Sunday, January 17, 2010

Unwrapping the Gifts: Sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

You search and you search for just the right gift for someone you love. You spend time combing the malls and the catalogs that arrive in the mail, to no avail. You go online and browse the many websites for imported items that are a little harder to get, but nothing seems right. You think about something homemade, and you wonder if they’d like it. Finally, you are settled: this is not only what the one you love needs, you just know in your heart they will love and appreciate it. They will be able to use it, and it will bring joy, not only to them, but to those around them.

You choose the perfect container, the lovely wrapping paper, the ribbon or bow or decoration. You outdo yourself: when you are finished, it is a vision. Gorgeous! With joy and excitement, at precisely the right moment, you present it to that person you love. With a smiling face, and words of thanks and delight, they reach out their hands, and they receive the precious gift. But instead of opening it, they turn away, and open a closet door, and find a shelf, and deposit it there. They close the door, and turn back to you and say, “Someday I’ll open it, but not right now.”

Now, that’s a silly little parable. Who would really do such a thing? No one under the age of 12, that’s for sure. Children love gifts, and their innate curiosity and openness and willingness haven’t been damped down yet. But what happens to us later? How ready, willing and able are we to receive gifts, especially when those gifts come from God?

Our passage this morning is from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, and it’s fair to say, this was a congregation that had a significant amount of dysfunction spicing up its common life. You don’t have to read very deeply between the lines in the letter to see that there are power struggles going on between different camps. Much of it is outlined in chapter 1. Some identify with a leader called Cephas, and some with one named Apollos, and some with Paul. You’d think this would make Paul happy—he’s got people in his camp! But Paul is not happy about this. He wants no part in partisan bickering, he wants no “camp” swearing special allegiance to him. He wants something for the church which they themselves seem to have lost sight of.

Another area of dysfunction has to do with the worship life of the church. Whether related to or separate from the personality-driven camps, people are also, dividing along lines of those who prefer different styles of worship. Of particular concern is the matter of speaking in tongues—ecstatic speech, given by the Holy Spirit, which needs to be interpreted for most people to understand it. For some in First Church of Corinth, speaking in tongues is like showing up driving a Lamborghini, or wearing the Hope Diamond—it’s flashy, it’s impressive, and it’s enviable.

These matters, and others besides, are splintering and fracturing the community. There is resentment. There is jealousy. There is arrogance, and a sense of superiority. And somewhere, somehow, something important is getting lost.

So Paul writes this letter. And the letter is far-reaching and comprehensive. Like a good doctor with a holistic outlook, Paul diagnoses the situation of the people of Corinth, and recommends, not just a pill, or a quick fix, but an entire change of heart. He takes the Corinthians back to basics. He asks and answers the question, “Why is God giving out spiritual gifts anyway?”

A few sentences into our passage we hear words that may be familiar to us. Paul says,

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.

~ 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

Paul is engaging in some remedial education for the church here. Notice the lovely and poetic balance he strikes in these words, a balance between two foundational ideas: unity and diversity. One Spirit, many gifts. One Lord, many ways of serving. One God, many activities. One. Many. Paul is gazing at the situation of a fractured community, a group of people who have grown accustomed to identifying themselves by the ways in which they are distinct, or different, or better. And instead of focusing on what divides them or on what differentiates them from one another, he is urging them to recognize what unifies them. What unifies them is God. This is why Paul rejects the “camp of Paul,” just as he rejects the camps of Apollos and Cephas. He wants for the people one camp, the camp of God, the camp of Christ.

But there’s more. One sentence casts all ideas of gifts and giftedness in an entirely new light. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Not only is God one, but the end or goal of our gifts is one as well. If God has given us gifts, they are not solely for our private use or personal satisfaction. They are for the good of the community, the good of all.

The Corinthians have been thinking of the gifts God gave them in terms of the status they confer upon them. Well, that seals it. The Corinthians were human. We are the same. If we look around us we will see that, in our culture as well, certain “gifts” certainly do seem to engender admiration, respect. We admire beauty. We respect talent. We are impressed by eloquence. But in this passage we are invited to learn a new way of looking at gifts. The true measure of our gifts is not how rare they are, or how impressive they are. The true measure of our gifts is how they are used.

Like many of you I have been riveted this week by the news coverage of Tuesday’s 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti. The photographs and the descriptions of the death and destruction are so overwhelming, so heartbreaking, at times it was just too much. What can one person possibly do in response? I heard a story on National Public Radio about the US military gearing up to provide medical relief to the devastated country, in the form of supplies, personnel, and airlifting out the injured.

The reporter interviewed a number of officers and airmen at Scott Air Force Base outside St. Louis. Each person told a little piece of the story, how the operation looked from their perspective. They spoke of the particular challenges of flying into a country whose infrastructure has been so utterly destroyed. But it was one voice that really got my attention. It was the voice of Captain Justin Brockhoff, explaining the Air Force’s attitude towards these challenges.

“Keep in mind… We have folks on the road every day. We're landing at dirt strips in Afghanistan, dirt strips in Africa. We're taking this show on the road.”[i]

Now, it was partially what the captain said—his confidence that their training and experience had more than prepared them for this mission. But there was more to it than that. It was something in his voice that captivated me. It was the excitement I heard. He sounded so alive. My first reaction was to wonder that someone would feel and act so alive in the face of such grim circumstances. But then it occurred to me that this is what it feels like to know that you have training, or a gift, or an ability, and it is needed, and you are going to make good use of it right now. This is what it feels like to use your gifts for the common good. It brings you to life.

Most of us do not have the option to fly to Haiti to lend a hand or to drop off supplies. But we do have options, both to respond to this disaster and to use our gifts for all the communities of which we are a part. One Spirit, many gifts. One Lord, many ways of serving. One God, many activities. Sometimes I think we have exactly the opposite problem of the church in Corinth: it’s not that we want to lord our gifts over others, it’s that we’re afraid to use them, even to find out what they are. We’re afraid to open the package, unwrap the gift.

Here are some ways we can use our gifts, both in response to the crisis in Haiti, and to enrich our own community.

First, we can pray. Every single one of us is capable of praying. Our prayers do not have to be long or wordy in order to be heard by God. And prayer matters, whether we are praying for healing and comfort for the injured, dying or mourning, or praying for the strength and health of our family or our church or our nation. Prayer is a gift, prayer matters, and every one of us can pray.

Second, we can learn. Every relationship is enriched when we make a deliberate decision to deepen our knowledge or understanding. We can learn about Haiti, its history, why it was so vulnerable to this natural disaster; we can learn about our own neighborhoods and communities and what their special needs and challenges are. We can learn as much as we can about scripture, and deepen our connection with the stories of our faith community.

Third, we can speak—honestly, openly. Each one of us has a wealth of knowledge, experience and insight that is ours alone. No one else brings to the table precisely the same blend of experiences and learning as you do. So, if there is a moment of discernment or decision making, whether here in this community, or in a family, or in the town, county, or state, our individual voices are a precious, irreplaceable gift.

Fourth, we can search ourselves to learn what other unique gifts we can bring to each and every situation and circumstance. Maybe we can bring our monetary gifts. Maybe we can bring our mind. Maybe we can bring our muscle. The possibilities are limitless! But only if we unwrap those gifts and determine we will use them for the common good.

God searches and searches for just the right gift for each of us. God brings all the wisdom of the ages, and infinitely more, to the project. God knows us intimately and knows the circumstances of our lives, and at last, God settles on it: this gift is not only exactly what we need individually, but God knows we will be able to use it, bring joy, not only to ourselves, but to those around us, to the wider world.

When God is finished choosing this gift, it is a vision—God’s vision for us. Gorgeous! With joy and excitement, at precisely the right moment, God presents it to us, God’s own beloved. And what will we do? Will we reach out our hands? Will we accept it with joy or with trepidation? Will we unwrap the gift God has given us, and find out how we can give it back? Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] “Air Force Coordinates Military Relief for Haiti,” NPR’s All Things Considered, January 14, 2010, Wade Goodwyn reporting.

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