I have a picture of my front yard as the big splashy picture on my Facebook home page. I kept the one from last year because so far this year, the garden is not quite as, shall we say, robust as it was last year. It goes like that sometimes, there are great years and then there are years when things lie fallow.
It doesn’t take much. It only takes forgetting to get the drip irrigation started up early enough in the year, or forgetting to inoculate the roses, or a couple of days of late rain that lets a fungus take hold, and suddenly the roses have those ruffled petals, they are a little spotty, or the Irises are late, or small, or there are fewer of them on each plant.
So I keep the picture from last year, when the snapdragons were tall and full, when everything was planted early and got a good hold before the heat came, when the work of my hands was clear and evident and the success was visible for all to see.
The thing is; I’m a pretty good gardener. I love the activity of it, the dirt under my fingernails, the constant promise of new growth and the occasional surprise of something unexpected, a volunteer or an errant seed blown in from God knows where. It is helpful that I do not regiment my front yard, I go for more of a colorful chaos approach, which allows me to fill in little holes here and there, to cover bare spots, to move a mister head a little farther west in order to get that one Zinnia watered sufficiently.
But some years are still better than others.
As some sermons are better than others. As some visits to hospital rooms, or living rooms, or funeral parlors are better than others. As some plays are better than others. As some city council meetings are better than others. We are inconsistent beasts, trying hard or not, doing our best work, or not, maybe intending to do our best work, or not, and sometimes we are the grizzly bear and sometimes we are the salmon.
It has always amazed me to see how far humankind has gotten given our glaring and obvious deficiencies. We tend toward war, we are a jealous lot and tend to fight over what we think of as scarce, and yet we have somehow managed to stop short of completely destroying ourselves. You can call it a triumph of the human spirit, I think it must have been the grace of God that saved us, we’re just not that smart.
We move in and out of cooperation. There always seems to be some forces aligned against cooperation, pushing or pulling hard for division, separation, discord. We form alliances that we casually break or steadfastly adhere to even when we are betrayed by our allies.
The only thing we’re good at, it would seem, is being human. You know what I mean, as in “Only human” like when we mess something up, someone will inevitably say, “well, he’s only human” and leave it at that, as if that explained everything.
I get the same kind of thing when I encounter people who see and hear the gospel message as an appeal to “better yourself” through faith in Christ Jesus. As if we all came into some self-help seminar and bought the book and the accompanying DVD and walked out thinking that we were transforming ourselves through the power of Calling upon Jesus name or some such nonsense. I can understand how they get that impression the way that some Christian leaders rail on about how their voices ought to be guiding the process, their wiser, nobler, more holy voices.
Voices that sometimes sound surprisingly similar to the ones on the television, calling for war and for separation and for separation and for isolation and for us, to be more like them, to be more like they have become, since the whole Jesus seminar thing, since they decided to be saved.
“You will know them by their fruits” says Matthew and when I see the works of their hands, the fruits of their voices, the judgment and pride and avarice and power madness; I wonder if they ever actually met Jesus at all. Maybe they spend so much time chasing Him that they missed the parts of the Bible that tell us what we all know, all of humanity must know on some cellular level. Jesus comes to you, you are the lost sheep that he will not return without, nobody needs go looking for Jesus; He is not lost. What you have to do is stop running, stop hiding inside mansions of pride and across oceans of self and let Him find you.
It only takes a second, but it lasts forever.
But I understand. I know why it is that some folks cannot help themselves but take the name of Christ and make it into something that it never intends to be, insofar as reading the bible will tell you. They drag Jesus into the same marketplace as every speaker or speech, speaking the world’s words and pretending that they are Jesus words.
You see, some folks were born with a gift; they have a voice that carries, they know how to phrase things and form sentences to be pleasing and easy on the ears. They have the gift of preaching or of public speaking at least and their faith and trust are in that gift. They believe that their voice has been given to them to lead and they lay claim to the Pentecost miracle that they will be heard, that they must be heard and so out they go, in Jesus name, just ask them, and they speak and expect the whole world, it seems to me, to understand and to follow.
I am grateful to the Lord above that it doesn’t work as well as they’d like. It works far better than I would like, but not as well as they might hope.
I have no such faith in the power of my voice. I am constantly assuming that the next sermon that I preach will be the one that kills faith in someone, the one that crashes my ministry and leaves the congregation cold.
It isn’t self-denial or anything noble at all. I just know that I do not get everything right all the time and that someday I’ll truly mess it up and build the Edsel of sermons, the Delorean of preaching.
I know from the tips of my spiky hair to the soles of my leathery feet that any gifts I have come from God. Like the tongue of flame that danced above the heads of the disciples and those gathered on that Pentecost so long ago, the gift is not mine to claim and mold to my purposes. It is there by the grace of God and someday my pride will get in the way, or my fear will get in the way or some other human weakness will get in the way and I will find myself unable to do the one thing that I love most about this calling. I will be unable to preach as I think that Gospel deserves.
That’s when I plan on dancing. Or singing. Or painting.
You see, we are so fixated on the gift of the voice, on this Pentecost thing that God gives us the ability to be heard in any language in any tongue in any land everywhere that we think that it is the voice that does it, that it is again, like so many who place their trust in their own gifts and their own powers, that it is about what we have that we miss out on Pentecost entirely, turning it into a speech and a light show instead of a visitation and a blessing; a cautionary tale and a signpost pointing to a better world and a better life.
It is human, entirely human to be suspicious of that visitation, of that gift. We scoff and say “they are filled with new wine” or “whacky fundamentalists” (that’d be my sinful judgmentalism) or “lunatic.” It is entirely human to try and confine that to the night it happened, to the pages of the book, to the thing that we understand and can control, like speech, like voice, like speeches and sermons and the like and take the gift of understanding and turn it into something that is about us.
The Spirit gave them the ability to speak in other languages but it was not about their speech, about their magnificence or even about the glories of the Gospel that this day occurred. They were not gifted in order to rule, or to guide or to manage that gift, that voice, that speech, that sermon; they were gifted with the Pentecost flam so that they could be understood and in so doing, come to understand.
Come to understand that the person from Cotati sees the world differently than the one from Dallas-Fort Worth, has a different view of the world, a different taste in music, a different politics, a different need within.
Come to understand that when words fail us, when the Spirit guiding us into all truth is drowned out by the sixteen channel stereo system in our new Lexus, when we falter and fail, we should not just begin shouting instead of speaking. That is the time when we might want to start listening.
Hearing the cries of the lost and knowing that Jesus is seeking them and to set ourselves to the task of arranging the meeting. Maybe we can speak His name and it will come to pass. Maybe we’ll need to listen some more, to whatever language in whatever tongue, from whatever perspective, to their voice, and come to understand.
Because it is hard to hear sometimes. It is certainly hard to say sometimes but we are the lost sheep and the shepherd is seeking us and most of the time we are running away. Even Jesus admits in John this morning that some will not believe because of the words and so points to the deeds, the ministries, the signs, big and little, that the Kingdom of God is here amongst us, for us.
No misplaced faith in the power of the human voice or in the prideful exercise thereof. Just an understanding that the gift we have been given is not the voice of truth, but the truth itself to guide and instruct our voice.
Or hands. I pray and preach to the God of my creation with my hands when I plant and weed, reap and water. We sing with our feet as we dance and walk the streets, being for any whom we encounter, the lost sheep Jesus came and found. We pray with our knees as we kneel and help the fallen to rise again. We sing hosannas with our eyes as we weep the tears that the risen Lord would weep when tragedy strikes.
Whatever it is that God has given to you, whatever your strengths they are the gifts that can bring the gospel to the places where it is needed. This is no day for speechifying about the power of the voice or the importance of the words. This is about the Word, capital W and the promise that the spirit will come to us and teach us so that we will understand, and be understood, and that we will be in the father and the father in us. So that we will be one.