The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents
Being First Fruits, Giving First Fruits Sermon by the Rev. Daniel W. Hinkle Pentecost
15 Proper 17B September 2, 2018
Scripture: James 1:17-27 “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of the divine purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.” (James 1:17-18)
Sermon: The American novelist and Lutheran pastor, Walter Wangerin tells of a time when things got so strained in his marriage, he believed his wife had fallen out of love with him. He had hurt her so badly, he no longer expected her to forgive him. Then one day she stood in his study and asked him to hug her. And this is how he describes that hug: Dear Lord Jesus, where did this come from, this sudden, unnatural, undeserved willingness to let me touch her, hug her, love her? Not from me! I was her ruination. Not from her, because I had killed that part of her. From You! … It was you, Christ Jesus, in my arms — within my graceful Thanne. (1)
“Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,..” As Pastor Wangerin discovered in his wife’s forgiving embrace, there is only one source of all generous gifts and blessings, and that source is God, even if the gift comes from another person and is as simple as an unexpected hug. “…the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.” The First Epistle of John says something similar about God in its opening verses: “This is the message we … proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all.” (1 John 1:5) I understand James and John to mean that God is the sole source of all graciousness and goodness, and nothing more.
In other words, no bad things, no ungracious things come from God. God is all light and no darkness, and, God has always been this way and always will be. This is what Jesus has revealed to us about his Pappa. Now, you might be thinking: “That’s obvious. Of course God is all goodness and graciousness.” But I don’t think it’s that obvious to us.
When someone dies unexpectedly or in a tragic manner, I often hear people say something like this: “Oh, God is in control and must have had some purpose for her to die so tragically.” I know words like this are meant to be comforting in times of tragic loss, but think about what we’re saying. If the God of Jesus truly is all goodness and graciousness, then does God ever will that anyone die or suffer such a terrible death? We do have a difficult time accepting that God truly is light and love and nothing more.
We insist that God is a God of justice who punishes the evil doer. Sin results in bad luck and sickness and death. As Job’s so called friends insisted, bad things happen to bad people, and good things to good people. So many bad things had happened to Job, he must have done something wrong and sinned before God. It’s God’s will that we execute certain bad people for their heinous crimes. And it’s God’s will to help us destroy our enemies in war. All of these things and more are clearly taught in the Bible.
But, are these the only things the Bible says or what Jesus reveals about God? If God truly is all goodness and all graciousness and all love and all light with no darkness at all, then these things cannot be true, even if the Bible does say so. The violence that Jesus experienced on the cross was not God’s violence but our violence, human violence. God was not satisfying his need for blood and honor by pouring out his wrath on his Son in our place. No. Jesus offered himself and exposed our human blood thirstyness and desire for revenge. So the cross makes us rethink our understanding of God. We human beings like to fight violence with more violence and we justify this by saying that this is what God does.
In other words, we tend to make God in our own image rather than the other way round, as the Bible clearly says in the first chapter of the first book. So all the gods of our making, of all the religions in the world, have been givers of both blessings and curses, light and darkness. They are in effect twofaced gods, Janus-faced - one face wrath, the other love, - one face light, the other darkness. But that’s precisely what the cross means to show us: that these are gods of our own making, and not the true God.
The true God is the one whose Son hung on the cross, a victim of our religions, and then God raised him up with the true power of life, love, and graciousness. No, this phrase from James, about the Father of lights who never changes with even so much as a shadow, is not at all obvious. It took the cross and resurrection for us to finally get to see this true God who is all light and all love. And we still get it wrong. And we still need James to keep reminding us. “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”
So, if God is not the source of evil in our lives, where does evil come from? Why do bad things happen to us? We don’t have enough time to even begin answering this conundrum this morning. Let’s just reinforce the fact that God is not the source of evil or punishment in our lives. In other words, God is not two-faced. “In fulfillment of the divine purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.” In other words, James moves from a truth about who God is, to a truth about who we are.
We are the creatures who can understand the truth about God — that God is all graciousness and goodness, all life and light and love — and we are to live this truth about God. We are to be the first fruits of God’s graciousness and love in this world. James skips over the part about where bad things come from, and he moves right to the matter of how good things can continue to come into this world: through us. As you know, I’ve been compiling the history of your church in preparation for our history project this month.
Hidden among all the facts and details is a delightful little story of how Holy Innocents’ Episcopal Church modeled what it means to be “a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.” Before Holy Innocents’ Church was open year-round and before it even had a full-time priest, year-round ministry began with the hiring of a full-time lay ministry worker for Christian Social Services.
And this first full-time Minister was a woman. Miss Aline Cronshey was first employed in the winter of 1929-1930 at the beginning of the Great Depression, the worst economic depression in this country’s history. There were less than 2,000 year-round residents on Long Beach Island in 1930. Miss Cronshey ministered in the Name of Christ to these people. And they loved and respected her.
She was a graduate of the New Jersey College for Women in New Brunswick. She earned a Master of Arts in Religious Education from Columbia University and had worked five years for the Episcopal Church on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. Miss Cronshey was a remarkable woman. Mrs. Pharo, a church member and patroness of the parish, offered the use of half of her brick cottage at 201 2nd Street known as Church House as a residence for Miss Cronshey. The first floor was converted into a chapel and Miss Cronshey lived on the second floor.
She ministered to the year-round island dwellers, who were glad for her presence. They remembered her kindness and the ministries she offered. These included providing glasses for those in need, taking the sick to hospital, offering classes for boys and girls and teaching confirmation classes. Many joined the church as a result of her efforts. The Ladies Guild of the church was instrumental for funding and establishing the Christian Social Services ministry of Miss Cronshey during those difficult years of the 1930s.
Miss Cronshey, the Ladies Guild and Holy Innocents’ Church truly were “a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.” “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of the divine purpose God gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of God’s creatures.” Amen?!
Notes: 1. Walter Wangerin, Jr., As for Me and My House: Crafting Your Marriage to Last, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1987, pages 90-91.