(Leviticus 19: 9-10; Luke 22: 14-27)
So, imagine it’s a beautiful fall Saturday morning, and guess what you’re doing? Sleeping in? Not a chance. Standing on the sidelines at your kid’s soccer game? They didn’t sign up this year. No, you know what you’re doing? You’re getting out of bed and putting on some old raggedy clothes and a worn-out pair of sneakers. You’re donning your favorite har and slapping on a little sunscreen. One might think you’re heading out to do some yard work – raking leaves or mowing the lawn or spreading pine needles – but all of that will have to wait for another day.
Instead, you hop in your car and drive a few miles outside of town, to a farm that covers a few acres. You vaguely remember passing by this once or twice, but you still had to plug it into the GPS. Once there, you join up with a whole bunch of people – some you know, others you don’t; all different ages. They, too, are dressed in raggedy clothes and sneakers and boots. And work gloves.
For the next few hours, you and the rest of the group wander the endless rows of this farm – a corn farm, as it turns out – and you collect as many corn cobs as you can. This is a bit of a challenge, since the field has already been harvested and most of the corn is gone. But even modern-day machinery cannot get it all; there are unharvested stalks here and there; even entire corners that weren’t touched because the machinery couldn’t maneuver to them.
To your right is a young woman with two kids, and every cob they happen upon is like Christmas. To your left is an elderly gentleman, who you learn in conversation is actually the owner of the farm. He is happy for people to come and do this – the way he sees it, this stuff would go to waste otherwise, so why not?
Around lunchtime a couple of large trucks arrive from the food pantry. The buckets of corn cobs are surprisingly heavy, but with everyone’s help, you lift them into the back of the trucks. As they pull out and head to the food pantry, and as you wipe the sweat off your brow and get in your car, you feel good knowing that later that night and over the next few days, that corn will be cooked and eaten by people who would have had nothing for dinner otherwise. It’s just a few hours of your time, but you are certain beyond a shadow of doubt that it was the best use of your Saturday morning.
It’s a great story, isn’t it? Here’s the best part – it’s not just a story. This sort of thing happens on a regular basis, thanks to an organization called the Society of St. Andrew. Have you heard about this group? The name comes from the disciple who purportedly brought to Jesus the young boy with five loaves and two fish that wound up feeding thousands. Among other things, the Society of St. Andrew helps organize local gleanings – the word literally means, “to gather produce left after the harvest.” It begins with farmers, who agree to let volunteers come on their land after the crop has been harvested – corn, potatoes, apples, oranges, you name it. These volunteers are regular folks like you and me who have signed up to receive email alerts from the Society of St. Andrew when a local field is ready to be gleaned.
It all takes place in just a few hours on a Saturday morning, and the whole thing typically wraps up by lunch. The food is then taken to a local food pantry and distributed to those in need and consumed within days. It is food that, otherwise, would’ve rotted in the fields, gone to waste. Instead, it winds up in the stomachs of those who need it the most. If you want to learn more about the Society of St. Andrew, even how to participate in a local gleaning, you can find a link to their website in your bulletin. (www.endhunger.org)
But seriously, isn’t that the coolest thing! I mean, talk about some “outside-of-the-box” thinking, right? It’s the kind of ingenuity that makes me wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” So who’s the genius behind this initiative? Who came up with this?
Well, it may surprise us to learn that this gleaning thing is not some new idea at all – in fact, it is as old as the Bible itself. We find it in Leviticus, of all places – that book we always get stuck in when we’re trying to read the Bible from start to finish. A single commandment for God’s people; and it would not hurt to hear it a second time. Listen:
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 not strip your vineyard bare or gather the fallen grapes of your local vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the foreigner: I am the Lord your God.
Perhaps. But, other than showing up for a Society of St. Andrew gleaning on a Saturday morning, putting this commandment into practice presents a variety of challenges. As we’ve been doing the past few weeks, we turn now to A.J. Jacobs and his attempt to do some gleaning as part of his “living biblically” journey. Listen:
Day 135. Our living room table is covered with four large terra-cotta pots containing cucumber plants. Or at least scraggly, struggling versions of cucumber plants.
I’ve been trying to engage in some agriculture, seeing as how so many biblical laws involve farming. The cucumbers do grow—they each get to be the size of a small piece of candy. And then they promptly die. And I don’t understand why. To date I’ve grown and killed about a hundred dozen tiny, prickly, inedible cucumbers.
My hope in growing these cucumbers had been to leave cucumber “gleanings.” The idea of gleaning is one of my favorites in the Bible. The commandment in Leviticus 19 calls for landowners to not pick up the remains left after the harvest, but to let the poor and the foreigner come onto their land and get them for themselves. Part of the idea behind this is that, ultimately, the land belongs to God, so you respect that and be sure to provide for God’s children.
In any case, how do I apply this amazing notion of gleaning to my life, since the cucumber experiment is flopping so badly? I need to figure out a way to update it. Well, central to the whole concept of gleaning is the idea that items of value that fall on the ground are left behind, right? So, if I accidentally drop anything valuable on the street, I’ll just leave it there. I won’t pick it up. It would be God’s will. So that’s what I’ll do.
As luck would have it, for several days I don’t drop a thing, not even so much as a nickel or a clump of lint. But then, yesterday, I am pulling out my wallet on the corner of 81st and Columbus, and a crumpled five-dollar bill falls out. I glance at it, start to bend down to pick it up, and then remember: something of value falling on the ground….. Well, there it is. So I leave it there and keep on walking.
Now normally in New York City, no one is going to argue with a five-dollar bill lying on the street, much less try to return it to its rightful owner. I get five or six steps away when I hear a loud voice: “Excuse me, excuse me, sir!”
I turn around. A woman is there, holding up my five-dollar bill. “You dropped this!” she says.
“Uhh, that’s OK,” I say.
“No, it’s yours,” she says, “I saw it fall out of your pocket.”
I pause. “No, it’s not mine!” and I keep walking.
Good Lord. This lying has to stop.
Kind of a double-fail for A.J. isn’t it? Killing baby cucumbers and then can’t even successfully lose a $5 bill! But see, I think that’s part of the rub here. We are not the agrarian society our Biblical predecessors once were. To my knowledge, none of us here own any farmland (I’m sure if that’s incorrect someone let me know!). The vast majority of us have no concept of harvesting, much less gleaning. So what do we do with all these biblical laws based in a context so different from our own? Besides volunteering for the Society of St. Andrew, how do you and I “glean” today?
I wonder about something A.J. said in his story; I don’t know if you caught it or not, it was kind of throw in as an afterthought. That part about how these land-centric commandments in the Bible have a way of reminding us that everything we have belongs to God. It’s not just that it comes from God – it belongs to God.
I mean, the more you dig into that, that’s a pretty radical notion. Not just in what it means, but what it implies. In a world where we are conditioned to define everything in terms of scarcity, by what we do not have, by what we lack, the fact is that God provides more than enough. In a world where we live to protect the little we think we have; God opens our eyes and invites us to see the abundance!
And there is no greater example of that abundance than this day – this day of Pentecost, this day of communion. On this day, the people gathered in the aftermath of Jesus’ ascension. They were uncertain what to do, where to go. Everything felt lacking. And into that absence, that void, God’s spirit crashed in on them, filling their hearts with a burning desire to share God’s love with the world. Giving them languages they could not speak before, so they could now speak God’s love to all corners of the globe. Such abundance in the midst of perceived scarcity, a Holy-Spirit abundance.
And then today we celebrate communion, this meal of bread and cup. This meal, fashioned on a night when the disciples were at their hungriest. In the midst of great uncertainty, Jesus shared with his beloved a simple meal that was so much more than bread and cup. His life, his very life, for them, for the world.
These are instances of gleaning, my friends. We are the ones working the harvest – filled with the Spirit, filled with bread and cup, more than enough for our stomachs and our souls. But it is not all for us, because none of it belongs to us. It is God’s field. And there is always much left over.
So invite the poor and the foreigner into our midst. All who view this place from a distance, bring them closer. Share the love of God that burns bright in the Spirit’s fire. Feed the hungry with what is left at the table. Let all who need to glean from God’s bountiful field, and be filled with everything they need. For that is what the law commands us to do. That is who we are called to be.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s humble question to follow the Bible as literally as possible by A.J. Jacobs.