A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
A new church for a new day, forming from the merger of
Niles Congregational Church, UCC, and First Christian Church, DOC,
in Fremont, on Sunday, August 19, 2012, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Romans 12:1-8 and Matthew 5:13-16
Copyright © 2012 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

            When Bessie Troyer broke her hip, I don’t know what hurt more – the actual break itself or the thought that it might mean she’d have to give up delivering meal-on-wheels.  Bessie was in her 80s when I was her pastor.  That was long enough ago that being over 80 seemed very far away.  She lived alone in an apartment, and her independence was very important to her.  But it wasn’t just being independent that was important to her, it was using her independence that was important.  And so she regularly delivered meal-on-wheels, which meant she often delivered meals to people who were a decade or more younger than she.  She would laugh with me about that and it became a form of proof of her independence.

            Then she broke her hip and she wondered, was she going to be able to drive?  And if she was about to still drive, would she be able to continue delivering meals-on-wheels?

I left that church before these questions were answered.  What I knew was that, at some point, Bessie would have to give up delivering meals-on-wheels.  And I knew that when that time came, her ministry would not be over.

Paul tells the church in Rome “to present your bodies as a living sacrifice” to God.  Eugene Peterson translates the verse this way:  “So here’s what I want you to do, God helping you:  Take your everyday, ordinary life – your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life – and place it before God as an offering. Embracing what God does for you is the best thing you can do for [God].”[i]

So how do we take our ordinary lives and place them before God as an offering?  Start, Paul says, by embracing the gifts God gives you and use them as part of the community of faith to continue Christ’s ministry.

Paul goes on to list several of these gifts (seven of them, if you’re counting).  This is not an exhaustive list.  In the first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul offers us two other lists of spiritual gifts – in the same chapter of the letter – and these lists don’t match.  And in Ephesians we get another list.

These four lists have some overlap, but there is something unique about each one.  Combined, they create a list of eighteen gifts God bestows through the grace of the Holy Spirit:  Encouragement, teaching, pastoring, prophecy, giving, compassion, wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, discernment, tongues, interpretation, apostleship, assisting, leadership, and evangelism.

I find it interesting that only one gift ends up on all four lists from these three epistles:  prophecy.  I don’t know if this means that prophecy was the most important spiritual gift, or that prophecy was simply the gift most on Paul’s mind, or that prophecy was the most frequently present (or frequently missing) gift from these communities of faith.  I don’t know what it means, but it did get me thinking about prophecy as a spiritual gift.

Remember, prophecy is not sooth-saying.  Being a prophet doesn’t mean you should get a 900 number and tell people their fortunes.  A prophet is someone who speaks God’s truth to power.  That’s what made Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., prophets – they spoke God’s truth about oppression to power.  That’s what makes Bill McKibben a prophet – he speaks God’s truth about climate change to power.  And I hold out hope that someone will utilize the spiritual gift of prophecy during one of the Presidential Debates and speak truth to the power that will be standing on that stage and make both Obama and Romney reflect on some aspect of God’s truth they’ve been ignoring.

I said before that none of Paul’s lists of spiritual gifts is exhaustive.  Even combined, I don’t think they create an exhaustive list.  For instance, organization isn’t on the list, and I think that organizing systems and organizing people requires this spiritual gift.  But let’s stick to this combined list for now.

Patricia D. Brown has organized these gifts into three categories:  gifts of word, gifts of deed, and gifts of sign.  While she recognizes that it’s not always clear-cut as to which of her categories to put each gift, this categorization can be helpful in identifying which gifts we’ve been given and how we use them.

Consider evangelism.  This gift of sharing the good news need not be expressed only in word.  It could be expressed in action, expressed in deed.  But by examining the things we say and the things we do, we might be able to identify if we possess and utilize this gift.

Or consider healing.  You might know you possess this gift, but you could be under-utilizing it.  You might know you express this gift of healing in deed – say through nursing, but what about expressing this gift as a sign that points to God?  Are you being aware of how God is working through your skills, through this gift?  Do you acknowledge through prayer that God is at work through this gift, allowing this gift to be a sign that points to God?

Likewise, one gift may impact another gift.  Bill McKibben wouldn’t have much truth to prophetically speak to power about climate change without knowledge (another spiritual gift) about the science of climate change.

Brown suggests another tool for identifying what gifts we’ve been given.  She suggests we think about the roles we have; the work or tasks we do; the talents we express; and the abilities we possess.

So, a high school junior who is a great listener (a talent) and who participates in a homework club (a task) might look at that talent and that task and realize he has the gift of teaching.  And a high school junior who is a great listener (a talent) and who is president of the school’s gay/straight alliance (a role) might look at that talent and that role and realize she has the gift of healing.

You get the idea of how looking at our roles, tasks, talents, and abilities can help us identify our spiritual gifts.  And I could go on like this, but I think I’m getting into the territory of a gifts assessment workshop.  That’s something we could do if there’s interest, but let’s get back to the sermon.

My sermon today really has two points.  The first is that God gives each of us spiritual gifts.  You have particular gifts that are different from mine because you are a unique child of God.  And you are called to be a steward of these gifts.

Our call to be stewards of the gifts God gives us is multi-purposed.  Being a good steward of God’s gifts brings you joy.  “As you use and live within the gifts of God, you have a sense of doing what you were created to do and of being who you were created to be.  You affirm your best self …  You find satisfaction and happiness as you do particular things well.  You act on your values and beliefs.  You see your deepest longings and hopes fulfilled as you use your gifts effectively to achieve realistic goals.”[ii]

Not only that, but being a steward of God’s gifts helps bring you into fuller life.  “As you use your gifts, you begin to understand that reaching your potential is more important than reaching the goal or goals you have set. …  As you discern and use your gifts, you enter an exciting experience of self-discovery.  You find new opportunities to use the full potential of your life.”[iii]

And being a good steward of God’s gifts empowers the church to fulfill God’s mission in the world.  When our gifts are combined, the body of Christ becomes more able-bodied, the community becomes more whole.  And through that wholeness, the world is made more whole.

My other point is that the gifts we have shift over our lifetimes.  Even as a working adult, our gifts change.  Life experiences help us grow and help new gifts to take root in us.

I think back to the gifts I had when I was first ordained.  I had gifts that made me a good chaplain for at least some of the kids in the Juvenile Hall where I worked, but I didn’t have the gifts to be the senior pastor of a church like ours.  Now (I hope this doesn’t sound prideful), I think I do.

When we are born, God doesn’t say, “Here.  Here are your gifts.  Make sure they last a lifetime.”  God says, “Here’s what you need now.”  And as we grow, God gives us new gifts.  And as we journey, God gives us additional gifts.  And as our abilities change – whether that means they increase or decrease – God give us additional gifts.

One of the things I love about our logo is the road that winds its way up over the hills into some new adventure beyond our ability to see.  It is, in some ways, a call to trust that God will give us what we need for that journey, and a call to trust that God will give us what we need for when we get to whatever it is that lies ahead beyond our horizon.

We are called to be stewards of shifting gifts.  When Bessie couldn’t hop out of her car to deliver meals any more, it didn’t mean that she had to give up exercising her spiritual gifts.  Perhaps it meant finding other ways to exercise the gift of assisting.  Perhaps it meant that God was replacing the gift of assisting with the gift of giving or discernment or faith.  Like all of us, Bessie was called to be a steward of her shifting gifts.

Jesus tells us that we are salt and we shouldn’t lose our saltiness.  Jesus tells us that we are light for the world and we shouldn’t hide that light.  Be a steward of your spiritual gifts – your shifting gifts – that your light may shine, that you may flavor life, that Christ’s body may be more complete.

Amen.


ENDNOTES
[i] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Romans 12:1a.

[ii] Patricia D. Brown, SpiritGifts (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996), 82.

[iii] Ibid, 83.

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