A Sermon for Second Epiphany
Come Holy Spirit, come. Open our hearts, our minds and our ears to hear your words. Amen.
A few weeks ago Fr. Tom asked me if I would be available to preach today and I said sure! So I read the assigned readings and when I read Paul’s letter to the Corinthians I thought, great, spiritual gifts, I can deliver a message about that. And then I read the Gospel message about Jesus’s first miracle of changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Another powerful story, I had lots to work with, and that ended up being the problem.
When I finally was ready to take all that was swirling in my head and put my fingers to the key board, I got stuck. How was I going to share a message to you and how was I going to connect all my thoughts in a sequential manner? So I struggled. I emailed Fr. Tom and told him I would be sending my sermon for him to review a bit later and to be patient with me as I worked to put my thoughts on paper.
I got up early yesterday to continue working on my sermon, only to stop so that I could attend the funeral of one of All Saints’ longstanding members, Lois Tribble. As I sat listening to her children share their stories of loved filled memories, I learned more about God’s child, Lois. What was clear to me was that she touched many lives with her gift of hospitality. According to her children, their mother would spontaneously invite people over for dinner, telling them she wasn’t quite sure what she would serve, but that she would find something for everyone. Apparently many of the dinner guests were not necessarily old friends and family. Often the children would come to the dinner table only to sit beside to a stranger whom their mother had befriended. Not everyone possesses the gift of hospitality, but clearly Lois did and she possessed God’s spiritual gift of radical hospitality by inviting strangers to the table to share a meal. I realized then, that perhaps my difficulty in writing my sermon was because I needed to hear just one more example of how God’s spiritual gifts live in each of us, and in particular Lois.
As the words shared at Lois’s funeral flowed over me, I realized how relevant Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians is to us today. Poor Paul, after spending 18 months spreading the Good News to those in Corinth, he receives word that since he left three years prior, things have run amok. Corinth was a bustling city and Paul had his work cut out for him when he began to share the good news of Jesus Christ with its people. They were a tawdry crowd, known for good living and lose loving. They were Greeks and Jews, tradesman and slaves, rich and poor who became followers of Jesus Christ. And their rich diversity, while colorful, caused a lot of fighting among themselves. In a letter from Corinth to Paul, he learns that factions were beginning to form within the Christian community, morals were dissolving, and worship had lost its focus, placing greater emphasis on the individual’s ability to speak in tongues, a pagan practice popular among the Gentile converts in Corinth (FOTW, p. 254). He writes this long pastoral letter to his brothers and sisters in Corinth, encouraging them to refocus on God through Jesus Christ instead of false idols.
At this point in his letter, he begins to carefully outline the meaning of spiritual gifts. Paul writes to tell them that all spiritual gifts come from God and are of equal value and worth. In today’s culture that places great emphasis on individualism and self-importance, I can see how it may be hard for us to hear Paul’s words as well. “What do you mean? My gifts are a result of my hard work; I deserve greater rewards than another who hasn’t worked as hard.” But what Paul shares is that one’s own talents should not be lifted above others. It is important to note that spiritual gifts aren’t talents one is born with – such as athletic skills, intellectual prowess or artistic ability. While these talents – in and of themselves - can bring great pleasure, they are not necessarily spiritual gifts. The Greek word for gifts is charismata, meaning that one’s gifts do not come solely from an individual’s natural ability, skill or hard work, but from God through the Holy Spirit. We, as humans, can’t claim that our spiritual gifts are solely due to our own doing – or that God has blessed you more than he has blessed me. No, all spiritual gifts that come from God are special and unique, but none hold greater value in the His eyes.
He continues to explain that because God gives all of us, and I mean all of us, spiritual gifts, there is great variety in the gifts. Spiritual gifts are as expansive as we are diverse. And this may have been and still be hard to swallow. Everyone has gifts – if we look at us here today we can be assured that each of us is blessed by God through our spiritual gifts. In our community of faith, it easy to envision and accept, but as we walk beyond our red doors into the greater world, are we able to carry that message out to all those we meet? The homeless man, the woman addicted to drugs, the young person with tattoos and piercings, well we may thinků.maybe not everyone! But yes, everyone is blessed by God – just as Paul explained to followers in Corinth, he is explaining it to us again at All Saints’. This is the challenge for us as Christians in today’s world. It is enticing to draw lines in the sand and claim ourselves better than others, or others to claim themselves better than us. But remember God loves all of us – we are his beloved and that message hasn’t changed since Paul wrote his letter to the Corinthians. And God gave us a living example of his love through his son, Jesus Christ, who came to us by simple beginnings – born in a stable, not a king’s home. And as Jesus grew into adulthood, he didn’t mingle with only the elite, but with the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the poor, the children and the Gentiles – all those who were marginalized. So on face value, yes we may be able to believe that God has given us all spiritual gifts. But if we peel away the layers and begin to look deeply into what Paul is telling us, we may find it more difficult to hear his words and even more challenging to live them out.
When Paul tells us that one’s spiritual gifts are to be shared with the community, not kept hidden from others, an image comes to mind. It is an image that Archbishop Desmond Tutu writes about in his book God Has A Dream. There is a church in Rome that has a statue of Jesus on the Cross without arms, just his main body. When people ask why there are no arms on Christ, it is explained that WE are his arms. And that just as we rely on God for strength, He relies on us as his “human partners” to carry out His work on earth. (GHAD)
In this season of Epiphany – where we seek light in the darkness and we share God’s spiritual gifts with others, we are providing the light of God that connects us to Him and Him to us. This light runs back and forth between all of us, so that we can feel, see, and know of God’s steadfast presence. And as we commemorate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we can reflect on how his spiritual gift of prophetic speech came from God, into King’s heart and back out for all sorts and conditions of people to hear and possibly be transformed. And that transformation through the prophecy of people like Archbishop Tutu and Dr. King is truly a gift, God-given.
I don’t know about you, but there are times when I sense something greater surrounding me, a thin moment. A “thin moment” I describe is a time when you know deep in your heart you experienced something more sacred – where the presence of the Holy is palpable. Times when you allow yourself to be more open to the spirit, dare I say even vulnerable? Moments that warm you, perhaps bringing tears to your eyes because they are so surreal you almost think they didn’t happen.
I have no doubt that as Lois’s family shared their memories of their mother they were describing thin moments others experienced through her radical hospitality. Perhaps those moments occurred over a shared meal with family and strangers.
Today as we honor the Daughters of the King and welcome two new members, I am reminded of how they shared their spiritual gift of steadfast prayer with me and others during a thin moment in the life of our parish. Several years ago I served as co-chair of the Rector Search Committee that brought Fr. Tom to All Saints’. As our job came to a close, I remember feeling a sense of relief and sadness. For well over a year a small group of faithful parishioners labored, laughed, prayed and carried out the responsibility of recommending a slate of candidates for rector to the vestry. This was no easy task mind you, everyone had his or her own vision of the “perfect candidate” and short of calling Jesus Christ we knew that we had a tall order to fill. So after we made our recommendations to the vestry, our search committee went directly to St. Paul’s Chapel to pray. As we entered that sacred space, sitting silently in the Chapel were our faithful prayer warriors – the Daughters of the King, doing what they do best, praying. Throughout our entire search process, they held us and the process up in prayer. And as a group, we had been through a lot over the year. Not only had we read many resumes, listened to endless sermons and visited several candidates, as a group we had our own sadness and losses among us. So as I walked into Saint Paul’s Chapel and saw those devoted, steadfast and faithful women in prayer, my eyes filled with tears. I honestly can say that over the long months I had felt their prayers surround me and the team. And as the realization that our task was done and a sense of relief washed over me, I knew at that moment, the presence of the holy was present in a way that I had not felt before. Thanks to their willingness to faithfully share their sacred gift of prayer, we felt the love of God surround and sustain us.
Whether it's the gift of hospitality, or prophesy, or prayer, God does give each of us spiritual gifts. We may never know how our spiritual gifts touch one another, but I am here to tell you, just as Paul patiently explained to those early Christians in Corinth, the light of God does shine in both thin moments and moments of darkness. God’s light penetrates us through the loving actions and spiritual gifts of one another. We need each other for support and love. But most importantly we need to share our spiritual gifts so that others can be touched by the love and light of God. In this season of Epiphany, may God’s light shine in you and through you – filling others with God’s love, by Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit.
January 20, 2013