Meadowbrook Congregational Church
“Living Out Your Gifts”
Rev. Art Ritter
January 20, 2019
Ephesians 4:1-7, 11-16
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.
The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
I delighted in reading this week a sermon about spiritual gifts written by Nadia Bolz Weber, a Lutheran pastor and author whose book the Thursday morning Faith Discussion group has used as a resource. Bolz Weber is probably best known for her tattoos and her rather flowery language. She wrote about a discussion she had in seminary, with some friends about spiritual gifts. They all mentioned the ones that Paul wrote about in our Scripture reading this morning, things like humility, gentleness, patience, prophecy, knowledge, and faith. The students were all trying to figure out just which spiritual gift that they possessed. Suddenly Bolz Weber realized how disappointed she was that her spiritual gift was not mentioned by Paul. Nowhere on the list were the gifts of snarkiness and sarcasm. She commented just how unfair she thought that was.
Some of my colleagues, even in the Congregational tradition, wear clerical collars. I have never felt the urge to wear one, believing that they are a bit pretentious, especially for those in our free church tradition. I also know that some ministers feel the same way about pulpit robes. Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest, writes about her ordination and the gift of the collar that she then had to wear. When the collar arrived, she went into the bathroom to look in the mirror and figure out how to put it on. It took her over thirty minutes to get it right. Taylor writes that when she wears a collar she thinks of two stories. One was when she was riding in a Manhattan subway years ago. She was suddenly aware that she was lost and had gotten on the wrong train. Stress and fear and anxiety built to the point of a panic attack. At that moment, Taylor caught sight of a nun wearing her traditional habit. Just the sight of that nun in her habit was enough to calm Taylor. The second story that the collar evoked was from her childhood. She remembered riding in her car with her mother and seeing a group of men working in the field beside the road, wearing striped, black and white outfits. Surprised, she asked her mother why the men were dressed like that. Her mother responded that they were prison inmates and they dressed like that so they would stand out in case they escaped. From those stories, Barbara Brown Taylor believes that for her, wearing a clerical collar is about reminding herself that she serves God visibly, allowing others to learn by whatever they see from her, from her successes and failures. For good or for ill, as a priest she was going to stand out and the collar reminds her that she cannot hide from herself or from God.
At last fall’s silent auction, Vicki Gaines purchased the right to choose the sermon topic for this morning. I know that she spent a lot of time and thought in deciding just what she wanted me to explore in a sermon message. She finally settled on the words of the apostle Paul from the fourth chapter of the book of Ephesians. I especially remember Vicki pointing out to me the first two verses of the passage, “I therefore beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.” These are some powerful words addressed to followers of Christ in the early Christian churches.
A major theme in the book of Ephesians is how to live with others in the context of community. In the book Paul writes about how to live as the body of Christ. He reminds his readers that the church is composed of a wide variety of people with diverse gifts and different interests. Diversity is something to be celebrated for sure, but diversity that promotes its own interest above the benefit of all is harmful. We know that we live in a society that forms special interest groups to advance our own special causes. We tend to spend time with and listen to those who share our interests or who tend to agree with us. We must acknowledge that even in the context of the church, there are different perspectives and certainly varied talents and gifts.
In Ephesians, Paul writes that we make every effort “to maintain unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” We do this in different ways but primarily by acting and thinking and talking like Jesus. We act and think and talk in a way that embraces and examples humility, gentleness, and patience; and also honors God. It is as if we are all wearing clerical collars or prison garments garbed in words and actions so obvious that others will see us and know to whom we belong.
Yet we must understand that Christian unity isn’t found in believing the same exact thing or worshipping in the same exact way. Unity is found in recognizing that God has created differences because in those differences God is better served. Each person with different gifts offers up a unique and authentic image of God. The Kingdom of God is composed of lots of different little pieces and while each of us might reflect and represent God, the only way to see the complete fullness of God is for God’s people to bring all of the little pieces together and stand as one. For Paul, spiritual maturity was the ability to recognize your own gifts and your own special nature but also seeing every person as a child of God and recognizing that there is truth in each viewpoint and value in each gift.
There are a couple of important statements in the passage that Vicki suggested that truly spoke to me. In the very first verse Paul writes, “I beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” These are powerful words. Lead a life worthy of your calling. Be who God created you to be. Do not spend your life in a futile search to authenticate your existence through human standards of success. Simply live with the purpose that God gives to you. Paul writes that you are to live as the better people you actually are. Live as the people you were called to be.
Mark Adams writes of a story in the life of Alexander the Great who was in the midst of conquering the entire known world with his powerful army. Alexander was a very observant and demanding leader and general. One night he came across a soldier who had fallen asleep on guard duty. The penalty for such a sin was usually death. The soldier began to wake as Alexander stood before him and immediately began to fear for his life. “Soldier, what is your name?” shouted the leader. In a quivering voice the soldier responded quietly, “Alexander.” Alexander the Great repeated the question, “What did you say was your name?” “My name is Alexander, sir” the soldier repeated. For a third time the great leader asked, “What is your name?” And for a third time the soldier meekly answered, “My name is Alexander, sir.” Alexander then looked at the young soldier in the eye and said, “Soldier, either change your name or change your conduct.”
Paul’s words remind us all of the special nature of our calling as people of God, as the Body of Christ. We are to strive to be worthy of that name, worthy of our calling. To each of us God supplies gifts. We are to discover what it is that when we are at our best, we are also best in reflecting our Creator. Live as the better people you are. Live as the people you are called to be.
Secondly, in addition to living a life worthy of our calling, we are to make every effort to maintain the unity of spirit by living with others in all humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love. Part of our success in building the Kingdom of God comes through looking for ways to work with those who gifts differ from ours. We should not assume that everyone sees things as we do or does things in the way we do. Again, we must remember that it is through the many pieces of the puzzle that God speaks one eternal truth.
Again, in her sermon on spiritual gifts, Nadia Bolz Weber makes a thoughtful point. When we think of spiritual gifts, we usually think of things that people are naturally better at doing. For example, Marcus is gifted at singing. We usually don’t say things like, “Art is gifted at breathing oxygen.” Being gifted means having a special ability that no one else has. Bolz Weber then speaks about a woman in her congregation who rather casually expressed a desire to teach a yoga class. The congregation found a time and space for such a class and a year later the woman was teaching two classes, accompanied by prayer and Psalms. The teacher was given a gift by God. Bolz Weber writes that we don’t need everyone in the church to have the gift of singing or healing or preaching or wisdom or teaching yoga. We just need someone to have that gift. She writes, “That is the way it is supposed to be. Because having to rely on the gifts of God given to our brothers and sisters and then having to rely on the gifts entrusted to us is God’s intention for those who bear the name Christian. We don’t have what it takes to love God, to pray to God and to follow God alone. And that’s kind of beautiful but not always easy.” I would add that is where the attitudes of humility, gentleness, and patience are important. Through those lenses we can better appreciate what we have in one another and encourage each other in striving to be worthy through sharing of our own gifts.
It is God’s intention for us to be in community with one another. We are to worship and play and work and learn together because it is in community where we best find and use the gifts that make us worthy before God. It is in community where in those times when we are finding it difficult to hope and to love, we find the presence of Christ in others and through their gifts we gain that hope and love. And so to this place, this community of faith, we bring our gifts, striving to be worthy of our calling as children of God, seeking not conformity but challenge and beauty in the face of Christ presented in the gifts of those around us.