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. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord 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 he 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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
If you ever want to “do” Lent in style, I recommend visiting some Orthodox Christians. While we Presbyterians do mark Lent with special worship services, and study, and maybe you have decided to take on a new practice or give something up, our traditions around this season are fairly tame compared to some of our Orthodox siblings.
It’s most obvious when you compare our practices for fasting. During Lent, Orthodox Christians abstain from specific foods, such as meat, meat by-products, eggs, dairy, wine and oil, and on some days, such as Sundays, many abstain from all food until they receive Communion in worship. It’s very different way of understanding a fast than we might think of for ourselves.
It’s not that we are doing Lent wrong and they doing it right, or we are right and they are wrong, but that different traditions offer us unique ways in to understanding our shared faith in Christ.
That was the mindset I took when I visited an Orthodox Christian community many years ago during Lent. The trip was intended to offer the participants an opportunity to see how other Christians live out their faith, and how that might deepen our own practices.
So I travelled with a group to California, and we decided that while we were there, we would try, to the best of our abilities, to follow the Orthodox practices of fasting. No meat, no cheese, no eggs.
You might imagine then that our meals were simple, leaving something to be desired. But the reality was, our hosts, who did this fast every year, know how to make good food with limited alternative ingredients. They made delicious, filling, and rich meals, over which we discussed what it means to be a Christian — Protestant, Orthodox, or otherwise. It was a week of good conversation and good food, including a vegan chocolate mousse made out of avocados that was just as good as any other dessert I’ve ever had.
But the excellent Lenten food left this community with a question— are these meals really honoring the spirit of the fast, a sacrifice, an abstention, if it is just as indulgent as any other meal? If you technically follow all of the rules, but it makes no difference in your life, then is it really doing what it is intended to?
As someone put it: Lobster and vodka are both technically legal, but not exactly appropriate.
The first readers of our passage from Deuteronomy are faced with a similar questions about intent for a different spiritual practice.
The Israelites live in a land where they have settled after years of wandering in the desert, after generations of enslavement in Egypt. They put down roots, quite literally, as they farm and build up towns and villages and generations pass until the memories of wandering and slavery are scary stories they tell their children to remind them how good they have it now.
And every year, after they have planted and reaped their harvest, they take the first products of their field up to the temple and they set it before the altar and they give it to God.
I imagine someone, perhaps a young child who knows only the ease of new life and nothing about pain her people have endured, asks the question: Why do we give the first of our fields to God at the temple? Why do we give away the results of our hard work when we could probably use it ourselves?
Now there are two ways to answer an inquisitive soul like this. The first is easy enough:
Because that’s what we’ve always done. Because that’s the way we do things here. Because I said so. Because those are the rules.
Case closed. All you need to do is follow the rules. It doesn’t matter why.
But there is a second way to answer this question that goes deeper. And it’s the answer Scripture gives to the people of Israel and to us.
Someone, maybe an elder of the community, gathers this questioning child and the other children around and tells them the story.
We do this because once upon a time we wandered in the desert, we could not grow our own food, and God gave us what we needed. Once upon a time, we lived in Egypt and had nothing of our own, but God saved us.
We bring the first of our harvest because God has provided so much for us, and we don’t want to forget that.
In giving back a part of our harvest, we tell the story of God and God’s people, the story you, my child, are a part of.
This is what I imagine the elder tells the next generation. We do this to remind ourselves of the story of God.
That’s why the Israelites give their first fruits to the temple.
That’s why fasting is less about following the rules and more about following the Spirit.
We take on these practices to ground ourselves in the story of God.
As we begin our Lenten season this year, sometimes we, myself included, have a tendency to think of Lent as New Years Resolutions 2.0.
Our January 1st optimism about a “new year, new me” has faded, and we’ve settled back into our old habits and then Lent comes along and it seems like the perfect to time to recommit to spending less time on social media, or eating healthier, or exercising more.
And those are all fine and good things to try to do in our life, but there is a difference in a change in habit and a spiritual practice, even if the actions are similar. If we are doing something because we think it will make us better people, healthier people, more productive people… or if we do something just because we think we should… I’d argue that perhaps, it’s not a spiritual practice.
Because being a part of the story of God is not about being a good person, or being a productive person, or being a healthy person. At least not exclusively.
Above all else, being a part of the story of God means we continue, as best we can, to ground our lives in God’s presence among us.
Ground our lives in gratitude and praise like the ancient Israelites did with their tithe.
Ground our lives in virtues of simplicity and humility by fasting like Christ did in the wilderness.
Ground our lives in the story of God by making space and time to see how God is at work in our lives.
Orthodox priest Alexander Schmemann says: “The purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to soften our heart that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden ‘thirst and hunger’ for communion with God.”1
The season of Lent is not about making us into better people. It is not about being a good Christian who follows all of the rules. At their root, the forty days of Lent, with the extra spiritual practices and the sacrifices, are intended to make us people grounded in the story of God.
And friends, it is a really good story.
It is a story of hope, of justice, of unexpected grace, a story with an empty tomb and good news, and Easter lilies and new life, and an abundant feast of bread and wine and overflowing mercy.
It’s a really good story, but it’s not always an easy story to remember, because it also includes heartache and despair, a story with the pain and trauma of the Israelites. They remember the slavery and wandering, they make sure to tell that part of the story. And and it is a story that walks with Jesus up to the cross and into death. And it is a story that includes our world’s own sin and sufferings.
So sometimes, we need practices to remind of us that we are a part of this story that holds a lot of heartbreak but also a lot of love.
For the remainder of Lent, I invite you to ground your life in the story of God, using whatever reminders you need. Maybe that includes fasting from something… or maybe that includes adding something new. But ask yourself, why do I do the things I do? May the answer be: because it reminds me that I am a part of a people who are grounded in God, people who tell the story of God of which all of us can take part.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
1. Alexander Schmemann, The Great Lent: Journey to Pascha, p 31.