Monday, 30 May 2016

A sermon on James 1:17&18 - God's kind of Perfect

This Spring, I was honoured to have been asked to speak at two different conference churches. Below is what I got thinking and talking about. Enjoy!

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures. (James 1:17-18)

Once I heard this short joke: A man calls on God to talk, saying, “God, we don’t need you anymore. Humans have learned and mastered creation”. God says, “Let’s see this then”. The man says “Well, first we take some dirt…”, and God interrupts him, saying, “Wait. If you’re going to create life without me, you’ve got to use your own dirt!”. 

I think the reason this has stuck with me is lying in James 1:17-18: Every perfect gift is from above. And while we learn this when we’re young, we may not think seriously about this outside of the evolution vs. creation debate. And while this debate is an important question to ask oneself, I think it’s missing the point… at least when referencing James 1.

This verse causes me to feel that tension. The thought of God giving us perfect gifts is appetizing! But it also implies a great deal of responsibility for our actions on Earth. To think that every Perfect gift comes from above, it causes me to think of what my creations have been, and how close to perfection, my gifts and talents can be.

I’ve always loved the word “perfect”. I spent a lot of my childhood trying to please others and, as a child, it is very difficult to understand anything in between right and wrong. Though I was taught to be thoughtful and critical, I couldn’t grasp the idea that something –an action, theory, or way- could fit into a category other than “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”. And it’s been a struggle to undo this way of thinking. In my experience, I’m not the only person -or the only Mennonite- to struggle with this kind of strong conscience.

As I began my degree at Canadian Mennonite University, I was told that I was going in to find some answers, but would leave with more questions. When I was told this, I don’t believe I understood it completely. I believed I was receiving strictly education. And I was. But now I see education as contagious. Once you come to an answer, to one question, another 5 questions don’t seem impossible to solve anymore, and exploration begins! And so, though I explored many questions I had about life and theology, I found that not many of these answers could fit into the categories of “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”. The answers, my answers, fit somewhere in between. And my answers were different from other’s. I learned that we were living in that in between. Between right and wrong, good and bad. And I began to make connections between living between right and wrong, and living in a kingdom that is here, but not yet full. Some parts of the kingdom of heaven are here: they are right and good. But this world is still so broken. 

And this is where James 1:17-18 comes in. Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, comes from above. This must be the part of the kingdom that is here on earth. This is where the child in me –the one that loves to find perfection- is in awe. In awe of God’s perfect creation. But because the kingdom is not yet full, it is sometimes hard to see these generous acts and perfect gifts. And God does not work in the way we expect… Let’s not forget we’re human, broken in sin, and what we create, even in our imagination, cannot be perfect. We cannot imagine, or create, perfection. We can only see perfection in God’s creation. 

It is part of what I love about my work at Shekinah. Not to mention that Shekinah is the Hebrew word for “Glory and Presence of God”, a fitting name for a place where I’ve heard countless times it’s a little piece of heaven on earth. At camp, I see these perfect gifts all around. It’s easy here to see God’s creation, whether it be the obvious nature all around, or the friendships and relationships that are formed, or how camp tends to bring out the best in people.

The nature at Shekinah, I always find to be refreshing for the soul. Not only in what it can scientifically do for our bodies, but for what it teaches our mind. When we learn about biology, and how nature can sustain itself –and not just individual plants, but all ecosystems and all of the natural earth- we see perfection. Nature is perfect. It is made of numerous, self-sustaining and life giving systems. And although I recognize the debate between creation and evolution, I’ve grown accustomed to living in the in between, and come to my own answer for the questions: I believe that nature is too perfect to be random; it is too perfect to be from this world. Rather, I believe it was created and designed by our maker. And it is too perfect to be simply a gift for humanity. I believe God created our natural world, knowing that of our curiosity to learn; knowing that we would study nature and call it our own. And so God made it interesting for us. God made creation something we could study and understand; something that makes sense to humankind.

The friendships at camp: they form so quickly and look as though you’re putting together two pieces of a puzzle. But in reality, we are just two of God’s creations who interact with one another, and give light to God’s invisible creation: relationships. And these relationships are indeed a generous act of giving and, in that, perfect gift from above. Humankind is a relational kind. We need interaction. And true friendships are generous acts of giving. Giving part of yourself and your strengths to another creature. And because humans are broken, it is also important that we give each other our struggles and imperfections, and share in them. By no means will any friendship be completely perfect, because we are broken and we cannot create perfection. But the gift of friendship, that is from God.

Which leads to us as creatures. I said earlier that camp can bring out the best in each of us. I believe that simply being near to God’s perfect creation will help bring out the part of us that is what God intended us to be: Created in Gods image. The first fruits of God’s creation.

At camp, I have the privilege of encouraging individuals to be proud of themselves, of who they are naturally, just how God created them to be. Over the past number of years, I’ve compiled a list of reasons why I work at camp. And this has been the clearest to me. And saying that I encourage others to be proud, may appear to be too forceful, especially for some good humble Mennonites, but that is where living in the in between revisits. When we become proud of ourselves, it is not a complete pride, in that we take credit for ourselves. It’s the kind of pride we find when we’ve created something beautiful. Something that is in the image of what our creator can do. Something that is a gift FOR above… an effort to replicate the love we are given by our creator, for our creator. We are proud of who we were created to be, and we cannot have that pride without gratefulness to God. And as we recognize ourselves as creatures, we must remember that we are still creatures in a broken, sinful place. We too are broken and sinful. We make mistakes, and we struggle with certain parts of our lives. Some of us struggle with pride, some with greed, some with self-doubt. We all struggle in life. And we cannot be rid of those struggles, at least not in this life. We live in a world in between human made creation and God made creation; A kingdom of heaven that is here, but not yet full. And we live in a body that is created, but not perfect. We are born into a space that is in between; a space that is not “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, “black” or “white”. We’re born into a world filled with colors. And how fitting that God gives us a rainbow in remembrance that God is never changing and will never leave us. And so, let us take pride in and be grateful for the creation our God has given us. Thanks be to The Father of Lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. Amen.