want our worship to be anything short of what God intended.
That means we are not to come to worship out of obligation, or guilt, or to get forgiveness, or points with God, or even to just see our friends (although that certainly is a perk, isn't it?). God calls us to worship out of our gratitude- as thankful people. God is calling us to make our very lives a sacrifice- to make our lives a gift. 'Paul writes to the Christians of Rome: “I urge you to offer yourselves as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship” (Romans 12:1).' So we come to worship, and make our lives an act of worship, because of what God has done for us.
Now- here's where we have to take a breath. Because for some right now who are suffering, or for some who don't have an abundance of things, or have been hit with a job loss, or family struggles, or relationship breaks, or illness, or because of world events, or politics, or hate crimes or any number of things, it can be difficult to find something to be thankful for.
And let me say to everyone in unbearable situations, God knows your heart- God knows your hurt- and God is there with you in your pain. God did not say we would not suffer- God promised to be with us in our suffering- no matter what it feels like or looks like. God will never leave you alone.
And it is in that one truth, that God will never leave or forsake us, that we can find thankfulness. That we are never alone. And if you need proof of that, look around the room this morning. It's no accident that we are all here together.
If you were to have come into this sanctuary (and some of you did) five years ago, things would have looked very different than they do now. Not that anything was worse or better (depending on who you talk to) but things were different- the congregation was different- I was different. That being said, each of us have been brought here for different reasons- each of us called with a different expectation of hope, each one found something here that made us want to return, or even become a member, or a leader, or a pastor at this place.
And return we did- Over just the past five years we have grown into a community of faith- we've made many changes- to our structure, to our regional affiliation, to our governance, or even the things we support and are passionate about. We've recommitted ourselves as a people to fight injustice, to stand with the oppressed and marginalized, to help the weak, or as the prophet Micah reminds us, to love justice, do mercy and walk humbly with our God. We've studied together, sung together, questioned, argued, agreed, cried, laughed, eaten, worked, and played. We've supported each other in good times and bad. And we've learned so much- about who we are, about who God is, and about what God calls us to.
And that's what today is about- celebrating this people of God- and that all of us, whether you come to church once a year, once a month, once a week or once a day (hey, there's nothing wrong with coming once a day) all of us need to look around at what we have been given here- at what God has given us in this place, and through this place and be thankful. For whatever you have found in this place; caring, acceptance, knowledge, a place to work for a better world, friends, family, a spiritual home, to take a good look and be thankful. For the things you've done up to this point and the ways God has led you to get here, and in the hope of God for the future, and be thankful.
And out of that place of thankfulness, put ourselves All In- Because my friends, some of us have wandered 40 years to find this place, amen? So, I would like us today, to look around- remember what it took to get us here- join hearts and hands and hopes and prepare to posses to enter a new land- a land that God has given us as an inheritance- and it comes with a promise- the best is yet to come. This community that God has been busy assembling, providing for and protecting and freeing is receiving an invitation today to grow into everything that God has planned for us to be- and to take this next step together into whatever comes next.
And so like our scripture was written down in order to preserve that special moment when the people took a moment to before they walked into the future to look around and acknowledge what they had been given, we also want to preserve this moment when we are gathered as one people. As you are able, make your way forward today to the chancel, and as you come, let the people around you know some of what you have found and are thankful for in this community of faith. And when you get here, we will say a prayer, and remember, and ready ourselves to live as a people of God in worship.