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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.

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