That Constant Presence

 Deuteronomy 26:1-11

By Chuck Griffin

The above text will be, God willing, the heart of my sermon this Sunday. When I wrote about it here more than a year ago, I focused on our dependency on God.

I had this Jewish offering recitation on my mind yesterday, which was very different from my usual Monday. I had a midday church-related meeting in Alcoa, Tenn., and being in the area, I had dinner with a clergy friend in Knoxville that evening.

In between these events, I worked in some sermon planning, but I also had about an hour to walk around the University of Tennessee campus, something I had not been able to do in several years.. I graduated from UT’s College of Communications in 1988.

The nature of change was on my mind all day. I had spent time discussing the impending split of our denomination; later, my friend and I talked about the terrible personal change he has experienced.

The campus walk seemed surreal. I passed from the completely familiar to the astonishingly new as I moved from block to block. Buildings where I had once taken classes—buildings that had been surrounded by large swaths of green space—now sat huddled in the shadows of gleaming new structures.

I actually was excited by all I saw. The new buildings are wonderful additions, and the campus seems to have a sense of continuity that it lacked 34 years ago.

Strangest of all: There are wheeled delivery robots roaming the streets, less than knee-high and politely waiting their turns at the crosswalks. They must be very new, as the students were as intrigued by them as I was. One young man bent over to examine one, and then patted it as if it were a dog.

A day like I had yesterday, a day marked by thoughts of change and evidence of change, can startle us. Sometimes, it can even depress us. It helps to have some sort of recitation in our minds, a narrative account of how all that we experience fits into a larger story, one with some constancy to it.

When good Jews recited these words from Deuteronomy, they were anchoring themselves in the great truth that God loves them. When there was change, God was there to lead them through it all. Disease, invaders, famine, whatever, they remembered they were children of a wandering Aramean, and ultimately, the children of God.

As Christians, we use a similar strategy. The Apostles’ Creed reminds us of all those points in history where God has intervened to make us, redeem us and sustain us, and it promises God is in control into an eternal future. In our individual lives, we learn to tell the stories of how God has reached out to us, incorporating us into that larger story.

When faced with change, perhaps we could learn to recite a story beginning along these lines: “Mine was a wandering heart, brought home by an always present and loving God.”

Lord, keep us constantly mindful of your presence. Amen.

Children of the Aramean

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

By Chuck Griffin

When we think of Old Testament texts on giving, our minds often go to the tithe, the giving of 10 percent of the harvest or income to support what would eventually become the work of the temple, work that included care for the poor. Today’s Deuteronomy text really doesn’t take us into the concept of the tithe, however.

What we hear is a recitation, a declaration of what God had done to help his chosen people. From a practical perspective, the offering brought to the altar was a mere token, but theologically it was huge. The head of a family was acknowledging that all he had truly came from God.

I believe in hard work. I believe in the idea that if we are to succeed in life, there is a need to use our bodies and minds to the best of our abilities.

But at the same time, as people who acknowledge we were made by God and saved from sinful brokenness by God, we have to be the first to say we are dependent on God.

If we think about it, we do owe everything to God, even if we’ve done all we can to succeed. If we’re intelligent enough to make the right choices, it’s because God made us so. If we have been able to succeed through hard physical labor, it is because God at some point graced us with healthy bodies.

And we can never forget that there is at least some randomness in how well we do or don’t do in life. If we’re not careful, we will simply stumble into success and then start thinking we are brilliant.

A good Jew acknowledged these truths with his recitation and offering. We do much the same when we declare ourselves followers of Christ—for example, if we recite the Apostles’ Creed in worship. We declare God Creator. We then retell the story of Christ’s life, sacrifice and resurrection, following that with the story of God continuing to work in the world up to this very day through the Holy Spirit.

That true understanding—that perspective regarding who God is and who we are—should shape every nook and cranny of our lives. For many, that deepest, hardest to reach cranny is where we store our attitude about income and possessions.

As I said before, this text isn’t really about tithing. Tithing was a powerful Old Testament concept, of course, but a text like we have today shows us that tithing was just a beginning point, a rule designed to lead a person to a right way of relating to God through our income and possessions.

John Wesley preached that God provides for the roof over our heads, food, and other basic needs, allowing us to ensure the well-being of our families and even a business we may operate. Beyond those provisions, everything we are given counts as riches, and they have been given to us to use “to the glory of God.” Often, this means using our riches to help those who are less blessed materially, playing a role in God’s provision for people’s basic needs.

Even for a tither, this is a concept that requires thought. It forces a reassessment of every decision we make regarding how we handle our income and possessions, simply because we learn to say, “It’s not really mine, anyway.”

If you find this idea a little daunting, be encouraged. Look back to today’s verses; notice how our little scene at the altar closes. There is celebration in the house of God, the kind of joy to be shared even with the dependent and disenfranchised people among us.

I wonder what we miss when we fail to embrace such a powerful attitude about income and possessions.

Lord, give us the spiritual strength to turn every aspect of our lives over to you, and may the celebration that follows be most rewarding. Amen.