May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
In the passage from the Book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Torah, we are hearing a new directive from God, a new commandment, which is fitting because the words ‘deutero’ and ‘nomy’ mean “second law” in Hebrew. While the first giving of the law seemed to be full of a lot of what we should not do, this one is different, because it gives the people a directive to do something good: to give away something, because they have just been blessed with abundance in the harvest, and to celebrate, to rejoice for the goodness they have received. Part of this celebration is a religious ceremony, when they take their offering to the priest of the Lord and when you give it to him, you shall recall who you are and where you came from. They came from/were descended from a wandering Aramean, Abram, by name, whom God encountered, renamed Abraham, made a covenant with him and blessed with increasing resources. The covenant was God’s promise to be with him and his descendants forever, and Abraham’s promise in return to be faithful to God and to teach his descendants to do the same by modeling for his children what faithfulness.
Abraham became wealthy, enough to leave an inheritance to his son Isaac, who in turn left his inheritance to Jacob and Esau, although Jacob was shifty enough to cheat his brother out of their father’s blessing. Nevertheless, God blessed both with even more riches, though they lives estranged from each other for a long time. Their story reveals one of the deep human flaws that we see several times lived out in Hebrew scripture, the jealousy and estrangement and worse that can happen between members of the same family. We saw it in Cain and Abel and we shall see it again between Joseph and his brothers, and a number of other places. Even among Jesus’ disciples, James and John argued who was the greatest of them, wanting to sit on his right hand and his left, and fully expecting that they were better than the others and deserved these two places of honor. Jesus firmly discouraged such thinking.
When the Israelites gave their gifts of first fruits to the priest they were encouraged to consider all of their history, including the worst of the captivity in Egypt after the time of the great famine and well after Joseph’s death, and in that memory to recall all the things God did to bring them out of captivity, through a long and perilous journey, and into a land of milk and honey, all the way through that journey appearing before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.
Many years ago, when I lived in Cincinnati, I was walking down the street on a Saturday morning and came to Plum Street Temple, the oldest Jewish house of worship in the area. They had just finished some liturgy, most of the people had gone, but the doors were still open so I went in. I found on one of the pews a leaflet of the day’s liturgy which was the equivalent of our confirmation rite. Like at the seder, there were questions and responses that recalled some of the most important moments in their very long history. There was also a canticle which I had never seen before, the Dayenu, which was to be said antiphonally, with a reader or cantor doing the first half of the verse, and the people responding “Dayenu,” which in English means “It would have been enough!” or “It would have sufficed us.!” It focuse mostly on the time of the Exodus from Egypt, and includes some of the later history as well, step by step. I’ll start at the beginning and give you a sample.
If you had brought us out of Egypt and not carried out judgment against them, Dayenu!
If you had carried out judgment against them and not destroyed their idols, Dayenu!
If you had destroyed their idols and not smitten their first-born, Dayenu!
If you had smitten their first-born and not given us their wealth, Dayenu!
If you had given us their wealth and not split the sea for us, Dayenu!
If you had split the sea for us and not taken us through on dry land, Dayenu!
If you had taken us through on dry land and not drowned our oppressors, Dayenu!
It continues like this, a detailed accounting of all the blessings of the Exodus and the time in the Wilderness until they arrived at the Land of Promise. In our modern world where advertising and pictures of the rich and famous constantly seduce us into believing we need more, subtly persuade us that we do not have everything we need or want, this canticle is a good antidote, a reminder of the depths of the problems our ancestors faced and their need to remember from what they have come and how blessed they are.
We Christians have our liturgies of praise and thanksgiving as well, most predominantly the Holy Eucharist, the thanksgiving we pray for God’s saving acts throughout history. Both Fr. Neale and I have preached on that theme this fall, so I want to simply point to a few things.
Jesus warns his followers not to work for the food that perishes, that is, the foodstuffs we put in our mouths to nurture our bodies. Rather, he says, work for “the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.”
He concludes with this: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
I think this is what Paul knows deeply inside by the time he writes the letter to the Philippians, because he says something so outrageous that he only dare say it if he knows with his whole being: ‘the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding(!), will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
One last note from this passage from Deuteronomy: after setting down their gifts before the Lord and bowing to the Lord, the Israelites are told, “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.” How like the first Thanksgiving in this country, when the early settlers came together for a feast and invited their Native American neighbors to join them.
I would like to make a suggestion to you for your Thanksgiving Dinner. It is not another dish to prepare, nothing more to shop for, just something simple yet profound to do. Sometime during dinner, when people are enjoying delicious food and, I hope, the loving warmth of family, ask them all to share with the rest of the people at the table what they are most grateful for this year. Amen.
+James L. Jelinek,