Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Sermon for January 24, 2010

Jesus and the Golden Rule
Luke 6:27-36
January 24, 2010

It’s told that Mother Theresa once helped a man who was dying on the street. He had maggots eating at his open wounds. She brought him to the convent to clean him up. The whole time, the man complained and cursed her. One of the younger nuns asked her how she could stand to clean him when he was being so nasty. Mother Theresa said, “Oh that was just Jesus having a bad day.”

Mother Theresa was the embodiment of the Golden Rule. She saw God everywhere -- in all people, especially in those who were having a bad day. She saw God and treated people with the sort of sacred respect that most of us reserve for royalty.

We all have bad days, don’t we? You know it’s going to be a bad day when your twin sister forgets your birthday. You know it’s going to be a bad day when you wake up to realize your waterbed broke and then discover you don’t have a waterbed. You know it’s going to be a bad day when your birthday cake collapses from the weight of the candles. You know it’s a bad day when your pet rock snaps at you. You know it’s a bad day when everyone loves your new driver’s license picture. You know it’s going to be a bad day when your four-year-old wakes you up with the news that its almost impossible to flush a grapefruit down the toilet.

Speaking of bad days, a young man becomes a monk in a monastery that requires a vow of silence. He can only speak 2 words every 5 years. At the end of year 5 the head monk calls the new monk in and says, “You now can say 2 words.” To which the new monk replies, “food stinks.” Five more years go by and the head monk says, “You may now say 2 words.” The other monk says, “bed hard.” At the end of the next 5 years the head monk calls the other monk in and says, “You may now say 2 words.” The other says, “I quit.” The head monk replies, “I’m not surprised, you’ve been complaining ever since you got here.”

Wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful if we all learned to accept each other’s bad days? How can we learn to appreciate each other’s imperfections? Maybe you can start by accepting your own imperfection.

The Japanese Kimono gown is a beautiful symbol of God within. Some Kimonos have very plain outer designs but immaculate and exquisite decoration on the inside of the gown. Some of them are even intentionally imperfect on the outside. The purpose is to remind the person wearing the gown that beauty ultimately resides within. Those who see the imperfections of the outer gown are reminded to appreciate the variety of the outer and look to the magnificence that lies beneath the surface. God says the same thing to the prophet Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures: “Looks aren’t everything . . . God judges people differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face; God looks at the heart.” Or, as singer Leonard Cohen says, “There is no perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

I think of myself as being somewhat competent, but underneath this calm exterior there are some cracks. One of my cracks is my home handyman skills. Actually, I wouldn’t call them skill -- more like home clumsiness. When Chris and I were first married, we lived in a chilly little apartment. Every winter I would put that shrink wrap around the windows to keep out the drafts. Every year I would stick on the plastic wrap and shrink it with the hairdryer. Every year I would look for the scissors to trim the extra plastic from around the window frame. And every year, I would find that I shrink-wrapped the scissors inside the window.

It would be good to remember that our faults and cracks are good. They let the light in. They expose who we really are on the inside. I once read about a large temple in Thailand’s capital where there was an enormous clay Buddha. It survived over five hundred years. At one point, however, the monks who tended the temple noticed that the statue had begun to crack and would soon be in need of repair and repainting. After a stretch of particularly hot, dry weather, one of the cracks became so wide that a curious monk took his flashlight and peered inside. What shone back at him was a flash of brilliant gold! Inside this plain old statue, the temple residents discovered one of the largest and most luminous gold images of Buddha ever created in Southeast Asia. The golden Buddha now draws masses of devoted pilgrims from all over Thailand. The monks believe that this shining work of art had been covered in plaster and clay to protect it during times of conflict and unrest.

If you learn to accept your bad days, you will be a lot more accepting of other people’s bad days. If you embrace your own shortcomings, you will be a lot more appreciative of the shortcomings of others. They may even teach you something about the divine nature of life.

Jesus puts it this way: Do to others as you would like them to do to you. We call it the Golden Rule. Jesus was not the only one to say the Golden Rule. He wasn’t even the first one. It is present in some form in most of the world’s traditions. Douglas Adams gave the simplest form of Jesus teaching in his prologue to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, where his narrator explains that the story begins “nearly two thousand years after one man had been nailed to a tree for saying how great it would be to be nice to people for a change.”

The Golden Rule was laid out clearly in Ancient thought as well as most world religions. Roman culture said: “The law imprinted on the hearts of all people is to love the members of society as themselves.” The Chinese text, The Art of War, said, “It is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.” If you look in the bulletin, you will see I listed examples of the Golden Rules from various world religions:
  • Confucianism: “Do not do to others what you do not want them to do to you.”
  • Buddhism: Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.”
  • Hinduism- This is the sum of duty; do nothing to others that you would not have them do to you.
  • Islam: No one of you is a believer until he desires for his brother that which he desires for himself.
  • Judaism: What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellowman. This is the entire Law; all the rest is commentary.
  • Native American Spirituality also contains a form of the Golden Rule- “All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves. All is really One.”
Like many things in life, the Golden Rule is not black and white. The Tao masters also had a version of the Golden Rule. They said, “In dealing with people, you already have the perfect model of behavior inside you. Act with integrity, according to your true nature. Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you” The Tao Masters continued with a story . . . “Once upon a time, when a seabird landed outside the capital, the Marquis of Lu escorted it to his ancestral temple, had the music of the Ninefold Splendors performed, poured out a cup of old wine, and spread before it a feast of beef and pork. But the bird became dazed, and it pined away, refusing to taste meat or wine. In three days it was dead. This was treating the bird as the marquis would have liked to be treated, not as the bird would have liked to be treated.” The Golden Rule in the wrong hands can be deadly.

My kids use the Golden Rule to punish another all the time. For instance, Child A hits child B. Child B hits Child A back and then immediately runs away to tell on the sibling. The parent, trying to negotiate the fistfight says, “Now you are both in trouble for hitting. Why did you hit your sister back?” The child responds, “Well, she hit me first. I thought that’s how she wanted to be treated, so I hit her back.”

When we use the Golden Rule as an excuse to retaliate or cause suffering, we have missed the point. The principle of compassionate reciprocity lies at the heart of all spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves. Compassion drives us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our earth, to dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there, and to honor the sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.

Here is my favorite version of the Golden Rule: There’s no greater pain than making someone feel like a nobody. The Golden Rule gets us to ask a question: How can I treat others as if I am the other? The Golden Rule is a way of helping us wake up and realize that when you are dealing with other people, you’re also dealing with yourself. The other is really you in disguise. Unkindness to another is really unkindness to you. When you realize this, you can stop hurting yourself. You can learn to love your own imperfections and in so doing become more compassionate to others.

  • http://www.odysseynetworks.org/Members/TopInterfaithStoriesof2009/ReemergenceoftheGoldenRule/tabid/344/Default.aspx
  • http://www.religioustolerance.org/reciproc.htm
  • http://www.christ-community.net/sermons.htm
  • Stephen Mitchell, The Second Book of Tao (New York: Penguin, 2009), 48-49, 114-115.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sermon for January 17, 2010

Jesus, Smasher of Stereotypes
January 17, 2010

"And who is my neighbor?" In reply Jesus said: "A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he fell into the hands of robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. 'Look after him,' he said, 'and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.' Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" The expert in the law replied, "The one who had mercy on him." Jesus told him, "Go and do likewise." Luke 10:29-37

We know nothing about the victim except he was a man robbed and left for dead. We do not know if he was rich or poor, a traveler or a merchant, a farmer or a family man. We do know a few things about the hero of the story. We know he was a Samaritan who was wealthy enough to own a donkey. He gave the inn keeper the equivalent of two days wages for the care of the victim. We do know this much: The Jews hated the Samaritans. The Samaritans hated the Jews. You need to know this to understand the parable. A Samaritan is not only of the hero of the story, but honored as an example for Jesus’ Jewish followers to imitate. If Jesus told the parable today, he might tell us a story about the good Klansman, the good Communist, the good Al Qaeda member. No Jew would ever think anything worthwhile could come from a Samaritan, let alone follow the example of a Samaritan. We expect that the good guys in the story will stop and help the victim – the Priest or the Levite. But, it's the stranger -- the unexpected person, the one we fear -- who stops to help and to heal. One man breaks barriers of ethnic hatred, religious stereotyping and centuries of biblically sanctioned bigotry rooted in fear. One man has the courage to be a healer and show us the very face of God, blowing away stereotypes in a rush of dazzling grace. Jesus implies that Samaritans are capable of goodness. It is subtle yet revolutionary. It is a step in eliminating the stereotypes, breaking down the prejudice, and healing the hatred.

We stereotype people more often then we may realize. What is the first thing that comes to mind when I mention these people? The homeless, elderly, immigrants, stay-at-home-moms, career women, single fathers, teenagers, atheists, homosexuals, alcoholics, athletes. When we automatically judge the character of a person according to a stereotype or category, we close the door to seeing other possibilities. How many times do you think someone has been refused a job, award, scholarship, or gift based on a stereotype?

Things have not changed so much in 2,000 years.

Consider the stereotypes you may have around one word: Father. We call God Father all the time. But what images come with that word? In her book Memories of God, Church historian Roberta Bondi shares the struggles of growing up female and Christian in the 1950’s. She writes, “[I assumed] that my heavenly Father was like my earthly father, only more so. My earthly father, whom I worshiped and resented in equal measure, was a remarkable man. He was brilliant, funny, and full of life. He was a loving man, but in those years of his youth, he also tolerated no imperfections or weakness in other people, no laziness, no disobedience from his children or his wife, no sullenness, no arguing with him or asking ‘why.’ . . . He only respected men who were highly intelligent and would stand up to him and argue with him. These same qualities in a woman, however, he found contemptible . . . A good woman was sweet and compliant, quiet and obedient. I not only knew I could not be sweet, pliant, quiet and obedient; I also knew I did not want to be that way. But I had to be! How else could I be, if I were female? I loved my father so much, yet I knew I could never please him. I was angry with him and guilty over my poisonous secret, anger. I could not possibly believe my human father loved me as I was. And if this was true of my earthly father, how much more must this be the case with my heavenly Father. Surely, my heavenly Father’s standards for females had to be stricter than my earthly father’s.”

As Roberta grew older, she was able to shed the stereotypes. She writes “...being able to see him for the first time through adult eyes, I began to be able to see, not my childhood image of my powerful, mythical father, but rather my actual, flesh and blood, real human father. . . I began to learn that my father had changed over the years . . . I argued with him, for the first time in my life. He told me frequently he was proud of me. I found that as I no longer needed God to take care of me as I had before, as a little child, so I no longer needed my father to take care of me. …My father needed my friendship.”

That’s what smashing stereotypes is all about – seeing with new eyes, building new relationships with unlikely people, becoming free from old worn-out perspectives. When Jesus made the Samaritan the hero in the story, he spoke good news. He drew a picture of the Samaritan that his friends had not seen before. He offered the possibility of being free of the hatred and prejudice that endured for centuries.

Let’s be honest. Being part of a church does not free us from making judgments. Sometimes, being in a church causes us our faith and behavior to narrow. While we talk about loving neighbors, and loving enemies, and loving God, church people often become more critical and disapproving of others. It’s a shame, really, because robbers are still out there, just like in Jesus’ parable. We are not always aware of them, but they wait to pounce on us and our loved ones.

A man was on a journey. He fell into the hands of depression, robbed of joy, robbed of the will to even wake up in the morning. The depression was deep, so deep that it seemed like nothing anybody said or anybody did could do any good. It wasn't like he could just pick himself up and shake himself off and go on with the journey. You don't choose depression. It chooses you. Depression robs you just as surely as that man going down from Jerusalem to Jericho was robbed. This time the holy man and the holy woman did not ignore the cries for help. With the help of counselors, modern medical miracles, prayers and hard, courageous, painful work, the healing began. The church, the gracious, hospitable community where we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, is an inn for those who feel emotionally broken. We are both Samaritan and victim, care givers and care receivers.

A woman was on a journey when her marriage broke up. She was robbed of trust. Robbed of love. Robbed of self-esteem. She feared that the church she had always known as a place for families of one woman, one man, and 2.2 children would no longer be there for her. Would she be accepted? Could her healing begin here? Could the things she had done or left undone in her broken marriage be forgiven and forgotten? Imagine a church where, instead of judgment, she finds freedom to heal. She picks up the pieces. She builds new relationships based on mutual trust and respect. Imagine a church that becomes an inn for the broken, a house of wholeness, a community of care, so that those in need are healed and become healers sometimes all at the same time.

Some parents where on a journey. They watched their gay son get put down by the church just one too many times. Oh sure, the good church people said that they loved everybody. And Jesus loves everybody. And if their son didn't change, he would be punished by God. When that kind of church keeps hurting, keeps stabbing, keeps throwing Bible verses at them like knives and clubs? It’s like that man being beaten up beside the road, bloodied and left like some kind of pile of human refuse. Where will we find communities of faith that will really love and accept our son or your daughter for who they are? Where are the churches that see all people as beautiful and worthy creations of God?

Our sons and daughters were on a journey. Despite a solid upbringing in the church, some of them want nothing to do with its teachings and the values that you cherish so much. It hurts you. Maybe you feel robbed. Or you feel your children have been robbed. Or maybe you carry with you a secret burden, a loss, a disappointment, a struggle, a shame. Or perhaps you are experiencing a physical loss. Will the church be for you a community of Samaritans, a community of unlikely friends that sets aside stereotypes, and expectations and good old fashioned propriety with the same courage that led a Samaritan long ago to cross over to the side of the road, to cross over centuries of stereotypes, centuries of ethnic bigotry, centuries of Bible-blessed hate and indifference? Will the church be willing to cross on over to the side of the road and bend down and walk with you to find healing and joy?

We look at the broken people lying beside the road. We look in our conscience and review our traditions and how we have been taught to fear and hate and typecast. We listen to the moans of agony around us we can't turn back. In a moment of dazzling grace, we cross on over to the other side and bind up the wounds of the world around us, no matter who is over there.

Jesus reminds us that God does not see people according to our stereotypes and categories. God knows us intimately and individually. This is good news -- wonderful news. God can give us the ability to see people from perspective free of prejudice and stereotypes. God has promised to transform our minds and release us from the attitudes that harm others and ourselves. "Do this and you will live."


Monday, January 11, 2010

Sermon for January 10, 2010

Jesus, Breaker of Boundaries
Luke 4:14-21

Imagine what it might sound like if Moms wrote the laws of the Bible. Forget all this stuff about ritual purity and the dimensions of the fork used to stir sacrificial meat. Mom’s laws would be more practical. For instance, from “Mom’s Laws”: Do not scream; for it is as if you scream all the time. If you are given a plate on which two foods you do not wish to touch each other are touching each other, your voice rises up even to the ceiling, while you point to the offense with the finger of your right hand; but I say to you, scream not, only remonstrate gently with the server, that the server may correct the fault. Likewise if you receive a portion of fish from which every piece of herbal seasoning has not been scraped off, and the herbal seasoning is loathsome to you and steeped in vileness, again I say, refrain from screaming. Though the vileness overwhelm you, and cause you a faint unto death, make not that sound from within your throat, neither cover your face, nor press your fingers to your nose. For even not, I have made the fish as it should be; behold, I eat it myself, yet do not die.” That’s another way of saying, “Stop complaining and eat your dinner.”

Most of us know the Ten Commandments (or at least the important ones), but how well do any of us know all the rules of the Bible and adhere to them? How about trying to live like Jesus did? Tow authors tried it recently. A.J. Jacobs best selling book is called, The Year of Living Biblically, in which he tried to follow all 613 laws in the Old Testament. Inspired by reading Jacob’s book, megachurch minister Rev. Ed Dobson claims he spent a year “living like Jesus.” after reading The Year of Living Biblically. This one-time architect of the religious right, the man who preached for 18 years at a very conservative church, read the four Gospels every week. He followed Old Testament laws about eating, clothing and behavior, since Jesus was a Jew whose followers created Christianity. Observing kosher dietary requirements to not mix meat and dairy products, Dobson gave up his beloved chicken-and-cheese burritos. He took to heart Jesus’ commands to help the poor and visit the imprisoned. He also heeded his warning that only those who do God’s work will enter heaven.” Jesus is a very troubling individual,” Dobson said. Jesus’ troubling teachings influenced Dobson to vote for Barack Obama — his first vote for a Democrat for president. I’m not trying to make a political statement here. I want you to understand just how much this “experiment” changed Dobson. He said, “I felt, as an individual, he was closer to the spirit of Jesus’ teachings than anyone else. (Obama) was a community organizer, so he was into the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, which Jesus is very much into.”

Dobson is in hot water with some conservatives over his statement that living like Jesus influenced him to vote for Obama. He also admitted that he drank an occasional beer while witnessing for Christ. On a positive side, he admitted that he can’t wait to eat burritos again.

How many of you have read all those rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy? I’m betting that a lot of you haven’t. More well intended resolutions to read the Bible cover to cover falter on the pages of Leviticus than any other book of the Bible. If you have read Leviticus, you know that it is filled with pages and pages of rules. Many of the rules sound bizarre to us. In fact most of us break a great number of them nearly every day. For example, if you don’t eat kosher foods, if you like bacon, or if you wear cotton polyester blend clothing, you are breaking a number of the laws in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Religious rules are hardly restricted to Christianity. Jews and Muslims have rules. You’ll find rules in Hinduism and Taoism and in the local tribal religion of some remote South Pacific island. Religion is, at least in part, about learning to live in ways that cohere with what we created to be. We need rules, both the kind that restrain evil and those that guide us in shaping our lives so that they will be good and abundant and meaningful. Rules also set the boundaries of the community. Who’s in and who’s out? What are the minimum standards for membership? What are the behaviors that will get you tossed out?

Who’s in and who’s out? The question is not just an ancient one. I read about a professor who had an interesting way of picturing the difference between God and humans. God is like this (throwing arms wide open), forever going out from God’s self, creating out of love, embracing out of love. But humans are sinful and like this (hunching over and pulling in arms as if clinging to something). They’re constricted, driven to protect what is theirs, to cling to what they think is theirs, and to draw lines and boundaries to keep out people who scare them or who are too different from them. All to say, we need to be careful when we say that certain rules are God’s rules. Sometimes we get confused and think that human rules came from God, when they really developed from our own fears.

All of us have ended up on the outside of those lines and boundaries. We’ve been told that we are too young or too old, too pretty or too ugly, the wrong gender, the wrong political party. We went to the wrong school or lived in the wrong place. We didn’t have enough money or didn’t belong to the right club or organization. We weren’t smart enough or educated enough. Who’s in and who’s out? Nearly all of us know what it’s like to be out. But the amazing love of God in Jesus reaches out wide across all lines and boundaries saying, “My love is for you, too.”

We hear it in today’s reading from Luke. For Luke, Jesus is the golden boy. Luke has stated several times how Jesus continues to grow in wisdom and divine favor. Jesus is filled with spirit and power. Glowing reports of his teaching and preaching spread. Naturally, the folks from the hometown are delighted to have him preach at their synagogue. Jesus goes home to kick off his ministry and mission, like a political candidate today might launch his campaign at the old home place to show his humble roots and strong support for godly values.

The scripture reading he picks for his inaugural sermon is filled with history and promise. Their ears perked up as the words from Isaiah rolled out – “good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind.” And summing it all up, “The year of the Lord’s favor.” Everyone caught his drift. It refers to the Jubilee year that is supposed to turn society upside down every 50 years. You recall the first creation story in Genesis – 6 days of work followed by the 7th day of Sabbath rest. God rested, so human beings are to rest, even slaves and animals rest weekly. The book of Leviticus describes a sabbatical year, 6 years of work followed by a 7th year of rest. IN the seventh year, fields were to lie fallow, slaves released, and debts erased. Leviticus also has a seven year cycle. After 49 years, or seven cycles of seven years, there was supposed to be a 50th year Jubilee. Not only were slaves released and debts erased, but lands were to be returned to their original stewards. Anyone who had lost their holdings through debt or drought would be restored as a trustee of God’s estate. Jesus is raising some tall expectations by reading this passage. He is saying, “It’s time to ring in a Jubilee year.”

Some of the people are amazed. Murmurs of disbelief and excitement ripple through the congregation. All these wonderful things are going to start right in the little hicktown of Nazareth. God has finally remembered the poor little folk. Can you believe it? Herod’s glitzy temple in Jerusalem is not the center of the universe. Now that Jesus is here, roaring in like a first-century Superman, maybe he can save their city, make it a decent place to live and raise families.

Others were threatened. Release captives? Hang out with the blind and the lame? Associate with the poor? These were boundaries that good people did not cross. Captives were in prison for doing something wrong – for defying Rome. The blind and the lame were seen as those who were punished for their sin and the sins of their families. If God was teaching them a lesson, why get in the way? How do you think wealthy landowners would feel about the Jubilee year? Erasing debts and returning land the poor? Redistributing wealth? Not a popular message to those who want to protect their portfolio.

Jesus’ hometown crowd hears a tactless reminder that God does not necessarily act the way we want God to act. We believe that God is gracious, but often we are most interested in God’s grace for ourselves. Yet we are called upon to acknowledge that grace is extended to all, those outside our church doors, those outside our faith, those who are outside our boundaries of acceptability.

Jesus is a breaker of boundaries. He comes to shake us up and help us follow him into a new reality.

We put boundaries around ourselves all the time. We put limits on our vision. We decide that God has only one way. For some strange reason, God’s way seems to mirror our own needs.

It’s time to give up our worries. It’s time to let go of constricting, self-protecting expectations. This is a big challenge for an old church that has been maintaining its traditions for almost 300 years. Are we wilting? Sagging? Wearing down? Sliding toward the sideline? Burdened by buildings, going limp, troubled by the numbers, cutting back? Christ says, “Don’t forget your priorities. The Spirit of the LORD invites you to bring Good News to the poor; to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of God’s favor has come.

When we are settling into our comfortable boundaries, fluffing the pillows, feeling safe with one another, accustomed to the surroundings, and finally feeling unthreatened, Christ comes and says, “Enough with tranquility! I’m the way! The truth! The life! Follow me!”

Just when we’re reading Scripture, extracting important biblical principles from the text, retrieving significant ideas for consideration, and proof texting it to fit our private theologies, Christ gets up, slams the big book shut, and says “OK, let’s stop talking about it. Let’s go do it.”

We have the Spirit that Jesus sent to every one of us. That’s why I know that when you hear what God is doing in the world, there’s a part of you that says, “YES!” You are the Body of Christ in the world. God’s Spirit is on you because God has chosen you to bring good news to the poor. Chosen YOU. Anointed YOU. Given YOU the gifts of the Spirit to see visions and speak truth to power, to invite everyone you know and even people you don’t know, or don’t know yet, to that party we are going to have on that day when every one of us can say, “the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing!”


Sermon for Jan 3, 2010

Returning Our Gifts
1 Corinthians 12:1-11

As we are now well into the New Year, has the excitement and thrill of the Christmas season come to an end for you? Have you taken down your Christmas tree yet? Are your children and grandchildren already bored with their new Christmas gifts? Our joy in material things is not a lasting joy. Once the newness wears off we tend to push our gifts aside and find something else that captures our attention. So why not re-gift them? “Tacky,” you say? Actually, that’s what my wife says. Me? I have no qualms about re-gifting when done properly. My favorite re-gift is actually one I received. My grandmother once gave me a set of stemware that I had given her a few years before. She forgot about it, found it in her basement years later, thought of me, wrapped it up, and gave it to me for Christmas. Sometimes I give gifts that I hope will be re-gifted. This year I found something that was so wonderful and so terrifying, I had to get it for a few people: The legendarily awful Ethel Merman Disco Album! Bless you for boogying, Ethel, you were as hot as a pistol!

As experts now say, re-gifting is a recipe for public humiliation and long-held grudges when done carelessly. Done with finesse and tact, re-gifting can be a happy experience for all. But there are some rules:
1. Don’t tell the gift recipient that their present is a re-gift!
2. Please, at least change the old wrapping paper.
3. Only re-gift new items. Once you use something, it’s a hand-me-down. Nobody wants your hand-me-downs for a birthday gift.
4. Don’t re-gift to the person who gave it to you in the first place.
5. Don’t EVER re-gift the following items: candles, soap, random books, mysterious CDs (unless your brother wants the hip-hop version of “Man of La Mancha”), obscure software, cheesy jewelry, scarves (do we not all own a scarf?), fruitcake, pens, cologne, boxed sets of extinct bath products (Jean Nate? No, no, no), videos or DVDs obviously acquired on a street corner, socks and any appliances or electronic gear the giftee would be puzzled to receive because they probably just got rid of it (including hot-air popcorn poppers and anything with a cassette deck in it).
6. Don’t give partially-used gift cards
7. Don’t give products from defunct companies. Nobody wants your Enron Celebrity Golf Tournament T-shirt.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that God gives us some gifts we can re-gift to others. He calls them “manifestations of the Spirit” (12:7). We also call them spiritual gifts. The Holy Spirit has given us special abilities to enable us to be a blessing and a help to others. Paul gives some examples this passage: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, and prophesying. Nobody in the church is merely average. God’s Spirit is in us to provide us with gifts, talents, and abilities to serve Him.

Talking about spiritual gifts makes some people nervous. There are two sticky attitudes that I’ve noticed in my conversations with people. One attitude is that some people see the spiritual gifts and special talents of others and become envious. We say, “Wow, look at what God is doing through that person. I wish I could do that.” We also hear those who say, “I’m just not a very gifted person. I’m just an ordinary Christian, not a special one.”

I think the church in Corinth had similar feelings about the gifts of God. The passage you heard comes from a letter to a divided community. Some of the Christians in Corinth felt proud because they knew that they were doing things. Some were teaching people the gospel of Jesus Christ. Others were having visions of what God wants and were able to share these visions with the community. Others were healers and teachers and workers of miracles. As a result of these activities, people’s lives were being changed and the results were dramatic.

Other people in the church at Corinth felt unimportant. They had a gnawing sense that what they were doing for God didn’t matter very much - that somehow, their work wasn’t as good as what others were doing. To make matters worse, people around them gave more attention to those who were doing more “spiritual” things. With all those different feelings about who was important and who was less important, the unity of their church vanished. The church in Corinth began to have troubles. It divided into factions. People left the church and others refused to come. Those who remained were unhappy and less effective in showing the love of Christ to the world. What was true of Corinth is true in many places, not only in churches, but in all kinds of volunteer groups. We see the same problems in AA groups and self help agencies, in the PTA and in service clubs, in factories and in schools, and even in homes. There are all kinds of sad places where we don’t feel cared for, respected, or needed.

Divisions in churches happen in many ways, but most often they arise because of how people act towards each other and think about each other, and not because of doctrine or belief. More churches have split up because of swelled heads than because of disputes about theology. It seems that the more we insist that what we are doing is the one and only right thing, and the best thing for everybody, the more likely we are to be wrong in how we actually treat one another. Likewise, the more we feel that we’re not as important as someone else--the more we put ourselves down or allow others to put us down--the more our witness as a church is damaged. We end up confirming in the minds of others that there are degrees of value and worth in the church.

Wherever people and their gifts are measured against one another, whenever there is pain and sorrow and anger, the work of God is hampered. Think you are more special than you are, and kiss the work of healing goodbye. Think you are less important than you are and forget about wholeness. Who’s going to believe that God is real and that faith in God makes a positive difference, when the people who worship God are criticizing others or condemning themselves?

If the church is to work as God intended it to work, then we who are in the church must learn to develop a godly vision about ourselves and our brothers and sisters. Wherever people see each other as God sees them, the church works well. There may be disagreements, but there won’t be divisions. There may be arguments, but there won’t be resentment. There won’t be envy, or pride, or self-abuse because of it. There will be love.

Our vision needs to be focused on what God wants us to see about ourselves and about others. We are called individually to faith in Jesus, but we are called into a community that can enjoy all the blessings that God wants us to have and give all the blessings that God wants us to give. We are a people who are called to feed one another and support one another. We are a people who must witness to the world that God’s love is a transforming love. The love of God tears down barriers, removes walls, and unites people in faith.

Listen to verses 4 through 7 again. Paul writes: There are different kinds of gifts, but the same spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works through all of them in all people . . . Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.

One God, one Spirit, one Lord - and a variety of gifts, all meant to be used for one purpose - to bring wholeness to the world. When we have a grounded perspective on our spiritual gifts, we can be a united body that reaches out and ministers to the community.

The Church newsletter of the First Presbyterian Church of Cedartown, Georgia once published the following article:
We will never become a church that effectively reaches out to those who are
missing if we shoot our wounded and emphasize our minuses. Instead of becoming
fishers of people, as Christ calls us to be, we will be keepers of an
ever-shrinking aquarium. The next time you see geese heading south for the
winter flying in a “V” formation, you might be interested in knowing what
science has discovered about why they fly that way. It has been learned that as
each bird flaps its wings, it creates uplift for the bird immediately
following it. By flying in a “V” formation the whole flock adds at least 71%
greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own. Christians who share a
common direction and a sense of community can get where they are traveling on
the thrust and uplift of one another. Whenever a goose falls out of formation,
it suddenly feels the draft and resistance of trying to go it alone and quickly
gets back into formation to take advantage of the uplifting power of the bird
immediately in front. If we have as much sense as a goose, we will stay in
formation with those who are headed the same way we are going. When the lead
goose gets tired, it rotates to the back of the formation and another goose
flies point. It pays to take turns doing hard jobs with people at church, or
with geese flying south.
We use our gifts in ways that encourage one another in mutual support. We need to demonstrate to the world that we have as much sense as a goose.

Over the next few weeks, you will be hearing more about how you can use your spiritual gifts in our church. Our Moderator, Carolyn Kalahar, and I have been working on a campaign called “This is YOUR Church.” We want you to know that this place exists for you and because of you. This is YOUR church and it is always here for you. This is the place that has inspiring and meaningful community worship. We aim to speak to your mind and your spirit. We baptize your babies and educate your children. We are there for your special and sacred life events — weddings, funerals, illnesses, reunions, and rites of passage. Our doors are open to all. We proclaim that no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And we mean it.

But it doesn’t work without you: without your time, your generous giving, and most of all, your special gifts. It is the promise we have made as members of this spiritual community. We walk together as followers of Jesus Christ, and devote ourselves to the study, the practice, and the spread of Christianity. We work to be loyal to this fellowship and to help one another in the Christian life. According to our abilities and opportunities, we support the and share in the common worship of God, God being our helper. Amen.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...