- The Rev. Frank St. Amour, III
Sermon - 12 Pentecost
In the Name...
A mother was cooking pancakes for her two young sons, Ryan and Kevin. They began to argue about who would get the first one. The mother saw this as an opportunity to teach them a lesson and she said “Boys, boys. If Jesus were here he would say “Let my brother have the first one.” The older boy turned to his younger brother and said,” OK, Kevin you can play Jesus.”
One of the most exciting developments of the last part of the 20thC was the return to a lot of churches of an understanding of the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of ordinary Christians. All across the denominational and theological spectrum, we saw a recovery of the gifts of the Spirit and the revitalization of the Christian witness they inspire because the gifts are the visible proof to the world of the reality of the power of God at work in our lives and in the world.
In his letters to the churches, St. Paul speaks at length about the gifts and in today's excerpt of his letter to the Romans we heard him list seven: prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading, and mercy.
Let's have a look at them and reflect which ones we have and use and which ones we have, but may need to dust off.
In popular usage, the word “prophecy” has become associated with predicting the future. I once heard a definition of a politician as someone who can predict the future and then tell you why it didn't happen. But, in the Bible, prophecy simply means speaking God's words. Yes, sometimes that involves what God has to say about future events, but, most of the time the prophets speak what God has to say about their own times - reminding the people of God that they are the people of God and have certain responsibilities. This is the work of the prophet and some of us may well have this gift.
As do many, if not most, of us have the gift of service. The Greek word used here for "service" or "ministry" as our reading put it is the word "diakonia" from which we get our word "deacon." In the Episcopal Church, we have an order of clergy called "deacons" while Presbyterians and other Protestant groups sometimes use the title "deacon" to refer to what we call our vestry. But, St. Paul is not referring to ordination or election. He's referring to a spirit of service above self which exhibits itself in what we do for others. All of us have this gift to some extent, but, there are those who exhibit it above and beyond and we can all give thanks for those who do.
Just as there are those among us who have the next gift he mentions, the gift of teaching. This is similar to prophecy in that what is being taught is God's word, but, unlike prophecy it doesn't come from a direct revelation or call of God. It comes from study and reflection on what God has done and said in the past, the theology and tradition of the Church, and not only applying it to the present, but, communicating it. A lot of people have this gift but, they let human insecurities get the better of them. I'll never forget there was a person I was convinced had this gift. She could apply Scripture to life situations in ways I'd seen few others. When I asked her to lead a Bible class, though, her response was, "Oh, no, I can't do that." The thing is, I knew she could. And I'm sure God knew she could, but, she wouldn’t do it. And that gift never got used in the ways it could have to strengthen our church.
Perhaps, what I needed was someone to talk with her who had the gift of exhortation. Exhortation. A person with this gift can stir up others to take on the challenges and opportunities of using their own gifts. And someone with this gift can inspire and cheer up people going through a rough patch. Often we think of someone exhorting a crowd and there are occasions when that is necessary. But, just as important is the one-on-one encouragement so many of us need. We can each be helped immeasurably by someone who uses this gift.
Of course, the thing about all the gifts is that they are just that, gifts. Things given to us. And why? Not just for our benefit, but, for the benefit of those around us. Which leads to the next gift St. Paul mentions and that is giving itself.
The gift of giving. Just as "diakonia" is the sharing of one's self, one's time and talents, so the gift of "metadidomai" as St. Paul calls it, is the sharing of one's possessions. A person with this gift, for example, does not consider tithing to be a hardship or, indeed, anything unusual. A person with "metadidomai" is not possessed by possessions or obsessed with gain and, so, can resist the constant temptation of our society to spend, spend, spend, when the message of the Gospel is share, share, share. And this is a gift we can all cultivate.
Now, the word St. Paul uses for the next gift he mentions, the gift of leadership, is quite interesting because that word, in Greek, is used to describe the helmsman of a ship. The helmsman - not the captain. Not the captain. This is a good lesson for us to see how the Early Church saw leadership. On a ship, the helmsman is not a high-ranking person. He does not chart the course. He simply obeys the captain's orders. The captain says which way to steer and the helmsman steers. So, what does that say about leadership in the church? It says that our leaders are themselves followers, followers of Captain Jesus. We steer the way we're told. That means also that just as on a ship the helmsman verbally repeats the captain's orders, so too, church leaders are just repeating what they’ve heard. And that is a special gift.
And finally, we come to the gift of mercy, the gift whereby certain Christians feel exceptional compassion for those who are suffering. In our time, we might say the quintessential example of this was Mother Theresa who devoted her life to the poor of India. Once, when asked how at her advanced age she could bear with the physical burdens of her ministry she replied, "How can one grow tired of counting diamonds?" Each person she saw, she saw as a precious object in both God's, and her, sight. And there are those here today who have this same gift of identifying and responding to the emotional and spiritual needs of others.
These are only seven of the dozens of gifts mentioned in Scripture and you can sense the importance of all the gifts to St. Paul in the way he began this passage: "I appeal to you, brothers and sisters", "I appeal to you, do not be conformed to this world but be transformed." And why? So that we can transform the world.
The pressure is on us every day to not use our gifts. The world does not want people to start tithing, or responding to other's needs, or talking about the Good News. The world wants us to keep everything inside and bottled up so that we don't disturb the peace and complacency which the world tries to create.
As we read in Acts, the Early Christians were accused of "turning the world upside down". Turning the world upside down. What if we turned Kent County upside down? Maybe it would look better - to God.
Oh, this is an unfinished sermon. You're going to have to finish it.
We can all play Jesus. Amen.