Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Presents of God

A Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

On my long road to ordination, there were many requirements to meet and ordeals to pass through. There were degrees to earn and papers to write and certifications to attain. I had anticipated all of that. And I had anticipated challenges and frustrations and epiphanies and spiritual growth, and I experienced all of those as well. One thing I did not anticipate, though, was sitting in some strange office on the Upper East Side for four hours, filling in bubbles on test forms to answer questions like these: 
“I enjoy working with flowers: Yes, no, or I don’t know.”
“In a social situation like a party, I tend to a) Have one-on-one conversations b) Have conversations in a group of three or more people.”
“I am often able to persuade others of my point of view: Yes, no, or I don’t know.” 
I answered over a thousand such questions, on at least four different tests, as part of the psychological evaluation that is required of every candidate for ordination. Thankfully, when the evaluator analyzed the results, he said that the skills, aptitudes, and personality traits revealed by these tests were consistent with a career in pastoral ministry. 

Isn’t it strange how much of our life path can be determined by these fill-in-the-bubble tests? From the aptitude and personality tests that I took on my path to ordination, to the skills inventories and SATs that guide so many high school students down the path toward a college or a job, to the tests that so many students in New York City take each year, trying to gain entry to the city’s specialized high schools, to the quizzes and assessments on internet dating websites that determine what kind of potential partner people will be matched with. Everywhere we turn, these assessments are used to label, categorize, and quantify. It would have been really interesting, I think to the Apostle Paul, the author of today’s epistle lesson from First Corinthians. 

I like to remember that when we read the epistles, we are “reading someone else’s mail” – epistles are letters from early Christian leaders to churches (or in some cases individuals). They can be sources of wisdom and advice for our contemporary lives and our contemporary church, but they are much easier to understand and interpret when we remember that they were written first to a particular church with particular strengths and weaknesses. This letter was written by the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth. The Corinthian church was thriving, but it did have its struggles, and Paul wrote to them responding a letter he had received from them, offering advice to them based on questions they had asked and news he had heard. 

Today’s passage tackles the issue of spiritual gifts. It seems that Paul has heard that some members of the Corinthian church are able to “speak in tongues,” praising God in a kind of ecstatic prayer language, unknown to any human ear. This ability, the letter makes clear, has become a point of division: speaking in tongues is seen as a mark of superior faith, and those who can do it are seen as somehow better than those who can’t. Our reading today is Paul’s response to this situation. He advises them: 
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. 
Paul lists a number of different spiritual gifts, not a conclusive list, but a list of examples, and then he concludes, “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” 

In the face of a community which is divided because some people speak in tongues and others do not, Paul affirms that speaking in tongues is one sign of the Spirit and a legitimate part of the practice of Christian faith. But at the same time, he asks the Corinthians to shift their whole way of thinking about abilities. Instead of seeing the ability to speak in tongues as a sign of superiority, he urges them to see it is a gift from God. It’s not a sign of the speaker’s spiritual prowess, but a sign of God’s goodness. Speaking in tongues isn’t a skill, it is a gift from God. Furthermore, this gift is given not so that people can show off, but so that they can deepen their own faith and build up the faith of the community around them. Paul also asserts that those who can speak in tongues are not the only ones with a gift from God: every person receives gifts from the Holy Spirit, and every person is called to use these gifts for the common good. 

This may sound like a simple and straightforward part of Christian doctrine to our ears two thousand years later, but it is a radical departure from the way the Corinthians would have understood the world. New Testament scholar N.T. Wright notes that the city of Corinth was a destination for rhetoricians, talented public speakers who would come to Corinth to show off their stuff. Their skills and abilities would have been seen as something for them to be proud of, markers of their superior intelligence. The Corinthians think of speaking in tongues in much the same way. But Paul turns popular wisdom on its head, asserting that gifts are not something to boast about, but something we have through the grace of God and the action of the Holy Spirit. Gifts are not for showing off our superiority, but for the glory of God and the good of the world. 

If we are honest with ourselves, this understanding of gifts is also pretty contrary to the worldview that is prevalent in contemporary American society, where the gifts that we tend to focus on may not be “spiritual gifts” exactly, but gifts from God nonetheless. There are certain talents and skills that our society regards as important and valuable, and others that don’t get the same recognition. We prize certain kinds of intellectual skills, the kinds that point students toward lives as doctors or lawyers or other prestigious careers. We value athletic excellence, and celebrate our sports stars. We esteem the traits that we associate with strong leaders: charisma, persuasive speaking, extroversion. None of these are bad things – there are varieties of gifts, indeed, and these are all very good gifts! But we forget, time and again, despite the monthly scandals involving politicians and professional athletes, that none of these gifts are inherently virtuous, that neither academic achievement nor athletic excellence nor strong leadership skills are the same thing as compassion, integrity, or good judgment. 

Meanwhile, people with less admired gifts often go unsung. But the world is full of gifted teachers or administrators, and I don’t know where we would be without them. We are deeply reliant upon the work of diligent and responsible construction crews and maintenance workers. At a Starbucks near a place I used to work, there was a barista who asked every customer how their day was going – and you could tell from his tone of voice and his body language that he really meant it. It was a gift, and a ministry to me, the kind that goes unrecognized and unrewarded so often in our world, and in the world of the early Corinthian church. But Paul calls upon the Corinthians, and upon us, to do things differently. 

Speaking in tongues is not a common practice in our congregation, but perhaps we have something to learn from Paul’s advice to the Corinthians. Are there certain gifts that we value above others in the church today? It certainly looks that way sometimes. After all, my colleague and I get to sit in the front of the church and wear special fancy outfits. We get to stand up in the pulpit and talk for about seventeen minutes every Sunday. It would be easy to think that the pastors are the most important, or most gifted, or most valuable people in the church. But Paul reminds us that that isn’t the way of the kingdom of God. Each of us, Paul reminds us, has gifts from God; every single one of us. Each of us, Paul reminds us, are called to use our gifts for the common good – for the good of the church and the world. The question is not who has the best gifts; the question is, how can we make the best use of our gifts? 

As I look out at the faces of my congregation, I am awe-struck at the many gifts God has blessed our community with, and at the ways we use our gifts for the common good. Did you know, for instance, that Dick volunteers in the church office several days a week? He works with our office administrator on financial record-keeping and proofreads every bulletin. Did you know that Rodda fixed our church website? Have you ever been here when Tina offered a song she wrote for this church’s worship? Have you received a birthday card sent by Joshua? And those are only a few examples of the many ways we use our variety of gifts for the common good. 

The wonderful thing is that gifts are not chores: if you are not quite sure what your gifts are, think about the things you do that fill your heart with joy – those are your gifts, and you are called and invited to use them joyfully for the good of the church and the world. So if Paul wrote the same message to this church today, what would he say? Maybe something like this: 
To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the gift of nurturing the faith of children, and to another the gift of offering hospitality to visitors according to the same Spirit, to another the gift of song by the same Spirit, to another a deep and abiding passion for committee work by the one Spirit, to another the gift of comforting those who are sad or grieving, to another conflict resolution, to another the leadership of discussion groups, to another the ability to fix things that are broken, to another financial knowledge and wisdom. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 
For our many gifts, and for communities where we are invited to use them for the common good, thanks be to God. Amen.

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