Numbers 11:24-30 and I Corinthians 12:3-13
Different places around the world do different things with birthdays. In Taiwan only a few decades ago people didn’t mark birthdays at all. A person was born in a particular year of the Chinese Zodiac, in a particular month, but since the months move around, and in some years weeks or even months are doubled up, the exact date on the Western calendar was not of any importance. Besides which, since everyone celebrates another year of life together at the Spring festival, so an individual birthday was comparatively unimportant. “Paying attention to Western dates and marking them with parties” was an American thing.
In many places, though, beyond MARKING the day, what people DO on that day differs from culture to culture. There’s a custom that is assumed to have begun in China, then moved to Europe, and got carried to Latin America. It’s called the piñata. A container, sometimes in the shape of a donkey, other times looking like a 7 pointed star, is filled with candy and small gifts and hung from a string. A person is blindfolded, spun around, and given a stick. He or she must hit the container, breaking it open, so all the good things fall out.
Though the piñata has come to be associated mostly with Mexican culture, and in that with Christmas and birthday parties, it’s not limited to that place or those times. In the Philippines it’s part of different celebrations year round. For our purposes today, just remember that when a piñata bursts, stuff goes everywhere
I: The Piñata and Sharing: Numbers 11:24-30
The Old Testament story we read today was set in a situation where ONE guy, Moses, was holding onto all of the power in his community, and it became a problem because one man couldn’t do everything. He got tired. In the part of Numbers before the bit we read, he complained to God about having to do everything. So he was told to assemble a group of 70 social leaders, already considered to outrank common members of the community, and God would distribute some of Moses’ spiritual power to them. When they received the power, they began to “shout like prophets.” They did this one time, and not for long. Having received the power, and shown it, now they had to get to work.
Apparently Moses wasn’t universally popular, even among the social leaders of his people, because a couple of them didn’t bother to come to the meeting. That didn’t matter to God. The power that was being distributed fell on them, too. They didn’t even have to show up to get it.
Moses had an assistant who was NOT one of those leaders, Joshua. It seems that he was secure enough in his position as Moses’ right hand man that letting others have spiritual leadership powers was no big thing to him. EXCEPT for, he couldn’t bear that guys who didn’t come to the meeting got power too. He wanted Moses to order these two to stop. They hadn’t kept the rules, so shouldn’t have what God had taken from Moses and was giving to a select group. Moses didn’t care. He wanted everyone to benefit.
Joshua represents the people in all times and places who believe in an economy of limits; that there’s only so much resources to go around. People like Joshua in this story seem to feel that immigrants, non-citizens, undocumented aliens, and those who don’t “contribute” to society should not receive like those who already have money and power. We see this dynamic in contemporary politics in more and more countries around the world now. Where refugees are turned away, fear of the foreigner is basically fear of losing what we believe is limited.
Moses represents those who believe that God’s grace and gifts are not limited. He wished that “the Lord would give his spirit to all his people and make all of them shout like prophets!” When God’s piñata bursts, the gifts of the spirit are showered out on all people. God doesn’t hold back, and when a piñata bursts, lots of different stuff that falls out of it
II:I Corinthians 12:3-13
A Mexican piñata, hung from a string on a pole, is filled with good stuff. Much of it is candy, but there are other things in there, too. We read about what falls from God’s piñata in the New Testament today. It starts with the Holy Spirit guiding us to believe and confess that “Jesus is Lord”. That was a radical thing to do at the time that these words were written by St. Paul. It was considered in parts of the Roman Empire to be extremely political to believe in a Lord other than the emperor! To claim “Jesus is Lord” was to be politically subversive.
Beyond that, though, and back to the piñata metaphor, the Holy Spirit is the container of different kinds of spiritual gifts, listed here as: 1) service; 2) wisdom, 3) knowledge; 4) faith; 5) healing power; 6) miracle working power, 7) the gift of speaking God’s message; 8) the ability to discern truth; 9) the ability to speak ecstatic language; and 10) the ability to interpret what people are saying when speaking ecstatic languages. All of these fall from the same piñata. All are sourced in the same Holy Spirit. All are distributed because God wants them distributed. There’s something for everybody.
It’s not uncommon for preachers to build an entire sermon or series of sermons around listing and describing each of these gifts. Twenty to thirty years ago in Taiwan it was not uncommon for some churches to have people fill out questionnaires about their interests and take multiple choice tests, the results of which would help them determine exactly which of these spiritual gifts they might have.
But at the time that St. Paul originally penned this list, people weren’t wondering “Which gift do I have?” It was sent to a church with a different set of problems; one where some people were ranking themselves higher than others because of what they perceived were their particular gifts. Based on their perceptions, some claimed themselves to be more important than the next person. The emphasis on “one Spirit” was put there to help those people find unity in their church, where many different spiritual gifts were in evidence. This emphasis serves the discussion of oneness and solidarity that begins in verse 12.
I know a couple of brothers. They’re about 4 years different in age. As adults they genuinely like each other, but when they were children between 6 and 12 years old, they fought like devils. Their parents had to be very clear when presenting gifts that each child got the equal of the other, and on occasions when each would receive a gift, like at Christmas, care had to be taken that these were identical. One year at Christmas the only difference between the gifts was their color, and the brothers argued whether the purple one was better than the green one.
Maybe you know brothers and sisters like that. Maybe you know churches where people have fought with each other over small things like “whose spiritual gift is better.” The Bible presents us with a picture of exactly that kind of church, and guides us on how to solve that sort of a problem if and when it might occur in our church. We all need to learn how to appreciate and practice the oneness that comes through the Holy Spirit’s generosity.
Last of all, when a piñata bursts, everyone is happy for everyone
III: Numbers 11: 24-30 and I Corinthians 12:3-13
Many decades ago, in order to make sure that merchants would collect sales taxes at the retail level, Taiwan’s government crated the system of numbered receipts. Before the era of cash registers with automatic printers, these had to be written by hand on pre-printed forms. Shopkeepers didn’t like the hassle of writing the receipts, or of reporting and paying the taxes they collected onward to the government, but people wanted the numbered receipts because they were one form of lottery ticket. Computerization took care of the merchants’ hassles of writing receipts and the reporting their collections. As for paying the taxes forward, well, you’d have to ask a shopkeeper.
Do you collect your receipts and check the numbers every couple of months? If you do, you know how hard it is to win anything big. About 25 years ago I once won NT$1,000, but it hardly pays for all the time I spent before or since on saving & sorting receipts and comparing the numbers.
When you hear that someone else got a big prize, how do you feel? If this is your friend or lover, you are probably very happy. If it’s someone you don’t know, you might be interested, and if it’s someone you don’t like, you may be jealous.
You may feel that YOU are more deserving.
Some years ago the wife of a foreign friend of mine really wanted to take a short trip to America to see her relatives. This couple couldn’t afford to just “pop for a ticket” during high season, so she put her hopes on winning a drawing for a free round trip ticket to America from Kaohsiung that was being offered as a door prize at the annual Independence Day Fair sponsored by the Kaohsiung American Chamber of Commerce. I knew about her hope because her husband was my friend. So I hoped with her and watched when the prizes were drawn. Of course, the drawing starts with the small prizes, and as she didn’t receive any of those, her hopes rose and rose. When, finally, the winning number was drawn and it was not her, he face fell. The free ticket went to someone who could easily have afforded to buy one without thinking twice. Though it was a happy thing for the recipient, I doubt whether my wife’s friend was able to be happy for him.
What we learn from the scriptures today is that: 1) God is generous with spiritual gifts and power; 2) these are given so that we can serve our communities; and 3) whatever spiritual gift you may have did not come to you because you earned it, but because it has been given to you.
Because there’s no rank or merit, there’s no need for jealousy. Celebrate God’s generosity, and if you have trouble doing that, go to a piñata party.
Pentecost is sometimes called “the church’s birthday”. Whether that’s theologically or historically accurate or not, it DOES mark a time when a metaphorical piñata burst over God’s people, and there was enough Holy Spirit Candy for everyone. So rejoice and share. Don’t forget to celebrate. Happy Birthday, church of Jesus Christ. Happy Birthday everybody.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN