Lessons James 1:17-27; Mark 7:31-37
Three Televangelists got into a discussion about how they deal with the offerings received into their ministries. The first one said, “I draw a line down the middle of my study and I toss the offerings into the air and what falls on the right side of the line belongs to the Lord and what falls on the left side of the line belongs to me.” The second one said, “I draw a large circle in my study and I toss the offerings into the air and what falls outside of the circle belongs to the Lord and what falls inside the circle belongs to me.” The third one said, “I go into my study and toss the offerings in the air and I figure the Lord will take what He wants while it’s up there. Whatever hits the floor belongs to me.” There are many ways to deal with offerings.
If you read the Old Testament you will discover instructions about how and where offerings are to be given, what kind are to be given and when they are to be given. And there are a variety of offerings that are given for different purposes. Some are given out of thankfulness. Some are given to make atonement. Some are given to seek a blessing. It can get a little confusing. But one offering that is pretty self-evident is what is called “the first fruits” and it is noteworthy that James uses this Old Testament image to instruct the Church. I want to explain it further so that we can appreciate how James is using it here. (Please don’t get nervous, this is not a stewardship sermon but then again what in the Christian life is not about some form of stewardship?)
As the name implies, the first fruits are an offering to the Lord of the first of your harvest or of the first animals born in the season. These are taken to the priest who then offered them to the Lord.
Several things are going on in giving first fruits. First you are acknowledging that it all comes from God and so you are only returning to Him a portion of what is already His. That is why at the offering we say, quoting from Habakkuk, “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of Thine own have we given Thee.”
Second, by giving to God first, you are demonstrating that God is indeed first in your life. It is easy to say that we put God first but does our checkbook truly reflect that? I had a parishioner tell me once that her idea of the tithe was that she first paid all of her bills and then of what was left over they gave 10%. Now we are not under the law, and I don’t think that God would be mad with her for that approach. But I truly believe that she was robbing herself of a blessing by giving God leftovers because while God does promise to bless those who bring Him first fruits, there is no promise about last fruits.
The third thing that happens with first fruits is that it was used to bless others. Part of the first fruit process was that you were not allowed to harvest to the corners of your land. By leaving the corners unharvested the poor, the widow, the orphan could come and glean what was left. They are not taking from you because remember, it all belongs to the Lord in the first place.
Thus in first fruits you gave the first portion to the Lord as thanksgiving for His blessings and to acknowledge it is all His in the first place. Second you kept the reminder of the harvest to care for your family. And third you always left some for the poor. It is a beautiful picture of a balanced life where the Lord and the needs of others keep us from living self absorbed lives. As you well know, there is not enough money to make selfish, self-absorbed people happy so this is God’s plan to live healthy lives.
With that as a background let’s go back to James. Now we can appreciate what a unique spin he puts on the idea of first fruits. Look again at the words in verse 18. “Of his own will He brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.” Let’s break that down. “Of His own will” meaning that God initiates all of this.
“He brought forth” this is the language of birth, so God initiates our spiritual or second birth. How? “By the word of truth” which is the Gospel.
By God’s initiative we are born again through the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Why? “that we should be a kind of first-fruits of His creatures.” In this case rather than first fruits being an offering that we give to God, WE become the first fruits that God gives to the world.
What I find so powerful about this take of James, of we being an offering to the world, is that it is an echo of God’s covenant with Abraham. In Genesis God promised to bless Abraham but God also promised to make Abraham a blessing to the nations. And all of us who believe, over the millennia, can look back to father Abraham, people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and proclaim that God fulfilled His word. But let’s look more closely how James shows that we become first fruits.
He begins, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The first step in seeing ourselves as first fruits is understanding the goodness of God. The context of the letter is interesting. These Christians were facing some very challenging times. James wanted them not to misread what was happening to them and think that somehow God was punishing them or that He had abandoned them. He wanted them to understand that God’s intentions for them are always good and that He can even use the trials and temptations that they face for their good. And the extra good news about the goodness of God it is constant. There are no variations or shadows. Unlike the changes and chances of this life, which a beautiful collect aptly says makes us “weary,” God’s goodness is constant. He does not sit in heaven, and watch what we do, and then say to Himself, “Now I love him, now I don’t, now I love him, now I don’t.” God is good always and God does good always.
The fruit of this perspective, as we understand God’s constant goodness towards us, is that we can have peace and that will make us a blessing to others. I came across a prayer from the Orthodox Church that intend to memorize and pray every day because captures so well where James is trying to take the Church. “Teach me to treat all that comes to me with peace of soul and with firm conviction that your will governs all.” Again being a person of peace, in this day and time is a gift or first fruits to others.
A second way to grow into awareness of ourselves as first fruits is by seeing the goodness of God demonstrated by every good and perfect gift that we have received. The wonderful things and experiences around us, the people in our lives that love us, these are not there because we are good enough or smart enough or because people like us. They are not a result of luck or karma or the alignment of the stars. They are gifts from a good and loving heavenly Father who knows what we need even before we do.
The question is not why bad things happen to good people. The real question is why any of us have had so much goodness comes to us when every one of us has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. The answer is because God is good, all the time.
Look again at the brief Gospel lesson. Folks bring before Jesus a man who is deaf and is speech impaired. That is all that we know about him. There is no indication that he believed in Jesus or that he wanted to follow Jesus or was a righteous man. All we know is that he was deaf and speech impaired. So why did Jesus heal him? Did Jesus heal him because he deserved healing? No. Did Jesus heal him because he had enough faith? No! Jesus healed Him because God is good and the man needed healing. For this man it was a good and perfect gift coming down from above.
The same is true for us. Every good gift we have received not because we deserve them but because the Father out of his goodness determined that we needed them. Our greatest challenge is that we have not been trained by our world to look for these gifts. Look at the 5 o’clock news….then again don’t. It’s not filled with stories of all of the wonderful things that people did for one another throughout the day. It is filled with murders and crimes and knuckleheaded politicians.
We need to train ourselves to be more intentional about looking for all of God’s gifts. When we do we will see them all around us. And when we treat them as gifts from God we will be so filled with thankfulness that we will be a blessing or first fruits to others. It is said that there are two types of people. Those who get up and say “Good morning Lord” and those who say “Good Lord its morning.” It’s pretty easy to discern which of those two people would be a blessing to be around.
James adds a caveat to our call to be first fruits. He says“…let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive the implanted word which is able to save your soul.”
We cannot be a blessing to others if we are filled with anger. We cannot be a blessing if we are involved in filthiness and rampant wickedness. In fact just the opposite happens. As St. Paul put it, “bad company corrupts good morals.” If you are filled with anger or filthiness or wickedness you will bring people down rather than being a blessing to them.
And lest you think that Christians are not involved in such things today as they were in ancient times, let me give you some bad news. A survey of the members of the infamous adultery website that was recently hacked said that 25% claimed to be evangelical Christians and 22% claimed to be Roman Catholic. Combined that is 47%, nearly half the total membership!
Not that there is ever an excuse for adultery but these are not Christians who were wounded and vulnerable and made a terrible mistake. These are folks who had to hunt down this website, pay money to join, create a profile and then seek out others like some kind of predator. That is rampant wickedness and that is why Jesus was not exaggerating when He referred to this world as a wicked and adulterous generation. So what do we do about it? Two things.
First James says we are to “put away” or other translations say, “put off” filthiness. Last weekend Beth and I got around a skunk and let me tell you that it would have been a bad time to visit us. Not only were we smelly but also we were peeling off clothes and throwing them into the garage as fast as we could. We were like Adam and Eve before the fall and we were not ashamed!
That is the picture that James is painting when he says to “put off filthiness.” It is a picture of taking off soiled clothes. That sounds too simple but and it can be just that simple because we are no longer slaves to sin. St. Paul says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. In Christ’s strength we can so “no” to sin just as quickly we can peel of nasty clothes. It’s like that old joke where they guy says, “Doctor it hurts when I do this” and the Doctor says, “Then don’t do that.”
If you don’t put yourself in sin filled situations then you don’t have to worry about falling to temptations. If you don’t want to commit adultery then stay off adultery websites. Unplug. And you need to do this because God wants to make you a blessing to others to build them up rather than being used by the enemy to tear them down.
The second thing that James suggests to put off anger and filthiness and wickedness is to “receive the implanted word which is able to save your soul.” As we give ourselves to God’s Word it cleanses us from the world and draws us closer to Christ and that too makes us a blessing to others.
One final thing about becoming first fruit. Recall that I said that part of the first fruit process included not harvesting to the ends of the property so that the poor could come and glean what was left. And so it is no accident that James ends this section in calling us first fruits by telling us that true religion is to care for the widows and orphans. We are to make provision for those who are vulnerable for the downcast and for the poor. Jesus tells us that if we only bless those who can bless us back then that is our reward. But He says that we will know true rewards when we bless those who cannot bless us back. He says in Luke 14 that we will be “repaid at the resurrection of the just.” I’m not exactly sure what that will look like but if there are rewards being given out on the day of the resurrection then I want to be standing in that line and I want you to be right there with me.
Today we will see an actual example of first fruits. Today we will bless and send out our Mission Team to Bolivia. They are a kind of first fruits from the parish. They go down not to receive but to be a blessing to others. But of course you know that in God’s economy they will be blessed too.
They are not alone in this calling. You may have never thought of yourself before as being God’s blessing to the world but you are! You are God’s first fruit. That is your calling. So I call upon you to go out there this week and be as first fruity as you can possibly be. And do it because God is good all the time. Amen.