A sermon based on Philippians 4:4-9 and Deuteronomy 26:1-11 preached on October 22nd, 2017
This morning, I got up out of bed, a mattress put together in New Jersey by a factory full of workers. I picked out clothes, probably stitched together by a couple of underpaid ladies in China, and purchased from a salesman at Men’s Wearhouse who didn’t seem to mind taking the measurement of my inseam right after we introduced ourselves to each other. The hot shower I took was brought to me by a water heater assembled in Missouri, probably by a couple of employees in some factory just trying to put food on the table for their families.
I sat at a kitchen table handed down to me by Roger and Pam Nicholson, a retired Presbyterian minister and his wife who were moving back to Richmond after years of pastoring a church in Seattle. While I sat at that table, I ate 4 slices of bacon, provided to me by a pig farmer in Iowa. I also had a glass of kefir, made from the milk of a farm full of cows in California, delivered to our local grocery store by at least seven different refrigerated trucks all with drivers who spend weeks away from their families in order to keep up with their kids’ college tuition, or maybe to pay for their 7-year-old’s ballerina classes.
I turned on the TV and watched a couple of anchors who all got up probably around 4 this morning, maybe earlier, to get to work on time to go on air and give me the fantasy football insights I expect to hear whenever I tune into ESPN. By the time I left the house this morning, I had depended on 100’s, maybe even thousands of people who work hard, every day of their lives to provide me with the stuff of my livelihood. Food to eat, clothes to wear, clean water in which to bathe, a way to entertain myself. And that’s just the in the first two and a half hours of my day. Our lives are not our own. They are woven together in this huge web of interdependence. We do indeed belong to each other.
These days, this world, and our hours in it, are busy. More than ever before, really. And sometimes we forget among the anxiousness of it all what we’re all so busy for. What’s the fruit of all this running around we do? And is the fruit good? That should be a question we ask ourselves often. It’s super easy to stay busy, maybe even exhausted, but why and what for? Is all the busyness and exhaustion worth it?
One of the worlds that will forever astound me is the one that takes place inside a hive. Most of us are unaware that bees were one of the early symbols of the Christian Church. The fervent activity of the beehive suggesting the church, hibernation suggesting the resurrection, and the honey offering a symbol of the abundant new life in Christ.
Bees are a symbol for ourselves as Christ’s people. Let’s give ourselves to that metaphor for a second. Bees—they’re not self-made creatures. They busy themselves gathering from the earth. They take from what’s already among them, given to them day in a day out. Nectar is collected from the earth. Bees trust it’s there, but they work to find it. Nectar is gleaned and gathered from an earth that is much bigger than they are. But then they work together to make something new out of it. Something sweet and nourishing, rich and satisfying.
Honey was the early church’s symbol of the abundant new life in Christ. Milk, honey, and first fruits are all metaphors for God’s grace because they are not ours—they were never ours. They are gleaned from the abundance of God’s good creation. We eat and are satisfied from what is not ours—what is never ours. Bees were also a symbol of the early Christian church because their day to day work was done unceasingly for the common good. St. John of Chrysostom said it this way in a 12th Century sermon:
The bee is more honored than other animals, not because it labors, but because it labors for others
We do the work we do, inside and outside the hive of church with an unceasing faith and commitment to the church, to each other, and to God’s purposes and intentions and promises to and for the world. Church is a hive who works and shares life together to produce the sweetness of God’s grace and mercy—from whom all blessings flow.
We are in Deuteronomy. The verb Give is used seven times in these eleven verses. Last week we looked at the story of God’s gracious provision to His hungry people when He provided daily manna—daily bread for the journey into the Promised Land. And here we are at the end of their time in the wilderness. It has been 40 years. A generation.
Those who will soon enter into this long-awaited and long-promised land flowing with milk and honey are the sons and daughters of those who were delivered from Egyptian slavery. They are the ones who have never known anything but desert living. Manna and quail are all their tongues have ever tasted. For them, milk and honey was nothing but a rumor—some dream of plenty, a kind of abundance they had yet to experience. But now, at the end of Deuteronomy, Moses is readying this new generation for what they will see. There they will live in bounty. There they will know lavishness.
Their future will be full of abundance and Moses knows there’s a danger in abundance. Abundance breeds amnesia. There’s a point at which we all forget—individually and collectively—that the profusion of resources surrounding us is a gift. And when we forget this, we begin to call it all ours. These gifts lose their giftedness in our eyes and they become resources we consume. We begin to think we have afforded them because we’ve worked hard to get them, and that’s when an attitude of entitlement erodes us.
We’ve been living in a world full of commodities available to us—not resources gleaned from and entrusted to our faithful use, but products wholly consumed, having convinced ourselves that we have earned them all on our own.
This is the delusion of autonomy, and Moses tells his people and all of us who are a part of the future generations of the people of God, that we have been designed by God to live in worshipful dependence and in humble interdependent community with other people. Our self-sufficiency is a delusion, but it’s a powerful one—one we have to fight off in ourselves ever single day just as Moses urges the Israelite people to do. As busy and hardworking as bees are, there’s one thing they are never, and that’s autonomous. Their one existence is community-based. That’s why they are the perfect illustration for us who call ourselves Church.
If there is a Creator and if we are His creatures, the work of his hands, the beneficiaries of His promises, the ones who have been delivered into life abundant by His hand and by His sacrifice on the cross, then there is no such thing as autonomy. So, we give back. We give back to the One who gave everything to us, for us. Who went to the cross with no notion and in no manner of self-sufficiency or self-preservation, no delusion of autonomy. And so must we. We give because in Christ, God has first given everything for us. And the only reason we have is because God gives.
We have a promised land, and too often we take this as a sign of a special blessing from God, rather than a sign of special responsibility. We who call ourselves Church have been freed to give not in drips or trickles, as an afterthought from what’s left when all the rest of our life has already made its financial, emotional, and time demands upon us, but from our first-fruits. Before everything else takes, we give to the One from whom all blessings flow.
I ask that you would find your Scripture insert.
God knows that when a people forget their past, they lose their present and future. So God has given us words we can use to remind ourselves of where we have come from, who we are, and what our responsibilities to God are.
Please, let us confess who we are by reading together from our passage of Deuteronomy, starting at verse 5 and reading through the end of that middle paragraph:
Then you should solemnly state before the Lord your God: ‘My father was a starving Aramean. He went down to Egypt, living as an immigrant there with few family members, but that is where he became a great nation, mighty and numerous.
‘The Egyptians treated us terribly, oppressing us and forcing hard labor on us. So we cried out for help to the Lord, our ancestors’ God. The Lord heard our call. God saw our misery, our trouble, and our oppression.
‘The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, with awesome power, and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land—a land full of milk and honey. So now I am bringing the early produce of the fertile ground that you, Lord, have given me.’
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!