Gifts for Giving: Using Your Gifts

Scripture: 1 Peter 4:7-11

One of my all-time favorite classic movies is Home Alone.  Right under that is Home Alone 2.  As I was thinking about spiritual gifts, a scene from Home Alone 2 came to mind.

In this movie (in case it’s been a while), ten-year-old Kevin has accidentally flown to New York for Christmas while the rest of his family flies to Florida, and in the course of his adventures alone in the Big Apple, he befriends a woman who sits in Central Park and feeds the pigeons.  She’s constantly covered with pigeons.  In the scene I’m thinking of, Kevin asks about her story and how she ended up where she is.  She tells him about her broken family and how she became a loner, trying to make sure that her heart would never be broken again.

“I understand that,” Kevin tells her.  “I used to have this really nice pair of Rollerblades.  I was afraid if I wore them, I’d wreck them.  So I kept them in the box.  And you know what happened?  I outgrew them. I never wore them once outside.  Just wore them in my room a couple times.”

“A person’s heart and a person’s feelings are very different than the skates,” the Pigeon Lady tells him.

“Well,” Kevin says, “they’re kind of the same thing.”

And today I contend: a person’s spiritual gifts are also kind of the same thing.

Last week we talked about knowing our gifts, and hopefully you’ve had a chance to take the inventory and see what part of the Body of Christ you are—whether you are the hands, serving; the feet, moving forward in mission; the kidneys, filtering the good and the bad in the process of discernment; the stomach, digesting complex ideas into teachable ones; the eyes, open to God at work in the world; the ears, listening to people’s pain and need; the voice, speaking God’s truth; the heart, offering compassion; the brain, organizing and leading.

These different body parts represent different gifts and give us a way to see how they all fit together into something bigger as we do ministry together.  As Paul reminded us in 1 Corinthians, we need all of these different parts for the Body of Christ to function as a body.

The week before that, we read from 1 Peter.  Peter told us that all of us are set apart as ministers in our baptism.  “A royal priesthood,” he calls us.

Today we’re coming back to 1 Peter, fast forwarding a few chapters.  Today, Peter is talking about stewardship.  “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God,” we read, “serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received.”

Often, when we talk about stewardship, we are talking about money.  And money is an important part of stewardship: if we believe that God has given us the gift of financial resources, it’s our job to be faithful in using those resources well, and that includes giving a portion back to be used in God’s work.   Or sometimes we might be talking about creation, as Pope Francis has reminded us recently, and that is also part of stewardship: we have been entrusted with this planet we live on, and so far, at least, we only have one, so it is our job to be faithful in how we preserve it for future generations.

But our spiritual gifts, also, are a matter of stewardship.  God has entrusted you, a minister, with certain gifts for ministry.  It is your job to be faithful in what you do with them.  It’s your job to pay it forward: as 1 Peter puts it, to use that gift to serve one another.

Maybe for some of you that’s easy and it’s obvious how you should put your gifts to work.  Or maybe you feel like you’re already doing that pretty well.  But it might not always be obvious.  If you’re the eyes up here, you might say, OK, I see God at work in the world around me.  Now what?  So I have some thoughts for you this morning on putting your gifts to work.

One thing to realize is that when we talk about the work of ministry that God has for us to do, spiritual gifts are really only part of the equation. They’re an important part, but they’re only part.  Frederick Buechner once wrote that “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”  We spent some time discussing that quote in our Admin Board meetings last spring as we talked about our mission as a church.  I believe that deep gladness comes from offering whatever it is that we, in particular, have to offer.  That might come from our gifts, but it also might come from our experiences.  If you’ve been a victim of abuse, for example, you might find a special gladness in helping other victims of abuse.  If I am someone who has ever moved to a new place, and been a stranger in a strange land, then maybe I will find a special gladness in welcoming newcomers to our place.    So that’s something to think about: what is it that your life experiences have especially brought to light or equipped you for?

What we have to offer also comes from what we’re passionate about.  Maybe you’ve been watching news coverage of the refugee crisis these days, and that’s something you really feel strongly about.  Maybe you think, we need to be doing something about this!  Maybe that’s a passion that God has put on your heart for a reason. Maybe you see something that not everyone sees. It might not have anything to do with what you’re actually good at, and God might be calling you to do something about it anyway.  If you can find a way to do something about it that puts your God-given gifts to work, even better.

What we have to offer also comes from our individual personalities.[1]  In seminary, I was wrestling with the question of what exactly I wanted to do with my life (I assume most of us have been there.)  I knew God was calling me to do something that served the poor and marginalized in our society in some way.  What I also knew is that I couldn’t spend my life knocking on doors as a community organizer, because I would die if I had to do that.  That would not bring me deep gladness.  I would never come to work.  I’m not an extrovert, and I happen to think God takes these things into account.  But listening to people’s stories and using my words and leadership to create a community where all are welcome and can find what they need does bring me deep gladness.

So, something to think about: how might your gifts, and experiences, and passions, and personality all come together in something that can be your ministry as part of the Body of Christ?  Where do your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet?

There could be a lot of answers to that question, maybe different ones at different times, and they might not always take place within the walls of the church.  There are lots of ways to use your gifts in service to God and others as you go out to be God’s people in the world.  If you are the prophetic voice of the Body of Christ, maybe you could use that to advocate for the poor and vulnerable at a local or national level.  Lots of places these days are passing laws that effectively make it illegal to be homeless by outlawing panhandling or sleeping in public or that sort of thing—maybe you would use your gift to take on something like that.  Or maybe you could urge our government to accept more refugees from this current crisis.  If you are the compassionate heart, maybe you help out when you meet someone on the street or at work or elsewhere in life who is in need in some way.  If you are the serving hands, maybe you volunteer for a nonprofit doing all those little necessary things behind the scenes that make things run smoothly.  These are all examples of good stewardship of our gifts, and none of them are particularly churchy!

However—maybe I am biased—but the church needs your gifts, too.  We need prophetic voices telling us what more we should be doing in ministry; and we need compassionate hearts who hear all the concerns we speak and makes us feel cared for, and we need hands working behind the scenes to make things run smoothly.  We need teachers and leaders and open eyes and wise souls.

Imagine a church where each of its members gave faithfully and passionately of themselves using exactly the gifts God gave them.  Imagine what a powerful witness that church would be.  Imagine how alive it would feel.  Imagine how much other people would want to be a part of it.

Just last month I was asking you all to volunteer for all the things that make church happen here on a weekly basis, and lots of you did: as greeters, and ushers, and tellers, and readers, and some other things.  Now, as we’re looking toward our plans for 2016, we don’t just need volunteers (although we need volunteers!)  We also need people who are going to take ownership and be leaders of the mission and ministry of this church, and who are going to use their God-given gifts to do that.

Fifteen or so years ago, Pat B. said, I think we should be going to ASP, and he made it happen.  And every year he uses his gifts of organization and recruiting to make it happen, and it’s become one of the big ministries of this church.  Leslie G. tutors people in English as a Second Language here at church.  It’s not an official program; but it’s something that she has to give, and when someone brings a need to her attention, she does it.  Your gifts might make you perfect to chair the Finance committee or serve on Staff-Parish Relations, but it might also be that your call is to take on something new here.  Maybe you see something that makes you think, we should be doing this, and I want to make it happen!  Talk to me about that.  I will help you.  Instead of being the person who just recruits people to be on committees, I want to be the person who helps enable your ministry to happen.

As we look at this drawing of the Body of Christ we have up here, we might notice that we’re not necessarily evenly distributed.  It’s OK if we don’t all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.  We’re not the Body of Christ alone, after all.  It might be that we as a congregation have a particular gift to offer to the world, depending on what we’re especially strong in.  What parts do you see that are strong here?  What might that makes us good at as a congregation?  Again, something to think about.

As I’ve mentioned before, there are a couple caveats here.  First of all, knowing and using our gifts doesn’t give us a free pass on everything else.  I can’t just say, well, giving isn’t my gift, therefore I don’t have to give away any of my money.  No.  That’s a basic aspect of Christian discipleship.  And I can’t just say, well, I’m not a heart, compassion isn’t really my gift, and use that as an excuse to be rude and judgmental. Love is still pretty much the whole point.   Second of all, God does sometimes call us out of our comfort zones.  God does not just always call us to do things we’re already super good at and comfortable with.  Maybe we have to learn a new skill.  Maybe God needs us to grow in a particular area, especially to kind of round out the Body of Christ here.

But still—I do believe that the best stewardship is when we capitalize on the gifts and passions and experiences and personalities God has given us—because those aren’t an accident.  They are given to us precisely so we can give them away, in service to God and neighbor.  They are given to us for the work of ministry.

In a book I read this summer I came across a story about a woman named Sue who became connected with a new member of her church—his name was Joe—who happened to be dying of AIDS.  She started visiting Joe and organizing other to care for him, and she became the main point of contact between him and the church as he became less and less able to come to anything.  This became Sue’s ministry for several reasons: her gift for relating to people and organizing them (perhaps she was a heart and a brain) and her own medical history which made her especially sensitive to Jim’s needs.

She wrote that she was called to his house one day as his time came.  And since Joe was dying Sue frantically tried to call her pastor so he could be there.  Meanwhile Joe’s friends gathered around, but she could not get a hold of the pastor.  He never showed up.

She did get a hold of him later, and she was angry.  But her pastor said, “Sue, I called Joe’s house when I received your message.  The person who answered assured me that the minister was already with Joe.  That was you, Sue.”[2]

What difference might your gifts make to this world, and in particular, to this church?  How could you help this church come even more alive as the Body of Christ?

Think of those Rollerblades, sitting in a box, never getting used, until in the end, they were useless.

“A person’s gifts are very different from the skates,” we might say.

Well, they’re kind of the same thing.

[1]The DESIGN model (Desire/Experience/Spiritual Gifts/Individual Style/Growth/Natural Abilities) from New Hope Church in Oahu informed these reflections greatly.  Read more at http://www.enewhope.org/nextsteps/ministry.

[2] From The Equipping Church by Sue Mallory

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Gifts for Giving: Knowing Your Gifts

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:4-26

In my almost 32 years of life, I have learned some things about myself.

I’ve learned that I was never going to be picked first for any sports teams, but that I am a good writer, and pick up languages quickly.

I’ve learned that if you take me to a bank and have me listen to the terms of opening a new account, I’ll get a headache and my eyes will glaze over as I listen to numbers, but that I can hold my own in a good theological conversation.

I’ve learned that when I get stressed out, I put everything I have to do in a list, and it makes me feel more in control.  I’ve also learned that I get more stressed out when things don’t go according to my plans or lists.

I’ve learned that I love getting to know someone new over coffee, but that anything involving the word “mingling” or “networking” makes me want to immediately contract into fetal position.

You may have already discovered some of these things about me, and I’m sure you have discovered many more things about yourself.  I have learned, over the years, that there are some gifts I definitely have, and some gifts I definitely do not.  I have also learned, and am still learning, that this is by design.

Two Advents ago Pam Lassell and I got to church early one morning to hand out cookies to people passing by on the skywalk on their way to work.  I had baked all these cookies the night before, which is something I’m good at doing, though it’s not a talent that really transfers to a lot of other baked goods.  As we stood there I politely called out to each passerby, “Oh hello, wouldn’t you like some free holiday cookies,” while people ignored me, and meanwhile Pam was up leaning over the railing and stuffing baggies of cookies in people’s bags as they walked by.

It was one of those times when it was just so clear to me why we need people with different gifts in the Body of Christ.  Luckily, God thought of that too.

“To each,” writes Paul, “is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”  To one is given knowledge, to one is given wisdom, to another faith, to another healing, to another prophecy, to another, speaking in tongues.

If we look at some other passages from Romans (12) and Ephesians (4) we hear even more possibilities: we may have gifts in teaching, exhortation, giving, compassion; we may be evangelists, or pastors, or apostles, which we might call missionaries.

Some of these gifts are self-explanatory: we know a good teacher when we see one, and we might also have some idea if we are one.  Some of them, like exhortation, we might need to look up, and learn that it can also be called counsel, or giving good advice.  Some we might think of one way, like evangelism: when we hear it we may think of someone standing on a street corner with a bullhorn, and we might be surprised to discover that someone sees that gift in us because we enthusiastically invite others to be part of something we have found worthwhile.

Some gifts we may wish Paul had never listed at all, like speaking in tongues, because they sound weird, and we are a little afraid of them.  I was in seminary before I ever heard anyone speak in tongues, and it was a strange experience that I tried really hard to be open-minded about.  I think maybe there is really something to be said for being able to communicate with God in a way that goes beyond our everyday language.  Know what, though?  On the spiritual gifts inventory on the UMC website, speaking in tongues and interpreting were two of my highest gifts.  I told you I like languages, and it’s all about how you interpret things.

“About spiritual gifts,” Paul writes to the Corinthians, “I do not want you to be uninformed.”

Well, let’s assume that Paul doesn’t want us to be uninformed, either, so maybe we can back up and start simply by asking, so, what exactly IS a spiritual gift?

I’ve heard a lot of people say that spiritual gifts are distinct from your natural talents and skills.  While you were of course born with some of those—things you are just good at—a spiritual gift is something given to you when you receive the Holy Spirit at your baptism.  Like I said last week, it is our baptism that commissions us for ministry, and it makes some sense that if God is going to give us a job, God is also going to give us what we need to do it.

But I’ve also never really known about that.  Some of you may certainly have some stories about how when you became a Christian God equipped you for something you never would have found yourself equipped for before.  But I think a lot of times how God works is that God gives us certain gifts that are just part of who we are as people, since we’re born, as part of God’s prevenient grace—that grace that God gives everyone before we’re even aware of it.  And I think that in our baptism, God commissions some or all of those gifts for ministry.  It’s like God says, OK!  Now it’s time to put those things to work for my glory, and as the Holy Spirit empowers us to do that, that’s what makes those gifts spiritual gifts.

If you look at a traditional spiritual gifts inventory—and like I said last week, the one I gave you to do is a little different from most—you’ll see that you can end up with one of a number of these gifts that I already listed, and often more.  You can have the gift of mercy or the gift of administration, the gift of celibacy or voluntary poverty, the gift of hospitality or tongues or interpreting tongues, or the gift of discerning spirits.  It’s a long list.  These traditional inventories are useful in helping us think about what we’re good at in language that a lot of other Christians can relate to, and if you are interested in doing that kind, I am happy to point you to one or several (including the free one you can do online at umc.org.)[1]

But I also don’t believe any of these lists Paul gives us, or the lists people make from compiling them, are meant to be an exhaustive list.  Paul is just trying to get us to think about the tremendous variety of gifts that are out there that all come from the same Holy Spirit!  You might have the gift of art or the gift of music, or the gift of being handy, or the gift of being good with technology and able to work a soundboard, the gift of networking to advocate for church interests with the county powers that be, the gift of cookie-baking, the gift for effectively using social media, or probably a lot of other things.  As one of my colleagues put it, “the needs of the church change over time.”

Those can all be spiritual gifts, IF they are or can be used in service to God.  IF they are used for the upbuilding and the strengthening of the Body of Christ.  As Paul puts it, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

That’s why the inventory I gave you pictures our gifts a little differently.  If you are a brain, you may be good at organizing.  If you are hands, maybe you are ready to pitch in as needed to serve.  If you are the feet, maybe you are ready to go places in mission.  If you are the kidneys, you are someone who can help us filter the good from the bad and discern what God really wants for us.   If you’re the stomach, you can take complex ideas and digest them for other people to understand.

This is a picture of how we do and/or can all work together as one body, for the common good, with all the different graces God has given us.  (And we’ll keep filling it in next week.)

Now, the reason Paul is writing to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts is because they are doing it wrong, just like the Corinthians do just about everything wrong.  They are so excited as new Christians to discover that they have God-given gifts for ministry that everyone starts thinking my gift is the best gift!

To which, of course, Paul says: no no no no no no.  Our community needs all of these different gifts.  You can’t have a community where everyone’s trying to organize each other and no one wants to take out the trash, any more than you can have a body with four brains and no hands.  You can’t have a community where everyone wants to have deep theological conversations all the time and no one ever wants to just go somewhere and do something, any more than you can have a body with six stomachs and no feet.  You can’t have a community of all musicians and no numbers people, or all soundboard gurus and no one who wants to tell others about their faith, or all bleeding hearts and no one to help us discern where our energy and resources can glorify God the most.  Paul says, look at the picture, people.  Think about the whole body.

It may be tempting to fall into this trap sometimes, of ranking the gifts God gives us, for better or for worse.  One of my pastor friends said he did a spiritual gifts workshop once and the reaction he got was, “Well, thank God I don’t have the gift of service!”  Let some other poor sucker actually help with stuff, right?

Pro tip: if you are thanking God you don’t have the gift of service, you knew that about yourself already.

I think that often, though, the opposite is true: that we fall into the trap of thinking we don’t have any spiritual gifts at all, or at least not any significant ones that really make a difference.  “I’m just a smelly old foot,” we say.  “I don’t really have anything to give.”

One of the things I’ve learned along the way as I’ve learned what I’m good and bad at is that sometimes it’s easier to claim our weaknesses rather than our strengths.  I remember in middle school we had to do some supposedly-confidence building exercise where we had to write three good things about ourselves, anonymously, for the teacher to compile and show us.  I thought I was going to die having to write three good things about myself that others would see.  I remember thinking that I must have misunderstood, she must just have meant three things about ourselves, and I was embarrassed to make them all good, because who did I think I was to only say good things about myself?  So the first thing I wrote down was “unathletic.”  Which, as I’ve told you, was completely true, just completely not the point of the whole exercise.

That was middle school, of course.  As adults, we’re used to going to interviews and trying to talk ourselves up and make our weaknesses sound like strengths in disguise, like, “Sometimes I just work too hard.”  And yet, when it comes down to it, when we’re not desperate to sell ourselves, sometimes one of the most painful things is trying to tell someone else what we are good at.  What if they don’t agree?  What if I wrote “funny” on that list in middle school, and everyone looked at me askance?

But the thing is, if we don’t know and claim our strengths, we may end up serving out of our weaknesses.  And while God does work through our weaknesses, and while I’m also not going to promise you that every job that needs to get done in church is going to perfectly fulfill somebody—wouldn’t you rather focus your energy and passion and time doing what God has made you for?

Besides, it’s not about you.  That’s actually the good news.  It’s about the Body of Christ.  It’s about a community being complete.  It’s about you playing the part that God needs you to play for the common good.  It’s not about pride, or humility, or judging yourself relative to the people around you.

As C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less.”

It’s not about thinking you’re the best at something or thinking you’re not the best at anything, it’s about realizing a part of the body will be missing if you don’t recognize and use the gifts God has given you.

That’s why we are claiming our spiritual gifts this month.  (Be sure to take an inventory if you haven’t and come back to put your name on the picture next week.)

Now, what’s the next step after knowing and claiming our gifts?  Putting them to work.  It doesn’t do any good to just be the Body of Christ on a piece of paper.  God has work for us to do!  So let’s do it using what God gave us.

[1] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/spiritual-gifts

Gifts for Giving: We Are the Church Together

Scripture: 1 Peter 2:4-10

In some traditions, it’s common for a priest or a pastor to wear a clerical collar.  You might see someone who does and assume they are Catholic or Episcopal, but I have some Methodist pastor friends who do too.

There’s a certain benefit to wearing a collar, because when people see you out on the street, or on a bus, or at a coffee shop, they know you are someone they can talk to, or ask questions about church, or ask for prayer, or ask for help.  Mostly this is a good thing, I think.

I’ve never worn a collar, though.  At first I thought it seemed too formal, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I might try it at some point.  I like the thought that it might be a conversation starter.  What makes me nervous is the lack of anonymity.  If people saw me out and about and immediately recognized me as a pastor, or something like one, they might also expect a certain standard of decorum.  I wouldn’t be able to roll my eyes and sigh huffily at the person taking too long in front of me in line, for example.  Or make an angry gesture at someone in a nearby car.  Not that I would ever do that.

When you think about it, it’s a powerful and kind of a scary thing to be set apart like that.

But then again maybe that powerful and scary thing isn’t just for pastors and priests.

I read a story once in a Barbara Brown Taylor book about a young man who decided he wanted to be ordained, and when someone asked him why, he said, I want to be that person who someone can talk to on the bus when they’re having a rough day.  What Barbara Brown Taylor said about that was, how sad that we’ve come to think we need to be ordained to be that person.  Shouldn’t that be the job of all Christians?[1]

Maybe we should all be walking around wearing imaginary collars, with an awareness that all of us are set apart for ministry.

If you look at the back of your bulletin, you’ll see that it lists me as the pastor here, but then says, “Ministers: All God’s People.”  That’s been there since before I got here, too.  Would you ever identify yourself as a minister?  Does that sound scary, like I feel about wearing a collar?  Like maybe that’s something you didn’t exactly sign up for?  (Maybe even that you couldn’t be paid enough to sign up for?)

Actually, it’s something we’re all signed up for in our baptism.  My ordination didn’t make me a minister. Baptism and confirmation did.

All Christian traditions have this idea we call the “priesthood of all believers” or “the ministry of all Christians.”  We tend to use the latter in the United Methodist Church—that’s what’s in our Book of Discipline, and besides, we don’t really talk much about priesthood at all—but I do kind of like this idea that all of us are priests.  That we are all walking around in our imaginary collars, doing ministry out in the open where people can recognize us, and know that in us they have found a connection to a God they may or may not know.

It’s an image that comes in part from this passage from 1 Peter.  Peter, you should know, is not writing to a group of people who feel like they have an especially high or privileged status—they are people who probably feel rejected by the familiar world around them for the new faith they profess.  But he writes that God is building them into a holy priesthood.  He writes that they are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people.”  God has called them out of the world around them and set them apart as something important.  By the way, the Greek word for church, ekklesia, means just that: called out.  God has called them out of the world and set them apart for a purpose.

What is that purpose?  “That you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.”

They are people, ordinary Christians, called and set apart to bear witness to God’s love in this world.  They have experienced God’s mercy, God who calls them beloved and special and gives them this identity no matter what anyone else may call them, and now their job is to go and show the world what that mercy looks like.  They are called and set apart for ministry.  The only ordination they got was their baptism.

When I was ordained, I took some vows.  I promised to be faithful in prayer and the study of the Scriptures, to do my best to pattern my life in accordance with the teachings of Christ, to lead God’s people to faith and community and to seek justice, and to be loyal to the United Methodist Church.

But seventeen years before that, I had also taken some vows.  I promised at my confirmation to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, to accept the freedom and power God gives me to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and to put my trust in Jesus Christ and serve him as my Lord in union with the church and all the people who are a part of it.

And four years before that, my parents and my church community had promised at my baptism to support me and lead me to taking those vows for myself.

It was my ordination that made me a pastor, which gave me a specific job in God’s church.  But it was those earlier vows and the grace of God working through them that made me a minister, and that bound me to be active in ministry to the world.  I don’t know that I fully understood that then, but I have since then learned it more and more.

Why does God set all Christians apart to do the work of ministry?  It’s not just to give you one more obligation in your already busy schedule—it’s because that’s what the church is supposed to be: the Body of Christ, working together.

The church was never supposed to just be a place where you come to check off a box or even just to refuel every week; never a place to take or leave depending on how much you “get” out of it; but the living, breathing Body of Christ in this world, and that takes all of us.  It’s a pretty weak body if the church is only a pastor, or only a few key leaders, or only a building.  The Body of Christ takes the gifts and the service of all of us.

1 Peter gives us this image of coming to God as “living stones,” built around Christ who gives us our structure, offering ourselves to become part of something bigger where God is made evident in this world.

Sometimes I think it can be tempting to think that we’re just going to come, that ministry is something for the person in front with the collar or the stole, something that one or a few people do and the rest of us consume, something that we don’t all have the skills for or aren’t holy enough for or that just isn’t our job.

As a pastor, I can even fall into that trap sometimes, thinking that ministry is my job.  I remember a time at my church in Williamsburg when I had to learn this lesson.  At Williamsburg, as the associate pastor, I was the person on staff who got to field requests for financial help from people in the community.  Williamsburg is a big church that did actually have some money to give, which meant that there were a lot of requests, and thus that this was actually a pretty stressful part of my job.  I had specific office hours when people were supposed to come talk to me about money, but there was one woman who had to come in for some follow-up, so I had told her to call first, and she said she would plan to be in around noon.  But when I got to church that next morning, there she was, already waiting for me.  I immediately went into introvert stress mode, which is what sometimes happens when people try to talk to me when I’m not expecting it, through no fault of theirs, and I gritted my teeth and told her probably not very pastorally to give me five minutes.

In a few minutes I came back out of my office with the check I had promised her, but when I got to the lobby she wasn’t alone.  Another woman I had never met before was standing there holding her hand and this second woman said, “I feel like God brought me here today to pray with you.  I know he’ll provide.  He loves you so much.  I can feel his love all around you.”

My first reaction was to get a little mad, mostly at myself, because here was this lady I didn’t know, doing my job better than me.

But then I had to check myself, because who was I to think that comforting and praying with a woman in need was only my job to do, just because I was the pastor.  The second woman was a minister, just like God called her and set her apart to be.  And she owned it.  And I thanked God, that morning, that the Body of Christ was made up of more than me.

Yesterday I gave a presentation to our United Methodist Women group about the history of the UMW.  As I was researching it this week, I really started getting into it.  The UMW has an amazing story.  That story began soon after the end of the Civil War, in a period when international mission was flourishing, and women were not still really allowed or expected to do much outside the home.

The story goes that two women went to India with their missionary husbands came home on furlough and went to speak to a women’s group at a church in Boston.  The weather was bad and there were only eight people there, but Mrs. Butler and Mrs. Parker told them all about the desperate need they had encountered among women, particularly, in India.  Apparently women couldn’t be treated by a male doctor.  Girls received almost no formal education.  They needed women who could give them access to school and medical care.

“Those present,” one book put it, “became convinced that the gospel could only be brought to the women of India by women.”[2]

So what do you think this group of women did?  They met again, called themselves the Methodist Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society, raised funds, and sent two women missionaries to India.  Isabella Thoburn began a school which became the first women’s college in Asia.  Dr. Clara Swain began a medical practice which became the first women’s hospital in Asia.[3]

Talk about owning it!  These women were ministers, and not just the missionaries, but all the women who said God has shown me a need and it’s my job to do something about it.  This is part of my ministry.  And thank goodness people like that are also part of the Body of Christ, because I can’t do everything, I can’t meet every need, but we’re the church together, and together, when we all own our ministry, we can really do a lot, and God’s work really does get done.

Though God calls us all into ministry in our baptism, God does not call all of us to the same ministry.  That, of course, would not be very productive at all.  Maybe some of us will be missionaries, and some of us will be counselors, or teachers, or musicians.  Some of us quite apart from our jobs will welcome refugees, or mentor children, or pay particular attention to the homeless people in our community.  Some of us will lead our fellow members of the Body of Christ in service projects, or fervently pray for every person in our congregation who needs prayer.  Some of us will be pastors, whose job it is to help you find yours.  God has different work for each of us to do, based on our particular gifts, and personalities, and passions, and experiences, and the needs God puts in front of us especially.

That’s what we’re going to explore over the next two weeks as we talk more about spiritual gifts.  As I said, gifts are just one part of it, but for those of us who may need some help thinking about what our ministry is, or could be, it’s a good place to start.  What has God given you, especially, to do?

In a few minutes when we take our offering we’re also going to pass out these spiritual gifts inventories.  If you’ve taken something like this before, this one will probably be a little different.  It doesn’t have a hundred categories of all the possible gifts listed in the Bible in one passage or another.  Instead, it will give you a body part, like brain or heart or hands—part of the Body of Christ.   Next week when you come back we’re going to have a big drawing of the Body of Christ and I’m going to ask you to put your name on the part or parts that represent your gifts.

We are the church, together.  Let’s know our gifts and own our ministry, to the glory of God who called us and set us apart!

[1] At least I think it was a BBT book.  I could have sworn this story was in Leaving Church, but I couldn’t find it in there anywhere.  Maybe someone knows?

[2] Jean Miller Schmidt, Grace Sufficient: A History of Women in American Methodism, p. 159

[3] http://www.unitedmethodistwomen.org/about/history

Hope for Us, Too

Scripture: Mark 7:31-37

Today’s passage isn’t the one where Jesus walks on water, but we’re going to start with this short video anyway: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrncG8NvZJI [Video of Shaolin monk “running on water” for 125 meters]

You never knew being a monk was so much fun.

Clearly, this is not quite the same thing as Jesus walking on water, unless Jesus also got some plywood boards and ten years to practice.  And if you’re like me at all, it’s kind of a relief that it’s not the same thing.  Because when I saw the headline about a monk running on water, my first though was, no.  Surely it was fake.  Well, it turns out it seems like it wasn’t fake, but at least there was some sort of reasonable explanation.  I don’t expect I would be able to run very far on plywood boards on the water, but at least I can accept it.

If I had come across a video of a miraculous healing, I probably would have had a similar reaction.  I would have been skeptical.  I believe in doctors.  I believe in vaccines.  I believe in eating a whole bag of Vitamin C drops when I’m getting a cold, which may or may not actually be scientific.

I’ve never seen or experienced the kind of healing we read about in the Bible.  I know some people who would say they have, and I tend not to make judgment calls on things like that.  But I haven’t.

A lot of times we read things in the Bible and, for better or worse, we don’t really expect them to happen today.  And yet, of all the things we read about in the Gospels, Jesus healing people is a really, really big thing.  What stories can you think of where Jesus healed people?

There was the hemorrhaging woman who touched the hem of his cloak.  The man who was lowered through the roof on a stretcher by his friends.  The servant of a Roman centurion.  Jairus’s daughter.  The man with a withered hand, on the Sabbath.  The ten lepers.  The daughter of the Syro-Phoenician woman (which, coincidentally, comes right before today’s passage in Mark.)  Simon’s mother-in-law.  Lazarus.

Of course that doesn’t count the many times Jesus exorcised demons, which is a little different from healing people, but not that much.

It also doesn’t count the many times in the Gospels that we simply read something like, “Jesus came to a certain place, and everyone from that village gathered around and brought him people who were sick or possessed by demons, and he healed them.”

As we’ve seen, the Gospels’ healing stories range from the charming (the man being lowered through the roof), to the matter-of-fact (also many people came to Jesus and he healed them) to the outright strange, like the one we heard today:

“They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.  He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.  Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said, ‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’”

I don’t know if you share my natural skepticism when it comes to stories like these, but I think that, when I go a little deeper, past that skepticism, there’s a reason I know so many of these stories, and a reason they speak to me.  And maybe that’s because if I had lived in Bible times, maybe I would have been someone who went to Jesus in search of healing, too.

I’ve never had cancer or contracted leprosy or lost my hearing or even broken a bone, but maybe I would have gone to Jesus in search of healing, too.

Maybe the reason we know these stories is precisely because we want to believe, skeptics or not, that if Jesus can heal the lepers and Simon’s mother-in-law and Jairus’s daughter and the man with the withered hand and a deaf man with a speech impediment, then maybe there’s hope for us, too.

I don’t know what brought each of you here this morning.  You might have come because you felt like you were supposed to or because someone else felt like you were supposed to.  But maybe some of you are here because you need something: a prayer answered, a new start, a relationship reconciled, a new direction, peace or strength or courage, a change in spirit.  Maybe many of us are here because we are looking for healing in these many different ways, big or small.  No matter what, Jesus says welcome.  Because he is here, you’re in the right place.

Healing, though, doesn’t always happen in exactly the way we want or expect.  As I said before, the story we heard today, where Jesus sticks his finger in a man’s ears and spits on his tongue, is a profoundly strange healing story.  It’s up there with the story from John 9 where Jesus spits in the dirt and makes mud with his saliva and rubs it on a blind man’s eyes.  It kind of leaves us going, what?  Can’t Jesus just put his hand on someone?  Can’t he heal someone from a distance, as he does several times?  Can’t someone be healed just by touching his clothes?  So what’s with the saliva and the weirdly specific gestures?

I did read something online that said he might have used saliva because people in his day believed that saliva had special healing properties.  Saliva does, in fact, have some healing properties, but generally not for deafness.  I think personally, anyway, I’m content to let this story be a little weird.  The process of healing is, sometimes, a little weird.

I think of a story I read in a book called Jesus Freak, by Sara Miles.  She worked at a church food pantry with a guy called Big Jim.  Jim started out coming to get food, but became a volunteer as well, helping in line and picking up trash.  The food pantry was his community.

Jim was also a drunk.  “When Big Jim showed up drunk,” the story goes, “he’d be spectacularly drunk: wetting his pants, knocking into thing and falling down, howling incomprehensibly at people waiting in line for food.”  Another volunteer tried to get him to go to AA, and Jim agreed to go in the morning, but right after that conversation he went and bought a liter of vodka, and was too sick in the morning to go anywhere.

There are many stories like this that end with people being healed the way we hope: they hit rock bottom, go to a meeting, find grace there, ask forgiveness from those they’ve hurt, keep asking God for strength one day at a time.  Those are good stories of God’s healing.  But this isn’t one of those stories.  This story went that Jim kept drinking, and his food pantry community had to accept that Jim had to want to get better, and he didn’t.

Except what Sara realized through everything with Big Jim was that maybe, in fact, he did want to be healed.  That maybe healing didn’t have to look only one way, with Jim getting sober.  “It might just feeling he’s part of our community,” she thought.  “That he’s in relationship with us. …As long as we’re connected, even if the relationship’s messed up and makes us mad at him, Jim experiences some kind of healing.” (67)

Maybe we’d prefer the getting sober story.  But healing doesn’t just happen in one way.

In Luke’s version of the story where the paralyzed man gets lowered through the roof, the first thing Jesus first says to the man is, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5:20).  Well, Jesus, that wasn’t exactly what we were looking for.  But it might have been what he needed.

The thing about when Jesus heals people in the Bible, he does more than just cure whatever ails them.  There is always a communal aspect to it.  If, in Jesus’ day, you had a disease or a disability, that put you outside the community, to some degree.  If it was leprosy, you were quarantined outside the city walls.  If you were deaf, or blind, or had other disabilities, you were considered “blemished.”  You weren’t allowed to enter the Temple and participate in religious life.  If you were lucky, you had some friends to bring you to the Healer.  Maybe that’s not so different from now.

When Jesus healed people, he cured a problem, but he also affirmed their human dignity.  He showed them someone cared.  He made it possible for them to be part of the community again.  Healing was never just about a hand, or a sense of hearing.  It was the opening up of new possibilities. Maybe that was actually the more important part: not the illness, but the spirit.

“Ephphatha,” Jesus says, “be opened,” and that means more than just a man’s ears.

It also means that the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Jesus the Healer isn’t a doctor, or a shaman; he is the Son of God who wants people to know that the Kingdom is among them, a Kingdom where people can be whole, and healed, and at peace, and have what they need to love one another.  How do people know that this Kingdom is here?  It’s easy, when the blind see, and the deaf hear, and the paralyzed walk again.

Sometimes, like Big Jim, the healing we need isn’t just about us.  It’s about relationships.  It’s about communities.  It’s about countries, and peoples, and history, and redemption.

When we talk about the state of our country today, with its economic and racial division born of a long history of injustice, with its rampant gun violence, with its people who are afraid of each other, I think we’re talking about a country in need of healing.  I have an idea of what that healing might look like.  How it will come about, I don’t know.

I’ve told you before that one of the first things that made me think about going into ministry was reading Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness, which he wrote about his involvement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after the end of apartheid.  The deal there was that you could receive amnesty for your crimes under apartheid, as long as you told the truth.  This way, victims got to find out what had happened to their family members, or hear their perpetrators say they were sorry.  Perpetrators, sometimes, received the forgiveness of their victims.  It wasn’t a perfect process and it didn’t always go how people like Desmond Tutu wanted.  But letting people confront their own stories, as perpetrators and victims, seek forgiveness and give it, that was at least a start to the healing of South Africa.

He wrote of one story where a white army officer testified before the commission about an event known as the Bisho Massacre, where soldiers opened fire on political protesters, killing 30 people.  This officer got up and he said it was true that they had commanded the soldiers to open fire.  “The audience could not have been more hostile,” Tutu said.

But this officer faced his audience and said:

“I say we are sorry.  I say the burden of the Bisho massacre will be on our shoulders for the rest of our lives.  We cannot wish it away.  It happened.  But please, I ask specifically the victims not to forget, I cannot ask this, but to forgive us, to get the soldiers back into the community, to accept them fully, to try to understand also the pressure they were under then.  This is all I can do.  I’m sorry, this I can say, I’m sorry.”

And Tutu writes, “The crowd, which had been close to lynching then, did something quite unexpected.  It broke out into thunderous applause.” (150-151)

It was stories like that that made me want to be in ministry, because they made me believe that Jesus is still at work healing this world.

Without conflating our different histories too much, I wonder if we couldn’t use some more of that in America today—confronting a dark history together, telling our stories, seeking forgiveness and giving it.  It wouldn’t solve all our problems, but maybe it would open up some new ways forward.  Maybe we, too, would find healing in that.

Whatever it is that you need healed—an illness, a relationship, a broken spirit, a painful past—the answer seems to always start with just showing up.  Show up, in the presence of Jesus.  Go yourself or, like the deaf man, let your friends drag you.  Show up in church, because where two or three are gathered in his name, he is here.  Where we break bread and drink wine together, he is here.  Show up in fellowship with other people.  Show up at the meeting, where grace exists in honesty and acceptance.  Show up where hard stories can be told and heard, because Jesus is sure to show up there, too.

God wants to heal you, because that’s what the Kingdom of God looks like: a place where broken people are invited to be whole again.  Where the deaf hear, and the blind see, and the lonely find community, and the sinful are forgiven, and those who weep rejoice.

When Jesus heals us, it might not always look exactly like we want or expect it to.  It may or may not look like the Bible stories we know and love.  But healing can happen in a lot of different ways, from spit and fingers in a person’s ears to forgiveness to the love of a community seeing a person through hard times.

Show up, because if Jesus can heal a man on a stretcher and a centurion’s servant and a leper and a deaf man, if Jesus can heal a lonely drunk and a hurting country, if Jesus can heal all these people in all these different ways—then surely, there’s hope for us too.