Saturday, June 14, 2014

I'll Make Me a World

Genesis 1:1-2:4(a)
Trinity Sunday
June 15, 2014
William G. Carter

“I’m lonely. I’ll make me a world…” That’s how the Harlem poet James Weldon Johnson imagined the voice of God. He pictured a Creator who could do anything, a Divine Artist who took delight in every new project and said, “That’s good!” And yet for all God’s joy, there was still a hunger for relationship, to fashion creatures who have the capacity to know God and enjoy him forever. So here we are. That’s how our story with God begins.

The Bible begins at the beginning. Where we there to record it? No. What we have are a few accounts, all faithfully written and inscribed, as a guide for us to understand where we come from, and to teach us what kind of God is the Source of all things.

One of the accounts is Psalm 104, which we sang last Sunday. In Hebrew, there are seven stanzas, one for each day of creation. With creative wisdom, God makes an abundant world. All of it is found by the faithful as a gift. We didn’t make any of it, God did. The primary noun is “You” – You, You, You – “You ride on the wings of the wind, You make streams gush forth in the valleys, You bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the human heart.” Everything comes from the joyful heart of God. In one of his Narnia books, C. S. Lewis imagined that God sang everything into being. I like that; I believe it to be true.

Another account of Creation comes in the second chapter of Genesis. This story portrays God as close at hand, able to walk in the garden on two feet. God creates everything “in a single day.” In a single day! Genesis 2 says, “In the day that the Lord God created the heavens and earth…” It must have been some day, not that the Eternal God ever wears a wristwatch. God is free to define “a single day” however God chooses. No human begin was present to see God punch the time clock.

This second account declares that the earth creature “Adam” is created from the dirt and given the job of taking care of the garden. If you came to church today with potting soil under your fingernails, you know this is noble work. And it seems Adam was only the rough draft for Eve; as a second earth creature, she is created as helper and partner, the two of them to live in harmony without shame. As you know, that’s just the beginning of the story. Adam and Eve mess up the Garden, and their children don’t turn out so well either.

As the Jewish sage Elie Wiesel said about this second story, “God created people because God loves good stories.” Again, here we are.

But it is this opening account in Genesis One that finds its way into our ears this morning. We read it as a litany because that is how it is put together. There are lines repeated, stanzas enlarged, words like “TOV!” (“good”) which echo again and again. This cannot be a scientific account of the world’s beginning. It is a worship account, a declaration of purpose and intent. Everything begins in God’s creativity. The world and everything in it proceeds from God, who is present but mostly stays hidden.

I have a good friend who calls himself a burned-out Methodist. He doesn’t go to church any more. We were talking one night, and he trusted me enough to confess some doubts about God. “I don’t believe there is a God,” he said. I pushed him a little bit and said, “Where do you think all this came from?” He smiled and said, “It’s just a happy accident, I suppose.”

Well, I knew enough about him that I wasn’t going to push. A hard-edged Sunday School teacher had turned him off in grade school. His mother told him he had to go anyway. Along the way, he ran into people who wielded the Bible as a club, insisting he was wrong and they were right. They told him that he shouldn't think, that he shouldn't honor God with his mind. And now I thought, you know, it takes a lot of courage for someone to tell a Presbyterian preacher that he thought the whole God-thing was manufactured by uptight people who wanted to control others so they could get money out of them.

So I told him about my experiences in biology class. It was during my brief college career in pre-med. We were dissecting lab animals, learning how all the parts worked, memorizing all the terminology, observing all the delicate systems that work together. It was amazing, and I couldn’t believe any of it was an accident. There was such an elaborate design behind it all. It was far above anything I or anybody else could imagine.

But that wasn’t all. During one lab period, a wisecracking classmate pointed at our lab specimen and said, “That little bugger didn’t have much of a life, did he?” It was like I was smacked awake. I mean, what’s the purpose of it all? We could analyze deceased animals and determine how they functioned – but what fascinated me, then and now, is what happens to creatures when they are alive. How is it that they live and flourish? What are they here for? These weren’t the kinds of questions anybody could answer in biology class. Thus began my stirrings to a call to ministry.

I had no interest in convincing my friend of what he didn’t want to believe. But I guess I could invite him to pay a little more attention to world and all its splendor. In fact, I just talked to him the other day. He’s getting ready to head off for a week in the mountains. “There’s a place where the hawks circle,” he said. “I can sit and watch them for hours.”

What’s behind all of this? Genesis says it’s not a What but a Who. God creates it all. Genesis does not try to prove this; it simply starts with God, because everything starts with God.

One of the interesting details about this text is when it may have been written down. It could not have been an eye-witness account, of course. Some scholars listen to the syntax and vocabulary, and suggest it was composed during the Babylonian Exile. That was one of the most disruptive seasons in Israel’s history. The temple of God had been smashed and torn down, the brightest and best of the nation had been deported and enslaved. The faith of the faithful had been splintered.

And a group of Jewish priests countered all the spiritual chaos by stating in a litany, “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light, and God saw it was good. There was evening and morning, the first day. And God separated the sky from the water, and it was so. There was evening and morning, the second day.” And so on. They countered the chaos by worshiping a God who created everything in an orderly way.

What a remarkable thing to say! Behind all the Babylonian gods was the real God, the God of Israel, the Creator of the whole world and all the worlds we cannot even see. Beyond the disruption of every institution that the Jewish people counted on for hundreds of years, or the shattering of every human relationship that mattered to them, there is the Lord God who rules over everything that he made. Even when the world seems turned upside down, it is still God’s world; it always has been, it always will be.

It all comes from God. The Spirit of God was brooding over the waters, ready to bring everything to life. As the Gospel of John will add, it is Christ the Word of God who is the means through which everything is made. The Word speaks holy wisdom – and it creates the very thing that is spoken.

And the Word keeps creating. It is not finished. There is a Lutheran theologian named Ann Pederson who teaches at a college in South Dakota. She says it is tempting to think like Aristotle that once the world is made, it really is fixed, kind of like a classical composer who writes down a symphony. All the black dots are fixed on paper, right where they need to be, never to be changed. But contemporary physics suggests that this is not quite how the world really is. Dr. Pederson says God is more like a jazz musician, able to create something out of nothing, so it can live and breathe and grow and change.[1] Not so much fixed, as alive!

Creation has a past: the world was created. But the creation has a present: the world is alive. And I’ve noticed the people who speak of creation only in the past tense seem very concerned with control. They want everything fixed and settled. There are rules to follow and standard operating procedures to observe. I know such matters give great comfort to many, many people.

I will simply counter by saying there was a black bear cub loose in Clarks Summit the other day. It was two blocks down the street at the Abington Heights office building, trying to enroll in kindergarten, I think. A living creation doesn’t always stay where people want it to stay - - because it’s alive.

So I’m suggesting that perhaps we Christians lighten up, let the Spirit refresh us, and that we not take this ancient creation litany as a science textbook. It is not a statement to be defended as it is an invitation to praise our Creator, and to pay closer attention to diversity and vitality of life. It’s an invitation to go outside and admire God’s handiwork, as opposed to staying inside and fussing about what gets taught in biology class.

I confess my weariness at good-hearted Christians who fear that they have to defend God from his detractors. God is going to outlive us all, so God is perfectly capable of self-defense. When I hear fearful Christian people insisting that God had to make everything in six twenty-four days, or that dinosaurs and humans co-existed, it saddens me. It is Science and Faith that can co-exist, and they can keep one another honest. Science can observe the “how” while Faith speaks of “why” and “Who.” And all of it really ought to point us to a God who is a lot greater than any one of us can imagine.

To set that in context, I think of a little joke that has made the rounds:  

A man prays and says, “God, what is a billion dollars to you?” God says, “To me, a billion dollars is but a penny.”

The man thinks for a minute, and says, “God, what is a billion years to you?” God replies, “To me, a billion years is but a second.”

The man smiles and says, “Lord, can I have a penny?” God says, “Sure, just a second.”

For my money, it is really arrogant to reduce God to our size, to presume to dictate only how God works, to once again, perhaps inadvertently, put ourselves on the throne at the center of the universe. Sorry, but we really haven’t evolved that much.

No, what we have here in Genesis One is that God chooses to make a world. Perhaps the Creator wants our friendship, perhaps God likes good stories, perhaps God is just really, really generous -- joyfully generous! This is the God who claps the hands and says, “Tov! Tov! Good! Good!” For that is how everything is made, and how it is initially assessed.  “Tov! Tov! Good! Good!”

And this is also the God who is so secure, so settled in his own sovereignty, that God doesn’t need to hover over everything and control it – but rather God is free to spend a day in rest, enjoying the beauty, the intricacy, the interplay. If God can lean back and take a Sabbath, so can we. We can rest in the assurance that this weary world is God’s, that God has loved it since the beginning, and that God is still working to make all things new through Jesus Christ, our Savior.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Ann Pederson, God, Creation, and All That Jazz: A Process of Composition and Improvisation (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2001).

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Spirit of Practical Wisdom

1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
June 8, 2014
William G. Carter

No one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

Pentecost is a day that a lot of people don’t understand. It doesn’t fit into the tidy categories of American holidays. Walmart and Target can take over Christmas, turning a profit in the name of baby Jesus. Easter cards are available in the greeting card racks, most of them bearing the signs of North American spring rather than the weirdness of resurrection.

 But Pentecost is not easily consumed. The Holy Spirit comes in the clatter of wild wind, the igniting of fire, the speaking of Gospel to every available language. A fractured group of timid fishermen, peasants, and women folk are shaped into preachers, all because the Power of God comes upon them, fills them, and gives them a word to speak.

That’s hard for a lot of people to understand. As one reasonable woman once declared after hearing the Bible account of the first Pentecost, “That’s a spooky story, a bit too mystical and mysterious for me.” I understand the awkwardness she felt.

The apostle Paul had some mystical tendencies of his own, but he didn't talk about them very frequently. He didn’t say much about Pentecost at all. When he spoke of the Holy Spirit, he turned to practical matters. His mysticism made sense, and we have a share of that today.

He is writing to the church in Corinth, a seaport in southern Greece. It was a bustling crossroad of ideas. People landed there from every conceivable corner of the Mediterranean Sea. They brought traditions and notions with them. It was a strategic city for him to launch the Gospel. The wind of Spirit could come upon the people and blow the dandelion seeds of the Gospel around the known world, where it could take root.

Unfortunately the church in Corinth was a mess. It was like no other church you’ve ever known – some people strutting around in arrogance, others breaking into factions. A lot of the people had a superficial view of God, some man was sleeping with his father’s wife, they had a lot of questions about the resurrection, a few people were grandstanding their spiritual super powers, others were gulping down more than their share of the communion wine, and many of them complained about their preacher. I guess it was like every other church.

Paul’s concern in this text is how the Holy Spirit comes into a community of believers and makes it work. Through the preaching of the Gospel, people come to trust in Jesus. It is his Spirit that comes into their midst, entering into their lives. That’s the practical Pentecost. And the fun comes from watching how it works.

I remember the congregations I have known. There was that little Congregational church in central New Jersey. It was never very big, about the same size as the fifty or so people who convened in Corinth. Not very big, but everybody had a role.

  • Marv was the greeter; whoever came in that building got a hug from him at the door.
  • Marie was his wife; she noticed if somebody looked sad, or in need, or was wearing worn-out clothes, and then slipped alongside to see what they needed.
  • Lloyd was the preacher; I couldn’t understand a lot of his sermons, but when he prayed, he carried us into the throne room of God.
  • Pat was the volunteer secretary. She insisted she was a volunteer. “If you had to pay me,” she said, “you couldn’t afford me.” And she was an excellent organizer.
  • Tony was the high school soccer coach, and he believed everybody who went out for the team should play in the game. He brought that perspective to church, and he was the big encourager.
  • Louise was a burned-out, twice-divorced Southern Baptist. She wanted to teach Bible in her home church in Texas, but that bunch of Baptists wouldn’t allow her to do that. So she brought her big zippered Bible to those Congregationalists in New Jersey and taught them all about the love of God.
  • Of course, there was Betty. Every church has a Betty! You don’t mess with Betty because she’ll call a spade a spade, and she always speaks the truth.
  • And then there was Jack. He was our unofficial referee. He could sniff out all thirty-seven shades of animosity and address them all. If need be, he would sit two opposing congregants in two facing chairs, and say, “So what do we have to do to get the two of you to get along?” Usually Betty was in one of those chairs.
Do you want to believe in Pentecost? Look at how a Christian community forms and how it functions. Pentecost means that God comes into our midst, equipping the followers of Christ to live the Gospel with others and work beside them. The Spirit is not a personalized, privatized, individualized gift; the Spirit creates a community where everybody has something to offer. In the name of Christ, everybody has a gift to share for common good.

Paul was a pastor. He could see this in that unusual combination of personalities and personas that make up any congregation. Individually, any one of those people might click with you or they might drive you crazy. But together – bound together, working together, with no single voice dominating – that was a remarkable gift from God.

So, to the Corinthians, he says the same thing the Spirit says to us: look around!
  • Some speak God’s wisdom; that comes from the Spirit within them.
  • Others have knowledge to share; it emerges from God our Teacher.
  • Some are strong believers who can carry others with them. God gave them that faith.
  • Other have ability to heal, restore, make others well, create peace. This is the God of peace at work in them.
  • Some work miracles, when the world says miracles are impossible.
  • Some speak prophetic truth, able to sort out multiple voices and discern which is God's voice.
  • Some are so full of God's presence that it bubbles out of them in ecstasy. Others have the God-given ability to make sense of it all.
These are the gifts of God for the people of God. The whole gathering is equipped by the Holy Spirit to live the Gospel in that place, in that time, with those people. Paul’s list is an incomplete list, of course; no human being can name all that the generous Spirit of God gives to a particular gathering of Christians. There is an economy generated by the Spirit, where God gives his own church everything it needs to do its essential work.

And that leads me to extract two lessons for us before we work to get energized in practical ways. Here’s the first: we have to give up all our comparisons. We have to give up that American notion of envy, of looking over the fence to see what the neighbors have. We do it in our families, but we also do it in every church that I know. It’s the temptation to pay attention to our neighbors in all the wrong kinds of ways. They have a big endowment, they have a great mission outreach, they have a lot of kids. We play those games way too much, usually to evade our own possibilities.

Really, now. Want a big endowment? Give more. Want a better mission outreach? Get out the door. Want more kids around? I’m sure there are tried and true methods for creating more children.

Those kinds of comparisons are the work of Satan, not the work of God. The Tempter whispers, “You can have it all,” and that’s a lie. We can’t have it all, because we don’t have it all. It’s the basic stewardship principle: what we have is what God gives to us. Nothing more than that, nothing less than that. And what God has given to us is really special, even unique. God never says, “You can have it all;” what God says is, “Look at what you have.” So many blessings, in the people that God gathers here and sends into the world.

So the first lesson is give up the comparisons. Take notice of what we have among us to do God’s work.

The second lesson is a line that Paul speaks in another one of his letters. He says, “Don’t quench the Spirit!”[1] That is, don’t splash cold water on the hot fire of God. If God is doing something among you, don’t kill it. If God is creating a new thing among you, don’t chop it off at the knees before it can grow any legs. I say this from 29 years of pastoral experience. I have lost track of how many times, God will stir up some great new ministry opportunity in some church gathering. The time is right, the resources are in place, the green light says, “Go!” - and then somebody kills it.

Listen to a parable from a congregation that I know. In a certain town, a church had a youth worker. He didn’t find a lot of kids from within that aging congregation, but like a pied piper, he began to attract the teens from the neighborhood. He would shoot hoops with them in the church parking lot. He would gather them to play guitars and drums, and then he introduced them to new Christian music. Some of the young 50-year-olds in the church offered to come and help, baking cupcakes, going along as chaperones to retreats at camp, slipping them some money for pizza.

Sadly, the word spread and some of the old timers were concerned. There was leftover pizza in the Ladies; Association refrigerator. One of the basketballs flew through a church window and the Building Committee hollered. The Worship Committee said the kids could come and play guitars in worship sometime, but when they did, most of the congregants sat with folded arms and grumpy faces, refusing to sing along.

It came to pass, quite suddenly, that the official board decided it could not afford its part-time youth minister. The pastor objected, but the board reminded him that they were all older than he was, and if he wanted a full salary, they had to make a change. So they trimmed the budget and let the youth minister go. Two weeks later, one old-timer turned to another at coffee hour and said, “Where did all those teenagers go?” Six years later, the church closed and the building went up for sale. What’s the lesson? Don’t quench the Spirit.

We have to learn to love what God gives us, because it is a gift from God. When God comes in the invisible power of the Holy Spirit, when God energizes us and gives us fresh power and imagination, when God comes in practical ways so that our sons and daughters prophesy, our young people see visions, and our old people dream dreams, we welcome and honor what God is doing among us. That is the practical wisdom of Pentecost.

So in a second, I’m going to ask you to stand up and sit down, maybe a few times. You’ve been sitting too long.

Is there anybody here who believes that God is calling them to:
-          Become a more loving person?  (Could you stand?)
-          Teach our faith to this generation and the next generation?
-          Be the hands of Jesus Christ beyond our walls by offering a meal to somebody who is hungry?
-          Show hospitality by actively welcoming others in the name of God?
-          Offer the consolation of Christ by reaching out to those who lose a loved one to death?
-          Bear the burdens of another person by listening to them when they need you?
-          Make a financial contribution to keep this church’s work vital and healthy?  
-          Volunteer your time and ability to serve on a committee or for some special project?
-          Make a positive difference in the life of child or teenager?
-          Dream dreams and share visions, and help our church move into its own future?
-          Make a joyful noise to the Lord by offering the gift of music? (Stay standing, we’re going to sing.)

These are some of the ways that Pentecost becomes real and practical. There are many, many gifts among us, but the same Spirit. There are varieties of services, but the same Lord who is served. There is a multitude of activities, but the same God who energizes each one. Spirit, Lord, God – one Holy Trinity at work within all of us, for the glory of God and the benefit of God's world.

Happy Practical Pentecost!

(c) William G. Carter

[1] 1 Thessalonians 5:19