For the Common Good: A Sermon

Our Epistle lesson comes from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12. Today we will be reading the passage that precedes the one we heard last week, When Paul describes the church as a body with many members. In Paul’s introduction to that great and well-known metaphor, Paul reminds the Corinthians of some of his basic teaching about Spiritual Gifts – who has them, what they might be, and where they come from. Let us listen to these words to us this morning:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says, “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit.

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. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another interpretations of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ…

This past week, we celebrated my youngest son’s second birthday. Amidst the busyness of our families many activities, we squeezed in a visit to the Aquarium in Norwalk, and a birthday dinner on the day complete with a balloon guy and singing waiters. Watching Chase tear open presents I smiled as I remembered the sign posted on the LAC Preschool office door: “All children are gifted, some just open their packages earlier than others.”

Gifts and giftedness is what makes us who we are as individuals – and it is wonderful as a parent to see those gifts come alive as they grow and learn. This one has an affection for music, this one for sports, this one is brilliant at math or science, this one at writing. As parents and teachers, we look for those things that our kids are good at, prone towards, knowing that as they grow older those things are pieces in the puzzle that may one day guide their vocation, their heart’s delight, their calling in the world.

We also notice where they struggle, perhaps even a bit easier than where they thrive. We see how they may fumble through relationships, or battle with homework. We see how transitions seem to trip them up, or how certain teachers rub them the wrong way. Even more these days in our psychologized we see those stumbles and perhaps we wonder: is this a little struggle? Or a big one?

A few days ago, an article was placed in my hands by a well-intentioned congregation member appeared in the Atlantic Monthly. It is an article that will be a jumping off point at a discussion gathering in a few months, and so in some ways I am reluctant to say too much about it here, this morning. And yet as I read, it seemed to converse with Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in a way that is too irresistible to ignore.

The article is about “orchid children,” and describes some new interpretations of the scientific evidence that certain variants of key behavioral genes make people more vulnerable to certain mood, psychiatric or personality disorders. This idea has been gaining steam and influence over a number of years – so much so that in some ways it is assumed: certain genes make people more vulnerable, and in challenging environments you are more likely to struggle or even fail.

What is interesting, though, is that as some scientists are looking at the studies, they find that those “vulnerable” genes may also be “possibility” genes. That is to say – given the right environment and care, children with these genes have a propensity towards skyrocketing success – even beyond children without the gene. In a twist of perspective, what was in one situation a risk becomes possibility in a different context. “Vulnerability here becomes plasticity and responsiveness there.”

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians does not bring up the science of gene variants, but here in the 12th chapter he deals heavily with the issue of diversity, and it struck me as I read about gene testing and studies with monkey communities that Paul knew what these scientists are working on even back in 56 CE, that gift and struggle are inexplicably intertwined.

As we read our text for this morning, we notice clearly: Paul has a problem in Corinth. It’s what the commentaries say at least. And a good reader can detect his tone throughout this letter – a bit strident, more than a bit directive. He is annoyed. He is miffed. We get hints at what gets his dander up a bit earlier in the letter – it seems the community at Corinth is filled with surprising diversity – demographic and otherwise – and they don’t see it as an asset.

The wealthy folks aren’t sharing well – at the Lord’s table or otherwise, and there seems to be a infection of pride sweeping through the community. There are people who seem to have some amazing and shining gifts for ministry, and then there are people whose gifts are not quite as noticeable. The shining stars, likely those who are speaking in tongues, are putting the others down, making it sound like their gifts are greater, better, than the others. And these others, are quietly agreeing.

Our community here at LAC is diverse as well – perhaps similar to the metropolitan Corinth. We may be quite like that small early church community – a gathering of people from varied backgrounds and countries, with different means and professions. And while certainly each of our members has unique gifts and talents, for the most part no one holds their own gifts above another’s. For the most part we don’t struggle right now with disunity quite like what the Corinthians experienced.

If anything – we find ourselves on the other side of the spectrum: downplaying ourselves for the sake of lifting up others or protecting our energy. We are perhaps doubtful that our gifts are worthy for the work of the church. We are suspicious that others are better suited, better able to serve than we are. We see the ways we are inadequate, rather than the ways we are gifted.

In this month of New Year’s resolutions, and I don’t know about you – but when I survey the demands on my time and energy it is way easier to see the liabilities than it is to see the assets. It is way easier to see what time I need than what time I can give. My life is filled with vulnerabilities – those things I could do better, those things I want to change, the time I need to create for myself, for my family.

It is not an easy thing, agreeing to serve. As a working parent I am all too aware of the push and pull of family and work, and the constant feeling that there is not enough time to do everything that needs to be done. With every “yes” comes an equal and opposing “no” that frames the time needed to protect that commitment. If we say yes to being on this committee, we may need to say no to coaching our kid’s soccer team; If we say yes to this board, we may have to say no to that dinner invitation.

So I am always quite honored by those who agree to serve on one of our three boards, like those who were ordained and installed just a bit ago. I am always impressed by those who step up and volunteer every week at HOPE Community Kitchen, or who faithfully attend committee meetings. It is hard to say “yes,” when saying “no” might mean more time for family or leisure or work.

Fredrick Buechner is known for saying that our vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need – but sometimes it can be difficult to see how living out that vocation might be sitting around a board table and making decisions about church property or finance, or worrying about who will help with coffee hour.

These are the age-old questions that last for a lifetime: what are our gifts and how should we use them? What are our deepest struggles and how can we overcome them? How do we live these gifts out in community – supporting each other through our struggles as well as in our giftedness?

What perhaps ties all of this together: gene studies and Corinth and giftedness and vocation – is community. The thing that Paul is getting at is also the thing that these scientists are asserting: context is everything. Our gifts, our vulnerabilities, they are meant to be lived out in a community that supports us through them all, allowing us to respond to those gifts with a sense of possibility and hope. The Church community is meant to be a place where we live this out: lifting up each member of the body to act out it’s fullest and best potential.

Perhaps the first step in this is one we have already taken this morning: ordaining into leadership those willing to share their gifts for “the common good” as Paul writes. Perhaps it is up to the community to see those vulnerabilities as possibilities? Perhaps it is for us to show how a “no” might become instead “yes”? How can we create an environment that leads us to see our vulnerabilities as assets – in time, in struggles, in gifts of the Spirit.

How can we lead in ways that make others want to join in? How can we teach in a way that helps others see what they have to offer? How can we serve in a way that invites others to offer what they have however small (time, resources, energy) so that who they are becomes bigger than what they have? How can we live out our calling, offer our gifts, so that the gifts of those around us grow and bloom as well?

All of this because we are already the body of Christ. Because it is the same Spirit in all, the same Spirit calling you, too. Amen.

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