I don’t know whether you’ve noticed this where you live, but at my house, the flower beds—which actually have very few intentionally planted flowers in them at the moment—and bushes and grass are all growing like crazy. Every time I turn around, it’s time to mow or weed again. The rainy spring and the hot sun have worked their magic. Life seems to be loving it.
I’ve lived in my house for 13 years now, and this year for some reason, the big bush out front on the left has conspired with the climbing ivy along the wall on the right to create a canopy of greenery above the sidewalk coming up to my front door. I can’t believe how much they’ve grown. I’ve never seen anything like it. Last weekend when family and friends came for dinner, I had to trim the growth back just so they could make it into the house without feeling like they were fighting through the jungle.
Sometimes in life—in our community, in our personal experience—it can feel like not much is changing. Not much is growing. Not much is new. Here in our meeting, we enjoy life as it is, sweet and peaceful. We sometimes look back to “the good old days,” when we had a lot of energy, things were happening—we had a wonderful choir, a thriving Sunday school, men’s groups, women’s groups, suppers and more. At home, we can look around and see things we’ve dusted and rugs we’ve vacuumed for decades. Same old pictures on the wall. Same old books on the shelf. We know it all well, and we may love it all, but it may not accurately reflect who we are today or who God is leading us to become. In our homes, in our lives, and in our meeting, we are surrounded with the things of yesterday, which comfort us and bring us peace, but may not necessarily point us toward tomorrow.
Depending on how we’re feeling in any given day, we may appreciate the consistency—especially in a topsy-turvy world. Knowing things won’t change much can feel like a relief. But all that sameness may also cause us to overlook something important: the spirit of God doesn’t do same-old, same-old very well. And in fact, neither do we. We humans get bored when things are too easy, too predictable. We want challenge, novelty, growth. Otherwise our energy, our zest for life, goes flat.
And we get this from our true divine source in whose image we are made. God’s energy doesn’t just pool in the places it’s always pooled, it doesn’t just reach the same people it’s always reached. It is the nature of God’s light to spread and grow and spread some more. Like a sunbeam breaking through the clouds, God’s love begins in one spot and then spreads out across the landscape, bringing everything it touches into vibrant, living color, igniting what may be an astounding season of growth and blessing. God’s love makes a way where there’s been no way, opening paths where we only saw dead ends before.
Here at Noblesville Friends, we’ve been through some interesting times together over the last two years. We’ve lost several dear and weighty Friends. We’ve been joined by a number of wonderful new folks who felt drawn to worship with us and serve alongside us. We’ve had successes in some areas—for example, our last bean supper was quite successful, raising more funds than we needed and inspiring some fun interaction with our community. We also have areas where our hearts are still yearning to grow, to be of help, to make a difference.
Often in life, we don’t know why some ideas seem to catch on and others just fall flat. Why did my bushes this year decide to have a wild growth spurt? I don’t know. It could be that conditions are just right and it’s time for Life to take off. And maybe the years they just seemed to struggle along helped prepare somehow for the amazing growth right now. Maybe we—our meeting, our families, our souls—aren’t so different.
In our Old Testament reading today, we heard an interesting passage from Numbers in which Moses is intentionally sharing God’s spirit with seventy elders—sharing it as though it were a hand-lotion you could share with the person next to you. (When I was little, my great-grandmother always used to share Jergen’s lotion that way—her hands first, then my little ones.)
But the plan here is for Moses to gather the people and then place them strategically around the tent so that when God comes to talk to him, he can take some of the spirit “that was on him” and put it on the elders so they could prophesy. One commentator I found said something interesting on this passage, suggesting that in the Old Testament, the Spirit was reserved for a select few—and it “came upon them,” from the outside in. In the New Testament, however, we learn that after the resurrection of Christ, God’s spirit dwells within us. How does George Fox say it? “Christ is come to teach his people himself.” We are led by God from the inside out.
There’s another interesting thing about this passage that is relevant to our topic today. There were two men back at the camp—just plain ordinary men, members of the community, as opposed to elders—and they also received the Spirit and began to prophesy as well. Joshua, Moses’ assistant, was outraged by this—he thought they were stealing Moses’ thunder—and he wanted them to stop. But Moses—being a true leader, a true, generous man of God who wanted most of all that everyone would have the same relationship with God he had—chastised Joshua as being “jealous on my behalf.” Moses told Joshua he wished all the Lord’s people would be prophets and that God’s spirit would be available to everyone. Many generations later, through Jesus, Moses’ wish came true.
So how do we and our own small gifts and leadings fit into this big, eternal, unfolding story of God? It’s nice to know we don’t have to be elders. We can be just ordinary people in a small community, and God has a part for us, too. You may have heard this famous quote from writer and minister Frederick Buechner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
I love the way he says this, because it’s clear that using our gifts is not meant to be a sacrifice or a hardship; it’s something that gives our hearts joy. We feel glad when we do it. Maybe that’s singing in choir as a part of worship. Or planting flowers around the meeting house. Or decorating in a way that will lift peoples’ spirits. Or visiting people who have trouble getting out. Or praying for those who need support.
Whatever it is our hearts lead us to do, it is not something we do begrudgingly, out of a sense of grim duty. We feel God’s love in it. God is in fact doing it with us. In his book, The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner writes about how our unique lives fit us to be partners with God as we do our best to bring more Love into the world:
“About ten years ago I gave a set of lectures at Harvard in which I made the observation that all theology, like all fiction, is at its heart autobiography, and that what a theologian is doing essentially is examining as honestly as he can the rough-and-tumble of his own experience with all its ups and downs, its mysteries and loose ends, and expressing in logical, abstract terms the truths about human life and about God that he believes he has found implicit there. More as a novelist than as a theologian, more concretely than abstractly, I determined to try to describe my own life as evocatively and candidly as I could in the hope that such glimmers of theological truth as I believed I had glimpsed in it would shine through my description more or less on their own. It seemed to me then, and seems to me still, that if God speaks to us at all in this world, if God speaks anywhere, it is into [and, I would say, “out of”] our personal lives that he speaks.”[
This is how the spirit, insight, love, and power of God moves through us—through each of us—and flows outward into the world. Through us, God’s energy reaches out to those in need. Through our faith, others feel God’s love and get curious. We each are part of this work. God’s intention is blessing—for us, through us, spreading to those we meet each day in the real world.
We miss the point entirely–and risk stifling the chance of growth—when we look back and lament that things aren’t as good now as they used to be. The question for us today isn’t, “What have we lost, and how can we regain it?” but rather, “What is God doing among us now?” and “Where is God leading us next?” When we compare ourselves to other churches—or even compare ourselves to the meeting we were 20 years ago—we take our eyes off the presence of Spirit alive and with us today. We could miss something amazing that God is leading us to do right here, right now, in the very place we find ourselves.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he tries to quell this continual need humans have to compare themselves with each other. He describes how God works in and among us all, giving us many different gifts and perspectives, and causing it all to work together in a big, unfolding work of Love. “There are varieties of gifts, services, activities,” Paul writes (and I’m paraphrasing here), “but it’s all God. This one has knowledge, that one wisdom, another healing, another discernment—it all fits together perfectly, each supplying the need another lacks.”
That’s a big key to the way things work in God’s domain. Nothing is ever wasted, and all the pieces fit together in a perfect, unifying whole. We need each other to see it. Maybe when I’m hungry and you bring me something to eat, or you’re cold and I offer you something to wear, we will discover once and for all that we are part of a bigger emerging work of love—the kingdom of God—that includes all of us together, at once.
Quaker Thomas Kelly, mystic, professor, and author of the beloved book, A Testament of Devotion, writes beautifully about what he called “the Blessed Community”:
“The relation of each to all, through God, is real, objective, existential. It is an eternal relationship which is shared in by every stick and stone and bird and beast and saint and sinner of the universe. On all the wooing love of God falls urgently, persuadingly. But he who, having will, yields to the loving urgency of that Life which knocks at his heart, is entered and possessed and transformed and transfigured. The scales fall from his eyes when he is given to eat of the tree of knowledge, the fruit of which is indeed for the healing of the nations, and he knows himself and his fellows as comrades in Eden, where God walks with them in the cool of the day. As there is a mysterious many-ing of God, as He pours Himself forth into the universe, so there is a one-ing of those souls who find their way back to Him who is their home. And these are in the Holy Fellowship, the Blessed Community, of whom God is the head.”
From the many, One. Our gifts have been given not only to help us share love in the world, but also to draw us into harmony in God. It one of the obvious signs of the work of Grace, connecting us in trust and love. That’s why all the separateness, division, and distrust in our world right now hurts so much. We are not made for that—we’re not made for division, competition, conquering. We are made to be One. That is the deepest essence of who we are—to be One.
After worship today, we’ll share lunch and then have a spiritual gifts workshop where we’ll look at the various gifts Paul mentions and identify our own. We’ll also look at ways in which we might feel led to use those gifts. You’ll notice a spiritual gifts inventory tucked away in your bulletin—don’t do it now, we’ll go through it together this afternoon. But if you can’t stay today, I invite you to find some quiet time sometime this week and see which of the gifts in that list speak to you and and bring a sense of gladness to your heart. God always has something to say to us about the gifts we’ve been given because they’ve been given with a purpose. We are meant to use them to love and lift each other. And as we do, we’ll find a deep sense of joy and fulfillment—and likely renewed energy and healthy new growth—all of which, God has lovingly planned for us, for our meeting, and for the world.
- OT Numbers 11: 24-30
- NT 1 Corinthians 12: 4-13
- Frederick Buechner, The Sacred Journey: http://www.frederickbuechner.com/the-sacred-journey
- Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion: https://pgadey.com/quaker/Kelly–TestamentOfDevotion.pdf
- Noblesville Friends Spiritual Gifts Inventory: Noblesville_Friends_spiritual_gifts_linventory_2019