Friday, January 22, 2010

Today's Sermon 1 Cor 12:12-31a "Not Limitations, but Possibilities"

Our vestry was on retreat yesterday at the white Church down the road. It was a productive and spirit-filled day – folks worked hard, engaged in the spiritual and leadership exercises I suggested to them, seeking to discern how God is leading Saint Middle School at this point in our lives together. One of the things that we did was to talk with each other, in pairs, about our vision of Saint Middle School in the coming year - who we are now, and what we hope to accomplish in the coming year. It's an exercise of our imagination, the best and most hopeful kind of work Christians can do. Imagine! What will we look like? Imagine a church where people are standing in the aisles because we’ve outgrown our space. Imagine a church where all people are loved and blessed by the world. Imagine a church where children have church activities they love from the time they’re little until the time we send them off to college or the military or work. And the thing that struck me, time and time again in our conversation, was the creativity and the hope among your vestry.

That’s not to say that it was always easy, that exercise, because sometimes we fall into the very human tendency to qualify our hopes and dreams, to say that we might do something if we had more people or if we had someone who specialized in this sort of thing or if we had our own building….and the moment we start qualifying our dreams, they start to die.

I believe that was something of what was on Paul’s mind in his letter to the Corinthians. He is giving the Corinthians some guidance – they must have gotten into a dispute about who was more important, who had what kinds of gifts, and it must have gotten in the way of their life as a church. This is the other side of the problem of qualifying our dreams, because we cannot talk about our dreams without talking about the gifts that we as a church or as individuals possess. This is what happens when we try to imagine a church. We talk for five minutes about the gifts we possess, and then veer off into the gifts that we do not possess! And then we stop dreaming, because we think we cannot fulfill our dreams, because we lack the gifts we think we need.

Thank goodness for Paul! He whacks the Corinthians smartly upside the head, reminding them first and foremost that we all drink of the same Spirit, and that is what incorporates us into the one Body of Christ. Then he starts to talk about those gifts that help build up the Body of Christ. My guess is that he thinks the Corinthian Church has a whole bunch of folks who like to preach and think they have a gift for it – let’s call them the Rick Warrens of Corinth– and another bunch of folks who think they are the prophets of the day and say they have that charism – let’s call them the Jim Wallises of Corinth – and maybe even another bunch who believe that they have been given the gift of teaching from the Spirit – let’s call them the Stanley Hauerwases of Corinth. They may be jostling for power and recognition in the Christian community of Corinth, and those who do not feel that they’ve got those particular gifts just don’t stand a chance to have their voices heard, to feel valued for the gifts that God has given them. Maybe the baker who brings the bread for the Eucharist, the painter who has decorated the walls of the house church with Christian symbols, the nurse who cares for the children while the preachers are speaking – maybe all these people, and their gifts, feel that they are viewed as something less important. No one likes to feel taken for granted, especially in church.

Paul rightly points out that all the different gifts are important, that no one is more important than another. We get that here at St Middle School. We are as dependent here on the folks who pull the trailer, and S who opens up the school and turns on the light, as we are on me standing up here preaching, or T playing the piano, or the tellers counting the collection after church. Everything and everyone matters.

But it is so easy to focus on what we don’t have, and to let that get in the way of fulfilling our possibilities as Christ’s church.

Earlier this week, my friend G posted a link to a YouTube video on Facebook, with the message “ if you need a little inspiration today, watch this.” I groaned inwardly – I tend to get very cynical very fast when someone sends me something marked “inspirational” – but I watched anyway.

The video begins with a young man playing Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” exquisitely. It is clear that he is blind. The interviewer says to him “How would you describe your disabilities?” His answer is a surprise. “Not disabilities at all, more abilities.” An odd response, since he is not only blind, but crippled since birth. But his gifts as a musician have led him to play the piano as he does, and he now plays trumpet in the University of Louisville marching band, with his father pushing his wheelchair through the various drill routines. His father works at UPS on the graveyard shift and spends most of the day in classes and practices, assisting his son at the university. Patrick Hughes’s gifts of music are complemented by his father’s gifts in support of him. “God made me blind and unable to walk. Big deal. He gave me the gift of music and the great opportunity to meet new people.” From his father: “Maybe when they hear him and see him play, maybe they imagine the possibilities they didn’t even consider before they saw this young man that they now know from hearing him play.”

Patrick and his parents could have spent all their time and energy focusing on what he could not do. He could not walk. He could not see. He would never throw a baseball with his dad. He would never take driving lessons from his mother. Instead, they saw his love of music. His father said “I realized that I might never be able to play ball with him, but we could play music together.” His father had no gifts for music…playing music together meant facilitating his son’s gift, by providing him with a piano, encouraging him, driving him where he needed to go, wheeling his wheelchair around in formation on the football field as part of the marching band. No gift is more important than another. Patrick could not exercise his gifts of music without his father exercising his own parenting gifts.

We know we have received gifts from God, and we are grateful. It isn’t enough, though, to simply be aware that we have received gifts from God. Those gifts have to be put to use.

The Society of St John the Evangelist is an Episcopal monastic community based in Boston. In their rule of life, how they see they are supposed to live together in prayer and in work, they say this:

[W]e experience what it is to be made “participants in the divine nature”; we are caught up in the communion of the divine persons [Father, Son and Holy Spirit] as they flow to one another in self-giving love and reciprocal joy.

We have been given gifts from God, whatever they may be. We are “participants in the divine nature” by virtue of those gifts. Self-giving and love and reciprocal joy are active things, they aren’t passive. And so, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is not just about settling a squabble about who is most important, it is about valuing the diverse gifts in that community so that they might most effectively be put to use. It is also about not getting distracted by our limitations, our disabilities, what we’re missing, because there is something we have been given that is the greatest gift of all – Jesus Christ.

We can imagine a church beyond this time and this space because we have so many gifts, diverse gifts, among us. We can imagine a world beyond wars and earthquakes and petty partisan politics because we know the work ahead is blessed. We know of One who brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed, and we know that He has given us the gifts, each of us in our own unique way, to carry out that work for Him on earth today.

When we begin the Eucharist in the few minutes, one of the first things I will say is “Lift up your hearts.” You will reply “We lift them to the Lord.” That phrase could be read as simply an expression of joy, and we are joyful that we can participate this way. But it is also about lifting ourselves up to God to participate in divine work, so we can join with God by virtue of our gifts to do what God hopes for us. It is about knowing that we have what we need to do what he wants us to do.

So imagine that church, that nation, that world. Don’t limit yourself in what you imagine. Be Christ’s hands and feet and voice today and every day, using your gifts in love. They will be more than enough, because He is more than enough.


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