Sunday, May 24, 2015

“Counting the Omer”

“Counting the Omer

Sermon by Rev. Douglas Olds
Stinson Beach Community Presbyterian Church
Calvary Presbyterian Church of Bolinas
Pentecost, May 24, 2015

Scripture:  Leviticus 23:15–22

15 And from the day after the sabbath, from the day on which you bring the sheaf of the elevation offering, you shall count off seven weeks; they shall be complete. 16 You shall count until the day after the seventh sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the LORD. 17 You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering, each made of two-tenths of an ephah; they shall be of choice flour, baked with leaven, as first fruits to the LORD. 18 You shall present with the bread seven lambs a year old without blemish, one young bull, and two rams; they shall be a burnt offering to the LORD, along with their grain offering and their drink offerings, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the LORD. 19 You shall also offer one male goat for a sin offering, and two male lambs a year old as a sacrifice of well-being. 20 The priest shall raise them with the bread of the first fruits as an elevation offering before the LORD, together with the two lambs; they shall be holy to the LORD for the priest. 21 On that same day you shall make proclamation; you shall hold a holy convocation; you shall not work at your occupations. This is a statute forever in all your settlements throughout your generations.
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.

Scripture:  Acts 2.1-21

2When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. 2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. 3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. 4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
5Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. 7Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? 9Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”
14But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. 15Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. 16No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: 17‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. 18Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. 19And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. 20The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. 21Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Tennyson in his poem Ulysses, writes, “Come my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

I remember when my life world was young and new. After the long Michigan winters,
the ground would dry in late April and my four year old self would lie down in the green grass,
its blades tickling my ears as I looked up at the brilliant spring sky.  Great wads of cottony cloud sailing by on the breeze that would roll over my supine body, ruffling my windbreaker and whipping my hair.

In my meditation on the clouds and sky, I would occasionally be interrupted by an ominous skirr and screeching of fighter jets banking unseen overhead. It wasn’t that I was aware of global tensions from the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, six months prior. Rather, I found the sounds of the fighter jets threatening to my sense of sun, air, and grass, as if a dark engine would intrude its oily, foul, and smoky gears into the minty breeze scouring over me.

I’ve been reading about the back channel communication between John F Kennedy /Nikita Krushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Krushchev had earlier proposed the symbol of Noah’s Ark that Kennedy responded to as an image of peaceful coexistence. Krushchev noted that Noah took on all types of animals onto the ark, whether clean or impure, so as to save representatives of all species.

JFK agreed that it was not important for humanity to determine whether the Americans were the clean animals on the ark, and the Soviets the impure, or vice versa. What mattered is that humanity would be saved on the earth-ark of peace that JFK and Krushchev were negotiating under the most extreme of perils. If either leader miscalculated his opponent’s intentions and moves for de-escalation, the earth could be burned in a nuclear holocaust.

Holocaust is an Old Testament word in the King James' English version referring to the burning of the grain offering in the temple. The wheat offering would be burned inside a bronze vessel. The period of the Passover festival until the bringing of the first fruits of the wheat harvest to the temple was 50 days,  as we’ve read in Leviticus in this morning’s Old Testament reading.

Initially, the 50 day period beginning at Passover was a counting of the period of 7 weeks during which the wheat sacrifice was assembled for donation to the temple fires. This is “counting the omer,” with omer being the dry measure of wheat being donated from the first fruits of the harvest at Pentecost.

When I last preached to this church, we noted how the disciples in the Gospel of Luke huddled in fear in the upper room in Jerusalem, and that the resurrected Jesus appeared to them, telling them to wait in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit. Thus, the disciples are waiting between the Passover crucifixion and the arrival of Pentecost. They are counting down the period which begins in mourning and manifests at Pentecost in rejoicing.

“Counting the omer” is the Rabbis' spiritual meditation on this 7 week period that begins in mourning and ends in rejoicing, a period that the penitent prepares his or her sacrificial measure of wheat, contemplating its plenitude and purity, taking stock of one's relationship with the fountain of blessings. As the omer, a measure of volume, was assembled from one’s first fruits of the wheat harvest, the worshiper entered a period of “reporting” one’s duties and blessings derived from the emanations and qualities of God [1].

Whereas on Passover, unleavened bread was eaten, on Pentecost the donated omer of wheat mixed with leaven into the baking of “showbread” that was then waved in front of the Temple's altar. It was through this first fruit donation of wheat, the addition of leaven, the waving of the showbread ("Bread of the Presence") before the temple’s altar that contextualizes the first Christian Pentecost came about as we read in Acts chapter 2.

One final point from Leviticus’s discussion of the Old Testament ritual at Pentecost: the first fruits of the wheat sacrificial offering through the counting or report of the omer is framed by verse 22 of chapter 23:

 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.

Note the strong command: I am the Lord your God and you shall leave the gleanings of your harvest for the poor. Less important to your service to God at the temple donation of your omer of wheat is the necessity for the poor to eat. The Old Testament has as its utmost religious ethic and responsibility food equity and food justice. In no way is that food ethic altered in the New Testament.

But the counting and report of the omer takes place in the upper room in the run up to Pentecost as the disciples consider Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection. They then at the 50th day after Passover receive the fire toward their sacrifice and their self-reflection through the Holy Spirit.

Remember in The Parable of Weeds among the Wheat that Matthew’s Jesus (13.24-30) speaks of his followers as “wheat.”  It is plain to see that Jesus’s disciples in Jerusalem are undergoing a spiritual sacrifice as the first fruits of Jesus’ wheat on Pentecost, incorporated into the Passover’s crucified and resurrected Lord.

Acts 2.1 When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.2And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.3Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.4All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.

This is a difficult translation, as in Greek the fire seems matched to the tongue or speech of each follower. What we have in this first Christian Pentecost is a fire applied to the wheat,  leavening the disciple’s consciousness with the Holy Spirit, with the showbread that results in the form of their speech and words.

They have been made into a burnt offering, reckoned spiritually, with a demonstration of their purpose and function in the new bread of heaven for their testimony and word of the new creation.

Outsiders to this Pentecost cacophony think the utterers of languages have drunk new sweet wine,
which also refers to a Jesus parable of the Kingdom of Heaven: new wine for new wineskins.

The soul of the followers has been transformed by the fire and new wine of the Holy Spirit,
so that the whole person has been clothed and leavened as the new showbread now reconceived for a global mission of blessing by words beyond the rituals of the Jerusalem temple.

The Holy Spirit is both a gift of the ascended Jesus, but also in the parallels with counting and reporting the omer, followers who receive the Holy Spirit recognize themselves as wheat and not as weeds.

In and through the gift of the Holy Spirit, then, that followers receive confirmation of both their salvation and their service. Their service is as leavened bread of life to others, both metaphorically in their words of report and hope, but materially and substantially as we have seen in providing food to the poor and unjustly excluded.

Being blessed by the spirit necessitates becoming a blessing for others. Counting the omer is thus an Old Testament spirituality of agricultural festivals updated for our technological age.

We may not spiritualize it solely to exclude its focus on food equity for the poor—that somehow we as the Church have done our duty if we faithfully proclaim the word of life without also providing the material means of life to the hungry and homeless.

A second application of these readings is that church leaders should be confident of their relationship with the Holy Spirit, enough to speak with the Spirit’s fire. Some of my seminary fellows have moved toward a theology that ignores the Holy Spirit and the Trinity of our Christian tradition. I personally seek out Christian leaders who speak in terms of the Holy Spirit as a person within the Trinity, and I hope that I demonstrate that in my care and preaching.

I come back to John Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev.

As we have seen, Krushchev, the representative of the Great Atheism, adopted the symbol of Noah’s Ark to promote a vision of peaceful coexistence with the Capitalist west. The Roman Catholic JFK adopted this symbol, and according to Jim Douglass’s remarkable book, JFK and the Unspeakable, [2] JFK was both in Vietnam and through nuclear disarmament seeking to end the cold war in the 12 months up to his assassination.

Krushchev and JFK, together changed existentially by their deep glimpse into the abyss of a nuclear holocaust during the Cuban Missile Crisis, bonded by this vision of peaceful coexistence to look to the end of the cold war.

Douglass provides compelling evidence that right wing generals in the National Security State were seriously considering a first nuclear strike on the Soviet Union, and Kennedy was appalled at the holocaust they presumed.

These war planners admitted that a first thermonuclear strike on the Soviets would kill hundreds of millions, and that a retaliatory nuclear strike would kill 30 million Americans. The same American planners asserted that if the U.S. undertook a rapid buildup of thermonuclear capacity,  U.S. casualties from a retaliatory Soviet strike to an American first strike could be reduced to 14 million.

JFK shrunk back, especially for the children.

This is the nuclear destiny—playing with God’s awe-ful fire embedded in the hydrogen atom. War involves choice between fire’s material destiny and fire’s spiritual freedom. Fire has a destiny in holocaust, which can either be materially applied to our built temples of power, or the fire realized spiritually in our unseen temples of community and neighborhood peace.


To me that suggests lack of freedom, lack of autonomy, and the ever-frustrated will to escape through domination that makes sacrifices of others. These signal lack of humanity.

Destiny is that which leads inexorably to death’s final word, where only the self-assertions and self-promotions in this life matter in the eternal memory of a scorched earth.

Destiny lives on in the memory of the scorched earth. Therefore those who focus on material destiny must commit themselves to knowing fully the past and overcoming ignorance. They turn away from present and the future, so that they may be absolutely certain they've won the past.

If we feel ourselves slipping in the present, we must commit to even deeper strata of memory,
to deeper lessons of myth, archaeology and paleontology. Yet the lessons we learn are of the dead who are no longer here. Even a scientific method that uses the experiment that involves the death of organisms analyzes the effect of death of the life form. Death drastically intrudes into the animal or plant,  though we may think we have just halted the life process in mid-stream and thus are studying stilled life.

We study ever more the act and effects of death in order to prepare for war which we foolishly think enhances life for those who survive.

There is no more "fertile" study of heightened preparedness for meeting destiny than in war. And no more eternal foolishness than the fires of total war.

War then becomes the peak experience of living for those with violence and greed in their souls.

War is getting the impetus for sacrifice wrong, as it pays for one’s freedom with the lives of others.

Yet for us, freedom to sacrifice/ lives on in the memory of the life-giving Spirit that has sacrificed himself for us. It is in the fire of our tongues, as Luke’s Acts has it, that we make an acceptable sacrifice to our God.

It is not in a first strike holocaust that kills hundreds of millions, including God’s favored poor and children. We may not play games with God, Some have not learned that we do not play games with fire.

Every scenario involving nuclear holocaust is gaming with God. I believe gaming with God is even more insolent in its conceit and arrogance than challenging or ignoring God. Toying with first strike nuclear destiny, as JFK’s opponents were doing, is a profound abomination to the temple of life.

Counting the omer of the first fruit wheat harvest is the fire and yeast behind that old time Protestant hymn, Bringing in the Sheaves:

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Let us recount the spirituality explicit in counting the omer, considering our gifts and what we may donate from our surplus, moving from weeping to rejoicing, moving from inert dread of a firey destiny from fighter bombers to our labor’s report from constructive fire--the increased kindness and neighborly peace from our own transformation into the showbread of heaven.

Again I say with Tennyson, Come my friends, ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.  AMEN


[1] Sweeney, M. A. (1999). Ten Sephirot. In K. van der Toorn, B. Becking, & P. W. van der Horst (Eds.), Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible (2nd rev. ed., p. 838). Leiden; Boston; Köln; Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge: Brill; Eerdmans.

[2] JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters. Touchstone, 2010.

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