Sermon:  “God’s Gifts”

24 January 2010

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)

Third Sunday After Epiphany
January 24, 2010

“God’s Gifts”

1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Prayer:   “May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our minds and hearts here together be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.”

Today’s text about spiritual gifts comes from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, and to our modern ears, I think it sounds kind of strange.  I mean, we know what it means to have various gifts and talents – our choir members clearly have great musical gifts, many of you have athletic talent, others have considerable organizational skill or business acumen, many of you have minds made for teaching, medicine, science, or engineering, still others of you are incredibly skilled with your hands – from physical therapists and master gardeners to woodworkers and tradesmen to our quilters, knitters, and flower arrangers.  But we don’t tend to think of these things in religious terms.

Like Paul, we celebrate some of the spiritual gifts he lists here first –the first four, for example – wisdom and knowledge, faith and healing.  We might hope for a child to have all four of those gifts – and grow up to be a doctor, for instance.  The last five in the list seem a little more weird –I mean, who prays for a child to grow up gifted in miracles, or prophecy, or in the discernment of spirits – much less with the ability to speak in tongues, or in to interpret tongues?  So Paul is speaking directly to us today when he writes, Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”  As Christians, we should be well informed about spiritual gifts. We should learn how to discern them in ourselves and others, and most of all, learn how to put them to good use in our church and in the world.  That’s why I’m excited about this new class I’m starting this winter, on Finding Our Spiritual Gifts.

During the past century, we saw a huge growth in the popular use of various personality and aptitude tests – from ancient astrology and the Enneagram (which comes from Sufi mysticism) the field has developed modern psychological tools like IQ tests and the Meyers-Briggs personality test.  Teachers know children have multiple learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile) and multiple intelligences – verbal and mathematical, but also musical, visual/special and kinesthetic, and still others are gifted with emotional, interpersonal (between people) or intrapersonal (looking inward) intelligence.  So with all those psychological types already, who needs one more list of Spiritual Gifts?

When my grandmother’s family was homesteading in Oklahoma a hundred years ago, both her parents and grandparents and all 10 kids in their family had same job description: survivalist, farm worker, and Christian.  Just plain “Christian.”  I doubt they wasted a lot of time discerning each other’s “spiritual gifts.”  They went to church and Sunday School and studied the Bible, and gave their souls to Jesus, their Lord and Savior.  During the week, they went to school and learned reading, writing and arithmetic – but they didn’t go to their guidance counselor to take personality tests or vocational aptitude tests.  Girls hoped to get married and raise kids, while boys hoped to have a farm or small business of their own one day.  Life was hard.  Faith was as simple as church on Sunday.

By the time I came along, as a Baby Boomer growing up in the 1960s, life was much more complex.  Many more careers were available, even to women.  As we suburban kids were growing up, we weren’t doing farm chores side by side with our parents and grandparents – instead we were on the go dawn to dusk with school and after-school lessons and clubs and activities.  Our parents were trying to expose us to a lot of things in the hopes of discovering and bringing out our natural gifts.  We learned to swim and ride bikes and play sports.  We were Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts.  We were after-school ballerinas, Little Leaguers, and musicians. And like here, we had kids choirs at church.  I sang in the Junior Choir and wore a white puffy robe with a great huge red bow!  We had Christmas pageants and talent shows at church too, but no one in my church or Sunday School ever talked to me about spiritual gifts, or even vocation.  Adults would ask me, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” never “What do you think the Holy Spirit is calling you to do with the gifts God gave you?”

My peers and I were competing in school and sports and the arts for awards and elected offices – all of which would look good when it came time to apply for a college that might lead to a successful career. After a long hard week of what my grandfather liked to call “striving,” we’d go over to his house for Sunday dinner.  My grandmother would cook it and then we’d just hang out together and talk.  I loved those conversations.  One time, when I was complaining about how much I had to do all the time, she said,  “You children today – I feel sorry for you.  You have so many choices.”  I loved her for that.  She understood the pressures we felt and she gave me permission to just sit on her sun porch and do nothing with her on the Sabbath. 

Now, it seems, things are about a million times worse for our young people.  I remember one time, when my kids were little – I mean, really little, like 1 and 3 – I was sitting with some other parents in the park who were comparing activities and programs their kids were doing: you know, T-ball, music classes, baby gym, karate, dance, soccer.  And someone asked me what we did.  And I said, “We come to this park, and they play.”  They looked at me as if I had confessed to beating them daily and then sending them to bed with a tummy full of stale Halloween candy.  “You don’t have them signed up for ANYTHING? How do you expect to get them into a good preschool?” 

More than a decade later, if anything, I think the world has gotten a little bit worse.  At least if you look at the numbers of reality TV shows, it seems our world is more competitive and dog-eat-dog than ever – from Survivor, to American Idol, to Iron Chef, to The Apprentice and The Batchelor.  And with the economy the way it is, forget all that so-called TV reality, the REAL world of reality – where companies are downsizing, people are getting laid off and folks are out there looking for jobs for more than a year – that world takes competition to a whole other level.  When 1000 people apply for one job opening, you have to fight pretty hard to distinguish yourself as the best candidate.  It’s no wonder that our families are under stress and statistics show the rates of things like domestic violence, drunk driving, and suicide are going up.

Jesus was born into a world with a lot of problems too – his nation occupied for hundreds of years by foreign powers, most currently by the Roman Empire.  We complain of high taxes today, but even the poor back then were paying what was essentially criminally high “protection money” to Roman tax collectors – who were little more than small-time extortionists.  Failure to pay, for these poor farmers, was leading to massive foreclosures, homelessness, poverty, and hunger.  People were losing land that had been in their families for hundreds of years.  Back then, when someone worked in a trade – like Jesus and Joseph, the carpenters – it was likely a desperate attempt to keep a family alive who had been thrown off the land with no other means of income.

It was into this world, that the prophet John the Baptist raised his voice in protest: shouting that God would be the judge over Israel, over those who would steal from the poor to give to the rich.  When he was jailed and murdered, Jesus took up the mantle of his nation’s prophetic tradition, proclaiming the gifts of God for the people of God.  Let me close by reading for you today’s Gospel Lesson (Luke, chapter 4, verses 17 through 21), where Jesus reads from the great prophet Isaiah.  Hear the Good News:

14Then Jesus… unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What a relief!  Jesus provides release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind.  Jesus lets the oppressed go free and proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor.  We are freed up from the “rat race” by the knowledge that God made us just the way we are, with spiritual gifts in various types and quantities – but all of them given in the hope we use them for the common good.  We are called by Christ to use these gifts in ministry with him – in service to the world. 

Thanks be to God for this Good News.  Amen.


1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak. 3Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 4Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.



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