Have you ever heard either of these readings before? The Bible: The gift that keeps on giving. Of course, the Gospel of Thomas is not even in the Bible, but it is contemporaneous with the gospels. So we’re going to unpack these two texts, starting with Proverbs, and then see what they have to do with each other—and with us.
Let us pray….
In this passage from Proverbs 30, the writer asks for two things. The first: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying” (Proverbs 30:8). Don’t make me a liar; don’t put me among liars. Pretty straightforward.
The second thing is what captures my attention: “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” If I’m too rich, I’ll be tempted to take all the credit and say, “God? What God?” But if I’m too poor, I’ll be tempted to steal, which will damage my relationship with God. So put me somewhere in the middle: not too much, not too little, but enough.
What does enough look like?
I can pay for the necessities and have a little left over for things I want but don’t need.
I can share, give it away.
Yes, I can pay for necessities and things I want—and also donate to others.]
A recent study found that many people do not have the immediate financial resources to pay an unexpected bill of $400. It might be a car repair or a medical bill or whatever. To me, that sounds like not quite enough, if $400 is going to throw the household into a panic. Maybe enough is knowing you can pay for something without having to check your bank balance first. Being able to pay your bills, buy groceries, and have a little left over for a few niceties.
Enough means you can share. If you’ve ever gone through a period where money is really tight, you know what a joy and relief it is to find your situation improved, to have enough money to give some away. Maybe you can hold your head a little higher, feel like you’re paying your way and not relying on favors. In the stewardship letter that went out recently, Rick Russell wrote that his father-in-law Russell Jones wished he had made more money so that he could have given more of it away. What a delight, to be able to support the people and the organizations that you believe in.
Perhaps some of you participated in the Give BIG opportunity earlier this week, when nonprofits all had fund-raising days. There are so many great organizations in our community doing excellent work. What a joy to have the money to support them.
And the same is true with Prospect. We have the opportunity—the joy—to support this congregation in its ministry to its members and to the broader community. I hope you all received your stewardship letters, which went out in late April. I know some of you have already returned your pledges; thank you.
We in turn here at Prospect seem to be toeing that middle line of having not too little, not too much. We have enough that we participate in all five of the UCC’s special offerings. The Our Church’s Wider Mission offering goes to our Pacific Northwest Conference, which then shares a portion with the denomination leadership in Cleveland and DC. At the Conference Annual Meeting last weekend, churches who were “five for five”—that is, they participated in all five special offerings—were asked to stand up. And I got to stand up representing Prospect. Thank you for putting me in that position. I was glad that our congregation was in this category and that we could feel good about our generosity to the denomination. We are not, of course, the biggest congregation, or the smallest, but we share what we have, and that feels right. So thank you for that.
The Annual Meeting last weekend included discussion of the conference budget. A few years ago a new line item appeared in our conference budget for antiracism work. We are continuing to fund $52,000 a year toward antiracism work, however that crops up in this conference, and we’re still trying to figure out how to live into that commitment. This is your conference trying to walk the talk with its budget because we know it’s important. But that money isn’t getting spent very quickly, because it’s depending on congregations figuring out ways to walk that talk. The Church Development Committee can make grants to congregations that are doing antiracism projects—a special workshop or event or whatever. So this, too, is part of having not too little, not too much: prioritizing how to spend the money that we do have, making our budget a moral document that reflects the priorities we say we believe in.
Having enough money that you can take joy in giving some away is one way that we can participate in the work of this congregation and this denomination. We share our financial treasure. We also share the other things that we have: our time and talents. And this is where the Gospel of Thomas reading comes in: sharing what we have within us. So let’s unpack this reading.
Jesus speaks in puzzles and riddles and mysteries and parables. In the gospels we see Jesus teaching the crowds, and then afterward his disciples pull him aside and say, “Yeah, so that parable of the sower throwing seed on the path and the rocky ground and the good soil and the shallow soil—what was that all about, exactly?” And then we get the secret decoder ring that tells us one way to interpret what it all means.
But whoever wrote the Gospel of Thomas just noted the sayings. No context, no secret decoder ring. Just the mystery. So we have this 70th verse or saying of Jesus:
Jesus said, “If you give birth to what’s within you, what you have within you will save you. If you don’t have that within you, what you don’t have within you will kill you.”
Got that? Clear as mud? Kind of make sense?
Here’s where I go with it, and I hold this out not as the definitive interpretation but as one possibility to consider. All of us have something within us that is yearning to be born into the world. It may be a song, a passion for justice, a talent for writing or for working with children. Maybe you love to feed people or, like Mari Kondo, you’re compulsive about organizing stuff and can help people bring order out of the chaos of their things. Maybe it’s healing people or tending your garden or building houses. Something makes your heart sing. It is our calling, the thing that helps our lives make sense and have meaning. It connects us to the world. And it’s different for each one of us. If we pay attention to that calling and develop it, we live into our lives with purpose. If we stifle that thing within us, we cut ourselves off from what is life-giving to us and potentially to the world.
Leontyne Price is one of the all-time great opera sopranos. Born in the South in the 1920s, she was musical from the beginning. Her parents recognized her gifts and started her on piano lessons on a toy piano when she was three. They traded in the family’s phonograph in order to make a down payment on an upright piano. Plenty of others supported her musical journey as well. But in the South in those days, the main thing a woman of color could do with a music degree was teach.
Imagine if Leontyne Price had left it at that—if she had let the Jim Crow South stifle her enormous talents. What a loss—for her, and for all of us. But she kept putting her music out there and sharing it. Fortunately, key people around her recognized her gifts and supported her education at Julliard. She brought forth what was within her, and we are all the richer for that.
Back in 1992, Julia Cameron came out with a book called The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. She had been teaching courses on this subject and had created techniques for tapping into one’s creativity in a disciplined, spirit-centered way. There were specific exercises, but the key ingredient was writing morning pages—just whatever came into your head, write down three pages longhand. Then there were exercises like write a letter from your 8-year-old self to your 80-year-old self, and vice versa. And there were artist dates, where you just set aside time to do something fun that feeds your soul.
The Artist’s Way has helped thousands of people bring forth what is in them and share it with the world. The gifts of these students have been life-giving and transformative to them and have enriched all of us.
One of the things that The Artist’s Way helps us tackle is our inner critic. This may be a voice of a parent or teacher that we have internalized—a voice that demeans and belittles our most original ideas and desires. I think this is what the second part of that saying of Jesus is about: If we do not bring forth what is within us, what we do not bring forth will kill us. We will live stifled lives, cut off from our own heart and spirit and creativity and identity.
The 12th-century mystic Hildegard of Bingen experienced divine visions from childhood but shared them with very few people. Finally, in her 40s, a voice told her to “write down that which you see and hear” in these visions.
But I, though I saw and heard these things, refused to write for a long time through doubt and bad opinion [can you hear her inner critic?] and the diversity of human words, not with stubbornness but in the exercise of humility, until, laid low by the scourge of God, I fell upon a bed of sickness; then, compelled at last by many illnesses… I set my hand to the writing. While I was doing it, I sensed, as I mentioned before, the deep profundity of scriptural exposition; and, raising myself from illness by the strength I received, I brought this work to a close – though just barely – in ten years. (See more under the “Visions” section in Wikipedia.) Hildegard of Bingen - Wikipedia
What she had within her to bring forth was literally making her ill until she wrote it down and shared it with the world.
Leontyne Price, Julia Cameron and the Artist’s Way, and Hildegard of Bingen all give us examples of people who brought forth what was in them in ways that were life-giving to them and to everyone around them. That is what God calls all of us to do. Share it all.
My hope is that Prospect is a place that you take joy in supporting with your time, talents, and treasures. May this be a congregation that walks the talk with its budget and that calls forth from each of us whatever makes our souls sing. With God’s guidance, may we bring forth what is life-giving, what heals us and makes us whole, so that we can serve God, serve each other, and serve the broader world, putting our time, talents, and treasures into God’s hands. Amen.