In another year, perhaps this sermon will sound more like an annual report. For today, since I was only here for a quarter of last year, I feel as though I’m still finding my way around a little; there are light switches that I am only just discovering the location of, and although we have begun to get to know one another a little better, I know that you still have many stories to share with me, ones that I am eager to hear.
On the other hand, today’s epistle reading does seem like a perfect fit for an annual meeting morning. We are reminded, in a timely fashion, that there are varieties of gifts which are granted us by God for the building up of the common good; there are varieties of service, and of action and effect, but the same Spirit motivates them all, if they are destined to build up the whole people of God.
The gifts that Paul enumerates seem, in some ways, a little esoteric for us today, a little far removed from our daily experience and a little less than practical. But perhaps that is the formal, biblical language getting in the way. And since one of the gifts he mentions is the interpretation of tongues, let’s look again and see what we can find that speaks to us.
To one is given the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge, given by the same Spirit. William Barclay understands this to be the difference between understanding and factual knowledge, or the spiritual wisdom which has bright ideas and the kind of practical know-how that gets things done (William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, in The Daily Study Bible Series, rev. ed. (Westminster, 1975), p.109). It might be that the argument between religion and science that we hear so much about is a misunderstanding of the way in which both of these ways of understanding the world are gifts of the one who created it: religion, to discern the hand of God behind and beyond creation, and science, to understand how God has crafted the world and how it works. Both are given by the same Lord, for the common good, to lift up the welfare of all. The pragmatist and the poet, the engineer and the artist, the dreamer and the practical soul, each is necessary to the good of the whole.
Faith, we are told, is a gift given to one, while healing and miracles are given to another. Faith keeps us hoping, and healing helps us to live into that hope. We encourage one another in different ways, but the same God encourages us all. It is interesting, isn’t it, that faith is considered a personal gift; we tend to think that we should all have the same amount of faith, but it may be that if faith is a gift given to one, then the doubt of another is also a gift, designed to provoke our curiosity, our questing for God, our seeking for assurance, and the foil to the gift of faith to the one who is calm and confident, the reason that this one’s faith is indeed a gift offered for the good of the whole.
To another is given the gift of prophecy, of telling it how it is, of telling the truth to power, of calling to account the people of God, offering oracles of challenge and of comfort in the tradition of the prophets. And their neighbour has the gift of the discernment of spirits, to know when the prophet is on the right track, and to offer correction when he gets carried away. Similarly, one person has the gift of translating another’s words, another’s prayers, for the good of the gathered audience.
We need each other, Paul says; no one knows the mind of God, fully, completely. We walk as best we can in discipleship, as ones who confess that Jesus is Lord, but we need one another, in community, sharing the gifts of the Spirit as they are shared amongst us all, for our common good.
The list which we have here is clearly not exhaustive. We haven’t even begun to talk about love, hospitality, perseverance, the gift of creating order out of chaos, one of which personally I always stand in awe, prayerfulness, playfulness. We haven’t talked about the gifts of tact and of evangelism, of generosity of spirit and of the keeping of the communal memory, gifts which we know are present in this community and granted by the Spirit of God for the good of the whole, for the building up of the common good of the people of God.
And let’s not neglect to appreciate the unexpected gifts. A friend once told me of her Spiritual Director’s advice in a time of grief and sorrow: that even tears are a spiritual gift. It is given to some to celebrate the world’s joys, and to some to inspire the world’s idealism, and to some to carry out the work that idealists forget about, the hard graft that gets things done; and it is given to some, she said, to weep for the lost, to grieve with those who mourn, to bear the wounds of the brokenhearted. An unexpected gift, but a gift all the same, to the individual, and to those whom she serves, whose burdens she shares.
There is a variety 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.
Many of you are probably familiar with the idea of a spiritual gifts inventory: a way of identifying your own gifts, the ways in which God most readily works in and through you for the good of your own faith life and for the common good. They can be useful tools for deciding where to apply your energy, where God is calling you to serve, which varieties of activities you will most enjoy and find most fruitful in your own Christian ministry.
What I would like to propose us doing together over the coming year is some work on a communal spiritual gifts inventory: what are the gifts of this parish community as a community; how are we best placed to do the work of God in the world; what will energize and enrich us, knowing that we are following the lead of God’s Spirit, the promptings of God’s Spirit through the gifts that we have been given?
This work is meant to inspire rather than to restrict; to open horizons and raise our vision. A friend and colleague said at the beginning of this week that the lesson of the miracle at Cana is that where our resources end, that is where God’s resources begin, or kick in. But the epistle tells us that God’s resources are already shared with us, and that God puts us together to extend them, to build up the common good.
With this in mind, I want to thank those who have served in various capacities, in various activities, and in various ways during the past year: the Vestry and wardens, and their treasurer and clerk, the search committees that introduced Peter and me to this parish, those involved in music, worship, in hospitality and outreach, in prayer and pastoral care, in programming and in practical assistance of all kinds. I want to thank each of you that comes together Sunday by Sunday to join your gifts to those of the people around you to lift up the voice of the people of God in praise and thanksgiving, and to do the work that God has called us to, to celebrate together as the Body of Christ, those inspired by the Spirit to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.
And because all good gifts come from God, I would like to end with the prayer of General Thanksgiving found in our Book of Common Prayer, to thank God for you all:
Let us pray.
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen. -BCP, 836