Sunday, January 3, 2016

The gifts keep coming!

James 1:13-18   Common English Bible

13 No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.

16 Don’t be misled, my dear brothers and sisters. 17 Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all. 18 He chose to give us birth by his true word, and here is the result: we are like the first crop from the harvest of everything he created.


There is a spiritual practice called Lectio Divina - a Latin phrase meaning divine reading.  In that practice a person reads a passage of scripture, often aloud, listening with his mind’s ear carefully to hear what word or phrase jumps out, or seems to have particular meaning.  He then spends a period of time meditating on that word or phrase.  It works really well as a group spiritual practice, which each person reading the phrase out loud, preferably using different translations of scripture, meditating for a few moments, and sharing in prayer form what came to them during their meditation.    

When I first read this passage, for example, it was like verse 17 was written in large, neon letters.  “Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above.”  This seemed so fitting for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas that I quickly named the sermon “The gifts keep coming!”  Then I reminded our music folks that it is still Christmas and we can keep singing Christmas music for one more week.  

Naturally, the gifts I was thinking about weren’t the packages that got delayed in the mail, but rather the gifts that we think most about during this particular season - peace, joy, love, hope. I thought about the gifts that a new year brings, with the possibilities of new starts and new challenges.  Dee Anne and I chose to use Isaiah 43:19 for the Scripture reading on the masthead of The Caller for 2016, “I’m about to do something brand-new.  It’s bursting out!  Don’t you see it?”  For me, as you all know, this year is new in almost every way.  And if you don’t know please read your Caller, as I wrote about it in my Reverend Minion piece.  
(If you don’t have a Caller, it is posted on the FCC Selma website for your reading pleasure.)

As the week between Christmas and the New Year progressed I began to witness gifts I hadn’t really thought about much.  The gift of friendship manifested in the lives of people who suffered a loss.  The gift of a connected family could be seen in the emails flying between folks who had a loved one in the hospital. The gift of creativity showed up as ideas blossomed around the 100th Anniversary of our beautiful building.  The gift of selfless service is all around - 5 different people showed up in the office this week to see if there was anything they could do to help Dee Anne get the newsletter out!  The phrase “How can I help?” is something I hear a lot around here, and that is a tremendous gift.  

Then this morning, as I read the passage one more time, I saw the phrase, “We are like the first crop in the harvest of everything [God] created.”  I wondered what that meant exactly.  Usually, when we think of giving our “first fruits” we think of giving the best of what we have to offer.  The Hebrew Bible is full of descriptions of exactly what is acceptable as a sacrificial gift to God - rams and bulls and doves completely without blemish, the finest pressing of olives and grapes, the whitest flour.  We think of giving to God what is best and most lovely - the most perfect fruit from the tree, the loveliest cloth from the loom.  And yet, this passage says, “the first crop in the harvest.”  I grew up on a farm so I know a little bit about first crops.  And the fact of the matter is that the first crop from an apple tree or a grape vine, the first eggs from a hen, the wheat that is harvested from that first outer furrow, the first year’s crop of asparagus in the garden . . .  none of them are the best.  The first pot a potter throws, the first shirt a new tailor sews, the first meal anyone cooks . . .  again, not our best efforts. Not what we usually think about when we think about our gifts to God.

When I was simplifying my life I had two piles of stuff.  One was stuff I was definitely keeping because I really loved it or because I really needed it.  The other was stuff that I simply had and either didn’t like or no longer had a use for.  My mantra was if it didn’t enhance my life it was outta here!  Most of the sorting went easily.  But there were a couple of really tough decisions, things I kept moving from one pile to the other.  One was the ugliest pottery ashtray known to humanity.  It was made by a stepson when he was in 5th grade, decades ago, and it was supposed to be an owl.  I ended up keeping it because I couldn’t look at it without remembering the look on his face when he gave it to me. You see, he had always made gifts for his real mother.  This was the first gift he made especially for me.   This first attempt at pottery, ugly and misshapen, was the first evidence that he was growing to care for me.

So perhaps the gifts that God wants from us are not the gifts of the best we have to offer, after all.  And that thought brought me back to the beginning of the passage, the part I wasn’t going to preach on today.  “No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. 14 Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. 15 Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.”
I mean, I understood why the bit about every good gift coming from God following the part about how temptation does not come from God.  (And please notice we are not directed to blame the devil for temptation, either.  According to James, we have no one to blame but ourselves, thank you very much.)  And then I thought about how the change from giving in to temptation to serving God is the path we follow - it is the way in which we are the first harvest.

Consider . . . James was writing primarily to Gentiles, people who had not known much about the God of the Hebrew people or the Law.  He was writing to people who hadn’t grown up with the Law.  They were accustomed to worshipping gods whose behavior was often a prime example of how Christians should not behave - raping young women, turning people into ugly monsters because they were jealous, killing people who opposed them, and so on.  James was teaching these people how to live as Christians. That included taking responsibility for their own actions.  Instead of blaming your misdeeds on some outside force, he said, you need to understand that you are tempted by your own cravings, and those cravings can lead you into sin, and sin leads to the death of the spirit.

Flip Wilson was a very popular comedian in the 1960s and 70s.  One of his best known comedic characters was Geraldine, a sassy Black woman whose boyfriend was named “Killer” and whose catchphrase was, “The devil made me do it!”   ini 970 Wilson won his first Grammy for an album titled “The Devil made me buy this dress.”  Geraldine became so popular that when anyone did anything wrong, they would shrug and say, “The devil made me do it.”   Another of Wilson’s well-known characters, the Reverend Leroy of the Church of What’s Happening Now, would, no doubt, have promised Geraldine forgiveness and salvation for one of those perfect sacrificial gifts, like a Cadillac or a jet plane.  

But I suspect that those aren’t the gifts God desires from us.  I suspect that God prefers our first fruits to our best ones.  I believe that God would be much happier with that ugly owl ashtray than with the most beautifully crafted ceramic owl known to the art world.

Those things that tempt us, those cravings that can lead us into sin, those, I think, would be the gifts that God prefers.  I hate to keep harping on the way we behave on the freeway, but if we give in to our anger and frustration there, in the safety of that iron cage where no one can hear us vent and call the other guy names, the time may come when we give into it at a much less appropriate time.  And that could cause us to damage another person, perhaps physically but almost certainly emotionally, and hurting another is sin.  I don’t mean we should hold in the anger or pretend never to get angry, as that can cause significant emotional and psychological problems.  I mean letting the anger go . . . in this situation, simply allowing that idiot driver to be an idiot driver, perhaps even praying that he isn’t killed as a result of his idiocy.   We might not be good at this at first, but I think God would be greatly pleased by the attempt.  

Anger is an easy example, as most of us know what that is.  Each of us has our own cravings, our own character traits that can lead us into sin, into causing harm to ourselves or to another.   We each know our own temptations and where they can lead us.  These are things we can work at changing about ourselves, offering the work of change to God as our gift, knowing that our first efforts are gifts of great value.  

The gifts just keep coming.  We receive the gift of life from the Lord our God, and in return we give God the gift of our lives.  The Good News is that God does not require perfection from us.  God doesn’t demand that only our very best be offered.  God doesn’t ever turn away a gift because it isn’t good enough.   Rather, God accepts all of the gifts we offer with joy.  God’s love for each of us is unconditional and eternal.  God loves each of us exactly as we are, asking only that we return that love to the best of our ability.   

When we go from this place, let us go with gladness, giving to others the same gifts which we have received; love, peace, joy and hope.  And may these gifts be offered always in the name of Jesus the Christ, Son of God, from whom all good gifts come.

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