January 17 Sermon

Date: 17 January 2016
Text: 1 Corinthians 12:4-11
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS

I have now been at Bethany for exactly five weeks, most of that time coming in the busiest season of church life, Christmas. I have witnessed wonderful Christian community and specifically amazing gifts of the Spirit that brings a community feeling to life. I have already seen people who clearly have the gift of teaching, the gift of inspired song, the gift of hospitality, the gift of kindness, the gift of care, and many other gifts. This is a gifted community.

It bothers me how those who look into a Christian community evaluate its strength and weaknesses on the gifts of the Minister, like we are some kind of spiritual CEO. There is a United Church in Ottawa where the Minister has served for many years and his name on the church sign is twice the size of the name of the church. The sign leaves no doubt whose gifts are being lifted up.

I began work as a full-time Ordained Minister in 1991. When Kim and I arrived in Donkin there was no one to be found in the village, it was deserted, the Manse full of furniture the moving company had deposited the day before. So we quickly got to work moving things, arranging things, making the Manse our home. Around supper time there was a knock at the door. A local man had drowned when his rowboat capsized. The village had all been at the shore looking when we had driven through earlier that day. So I threw on some nicer clothes and headed for the house of the widow and her children.

The funeral went as well as could be expected. But the talk of the town was that the new Minister could speak without notes. The way they expressed this sounded like I was walking on water or making wine out of water. The next week it got worse. The local Legion had a softball team and rather sheepishly the team captain called, he’d heard I played softball, and wondered if I would take the place of the man whom I had buried. I agreed to play. I am quite a good softball player and since the bar is very low when it comes to Ministers playing sports, I was assessed to be a “ringer”, which means very good.

So at that point, two weeks in, my approval rating would embarrass Justin Trudeau! But the community was soon to learn the real story. I went out on the lobster boats to meet the local fishermen and it was obvious I knew nothing about boats or fishing or life on the water. Nothing. Then we blew a fuse and someone from the church showed up with a new fuse. Kim answered the door, the man asked to see the Minister. Kim explained that her husband would not know what a fuse looked like, much less know how it worked or where it went. Kim would look after it. The look on the man’s face said it all. My approval ratings were dropping quickly. Then a house burned down and the family had no insurance. The community rallied and I showed up to help. When they saw my abilities with the hammer and saw they put me in charge of refreshments.

The point here is the gifts we value has to do with what gifts we lack. To someone who cannot speak in front of a crowd, much less speak without notes, to someone who cannot throw a ball, much less hit the ball over the fence, I look like some spiritual giant. To someone who can build a house, fix her/his own car, live off the land, I would appear to be useless or worse.

Preacher and scholar Fred Craddock says that the church in Corinth was a community that valued some gifts over others and assumed those with certain gifts were better Christians than those without those specific gifts. Those members of the Church in Corinth who were experiencing the Spirit in highly visible ways were looking down on those who did not express their faith in this particular way. Those on the receiving end of these comments worried that their faith was somehow lacking. Paul’s letter is a pastoral response to this concern. Paul reminds the Church that each person is unique and that each person expresses the Spirit in unique and helpful ways.

What unites the members of the body, says Paul, in all of this diversity is the belief that these gifts belong to God and were given to us for the common good, for the community. Paul prefers the term “charismata” to the word “gift” as the former means gift of grace. Paul is telling the people of Corinth that these spiritual gifts are not earned by believers. Rather, Paul asserts, these spiritual gifts are bestowed upon us as a gift. The gift is free, it comes from God and those who receive it do not boast or hoard it, they share it with thanksgiving for the good of all.

So how do we know we are church, that we are the community we are meant to be? This is not a question of individual effort but one of community. Paul saw the leadership of the Spirit in the context of the Creator’s purpose for Creation. This was Paul’s cultural presumption. The Jewish notion of Creation could be simply stated that all things came from God, so they would return to God. And these things, these gifts, these ministries, worked together in the way God willed them to work together.

The Spirit gave its “charisms” or “gifts” for the good of the community, not for the glory of its members. Church is not a place for egos. It is a place for charity. William Barclay says that one charism or gift can be particularly helpful to move us from a sense of these ministries being ours to control to these ministries being God’s to honour in community and that gift is wisdom.                                                                                                     The Greek word for wisdom is Sophia (feminine) and was defined by Clement of Alexandria as “the knowledge of things human and divine and of their causes.” Aristotle described wisdom as “striving after the best ends using the best means.” This is the highest kind of wisdom; it comes from communion with God. It is the wisdom which knows God. In other words wisdom comes from communion with the Creator and wisdom helps us see how these gifts fit together for the common good.

The result of a faith based on grace, that is the belief that all that we are and have and see belongs to the Creator, that the Creation is the Creator’s, is a humble life, a kind of purposeful humility. When you know everything is God’s there is less boasting but there is also less self-abasement, you feel valued because the Creator made you and you value others because the same Creator made them. There is no sense of superiority or inferiority because all life is a gift and gift comes from the Creator in love.

In a column written in the Toronto Star three years ago Jim Coyle says that in the chest-thumping, celebrity-obsessed, wanna-be-an-idol 21st century, the virtue of humility might seem as quaint. Humility suggests meekness, timidity, the career-limiting flaw of hiding one’s light under a bushel. If we think highly of humility, it is usually — as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. drolly observed — as a top-notch virtue “for other people.” But now, onto the global stage comes Pope Francis— whose cardinal trait is said to be the quiet quality of humility.

In the business community, which often celebrates a “take charge” approach to life, the spirit of humility as a leadership quality is taking a firm hold: http://thechronicleherald.ca/cream/home/1333436-authenticity-and-vulnerability-add-up-to-leadership-credibility

St. Bernard of Clairvaux, asked to list the four chief virtues, is said to have replied: “Humility, humility, humility and humility.” In the Bible’s Gospel According to Luke, Christ says: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” But what does humility mean? True humility is, above all, honesty. Jean Vanier says: “I tell the young people who join us as assistants that, ‘You came to L’Arche because you wanted to help the poor. But you will stay at L’Arche if you discover you are poor, that you are a human person with all the fragility and beauty of a human being, no better or worse than people with disabilities.”

The Spirit of wisdom reminds us that all of our gifts are God-given, that by grace we live, breath and find meaning. This means we can stop trying to impress others and ourselves that we matter, by faith we know God loves us. In Christian community none of our gifts is more important or less important than any other. As the Minister I have certain gifts and a certain role to play but the reality is unless we do this together the community will not function as it was designed to be.

Now 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 all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. My friends that is the kind of community Paul envisions, the kind of communty so many live to be part of and the kind of community all of our gifts were made for. Amen.