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Gifted Givers

Listen to the recording of this sermon:


James 1:17-18

October 25, 2009

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco, CA.

What’s the image you most remember of the tragedy of September 11, 2001? Though that event is almost a decade ago, I am confident that the image you most remember is the image of those smoking, huge, collapsing towers. Those great towers crashing to earth are indelibly fixed in our minds forever. We saw those images of the burning towers over and over again.

I still remember being on top of one of them when they were first built and having the ability to walk all around four sides and reading that the towers can sway as much as 6 feet when heavy winds blow them.

What we did not see on the news and what we did not well-remember is the huge outpouring of generosity that was the nation’s response to the tragedy. All around the country, communities responded, including our own community on this side of the continent.

In the City of New York, there was a great outpouring of giving. People rushed toward the site, with toiletries, clothes, food, and water. The Red Cross was swamped with people who wanted to stand in line for hours to give blood. Most of these people were turned away, because the agencies were simply overwhelmed by their generosity. There was nowhere to put all of the items that had been donated. And there were so few survivors, that the Red Cross could not use all of the blood that was donated.

It seemed as if everyone wanted to give. I believe that this outpouring of generosity, this huge response of giving, is a picture of us at our very best. Civilian aircrafts being slammed into the towers, the collapsing skyscrapers falling to the earth—these are the images of humanity at our very worst.

But people standing in line for hours to give blood, people making pies and taking them to Manhattan to give to the rescue workers—that is at our very best. I wish that image was the image that lingers in our brains—generous human response to terrible inhuman acts.

There seems to be something built right in to the human spirit at our best that compels us to contribute, to create, and to counter the chaos with our own attempts to make something out of the mess.

Order Out of Chaos

From the 9/11 event, most of us remember seeing in the news the exhibition of photographs of the spontaneous memorials that sprang up around the city. The title of the exhibition was Missing. On fences near the site, in city parks, on walls of nearby buildings, people put up photographs of the missing—teddy bears, a favorite photo, love poems—all creative testimonials to lives that had been lost, but not really lost as long as they could be gratefully remembered.

This sort of creative response to evil, this making something out of nothing, may be us at our most human, and our most divine as well. This sort of action is quite close to Genesis 1, the beginning of our story. Genesis says that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God made something out of nothing, a form out of the void, order out of chaos. And then, after creating such a spectacular world, in one last spectacular act of creation, God creates humanity.

God gives humanity a lush garden. But then God turns to the human beings and tells them that they are allowed to work the garden, they are commissioned to create. They are not only given the joy of working in the garden, but they are giving the joy of creative procreation, of making other human beings.

It was as if God said, “I’ve enjoyed making something out of nothing, now, why don’t you try it?”

God gave us a world, and then gave us a part to play in the creation, recreation, and sustenance of the world.

To be sure, events like September 11, 2001 are vivid reminders that we have made a mess of it. Our human history could be read as one long record of our despoiling the beautiful garden that God gave.

But human history could also be read as a long story of our attempt to give back to God, in some measure, the goodness that God has given to us. We are not only destroyers; we are also creators. We keep responding to the chaos, the disorder, and the mess we have made through creation. Human art, music, architecture, and poetry are all part of our attempts to make something of the mess.

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When our church building was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake and fire, we rebuilt this church from the rumbles of clinker brickers. Seeing that the beautiful sanctuary stained glass windows after 30 years of gracing our worship need to be repaired and cleaned, we’ll be doing this in January. In our commitment to reduce our dependence on polluting fossil fuels, we are installing solar panels next month to be able to generate 107% of our electrical needs. Mike Mann is helping hill tribe villages in Northern Thailand grow coffee because we have made a mess of the innocent lives of girls and young women. We sell Lanna Coffee every month because it is one way that we know that we can make something creative out of the chaos and mess of human trafficking. These are our attempts to make something out of the mess.

When we create we are performing a defiant act of creativity. We mirror, just a bit, the Divine will for the world. The world is not created by God to be a place of disorder and disaster. The world is created to be a place of beauty and truth and goodness. “And God saw what God created and it was good, it was very good.” In James, we read, “In fulfillment of God’s own purpose, he gave us birth by the word of truth so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.” We are created to be creative and to bring order out of chaos.

Living a Life

Now, you and I live with this ambiguity in regard to the material stuff of life. Some of us are paying too high a price for our accumulation of things. Some of us are neglecting our health, neglecting our families and friends because we are working ourselves to death. Some of us are spending too much time at the office, giving too much to our labor, thinking that we are going to get a worthwhile return. What are we to do about this over-striving, and overwork, and over-accumulation? Have we made a mess of our modern-day life?

The church says that we can put it all on the altar. We can take this deeply ambiguous money—the root of so much evil, and the source of much good—and put it on the altar. In so doing, our daily work is redeemed. What we are doing every Sunday when we receive the offering, is having our lives transformed from the mere making of a living to the living of a life. Whatever we do for a living, we now do to the glory of God and for giving to others. We can put it on the altar so that we can live a life in God.

Watch us during the offering and you will see us at our best. We take the stuff of our daily lives and we give it back to God for God’s work. This is at our very best.

The image of the destroyer is an image of us at our worst. In Afghanistan, when the Taliban ruled, they did many terrible things. But the image that sticks in my mind of one of the most terrible things they did was when they blew up, exploded into a million pieces, the great stone Buddhas that had been created in Afghanistan. Any regime that would do that to such a beautiful work of art will start blowing up people. This is an image of us at our worst.

In the offering we enable you to be at your best. We enable you to give. This suggests to me that the church ought to spend more time, not less, in asking people to give, in creating opportunities for people to give because, in doing so, we are helping them experience some of their God-given creativity and humanity.

Making a Pledge

Next Sunday is Pledge Sunday in the life of our church. All of us will be together putting aside our different worship styles, our different languages, our different worship times, and as one church, the Body of Christ, we’ll be at our best. When we invite you to present your pledge or gift promise to the life of your church, you will be at your best.

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In James, he said, “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.” Your gift to God mirrors your creativity of being at your best.

Our granddaughter, Sage is now at the age when she creates pictures for us to bring home with specific instructions to be put up on our refrigerator door. She takes great pride and joy giving us these drawings.

Why does Sage or for that matter all little children seem so particularly joyful as they present the creations of their hands? Look Yeh Yeh! Look what I made!”

Here’s my theory. I think that childhood can be so unpredictable, so confusing and chaotic, and adults can be so incomprehensible, that a young child takes particular joy in making something, in contributing something to the world.

The Christian faith keeps reminding us that we are all little children, so far as our relationship to God is concerned. We never get too old or too adept not to know the joy that comes in standing before the Creator, holding our little lives in our hands and saying to God, the Giver of life—“Look God, see what I did with my life!”

Gifted Givers

In the days after September 11, there was, as we have said, a spectacular outpouring of generosity and goodness on the part of the American people. Millions of dollars were given. And this was appropriate and it was beautiful.

But may I say that this was also just another day in the life of the church? What for some Americans was a special one-time act of generosity was a typical Sunday here at our church. Every Sunday, no matter how inspiring worship might be, no matter how great the sermon could have been, no matter how wonderful the choir was, no matter how much you are lifted above the cares and troubles of your daily life, there is always that time when we say something like, “And now, let us give of ourselves and our gifts to the work of God.”

And it is there that our worship becomes relevant to daily life. It is there that our most hopeful religious sentiments touch earth. It is there that our little lives begin to count for something and order is created out of chaos and we protest against all the destructive tendencies that may be present within this world. We give.

We do it out of habit. We do it without thinking much about it. And perhaps that is the way it ought to be done. Perhaps that is one of the great purposes of the church—to make you a giver, so habitual in your giving that you don’t think much about it. You simply give.

This is you at your Christian, human best. In giving, we experience our God-given humanity. We defy the world’s definition of what it means to be human. We are created by God to give. We are gifted givers at the core of our being. Well done, good and faithful servants, doers of the Word, and not hearers only.

Let us pray.

            Lord, when we consider all the good gifts that you have given us—our lives, this beautiful world, our beloved friends and family, our possessions, our health—what can we say but “thanks?”

            We don’t consider your gifts as often as we ought, we confess, because something within us likes to look upon who we are and what we have as our possessions, our achievements rather than as your gifts. We love that little word “mine” and we use it to delude ourselves.

            Forgive us Lord, for overlooking and for taking for granted your gifts. Most of all, help us to discover the great power you have given into our hands to be givers. Lead us to experience some of your divine graciousness and creativity in the gifts that we give to others in your name. Amen.

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