Sunday, August 14, 2016

Inspiration and Artist

Weekend in the Woods Retreat

Psalm 104
August 14, 2016
William G. Carter

If we’re going to spend some time together in the woods, we need to talk about God. We speak of God as Creator.

That’s the first thing that all the creeds and confessions have to say. As we’ll say in a little bit, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” Or in the Nicene Creed: “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.”

However we say it, God makes the world. We didn’t build the trees or construct the sky. We did not manufacture the oxygen or ignite the sun. God did all of this long before we ever appeared on the scene. Long after we’ve turned back to dust, God’s creation will still exist. Perhaps there’s a small corner of this planet that will be affected by our lives and the time we’ve spent there, but it’s just as likely that the world will proceed along fine after we’re gone.

A proper reverence begins with the knowledge that this is Somebody Else’s world. We spend a lot of money building houses, or a lot of time cultivating gardens, but we are always squatters on Somebody Else’s property. It was third grade Sunday School teacher who taught me to keep this straight. She said, “Billy, repeat after me: Know that the Lord is God. It is God who has made us and not we ourselves.”

Our lives were given to us; we didn’t ask to be created. Our planet was given to us; we weren’t given a lot of choices. The atmosphere and sunlight are gifts for human life. The earth brings forth food to satisfy our stomachs. We never had to worry about any of that. God provided for us by making a good creation and setting us within it. The first lesson in life is keeping this straight.

As we heard from Psalm 104, Israel celebrates a Creator of incredible diversity, power, and beauty. There are seven stanzas to the psalm, one for each day of creation. The verses move from the sky (vv. 2-4), to the earth (vv. 5-9), to the water (vv. 10-13), to the vegetation (vv. 14-18), and back up to the moon and sun (vv. 19-23).The section of the Psalm that we heard takes us back down to shore and points to the Loch Ness monster who’s out there dancing around the ships. God has made all of this by sending forth his Spirit, and all creation is renewed as God’s Spirit continues to hover over the earth.

There’s no question that God had a good time when the world was made. “May the Lord rejoice in his works,” says the psalmist. Bless his heart, even Max Lucado says so in one of his books. He says:

Now imagine God’s creativity. Of all we don’t know about the creation, there is one thing we do know – (God) did it with a smile. [God] must have had a blast. Painting the stripes on the zebra, hanging the stars in the sky, putting the gold in the sunset. What creativity! Stretching the neck of the giraffe, putting the flutter in the mockingbird’s wings, planting the giggle in the hyena. What a time! Like a whistling carpenter in a workshop, God loved every bit of it. (No Wonder They Call Him Savior)

And at the very end, when God had every reason to stop, God scooped up a useless lump of mud and began to shape it into something beautiful. And then God did something very surprising: God blew breath – God blew his own breath – God’s own ruach, God’s own spirit – into that mud creature. It began to twitch, and think, and feel, and breathe. And God called it “Adam,” which means “Dirt Boy” or “Dirt Person.” According to the old story, that’s how we began. Ever since, God has always had a good laugh when the dirt people start acting high and mighty, because God remembers where we came from and where we’re returning to.

Psalm 104 portrays a God whose primary characteristics are delight and creativity. To put it simply, God gets a kick out of making things.

Now, there are a lot of different directions that we can go with this insight. We remind our teenagers that, “God doesn’t make any junk.” Not just teenagers, of course, but anybody who’s feeling down or belittled. If God created you, there is some inherent beauty in your being. The psalm would suggest at least that much.

And it pushes us to extend our arms to embrace the world. Like Father Zossima, a character in one of Dostoyevski's novels. He kisses the soil and says,  

Love all God’s creation, the whole every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. (The Brothers Karamazov, Book 6, Chapter 3)

The psalm would suggest that, too.

But we are the people of Pentecost, celebrating how the Spirit that gives us breath and awakens our human spirits. What really interests me is the whole issue of God’s creativity. As we experience a world we did not make, it’s easy to think of God as the Creator. At some point, sure, God made all of this, and us as well. But what really intrigues me is to think of God as the ongoing source of imagination, in whose presence and under whose power new creations are generated.

Like most of you, I was schooled in the old Enlightenment ideas from the 18th century. Voltaire, Locke, and most of those other dead white guys had to admit that there was a God somewhere who established the world by a series of principles. Their whole intellectual project was to study these principles, to the point where they could explain the world through them. That way, it could emphasize their own expertise and equip them to manage the world without needing God.

That’s how modern science developed. Somebody realized, for instance, that if you toss a rock into the air, it might come back down and hit you on the head. The principle is called gravity. Isaac Newton named this as one of the divine principles for how the world works, and eventually somebody dropped the word “divine” so that they wouldn’t get in trouble for mentioning “God” in public school.

In short, all of those principles are created, fixed, and settled. They were a done deal, or so we thought. And then Chuckie Darwin sailed off to the Galapagos Islands, and discovered in that isolated environment that the Creator has kept creating. That perhaps, through the creative work of the Spirit, the creation continues to evolve.

Well, you know what happened. Some of the Christians went ape (so to speak). They had been spending all their time defining God with the same kind of scientific thinking as the philosophers. They were certain that God could never make something that didn’t fit their categories. They were convinced that God had made the world way back then, and that was that. God was supposed to be unchangeable, unmovable, immutable, and inscrutable.

What does it mean that God might be a creative artist who is still making something? We’ll have to talk more about that tomorrow night, because there are a lot of people who would like to keep God in the past tense rather than in the present tense. It reminds me of that time when Jesus got some serious criticism when he said, “My Father is still working, and so am I.” (John 5:17). The Gospel of John says they tried to kill Jesus when he started talking like that. It’s a lot safer to keep God in the past, or as a principle or a feeling, than to confront a living God is free to act right here and now.

God is the creator. Not only “was the creator,” but “is the creator.” Remember the very first verse of the Bible?  “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s the English translation. Actually you can also translate the Hebrew words to say, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth...”

The point of all this is to suggest that creativity is a central attribute of God. God is creative, and God takes delight in making the world. Not only can God make things happen; when God makes something happen, it’s often something that we wouldn’t have expected.

You see it in church on that miracle day when our babies get confirmed. You see these kids, and you remember when they were born, and here they are, standing up, and preaching, and praying, and acting mature. And you realize that the faith entrusted to us is now taking root in our children. Now, how did that happen? God is still making it happen.

Somewhere early in the story of creation, the Bible says we bear the image of God. When we were made, God put holy fingerprints all over us. In each one of us, there is some resemblance to our Maker. I want to suggest that divine resemblance may be reflected in our creativity. By definition, God is creative; and in making us, God gives us the capacity for creativity. That’s part of what it means for us to be made in the image of God.

You don’t have to be a painter or a composer or a poet to be creative, although I do think more of us could be painters, composers, and poets if we gave it a try. Maybe you are good with numbers or electrical circuits or sewing machines. Everybody in this room has to solve problems every day, whether it’s repairing a shoelace to making a cake without a measuring cup. Bringing our resources to bear on the situations before us is a creative activity, and when we come up with a solution to a problem, it usually feels pretty good.

But it need not be so. Look around this place, and you will see what just a little bit of encouragement can begin. The church can (and should) encourage creativity and the arts, because our God is creator. We don’t need to always do the same old thing in the same old way, because God makes all things new. When we are surrounded by ugliness or mediocrity, we don’t have to settle for that, because we have a God who takes delight in beauty, color, and excellence.

I guess I’ve been thinking about this sermon for a long time. I have a mother who paints watercolors and had a father who fixed things. As children, we were always encouraged to create, and it’s only dawned on me recently what a profoundly spiritual activity that is.

Today we worship a God who creates a world . . . and another, and another, and another… What a blessing it is, to have some measure of God’s own spirit within us. Many different cultures talk about the Muse, that is, some supernatural presence that teaches and enlivens the human imagination. We hear it when somebody says, “I didn’t know what to do, and then suddenly it hit me…”

It’s worth asking what that means: “something hit you.” Was it a breakthrough in human insight? Was it a dose of the Holy Spirit, the hidden breath of God? For my money, I’d bet on a blend of both. I have come to believe that the human imagination can, and should be, the domain of the Holy Spirit. When something “hits us,” it might very well be through the dotted lines between God’s creativity and ours. And quite frequently that is a moment to be honored, savored, and explored, particularly if it benefits the world and leads others into the delight of God.

Something of this is what it means for God’s Spirit to dwell among us. As we live in the light of Pentecost, we claim how the many ways that God’s Spirit has come to us. God’s Spirit infuses our life. God’s Spirit enlivens the life of this church. Above all, God’s Spirit testifies that the Holy One of Israel and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is an imaginative creator. And maybe the first way to understand this God is by creating something ourselves. The second way is just we are doing: stepping outside to enjoy the home God has created.

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

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Where's the Treasure?

Luke 12:32-34
Ordinary 19
August 7, 2016
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

 A brief text from the Bible usually means a brief sermon, isn’t that right? Time will tell. But when the text is as rich as that final line from Jesus, we might be here a while.

“For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” It is a proverb. Proverbs are portable. You can take them anywhere. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” That is equally true in Poughkeepsie and Piscataway. “A stitch in time saves nine.” That’s good advice about planning ahead, whether it plays in Atlanta or Algiers. “Pants get shiny even on the throne.” I like that one, in the middle of an election year. It’s a proverb.

A proverb is a wise one-liner, distilled from years of experience. It is true because it is true. The wise person goes around the track many, many times, and begins to see the truth about everything. So Jesus says, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

Let’s make sure we understand the nouns. “Heart” is a venerable Bible word. The words of Jesus are translated into English from the Greek, although he probably spoke them in Aramaic and was conversant in Hebrew. Whatever the language, “heart” has always meant the same thing. It’s the center of a person’s life. Just as the heart is in the center of the chest, the spiritual sense of “heart” signifies the center of our souls. It’s where we give our devotion.

And the biblical word for “treasure” has to do with the things of ultimate value. It’s what we accumulate and preserve. It’s what we keep safe. The treasure includes those resources that we live out of, the stockpile of gifts and graces that we expend.  

So Jesus is saying what we already: we devote ourselves to the things that matter the most to us. So the proverb begs the question, what is the most important thing in your life?

A week ago, on a Friday night, I was in the center of Kalamazoo. I had to look it up on a map to find out where I was. It was a beautiful night. The park in the center of the city was filled with young people. What a wonderful thing, to have the under-thirty crowd filling a city park. But then I noticed everybody had a cell phone and they were chasing Pokémon in the park.

Have you heard about the game? One kid was so obsessed he walked onto the street in front of a moving car. The driver hit the brakes, laid on the horn, and the kid didn’t even look up. I walked up behind somebody else. His gaze was focused on a four inch screen, so I said, “Hey, there’s one right behind you.” He turned around to look. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

When you have a treasure, that’s where you put your energy. It’s where you focus your attention. It’s where you put in your time. Ask the man on my street that has a perfect lawn of green velvet. Not a wayward stick, not a dreaded dandelion, not even a leaf of clover. He’s out on that lawn all the time. The neighbor walking by would say, “That’s his treasure.” If you look at my lawn, it’s obviously not my treasure. But it’s his.

Where do we put our value? It’s a good question. I heard a story about a missionary in China, in the middle of the last century. He lived there with his wife and kids, and the Chinese government put him under house arrest. They didn’t want a Christian missionary wandering around loose and preaching the Gospel.

One day, the soldiers came and said, “You can go home.” Then they added, “But you can only take two hundred pounds with you.” Well, that forced a lot of decisions. They had been in China for many years, and had accumulated a lot of nice things. There was hand-carved furniture, dazzling art work, a beautiful vase. And being a preacher, he had a lot of books. So the family got out the scale and began to talk about what they would take.

They weighed this, they weighed that. Finally they got it down to two hundred pounds. And the soldier said, “Did you weigh the kids?” And in a moment, all their other treasures became trash.

Should we have to make those kinds of decisions: what comes before everything else?

As Luke reports this proverb, he drops it in the middle of a chapter on money, possessions, and all the glorious stuff that people buy and possess. Of course he does. For a lot of people, money and the stuff that it buys comprise the treasure. It’s where they devote their heart.

Just remember the parable that precedes this text, which some of you heard last week. Jesus said there was a wealthy man who made even more money. Leave it to the rich to get richer, while others are paying late fees on their mortgages and credit cards. The rich man has crops that produce abundance. So he says to himself (and only to himself), “What am I going to do with my extra stuff?” He decides to tear down his storage facilities and build bigger ones.

That’s what happens when money and your stuff insulates you from other people. You fall into the foolishness of hoarding and increased accumulation. You give as little as possible to help anybody else out. You contribute as little as possible for the public well-being. You vote for the leaders whose politics will keep you rich. You structure your whole life to save your assets. Just think of Ebenezer Scrooge; the Jesus of the Bible would call him an “idiot,” a fool (Luke 12:20).

Isn’t life more than our stuff, asks Jesus? The clothes we wear, the food we eat? Is that your treasure? Is that where you devote your heart?

Just the other night, I was talking to my friend Bob. He spent some time in Haiti earlier this year with the Methodists. He said, “It was overwhelming for me was to see how happy were the people that I met in Haiti, even when they don’t have very much.” Their hearts seem to be devoted to something else.

So where is the treasure in your life? To what will you give your heart?

If it’s money, well, someday you can’t take that with you. Money is only a temporary thing, and it does no good if it’s not doing good. Our riches should not be digging moats around the castle, but building bridges. That’s the wisdom of Christ, not the insulation of a fool.

And do you give your energy to buying more stuff, to piling up more stuff, to protecting more stuff? Again, Jesus wisely says, if you have a lot of stuff, the thief can steal, the moth can destroy. And one day, if you try to relocate, it’s really difficult to unload what you really don’t need.

I know this first-hand. When I merged households with my wife twelve years ago, we filled up the living room with so much excess that it took us a year to unload it. And we’re still working on purging the basement.

So Jesus gives us a proverb about our priorities. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” He does not specify heart or treasure, but leaves it open-ended enough to raise the question. What is it that gives us the fullness of life? What is the one true pursuit that is worthy of our hearts? How would you answer?

While we are pondering the question, leave it to Jesus to turn the proverb on its head. According to the paragraph, he’s not merely referring to money. He’s talking about the kingdom of God. “It is God’s great desire to give us the kingdom,” he says.” The kingdom is not a place, it’s a situation. The kingdom is wherever God is ruling our lives. The “kingdom come” for which we pray is now here in Jesus, and the kingdom is wherever anybody puts God first, listens for God to speak, and does what God wants to get done.

To have God rule over us – that is the greatest treasure. He has to tell us this, because the world is full of a lot of other distractions. If you walk through the store, there’s always something calling out for your attention. It will never satisfy you. In fact, enough of it may enslave you.

So the holy antidote, according to Christ, is to be generous. Sell you possessions and give it away, he says. In that delightful Semitic euphemism, “Make purses that do not wear out.” You know, he’s talking about the kind of purses that empty themselves for the needs of others.

I bet you could make that kind of purse today. Most of us here could empty our wallets into God’s offering plate and we’d still have enough to share. If we did it, we might begin to feel how good it is to give generously, how good it is to free ourselves from the tyranny of having to have things.

It’s like my friend Bob said: “I made friends in Haiti who don’t have much, but they are really happy.” He took a lot of musical instruments down there to jam with them. He ended up leaving all the instruments behind, and coming home with a full heart.

Do a little survey of your heart today. Are you fearful or are you generous? What’s it going to take for you to claim the love of God for all people, and to make that your treasure?

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