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Take it from the top.

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Nov 22

Texts: Nehemiah 10:35-38 and 2 Corinthians 9:6-12

You could call it the first Thanksgiving. Listen to this passage from the book of Deuteronomy.

“When you have entered the land the Lord your God is giving you…take some of the first fruits of all that you produce from the soil of the land and put them in a basket. Then go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his Name…The priest shall take the basket from your hands and set it down on the altar of the Lord your God….Make this response, for the Lord your God, has brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great power and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place…a land flowing with milk and honey; so now I bring the first fruits of the land that you, Lord, have given to me. Place the basket before the LORD your God and bow down before him.”

The practice of coming before God with offerings of thanks goes way back—at least as far back as the Exodus. God has blessed us with so much! The cornucopia on the communion table this morning is a symbol of abundance. Fruits and grains of the harvest. Our lives overflow with God’s goodness—blessing upon blessing—and we come to God with gratitude.

On this Thanksgiving Sunday, we celebrate God’s blessings—large and small. The Israelites celebrated deliverance from Egypt. The Pilgrims celebrated coming through a first hard winter. Perhaps our blessings are simpler and more quotidian—this day, this breath, these friends. Whether we count our blessings as large or small, let us respond with grateful hearts.

Today is Stewardship Pledge Sunday. Toward the end of the service we will come forward and place our gifts on the table beside the cornucopia—morning offerings and annual pledges—in this circle of friends—a circle of blessing.

Our stewardship team chose “first fruits” as the theme for this season. Giving our “first fruits” is the practice of giving from the top. Today’s scripture reading from Nehemiah (that Taj read) is a classic text about tithing—giving the first and finest portion of grain, fruit, livestock, oil and wine. The produce of the land, the lifeblood of an agrarian economy.

These first fruits of the soil could have been set aside to stave off hunger. Kept in storehouses, they could have been a buffer against drought and famine. For a people living close to the edge, season to season, harvest to harvest, it was leap of faith to begin by giving. To begin by giving. Not the leftovers, not the excess, not the undesirable portion, but the very best. The first fruits.

Nehemiah was a man on a mission. Following the Babylonian exile, he was a high official in the court of Artaxerxes, King of Persia. Nehemiah convinced the king to grant him safe passage to Jerusalem, letters of introduction, and materials to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple and the city walls, which had been laid to waste by the Babylonian conquerors.

You might call Nehemiah a visionary administrator. He proposed that people dedicate their “first fruits” to the building up of the temple. He knew that if each one gave their best—a small portion from the top—great things could be accomplished.

Today we invite you to consider what great things can be accomplished here at First Church when we bring our first fruits—our finest and best—to the work of the church.

I chose—as a companion text for the morning—the verses from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. “Each of you must give as you have made up your minds, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.

Now. True confession. I have never been a fan of the verse, “God loves a cheerful giver.” It sounds trite to me. Like the superficial “niceness” of social convention. “God loves a cheerful giver!” Put a smile on your face! I am willing to own that this my own hang-up and I apologize if it’s your favorite Bible verse, but I needed to do a bit of digging to get a fuller sense of what Paul means.

Here’s what I think. “Cheerfulness” is not a superficial quality. It is not the nicety of social convention—not something one puts on to make a good appearance. It is—for Paul—a quality of deep joy. Paul urges us to give from the heart—from a place of abiding joy. The Greek word, hilaros, translated somewhat meagerly as “cheerfulness” is closer to joy or even glee.

Glee. How often do we connect with a pure sense of simple joy? A childhood picture of my sister Cheryl comes to mind. A laughing toddler, eyes bright and happy in the immediacy of the moment. An expression of pure glee shining through her eyes.

Paul says, give with that kind of joy. Now that’s something I can get behind! How about you? Remember that for Paul, the opposite of joyful giving is to give reluctantly and to give under compulsion. This cheerfulness that Paul describes comes quite naturally when we understand that everything we have and everything we are, is a gift from God. When we perceive that basic reality, we can respond with generosity from a place of open-hearted joy.

Paul encourages the Corinthians to give. The word he uses for “gift” is unusual—ordinarily translated as “blessing.” The meaning is simple. God blesses us and we can be a blessing to others. For Paul, we give because God has given so graciously to us.

God has blessed us and we can be a blessing to others. How true that must have been for the gentiles of the Corinthian church, who—through Christ—had discovered new freedom and purpose, and whose lives had been caught up in a new community of love.

How true it is for us at First Church in Cambridge! God has blessed us and we can be a blessing to others. We are part of an historic congregation that has been here for almost 380 years and is still going strong. The congregation that established Harvard College in 1636 and has been a distinctive Christian presence here in Harvard Square for almost four centuries. A rich and (often) distinguished history. We have much to be thankful for.

I am grateful for this firm foundation, for generations of forebears who have been a faithful witness in this place. For the inherited legacy of a beautiful and well-cared-for building that enables this congregation to open our doors at the crossroads of the city, providing shelter to so many. I am grateful for the ways that God’s spirit has been alive here, speaking to us, inviting us, calling us to care for our community and world, calling us to prophetic witness, emboldening and transforming us over the years.

I am grateful for “UCC firsts:” For Minister Samuel Sewall—one of the first to take a stand against slavery; Phyllis Wheatly—member of Old South Church—who because the first published African-American poet in the US; Lemuel Haynes—the first African American ordained by a Protestant denomination; Antoinette Brown Blackwell—the first woman since New Testament times ordained as a pastor; Bill Johnson—the first openly gay pastor ordained by a mainline Protestant denomination. I am grateful for our heritage as a just peace church, and open and affirming church. Grateful for the day in 2005 when we celebrated Marriage Equality.

For all these blessings, and many more, we come with gratitude. We give thanks, not because all is well in the world, but because we know that life is precious and short. We remember that Abraham Lincoln called for a national day of Thanksgiving in the midst of a bloody Civil War. And everywhere we are reminded of human conflict and pain. From Bamako to Brussels, Beirut to Paris, Jerusalem to Aleppo, Mizzou to Harvard Law School, we see suffering, violence and injustice.

We give thanks not because the world is perfect or because our lives are free from pain. Far from it. We give thanks because we know that we are called to loving relationship. Because we are called to the work of justice, healing, reconciliation and peace. We come in gratitude because God has blessed us and because we can be a blessing to others.

We come in generosity because of the world’s deep need. For Nehemiah, it was the desire to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple, stone by stone—to build up that center of worship, ritual, and community life. A big dream made possible by gracious giving of first fruits.

For Paul, it was a desire to build up the church, to support congregations in need and members facing adversity, to unite churches across the Mediterranean—from Rome to Jerusalem—with the single purpose of sharing the good news of Christ.

We too are called to great purposes. Now in our 379th year. Called to be a presence—here at the corner of Garden and Mason, here in our sixth meeting house—this magnificent building that is a blessing to so many. Here, to provide shelter and sustenance—real material help for the guests of the First Church Shelter, genuine friendship and nourishment for guests of the Friday Café. To offer sanctuary to twelve step groups and people in recovery. To be a progressive witness on affordable housing, gun violence, immigration issues, earth stewardship. To be a place of grounding, healing and hope. To join with neighbors of all faiths and conscience to bring healing to this beautiful yet broken world.

God has blessed us with so much. May we be a blessing to others.

When you give to the church, consider giving “from the top”—your first and best.

See if you can connect with that place of deep joy within, recognizing that all we have and all we are, are gifts from God. Because of God’s great gifts, we respond with joy. Not out of obligation, but in open-hearted recognition of what we have received. Give as the fluid and joyful response of an open heart. Amen.

Deuteronomy 26:1-10 (excerpted)

Ernest Best, Second Corinthians, from Interpretation: a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p. 84.

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