READ: Leviticus 19:9-10
Back when I was living in Harrisburg, I was doing some photojournalism work on the homelessness problem downtown. If you’ve ever visited the capital city of Pennsylvania — especially at night — you can’t help but notice the throngs of homeless folks plying 2nd Avenue, congregating under the bridges and making their beds in any corridor, parking garage or stairwell that is open through the night. I set up my tripod, and began clicking open the shutter, trying to chronicle the plight of the homeless. It was only a matter of time before they skipped over the small talk as to why I was taking their picture, and instead simply asking me for any spare change I had. It would have been unethical to trade their images for a few dollars, but in more cases than not, I gave what I had in my pockets. The church I belonged and where I led worship at the time — and just like Trinity here, now — had a strict policy against giving personal money to the needy when asked. Like Trinity, the church I belonged to near Harrisburg had a social services center in town that it and all the other area churches contributed to, and the church directed those in need to that center. I broke the church’s policy that night, and I broke my own code of ethics. I don’t usually hand out cash to the homeless on the street; instead, I ask them what they need, and If I can swing it — food, clothing, a bus ticket, a place to stay for the night — then I’ll try to figure out a way to get that for them. 9 our of 10 times — and for whatever reasons — they walk away after I offer a Big Mac combo or a ride to the bus station… But one night, I found a loophole I could live with. I brought a friend and my guitar out and sat at one end of the bridge downtown and we sang some songs. I left my guitar case open for passers-by, and we earned some coins and single-dollar bills. And the idea was that those who could afford a few bucks to share them, and those who needed a few bucks could take them. Money technically wasn’t being changed by my hands… And, you know, it was surprising to me that when some homeless folks came by and couldn’t believe they could just take as much as they wanted from the open guitar case, they didn’t take it all. They left some for the next guy. A couple even threw some coins in. Leviticus We have a very short passage that we read tonight in the book of Leviticus, Chapter 9, verses 9 and 10. Generally, the book of Leviticus forms the heart of the Pentateuch — the first five books in the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) that the Jews call Torah. It’s also the book that new Christians who decide they’re going to read the entire Bible from front to back stall on, and maybe stop coming to church because of it… Leviticus is a tough read. It’s basically the Law for the class of priests in the early days if Judaism. The Levite tribe were those ordered by God to serve as priests. Thus, the majority of the book is sort of a “How-to” for the reader. How to sacrifice, eat, hold festivals, worship, repent, etc… And it is in great detail, and is hard to digest for the modern palate. But we do have an image that we will focus on tonight, and it’s one that Christ and the New Testament writers focused on as well: Taking care of one another. Fields Both in the time of the Levite priests and in Jesus’s day, the entire Jewish, and later, Gentile, world, revolved around agriculture. For the ancient Jews, Leviticus points out the right way and the wrong way to go about the task. In the continued agrarian culture in Jesus’s day, Jesus himself taught at length of these pastoral parables: Seeds, trees, figs, olives, harvesting, sowing, oil, fruits and grains… Multiple parables on soil and gardening… And Jesus, whose entire ministry is steeped in social justice issues — that is empowering those with no power, giving voice to those without a voice and a face to those egregious cultural practices that repress the least — preaches many metaphors in the spirit of Leviticus. (Have I lost you yet?) Harvesting and Sowing Here’s the question that we want to contemplate tonight? Can we both harvest and sow at the same time? That is, can we enjoy the fruits of our labors and the fruits of our gifts at the same time we work to plant those very fruits? Leviticus tells us the answer: 9 “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, neither shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. 10 And you shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.” The editors of this passage give these two verses the heading “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We hear Jesus say those exact words in Matthew 22.39. Gleaning In ancient Israel, I suppose we would leave a portion of our fields unharvested. We would not have our workers glean the fields for any produce not picked up the first time around. All of that would be left for those who have no food. I remember leading a group of teenagers on an afternoon mission trip to a large agricultural field near Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The owners of the land agreed to let this team of high-schoolers and a few adults to glean their tomato fields after the harvest. With bushel baskets, we spend a few hours combing the grounds for the tomatoes that the combine or whatever machinery they use missed. We filled multiple bushel baskets, then loaded them into a pickup truck, headed down to a processing plant, scrubbed the fruit, put them in cardboard boxes, and delivered them to the local food bank. It was quite an eye-opening experience for the students to go through the entire process of farm to table. And that evening, as we sat in a circle recounting what we learned about that day, we talked about how as we were harvesting the fruit, we were also sowing seeds. It was an amazing metaphor. While enjoying the fruits of the harvest, not only were we helping others to grow physically by feeding them; we, too were growing spiritually by understanding firsthand what it means to bless others with our fruits. And, in some cases, how those who were receiving were having their faith restored — or even initiated — in Christ. Clean Charity We might say today that, well, we don’t need to leave a sixteenth of our fields unharvested for those without; we just have to pay our taxes and let the government give assistance to those in need. In many ways, this is what the church does, too, but putting its resources into a central service center where those in need can benefit from a structured, one-stop shopping experience. Sometimes, I wonder tho, if that doesn’t make us too detached from our neighbors. Don’t get me wrong: I think structured social services are very critical and needed. But I think we might also need to take an inventory of our own fields and our own harvests and our own blessings and try to figure out ways to dedicate a portion of them to others. When we don’t, we forget that it’s God who provides that harvest. We forget that we a put here on earth in this very time and place to share that harvest with one another. And not in a sterile, structured and impersonal system; but to truly know and love our neighbors. Because, let’s face it, it’s often just easier to write the check than it is to roll up our sleeves and block off some time on the calendars, isn’t it? When we do this, we aren’t experiencing firsthand the plight of our brothers and sisters in need. The gleaning And I think that’s why I decided to play my guitar that evening. A small gift or talent, perhaps, that I received from God. But a reminder of all that I have. My guitar-playing and singing might not have brought a whole lot of peace and comfort to anyone. And the pocket change there in the guitar case certainly wasn’t going to change anyone’s lives. After all, it’s leftovers from the real paycheck; it’s the gleanings after the harvest. Yet, in a profound way, it was an act of grace. It was an act of hope. Hope that it might help in some small way. Hope that it might be contagious: That others may witness the idea and do something nice for someone else. Maybe leave some of their fields unharvested, too. Who knows? Times like these… I remember, tho, the looks on the faces of those who had nothing. And how grateful they were for the couple of dollars and loose change. We had just finished playing a song by the Foo Fighters called “Times Like These.” There was a younger guy who came by and new the song. He sang along these lyrics: “It's times like these you learn to live again It's times like these you give and give again It's times like these you learn to love again It's times like these, time and time again” He shook my hand, and we talked awhile. He said that son gave him hope. He didn’t take any money from the open guitar case… He got exactly what he came for.