An Abundance of Gifts (1 Corinthians 12:4-11; January 16, 2022)

In Shakespeare’s famous play “Twelfth Night” he pens a timeless line, “do not be afraid of greatness.  Some are born great.  Some achieve greatness.  And others have greatness thrust upon them.”

The desire to know and to be known are embedded in the human experience, in fact it is said that Jesus’s temptation in the wilderness in Matthew 4:1-17 speaks to the three greatest human desires that exist in pretty much all of us.  The temptation to be relevant (turning stones into bread), the temptation to prove our value and worth (throwing himself off the temple), and the temptation for riches, fortune, and fame (bowing to Satan in order to receive the earthly kingdom).  

Most of us desire to know that we have made a difference, most of us spend our lives seeking after a passion that will help define our existence, and most of us want to know that we are living for something or someone beyond just ourselves.

In the passage we read today from 1 Corinthians 12:4-11, the Apostle Paul shows us how we are all different and yet we are all serving the same body of Christ – or the same church.  Here Paul lays out several different spiritual gifts which one can possess, some of them are still common in our time, and others are not as common unless you come from a charismatic or Pentecostal background.  The gifts Paul lays out here are: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophesy, distinguishing spirits, tongues, and interpretation of tongues.  There are other similar spiritual gifts lists found in Romans 12:6-8 and 1 Peter 4:10-11 for a total of 20 specific gifts the Bible talks about believers being granted.  The other lists include the gifts of teaching, serving, encouragement, generosity, leadership, mercy, and preaching.  While some gifts are very much public roles, there are many others which are quietly done behind the scene but which still carry the weight with them of Kingdom impact.

This morning, I read a different version of these gifts from a liturgy called “Enfleshed.”  This is what the author writes, “In today’s lectionary Scripture, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11 is proclaimed, ‘To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’  For the sake of common good.  For collective liberation.  For the sake of un-building empire and co-creating otherwise. For the purpose of love’s freeing work.  For material transformation, intimately, structurally, and commonly.  

To one, the Spirit gives discerning wisdom and to another, the strength to weep for all that is being lost.  To another, an unshakable belief in the potential of transformation, to another, a soft presence that holds space for healing.  To another, a fire that inspires and compels.  To another, the courage to name and to unveil. To another, humour that upholds us.  To another, a curiosity that bridges, to another still, the gift of telling stories – ancient, fresh, intimate, and collective.”

Many of us might have been told at some point in our life perhaps by a friend, colleague, boss, or family member that we are specifically gifted in a certain area.  Perhaps we are good at extending hospitality – cooking and hosting a meal, making others feel welcome, and making sure that others feel included and valued.  Perhaps we are specifically gifted in service – we are willing to do the important jobs which others overlook and which might never be acknowledged, but perhaps we still take pride in knowing that someone completed them.  Perhaps we are good at working with children, being thoughtful as we remember the shut-ins, or good at writing thoughtful cards that cheer someone up.

These are all gifts the Bible specifically addresses, and yet in my sermon preparation I remembered that there are many other gifts which the Bible doesn’t talk about but which to me are priceless.  I think about the biweekly United Church Young Adult’s group I am part of with 18-35 year olds from across Canada and I think of their gifts of bravery, vulnerability, honesty, and compassion as they freely share about their lives.  I think about the gift of advocacy and justice many within the United Church carry as they pour their life work into social justice causes.  I think of the gifts of creativity that artists, musicians, writers, poets, film makers, and board game designers possess.  It is exactly because of the gift of artistic expression that many of us have been able to manage through various lockdowns.  I also think of those who are creative problem solvers, visionaries, bridge-builders, and those who have the gift of wondering and questioning how to make things better for the future.  I think about the people I work with who are coming out of homelessness and their gifts of courage, of trust, and of belief even when moments seem bleak and hopeless.  

Since we are now entering the week of prayer for Christian unity, I also have been thinking of the gifts that other denominations and even other religions can bring to us.  While many of us here grew up in the church, we now live in such a multi-cultural world where there are people of all backgrounds, beliefs, and persuasions.  In Windsor alone we have Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Pentecostal, Baptist, Brethren, Byzantine, and Orthodox churches.  We also have Muslims, Jews, Atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, and a host of other spiritual identities.  Each one, and each person has something to bring.  The way we worship, our core theology, and our social structures might vastly differ, but beneath it all many of us are still searching for love, for acceptance, and for a spiritual community.  To me, being ecumenical or inter-faith does not mean that we have to be exactly like someone else or that we must purely focus on the similarities, though.  We can acknowledge the differences, but we can also remember that there is often rich beauty in diversity.

Additionally, I think about those whose gift is often not considered.  What is the child who is non-verbal and who has a developmental disability trying to teach and show us?  Can it be through the gift of slowing down, of friendship, of trust, and of deep listening even when words are not expressed?  Could the person suffering from drug or alcohol addiction really be giving us the gift of being able to reach out and speak to them at the heart level, of acknowledging their trauma rather than their perceived vulnerability?  Could the immigrant from another country whose accent we can barely understand or who might not even speak English, be giving us the gift of experiencing a new lifestyle, a new perspective, and learning a new definition for home?  

Every week, we literally bump into hundreds of people.  Even with the restrictions, we still see people at the grocery store, walking past our street, driving to work, sitting on the street corner asking for money, on our social media, and in our churches.  I’m wondering if when we see these people, we can stop and actually see them as beloved children of God.  I’m wondering if we can consider what the person can teach us – even if it’s just patience because they are taking so long to count out their change.  I’m also wondering what gifts we can give to help that person, what lessons we can teach them.

Sometimes we may feel like we have nothing to give or to offer, but even in those moments of pain, we can remember that we are always a few pages ahead of someone else in our story.  There is always someone who we can help and often in those moments when we are depressed, disillusioned, or distressed, being able to help someone else takes our minds off of our own reality.  

Yes, God has given each one of us unique gifts, but it’s all for the exact same purpose.  Regardless of what our gift might be, we were given it to remember who God is and to show others about Him, to build up the church, and to help equip and empower others.  There will be times when we feel anything but great on our journey, there are times when we might even feel taken advantage of or burnt-out, but Paul reminds us in Galatians 6:9 that we should “not become weary of doing good for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”  A statistic I came across once said that the average person will influence 1,000 people in their lifetime.  At first this may seem like a lot of people, but just think about how many people you have met already in your life.  There are even people that we are able to influence without ever meeting them because of our prayers for them, or because a friend of ours tells them a story about us.  Since we have no idea how many people we will impact, I want to encourage us to impact them through our gifting.  Through our smiles, our sharing, and our loving-kindness.

Shakespeare once wrote not to be afraid of this greatness – of these gifts.  Not to shy away from them, but to use them for good.  He wrote that not all understand greatness.  That there will be people who aren’t happy with what we do, don’t stay where you are merely tolerated, go where you will be celebrated.  Give of yourself to the people who will see that value and be grateful.  Some are born great – some have an inherent and natural ability to do something almost as if it were genetic.  Some achieve greatness – some are able to develop a skill or ability because they spend time practicing and working towards it.  And some have greatness thrust upon them – some find themselves in a position where they must use their gift to help others whether they feel the gift is fully developed or not.  

Regardless of where you are today, regardless of how small and insignificant you might think your gift is, and regardless of how underdeveloped you might feel your gift is, I encourage you to shine.  I encourage us to claim the gifts we know we have – we do not have to pretend they don’t exist, but we can actually say “yes, God has given me this talent” and then we can seek out a way to use it to support others.  

I hope and pray that in this coming week our eyes will be open to such possibilities, because they are always there and they always exist.

May it be so. Amen.

Baptism of Jesus Sunday Sermon (January 9, 2021)

Have you ever thought about changing your name or your identity?  Many of us talk about or have talked about being different than we are in the past.  Perhaps you wished you were quieter or more outgoing.  Better at math or at science.  That you were taller, thinner, more muscular, or had blonde hair instead of brown.  It was 14 years ago yesterday that I decided to legally change my name.  When I applied for a name change at the age of 16, I received a new birth certificate, new driver’s license, and new social insurance card. It was almost as if the old me had never existed.  That old person was struck off any legal documents, and a new identity was formed.

Today is Baptism of Jesus Sunday, and it’s monumental because it shows us how in Christ we have been formed  as a new creation.  We likely have all heard the phrase “new year, new you” but the Bible actually says in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that in Christ, the old aspects of ourselves are done away with, and we are transformed.  Romans 12:2 says that our minds our renewed.  The word “renewed” literally means to re-establish, to rebuild, to repair, to restore after decay or deprivation.

Today’s Scripture passage might have only been 4 verses, but to me they are powerful and transformative.  For those of us who grew up in the church we likely have heard the phrase “remember your baptism” which is a curious expression because many of us were baptized as infants.  There are many traditions which baptize adults only and some of us here today might have made the choice to be baptized later in life perhaps due to not having been raised Christian or because we wanted to make a public declaration of our own accord, yet in the United Church these occasions are rather uncommon. Instead, I wonder if there is a holy mystery which occurs through the corporate act of remembrance on the part of the congregation, even if we, ourselves, slept or cried through the water being poured on our heads.

The United Church is not a “sacramental” church in the way the Roman Catholics and Orthodox denominations are, so we don’t often talk about what the sacraments mean and yet they are an important part of our communal worship.  In the UCC we only have two sacraments: baptism and communion.  Both were decreed by Christ Himself who said in Matthew 28:19 that we are to go into the world, making disciples, and baptizing in the name of the Triune God.  If you’ve never given much thought to the theological basis for sacraments, they are tangible ways God reveals Himself, ways to identify ourselves as believers, and visible sermons to others.

I will admit, that I, myself, never gave much thought to sacraments until I was forced to consider them in light of my ordination, for when a pastor is ordained, it is a calling to both the ministry of Word (Preaching) and sacrament. At first, I found it difficult to figure out how one could be called to sacrament, but then it became clear to me: for baptism is actually a sign of invitation, inclusion, hospitality, and healing.  More than that, it is a sign of purity, of passively receiving something which we do not have to earn of our own merit, and of being part of a community of friends.  It is a way of honouring life, bringing community together, and baptism is ultimately about being welcomed, accepted, and loved by God.

Last summer during my first clinical pastoral education unit also known as my chaplaincy training, I had a classmate encourage me to see my worth as a beloved child of God.  I have struggled with seeing my value as a worthy individual my entire life.  I have always been striving and seeking after the next thing, feeling that I needed to prove myself based on my degrees, my job performance, my popularity, or how the world saw me.  So, I decided to challenge myself to spend a year thinking about what it truly meant to be God’s beloved.  It has been a slow process and I’m not entirely sure even now that I can articulate it, yet, through my preparation for this sermon, I have come to see how our belovedness is uniquely tied into our baptism. Of course, this does not imply that if you are not baptized you are not God’s beloved.  We are all God’s chosen and cherished children, yet baptism to me exemplifies this very act of God’s outpouring love.

In Baptism we are chosen, called out and marked in love.  When Jesus came up out of the waters, it was the beginning of His ministry and marked a unique turning point in His life.  At that very moment, a voice from heaven called Jesus the delight of God’s life, the apple of God’s eye, and affirmed that Christ was on the right, true, and faithful path.

Some of us might have experienced the horror of being chosen last in school when it came to picking sides for a team sport.  As a single person, I often felt extra lonely and rejected because I felt that not having been married was a sign that I was not special enough to be chosen and I have heard many other singles say the same.  Perhaps we felt rejected because we were not hand picked or selected for the job, scholarship, or other opportunity we so desperately sought after.  Yet, in baptism, God shows us that we all are part of His family.  That we are all part of His church.  That we are gifted, called, and chosen because we are His.  

I love how Zephaniah 3:17 reminds us that God delights in us and rejoices over us with singing.  When is the last time you delighted in being you?  When is the last time you looked in the mirror and told yourself how much you love yourself?  It’s easy to tell others how much we love and appreciate them, but it’s much harder to list out those good qualities for ourselves.  It’s easy to compliment others, even complete strangers, and so easy to criticize ourselves, yet, when God made and formed us He pronounced us as good.  Not “good enough” but as whole and treasured children.  Psalm 139 says that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.” We are God’s handiwork and each one of us here today was born into such a time as this to accomplish a task which only we can do for God’s kingdom.  There has never been and there will never be anyone else just like us – with our temperament, our redeeming qualities, our quirks, idiosyncrasies, and flaws.  It’s easy for us to “show our best and save the rest” but sometimes it’s exactly because of our brokenness that beauty exudes from us.  Sometimes it’s because of the scars in our stories that we are able to offer hope and reassurance to others.  Or, as Brittany Estes, an American pastor says, “if I wouldn’t have been shattered the way I was, I wouldn’t shine like I do now.”  

One Bible story that is not often talked about but which has been a huge road marker on my journey is the story of David’s son Solomon found in 2 Samuel 12.  This story is one of the best illustrations of how God loves us even despite who we are or where we came from.  After David had an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and then proceeded to murder her husband, God still showed favour to David and gave him a son.  David named his son “Solomon” which means peace, but the Bible says that God gave him a different name.  To God, he was called Jedidah which means “loved by the Lord.”  God loved Solomon even though his father was a lustful murderer.  God also loved David even though he committed this sin because David’s heart was in the right place.  He made a mistake, but God is full of forgiveness.  We might also have made a wrong turn, we are imperfect, we fail, we choose the wrong path sometimes.  But still, to God, we are called “Beloved.”

We might not be able to remember our baptism literally, but I’m willing to say that our parents remembered it well.  That they remembered the anticipation and excitement leading up to it.  Carefully choosing beautiful and special clothes for the occasion.  Giving thought to who our godparents would be.  Cheerfully inviting friends, relatives, and neighbours.  Delighting over us.  Taking pride in us.  Giving expectancy over to God for their hopes and dreams over who we might become.

This is what it means to be a beloved child of God. It doesn’t matter who we are, who we were or where we came from, because the Bible tells us that we are all given the same spirit and that we have all been clothed in Christ.  To be a beloved child of God means that we have entered a covenant with him – not a casual contract that can be easily canceled, but a binding promise given because God is committed and values us.  We do not need to hide who we are in Christ, we can take pride and joy in the fact that God continues to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.

I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about changing your name and your identity.  Perhaps you’ve always wanted to be called something different than the name your parents gave you at your birth.  Yet, in Revelation 2:17 we are told that one day we will all receive a white stone with a new name on it.  It might be fun to consider what our new name could be.  Could it be the name of a celebrity we’ve always adored, or the name of a mentor we’ve had who has had a place of prominence in our lives?  It very well could, but to me, it will be the same name as we were all given at our baptism.  The name will remind us that we are loved, that we are redeemed, that we have a place in the Kingdom, and that God has chosen us as a vessel for whom His Kingdom life will pour out of.  

May it be so.  Amen.  

A Season of Fresh Starts (Rev. 21:1-7)

New Year’s Day has long been one of my favourite holidays of the year.  Almost as sacred as Easter, more exciting to me than opening up my presents on Christmas, and certainly more jovial than my birthday especially now that I’m over 30, there’s something profound about the clock striking midnight on January 1st.  The other day my colleague and I were talking about how we celebrated New Year’s as children.  Back then it was so exciting that our parents let us stay up well past our bedtime and as we got giddy and started dozing off to sleep, they would nudge us awake with promises of goodies and non-alcoholic champagne which my parents used to call “Kiddy wine.”  As an adult, I stay up past midnight more often than not, so that part is not novel to me, but there’s still something magical and exhilarating in the air as I look back on all I have seen, experienced, met, and accomplished the previous year and make plans and ideas for what is to come.  

When I was originally asked to lead the inaugural sermon of 2022, I was drawn to the beginning of the Bible.  The story of the Garden of Eden found in the book of Genesis.  The origins of humanity, the understanding of where we came from and as such where we are headed.  Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I felt it necessary to start at the back of the Bible instead.  The last book, the penultimate chapter – Revelation 21.  For you see, God is the great author and knew how to write a compelling book.  We have a poetic and serene introduction, the middle bits are filled with paradoxes and parables, with both turmoil and triumph, with sin and salvation.  Then finally our creative God ends with a Happily Ever After scenario.

I don’t know if anyone here today is a big movie buff, but there’s almost always this expectation that a movie ends on a happy note.  Even when villains seem to be winning, even when destruction and doom seem to permeate the set, and even when all seems hopeless, we all hang on to the edge of our seats, tightly gripping our bowl of popcorn, eyes wide at the screen believing that in the end a hero will swoop down and save the day.  There have been a few movies which have tried the opposite – where in the end of the day the villains wins, and likely most of you won’t even know about these movies because they generally fell flat.  People don’t like to watch movies where the bad guy does not meet a fair end.

Speaking of movies, if you’re anything like me you enjoy watching a movie through with no interruptions and get irritated when your friend or relative continues to ask questions or make comments through the film.  Or perhaps you’re the opposite and you are the person who enjoys being the commentator.  Generally people will shush others because they don’t want to miss anything.  Of particular note are those who have already seen the movie who are told not to spoil anything.  People say they want to be left in suspense, they don’t want to know the ending because it will ruin their movie pleasure.  Yet, interestingly enough, a 2011 psychological study actually showed the opposite.  The truth is that the general public actually enjoys a movie MORE when they know what to expect…but don’t try to tell them that.

I believe that God is like a great film director.  He knows that we will enjoy the movie of our life more when we know the ending.  Yes, there are times in our lives when we ask God when something will happen for us or even if it will happen for us.  Sometimes in my 20s I wanted to know how my life would unfold – where would I eventually live, who would I eventually marry (or would I even get married), would I have children, what type of job would I have, would I get ordained?  At that time, I thought that knowing all these answers would take away my anxiety and stress.  Well, God never did give me those answers at the time I thought I needed them, but God has given us all the answer for how good will ultimately triumph in the end of the day.  

Revelation 21 acts as a great SPOILER ALERT and in it God makes eight unique promises to us.  There will be a new heaven and a new earth, there will be no threats, earth will be restored, God will dwell among us, God will wipe away every tear, there won’t be any of the unpleasant realities we face in this world, the old ways will be done away with, and free water will be given for all who thirst.

I found it particularly interesting that while the story of humanity begins in a garden – a serene and peaceful place surrounded by nature, it ends in a city.  Think of the big cities we know in Canada – Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal.  They are places of great opportunity, multiculturalism, diversity, and artistic expression.  Yet, they are also places filled with poverty, homelessness, and lack of affordable housing.  Yet, the new city promised to us by God is one where all will find a home, where all will be loved and cherished, and where all will feel welcome.  When I lived in Toronto I sometimes felt alone in a concrete jungle even despite being surrounded by millions of people – yet in the new city God promises there will be no isolation, no quarantines, no lockdowns, because there will be no virus, no threat to our safety, and no harm to our loved ones.  No longer will the world be abolished by consumerism and the destruction of our environment due to corporate greed, rather it will be restored, flowers and plants will grow, trees will bear fruit again, and there will be endless fields for children to play in.  

If you’re like me, you probably grew up with the notion that when we die we go to heaven, yet, the Bible actually says that heaven comes to us.  That heaven is the restoration of this world that we already live on.  That heaven is made possible because we (through Christ) make it possible for others.  The New Heavens have not only been mentioned in Revelation, however, but the Apostle Peter and the Prophet Isaiah also knew about it and mentioned it to the Israelites.

The next great promise is that God will dwell among us.  We saw this very truth revealed to us at Christmastime when Jesus came to us as a helpless infant.  He was born in an ordinary way, and yet the events surrounding his birth were extraordinary.  He was born without pomp, ceremony, or fanfare, His origins were humble, and yet He came as a king to rule in righteousness rather than in riches.  John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  We have seen His glory.  The glory of the One and Only Son of the Father.”  The Apostle Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 6:16 that we, as ordinary human beings, are God’s temple, carrying His light and love into the world and as a result that God lives and walks amongst us.  We see Christ’s glory, and in turn we give this same glory away to others.

This passage is not all theoretical future musings though, it also offers us hope for our present reality.  John, the author of Revelation, writes that God will wipe away our tears, and that there won’t be any death, sadness, crying, or pain for those are former things which are done away with.

There is an old cliche that the only two things certain in this world are death and taxes.  It is a glib way of looking at the world, almost a sarcastic pessimistic nod to the fact that life can be harsh and difficult for so many people.  As the pandemic rages on, we see that sad reality continuing to be played out in our midst.  We know that many will continue to be affected and infected by the virus.  We know that loneliness and despair will continue to surface.  We know that issues of racial injustice, systemic oppression, and violence will not go away on their own but will continue to thrive.  We know that hatred and animosity will continue to flourish even amongst those who hold fast to militant views and extreme beliefs on any number of topics.  It is a difficult time for Christians and for society in general to live in.  And while the virus is one very real physical threat, we know that there are many other threats to our well-being and our desire for justice that are rarely discussed.  We think of issues of Indigenous rights,  gun violence, food insecurity, the refugee crisis, and more.  

Imagine a world where there is unity over division, understanding over fear, listening over arguing.  It reminds me of an old song by the band Family Force 5 called “Let It Be Love.”  The lyrics of this song go: I’ve never seen a soul set free
Through an argument
I’ve never seen a hurt get healed
In a protest
But I’ve seen sinners turned to saints
Because of grace
It’s love, love that lights the way

In 2020 we were all introduced to the phrase “a new normal.”  It has definitely not been easy for any of us going into year two of the pandemic to adapt and learn new ways of doing things.  We often crave the old.  We often lament that which we once loved.  We often wish things could return to how they used to be.  Yet, my charge for 2022 is to imagine and believe that while lots of the old ways were good, fruitful, and meaningful, that perhaps God is calling us to something far greater.  In Hebrews 11:15-16, the writer talks about Bible characters who had to leave their home town and mentions “if they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return.  Instead, they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.  Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.”

As we now enter 2022, may we seek after this new and heavenly city.  May our new normal be one of grace and compassion where the dominant variant is love.  May our hearts be stirred to support and show mercy to those who find themselves marginalized and afraid.  And even as God dwells among us in human form, may we also be Christ with skin on to those we meet.  

May it be so.  Amen.