Leviticus 23:1-6, 9-10, 15-16, 23-24, 26-27, 33-34, 37, 44
Tonight we begin the “with-kids-present” phase of our vacation bible school ministry (and an appreciative shout out to all those who have worked so hard to prepare for the with-kids-present phase, and who will begin, not too long after this coming week, preparing for next year! It is good work you do. as excited as my girls are about vacation, they were none too pleased to find out they would be missing v.b.s.). The theme (y’all know this, right?) is festivals of faith, and our children will be examining the festivals of faith with which Jesus grew up—the festivals of faith that shaped his faith as a Jew. Four of five of those festivals are listed in the Leviticus text we read—part of the law—the Torah—festivals God ordained for the people of God. And note, in contrast to earlier chapters directed to Aaron and his sons, the priests (Leviticus 17, 21, 22), chapter 23 is directed specifically to the people of Israel (Leviticus 23:2, 9, 23, 33, 44).
Over the course of five evenings, our children will learn about the sabbath—the seventh day of the week set aside from routine as a day of rest and worship in reflection of God’s own rest on the seventh day of creation. They’ll learn about the great harvest festivals of Passover in the spring/early summer, the harvest of the early grain, the barley, as well as the spring lambing season, the festival of Pentecost in the summer, the wheat harvest, and the festival of Booths in the late summer/fall, the great harvest of the grapes, olives and nuts. They’ll also learn about the feast of Purim, a festival without biblical mandate—a festival not ordained in Torah, but based on the story of Esther.
They might—they might, if they’re lucky, get some sense of the importance of the number seven! You laugh, but give me a minute here! The whole 23 chapter of Leviticus is introduced with the sabbath, the seventh day. Then there are seven annual festivals subsequently mentioned in that chapter! Two of the festivals last seven days. Another comes at the end of seven weeks. There are also three festivals in the seventh month. Not mentioned here, but since we’re on a roll now, the seventh year is the sabbatical year and the seventh sabbatical year is jubilee. Mock me if you will—it’s all there!
Seriously though, we run the risk of learning the festivals—memorizing or familiarizing ourselves with information about them in Bible study—this one associated with that, that one with this. They are, after all, disconnected from the particulars of our living. Thing is, in the history of Israel, the festivals were not learned; they were rather lived. Nor were they just a distinct part of liturgical life. They weren’t separated at all from the rest of life. The festivals were completely integrated into a holistic sensitivity to the fullness of life.
Times of harvest were inherently times of excitement and celebration for the whole family—for the whole community. Times of hard work—again, for the whole family—the whole community, but hard work that was the culmination of hard work. So specific times within the year that honored all the time of the year—harvest remembering the tilling and the sowing and the weeding. Time set aside, but not set apart. And built into the fundamental rhythm of life was some sense of working toward something. Our work leads to our survival and our prosperity as a people. Our work leads to communal celebration.
As times of joy and celebration, harvest celebrations were also times of thanksgiving. Times of gratitude for the sustenance of life and so for the God who sustains life. And thus life became the springboard for story. And harvest festivals became occasions to remember their history as God’s people. Particular festivals became associated with particular parts of the story. The festival of Passover was associated with the Exodus from Egypt. Pentecost was associated with the covenant God gave the people at Sinai. The festival of Booths was associated with the wilderness wanderings. Different stories, but all part of one story—the story of God’s work leading to the promised land, of God leading God’s people to freedom and opportunity, of God invested in us and us invested in God.
Now, let’s be honest. Harvest celebrations were times of celebration and thanksgiving honoring the hard work that leads to abundance and sustenance when the harvest was good. And it’s not always. There are harvest times with nothing to harvest—times of great sadness and hardship—representing hard work that leads to nothing—hopes dashed. You’ll note in Leviticus, a profoundly important transition from harvest festivals celebrated at the actual time of harvest (which changes each year, right? when the grain ripens dependent on sun and rainfall and whatnot)—you’ll note in Leviticus a change from nature’s timing to fixed times—established times within the calendar year. To establish a fixed calendar of festivals is to affirm the ongoing order that God brings to chaos, and within the honest rhythms of life and story to remember always that we walk in the way of God and that God walks with us on that way. In good times and hard times. That as we follow in the way of God ours is a call to look out for each other and for those without voice and power.
So I don’t want to move on without calling your attention to verse 22: “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God.” It is inappropriate to celebrate the bounty of harvest without providing for the poor. Don’t suppose we could get very many people to support that as an amendment to the constitution! Celebrating Purim, by the way, also includes gifts to the poor. In a predominantly agricultural society, few people are removed from the awareness they are but a harvest or two away from being those in need.
So we pray our children will learn how festivals are a time to retell stories—retell stories that in the retelling—in the reenacting, people might recognize those stories in their own. The story of creation—the creation of the world, and the creation of possibility and forgiveness and grace and redemption. The story of the exodus—and the story of God leading us out of our bondages. The story of the entry into the promised land, and the story of God’s great hope for our own lives. The story of Esther—ah, Esther. That’s an unusual one! Not much mention of God at all, but the great story of a woman who delivers the Jews from Haman, a Persian nobleman—from Haman’s genocidal scheme. The story of compassion.
Dad was telling me yesterday that in the absence of doctrine, Judaism looked and looks to Torah and to the festivals to shape the faithful within the faith. Kind of think story is a more appropriate shaping influence than doctrine myself! Nor do I think there’s a better story to be shaping us.
Now, just for fun, I want to point out here’s one place where conservative Judaism differs from conservative evangelical tradition. To celebrate Purim in the appropriate manner according to the Talmud, the teachings of the rabbis, you have to drink enough wine that you can’t tell the difference between someone saying “Cursed be Haman,” and someone saying “Blessed by Mordecai!” I kind of imagine Peter and, particularly, the Sons of Thunder, as they discussed the transition from Judaism to Christianity, saying, “I really think we should keep the Feast of Purim!”
We’re going to take the Sundays of August to look at our own festivals of faith. They’re not listed in Leviticus, but come to us more from our tradition. They’re not typically called festivals, but if we consider festivals primarily opportunities to retell the formative stories of our faith—if we name festivals corporate times of celebrating our history and our calling as the people of God, well then, don’t we have our own festivals of faith? If we name festivals ways to name life faith.
In wonderfully stimulating conversation with the Worship Ministry over at Frank Larson’s house, thinking about opportunities for us to jump from life to story, Frank, Dawn Mitchell, Cherie Smith, Jack VandenHengel, Heike and I named our weekly themes.
Next week, we’ll look at “the bookends of the church year”: Christmas and Easter. The big two. Now my family and I are heading out on vacation tomorrow. We’re driving to Texas (your prayers are appreciated!). We’ll visit friends and family and return for a week of preachers’ camp with my lectionary group at Lake James down in North Carolina before coming back to Baltimore. So Cherie Smith will have the homily that Sunday and Greg will be our storyteller. The next Sunday, August 14, we’ll consider “when the Spirit moves,” looking at the unplanned, unscheduled events that come up in the midst of life: baptisms and family dedications, ordinations, weddings and funerals. Allison Stone will have the homily and Marsha Garrison will be our storyteller. And I want you to know, in celebration of those two wonderful women, both Allison and Marsha were recommended for this particular Sunday as being women who seek to attune themselves to the movement of the Spirit. What a good word about two of us, don’t you think? August 21, we’ll look at the festival of corporate worship “every week” before concluding our series looking at the possibilities and invitation of “every day,” and I’ll be back for those.
Today’s bulletin is set up as it will be for the next four weeks. You remember during August, we’ll be meeting in here at 9:30 a.m., right? And after the homily each week, you’ll note in your bulletin the note about dividing up. We’re not actually doing that today, but the note’s in the bulletin to give you an idea of what’s coming. Like last August, you’ll be divided into three groups, and staying with your group, you’ll rotate through a time of storytelling, a time of music and a hands-on worship project.
You see the big piece of muslin on the altar table? That will provide the backing for three stoles and for two altar table runners. Over the past weeks, we’ve been inviting you to bring some fabric from home. Something that has a story to go along with it. I have three examples. Did I mention you can bring more than one? I have a t-shirt with the logo of Seventh & James Baptist Church. Might seem odd for Woodbrook, but I celebrate the church experiences that brought me and Susie together and that prepared us and eventually brought us here—even as I celebrate the various and different past church experiences that brought each of you here. And here a baby’s blanket with the initial “B” on it. Myrtie Cope, in Atlanta, used to own a fabric store and gave us that before Sydney was born. We didn’t know if she turn out to be a baby girl or a baby boy, so at Northside Drive Baptist, she was known as “Baby B.” Sydney and Audra both played on this. I also have a napkin. So very mundane, I know, but I really can’t tell you what a wonderful family time meal time is at our house. We’re still talking. It’s hard to think of giving up significant stuff. But this is just a different way of remembering it, isn’t it? as placed onto the muslin will be all the stories we bring. That is, after all, kind of what’s going on here, isn’t it? in our festivals of faith—stitching together our stories and God’s. It would be wonderful if when you bring in your fabric you would write down the story that goes along with the fabric you offer. What a collection that would be!
So during the hands-on worship activity, you might help mark up and cut out the muslin backing. You might help cut up the pieces of fabric people bring into a similar size (smaller pieces for the stoles, larger for the altar table runners). You might start placing pieces of fabric on the muslin backings. You might rearrange pieces. Most importantly, in the presence of others in your group, we invite you to share your stories. This is my life—my life brought to worship—dedicated to God. The process is way more important than the format. I believe that was always the intent—in Torah, in Leviticus, in worship—building community and strengthening relationships—interweaving life and story.
I had lunch with Lara Cochran this past week, looking ahead to the celebration of her baptism—coming soon! We talked at one point about how the world tells so many stories that are ugly—that are distorted—that are selfish—that are bent—that are wrong—that emphasize—that prioritize the wrong things and how we have such a better story. We talked about how it’s important to respect other people and the stories they tell and live, but how it’s equally important not to disrespect the story we tell and live—that there’s a profoundly important balance there between listening to others and speaking ourselves. Because we need and want to honor others by listening, but we also need and want to show our respect for the story that counterbalances the worst of so much of what the world has to offer.
“Coming soon” are words of anticipation—anticipation of the next celebration, the next gathering, the next communal sense of the story we live. Too often we think in terms of religious obligation—what we have to do—need to do, but we anticipate the last installment of Harry Potter. We anticipate the next book in the series we’re reading. We anticipate vacation. We’re supposed to anticipate the unfolding of our faith story in worship and community. At some point in sermon preparation it usually kicks in: what a story! I don’t know how often that comes through the sermon, but it almost always goes into it.
I remember some speech writing advice I once heard: tell them what you’re going to tell them. Then tell them. Finally, tell them what you told them. Don’t think that’s necessarily good story telling advice, but I’m telling you here and now—most importantly, the story of God is not a story you read or hear, but one you recognize. It’s a story you have yourself experienced—not a story about someone else, but your story.
Sydney and Audra were watching (rewatching) Charlotte’s Web yesterday. And there’s the scene at the fair where the word spreads of the word made spider web in the pig’s pen. And the people come. They flock to see this wondrous thing. And in the aftermath of wonder, the narrator has this to say, “Something had changed in Somerset County. It was as if people knew they lived in a special place now, and in small ways they started being special people. A little bit kinder. A bit more understanding. And the animals felt different too—closer. The warmth of their friendship carried them through the long cold months. They showed it in little gestures of kindness. Unusual patience and promises kept. Even the hardest of hearts found themselves rising to the occasion” (Susannah Grant and Karey Kirkpatrick, screenwriters, Charlotte’s Web, Paramount Pictures, 2006).
I went to see Anne Lane Vosough during Sunday School this morning. As I entered the hospital, I checked in with the volunteer at the front desk, “I just wanted to verify that Anne Lane Vosough (V-o-s-o-u-g-h) is still in room whatever.” And she said, “oh, Anne Lane. I do hope she’s feeling better. She taught my daughter violin!” I smiled. “Tell me your daughter’s name—and yours. Anne Lane would love to know you’re thinking about her.” “My daughter is Tracy Wells. I’m Barbara.” So when I got to her room, I told Anne Lane. She remembered Tracy, of course! and said, “You know, my physical therapist introduced herself, ‘Cecilia,’ and said, ‘You probably won’t remember, but my two brothers went to Music Camp with you and played violin.’ And Anne Lane did remember the two boys, and it won’t surprise you, that she remembered them from 25 years ago!
We tend to think of the outreach part of our faith as going to tell people something they need. Well, maybe that’s part of it—part of respecting our story. But it’s also living a story, telling a story, celebrating a story that people want to come be a part of—flock to see a wondrous thing—remembering even after 25 years! Living as if we knew we lived a special story. And in small ways start being special people—a little bit kinder—a bit more understanding—showing little gestures of kindness—unusual patience and promises kept. And even the hardest of hearts will rise to the occasion.