Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A, Lectionary 21, August 27, 2017
Isaiah 51:1-6, Psalm 138, Romans 12:1-8, Matthew 16:13-20
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Paul talked about spiritual gifts a lot. Three times in three different letters, including our second reading from Romans, he talks about the gifts of the Spirit, and how each person in the community of faith has different gifts, and all are needed. And each place he lists off the gifts of the Spirit, it’s different. No two lists are the same. This is because the Spirit gives lots of different gifts to lots of different people, depending on who they are and what the needs around them are. There is no way that anybody could ever put together a list with EVERY gift the Spirit gives, because the Spirit gives a lot of gifts. And if you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “oh, that must be wonderful to have a spiritual gift, but I don’t have any, I’m too ordinary,” or “too boring,” or “too sinful,” I have news for you. God has given you spiritual gifts. You may not recognize them; you may not be aware of them; you may not be using them. But you have been given a spiritual gift just the same.
I think this is the reason Paul starts this section by talking about being transformed by God, instead of conforming to the world. Because the world tells an awful lot of lies about gifts of every kind, but especially about spiritual gifts. The world tries to tell us things that aren’t true about God, about ourselves, and about each other. And if we believe these lies, we can’t possibly know what God is doing in us and in the world around us, because we can’t see anything or anyone clearly. In order to know what is good and right, in order to know who we are and who God is, we have to let God transform us from who the world wants us to be, to who we were created to be.
The first lie the world tells us is about money. And the lie is, that money determines how important or good something is. Think about it: we judge things—even moral things!—by their worth. We talk about our “values”—that’s an economic term. Now, there’s a lot of problems with letting money determine how important or good things are, but when it comes to spiritual gifts it’s a huge problem because it tells us that gifts are only important if we can profit off of them. Have you ever noticed that? Gifts that you can make money off are valued; gifts that you can’t exploit for profit aren’t. We spend a lot of time these days helping young people figure out what their gifts are, but not for spiritual purposes, for career planning. So we know all about how to build a career off of peoples’ gifts, but not much about identifying spiritual gifts for use as Christians. And if you have a gift and choose to use it in ways other than making money, people shake their heads. For example, I enjoy writing. I do it as a hobby. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that if I’m not trying to get published—if I’m just doing it for my own enjoyment and my friends’ enjoyment—that I’m wasting my time and talents.
But a lot of the gifts God gives can’t be monetized. They can’t be profited from. And those are some of the most necessary gifts of all. You’ll notice that compassion is one of the gifts that Paul names in our passage. So is generosity. You can’t make money off of either of those, but think how terrible the world would be if there was no compassion, no generosity. It would be a pretty dark, grim place. These are only two of the gift that are absolutely vital to both the Christian community and the world in general, that no one can put a price on or profit from. If you’re only looking for things that society values, things that will help make money or build a career, chances are, you’re not going to see the gifts that God has given you.
The second lie that the world tells us is that gifts are extraordinary, and that only some people get them. That most people are boring and normal, and if you don’t have the kind of special talent that makes someone sit up and take notice, you have nothing to offer. The world divides people into winners and losers, the beautiful few who have what it takes and make it to extraordinary heights, and the ordinary schmucks who just don’t make the grade. Some people succeed, and others are failures. Some people matter, and some don’t, and you want to be one of the ones who matter, don’t you? So work hard, and maybe you’ll be one of the winners instead of one of the losers. And if you don’t have what it takes to be one of the winners, well, then you just don’t matter.
But that is a lie, because everyone matters, to God. God does not see winners and losers, important people and schmucks. God does not care whether anybody wins or loses, whether anybody succeeds or fails. God loves each and every one of us. God cares for each and every one of us. And God gives gifts to everybody, including the people the world labels as failures or losers or just too ordinary to pay much attention to. And so a lot of God’s gifts get overlooked because they’re too ordinary. And yet, all of those ordinary things: building lives, and homes, and taking care of people, and seeing that the necessary work gets done, sometimes that too is a spiritual gift, just making sure that the people who need to get taken care of get taken care of. Seeing that when work needs to be done there are people to pitch in to do it. That, too, is a gift from God to make the world a better place.
And the third lie the world tells is that gifts should be used for the individual. If one person has a gift, it should be used for their own betterment. It’s all about individual growth, individual prosperity. But if you’ll notice the gifts Paul lists, none of them can be used for just one person. Teaching, ministering, generosity, leading, giving, being compassionate—these are all gifts that require relationships. You can’t teach if there’s no one to learn. You can’t lead if there’s no one to follow. You can’t minister if there’s no one to minister to. These are all gifts that require relationships. And Paul talks about these gifts in at the same time as he uses the metaphor of the body to describe the Christian community. When God gives us anything—spiritual gifts, wealth, health, anything—he doesn’t give it to us to hoard. God gives us gifts to share, to spread around, so that all people may experience God’s blessings in many and various ways.
We all have gifts from God. Some of them are obvious, and some are not. Some are valued by the world, and some are not. Teaching is a gift—and not just one given to professional educators, either. Being generous is a gift. Being compassionate is a gift. Encouraging people is a gift. Persistence is a gift—just being able to put one foot in front of the other, doing the job God puts in front of us, that’s incredibly important. A willingness to help others is a gift. The ability to build relationships and communities is a gift. But as long as we’re listening to the world’s lies, and seeing with the world’s eyes, we won’t see God’s gifts for what they are. We’ll ignore them, or devalue them, or just plain not see them. And our world will be a darker and a colder place because of it. God gives gifts to each one of us. Every single one of us has gifts from God. The trick is learning how to see them, to use them, for the good of all God’s people. And to do that, we have to listen to God, and not the world. May we be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we can see God’s gifts for what they truly are, and put them to use as God calls us to do, for the building up of God’s kingdom.