Sermon October 11 Deuteronomy 26:1-11 Dayenu Rev. Betsy Hogan
Do you have any Thanksgiving rituals? Many of us, this year at least, might do better to reflect on Thanksgiving rituals we've had in the past, since many of these can't happen this year.
Usually, here at St. Matthew's for example, Thanksgiving Sunday has involved two annual rituals – the first being the Blessing of our Animals, and the second being our collective offering up of a great huge load of fruit, vegetables, and non-perishables for the Food Bank.
Both of which, for pandemic-y logistical reasons, will have to happen at another time. Which has sort of been the theme of 2020, hasn't it.
To Be Announced. And Postponed Indefinitely. And Hopefully Next Year.
Not the best climate for rituals and traditions, this current weirdness... in which I was preparing for our first Sunday back while my colleagues in Ontario were shutting down again...
Not the best climate for rituals and traditions, but here we are and it's Thanksgiving and our reading is a traditional Thanksgiving reading and it's all about a Thanksgiving ritual.
THE Thanksgiving ritual, in fact, as laid out in the laws of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, that would have been the thanksgiving ritual for Jesus and the disciples and all those first followers who gathered around them, way back those two thousand years ago or so.
The ritual of the first fruits. Which to some extent we've tried to parallel – at least until this year – in our annual gathering-in of harvest fruits and vegetables for the Food Bank. Because that's basically what we tend to sort of imagine Moses is describing here.
A ritual of thanksgiving at harvest time in which as a sign of our gratitude that we have enough, we bring the MORE than enough -- as an offering EXPRESSING that gratitude – so it can be shared. Like paying-it-forward as a way of saying thank you. To God who, after all, makes all of it possible.
It's a beautiful ritual! And a perfect expression of gratitude. Just simply to share, to pay it forward, to translate our thanksgiving into kindness – because we know quite well that God's provided MORE than enough for everyone and so our sharing can make real in some small way God's intent. That no one go hungry.
It's a perfect expression of gratitude, to recognize our own abundance and make out of it a ritual of offering so others have enough.
It just isn't actually what Moses is describing here. In this passage from the book of Deuteronomy.
Not that it wouldn't sometimes play out that way, but strictly speaking it isn't actually what Moses is calling for in this passage from Deuteronomy.
Because the offering in this thanksgiving ritual that Moses lays out here for the people of Israel, it's NOT an offering of what's 'more than enough'. It's NOT a commandment to the people to carefully consider what their households' needs are going to be over the course of the season ahead... so they know what 'enough's' going to look like... and then for them to bring anything more than that along to a thanksgiving gathering in community to offer it up to be shared.
Not that there's anything wrong with that. But what Moses actually commands the people of Israel to offer up in thanksgiving here is the FIRST fruits of the harvest. Those first ripe tomatoes. The first fully grown cucumbers. The first ripe blackberries and red apples and orange pumpkins and ears of corn. The ones that arrive first, and we've been waiting for ages. The ones that arrive first, and we literally have no idea if any more will follow. Or if something will happen. Or if there WILL in the end be enough.
THAT's the offering called forth by Moses in this ritual. Not the 'more than enough'. The first fruits. Right off the top. This thanksgiving ritual as described in Deuteronomy isn't a ritual that translates gratitude into an expression of sharing, of kindness. It's a ritual that translates gratitude into an expression of trust.
Because that's what it demands. Because essentially, the offering of the first fruits is saying thank you for the harvest without seeing the end of the story. The FIRST fruits are ready, yes, but that's all that's known. The people can HOPE there'll be more harvest in the days ahead and it'll all be good and there'll be much to be thankful for – but where Moses has paused things for the people is right off the top, at the beginning.
When all they've had so far is these FIRST fruits – and they're called by Moses right off the top to immediately offer them up as an expression of gratitude.
It's gratitude manifesting NOT in kindness, when the whole harvest's in and they know there's more than enough. It's gratitude manifesting in a trust so deep that it'll hand over those very first fruits to say thank you – when so far that's all there is and no guarantee there'll be any more to follow.
It's very striking, the challenge of this thanksgiving ritual described in Deuteronomy. Especially when we remember that this is the thanksgiving ritual that Jesus and his disciples and his first followers would have observed all their lives as faithful Jews.
Because this offering of the first fruits called for by Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, it would have been the thanksgiving ritual that shaped Jesus' whole idea of gratitude – the understanding of its meaning and its import that he in turn then communicated in his own preaching and teaching of the gospel.
A thank you right off the top, at the very beginning. The first fruits of the harvest and HERE – take it. As an offering to be shared. Because EVEN IF that's all there is, EVEN IF the rest of the harvest fails, EVEN IF it's all got to be on trust from here on in, and who really knows, and no guarantees –
STILL. These first fruits happened. And just that alone, that's enough for gratitude. Even if that's all there is, it's enough. For gratitude.
What's distilled in this passage from Deuteronomy, and then in turn what flows from it in the consciousness and faithfulness of the Judaism that Jesus was shaped by and then manifested for us as Christians in his own life and message, is exactly that perspective.
Even, O God, if the only gift is this – it's enough. For me to say thank you.
In Deuteronomy, as we heard, Moses sets out this ritual of gratitude to include reciting a personalized version of the whole history of God's people, from Abraham and Sarah to slavery in Egypt to the Exodus – Israel crossing the Red Sea and then spending forty years wandering in the wilderness – and the whole thing recited like it's each person's own story. Which may seem really strange, but the point of it is to lay the whole history all out for them like a fan. So that every single moment of God's goodness is visible, is obvious, is remembered.
Because EVEN IF – over the whole course of Israel's history, the point is – EVEN IF only "this" goodness had happened, or only "that" goodness had happened, or only "that" goodness had happened, each of those gifts on its own would have been enough. For thanksgiving.
It's the fundamental biblical understanding of gratitude that Jesus would have learned as a child. That Jewish children still learn in fact, thanks to singing the seven bazillion verses every year at Passover of the traditional song Dayenu.
Which is actually also in OUR hymn book. And no, not really seven bazillion verses, just fifteen, though I've heard it can sometimes FEEL like seven bazillion....
But 'dayenu' – it just means "enough" in Hebrew. And the verses of the song Dayenu basically do the same thing as that recital of personalized history does in the ritual laid out in Deuteronomy. Only in the song, it's specifically about the story of Passover – the story of the Exodus, Israel's escape from slavery in Egypt. So it starts out:
"If our God had simply saved us, merely brought us out of Egypt, only opened up our prison – dayenu." It would have been enough. For gratitude.
But then the song keeps going. Incrementally, bit by bit through the story. Laying it all out so that every single moment of God's goodness is paused at, is noticed, is remembered.
"If our God had only brought us, through the Red Sea onto dry land, even though it was a desert – dayenu." It would have been enough. For gratitude.
"If our God had only given, daily to us bread and water, not a drop of milk and honey – dayenu." It would have been enough. For gratitude.
Each piece. On its own. With no reference to what might come next and even if NOTHING comes next. Each gracious act of God on its own – dayenu. It's enough. For gratitude.
It's this understanding of thanksgiving that's exactly what's being embodied in our passage from the book of Deuteronomy. That's exactly what we're being invited into by this passage. Because essentially what it all boils down to is, "If our God has only given, these the first fruits of the harvest, even if there's nothing further – dayenu". It's enough. For us to say thank you.
It can be a challenge. It does demand trust to let ourselves simply feel gratitude for what IS. When what may be is entirely uncertain and no guarantees. But that's what we're being challenged with.
To learn how to pause and notice each gift. On its own. If our God had only done this – dayenu. It's would be enough. As a reason to be thankful NOT just in the moment – without being concerned about what may or may not come next – but also looking back.
If the only gift had been THIS – dayenu. It would have been enough. If all God had done was inspire music, or create pandas, or unleash the northern lights – dayenu. It would have been enough.
And yet, there's so much more. How many verses could we make up and sing, if we were allowed to sing? Fifteen? Maybe even seven bazillion. Let us pray: