The Importance of ReGifting
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/C• January 17, 2016
“Tradition!” — that’s how the wonderful musical, Fiddler on the Roof, begins, a story of life in a shtetl, a close knit Russian Jewish village, challenged as the larger world with all its diversity seeps in and seeks change. I couldn’t help thinking of that song this week as I read Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a description of how to live together as a church. Now, for the last two Sundays, we’ve been hearing about how the light of God’s opening heaven has come into the world. Today and for the next two Sundays, I’d like to think with you about Paul’s description of how to take that light and make it shine in a way that lights up the world. Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lamp stand so that those who enter may see the light.” [Luke 11:33] How do we take the light of God’s love in Jesus and light up the world?
Paul is trying to keep the flickering light of the Corinthian Church shining. It’s about 20 years after Jesus and the church is about ten years old. It’s old enough that the initial exuberance of just being a church is gone and they’re starting to argue among themselves. Who are these people? Some are life long Jews who got kicked out of Italy; they grew up with Passover and candles and hymns and stories about Abraham. Now they’re putting these things in a new context, understanding them in new ways. Some of them are pagans, people who grew up worshipping different gods. We don’t really have anything like that in our culture. In ancient Corinth, you went to a different god depending on what you needed: one for prosperity, one for wisdom, one for healing and so on. They didn’t grow up with the Jewish stories, but they’re learning them. They do know what feels spiritual, though, that’s a current that runs through all religions. And of course there are all the usual human differences: some are older, some younger, some married, some single, some are richer or poorer.
All those things are making them separate out in the church. Paul’s whole letter is about finding unity in the light of God’s love. So far he’s talked about several topics and now he’s turning to one of the most important: gifts. We’ve just come through a season of gift giving, so when I say that word, you might think immediately of something in a box wrapped with pretty paper and maybe a bow. Put that gift back; the gifts we’re talking about here are something inside, something we all have already. Let me start with someone you’ve never heard of: Bill Benish. Bill was a classmate of mine in high school. We were part of the geeky bunch; for me it was word, for Bill it was math. In Algebra, he would get up at the blackboard and something just took over. He had a gift; he saw how the numbers and the variables and all of it went together, I guess. I didn’t particularly, but I could see him and it was like seeing a beautiful dance. He got me through Algebra; I helped get him through English. I lost track of him over the years. But I still remember that sense of the gift.
Do you have a gift? Is there something that gives you an amazing joy to do and always has? There are a wide variety of places online that will let you answer a bunch of questions and then suggest what your gift is. Maybe sometime, somewhere, someone did what used to be called vocational testing and said here you go, this is what you should be. Often someone simply recognizes our gift. When I was in ninth grade, our English teacher gave us an assignment to take a simple story and re-write it in some way. I wrote it as a play. I spent hours at my mother’s typewriter and after I turned it in, she called me up to her desk. Now that was a scary thing; it usually didn’t mean something good. She had my paper and she looked at me and said, “I’ve been trying to figure out who you are here and now I see: you’re a writer.” I don’t know that at the time what she said fully registered; I was just grateful I wasn’t in trouble. But her comment did make a difference and the truth is, I’ve earned my living my whole adult life writing and speaking.
Now the Corinthian church is like any church, like this church. There are people who do things, people who say things, some lead worship, some are better singers, some are good cooks, some are seen as spiritual leaders. One thing they have that we don’t is people who speak in tongues. What are tongues? In all religions, there have been people who experienced a kind of ecstasy that makes them move or speak in ways that are passionate and often hard to understand. It’s not unique to Christian churches; there are Hindu ecstatics, Muslim ecstatics, Jewish, Buddhist, all kinds. In Corinth, there are some people who have this gift and they are acting as if it means they are more spiritual, more in contact with Christ, better in some Godly way than others. And that, of course, is leading to division.
So Paul is speaking to this issue. He starts with a breath taking statement of inclusion: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Wow: think of the meaning of this—doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, male, female, rich, poor, Jewish, Gentile, whatever, if you are saying “Jesus is Lord” we have to acknowledge you, include you, as part of the family of Christians. That’s likely to be uncomfortable because there are people who affirm this that I don’t agree with about other things.
Once Paul announces this threshold, this equality, he goes on to talk about the places where we aren’t equal: the matter of gifts. He acknowledges there are a variety of gifts, of activities, of ways of being.
To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
Then announces a fundamental equality in them: all are given by God and all are given for one reason: the common good.
Most of us have some sense of having gifts, but do you know the purpose of your gift? Eric Liddell was a Scottish runner in the early 20th century but also a committed Christian leader. Born at a mission station in China, he returned to Scotland to study and run. His emphasis on running didn’t always sit well with the strict Scottish Presbyterians. The move Chariots of Fire is in part his biography and he says, defending his desire to compete as a runner,
I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt. You were right, it’s not just fun. To win is to honor him…
To use our gift is to honor the giver. Nowhere is there more joy, more energy, than in fully realizing God’s gifts for then we indeed become what God hoped. Paul lists off various gifts and affirms this, sees them each as something come from God, with a purpose.
For every gift contains a purpose. The first part is recognizing that it is a gift. There is something in us, a kind of pride, that often whispers we are our own, that what we are is solely because of our own accomplishment. When we recognize who we are is not simply ours but a result of the gift of God, the door opens to gratitude. When have you thanked God for your gifts? When have you simply quietly said to God in prayer, thank you for the exuberance of this spirit? When we know ourselves as the result of God’s gifts, we come to know ourselves as well as the vehicles of God’s gift. The second part of that process unfolds when we take up the purpose of the gift. Paul says: for the common good. Our gifts are not meant simply for us, they are part of God’s provision, God’s plan. One of the fundamental beliefs of Congregationalists is that each church is completely empowered by Christ to do the work Christ intends. The means of that empowerment, that energy, are the gifts of its members. So when we use our gifts knowing them as gifts, in gratitude, for God’s purpose, we build up the energy and mission of Christ. Giving our gifts gives God pleasure and fulfills God’s plan.
This is what I call regifting. Have you done this? Someone gives you something for Christmas and it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work for you, you don’t need it or want it. But you know someone who might like it. So you wrap it up, you give the gift to them. I used to go to a party after Christmas every year where people brought something to regift. What Paul seems to be saying is that your gift is meant to be regifted, that is shared, with the larger world, and in particular the whole church. That’s why you were given the gift; that’s it’s purpose and when gifts are regifted, they expand, they grow.
Every person here, each one of us, has a gift to give. Every visitor, everyone who walks in our doors is full of gifts waiting to be discovered, used, expressed. Today we’ve read several pieces of scripture. I’ve chosen to speak principally about the reading from First Corinthians. But I want to remind you finally of the Gospel reading. In that reading, according to John, Jesus performs the first sign that he is indeed the Christ. The sign is turning water into wine at a wedding. I want to close with this thought for you to carry home. There must have been many, many guests at the wedding at Cana. Yet of all of them, all the invited guests, perhaps dignitaries, the bride’s parents, the grooms, the bridal couple themselves—all of them!—only the servants see the miracle, know the miracle, experience the power and presence of Christ. When we ourselves give our gifts, knowing Jesus as Lord, then we too are servants and then indeed, we shall, we do, experience the power and presence of Christ and the exuberant joy of regifting what the Spirit has given us.
© James Eaton 2016