Spiritual Gifts

 1 Corinthians 12: 3-13

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Perhaps you too were arrested by the moving and powerful remembrances offered this week, seventy years later, for June 6, 1944.  This week we have heard again about those young men on Omaha Beach and elsewhere we gave so much for the common good, whose sacrificial martial action was offered for the common good.  Perhaps you found in such retrospective as we have had these last few days, an emotional upsurge, a spiritual shower, a reckoning with history and duty, an infusion of spirit.  There is a gospel echo here.

 

Spiritual gifts are meant for the common good.

 

Those who began the practice of ministry in the 1970’s officiated at many funerals, over the years, for men of this, ‘the greatest generation’.  As with all ministry, through which one puts oneself at the disposal and in the service of others, these memorials, over decades, have been moments of great privilege.  One such occurred yesterday across the river in the Harvard Memorial Church.  We are coming gradually toward the end of this generation’s memorials.  Have we truly learned the lessons, their lessons, which by accident of circumstance, age, location, timing, calling, we have been given to celebrate, in ministry? What a privilege, in ministry, to participate in the highest and hardest moments of life.  What a privilege.

Ministry is preaching and visiting.  To preach requires, invites, demands visitation, some two dozen forty minute visits per week, forty minutes of listening, which is an offer of life, and forty seconds of extemporary prayer, which is an offer of grace.  What a privilege to share the gospel week by week in such a way.  You are in the middle of things.

 

Once when our son was ten years old, he accompanied me during such a visit with two parishioners.  Mary and Bill had married just after the Second World War.  They raised four daughters, who all had become vibrant, creative, caring adults.  In addition they found time to prepare the Altar for Sunday, to sit through various Worship Committee meetings, to take an interest in local politics, to read and learn and grow and change, as faith intersected with life.

 

During the October that Bill was dying, our son Ben went with me once to see him.  On an earlier visit, Bill had told me about his experience in the war.  At age 20 Bill had become a pilot, and had flown 30 missions from England into and over Germany.  His plane had been shot down once.  He had survived, though not all of his crew had survived.  He had carried responsibility for an airplane, a crew, many missions, and to some small but human degree, the outcome of the war itself.  He was honored and decorated when the war ended.  30 missions later, several deaths later, many hours of anxious service later, many buildings and bridges destroyed later, after three years in command in England in the air in the war, he came home.  He was 22.  Bill was 22 years old, when the war ended, and he came home.

 

I cannot remember how this happened, but our son either asked to see or was offered to see Bill’s flight jacket.  It was a heavy, worn, brown leather flight jacket, waist long with an old center zipper.  At age 10, and I do not remember how this happened, whether he asked or was offered, Ben donned the jacket.  He was small in it, but Bill himself was somewhat small, and the jacket fit, if poorly.  Here was a moment when Mary, soon to be a widow, and Bill, soon to be buried, and Ben, soon to be 11, and I, soon to conduct a funeral, were fully quiet together.  With that jacket Bill came home, 30 missions later, a war won, at 22 years of age. 22. A young man.  Bill worked the next 40 years as a public relations writer for a small manufacturing company, a quiet life of backroom pencil sharpening, phoning, rewriting, and mailing.

 

Some moments stand frozen in time.  Our son in Bill’s jacket is one.  Bill’s primary work, his main adult life, as he reflected on all of his life, was completed by age 22.

 

Which provokes a question: Where did we ever get the idea that young people are not capable of great things?

 

Bill found his voice, his own self, at a young age, and quietly whispered his voice in faith for the rest of his days, right in the middle of things.

Here we are in the middle of things, the middle of June, the middle of life.  In media res.  In the middle of things.

Young adults are often concerned about relationships, anxious about performance, overly attentive to their changing appearance, and honestly uncertain about the future.  You notice, I am sure, that in all these things they resemble no one as much as another remarkable age cohort sometimes referred to as their parents.

 

         The issue of appearance, or appearances, which will dog us all for all our days, is of particular importance this morning.  Now I think it is good to dress well for church, and particularly for such a special occasion as Pentecost, Whitsunday.  In fact, we might wish that there were rather more than less attention, across our time and land, to the matter of courtesy, manners, and dress.  However, the Scripture lesson this morning acclaims in startling fashion a distinctly different truth, which is, simply said, that what matters is not how you look but how you sound.  In the life of the Spirit, that is, what counts is not your face but your voice.

 

To become a person is to find your voice.  Spiritual gifts are vocal gifts, meant for the common good.

 

You may, and rightly, wonder why St Paul would start down this rickety path with the shouting Corinthians. In ancient Corinth, a city like New Orleans in its love of the love of the flesh, Paul spoke:  God made them and gave them life; soon they would be at death in God’s presence; in the meantime they were a sorry lot; and Jesus Christ was raised from the dead to give them new life, community, heaven, meaning, love, and, oh yes, spirit.  To this they responded with the chaotic shouting and disrespect They shouted!  They groped!  They misbehaved!  They went overboard!  If nothing else, that is, it seemed that there was plenty of volume in Corinth.

 

This morning we are in earshot of part of Paul’s lesson for the Corinthians.  In a word, he is heard to say, you are mistaken to focus on what you see.  What matters is how you sound.   What do those around you hear and overhear in your voice?

 

I heard an editor at Random House explain how he could move through thousands of manuscripts very quickly, and know which ones to publish.  “Oh, I can tell in a paragraph or two.  Did you ever listen to someone sing?  You can tell in a line or two”.

 

Paul is asking his new born church to exchange volume for value, to listen for the good gifts that God is giving, to feel the heart beat of life and love in various forms of speech that are the whole content of the spirit.

 

Paul gives, too, a concrete, historical measure of spirit.  We all have come of age in a time in which the word spirit and its cousins are as exuberantly pronounced as they are unintelligibly defined.  By contrast, for the Paul of 1 Corinthians 12 spirit means speech that does good.  All of the gifts of spirit, he says, can be known and measured by one simple test: what do they do for the common good?

 

Notice the space Paul creates.  There are varieties of gifts.  Not one bouquet, but a meadow full of bouquets.  Diversities, multiplicities, all the many-sided manyness that his Greek culture decried as the enemy of the true and the good and the beautiful—the oneness of truth—this diversity Paul celebrates.

 

God is giving us gifts all the time, but our ears are so muffled that we miss their value, their resounding power.  The gifts which make up spirit are many and different, but are the bequests of a single spirit, lord and God (incidentally, one of the earliest Trinitarian references in scripture and history).  These vocal gifts are to be distinguished from their contraries by a single test:  do they build the common good?

 

So Paul directs the Corinthians to listen for the arrival of the gifts of the Spirit.  You receive your measure of them too.  Take the time, over the years, to hear them and know them and know your part in them.

 

To one is given the logos sophias, the word of wisdom.  Some of you will become wise before your time.  Our age disdains wisdom.  We prefer willpower.  It is willpower, or the will to power, that distinguishes our age, from the raucous willfulness of our music to the undisguised willfulness of our politics.  We love things not because they are right and true but because they are ours.  Look at many of our popular cultural figures.  Are they wise? No, but they are willful, and in that combination of audacious imagination and utter willfulness, they symbolize much of our era.  But the gift of the spirit is wisdom, the quiet capacity to see life as a whole.  Listen for a word of wisdom.

 

To one is given the logos gnoseus, the word of knowledge.  Paul elsewhere questions knowledge, but not here.  Paul himself knew a great deal.  He knew the Hebrew Bible well enough to use it, and recite it as a part of his heart.  He knew the tradition of Greek philosophy, the sophists and the epicureans and the teaching of Plato, well enough to recall them with ease.  He knew the cities of the empire well enough to traverse them with grace.   He even knew enough of the craft of leather working to make his living, city by city, as a tent-maker, the original worker priest.  I have no doubt that he would encourage our increase in knowledge, in many directions.  But the knowledge to which he gives expression here is of a different kind.  He means the knowledge that touches and warms the heart, that makes the heart strangely warm, the knowing word.  You will know it when you have heard it.

 

It is thought feeling.  It is felt thought.  Try as we might to unglue the two, feeling and thought, they are enmeshed in one another.  Someone will take you by the hand and whisper, “I love you”.  Someone will ask you, pointedly, whether you plan to make something of your life.  Someone will, at the right time in the right way, tell you to your face that you are forgiven for what you did and you should stop beating yourself up over it.  Someone will point out to you a different possibility, a new alternative.  Someone will invite you to come to worship God in a church, a church with depth, a church with texture, a church with body.  More to the point, some of you will have that voice, that knowing voice, that telling voice, the voice of knowledge.  Listen for a word of knowledge.

 

To another is given the gift of pistis, faith.  Faith comes by hearing, we know, and hearing by the word of God.  As a religion Christianity has yet to come to terms, far and wide it seems to me, with Paul’s blunt assertion that faith is a gift, a form of speech and hearing that is offered to some individuals for the sake of the common good.  Perhaps the word of faith, upon your tongue, is the gift of the spirit to you.  Listen for a word of faith.

 

To others are given the gifts of healing and energymata dunameon—energetic power.  Words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the good, for the common good.  Paul strictly measures the spirit, and spiritual gifts, according to a simple rule:  does this make for the common good?

 

Yesterday we took our son’s two daughters for an afternoon.  We rode the T.  We walked through the Common.  We rode the Carousel there.  We hiked over the Fiedler bridge.  We sat for ice cream along the esplanade.  We meandered up along the river.  We stopped in a playground, one where a tree has been carved into a part of the yard.  All public space, all common good, all ushered into existence by spiritual gifts for the common good.  I wonder how many meetings, how many hours, how many votes, how many speeches, how many voices have been lifted, for how many years, to make Boston such a shining example of public space for the common good?  Listen for words of healing and force, fitly spoken, that make a difference for the common good.

 

To still others are given the gifts of prophecy, discernment, speaking and understanding.  I ask that we notice only that all of these, like their predecessors have to do with speech, with voice.  You become a person by finding your voice.  Spiritual gifts are vocal gifts—in the tongues of Acts 2, in the shouts of Psalm 104, in the dominical cry of John 7, but especially in Paul’s declaration of 1 Corinthians 12.

 

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

 

         To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

 

         To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

 

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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