January 29, 2012

"Gifts Differing"


I Corinthians 12:1‑13

Matthew 5:14-15


The process of putting together an Annual Report always borders on the heroic: assembling reports from the chairpersons of our church boards and committees, gathering statistics, preparing a budget, putting together the financial material from the past year, and then copying everything. We do all of this in preparation for the annual meeting of this congregation, a time for us to reflect together on the past year and to look ahead toward the coming year. We will meet for that purpose after worship this morning.

You might have picked up your copy of the Annual Report already. If not, there are plenty available. I invite you to get a copy and to stay for the meeting.

If you're one of our many new members you might be wondering about how to read an annual report. Maybe even long-term members could use some suggestions.

A lot of people start at the back, where they find the financial reports. They want to know:

1)      How much money was given in the past year?

2)      How much did we spend? and

3)      How much are we planning to receive and spend in the coming year?

The people who start at the back of the report are good “bottom line” people—and we need them in this congregation. They know that the only thing better than raising money for the realm of God is spending money for the realm of God. They help us to reflect on our financial stewardship. They remind us that faithfulness includes using our money wisely.

Then there are the people who start with the statistics. They want to know how many people joined our church last year—and who are they? They want to know: who got married? Who was baptized? They give thanks for the lives of our faithful members who died in the past year. And they ask: “Are we growing?” Yes, we are. In fact, we discovered that the number of members who were removed from the roles is actually lower than reported. These are the people who remind us that the church is more than a building, more than our finances. This congregation is the people: the faithful of many years, the saints triumphant, those new to our community.

If you are just visiting today—and maybe trying to think of a discrete way of ducking out before the meeting starts—if you’re just visiting today and want to know about this congregation, or if you’re a newer member of this congregation and still trying to figure out what we’re all about,  or if even if you have been around here for a long time, I’d suggest that that maybe the best place to start reading our annual report is, well, at the beginning—before the statistics, before the numbers. There, in the committee reports, you will find not only a review of our shared ministry. You will also find evidence of what Paul told the church in Corinth: “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates them in everyone.”

This talk about “spiritual gifts” can seem so obvious and yet so obscure at the same time. Everyone knows what a gift is—after all, we just finished the gift-giving season. A gift is given freely. A gift is not a reward for good behavior or payment for labor. A gift comes with no expectation of something in return.

We know about those major gifts. Life is a gift. The earth is a gift. Love is a gift. In many ways this church is a gift—both the church as a building and the church as a congregation. For this church is the legacy of faithful members in the past, an offering of faithful members today. This church is a gift—given to us, offered to all who would accept it. Freely we have all received the gift of this church—the building and the people. We care for it in our time here. And freely we will pass it on to new members, a new generation, for ongoing ministry and mission.

Gifts are somewhat easy to understand.

But when we attach the word “spiritual” suddenly we're not quite as clear about what is meant. What is a “spiritual gift?’ 

We think of things spiritual as things that can’t be seen. So are spiritual gifts unseen, unrecognized? Often that seems to be the case. Many people have no idea what “spiritual gifts” they have.

And yet, we do not need to think of these gifts as “supernatural” as opposed to our “natural” gifts, our talents and abilities. They become “spiritual” when they are put to the service of extending God’s realm of love into the world. As one theologian put it: “The gifts put at the service of the congregation, and the gifts practiced in family, profession, and society, must not be separated. Being a Christian is indivisible.”[i]

To speak of spiritual gifts is to focus not on the gift as much as on the giver—the Spirit of God. For God is the one who gives all gifts—life, love, this planet. And God is the one who gives us gifts for the building up of the church, for our common good. 

It's hard to hear Paul's words on gifts without being convinced of the wonderful diversity in the riches that God gives.

So especially today,  let us celebrate the marvelous riches that we have in this congregation. Each one of us brings gifts to this community. Those who teach and those who sing, those who count money and those who visit the sick, deacons and trustees, those who are known as our leaders and those who come here only occasionally. Each person has something unique to offer.

No two people are alike.

And when we gather in the same place we have a congregation—that is, a group of individuals.

There are some who would get rid of the individual—those who would make unity, oneness, community what matters. But as we have been blessed with a marvelous diversity, I want to celebrate that. 

This is not a congregation formed by cookie cutters—one in which each of us is pretty much the same as the others except for the few that are half-baked. In this congregation we do not find unity in uniformity. Here we find unity in our diversity.

I keep going back to that phrase about being created “in the image of God.” It is one of the most wonderful religious ideas. Who could ever plumb the depths of its meaning? I am convinced, however, that it points at least to the unique nature of each man and woman, each boy and girl. Each person here today is special and to be cherished. Yes, I’m talking about you. God gave us this particular life, in this particular time, called us to faith practiced in this particular community—and gave each one of us different abilities and interests, different activities that bring us joy—gifts for the building up of the church. 

So many people go around putting themselves down. They feel, or they've been told, that they don't have anything to give. They think they just don't measure up to some standard. That's just not true. Each of us, all of us have gifts—received from God—that can be used in the ministry of this congregation.

“Now there are varieties of gifts" Paul says. Can we begin to name them all? I don't think so. Any attempt at limiting what is a spiritual gift will be doomed, for the Spirit of God will not be limited. 

The main point is this: these are all gifts—not something we achieve on our own, they are gifts from God--unique to each person. And the point is this: YOU have spiritual gifts—from God. 

And you know, these gifts have a purpose: the building up of the church, practical use and ministry. 

God doesn't give nick‑knacks—you know, pretty things that sit around and collect dust. The gifts you have are meant to be used, not just to be put on display. 

So it's important that we identify what these gifts are. Sometimes in a church this size we worry about the work of the church being done. "We're always depending on the same people." "There's no one else I can call on to do this work." Those kinds of things. The problem may be that we're not identifying the gifts that members have. The problem may be that people are hiding their light under a bushel. 

Use what God has given to you. Martha Graham, one of the great dancers of the last century said: “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same.” Sing. Teach. Study. Visit. Count. Give. Do what you like. Do what you have been gifted to do. Do it not just for your own sake but for the common good. I think we will find that the more each of us use the gifts we have been given, the more this church will grow, the stronger we will be spiritually. 

And remember. Faith is the primary gift. So don't disparage what you have to give. No one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. Your profession of faith is meant to give strength to the whole community. 

Our unity comes from God—not from agreement. We are diverse as snowflakes—and sometimes we think each other to be a little flaky at that. But in that diversity we find all that we need to be able to share the love of God with this world that desperately needs to hear that message.

Recalling the variety of gifts that we have, let us together look at where we have been. Recalling the variety of gifts that we have, let us together look ahead and discern where we are going. The meeting of this congregation this morning will be one of the most important events in our life together this year. I invite you to be a part of it. Change your plans if you need to do so. You—with all of your gifts—are needed here.

And after we have met, let us take our many gifts, our diverse abilities and go individually and together into the world as we follow in the ways of Jesus Christ, known and to be made known to us.

[i] Moltmann, Jurgen, The Spirit of Life, pg. 183-84.