April 16, 2012

Dirty, Messy & Wonderful Work
by Tim Eby-McKenzie

Have you ever had baklava? I first ate baklava when I was a freshman at Occidental College. Friends took me to Burger Continental on Lave Avenue, and I was soon to fall hopelessly in love. Sure, the burgers and Armenian dishes were terrific, but the baklava! Oh, the ecstasy and the wonder of this new-found delight! For those of you who haven’t partaken, it’s a pastry made from phyllo dough layered with nuts and brown sugar and honey, and honey and did I mention the honey? It just drips unapologetically all over, but you’d never think of complaining. The syrupy goodness that drips from a piece of good baklava covers your hands and allows you to enjoy the yummy flavor long after you’ve consumed the pastry itself. I’m so distracted by this thought that I’m tempted to stop writing and go get some. That’s how good baklava is.

The poetic narrative of the Genesis 2 is a lot like baklava; it drips with intimacy. God and humanity, human beings and the earth, God and the earth, humans with each other – there’s rich, earthy, sensual and intense interaction. In fact, right at the beginning, God kneels on the ground and makes a man out of mud, then grabs its face with his dirty hands and puts his mouth to the mouth of his child, breathing life into his beloved with a kiss. It’s astounding how tender the scene is, and the rest of the story is filled with garden-walks with God, human sexual intimacy and life becoming “fruitful and multiplying” everywhere. To the Hebrew listening to the story, even the language implies inextricable closeness between all things and with God.

All this intimacy is beautiful, and in the relationship with humanity, God draws us into his own work of fostering, furthering and protecting the abundant life that fills his creation. It’s meaningful work at its height, and the most meaningful part is that we only need to follow God’s lead to know it will all work out well.

So what is the significance of this message for us at ABC, and what does all this have to do with our finances? I’ve noticed that God has challenged us on a number of levels over the past few years to trust him and come to know him more deeply. We’ve been challenged to examine what it means to be the family of God, especially in troubled times. We’ve been exploring how to be a community drawn together not by blood or civic duty, but by the call of God’s spirit. As I wrote last week, I believe our first step in addressing our budget struggle must be to remember and celebrate the God of abundance in our lives and to expect this celebration to bring about peace in us; to celebrate before taking action, before choosing a financial path for ourselves.

When we’re at that place of calm assurance, then it’s time to ask God, not “How can you meet our various needs,” but rather “What is the work you’re calling us into?” “How do you want to walk with us and work with us at ABC?” This really broadens the question, because it is asking what barriers we need to cross as we take God’s hand and walk into the path of his calling. Should I be striking up relationships where I haven’t been before? Do I need to examine what I’m doing in my career? Is there a way I’ve avoided serving others humbly? Am I holding my purse strings in fear of losing a stable financial footing? It requires listening to God to hear the answers to these questions, or even to know which questions to ask.

Malachi 3:10 is often quoted in “stewardship sermons” to challenge the congregants to “bring the full tithe into the storehouse,” and the quote often stops right there. It sounds like the heavenly tax man, knocking on the door. The full verse reads, “Bring the full tithes into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house; and thereby put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.” However, the broader context of this passage, and in fact of the whole book, is that God is mourning, even weeping over his beloved Israel who has distanced herself from him. God is a jilted lover in this book, pleading to Israel, “I have loved you! Return to me; I want you to be with me and I want to bless you.” This is not a divine IRS publication. God was saying to Israel, “Come to work with me! Bring food to my house for the poor and the priests.” I believe God is saying the same to us: “Join with me in this amazing work of blessing others, and I will make you a sight to behold for all the nations!” How will we respond?