“First Fruits”

Download a PDF of this sermon here.

 

Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 24, 2013

Scripture:  Deuteronomy 26:1-11

 

First, you drill a small hole in the trunk, about a third of an inch in diameter and a couple of inches deep.  Then, you gently pound in a special kind of spout, a little tube-like thing called a spile.  If you’re a traditionalist, you hang a galvanized bucket on that spout, with a flap of metal for a lid to keep out the forest debris, and then you make your rounds regularly to gather up what has collected.  If you’re up on your modern, labor-saving methods, you might connect that spout to a long piece of flexible plastic tubing that stretches through the woods, running from tree, to tree, to tree, and eventually ending up at a holding tank.

When you’ve collected enough sap—gallons and gallons and gallons of it—you start the process of boiling it down.  If you’re a traditionalist, you build a fire and hang a kettle over it and just boil that water away.  If you’re up on your modern, time-saving methods, you might use a reverse osmosis machine before putting the sap into an evaporator to finish the process.  Either way, you have to watch it carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn as the liquid gets thicker, and sweeter, and more concentrated.

Over the course of the season, the quality of the syrup changes.  Early on, when the trees are just beginning to wake up after their long winter’s nap, the sap is clearer, with less of the minerals and other compounds the trees produce as they grow a new crop of twigs and leaves.  As the weeks go by and the trees really get growing, the sap contains more and more of those other things, and the resulting syrup becomes darker in color and stronger in flavor.

There are strict guidelines for distinguishing between the grades of syrup.  You can even go to Maple Syrup Grading School and get a certificate.  The lightest color is Grade A Light Amber, or Fancy.  It’s a caramel color, with a light, delicate flavor.  Next is Grade A Medium Amber, a bit darker in color and fuller in flavor.  Then comes Grade A Dark Amber, a deeper brown and a stronger taste.  Last is Grade B, or Cooking Grade, which has an almost molasses-like intensity.

It is a matter of great debate among maple connoisseurs which grade is most desirable.  But I was taught as a child that Grade A Light Amber, the Fancy stuff, was the best of the best.  The first batch of syrup was the one for us—the cream of the crop, light and sweet and so delicious.

 

If you grow up in small-town New Hampshire, or probably around here, too, you can’t help but know at least a little bit about maple syrup.  But if you grow up in the Middle East or the Mediterranean, there’s something else you know:  olive oil.

First you harvest the olives.  You gather them from the trees into baskets or sacks or crates.  If you’re a traditionalist, you climb up a ladder and rake the olives from the trees, collecting them in baskets or bags strapped to your neck, or back, or waist.  If you’re up on your modern, labor-saving methods, you might spread a net on the ground and then use long-handled vibrating tongs or a tractor-mounted shaker to jiggle the branches or the entire tree until the fruit falls to the ground and collects in your net.

When you’ve collected enough olives—bushels and bushels and bushels of them—you bring them to your oil mill and crush them to release their oil.  If you’re a traditionalist, you grind the olives between traditional millstones, then spread the resulting paste onto fiber mats, then stack those mats into a press and squeeze them hard to separate the solids from the liquids, the oil from the water.  If you’re up on your modern, time-saving methods, you might grind the olives in steel drums and then use a centrifuge to separate the oil from the rest.  Either way, you have to pay attention to the timing of the steps of the process so the pulp doesn’t oxidize from too much exposure to the air.

No matter how you do it, it is a complex process, and no method is completely efficient.  No method extracts all the oil from the crushed olives, but you can increase your yield if you heat up the paste before you press or centrifuge it.  You can increase it even more if you scrape the leftover pulp out of your machine after you collect the first batch of oil, and then put it back through for another round.  But the more you heat up the paste, and the more times you process it, the more the quality of the final product diminishes.  And after a certain point, you have to filter or treat the oil to compensate for too-strong flavors or too-acidic composition.

Extra-virgin olive oil is entirely unadulterated, extracted in a single round at the lowest possible temperature.  Virgin is similar, but judged to be of slightly lower flavor quality.  Refined oil has been treated to correct its flavor or acidity.  Unlike with maple syrup, there is little debate among olive oil connoisseurs about which grade is most desirable.  The people in the know would tell you that the oil extracted the first time through, at colder temperatures, is the best of the best—the cream of the crop, light and fruity and so delicious.

 

This is what Moses was talking about when he said, “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 set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.”

The Israelites had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 long years.  It had not been an easy journey.  They had escaped from oppression in Egypt.  They had eluded Pharaoh’s armies by the skin of their teeth.  They had endured every kind of hardship you can think of as they made their way toward the Promised Land, the Land of Canaan.  They were hardly living the good life just then; they didn’t have much, if any, extra resources to spare after such a long and arduous journey.  They had yet to experience the abundance that had been promised to them, though they were surely longing for it.

That’s when Moses told them to give their first fruits to God.  Not the leftovers once they had eaten their fill.  Not the surplus once they had filled your own barns and larders.  Not what remains after their 40-year hunger was, at last, satisfied.  “You shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground… and you shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.”

This is a challenge to the way many of us tend to think about giving.  Moses didn’t ask the Israelites to consider what they could afford after all their other expenses were taken into consideration.  He didn’t ask them to check the corners of their cupboards for the pickled beets they weren’t actually going to eat, or the backs of their closets for the clothes that never really fit right.  He asked them to give up front, their first and their best, without knowing what else their land would produce.  He asked them to give while they were still anticipating the good life that was to come.  He asked them to give, not because it was easy, but because even in the difficult times, they were heirs to a great heritage of blessing.

Moses reviewed their whole history so that even the youngest members of the community would know it.  He told the stories of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.  He spoke of God’s saving power throughout the years and across the generations.  He pointed to God’s presence in the midst of their own experience, and he proclaimed the promises God had made about their future.

Against that backdrop of blessing, Moses painted a picture of gratitude and generosity.  He taught his people that giving to God and to their community comes first, not last.  He taught them to give, not as a grudging duty or obligation, but as a grateful and joyous response to all that they had received.  He inspired them to give the Grade A Light Amber syrup, the first cold pressed Extra Virgin oil—the cream of the crop, not the bottom of the barrel—because that’s the kind of gift you want to give to someone who has first loved and blessed you.

 

First Congregational Church of Woodstock, Moses would be proud of you.  You have given generously these last few weeks.  You donated more than 350 pounds of food, plus paper goods and detergent, to Why Me/Sherry’s Place in October.  You contributed more than 200 food items to Thanksgiving baskets at Daily Bread Food Pantry a couple weeks ago.  You sent over $1,000 to the disaster relief efforts in the Philippines last week.  And today we bless our Stewardship pledges, the first fruits of our lives that we dedicate to God and to our community.

When we make these pledges, we do so not knowing what the coming year will bring.  Like the Israelites giving the first harvest of their crops to God, not knowing what more would be produced, we pledge a portion of our resources to God, not knowing what is to come, but trusting that with all of our generosity combined, there will be enough.  We do so not out of grudging duty or obligation, but as a grateful and joyous response to all we have received.

Because here’s what else Moses said about first fruits.  He taught his people that giving itself is a source of joy, that generosity is cause for celebration.  After you have offered those first fruits to God, he said, “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.”

 

When we give the first and best of ourselves, the Grade A Light Amber and the Extra Virgin First Cold Pressed… when we give in a spirit of gratitude and hope… when we commit ourselves and our resources to what we really care about… when we joyfully return the blessings we have received to the One who has so loved us and so blessed us… then, through the workings of the Spirit, we will find that we become, in turn, the first fruits of God’s kingdom, a foretaste of God’s realm of justice and love, an outpost of the Promised Land of mercy and peace, a glimpse of heaven’s joy here on earth.

May it be so.