Naming, claiming and sharing our gifts as part of practicing resurrection...

NOTE:  Here are my worship notes for Sunday, February 20, 2011 in our on-going exploration of Ephesians for 21st century believers.  This week we look carefully at our collective gift to share with the world as well as our personal gifts.  Next week we'll consider how hard it is to discern God's gift to us all by ourselves - and how we need help.  If you are in town for worship at 10:30 am, please join us.

This morning I want to be very serious AND extremely playful with you as we consider what it means to claim, share and own God’s call upon your life.

+ I say serious because God’s calling on your life is not only a matter of life and death for you, but it has implications for all creation, too. Like the gentle but ever expanding ripples made by a stone in still water, God’s calling on your life moves out from you and into the world in profound and mysterious ways. So, Jesus says in today’s gospel: You are kingdom subject so grow up and live like it. Live out your God-created identity – your calling – which empowers you to live generously and graciously toward others just the way God lives toward you."

+ At the same time I have to speak of this calling in a playful way, too, because, well… our take on spirituality is more about the feast than the fast. We have been called to celebrate the joy, not the guilt – a life of gratitude rather than obligation – the gift of God’s grace, not judgment. St. Paul puts it like this in our other lesson for today: “…with humility and discipline —not fits and starts – but steadily, pouring yourselves out for each other in acts of love… travel on the same road and in the same direction (towards the calling given to you by the Lord.) And remember:

He handed out gifts above and below, filled heaven with his gifts, filled earth with his gifts. (What’s more, God has) handed out gifts (to the church) with some being called to be an apostle, prophet or evangelist, and others to be the pastor-teachers (sent) to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ's body, the church, until we're all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ. So, come on, no prolonged infancies among us, please.

I have come to believe that our charism – our unique gift of the Holy Spirit to the world and our community at this moment in time – is to clearly embody a faithful alternative to both the popular entertainment-obsessed churches of this era as well as the rule and tradition-bound ones. Do you hear what I’m saying?

Our gift by faith is to be such a clear and joyful alternative to other church traditions that everyday people come to realize – and experience – something of God’s good news in the world in addition to all the pain and suffering and fear. We have been commissioned – let me go so far as to say called by God – not only to celebrate our God-created identity as kingdom people committed to Christ and his Cross, but to do so with humility, humor and hope.

+ You see, we have been called to be an alternative to the status quo – even when it comes to religion.

+ We are clearly the minority report when it comes to Christianity in America – other traditions and theologies are much bigger and more popular than our type of church – but this is really a blessing because it frees us to live openly and enthusiastically as one of God’s grace-filled alternatives.

And please hear me clearly: I am not slamming nor denigrating those traditions that emphasize the rules and dogma and getting all the words right about who’s an insider and who is out. Let’s be honest: there will always be spiritual traditions that are top-down and rule bound. Apparently many people need this type of religion for it has been in existence since the beginning of time and isn’t going anywhere fast.

That is part of what I hear from our first reading for today, ok? There’s no ambiguity – no poetry – no nuance: just the facts, ma’am and a clear-cut articulation of the rules.

You shall each revere your mother and father, and you shall keep my Sabbaths: I am the LORD your God. Do not turn to idols or make cast images for yourselves: I am the LORD your God… You shall not steal; you shall not deal falsely; and you shall not lie to one another. And you shall not swear falsely by my name, profaning the name of your God: I am the LORD

The old timers used to say: God said it, I believe it and that’s the end of it! And that is one way of doing it… But I have to tell you, that way of being faithful to the Lord doesn’t do anything for me. It obviously works for some, but I have experienced God’s grace as bigger than a one size fits all religion. I mean, come on…

+ A God who has brought to birth jazz and classical music – rap and soul – rock and roll – world music, folk music, the cooing of babies at their momma’s breast and the sweet sounds that make women and men weep and lay down their swords…

+ A God who has inspired the poetry of Allen Ginsberg AND T.S. Elliot – to say nothing of Anna Ahkmatova, Emily Dickinson, Mary Oliver, Robert Bly and Rumi…

+ Or Picasso and Degas – Michelangelo and Rothko – Alberto Giacometti and Rodin – Rembrandt, Maya Lin and Georgia O’Keefe…

Come on: this God and God’s creation is just too vast and intricate for only one way of living into our vocation and calling as kingdom citizens. That’s why I am certain that the Lord has called us to be that serious but oh so playful, creative and faithful alternative to what so often passes for religion and church. We have a vocation – a minority vocation, to be sure – but a real vocation to give shape, form and expression to Christ’s joy.

Now in order to this, we have to understand that our vocation is bigger than a job. Literally the word vocation, from the Latin vocare, means “to call” - to be summoned to your essence in the world by God – ok? I love how the writer, Fredrick Buechner, puts it in his little book, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. “There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work,” he writes, “and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of society, say, or the superego, or self interest.”

The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need to do and (b) that the world needs to have done. If you find your work rewarding, you have presumably met requirement (a), but if your work does not benefit others, the chances are you have missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work does benefit others, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you are unhappy with it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your customers much either.… The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.

Isn’t that perfect? Our calling – as a congregation – has to do with that place where our deep gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet. But we have to go one step deeper into this quest so that we know how to blend our calling as individuals within this place into the body of Christ. You see, our calling ALWAYS leads us beyond ourselves and into the Body of Christ. I think that is part of what the Lord’s playful words in today’s gospel are telling us. In Peterson’s translation, Jesus tells us:

You're familiar with the old written law, 'Love your friend,' and its unwritten companion, 'Hate your enemy.' I'm challenging that. I'm telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. In a word, what I'm saying is, grow up. You're kingdom subjects. Now live like it.

And our old buddy Paul gives us a tool to help us go deeper. He, too, wants us to grow up into God’s grace so that we can be serious but playful servants of Christ in the real world. In Ephesians 4, he tells us something many have never considered: not only has God given gifts to creation and the entire world, but God has given each of US gifts, too, to be used to strengthen the Body of Christ.

So Paul makes a list – as the old apostle is want to do – and highlights four key gifts that every church needs if it is to mature and grow up to practice resurrection: God handed out the gift of being an apostle, a prophet, and evangelist and a pastor-teacher to train the congregation in the way of being skilled servants of Jesus. So let’s be clear about what each of these four gifts is all about, ok?
What is an apostle? Literally it is one who is sent out from the body through a direct and historic relationship to Jesus in order to share the serious/playful love of God with the world. That means that an apostle is not only distinct from a disciple – somebody who follows Jesus – but also is limited to a small and discrete group of people in time, right? Namely, those who personally knew Jesus and were sent out into the world at his command. In Paul’s day there were still apostles alive who had known Jesus intimately, but those days are over.

Next is the prophet; so what’s going on here? Let’s be clear that a prophet doe NOT read the future or tell fortunes, ok? No a prophet is someone who listens for the Holy Spirit within a culture and helps God’s people listen to what God is saying to our generation. Prophets are creative and culturally sensitive interpreters of what our still speaking God is saying in history – so do you have any thoughts or clues about this?

Then there is the evangelist – a word that has gotten a bum rap for some very good reasons in our generation – but what do you think it really means? It comes from the Greek word, euangelion, meaning “good news,” so an evangelist is someone who helps others both understand the good news of God in Jesus and how to put it into practice. A true evangelist is NOT a revival preacher – or someone who works on your emotions – but rather a trained disciple who has been called by God to public and gives Jesus some shape and form in the wider culture outside of the church. The term evangelist replaces that of the ancient apostle and allows every generation to participate in the good news. So what comes to your mind about some of the playful and creative ways this gift or calling is taking place here?

And fourth there is the pastor/teacher – the trainer in the ways of discipleship – who has been called to build up the body of Christ from childish thoughts to maturity. One of the old translations puts it like this: God has also called pastor-teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry. This is not two callings – pastor and teacher – but both together: the pastor is one who cares for and protects the flock; the teacher is the one who trains the flock in the way of discipleship so that they can practice resurrection as adults. That is, so the flock – not the pastor-teacher – but the body can do the work of ministry.

+ Did you get that distinction? Somehow contemporary culture has turned that back-ass-wards so we think it normative for the pastor to do the work of ministry while the people become spectators.

+ But ministry – the whole Christian life – is not a spectator sport where only the minister ministers and the congregation congregates! No, the pastor-teacher equips the saints – you and you and you and all of us – for the work of ministry.

Now, one quick aside: I hope you noticed that not everyone is called to be a pastor-teacher or a prophet or an evangelist. SOME are so called, but not everyone. That doesn’t mean if you don’t find your name on this list you are exempt and called to be passive. Not at all because if you know St. Paul at all, you know that if you name isn’t on this list you can be sure he’s got another list just waiting for you – and he does.

If Ephesians 4 speaks only of apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastor teachers, don’t forget that there is:
+ I Corinthians 12: God's various gifts are handed out everywhere; but they all originate in God's Spirit. God's various expressions of power are in action everywhere; but God is behind it all and each person is given something to do that shows who God is and the variety is wonderful: some have been called to offer wise counsel, others to teach the gospel clearly; some are given the gift of simple trust while others are to heal the sick; some can share in miracles, others in proclamation, some speak in tongues and others make God’s worship real for all people.

+ To say nothing of Romans 12: We are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. So let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other or trying to be something we aren't. If you preach, just preach God's Message, nothing else; if you help, just help, don't take over; if you teach, stick to your teaching; if you give encouraging guidance, be careful that you don't get bossy; if you're put in charge, don't manipulate; if you're called to give aid to people in distress, keep your eyes open and be quick to respond; if you work with the disadvantaged, don't let yourself get irritated with them or depressed by them. Keep a smile on your face. Love from the center of who you are; don't fake it. Run for dear life from evil; hold on for dear life to good. Be good friends who love deeply; practice playing second fiddle.

Ours is a playful/serious tradition called to be about grace and joy in the world. We have ALL been given gifts by God to share in the healing of the world. And like Buechner said, “When our deepest gladness meets the world’s deepest hunger…we’ve got it.”

So, as we share one of our deepest joys – music – I’m going to ask you to see if you can name one of your deepest gifts. Try to name it, claim it and share it in one or two words. Write it down on the back of the card you received in today’s bulletin and put it in the offering plate. No names – just the card with your gift – and I’ll share it with you next week in a display. Let’s see what comes up for you as we share a song called “Praise God for the Body.”

(NOTE:  as you can tell I adore the work of the late Mark Rothko and give thanks to God for his creative and meditative genius.)


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