“Money Talks: The First Fruit”
I have probably mentioned that I love gardening. I’m a terrible gardener, but I love to watch things grow. (Maybe that’s why I’m in ministry, because I get to watch things grow all the time). And I love, love, love when the time has finally come and I get to eat the fruit of my labors. Last year I started seeds in February on a damp paper towel in the windowsill. I forgot about them and they got moldy and I had to throw them out. The second try, though, I got little sprouts of tomato plants (no zucchini though). I treasured those tiny sprouts and moved them into little eggshell containers, then slightly larger containers, and eventually into the ground (thank you Ray, for making beds out of old wood for them). And then I was watering and waiting, watering and waiting, until finally in July I saw what I’d been waiting for. A small, green tomato on the vine. And I watched that one tomato. I reported on its progress to Jane, who was interested, to Kate, who was unaware, and to Hannah, who was not interested, every single time I went out to water.
“I think we’re going to have tomatoes soon.”
“I was looking in the leaves in the back and I saw another green one.”
It grew redder and redder, and finally, the moment arrived. I pulled that tomato off the vine. I bought mozzarella, basil (our basil plant died, I’m a terrible gardener, remember?), and got out the balsamic, and for dinner that night we had a Caprese salad. And I was so proud of what I’d done. An 8-year-old can do it, but every time I get a piece of food from the ground, I am the proudest peacock in the yard. Sure, a few months later we were overrun with tomatoes, and the zucchini never did come in. But the first fruits of my garden never disappoint. The first fruits of the garden are always special.
You might not be a gardener. But can you remember a moment when you received the fruits of your labors? Your first paycheck. A good grade on a test you studied hard for. Ever been in a restaurant where they had the first dollar they ever made framed on the wall? There is something special about first fruits, even when we’re not talking about the fruit of the land. They assure us that our work can bear fruit. They offer us hope for all the harvest to come.
In the Old Testament times, money was not all that common. The only people who hold money regularly are people who have so much stuff that they couldn’t carry it around to barter with. Most of the economic value in that world was pulled up out of the ground. Grain was wealth, which got pulled up at harvest time and slowly evaporated over the course of the year. Harvests from year to year could vary widely. I’ve been reading on the late Roman empire lately, whose agricultural system was more advanced, but at that time 60 percent of the wealth of the empire was gathered at harvest. And the whole of it was tenuous. Harvests could vary by as much as 50% year to year.
What that means is that at the end of the harvest, your whole salary is sitting on the threshing room floor. And then the tax collector comes. And then the rent is due. And then you look at what’s left and try to figure out how to stretch that out for another year. Anybody who’s ever eaten rice and beans or ramen at the end of the month knows that feeling. We know what it’s like to watch your wealth dwindle and hope you can make it long enough to get more.
Which makes the notion that people would bring their first fruits to God a little incredible. The first fruits are a good sign, they signify that the harvest will come in at all. But they don’t tell you how good the harvest will be. That first dollar framed on the wall is no guarantee that you’ll be able to have an income. And to a people who are much more vulnerable to fluctuations in weather and income than we are, God says, “Bring it to me first.” Take a trip. Bring that first tomato. Bring that first paycheck. Take that framed dollar down off the wall. Eat it here with me. Spend it here with me. Come to my house to remember that the whole world is my house. Remember who has provided for you. Even though the first tomato doesn’t guarantee a second one, the first dollar doesn’t make an income, and you’ll always have to work for it, trust that you will have enough. The first fruits are not necessarily the best fruits. The first born of your flock is not necessarily the best born.
Bringing your first fruits to God is an act of thanksgiving and trust God will bring more. To bring your first fruits to God is to step off of the treadmill of acquisitiveness and anxiety and to believe the assurance of God’s providence at work in your harvest. The command here is less of a command to give to the church—that model doesn’t yet exist at this time, there is no temple yet in the time of the wilderness. The command is two fold. Set aside your first fruits for God. And set aside your first fruits for your neighbor. The command here is a command to intentionally center God as you think about resources. When you receive a blessing, know that it is from God.
We might not I confess that it took me a long time to learn to budget. The whole idea of getting our spending under control was overwhelming and easy to avoid, so I didn’t. And what that meant was that God was often the first to lose out. If we had enough money for me to give some away, we did. But if our bank account was running low, the first thing I would stop doing is sharing my blessings with others. When I finally did get around to setting a budget and following it, I did one small thing that helped. Giving and tithing is at the top. The first money that comes into our account gets assigned to God. This is a tiny thing. I hope that my devotion to God is not based on spreadsheet placement. But it does make a difference for me. I don’t miss those payments to God. I don’t run into a request for funding that I really want to fund and think, “I can’t.” because I set aside and plan for the things I value. Instead of giving based on my anxiety, where the timing of a request determines what I say yes to, I am choosing what I value and where I believe the gifts make the most difference. If you don’t believe me on this, I was at a Presbyterian Women’s Circle Bible study two weeks ago and Carol Schoepske said the same exact thing.
Setting aside your first fruits for God is about trusting that God has more in store for you than just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. It is a way of remembering where our gifts come from. Pledge cards are one small way we do this. It is important for the church to have pledged giving, so that we can plan for the year. Our pledged budget largely determines how much we can spend on mission, education, worship, and even maintenance and upkeep. But pledged giving is also an opportunity for us to put God first in our lives, promising that we will share our blessings, knowing that they come from God. I genuinely believe that God doesn’t need our money nearly as badly as we need to give it. Now, if you’ve pledged, and something happens, a job loss, a divorce, a new kid, that means that you can’t make your pledge, that is okay. It is an opportunity for the church to trust that God will provide for us in some other way. The church will never be your creditor. We’re Presbyterian. We forgive debts and receive forgiveness for our debts every week.
What we should learn from this ancient practice, dragging yourself all the way down to the tabernacle or the altar or holy place to eat your own dang vegetables, is to build moments like this into our lives. We can do this with money, by pledging, and by automating our giving via our bank or online so that our gifts are not based on our attendance. But we can also do this in the rest of our lives. Set aside time in your week to serve other people. Maybe you feel busy all the time, I know I do. But I also know that when I set regular times aside to do little things, visit the sick, volunteer at a food pantry, read to a young child, I don’t ever feel like that time is wasted. I feel like I’ve gained sacred time at little cost.
One thing I think would be incredibly cool for those of us who have gardens to do would be to take the first fruits of our gardens (I know there are a ton of gardens), and bring them to this church and bless the table, then go out into the community and give them away. Host a meal with them where anyone is invited. Take them down to the food pantry together. Or just promise that we will share them with someone else.
Set aside time in your day for God. A youth leader one time challenged us to chart out how much time we spent doing all the activities we do. Eating, sleeping, going to school, reading, video games, watching TV, hanging out with friends. Then she asked, “how much time do you set aside for God?” “And how does it compare to how much time you spend on other things. Today we offer up our pledges. They are expressions of trust that in the coming year God will be with us. In this, and everywhere else in our lives, let us build moments, big or small, whether it is an hour on a Saturday, a place in our budget, a few minutes right before bed or when we wake up, to let God be the center of our lives. To be reawakened to God’s blessings for us, to express our trust that God provides for us, and to find way to grow and strengthen ourselves and each other in relationship with God.
Maybe that’s what this week is all about.