“All Good Gifts Around Us”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 23, 2017
University Baptist Church
This is not a sermon about institutional survival. I’m much more comfortable preaching about how we respond and approach a world in general. I’m more uncomfortable preaching about how we make our budget. So this sermon is not about our budget. It’s not about our officers. It’s not even about our grand old building. This sermon is about how we approach the world. It’s about how we are accountable in the world. It’s about how we respond to the challenges that face us. It’s how we give thanks to God. It’s about how we make a difference in this world. It’s of course how we make a difference right here and right now.
Stephen Schwartz, the writer of Godspell penned the song a few generations ago, “All Good Gifts”. They’re sent from heaven above. So live your lives in thanks for all God’s love. We give thanks for the fields, the flowers, the chirping birds, the blooming trees, the creativity and energy of caring people. The world is coming alive in the springtime. And I for one have spent Earth Day weekend walking outside, drinking in the sunshine, the hyacinth fragrance and said, “Thank you, God”. We need some hopeful growth after this dim and dark winter. The weather wasn’t so bad, but we’re still digging out of the political and social blizzards. We need some springtime to melt the ice around our nation’s hearts, to remember who we are, whose we are and why we’re here.
The book of James is all about why we are here. It tells us to not simply be hearers of the word but doers of the word. It’s not saying we are saved by our works, but it is saying that if we are truly thankful for God’s blessings, then we are going to in turn bless the world right back. Because we have receive great gifts from God, we ought to give right back. Because God has saved us, we ought to work to save our fragile earth. There’s a message for Earth Day weekend.
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above”, says James.
Human responsibility is grounded within the divine initiative. It doesn’t mean that every act of giving is from above. This means that every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above. There are selfish acts of giving or worse, mindless or meager acts of giving. And there are imperfect gifts. James doesn’t say it, but he implies that every act of selfishness, every half-baked gift is from below. Imagine if our giving did not have a tax advantage. That’s certainly true of our time and our talent. We give that freely without a thought to how it might affect our bottom line. Imagine if our financial giving matched our time and talent giving.
In a few minutes, we will demonstrate how we love the church. We will fill out forms and bring them forward. They represent how we want to be involved in the coming year. Some of us have more time than wealth. Others of us have the opposite. We need time, talent and treasure to make this church work.
But here’s the thing. It’s not about how much we give, although that helps. It’s about how much we have been given by God and how we are connected with God’s project of hope and justice and mercy and compassion in the world. That’s why we’re here. That’s what we learn and pray for every week. It’s how we live our lives.
Good gifts, that’s what we are about. We have received many great gifts. This church excels in music, in courage, in generosity—using this beautiful old building to serve the neighborhood. We are offering ourselves up as sanctuary to a world in need.
It’s nice to have my daughters together for a few hours this weekend. Both are trying to figure out what to do in the coming years. How to use their gifts. For one, it is which school to go to. For the other, it’s which field of study excites her more.
This past year we have seen the church at its best. As I mentioned last week, you surrounded our family with love and understanding and wisdom and support during our year from hell. We got meals. We got support and wisdom and courage.
You sent the bell choir on a tour of Germany and France. How many churches our size can boast an internationally traveling bell choir?
When our immigrant neighbors were threatened, you prayerfully and deliberately said, we will offer sanctuary—even housing people in our very building if need be.
We are small, but we are feisty. And people look to us as a model for ministry. Our reputation as a risk-taking faithful body of believers goes far and wide.
Steve, John and I went to a meeting of the sanctuary churches on Thursday night. There they spoke about the model we came up with amongst the southeast churches to offer sanctuary support to each other. John Medeiros spoke about legal issues and we all marveled at his knowledge and passion. I got to say, “I go to his church.”
Last night, we closed out the third season of the Roots Cellar. Musicians are calling us for bookings. Each performer stops during their performance and thanks UBC for offering this venue for musicians and their patrons. Supporting the arts is a wonderfully subversive way of being in the world—by offering hope and beauty and encouraging creativity and courage.
A friend sent me a text last Sunday and said, “Hey Doug, I hear you are performing the Missa Gaia with composer Jim Scott today. I’m on your web site and can’t find it. Can you tell me when it is?” I wrote back and said, “last year. And it was great.” How wonderful that we have a choir that can pull off such a great work, let alone original music and challenging arrangements week after week.
We are doing sanctuary work, but we do not rest with that. During Holy Week, we started a seven-week series called, “My Neighbor is Muslim.” We are learning about the Muslim faith from actual Muslims. We are learning to be respectful of another faith tradition. We are unlearning assumptions that we have been spoon-fed by the media that demonizes Islam in an only thinly veiled racism. And we are looking at finishing the series just as the Holy month of Ramadan begins. What a way to be Easter people.
Here’s a painful truth. I have enjoyed giving at UBC. I always do. Without regret or bitterness. I can honestly say that I have joyfully given to all of the churches I have served. It’s the first check I make out every month. I start out at a tithe of my income and increase it from there.
But this year, we will have to break with the practice of increasing our giving. The reasons are obvious: two children in college and less than only one and a half incomes in our family. We hope that we can increase it back again when Kim gets her job and we pay less in health care. That’s a lot of hoping. I know there are other people in the congregation that are having similar financial challenges this year. I also trust that those who are not experiencing those challenges can step up.
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Creator of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change,” says James. The hymn writer worked on this image when writing:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O my Creator;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been, Thou forever will be.
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see.
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
The second half of the scripture is about how we are the gifts from God to the world. God gave us birth by the word of truth to fulfill God’s purpose. That means we were created as gifts to the world from God. God gave us as gifts to the world. Verse 18 says that God gave us so that we would be the kind of first fruits of all of God’s creatures.
James is reworking an image of sacrifice in this reference. In ancient times, the people gave the first fruits of their harvest, the best, sweetest, most longed for to the wider community. It wasn’t a sacrifice in the sense that they had to do without. It was given so that the poor would have something to eat. It was given so that those without land would have some way to make ends meet. Back then, there were 12 tribes in Israel. Eleven were apportioned land, except for the tribe of Levi. Their work was to attend to the religious needs of the people. So, when the people gave a tithe, it was to protect the Levites and their families. Eventually, the Levites not only attended to religious rituals, built service agencies to help out those who were left behind. They fed the hungry with those first fruits of the harvest. They encouraged art and beauty and music. It was how they balanced society. If everyone gave a tithe, 10 percent of their harvest, then those who were doing very well fed more people and those who experienced drought or blight in their crops or wolves in their herds were protected. It was a way of restoring balance and order to the society.
James is saying that we are the gifts of God. We were created by God’s word of truth. And we were given to the world as the first fruits of creation—intended to make the world a better, more beautiful, more just place.
So as we fill out our pledge cards and our ministry commitment forms, remember that we were created by the word of truth. We were created as gifts to the world. We were given by God as the first fruits of creation. And we are gathered here so that we might faithfully give back, become doers of the word.
Imagine what project God is calling you to join.
Is it knitting prayer shawls?
Is it going to marches?
Is it becoming a presence in the halls of the Capital to influence lawmakers?
Is it to offer music and refine your craft?
Is it to feed the hungry through providing meals at Loaves and Fishes, the Sheridan Story, Meals on Wheels?
Is it to serve as an officer in this great church, finding ways to sustain our legacy now 167 years strong? We were after all founded by abolitionists before the state of Minnesota was a thing.
Is it to offer sanctuary to those who might fear prejudice and persecution?
Is it to explore to Bible more deeply and introduce the liberating Gospel to someone else?
Is it to make space for children to grow and thrive in our midst?
Is it to honor and share the care for our elders and those who are experiencing hardship?
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift is from above. All Good gifts around us are sent from heaven above, says the Godspell song. We are the first fruits of creation. We are God’s gifts. And we celebrate those gifts and we joyfully represent our gifts through these offerings. If you haven’t already done so, fill out these forms. We’ll give you a hymn to complete them. Then we’ll bring them forward along with our offerings and place them in the baskets on the communion table. We’ll then form a circle around the sanctuary and sing a verse of “Blest Be The Tie That Binds.” And we’ll give thanks for this community.
You are God’s gift, the first fruits of God’s creation. You were made by the word of truth. Because of this we give generously and thankfully and hopefully. Because together, we seek to make our corner of the world a little closer to God’s ideal.