Sunday, May 29, 2011

Listen for the Wild Goose

John 14: 15-21

Center Moreland Charge, May 29, 2011

Do you know what we mean when we talk about the Holy Spirit? What do you think of?

The Holy Spirit is the third person of the Trinity, which means that to Christian doctrine, the Holy Spirit is to be understood as God, the same as Jesus and God the creator.

When we invoke the Holy Spirit, however, I think perhaps we invoke more of a mechanism than what for us in our time and place is the presence of God. We want God to reach out to us, we want God’s presence with us, but when it comes it is the Holy Spirit, it is not whatever image we have of the creator God.

We see the Holy Spirit as passive, we see it as almost the puppet strings that God uses to run the world-the leather reins which God uses to direct the horse that is pulling the carriage. For those of the Star Wars generation, they fall into the trap of seeing the Holy Spirit as the Force, a passive energy that can be directed by us to be used for evil or for good.

But that is not what Scripture tells us it is, is it?

The Holy Spirit as talked about today in the passage of John’s Gospel we’ve read talks about the Holy Spirit as an advocate-a teacher of truth, the leader of the Christian community beyond the time of Jesus’ presence-the eternal teacher.

Earlier in John, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those who are born of the Spirit are like the wind, which “blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.”

The Holy Spirit is completely outside of our control, and is to be a guide-something to listen to, something to search for, but not something we can bend to your will. There is an old Irish image of the Holy Spirit as a Wild Goose. When I say wild goose, I don’t mean for you to think of the geese that are now camped out at their usual summertime spot along Demunds road between the county line and Marsh Cemetery, though maybe some teaching could be done using the metaphor of needing to slow down in the presence of the Holy Spirit.

No, what they meant was the wild goose that they would hear faintly in the dead of night, honking as they flew. You knew they were there, if you were quiet enough, but you didn’t know where they were coming from, and you didn’t know where they were headed.

This is how the Holy Spirit should be thought of-an independent operator in our lives, and not a tool with which to succeed in life. We are to follow the lead of the Holy Spirit, and we are not to try to lead it ourselves. Have you ever tried to put a harness on a goose?

So, the next question you may have is, “OK, that’s all well and good and poetical, but how?”

How do we listen to the Holy Spirit? How do we seek its’ guidance, and how do we then follow it?

I think there are many ways to receive the promptings of the Holy Spirit. One can read Scripture for wisdom; to study the Bible is to immerse yourself into the language of the Spirit, and lessons can be learned from the stories of the people in it, as well as the advice and commands of Paul, Peter, James, the rest of the epistle writers, and of course, the words of Jesus himself.

One can listen to the voices of experience, people of faith in our community who have lived similar situations, and can tell you what the outcomes were in order that you not make the same mistakes.

But in the end, what it all comes down to is prayer and quiet. The best way to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit is to stop for a time, be quiet, and listen to the welling up of the Holy Spirit within your own heart. Stop, and listen for it like you are seeking to hear the call of the geese flying high above in the still of the night.

Take time to do it, and be honest. Sometimes, it is definitely hard to separate your own hot temper, your own jagged resentments from what the Holy Spirit is prompting you to do, and perhaps it would be nice just once to say that the Holy Spirit is leading you to speak your mind on a matter, and let the chips fall where they may. That is always a mistake, for the Holy Spirit does not ever seek to divide, destroy, or cause hurt. The Holy Spirit is the voice of God, the voice of love, the voice of gentle reason. The Holy Spirit works against our earthly, inconstant, fallible egos, and pushed us toward reconciliation, harmony, peace and justice.

How do we seek to follow the Holy Spirit? We read about the aspects of the Holy Spirit in our Scriptures, we speak about it with our elders and with those who are wise in our lives, and we are quiet. We pray, we sit in a peaceful place and listen for what comes from within like we sit and listen for the cry of a goose in the middle of the night. We judge those upwellings against what we know of God’s love, and peace, and if they match what we know of God, that is our leading.

The World Needs More Thomases

Baccalaureate Sermon
Wyoming Seminary, Kingston PA
May 28, 2011

Romans 12: 1-10
John 20: 24-29

I come to you today as a minister in the Protestant branch of the Christian church, but I’m aware of the multi-cultural nature of this graduating class, and indeed of the whole student body. I am not wise or learned enough to speak to each and every one of you using the wisdom of your own traditions; I can only speak to you out of the personally accumulated wisdom of my own.

I do trust and believe, however, that in each major tradition of this world, there is common wisdom; ways in which the divine reaches people so that their lives may be lived in harmony and peace. So, while what I may say to you today is informed by my life lived with the Christian Bible, I have faith that what I’ll say will have resonance in your experience.

I am proud to say that I am the parent of a student at this school. At one time, I was the husband of an employee of this school. I have also taught here, in an adjunct capacity. The times when I have taught here, I have come into contact with students who are quick, bright and sometimes even intimidating to their teacher, but graceful enough to be present in the class in body and in intellect. All of the students I have had have been eager, and have all sought to perform to the best of their abilities. They have all been involved in multiple activities which engage their bodies, minds, and talents, which I hope they will carry forward into the rest of their lives, keeping them grounded, rounded, and engaged. I am sure the same is true of all of this years’ graduates.

I want to name for you what I see as a great value to the education you’ve received here, and the environment in which the education is imparted, and for this, I would like to use a story that we in the Christian faith call the story of Thomas, or what has traditionally, but unfortunately, been called “Doubting Thomas”.

To refresh the story you heard earlier: Thomas was one of the twelve primary assistants, or Disciples, that Jesus had developed through his ministry. After the events of Jesus’ arrest, conviction, crucifixion and death, the Disciples and the other followers, assuming including Mary Magdalene, were gathered together in one place, all except for Thomas. We don’t know why he wasn’t there.
While the others were together in that locked room (they were hiding), Jesus, who had already appeared alive to Mary, appeared to them.

Well, of course, when Thomas showed up, they told him that they had seen Jesus, and he did not immediately believe. He said that he needed to personally verify what they were claiming before he would believe them, and the conclusion of the story is that Jesus did indeed return, and while he was there, stopped to prove to Thomas that he was risen from the dead, scars, wounds, and all. Only then did Thomas declare his belief in the Resurrected Christ.

In the world that you are inheriting, the world that so many call “post-modern”, there is a dire and desperate need for such people as Thomas. A life of faith, any faith, does of course require a certain amount of trust in aspects that are not empirically verifiable, of course, but with that being understood, much of what passes for faith and religion in this world would not pass muster if Thomas were to stand in front of it today and ask for proof.

Just last week, there was the latest of a long history of predictions of the parousia, which is the ten-dollar-world for the return of Christ in Christian doctrine. It was very interesting to me that there was so much attention paid to the event, as the man who predicted it had been wrong before, and indeed was wrong again.

I believe that what caught people’s attention wasn’t the correctness of his prediction. In fact, of all of the coverage I saw about it in the various forms of media, very little of it was a step by step exploration of his theory. Very little thought was given to the idea that perhaps it would be a good idea to check out what the Bible as a whole says; the traction that the story got was not based at all in a popular literacy or familiarity with the Christian Testament; instead, plenty of room, ink, radio waves, electrons, and website inches were given to fleshing out and debating what this particular pastor was saying, how it was that he saw the impending Armageddon coming. There were not a lot of people who truly explored what was said, but there was a large majority of people who kept hearing about it in popular culture. And they began to worry. It was covered up by a lot of joking and sarcasm, but there was also a significant amount of relief when it turned out that the prediction was wrong.

It was fascinating to me because the whole event did not show the power of the Bible, or of the Christian faith; it showed the power of advertising in a hard, difficult, and frightening time in our world.

One of the many authors collected in the Christian Testament, the apostle Paul, writes in his letter to the churches in Rome, in the late 1st Century CE, that the people who consider themselves followers of Christ are to “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of (their) minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable, and perfect.” (NRSV)

Do not conform to this world. The education that you have received here has enabled you to be of critical mind when evaluating the news of the day and the trends of society. Be transformed by the constant renewing and refreshing of your intellect, and the reviewing of your opinions when seen in the light of new information. I truly do believe that the talents, gifts and graces that each of you have will be greatly needed in the world that you are inheriting; I truly believe that you will be of great use in the world, because of your education here. The world needs more people who are comfortable with difference, who have experienced people who are not like themselves, and have been trained to think critically and with rigor.

I believe that most of the zealotry and bigotry in the world, most of the rigidity and most of the extremism, is caused by ignorance. One cannot be blamed for initial ignorance, because someone cannot know everything upon being born. That is what life and education are for. And from living life and being taught, from traveling and from talking, for eating with and sitting on the plane or bus next to, real people, we learn compassion, we learn that the world is full of interesting and good people. And then it becomes harder to demonize them, to de-humanize them. It’s harder to see a people, a country, or a culture, or even a religion as a monolithic evil if you have known an individual from that people, country, culture or religion.

Thomas, when he was met by Jesus, declared that Jesus was Lord and God, upon verifying what it was that the other Disciples had claimed was actually true. He acted in faith for the rest of his life, according to Christian tradition, because his mind had been renewed by the information he had received.

May you go forth from this place, having faith not just in the traditions and rituals that you have been raised in according to your experience of the divine, but faith also in the talents, gifts and graces, including intellect and curiosity given to you, and trained and sharpened here.

The world needs more Thomases. Go out and be a Thomas.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

If You're Wearing the Bib, You're in the Race

1 Peter 2: 1-10

A while back, I spoke about a “Christ-shaped foundation”. I don’t know what images that may have created in your mind, back then, but some of them may have been about what a real Christian looks like to you.

What does a real Christian look like?

Let me ask this-what does a real runner look like?

I have begun transforming my body and my habits into those that are consistent with a lifestyle that includes running and exercise. I started this first as a way to combat the effects of the stress of Donna’s illness and imminent death; My blood sugar had skyrocketed, my cholesterol had risen, and I was gaining weight. All of these indicators of illness were back under control within a few months after I had started a daily routine of exercise and eating better.

In the course of learning about exercise and being around people who run and bike, I began to explore more about this new world, and decided to make it a goal to run a race. I have decided on the race, and it’s in November, which I figure gives me plenty of time to continue to get stronger and lighter.

When I look at photos of friends at races, especially the easier, shorter distance races, there are lots of people in the background who look all kinds of ways. There are short round people, tall people, muscular people and thin people. There are people all decked out in Lycra and the latest performance fabrics, wearing $200 shoes or even those spiffy new shoes that are just gloves for your feet. There are also people in beer t-shirts and their old high school gym shorts, wearing their lawn-mowing sneakers. Some are obviously runners, they look the part, but everyone has paid their money, gotten their race bib, and lined up at the start.

And when the gun goes off, they all begin the journey to the finish line. Some will run the whole way, some will walk all of it, and some will do a combination of both.

Who among that crowd is not a runner? Do you really have to run to be a runner? Who among that group of people wearing race bibs and following the race route isn’t trying to get better? It could be that they have been running since they were children, ran cross country in high school, and runs now for the health benefits. It could also be that the person who walks the whole way is seeking to live better, a healthier lifestyle, and the race is a milestone in doing so.

It’s a truth to me that, since you don’t pay the money and sign up for the race accidentally, you want to be there, you want what the preparation for the race gives you.

For many people, winning such a race is irrelevant. Participating and finishing it is.
There are several ways that runners try to get better, and doing all of them is where the greatest benefit is gained. Runners eat right-they eat lean, they eat whole, they eat green, they don’t gorge. Runners do more than run, they train and strengthen their muscles doing other things besides running. And runners run. There are infinite varieties of how and what they do, but they run. Swimmers swim, bikers bike, kayakers kayak. These are their foundations. Eat, strengthen, and do.

You might even say that these are the foundations, or the cornerstones, of success for them. Do them, and eventually, the benefits of these choices will become evident.

Now, think again for a moment about what the ideal Christian is, for you. Some people obviously look the part, like those Lycra-wearing runners may be ideal runners. On the other hand, some people, perhaps you might even include yourself in that bunch, are more the gym short-lawn mowing shoes crowd.

Just as we talk about eat strengthen and do, there are things that all Christians do to benefit themselves. Just for the sake of simplification, let’s use Bishop Job’s Three Simple Rules, which we’ve studied here before, and were his distillation of the General Rules written by John Wesley over 200 years ago. Do no Harm, do Good, Stay in Love with God.

Do no Harm: Just as runners eat right, Christians seek to treat each other properly-not gossiping, not speaking badly of people, seeking to minimize their own prejudices. They seek to see each person they meet as a child of God, a person created in the image of God, created with a little spark of God within them.

Do Good: Just as runners strengthen by doing exercises outside of running, so too do Christians seek to go outside of their “Christianly” pursuits in order to strengthen their faith. Cross-training, you might call it, pun intended! Runners need to keep their core strong, all of the muscles between their knees to chest, and devise all manner of ways to do so, through weights, stretching, and other exercises. Christians can keep their core strong by reading the Bible in different ways, trying to pray in new styles, and continually seeking new people to be with in settings outside of the church and the congregation. They may also seek out non-Christian pursuits, and reflect on them while applying their faith. A stagnant Christian is like a stalled runner, and it takes new practices and new ideas to break through and grow again.

Stay in Love with God: Runners run, swimmers swim, bikers bike, kayakers kayak. Christians do the things that are distinctively Christian. They pray, they read the Bible, they take communion, they worship and praise. They get baptized. They tell of God’s love and glory each day.

You might even say that these are the foundations, or the cornerstones, of success for Christians. Do them, and eventually, the benefits of these choices will become evident.

When you think of those people at the start of a race, it is difficult to impossible to see who the real runners are, because, if they are at the starting line, and wearing a bib, they are in the race. Those who walk are no less runners than those who run. They’re all trying to get better, do better, be better.

When you look around you in church this morning, it is difficult to impossible to see who the real Christians are, because if they are here, and a part of this community, they are obviously seeking God.

They are all trying to get better, do better, be better, too. They are seeking the cornerstones upon which they can build a better life.

So, just as at a race, how people are cheered on as they do their best, let us also cheer each other on, encourage each other, support each other as we seek to get stronger. Let us be a royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy people.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

No One Shall Know

John 10: 1-10

ca. 2800 BC According to Isaac Asimov's Book of Facts (1979), an Assyrian clay tablet dating to approximately 2800 BC was unearthed bearing the words "Our earth is degenerate in these latter days. There are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end. Bribery and corruption are common." This is one of the earliest examples of the perception of moral decay in society being interpreted as a sign of the imminent end.
ca. 70 The Essenes, a sect of Jewish ascetics with apocalyptic beliefs, may have seen the Jewish revolt against the Romans in 66-70 as the final end-time battle.

2nd Century The Montanists believed that Christ would come again within their lifetimes and establish a new Jerusalem at Pepuza, in the land of Phrygia. Montanism was perhaps the first bona fide Christian doomsday cult. It was founded ca. 156 AD by the tongues-speaking prophet Montanus and two followers, Priscilla and Maximilla.

380 The Donatists, a North African Christian sect headed by Tyconius, looked forward to the world ending in 380. (Source: American Atheists)

Late 4th Century St. Martin of Tours (ca. 316-397) wrote, "There is no doubt that the Antichrist has already been born. Firmly established already in his early years, he will, after reaching maturity, achieve supreme power." (Abanes p.119)

500 • Roman theologian Sextus Julius Africanus (ca. 160-240) claimed that the End would occur 6000 years after the Creation. He assumed that there were 5531 years between the Creation and the Resurrection, and thus expected the Second Coming to take place no later than 500 AD. (Kyle p.37, McIver #21)
• Hippolytus (died ca. 236), believing that Christ would return 6000 years after the Creation, anticipated the Parousia in 500 AD. (Abanes p.283)
• The theologian Irenaeus, influenced by Hippolytus's writings, also saw 500 as the year of the Second Coming. (Abanes p.283, McIver #15)

Mar 25, 970 Lotharingian computists foresaw the End on Friday, March 25, 970, when the Annunciation and Good Friday fell on the same day. They believed that it was on this day that Adam was created, Isaac was sacrificed, the Red Sea was parted, Jesus was conceived, and Jesus was crucified. Therefore, it naturally followed that the End must occur on this day! (Source: Center for Millennial Studies)

1000 There are many stories of apocalyptic paranoia around the year 1000. For example, legend has it that a "panic terror" gripped Europe in the years and months before this date. However, scholars disagree on which stories are genuine, whether millennial expectations at this time were any greater than usual, or whether ordinary people were even aware of what year it was. An excellent article on Y1K apocalyptic expectations can be found at the Center for Millennial Studies. (Gould, Schwartz, Randi)

1033 After Jesus failed to return in 1000, some mystics pushed the date of the End to the thousandth anniversary of the Crucifixion. The writings of the Burgundian monk Radulfus Glaber described a rash of millennial paranoia during the period from 1000-1033. (Kyle p.39, Abanes p.337, McIver #50)

1284 Pope Innocent III expected the Second Coming to take place in 1284, 666 years after the rise of Islam. (Schwartz p.181)

Feb 1, 1524 The End would occur by a flood starting in London on February 1 (Julian), according to calculations some London astrologers made the previous June. Around 20,000 people abandoned their homes, and a clergyman stockpiled food and water in a fortress he built. (Sound familiar? It's just like the doomsday cultists and Y2K nuts of today!) As it happened, it didn't even rain in London on that date. (Randi p.236-237)

Apr 28, 1583 The Second Coming of Christ would take place at noon, according to astrologer Richard Harvey. This was the date of a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, and numerous astrologers in London predicted the world would end then. (Skinner p.27, Weber p.93)

1600 Martin Luther believed that the End would occur no later than 1600. (Weber p.66)

1666 • As this date is 1000 (millennium) + 666 (number of the Beast) and followed a period of war and strife in England, many Londoners feared that 1666 would be the end of the world. The Great Fire of London in 1666 did not help to alleviate these fears. (Schwartz p.87, Kyle p.67-68)
• Sabbatai Zevi recalculated the coming of the Messiah to 1666. Despite his failed prophecies, he had accumulated a great many followers. He was later arrested for stirring up trouble, and given the choice of converting to Islam or execution. Pragmatic man that he was, he wisely elected for the former. (Festinger)

May 19, 1780 On this day in New England the skies mysteriously turned dark for several hours in the afternoon, causing people to believe that a biblical prophecy had come true and Judgement Day had arrived. In reality, the darkness was caused by smoke from large-scale forest fires to the west. (Abanes p.217)

Chronolological outtakes taken from:

And so it goes. There have been significant predictions of the end of the world based on astrology, astronomy, Biblical interpretation, ancient calendars that run out, and clusters of floods and fires. There’s another significant one coming, one that is getting a lot of press, even to such news sources as NPR, because of the significant advertising budget spent by a group called There are warnings on the sides of buses, and guys wearing t-shirts in Times Square. It’s set for this Saturday. And of course there has already been one movie about the one most people think of, the running out of the Mayan Calendar in 2012.

I believe that Christ will come back, and that will be the end of the world as we know it. But that will be a good thing, because what will come instead of blood and fire, the tearing apart of families and communities, is the final victory of love; an increase of every good thing that we have in our lives now-family, friendship, music, health, sunshine and rain, cherry pie. We will not need faith because we will be in God in a way that surpasses reassurance. It will be simple truth. All evil will be eradicated, all those who hunger will be fed, all those who are naked will be clothed, all those who are abused will be healed in body, mind, and spirit, and all disease will disappear.

But I am not so foolish as to start to think I can predict when that will be. All of these predictions are based on interpretations of Scripture that are unique and singular-some person deciding they know better than the rest of the world. These are people who decide that there are hidden meanings to scriptures, prophecies that are only divined by one’s own insight. Even Martin Luther, even our own John and Charles Wesley, separately each predicted an end to the world. And these people, acknowledged giants of our tradition of the faith, got it wrong, too.

If you want scriptural warrant for the end of the world, who better to listen to than Jesus? And what does he say?

Mark 13: 5-8
Mark 13: 21-23
Mark 13: 32-33

We do live in a scary time, it is true. But all times and all places are scary to someone, and we are not exempt. Earthquakes happen everywhere two tectonic plates meet. Tsunamis happen. Floods happen somewhere every year. We want to seek understanding of our times, and be faithful, both of which are reasonable. But let us not lose our heads; Many have come and gone in Jesus name, and we are still here. And Jesus himself tells us than no one shall know the day or hour. So, in other words, like a house break-in, we won’t see it coming.

It seems like a great waste of energy to me, and is a distortion of the way of Christ, when presented to those who do not believe. When Christ says be prepared, this is NOT what he means! He means that we are to be ever striving toward stronger faith, and a daily walk toward a better imitation of Christ in our thoughts, words, actions and lives.

Who would you rather listen to? Harold Camping, this pastor who is predicting the end of the world on Saturday? Hal Lindsey? Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins? Listen to the voice of the shepherd; do not listen to the thieves and bandits. Take comfort in the words of Christ.

Praise band rehearsal is next Saturday night at 6:30. See you all there, and see you all in church next Sunday.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

What is Your Evidence?

John 20:19-31

What was the evidence you received that allowed you to believe? What was it you saw, what was it you heard, what was it you read?

For me, it was about three weeks after I had prayed for Jesus to come to me, to come into my heart. Of course he was already there, but I did not understand that at the time. In the quiet of my bedroom in the apartment I shared with another worker at the winery I worked as a tour guide for, I prayed alone. I think I stepped forward at church, though I don’t remember when I did that. I had stepped forward in that traditional evangelical way; seeking to be forgiven the sins I had hurt people with, and seeking help and strength so as not to do it again.

And then I waited for evidence. I watched my life over the next three weeks, seeking proof that something had happened, because, frankly, nothing had happened that I could feel when I prayed in my room.

It was a small thing, but after three weeks I realized, as I was driving, that I was going the speed limit. I was not stressing out at the driver in front of me like normally would. I was peaceful behind the wheel, and ok with the posted law.

Now of course, it’s not as simple as “God made me obey the law.” But whatever sort of testosterone poisoning that all young men have that drove me to drive angry and impatient, whatever lack of calm there was within that 23 year old boy was replaced with a peace and a patience. Not a lot, of course, but enough to notice a change. This was my evidence that God was working to change my life. And so it has gone ever since-small incremental changes, over time, which build up, add up into a different path than I was already taking.

We all, if we stop to think, can remember times that we have noticed what could have been the hand of God guiding us, pushing us, or as one friend’s shirt says, “putting his arm around us and his hand over our mouth!”

This is all Thomas was asking for. Thomas, for some reason, was not there when Jesus came to the upper room the night he was resurrected, according to John’s story. So he had to hear it secondhand, and he is not to be blamed for not believing what he was told. Who did, the first time? Mary couldn’t make the mental leap to realize that the gardener was in fact Jesus; the disciples didn’t believe her sight unseen when she came and told them that the tomb was empty, and John is silent on whether they believed her when she ran back to them the second time and told them she had seen Jesus; and that night, when Jesus comes to them, Thomas is absent. They’re still putting the story together themselves, still seeking to reconcile the evidence of their experience with their knowledge of how the world works, when he walks in and says “what happened?”

So a week later, Jesus returns. Does he return just for Thomas, and as an aside, breathe on them the Holy Spirit (this is John’s version of what happens at Pentecost in Luke; much less intense, much more intimate)?

I don’t think that Jesus’ main reason for returning is for Thomas. I think his primary agenda is to return to commission the Disciples to tell the story, and give them the added backing of the Holy Spirit, so that those who hear may believe without needing to see. While he’s there, he gives Thomas an opportunity to catch up with everyone else. When the text ends with “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” I think he’s referring to the Holy Spirit being given, and a commission to the disciples to tell the story with care and faith, not as a rebuke to Thomas for “doubting”; you’ve heard me say before that Thomas has an unnecessary and unfair reputation in the tradition of the church.

He’s just reacting the way any of us was-just because he’s the guy out getting the pizza and sodas, or whatever errand kept him from being there the first time, he’s “the doubter”.

We all need evidence of God’s presence and power in our lives. There are so few of us who are lucky enough to be knocked off our horses on the Damascus Road, like Paul. For many of us, it is a much more subtle working, less an earthquake and more a flood. Or to put into more positive terms-less a grand slam home run with fireworks, but the realization in the 8th inning that there hasn’t been anyone on base for the whole game. No-hitters sneak up on you.

For many of us, the church has always been there, we have been raised from infancy in an environment where God was always talked about, always present, always working. It may have happened so many times that we don’t remember it, but I do ask you-what is your evidence? How do you know that you are a child of God, and that God is working actively in your life, now? It's there, because God is always working in our lives, we just don't always realize it.

For me, that first time, it was looking at the speedometer, then looking at the speed limit sign on Redwood Road in Napa, California, and realizing they were closer than they used to be, and that my jaw was not clenching as I drove behind another car, the left lane open and inviting. Just that little thing and I could have also said “My Lord and My God!”

What is it for you? What is the evidence in your life that confirms for you the presence of God in your life?

Sunday, May 01, 2011

First Fruits

Exodus 31: 1-11
James 1: 16-18

We are all craftsmen, and craftswomen. There are things that we all do that are done every day, or are done on special occasions. Things that we take care to do well, because doing it well is important. Little things matter to craftspeople-like when you change a tire; you put the nuts into the hubcap so that they are kept together and lost less easily. Like the people at the Dairy Queen who can do that signature curlicue of soft serve at the top of the cone.

We are all craftspeople at something. Most likely many things. Things that we come to be known for. I’ve had a couple of conversations with Doug about the ethics of hunting; about taking only what is needed, and within the law, and how to act in the woods both to not scare off game and to not get yourself shot. I would say that he is a craftsman at hunting, and Seth is fast becoming one, as well. Some seasons he already outshoots his dad!

We are all craftspeople at many things. Everyone has their own way of doing laundry, of folding, and of how clothes are arranged in drawers. Those of us who have gardens have a certain rhythm of the seasons, whether we grow from seed or go buy already spouted plants. Some of us are good with flowers, some with vegetables.

Pizza guys take great pride in their style of stacking toppings, or preparing them-Grotto’s dices their onions very fine, Original Italian Pizza slices them.

My mom makes enchiladas in a very specific way, in the style she was taught by her family and her culture when she was young, and a long time ago, when the right spices weren’t as available all over the country as they are now, and before the advent of the internet, she used to have her brother send us the ingredients, sometimes including even the tortillas!

Families are taught down through the generations how to slice a turkey at Thanksgiving. Donna and I learned from that great food authority, Alton Brown on the Food Network, to cut off the whole breast at the bone, and then slice it into serving sizes. Some cut the serving size off the whole bird.

All of these things that we think are important, we do well. But have you ever thought that the things we do well might be a gift from God, a talent given by God?
Think of the pizza maker. To us, perhaps it is just a pizza. And we choose it just because we like it, we find it to be cooked well. We like the sauce, or the amount of toppings. But it’s a pizza, it isn’t rocket science, to us. To the pizza maker, though, it is. It is worthy of great care-the sauce has to be just right, the toppings have to be just so, the oven has to be at just the right temperature. But could it be that God has given the pizza maker gifts and talents do this? And with these gifts and graces, he is able to feed his family, provide a roof over their heads, and give joy to the people in his community? Could it be that making a good pizza is a gift from God?

What about gardening? What about hunting? Could the ability to do these well and good be gifts from God?

In the Exodus story for today, God calls out a specific craftsman, Bezalel, and an assistant, Oholiab, charges them with the creation of all of the worship hardware for the tent of worship. He gives Bezalel nothing less than the divine spirit, and he is to create for the people of Israel all of the candlesticks, the bookstands, the incense burners, the clothing of the priests, and the Ark of the Covenant itself, according to the designs and instructions God began giving back in Exodus 21. Now, if they have been charged to create all this stuff by God and for the Glory of God, then sure, it makes sense that they would be given the Spirit of God to do the iron work, the metalwork, the woodcarving, and the fine stitching.

But James tells us that every generous act of giving, and every perfect gift, is from God. We become the first fruits of God’s creation.

First fruits. Us. We are what is to be given back to God in thanks for the bounty of the earth. Not the first few zucchini that we grow that year. Not the first cut off the turkey, not the first diaper off the line up at the P&G plant. Us.

Since we ourselves are not to be sacrificed at an altar, then the meaning of first fruits changes, for James. Our whole lives are to be offered up as an offering to God in gratitude. It sort of changes how we do our homework each night, doesn’t it? It sort of changes how we practice our music?

The idea that all we do can be given as an offering to God changes our whole way of doing things. All of a sudden, the things we have been given care over, from mowing lawns to raising children, become holy. They become sacramental.

A friend of mine, who was once a Seminary president, told me once that he found it beneficial to see his desk as a communion altar, and that everything that crossed it was as important to God, and that it was his duty to make sure that every administrative task, every paper signed, be seen as just as important as the bread and wine at communion.

We are not all seminary presidents. But each time those of us who are nurses give meds, we can see it as offering the Lord’s Supper. Each time we finish working on a car, we can pass the keys to the owner over a communion table.

We are called by God, just like Bezalel and Oholiab, to elevate our talents and craftsmanship, in all that we do, to the level of offerings to God.

By offering our talents, gifts and graces to God, we are giving glory to God, and witness as well. By taking good care of what we are giving, and using it with dignity and grace and generosity, we show that God is good, and important to us.

And perhaps, if we see something as simple as making soup as an offering to God worthy of our best, I’d be willing to bet the soup tastes better!