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Bible readings:

Proper 21 Year A (August 24, 2014)                                                            St James', Peace River

I don’t know whether it’s back-to-school fever or the near-miss with frost a couple of nights this week, but for the last day or two I’ve been thinking about the song “In the bleak mid-winter”. Ever since I was a kid I’ve always looked forward to singing the last verse of that carol in particular:

What can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb.

If I were a wise man, I would do my part.

Yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

It’s even better when you sing it! The verse asks a serious question, one which it’s natural to ask from a child’s point of view but which I don’t think we ever lose sight of no matter how much we grow up. What do I have, that is worth giving to God, when God is bigger than heaven and earth, and has given us a gift that makes all other gifts seem like nothing? What can I do, when I don’t know what my part is, when I don’t see how I fit in the story, when the world is too big for my action to make a difference?

The last line of the song affirms that there is an answer: that each of us has something to give, simply by virtue of being who we are; and that our gifts given from the heart do mean something in the light of Christ. That answer doesn’t come out of thin air or out of wishful thinking: it’s the accumulated weight of centuries of Christians who have asked the same questions, and lived the answers. When you look in the Bible readings we heard today, you can see a couple of examples – or perhaps I should say patterns, since they can help us to see how this question and answer together shape a way of understanding what faith and a faithful life are all about.

The first example comes in the preamble to the birth of Moses, when we hear about the new pharaoh’s edict to bring the Israelite population under control. Since life was already pretty harsh for the slaves, we can only imagine that most of them were in that position of saying, “What can I do?” They may have wanted to protest or fight back, but realistically, they didn’t have the power or influence to make a difference. Two women thought differently. They remind me of the Germans who hid Jews in their homes during the Holocaust, not because they were heroes but because they were human. Shiphrah and Puah, the midwives, were in a position to do something. They took the risk, and when they were challenged they brazened it out with a bold-faced lie. By simply doing what they were able to do, they kept alive – quite literally – God’s promise to God’s people.

The second example is Peter in the gospel, blurting out words that come from deep in his heart and, at the same time, from far beyond him: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Peter and the other disciples, up to this point, have been classic examples of people wondering what it is they have to offer. Rabbis normally selected their disciples at a much younger age – these guys are the last round of draft picks, not sure what their role is, probably feeling that they’re masquerading as students and learners, when they’re really fishermen, tax collectors, carpenters and so on. Jesus is patient with them, but they hardly ever get what he’s trying to explain to them. And then suddenly, Peter comes out with this insight.

It’s not just words either – not just “getting the right answer”. These are words from the heart, words that come with a commitment. Peter, especially being who he is (I think “What you see is what you get” pretty much sums him up!) - cannot say something like this without buying into it. From there until the very last moment, he is ready to do anything for Jesus because of this aha-moment when he understood that Jesus was God’s anointed – even if he still doesn’t quite get exactly what that means. If you asked Peter, or if he asked himself, “What do you have? What can you offer?” - the answer would be, this conviction, this certainty. I know who Jesus is.

So, I think we’ve got something here that can show us a way to look at ourselves and our questions about “what can I give him?” While we can look back at the biblical characters and think of them as heroes of history, the reality is that in their own time they were you and me. And their story, and our story, is about discovering there is an answer to that question about “what have I got?” What you have might be an opportunity to do something as natural as breathing, that is right in front of you and seems obvious. What you have might be a gift or talent that you were born with and that others have nurtured in you. What you have might be an insight or intuition that powerfully shapes the way you look at yourself and the world around you. You have something. And when you offer it to God, when you allow what you have to be part of the story that God is telling in this world – it means something.

That might be the hardest part for any of us to grasp. What difference does it make, if I bring what I can to God? God doesn’t need my help – any more than a parent needs the “help” of a two-year-old! But perhaps that’s the starting point for understanding. We want kids to join in, even if we know they’re not going to know what to do or how to do it – because there’s something bigger than the task at hand; the bigger goal is for us to love them and for them to know they’re loved. And that’s the beginning of what happens when you bring your gift, your insight, your act of courage and service to offer to God. Even if you think it won’t accomplish anything, one thing it will achieve for sure is a moment when you can hear God saying, “You are with me, and I’m glad.” And we all need to hear that.

But if that’s the beginning of what happens, it’s definitely not the end. The truth is that our gifts, our insights and actions do accomplish something when they’re given to God. In fact, the truth is that this is how God’s work happens – by people like you and me, one by one, joining in and giving our hearts. That seems like an extraordinary thing to say about the God who created the world and all that is in it, but it’s so. Maybe you’ve heard the story about Gabriel supposedly meeting Jesus just after he’s ascended back to heaven, and asking him, “So what happens now? How are you going to complete your mission?” Jesus answers him, “It’s all right, I’ve left the disciples in charge.” And Gabriel looks at him sideways and says, “Um, OK, what’s your plan B?” Of course, there is no plan B. The nature of God’s mission and God’s message is such that it can only be carried on by people like Peter and James, Shiphrah and Puah, you and me.

If you look back at today’s examples you’ll see something of how that goes. God could have written in the sky for all to see the answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” But that isn’t God’s way, and it wouldn’t really address the question anyway. The response God hopes for from us is more than just getting the answer right; it’s a response from the heart. Peter gives a response like that, but as he puts his life in God’s hands in the Book of Acts Peter also brings others to make that same kind of response. His brash and impulsive nature, given to God, gets him standing up in front of crowds of people, arguing with religious leaders, venturing beyond Jewish rules to talk to Cornelius the centurion [Acts 10], and so on. All that is just Peter being who he is, and that’s who God wants him to be.

And so if you can just be who you are, who God made you – and if you do the things that are in front of you, putting your insight and talent into action – then you will be part of what God is up to in the world too. This doesn’t have to be complicated. What the midwives did wasn’t complicated – not for them anyway! - risky yes, but not complicated. They did what they knew to do, and they did it right. Think about what that means for you. What do you know how to do? What insights have marked and shaped you life? And what would it mean for you to offer them as a gift to God?

Just know that, when you do bring what you have – anything, no matter how small or ordinary it seems, it matters. God builds a kingdom out of nothing else. Because in that smallest piece of our lives that we give, God enables us to give our hearts – to commit ourselves in a deeper way than we might even realize is possible. And it’s by that grace that the kingdom comes and the world is changed.