“Not Stuff, but Good Stuff” – Sermon from Deuteronomy 26.1-11

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Deuteronomy 26.1-11 is available here.

The Monkey King (or A Warning Against Following Foolish Leaders)

One night the King of the Monkeys noticed a glorious golden moon lying at the bottom of a pool. Not realizing that this was but a reflection, the King called on his subjects to come at once and haul up the treasure trove of gold. 

“Our strongest monkey shall hold onto this tree,” said the King. “And our second strongest monkey shall hold onto his hand, reach into the water, and fetch up the golden moon.” 

They tried this. But the second monkey could not reach the moon. “Who is our third strongest monkey? Come hold onto your brother’s hand and reach into the water for the moon.” 

But still the moon was out of reach. “Bring up the fourth strongest monkey. Let him climb down and try.”

Now those monkeys were hanging in a chain, each dangling from the arms of the other. The fourth monkey climbed down the chain and hung from the hand of the third monkey… but still the moon was out of reach. And so they continued… five… six… seven… eight… monkey after monkey added to the chain until they touched the water’s surface. “We’re almost touching it!” called up the monkeys.

“Then let me be the first to hold it!” cried the King, and he scurried down the chain to the very bottom. But the weight of all this foolishness had become too much for the strongest monkey who was still holding to the tree at the top. Just as the King reached into the water for his moon, the strongest monkey lost his grip. 

The monkeys fell, every one of them, into the deep pool. There they drowned, along with their King.[1]

Deuteronomy 26

This is a Tale from Tibet about following an unwise leader. Watching the world coalesce around a condemnation of Putin’s foolish invasion of Ukraine brought this story to my mind. Putting the current events alongside Deuteronomy 26, I could see the stark distinction between wisdom and folly. 

The Book of Deuteronomy comes as a side trip between Numbers 33 and Joshua 1. Genesis-Numbers tells the primal narrative of the faith of ancient Israel, generally from the priestly perspective. Joshua picks up that story, and Deuteronomy presents a summons to obedience and a Deuteronomic legal code in a series of speeches by Moses.[2] That’s why it is a slight break from the flow between Numbers and Joshua.

From what I understand, Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine lacks justice or morality. Deuteronomy 26 points to the high-minded aspirational justice of the Israelites planned for when they reached the Promised Land. “When you reach the land the Lord your God is giving you… take some of the first of all the fruit… and bring it to the place the Lord your God will choose” (Deuteronomy 26.1-2). 

Will to Power

On the one hand, greed and a desire for power drives people to action. That’s why the Monkey King sent his subjects to their death while trying to catch the moon’s reflection on the water. Greed and a desire for power seems to be Putin’s motivation too. 

On the other hand, following the promises of God invites people to obey the divine law and experience something good. Placing Deuteronomy 26 within the context of the world reminds me that we don’t need war. We can have peace, and when we do, we are better together than we are when we remain apart. 

The storyteller Margaret Macdonald writes in Peace Tales, “Humans are warring creatures. They will fight to defend their land and possessions. They will fight for the right to do as they please. Humans will also fight to take land or possessions from others. They will fight to control the actions and thoughts of other humans.”[3]

God’s Liberating Love

In Deuteronomy 26, we find a reminder that “our belief in God is rooted in the presence of God’s liberating love in history.”[4] This passage contains what can be best described as Israel’s confession of faith. Once the inhabitants bring the first fruits to God, the verses tell what they are supposed to say. It gives their liturgy, as if it says, “When you get there with your fruits, say this:”

A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down to Egypt and sojourned there… became a great nation… the Egyptians abused us… We cried out to God… who listened to our voice… and took us out of Egypt… and he brought us to this place… this land flowing with milk and honey.

I love the conclusion to this kind of liturgical creedal statement:

So here I am. I’ve brought the first fruits of what I’ve grown on this ground you gave me, O God.

The whole thing declares the story of God’s actions that had shaped the nation’s faith. Israel’s possession of the land was inexorably tied to its knowledge of God. Both having the land and knowing God were connected to events from the nation’s past. Faith was inseparable from being in the land. All of this was wrapped up in God’s nature and purpose. This was a message that gave assurance, faith, and hope for the future.[5]

We all have a choice. Unlike the monkeys who followed the order and climbed down that ridiculous chain, we have agency in our lives. We can either follow a road of fallacy and absurdity, or we seek something good, rich, life-giving, and meaningful. 

God’s grace is, of course, free. Still, the first fruits of Deuteronomy 26 point to our participation in God’s grace. We don’t earn it. Giving something (like the fruits) isn’t a transaction. What we give to God reflects transformation in our hearts. We don’t just give a little of ourselves. We give God our best as we acknowledge that God gave us everything we have.  

Talking about bringing the first fruits often turns to tithing. Yet it’s more than that. Anyone can write a check or click “give,” and to be sure we appreciate every bit of financial support for God’s ministry at University Baptist Church. But Deuteronomy 26 is about knowing God and having one’s life intertwined with God’s purpose. 

What does God want from us?

For me, I look at the world and ask, “What does God want from us?” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jumps to my mind. To this, and just about any other story, we can say, “God wants transformation.” 

God would love to have Putin’s heart change and turn away from evil and acting like the Monkey King. God would also like to have your heart and my heart turn away from the evil things in our lives. God wants us to be instruments of peace, agents of reconciliation, and reflect Jesus’ light in a dark world. We can do all of this by bringing God our best. We show up and say, “I want to put these hands to work for God’s glory.” In the agrarian world of Deuteronomy, that meant planting and harvesting. 

Today, it can mean helping set up a freeze-drying machine in the church kitchen, help with children’s church, join the video or audio team, teach or join a small group or Bible study, sing in the choir, provide lunch for the youth. 

That’s it. Those are just some of the ways we can bring our first fruits to God. First, don’t follow Monkey Kings. Second, follow God. Third, live like it. The last step is the part where we bring something to God. 

When we bring our best to God, we don’t do it alone. God is right there with us, walking along the path as we make that phone call with a trembling hand and say, “I’d like to volunteer with children… or youth… or fill in the blank.” 

No matter what, God’s right there with you, offering assurance, faith, and hope for the future.

[1] Margaret Read MacDonald, Peace Tales (Atlanta, GA: August House, 1992), 10-11.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 85-86.

[3] MacDonald, Peace Tales, Inside cover.

[4] Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000), 48-49.

[5] Ronald E. Clements, “Deuteronomy,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 480.

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