“Many Gifts, One Spirit” / I Corinthians 12:1-11 / 20 January 2019
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” the Apostle Paul assures a divided church at Corinth. “And there are varieties of services and activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in each of you. They’re given by the same Spirit for the common good.” This is practically the mantra of our age, is it not? We’re always told to see the good that each person, and each group of people, brings to the table. It’s good advice, too. But Paul’s taking it further than that. He’s saying that anyone who has ever made the membership vows to join a church, anyone who has ever been confirmed into the church, anyone who has ever stood before the community of faith and made that old confession of faith, which in Paul’s day was simply to say, “Jesus is Lord,” anyone who has done that is called to some activity, or ministry, or service for the common good. If our churches are struggling or failing in this 21st century, it’s probably because we’re not helping people to discover the joy of putting their unique giftedness to work for some meaningful ministry in our midst. And you? What is your giftedness? Where is your niche? Do you know the burden and the joy of using it for the common good? Each church member is called to ministry. If you’ve stood up here and taken the membership vows, then you’ve made the first confession of Christendom: “Jesus is Lord.” Now your task is to serve your Lord in a meaningful way. To quote the great poet of our age, Mary Oliver, who died this past week, “What is your place in the family of things?”
Gifts are hard. Now that Christmas is over, can we admit to how hard it is to give and receive gifts? In years past, Michelle—my wife—used to tell me exactly what I was going to get her for her birthday and for Christmas. And heaven help me if I ever got cagey and tried to make it a surprise. No sir. Surprise gifts are for sentimental people. She would make an exact list, and there was to be nothing unexpected. Then, when I proved myself incapable of that sort of regimented gifting, she started buying her own gifts. At any point during the year, she would say something like, “By the way, I bought myself this Kitchenaid Mixer for Christmas, so you can just get me a $50 gift certificate to the day spa for my birthday.” It wasn’t any fun, but it was easy. That was all years ago. Now? Now that she has everything she could ever possibly want or need, it’s harder. She no longer tells me what to get her, and she no longer buys her gifts herself. Now we’re back to the primitive method that most couples use: guessing, hoping, an annual game called, “How Well Do You Know Me?” It’s complete hit or miss. All year long, I listen closely for hints about anything she might be lacking. Did she mutter a complaint? Did she let loose a yearning sigh? Did she say anything to the kids about the gaps in her life that need filling, the things her friend Ayana has that she admires? And all year long, I keep a list of potential gifts. A task that used to be as easy as following orders, or doing nothing at all, has now become a test of how well I know my spouse.
It gets worse. I came from a family that had a sense of decorum around gifts. It was a ritual thing that could sometimes require a little faking. If someone gave you a present for any occasion, you were supposed to treasure it. Of course, they always hoped that you’d like their gift to you. But whether you liked it or not, you had to pretend that you liked it. The goofy hat, the Penguins sweatshirt, the tea cozy, the eerie wooden figurines of women without faces, you couldn’t give them to the church flea market. And you could never, ever return them to the store. In fact, you’d better be wearing that gift, or displaying it, or using it the next time the giver sees you. In Michelle’s family, there’s no sacredness to gifts. Swap ‘em, trade ‘em, take ‘em back and keep the cash.
This past Christmas, my parents spent a few nights with us, attended church here on Christmas Eve, and woke at our place on Christmas morning. I’m sad to say that our children have long since stopped waking us at 6:00 on Christmas morning. These days, they’d rather sleep in. But when we did at last roll out of bed and exchange gifts, for the first time in years, I came to Christmas morning with the awareness that, if I got a gift I didn’t want (from my parents), I’d have to pretend to want it anyway. There comes a day when your childhood punishments are your adulthood delights, like staying home from parties, going to bed early. Forty years ago, I’d have been disappointed to open a present from my parents on Christmas morning, only to find a pair of socks. But the earth has circled the sun enough times, since then, that socks suit me just fine—even socks with black and red zigzags, which my mother assured me were very expensive. And which I knew to promptly put on my feet and wear for the rest of the day.
“Now there are varieties of gifts,” Paul informs us, “but only one Giver, and everyone’s gifts are meant to be used for the common good.” But what if someone else gets the gift you wanted? Do you remember watching in horror on Christmas morning, as a kid, while your brother or sister got exactly the thing you wanted, and you? You got something you didn’t want? Isn’t it possible to open your spiritual gifts, with all the excitement of a kid on Christmas, only to find that you’ve been given the spiritual equivalent of…socks? When the Spirit was handing out the gifts that you and I would carry through this life of years, I’m afraid my wife’s pragmatic approach to gift-giving was not the rule of the day. When God gifts you with the skills, and the abilities, and the interests that will carry you through this world, you don’t get to take them back to the store. You don’t get to trade with your brother or sister. No, you and me, we get what we’re given: like all the best gifts, both a burden and joy, a delight and a care, a headache and a heartache. But what wonder! What gratification! What utter sense of fulfillment when we take the regular, ordinary gifts that we were given, gifts we did not choose, and find a way to put them to work for the common good of our church, our world!
That’s how it was in the church at Corinth. In those ancient times of signs and wonders, we are told that visions, and healings, and miracles abounded. But if your spiritual gift wasn’t speaking in tongues, then all you got was socks, underwear, clip-on neckties. Speaking in tongues was the Red Rider BB Gun of the age, the most coveted gift of the early Christians. “Glossolalia” is not unique to Christianity. It existed in the ancient Egyptian worship of Osiris and among the Syrian oracles. It occurred among the Jews, as documented in the books of First and Second Samuel and First Kings. It still occurs in the practice of Haitian Voodoo, and among Sufis, also known as the Whirling Dervishes, and in Native American religions, and countless other indigenous faiths. In fact, that may have been why everyone at Corinth wanted to speak in tongues: because it was such a prominent feature in the old Greek religions that they’d left behind when they converted to Christianity. In the folk religions of ancient Greece, a person only spoke in tongues when they achieved perfect union with one of the gods—like the sibyl priestess on the Island of Delos. It was glamorous to speak the language of the angels. But that’s exactly the Apostle Paul does not want. He doesn’t want any single person being glamorous at church. Glamor is counterproductive, since the only purpose of each person’s gifts it to serve the common good. Have you ever seen a skill or ability in yourself and realized, “Oh, this isn’t for me to spend on myself alone; this is meant for me to share with a world that needs it”?
But that’s not the way we’re conditioned to think. No, mostly when we assess our own personal gifts, we wonder how to put them to work for ourselves and for the people we love. They’re ours after all. We own them. St. Paul’s notion of the common good has fallen on hard times. According to the broken values of the selfish society in which we live, many Christians would dismiss St. Paul as a kooky socialist. Moses observed this truth all the way back in Deuteronomy: It’s human nature to look at the gifts we’ve been given and to decide that they’re all our own doing. We gave them to ourselves. We got them the old-fashioned way: we earned them. We live in an age when those who’ve been most blessed by the circumstances of their birth, that’s to say, the unfair social advantages of race, and social class, and education are told, “No one gave you all of this. It’s your due. The blessings of your life are yours, to do with as you wish.” But we did not give ourselves the raw materials with which we’ve built our lives of affluence. No, we did nothing to earn the advantages that others have not been given. It is our duty and our great happiness to share them for the common good.
And the great mystery of God’s gifting to us is that we only truly possess our gifts when we learn to give them away. We really only know the joy of our gifts when we use them in the service of their Giver, and for the common good of the church and the world. The wonderful old black-and-white film, Winter Light, by Ingmar Bergman, is beautifully set against the bleak backdrop of the Swedish countryside in winter. An aging school teacher named Marta is hopelessly in love with the village pastor, a widower who cannot get over the memory of his lost wife. He’s a broken soul, going through the motions, flat, dull, worn out. His presence is elegant and sad. So dispirited is his affect that fewer than a dozen souls show up on a Sunday morning. A depressed parishioner comes to him for counseling, and in the worst instance of pastoral care on television, the minister bares his own broken heart to the poor man, with all his doubts about God and faith. The sad fellow cannot endure his pastor’s self-disclosure; he immediately goes out and kills himself. But I digress. The school teacher is an atheist who loves the unhappy pastor. And though she does not believe in God, she comes to church, to support him…and to pray. At one poignant moment, she prays in desperation, “You’ve made me so strong in body and mind, but you never give me a task worthy of my strength. Give my life meaning, and I’ll be your obedient slave. Beyond all my false pride and independence, I have only one wish: to live for someone else.” It’s one of the most insightful moments in all of the long history of cinema. We’re not happy until we give away what we’ve been given. We are made not for clinging, ironically enough, but for letting go.
The gifts of grace, the mysterious things of the Spirit, are not limited to those ancient wonders of ages past, like speaking in tongues, and healing, and prophecy, and miracles. No, indeed. Most of us have far tamer gifts, but no less wonderful and frankly, a whole lot more practical. We have the gifts of time, and wealth, and education. Most of us have gifts like a green thumb, generosity, compassion, evangelism, administration, encouragement, service, mercy, hospitality, worship, prayer, financial savvy, strategizing, technology. Some have the wondrous gift of expressing the beauty and the mystery of God in textiles, like these lovely paraments, or in music, or in words. What good is it if these gifts are hoarded? Like manna, they would rot if we tried to keep them to ourselves or use them only for personal gain. These gifts aren’t glamorous, but nor are they meant for the sole benefit of those who have received them. They’re meant for the common good, for the world, for the church.
Yes, gifts are hard, and not just buying them…but sharing the ones we’ve been given. That’s hard. It’s hard knowing what they are, for one thing. But it’s hard owning the fact that these gifts are not entirely our own. They’ve been vested in us and intended for the good of the world and the church. They’ve been entrusted to our keeping, but not for our sole benefit. The expectation from the beginning is that we will share them with the wide world all around, that we’ll never hoard them but always recognize their holy placement in us, not for us. And so, ours is the sacred task, the thankless chore, the joyous job of finding a way to put our giftedness to work for the common good…of the world, but first of the church. Well, you’ve come out on this Snowpocalypse Sunday. That probably means that you’re among the extra-faithful. Let me ask you this: How are your gifts being put to work in the life of Christ’s church? Your regular, unglamorous gifts, which you probably take for granted, which you may or may not see as God’s gift to the world through you…are they being returned to God’s service in this place?
And now, because I believe Mary Oliver was one of the few real prophets of our age, I’m going to close with the rest of the poem that I quoted at the beginning. Her gift was words, and she gave us this wisdom:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the wild blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit,” the Apostle Paul assures a divided church at Corinth. “And there are varieties of services and activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in each of you. They’re given by the same Spirit for the common good.” They’re given to be shared. And there’s no joy greater than to find your place in the family of things. Amen.