1 Corinthians 12:1-26
We limit God's gifts - we limit our understanding of what is a gift from God. And we limit who we allow to express what gifts.
During the French Revolution, there were three Christians who were sentenced to die by the guillotine. One Christian had the gift of faith, the other had the gift of prophecy, the third had the gift of helping.
The Christian with the gift of faith was to be executed first. He said he was not afraid to die. "I have faith that God will deliver me!" he shouted bravely. He said a short prayer and waited confidently. The rope was pulled, but nothing happened. His executioners were amazed and, believing that this must have been an act of God, they freed the man.
The Christian with the gift of prophecy was next. "I predict that God will deliver me from this guillotine!" At that, the rope was pulled and again, nothing happened. Once, again the puzzled executioners assumed this must be a miracle of God, and they freed the man.
The third Christian, with the gift of helping, was next. The executioners were about to pull the rope when the man stopped them. "Hey wait a minute," he said. "I think I just found the problem with your guillotine."
I would like to invite you to think for a moment about what gifts God has given to you. By gifts I am meaning talents or abilities. In a moment I'm going to ask you to share what some of your gifts are. I know this can be uncomfortable because we are also called to be humble. But as Paul described today, we are as different parts of one body. And as such, it is important for each of us to know the gifts/talents/purposes/functions that God has given to us. If we do not know we have a gift for sight, how can we help the body see? If we do not know we have the gift of hearing, how can we help the body to hear? Being humble, walking humbly with God, is not about denying God's gifts to you. Instead it is about recognizing that all talents are gifts from God and that one talent is not more worthy or more honored by God than another. My gifts are not more valuable than yours, the gifts God has given me do not make me a better or more beloved person than anyone else's. Each of our gifts are gifts God has given us for the purpose of serving God in the world. As Paul explains, the feet are not less important than the eyes. All jobs are needed, all gifts are needed. That is humility. When we deny God's gifts to us we are being ungrateful to the God who has gifted us with our talents. With that in mind, I invite you to share for a moment what gifts/talents/abilities God has given to you. To make this a little easier, I ask you to turn to someone near you and share a gift that you have that your neighbor may not know about.
What did you hear? Did people share with you obvious or safe gifts? Or did you learn something new about the person next to you? Did anybody say anything surprising? Now what I'd like you to do is to think for a minute at a different level. Think about something about yourself that you don't usually think of as a gift- it may be something that you don't like about yourself such as stubbornness, or it may be something you've worked to change about yourself such as sensitivity - getting hurt by others easily. I want you to think about something about yourself that you don't usually think of as a gift and consider for a moment whether or not that, too, might not be a gift from God.
While you are doing that, I want to share with you about a person who was one of the members of another church in which I worked. This is a person who was - well, annoying. Some might have said he was abrasive. But whatever you want to call it, he was a difficult person in the church. He always questioned every idea that came forward, never satisfied with simple answers, never just saying "let's do it!" He spoke his mind and when he didn't like something, he spoke out, which was often. When he heard someone say something with which he disagreed, he challenged it right away. He also came with his own ideas, but these ideas challenged the norm, challenged the status quo at every level. "Let's try this kind of music." "Hey, I'm going to start an anti-gang program here at the church. Anyone want to join me?" "I think we should go out every Friday evening with a big sign about our church and stand on the street corner at the mall talking to anyone who passes by about what we do here." He didn't go through the right channels and he was always a pain in everyone's life. Do you know people like that? People who are part of your communities who irritate and cause your life to be difficult?
Eventually "Jason" got called away to a job out of the area and he had to leave the church. It was only after he had left that we realized the huge hole he had left in his leaving. He had brought so many gifts to our congregation. He had challenged us to grow and to expand our thinking. He had challenged us to be clear in our explanations of the visions and ideas that we had. He had called us to think through our positions and to be open to differences. He had challenged us to be open to the movement of the Spirit in a new way, one that didn't go through the long chain of committees, but instead moved into ministry and action without fear and with a great deal of true and deep faith. I don't know if Jason was aware of his gifts. I don't know if he recognized that he was in so many ways the head of our body, thinking, dreaming, leading us forward. I do know that he realized that for many of us he was a pill, he was a challenge. I know he knew that he wasn't the most popular guy and that people hid when they saw him coming. I can only hope that he also came to see that the things we all struggled with the most in him were the deepest gifts he had been given by God. And that his sharing of those gifts brought all of us spiritually, and faithfully deeper and more genuine in our relationships with each other and with God.
C.S. Lewis in the second book of his space Trilogy, Perelandra, wrote, "Don't imagine I've been selected for ...any task...because I'm anyone in particular. One never can see, or not till long afterwards, why any one was selected for any calling. And when one does, it is usually some reason that leaves no room for vanity. Certainly it is never for what the ...person...themself would have regarded as their chief qualifications."
We don't see all of the gifts God has given to each of us ourselves. And we don't see all of the gifts God has given to those around us. Sometimes we fail so completely to see those gifts that we limit how they can be expressed by others, how much good God can bring out of them, how much we allow others to help us grow in our spiritual journeys.
Tomorrow we celebrate the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.. We look at the life of a man who had a big impact in helping to change our image of who African American persons are and what African American men and women can do in this world. Not that the battle against prejudice is won. We still deal with prejudice, racism and its affect on us, on our nation and on our world. But Martin Luther King brought the conversation to a new level, to a more real level, to a more honest level. While any people are enslaved, physically or metaphorically, while any people are seen as less than others, while any people are limited in their abilities to exercise fully their gifts and talents that God has given them; we, too are limited.
As Paul said in today's passage, "If one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." We are limited in what we allow others to teach us, what we allow them to share with us, what we allow them to give us. We are limited by what we allow others to teach the world, what we allow them to give the world. We are all part of the same body. But we bind our own feet when we say that some people are not allowed to do certain good and godly things in this world. We blindfold our eyes when we say that certain types of people must be restricted from using the gifts God has given them. We injure our own body, the body of Christ, when we fail to see that God has gifted us all with talents and abilities beyond what we can see or know or recognize.
We can see how this has played out throughout history. People of different backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and races have all been given gifts, spiritual gifts, gifts to be used to the glory of God. But when we limited their access to the world, we limited how they could use those gifts, and we were all lessened as a result. For a long time women have been limited - and in many denominations and in many places they still are - with what they are allowed to do in the church and beyond. And we continue to limit others for many reasons and in many ways. As a result, we are injured. But more than that. When we limit what gifts God can use in others, when we decide what gifts God can or cannot give to certain people, when we limit what in ourselves we believe to be a talent or gift from God, we are also limiting God God-self. We are limiting what God can teach us through these people, we are limiting how God can relate to us through different people, we are limiting how God can use us and our gifts, and we are limiting our very relationship with God. God can do anything, and yet as a people, we insist that God can only do certain things with certain people. We work hard to put boundaries around God's gifts and God's calling. And we suffer as a result.
In today's gospel reading Jesus changed water into wine. Today would we find this an acceptable use of the gifts and talents God gave to Jesus? Would we be offended that Jesus wasn't using his gifts in that moment to heal or confront the system, but was instead only enabling people to party? If we saw that some people became drunk on this wine, would it offend our sensibilities? This was Jesus' first miracle recorded in the gospel of John. Would we shrug it off as a learning time for Jesus? Or would we be open to hearing that God calls all of us to take time to celebrate as well as to care for others? Was his ability to turn water into wine something that we would recognize as a gift from God?
I am not saying that we should ignore the obvious gifts we have and assume they aren't the "real" gifts from God. As I said at the beginning, an awareness of the gifts God has blessed us with can enable us to serve more effectively and more faithfully our God and God's people. But I'm also saying that we need to strive to be more open to what God does and can do with the things that we deny as gifts, in ourselves as well as in others.
Wind and Sun wanted to see who could be first to remove a man’s coat. Wind blew hard, trying to force the coat off. The cold man only pulled it tighter. Sun smiled brightly to warm the air. The hot man took off his coat. “You see,” said the sun, “there is great strength in gentleness."
The wind knew its own gift - but it could not see that the gift of the sun was just as strong, just as meaningful, just as necessary. What gifts are you not seeing?