“Burden of Blessing?”
by the Reverend Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
January 17, 2016
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
When we are very young, our main source of truth and reality is our parents or other adults who raise us. My parents loved me so much that they had a hard time helping me to understand the difference between things I was good at and not good at. I was praised equally for my artwork and my ability on the sports field and for my schoolwork, though I wasn’t good at any of them.
There is an advantage to having that kind of parents, though. They loved me unconditionally, and that modeled for me the kind of love that God has for each of us. How wonderful it is to be loved into believing that anything is possible.
The problem with this kind of parenting is that it sets up unrealistic expectations and it clouds the truth about what we need to work on. To this day, I have what a friend once referred to as “post stroke” handwriting. There was a time there in second grade when I needed to do nothing except practice my writing and I didn’t because my mom would say how great it looked. It didn’t look great.
The challenge for those of us who are parents is to be both loving and honest with our kids, which is a very difficult balance to strike.
In the end, even though my dad thought I was a great catcher (and I did throw a few guys out at second base), the Yankees and the Red Sox have gotten along just fine without my services behind the plate. And I eventually found my true calling.
And I believe that each of us here at church has at least one of those.
In the early days of the Christian movement, the apostle Paul was doing everything he could to help the members of individual churches to get along and to know what it meant to be a community of faith. One of their main challenges, as it is for you and me, is to discern who should be doing what.
There were other conflicts and problems as well. They wondered how Jewish they needed to be. They wondered whether the men had to be circumcised and whether the women had to keep a kosher kitchen. They wondered how to do communion. Should everyone get the same amount of food or should those with more money be able to eat more bread and drink more wine?
In old Jerusalem, only Levites, a particular clan, could hold positions of spiritual leadership. You couldn’t be a priest unless you were a man and a Levite. In contrast, in the early Christian movement, men of any family — and also women — held positions of leadership.
Later, when the church became more institutionalized and began to mirror the Roman Empire, things changed and women were excluded from authorized leadership. It wasn’t until the 1800’s in the United States that things got back to where Jesus and his earliest followers intended them to be and women were allowed to lead again in official capacities.
In our reading for this morning, I suspect that Paul is addressing a conflict in the Corinthian church. It is a conflict that arises in most organizations. Who will lead? Who will host and who will serve? Who is going to tell us about the past and who will discern our future? Who will guide our spiritual lives and who will guide our
institutional and financial lives? Who will care for and lead our children and youth?
Paul’s answer is rooted in his faith. He begins by affirming the Spirit of God as the one who bestows spiritual gifts. He says that, even though we all have different gifts, the same Spirit gives them to all of us, and that, when we act on our gifts, we all serve Jesus’ priorities.
And it’s not just God we are serving when we use our gifts, but each other – our church and our wider community and all of our neighbors.
When I read this chapter, it sounds to me like Paul is trying to settle a dispute, and scholars do think that there were lots of disagreements in the early churches. Perhaps the Corinthians were in conflict over whose gifts were more important and more vital to their life together as Christ’s people.
Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracle working, prophecy, discernment, language, interpretation…
When I think of that list and look out on this room, I believe that we here at HCC are blessed with folks who can do all of that and more. Our officers and board chairs, our musicians, our deacons, our teens, our church school teachers, our choir members, and many folks who go about their loving work very quietly… You are living out the gifts of the Spirit, and we all benefit.
Right now, thankfully, we are not in conflict over whose gifts are more important. The truth is, though, it can happen, and we would do well to head Paul’s advice and honor each one who walks through our doors, whether we know their gifts yet or not. Eventually, we will, especially if we are paying attention.
To bring this passage up to date, I’d like to start with the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. This weekend, we remember him and honor his commitments.
Looking back at Paul’s list of spiritual gifts, the Reverend King possessed each of them, which is very unusual. He wasn’t perfect, but he was a wise, intelligent, faithful prophet, and he certainly worked miracles in the way that he drew so many into the struggle for civil rights and more.
The most satisfying and powerful aspect of Martin Luther King’s message was his emphasis on loving one’s neighbors, even and maybe even especially when our differences are obvious.
I also love the way that he inspired everyday people to make a difference and even to change the world. If individuals who had been held down for so long could come together in a non-violent way to gain freedom, certainly each of us, especially if we work together, can also make the world better.
What gifts do you bring to the table? You may have been told by someone along the way that you don’t have any or that your gifts don’t matter. Don’t believe them. Paul says that the Spirit endows us with our strengths, and while we do need others to help us discern our gifts, we should surround ourselves with people who celebrate and encourage us.
And lest our gifts begin to feel like a burden, like something we have to share, even when we are exhausted, remember that it is OK to take a break from serving others, to go inside ourselves for a while to do the quiet work of discernment. That way, when it comes time again to share what we have, we can do so with energy and joy.