(Sermon for Sunday, September 2, 2012 || Proper 17B || James 1:17-27)
This past Thursday morning at about three minutes to eight, I found myself staring at a blank page on my computer screen. I had been contemplating this sermon since I awoke two hours before, but had yet to type more than a few halting phrases, which I erased as soon as I finished them. Today’s passage from the letter of James had really drawn me in, so I knew that this sermon would spring from James’s words, but I still didn’t know where the sermon was going exactly. Specifically, the first two verses from the reading really sparkled for me, so I focused in on them. Soon, I snatched the theme of this sermon out of the Holy Spirit’s mysterious creative ether. But then the minutes continued to tick by. 8am was approaching, and my page was still blank. I had my theme, but no words. I twiddled my thumbs, discouraged, and resisted the urge to surf the Internet.
Then, at three minutes to eight, I realized something. I realized (much to my chagrin) that I had failed to do the very thing that I’m about to start advocating. I had forgotten to act on the theme for this sermon that had come to me less than a half hour before. I had neglected to give to God the act of preparing the sermon. So I took a moment: I breathed deeply, a tiny prayer detached from within, and I offered my writing to God. And the words that I am now speaking to you began to flow.
That’s the theme, by the way: giving our actions to God – and not just giving them, but offering our actions to God as we get ready to take them. I’m spelling out this theme now so that I don’t forget again before I finish preaching this sermon.
The letter of James says, “Every generous act of giving, every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… 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.”
Have you ever considered yourself to be part of the first fruits of God’s creatures? Until I read this passage this week, I hadn’t. James borrows this common image from the religious life of Israel and applies the idea of first fruits to Jesus’ followers. Because Israel was an agrarian society, the offerings people made to God most often consisted of crops and livestock. The concept of giving of your first fruits showed your utter dependence on God because, when you gave your offering, you didn’t know if the rest of the crop was going to grow or if the rest of the baby animals would survive. The first fruits went to God, which showed your devotion and your trust in God’s faithfulness.
James takes this idea of first fruits and applies it to people – both his own listeners and you and me. We ourselves are the first fruits of God’s creatures. To be first fruits means to give ourselves to God before we give ourselves to anything else. Now before you all jump out of your seats and head off to the nearest monastery, be assured that giving ourselves to God as first fruits does not usually lead to such an extreme action. Each of us, no matter to what level we are enmeshed in the life of faith, can give ourselves to God as first fruits.
Instead of running off to the monastery, I invite you slowly to build a new practice into your lives. New spiritual practices take a long time to make natural and usually involve quite a few stops and starts, so don’t give up after your first or one hundred and first failure. But over time they do become natural, like breathing or driving a manual transmission. And if you’re worried about not having time or resources to attempt a new practice, then don’t be. This spiritual practice that I’m about to describe takes next to no time out of your day, and you don’t even have to buy any expensive gear. But the practice is tenaciously difficult, one that takes a lifetime (and probably an afterlifetime) to master. However, even simply attempting this practice will help us fulfill our role as first fruits.
This new practice begins by adding a step to each of our actions. Anytime we are about to take an action, we go through several steps. Our minds weigh various outcomes. Then we make a decision. Then our bodies grind into motion. Then we act. Sometimes these steps happen in the blink of an eye, like when reacting to a traffic light changing. Sometimes they are drawn out, especially if the action is some sort of life-altering one, like when you contemplate asking someone to marry you.
Our new spiritual practice adds a step at the beginning of the whole process. Before engaging in the normal series of steps, give to God the action you are contemplating. Say to God, “I give you this action, a first fruits offering of myself.” By giving the beginning of our actions to God, we engage in the same devotion and trust that the ancient Israelites did when they gave the first fruits of their crops to God as offerings. Before we know if our actions are going to succeed or fail, before we know the consequences, if we pause and give them to God, then we actively invite God into the process that leads to the actions being taken. Rather than reporting to God after the fact, we become aware of God all the way through.
Notice how this will affect the kinds of actions we decide to take. Your son strikes out for the third time in the little league game. You could criticize and disparage his baseball ability, or you could stop, give the impending action to God, and realize that criticism and disparagement are not the kind of first fruits you want to offer to God. The tiny moment of offering the impending action to God helps you encourage instead of criticize.
Or you’re getting ready for your third date with a friend of a friend. You’re putting on your eyeliner, and you stop for a moment and offer the date to God as a first fruit of yourself. By giving the date to God, you are more likely to invite God in as you discern whether that friend of a friend is the right person to share your life with.
Or you’re getting ready to write a sermon, but no words come until you give the sermon to God.
Every action we take can be part of the first fruits that we offer to God when we invite God into the action from the outset. When we take on this spiritual practice of mindfully and prayerfully giving our actions to God, we will find that God is so much more present in our lives. God will be no more present than God was before, but our awareness of that presence will be heightened. And our actions will more frequently conform to the life-giving way in which God yearns for us to walk.
Speaking as someone who is still a novice in this spiritual practice, I will tell you that the few and far between times that I do remember to invite God into my actions, I find a peace and a trust that escape me at all other times. No matter if the action itself results in success or failure, the peace and trust linger, letting me know that God was present to me. And for the briefest moment, I was present to God, offering myself as a first fruit. Each of us is a first fruit of God’s creatures; each one of our actions is an opportunity to offer our fruitfulness back to God. And when we do, we will discover that God is always and forever offering God’s own self back to us, sustaining us in every action we take.