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.
26When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an
inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, 2you 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 put it in a basket and go to the place that the Lord your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. 3You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” 4When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, 5you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous.6When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, 7we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.8The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; 9and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God. 11Then 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.
A PDF of the sermon as distributed at Calvary is available for download and printing.
I once spoke at a high school commencement in which the graduating seniors had chosen for their class motto: Learn as if you were to live forever. Live as if you were to die tomorrow. The graduates made a commitment to live fully in the present, in the now. Just consider what living in the present can do for relationships; when every moment is new, hurts, disappointments, and conflicts of the past can be forgotten and left behind. Every now, every present moment, is a new beginning. We can forever start fresh. The past is water under the bridge, past, gone. It sound good. It sounds really good until you meet someone who lives ONLY in the present. The late David Steele, Presbyterian pastor and writer, wrote an article about his mother…who lived in a perpetual NOW. She had Alzheimer’s disease. Here is how David Steele described his mother: Her past had disappeared completely. It is all gone…every speck of it. She has no childhood reminiscences; no intimation that the picture of my father on her wall is more than a stranger. She recalls nothing about being the wife of a college president, or of serving on a national church council, nor of mothering or grand-mothering. Her disease is egalitarian; all events whether they happened 30 years ago or in the last 5 minutes are wiped clean. After 80 years of living, she brings to each moment a blank page of memories. She has no past and hence no conscious awareness of a future. Mother has achieved the ultimate. Her life is an eternal present. Without a past, the present is really very limited. The present cannot be shaped and molded in and of itself. We need a place to stand, a sense of who we are, in order to form the present into something meaningful. Like plants and trees that need to be rooted, our lives need to be rooted, grounded in a past. Separating our lives from the past is like quoting scripture out of context.
Unlike David Steele’s mother, we have a choice about remembering the past. The scripture lesson I chose for today’s anniversary celebration is about memory, about remembering our past. The setting for the reading of Deuteronomy is a harvest festival, an occasion for celebrating God’s gift of the fruitfulness of the earth. According to the instructions at the beginning of the passage, the worshiper is to come to the sanctuary bringing as a gift to God a basket containing a portion of the actual harvest, in effect returning to God a small part of that which God’s grace has bestowed on the worshiper. The heart of the passage is the credo statement—a manifesto, a statement of faith— that is to come from the lips of the worshiping Israelite. It is a recital of Israel’s history, beginning from the time of Israel’s earliest ancestors and continuing until the settlement in the Land of Promise. Throughout this brief but revealing text, emphasis is placed on the grace of God, who, in response to the cries of the people, saved them when they were unable to save themselves. From a situation of danger and oppression in an alien land, God brought them to safety in their own home. It is a past that has shaped and molded the people of Israel. How they live in the present and look forward to the future is shaped by what God has done for them in the past. Our stories define us, for memory is the substance of identity. When we forget, we are diminished as those who have tended a loved one with Alzheimer’s disease are painfully aware.
The worshiping Israelite identifies with the ancestors not according to any power or glory attributed to them, but rather in their powerlessness (notice the words chosen to describe their experience—wandering, alien, treated harshly, afflicted, heard our cry, saw our toil and oppression). The worshiping Israelite identified themselves as homeless wanderers, oppressed refugees, and marginalized orphans and widows. And the now-landed Israelites are to bring the first fruits of the harvest to the temple during the annual festival in recognition of God’s continued provision. The food offering was then to be used as provision for a celebration that included Levites and “the aliens who reside among you.” The Israelites, God’s chosen, are reminded repeatedly of their national identity as a landless group of marginalized refugees. It’s that identity that binds them to the stranger guests in their midst. And they don’t offer the leftovers, the day-old bread, the spotty apples. The aliens are invited to enjoy the first fruits together with the Israelites. The first fruit offerings were not given to support the temple foundation, but to support those who are landless, who lack self-sufficiency—widows, orphans, foreigners and refugees. It’s worth noting that the Hebrew word “ger”, commonly translated alien or stranger, also properly means guest.
I can’t help but to lift up the contrasting manner by which we treat today’s aliens in our midst. We hear taunts of “go back to where you came from.” People have been arrested for the supposed “crime” of giving water to save the lives of migrants and refugees at our nation’s southern border. And in the camps along that border, human beings are held in horrific conditions—children separated from their parents, immigrants placed in cages with insufficient food, water, soap and medical care.
In recent years, Calvary has taken very public stands on being an open and welcoming congregation. We’ve supported Black Lives Matter and also declared ourselves a Sanctuary church. These decisions and actions have been controversial and polarizing. Today’s celebration of our 165th anniversary provides us an opportunity to recite our history, to remind ourselves of the events and decisions that have shaped and formed us, similar to our reading from Deuteronomy. The organizing pastor of Calvary Presbyterian Church was Dr. William Anderson Scott. In 1856, Dr. Scott spoke out against the Vigilante movement that was then taking the law into their own hands. As a result of his stand against the Vigilantes, his effigy was hung across the street from the church. Three years later he caused more controversy by refusing to support a proposed California law requiring the Bible to be read in public schools. He left us this memorable quote: “If ever this country is destroyed, it will be by religious bigots.” Scott hated all wars and when the Civil War started, he did not want to take sides. When asked to pray for President Lincoln in his Sunday services, he compromised by praying for the PresidentS. The word spread around the city, that this pastor, originally from the south, was praying not just for Lincoln, but for Jefferson Davis. On a Sunday morning in September, 1861, a crowd of about 3,000 assembled outside Calvary. They again hung Scott’s effigy.
Rev. John Hemphill was Calvary’s 3rd pastor and also 7th pastor. During his first tenure, Hemphill was very outspoken in defense of Chinese immigrants, at a time when this was very unpopular with many citizens. The protest against him climaxed with a noose being attached to the gate in front of Calvary. A local newspaper ran a brief article about this, with the headline, “Hemp for Hemp.” And during his second tenure, he was very supportive of Donaldina Cameron, who was a member of Calvary. Hemphill also was responsible for recruiting Calvary member Sara B. Cooper to take over leadership of a very small women’s Bible Class. She was so effective that the class grew and grew, added men to the class, and eventually grew so large that it had to be moved into the main sanctuary. Sara Cooper was very concerned about the many young, poor children she saw in San Francisco. Starting with 12 young children of various races in a couple of small rented class rooms, she opened her first kindergarten. With the financial support of her Bible Class, her kindergartens grew, expanding to the point of serving over 220 neglected children of every race.
The Ambassadors, a large organization of single young adults, was opened to all, with only about 1/3 being Calvary members (similar to today’s Tuesday Senior Program). The Ambassadors offered social activities and also emphasized service such as monthly visits to Laguna Honda Hospital with songbooks, cookies and a pianist. And also adopted a ward of emotionally disturbed children at a Napa facility, providing regular visitations and recreation. In early 1960, the Ambassadors formed a tutorial program to help African-American junior highs with their homework. Starting small, it grew to serve over 70 students with over 80 tutors.
In the 1980’s as the AIDS crisis in San Francisco grew, some Calvary members, straight and gay, formed an HIV support group, hosting dinner meetings in homes for both Calvary and non-Calvary men. They helped overcome some of the fear that people had of AIDS patients. Bethea Wilson made an AIDS quilt, which hung in Calvin Hall when this group was serving coffee. As members died, their names were added to the quilt.
The Rainbow flag, the Black Lives Matter and Sanctuary banners; our Senior Adults and Playgroup which serve mostly non-Calvary folk; our Breaking the Cycle of Poverty partners—New Door Ventures, Boys and Girls Club, Rafael House, SF Achievers, Martin De Porres, Food Pantry, Immigration—this is who we are today. We have been shaped and formed by a history of following Christ into the world. Calvary today continues its historic mission of Nurturing and Inspiring our faith community to transform lives for Christ.
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin has this passage in his book, Credo: In the Holy Land are two ancient bodies of water. Both are fed by the Jordan River. In one, fish play and roots find sustenance. In the other, there is no splash of fish, no sound of bird, no leaf around. The difference is not in the Jordan, for it empties into both, but in the Sea of Galilee: for every drop taken in, one goes out. It gives and it lives. The other gives nothing. And it is called the Dead Sea. The import of these words for us is profound. To the extent that we bottle up the abundant grace with which God continually blesses us, we too risk death. As Calvary continues to add new chapters to its story, our Credo of sharing God’s love and blessing with others will keep us alive to the power of the transformative love of Jesus Christ. Our life together, as has been true throughout our 165 year history, will always welcome to our table the alien, the marginalized, the widow and the orphan.