The Most Excellent Gift

“Love: The Most Excellent Gift”

1 Cor 13 love, ring

1 Corinthians 13:4-8 (12:31) – February 3, 2019

In less than two weeks, the yearly holiday of romance and love will be celebrated. Yes, the holiday of Valentine’s Day is right around the corner. According to the popular women’s magazine Woman’s Day, people here in the United States spend a lot of money on their Valentines: an estimated $18.2 billion in 2017, including 144 million Valentine’s Day cards. [1] Gifts, cards and chocolates are wonderful for that special someone in your life! But—is this idea of love what the Apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote the Scripture passage we read today?

As we come to the end of our series of gifts from God, we can think back over the past month. As we celebrated Epiphany the first Sunday of January, we not only saw the gifts the foreign-born Magi gave to the toddler Jesus, but we celebrated the greatest Christmas gift of all time: the gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. We also rejoice as we remember our baptism and the tremendous gift of God’s grace bestowed upon all of us.

We consider what Paul was talking about in the previous chapter, 1 Corinthians 12. Spiritual gifts! We spent two weeks discussing the generous gifts God gives each of us—all of us. Gifts of helps, service, teaching, healing, wisdom, understanding—and then some. What is more, Paul encourages us to put these gifts into practice for the common good of others. And last week, we explored the interconnectedness of each of us and each of the gifts that we bring to this family of faith. We learned that we need one another in a fundamental way. [2]

Which leads us to our Scripture reading for today, from 1 Corinthians 13. Paul caps off this discussion of spiritual gifts with the most excellent gift of all: love.

Many people relate the reading of the this “Love chapter” with weddings. Romance and hearts and flowers—and Valentine’s Day—seem to go hand in hand with this chapter. That is, on the surface. But, when the Apostle Paul really gets going on the depth and breadth of God’s love, he does not mean hearts and flowers and candy at all. God’s love is what is offered to all of us.

What does God’s love look like? Paul gives us some vivid examples. Reading from The Message: “If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all God’s mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump,’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I am nothing. 3-7 If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.”

Forgive me. I’ve just told you what God’s love does not look like. This is what happens when a person does not have God’s love living within him or her. A very sad, despairing state of affairs, to be sure.

Paul does tell us what love is, however. Again, from the Message; “Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, Doesn’t have a swelled head, Doesn’t force itself on others, Isn’t always “me first,” Doesn’t fly off the handle, Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, Doesn’t revel when others grovel, Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.”

This description from Paul tells us what love is.

Very sadly, if we read the newspaper and turn on the news, we see another expression of God-talk. This kind of black-and-white thinking, all-or-nothing talk comes from rigid or extreme religious groups. You know the groups I mean. Groups that say unequivocally “I’m on God’s good side, and you’re not. I’m going to heaven because I do the things God wants. You don’t, so you are going to hell.” It doesn’t matter whether they are stringent Christians, fundamentalist Catholics, extreme Muslims, or radical Hindus. Such hurtful thinking and corrosive speech lets us know these religious groups have likely not experienced God’s life-changing, wondrous love. You know, all of the wonderful, life-giving parts of love that the Apostle Paul just described to us.

Father Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, has written and taught extensively on God’s love. He spoke of these hurtful religious groups, and then asked, “How can we do better? To begin, we might put ourselves in the other’s shoes and imagine why someone is so hateful.”

Father Rohr continues: “While working in the Albuquerque jail for over a decade, I met many men who had been raised in a punitive, authoritarian, absolutist way, often with an absent or abusive father. Understanding another’s story can teach us compassion. It doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t set some healthy boundaries. But it does open our hearts and help us recognize that other people are victims, too. They’ve been wounded, too. Yet they are still objectively an image of God, created in God’s image.” [3]

We are not all called to work in prisons, like Father Rohr. But, God has gifted each of us to offer our gifts to others. Each of us have been given gifts to reach out to our friends and neighbors with the love of God. Remember what we talked about last week, how all of our spiritual gifts are interconnected? Each of us is needed by the others in this family of faith. And, God’s love is one of the greatest connectors of all.

One of my absolute favorite people ever is Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister, ordained to ministry in television and mass communication by the Presbytery of Pittsburgh in 1963. He had a marvelous, moving ministry to children—and to adults—for decades—in public television.

One of the ways Mister Rogers reached out and communicated to children with his television show was through music. He wrote over two hundred songs about important things and things that concern children very much. Like this one: “There are many ways to say I love you. There are many ways to say I care about you. Many ways, many ways, many ways to say I love you. Cleaning up a room can say I love you. Hanging up a coat before you’re asked to do it. Drawing special pictures for the holidays and making plays.” [4]

Important words from a loving, honest, generous man, Fred Rogers. He let us know that love can be as simple as hanging up a coat—or doing the dishes—or sending a greeting card. Mister Rogers would definitely agree that showing love is being kind to others, and being your honest, caring self. No matter what.

A reminder, from the Message: “[Love] Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, Puts up with anything, Trusts God always, Always looks for the best, Never looks back, But keeps going to the end.” That is the kind of God we have. Love is a gift God offers to all of us, freely.

It doesn’t matter how each of us expresses God’s love. God gives many gifts to all of us, freely. Let us give love away to everyone, no matter what. Just as freely as God gives to us.

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.womansday.com/relationships/a4702/10-fun-valentines-day-facts-103385/

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/february-3-fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/fourth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] Adapted from Richard Rohr, Exploring and Experiencing the Naked Now, disc 3 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2010).

[4] http://www.neighborhoodarchive.com/music/songs/many_ways.html

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Interconnected Gifts

“Interconnected Gifts”

1 cor 12-27 part of the body

1 Corinthians 12:11-31 (12:20) – January 27, 2019

Have you ever seen a Mr. Potato Head? A children’s toy, with a plastic potato body, and different holes you could stick different parts in. Eyes, ears, hat, nose, mouth, hands and feet. Can you imagine a Mr. Potato Head with all hands and no eyes, nose or ears? Or, how about a Mr. Potato Head with several mouths and no feet? I suspect some people would laugh at that children’s toy. Can you hear children saying, “Look at that silly Mr. Potato Head!”

Let’s take a closer look at our Scripture reading for today from 1 Corinthians chapter 12. We have been talking about gifts for the past few weeks. Not only in the weekly sermons, but also in other parts of our worship service, too. Here the Apostle Paul is continuing his discussion on gifts that God gives to every believer. Willingly, generously, God blesses each person with at least one spiritual gifts, and sometimes many gifts. And, as Paul tells us, the Holy Spirit decides who gets what, and when.

Let’s go back to our Mr. Potato Head. We can all see how the different parts fit into the toy. Any child could tell us that we need diverse parts. Eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hands and feet. Eyebrows, too. And mustache, and hat. All different parts, with all different functions.

Reading Paul’s words from 1 Corinthians 12 from Eugene Peterson’s translation The Message, “You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body. It’s exactly the same with Christ.”

So many parts, many pieces, many functions. And, one body, or one church.  Let’s let the Apostle Paul elaborate: “Each of us is now a part of Christ’s resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.”

Sounds like the Apostle Paul has already heard about a church or two that has had arguments or disagreements about their spiritual gifts. You would think these individual Christians would be thankful they have been given one special way to identify themselves!

In the past, and even in the present, Christians might identify themselves differently. They could concentrate on separate differences. For example, some of us here were born in the United States, and some were born overseas. There’s one difference. Some of us identify as male, and some as female. Some of us are right-handed. Some of us have brown eyes.

There are lots of ways to identify the people in this room. We could line up under these different signs, Or—and this is the important part—we could all identify as Christians.

What does the Apostle Paul have to say about this very question? Paul approaches differences from a functional point of view. “I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, lovely and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where he wanted it.”

When Paul often talks about church to his friends in Corinth, he means them—the local church. That’s what Paul means right here. He is talking to the local churches. He is talking to me and you. He means St. Luke’s Church, right here on this corner in Morton Grove. Rev. Jeff Campbell, United Methodist minister, says “In the body of Christ, all of us and the gifts that we bring to the church are indeed interrelated. We cannot succeed in our mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, unless we are working together, truly valuing and depending on the gifts that each disciple offers for the good of the whole.” [1]

Some parts of the Bible are confusing or troubling; they don’t make much sense. Strange and mysterious passages! This Scripture reading from Paul is not. It talks common sense. Understandable and clear. But, these instructions are not always simple and easy to follow. Sometimes, something inside does not want us to work together.  Something inside might not want to ask for help, or be willing to be a Good Samaritan, and give help to whoever needs it.

The Rev. Campbell suggests taking a not-so-very official poll, to let us understand a little better what he is talking about here. For the following statements, rate how much you agree or disagree. Be honest! You may keep the answers to yourself. But, try to be truthful, in your heart.

  • It is okay to need another person’s help.
  • All that I need I can provide.
  • Don’t ask me for help. I’ll offer help when I can.
  • I would come close to death before I would consider asking for help.
  • It makes me uncomfortable to ask for help.

This thoroughly unscientific poll reveals a few possibilities:

  • We are uncomfortable being vulnerable.
  • We are uncomfortable asking for help.
  • We don’t have extra time to help. [2]

Asking for help, even in the church, can be a challenge! Accepting help can be difficult, too. All kinds of things can get in the way. As Rev. Campbell says, “When it comes to recognizing the interrelated nature of our gifts, we must come to terms with our own vulnerability and dependency; and we must declare that it is okay to need one another!

“The reality is there are many parts of the body that aren’t always functioning, and those parts often don’t realize how it hurts the whole. This is not about guilt or telling you to do more. No, this is to say — with honesty and love — that we need you and we need one another. God has gifted you in ways that God has not gifted me. I need you to show up and share your gifts, because without your gifts, this body will not function the way it was meant to function.” [3]

Remember that Mr. Potato Head, with all hands, and no eyes, ears or nose? The apostle Paul tells us that everyone—each person in a local congregation has their role, and their gift. It may not be a prominent gift, it may be a humble gift, but every gift has its place. Each Christian has their place in the body of Christ, too.

We all need each other to show up, and to be here as a community, to use our gifts for the glory of God. There is no such thing as a solo, Lone Ranger Christian. We are a community of Christ! Paul reminds us of that blessed fact: mutual care, concern and encouragement of each other, and ministry to those who need to know about the Lord. Let’s get going, and do the work God has intended for us to do!

Alleluia, amen.

[1] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-27-third-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/third-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

(Many thanks to the Rev. Jeff Campbell and http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for ideas and assistance for this January series on spiritual gifts.)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Discover God-given Gifts

“Discover God-given Gifts”

1 cor 12-7 gifts given to all

1 Corinthians 12:1-11 (12:6) – January 20, 2019

When my children were little, from time to time we would go into toy stores—usually on the occasions when they were going to birthday parties. We would choose a present for them to take to the party. My children would not only enjoy giving gifts. All of their friends would see all the other presents given to the birthday boy or girl when they were opened at the party. And sometimes, they would tell me about some extra special gift given at the party. What gift-giving opportunities we all have had, whether at birthday parties, holidays, or other occasions.

We have been talking about gifts for the past few weeks. Not only in the weekly sermons, but also in other parts of our worship service, too. God gave us all the most wonderful gift of all at Christmas in the gift of God’s Son, the baby Jesus. We can all praise God for that super special Christmas gift.

Two weeks ago, the first Sunday of January was the day of Epiphany. Some might know this day as Three Kings Day, or the occasion the Wise Men came and brought gifts to the toddler Jesus. Whatever you call it, that was the day the foreign-born wise men came with their rich gifts to lay before the young Jesus. Last week was the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord Jesus. Another gift-giving occasion. What is a good reminder of God’s gift poured out upon us all. God’s grace. God’s rich, full and abundant grace, given to us all. Baptism is an outward sign of that God-given grace.

After all this talk about Christmas and birthday gifts, and how marvelous and generous our God is, there is even more to say about gifts. The Apostle Paul talks about gifts to the believers in Corinth in our Scripture reading today. God gives Christ-followers spiritual gifts.

I am certain everyone here has seen public service announcements on television, or heard them on the radio. These are announcements about public health, or about the public good. This is exactly what Paul was doing here. Paul made a general public service announcement about spiritual gifts. God is gracious, and God gives out spiritual gifts generously. Paul made sure that all his friends in Corinth—and all of us, by extension—knew this.

As is so often the case, Paul was making this announcement about gifts for a definite reason. Some Christians don’t even know about spiritual gifts. They might not be aware of them. Perhaps they have a great many things going on in their lives, or the lives of their families, and are too distracted.

Some Christians do know something about spiritual gifts, but think that they are for someone else. Not for regular folks like me, or maybe like you. Spiritual gifts are only for the superstars of the faith, for people like St. Francis of Assisi, or Mother Teresa, or perhaps Billy Graham. Everyday people can’t get spiritual gifts. Not much, anyway.

And, every so often, some Christians even think they are not good enough for spiritual gifts. Not worthy, or not saintly enough. They know they mess up, and do bad things, and say things that make God sad. There is no way—God couldn’t possibly give them spiritual gifts.

Guess what? I have good news for all of us. In fact, great news! God gives spiritual gifts to everyone. To you, to me, to the members of St. Martha’s Catholic Church, to the friends at Morton Grove Community Church, to the folks at Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and St. George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem. God freely and generously gives spiritual gifts to all of these folks. All Christians, all throughout the world.

This list of spiritual gifts here in 1 Corinthians 12 is not exhaustive. More spiritual gifts are listed in other passages. In Romans 12:6-8, Paul lists prophecy, serving, teaching, encouragement, giving, leadership, and mercy. Ephesians 4:11-13 has apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds, and teachers. And, even these three lists are only partial lists. God is endlessly inventive and full of generosity. If we were to check out modern assessment tools for spiritual gifts, we would find many more gifts.

Just like Paul and his friends, we would find out that spiritual gifts all come from the same source: the Holy Spirit. What is more, these gifts all have the same purpose: “the common good.” As commentator Carolyn Brown says, “we identify and celebrate all the gifts God gives us and recognize that we are meant to use these gifts not just for our own good but for the good of the people around us.” [1]

So, we all have spiritual gifts, and these gifts are a joy for us to use for others.

Except—what if we never use these gifts, and they sit in the bottom of some drawer, or in the back of a closet? What then? The Rev. Jeff Campbell uses a distinctive analogy to help us understand more thoroughly. He says, “Activation of your spiritual gift is essential. Activation is putting your gifts into practice “for the common good.” What good is a gift if it is never shared for the good of others?

“I have a few credit cards in my wallet, as I am sure many of you do. When you receive a new credit card, you usually find a sticker on it that provides an 800 number to call in order to do what?  To activate the card. Have any of you ever received the card and placed it in your wallet, never calling to activate the card? Not if you need to use the card! So why do some disciples clearly recognize a spiritual gift but leave the sticker on and never use it?” [2]

Our friends at the United Methodist Church have developed a bible study especially for this bible reading, and using this section of spiritual gifts. In it, the members are urged to listen for their own personal gifts. Discern the signs, and ask others.  “You may wonder what your spiritual gift is. God will help you discover it.”

“You may already know what your spiritual gift is. That’s good; keep sharing it! All of us should “be on the lookout” to help one another recognize their spiritual gifts. In this way, God encourages us to contribute to our community of faith in Jesus Christ.” [3]

So—what do you have in your spiritual wallet? What spiritual gift do you have? Find out, today. And if you already know, use it for the common good, for the community of faith, and for everyone you can.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2013/01/year-c-second-sunday-after-epiphany.html

Worshiping with Children, Epiphany 2C, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2013.

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-20-second-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/second-sunday-after-the-epiphany-2019-year-c-preaching-notes

[3] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/season-after-epiphany-2019-part-1-worship-planning-series/january-20-second-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c/second-sunday-after-epiphany-2019-year-c-faith-formation 

(Thanks to Rev. Jeff Campbell and the other friends at http://www.umcdiscipleship.org for help and ideas for use in this sermon.)