This week, I walked through the fellowship hall and read some of the Psalms and looked at the works that you had created. I have to say that your gifts ministered to me. I thank God for the gifts he has given you and the many ways I see them shared all through the week. Thank you so much for sharing your talents and your hearts with us. During coffee after service, take the time to read and look at what was created. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is also addressing a gifted community, a community that, like ours, has a lot of God given talent going for it. He begins with the important relational and spiritual task of giving thanks.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 (NRSV)
All but one of Paul’s letters to churches begins with giving thanks for the ways he sees God active in the church. I chose the first Corinthians passage for this sermon because of the contrast between this thanksgiving and the rest of the book. If you have read first Corinthians Paul pretty much rips them up one side and down the other all through the book. It seems like if there was a wrong way to do something, the Corinthian church found that way and ran with it. But Paul starts his letter by first acknowledging and expressing gratitude for the ways he sees God at work in their midst. Paul is not buying in to the dualism of the Greek culture he is addressing. Paul acknowledges the work-in-progress by thanking God publicly for the way he sees that work unfolding. How freeing is that? We don’t have to be perfect or “have it all together” for God to use us or speak through us. You may have noticed that I can be a bit cynical at times, but Paul challenges me here to set my cynicism aside and thank God for the gifts God has given to others. There is another word that we use to describe this generous gratitude that Paul is modeling for us: Encouragement. Encouragement begins with being grateful that God is at work in others’ lives even if that work doesn’t directly benefit you. If you look at the back of your bulletin, you will see a section that is dedicated to encouragement. If there is someone who you see exercising gifts, one way to thank God for them is there, just let Holly or myself know who you think needs a mention there. But don’t stop there; look for opportunities to express thanks to God for any gift you see in someone else.
There are two aspects to these thanks by Paul that I want to highlight for us, so that we can have the same spirit of generous gratitude towards each other. The first thing I want us to consider is the effect that beginning our conversations by expressing gratitude has. When we express gratitude for the way we see God working in someone it shows them that we truly care about them. They see that we are paying attention to their lives and know that God is active in them.
Without that proof of an emotional investment we have no grounds to speak into others’ lives. Do you know someone who can’t seem to find anything good to say about someone and always seems critical? How long did it take you to start tuning them out? I think at some level all of us who follow Christ know that if we can’t see God at work in a situation or a person the problem lies in our perception.
The second aspect to this thanksgiving is that it promotes dependence on God. Paul knows that God gives gifts in ways that build the community of faith in fellowship. There is a testimony we can share with our society that is addicted to the false-God of self-sufficiency. God has not designed us to live independently, but has spread the gifts out across the whole of our body. When we praise God for the gifts we see in others we teach ourselves to depend on the gifts God has given to the body as a whole and begin to acknowledge our own limitations. We cannot do it all ourselves, and it has been my experience that when I try the results are not the best. The result in a church of people not relying on the gifts God has given others is burnout. When we forget that God has called others to work alongside us, we start to take on more than we can bear. We get tired, cranky and we start snapping at people and wondering why everything has to land on me. When those thoughts are beginning to run through our minds that is the point at which we must ask God to open our eyes to the gifts He has given to others. Then comes the tough part: trusting the gifts God has shown us in others.
God has called us together to be his body under the leadership of Christ. We have to trust that God knows what He is doing when calls someone to do something, even, and maybe especially, if we look at what is done and say “That isn’t the way I would have done it.” The good news here is the promise found all through the Bible that God’s ways are not our ways. God wants us to start by being thankful for the gift not by judging how someone else applied their gift. We might just find ourselves judging someone for following God’s leading in exactly the way God desired them to. With Christ as our leader, we are freed to live out our callings in mutual support. Does this mean that everything will go smoothly and according to plan? Of course not! None of us are perfect, but our understanding of success and failure are not always the same as God’s. One Sunday when I was preaching at another church I felt like I had just given the worst sermon ever. When I analyzed it after the fact, it was a rambling mess that only got to the point after going down more rabbit trails than sermon. I wondered what on earth was wrong with me when I wrote that mess. When I delivered it, it felt like the least inspired thing to ever come out of my mouth. By my understanding I had just failed miserably. Then I went over to the fellowship hall grabbed a cup of coffee and slid into a back corner out of the way. People kept coming up to me saying how much God had ministered to them through what I said that day. I was completely floored. What God taught me that day was that the power and effect of my ministry were not dependent on me, but on God’s Spirit. Does that absolve me of making my best effort? No, but it is comforting to know that even when my best effort to use my gifts don’t feel like they are enough, God is at work.
Sometimes telling someone how thankful we are for God’s gifting leads to people learning about something they weren’t even aware of! I have a good friend that I have worked with on various church projects and one day when we were driving home I felt a prompt to tell them about a gift that I saw active in their life. They were absolutely shocked and had no idea that what they did had a name and was one of the gifts that God gives. As they explored this gift they learned quite a bit about themselves and how to develop that gift, and began the process of using that gift in healthier ways. This happened not because I told them they had to change, but because I saw the truth of a gift that was out of control because they didn’t know they had it or didn’t understand it as a gift. As soon as they learned about their gift and began to see it as a gift it changed both how they saw themselves and how they related to others.
The Corinthian church was having a slightly different problem in that people began thinking a little too highly of their own gifts and not very highly of others’. This is a very natural human thing; we think of ourselves very highly and often unconsciously measure other people by comparing the results of their decisions to the results of ours. That is very shaky moral ground which is why you have to run across the top of it so quickly. The trap here is that of comparison. We are trained almost from birth to compare ourselves to others. Entire educational systems are designed to rank people against each other. What we forget is that church is NOT a competition. We are not ranked against each other in the kingdom! There is no competition for power or resources, because none of either belongs to any of us. Both power and resources come from God, and God gives according to His will, not our ability. Praise God! When we see either of those things as ours we begin to limit our ability to recognize the gifts that God has given others, and ultimately limit the effectiveness of our community to fulfill the mission and vision God has for us.
This brings us back to encouragement. We need to hear others telling us that they see God at work in us. Everyone in this room is used by God for the building of this church, often in ways we don’t recognize. When we start to recognize others’ gifts and be thankful for them, we give them the gift of encouragement. We also need to practice the discipline of encouragement. To this end I have a challenge for each of you: When you pray, ask God to show you how he is gifting others. When you see God’s gifts at work in someone’s life, let them know what you saw. Call them, write them a note, send an e-mail, text them, or write on their facebook wall. Let’s see what happens when we pay attention to God’s work.