5.14.23 Sermon Transcript "Equipped for Every Good Work"
A lot of times when we quote 2nd Timothy 3 our first reading, we focus on its important and true claim that “all Scripture is inspired by God, useful for teaching and for rebuke, for correction,” but a lot of times we don't go on in that sentence “for training in righteousness so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” The purpose of Scripture, according to Scripture is to equip us! It is inspired. it is God breathed. It points the way to Christ, Christ who is “the way, the truth, the life.” Christ who is the perfect revelation of God's love. Christ who shows us how to do on Earth that which is done in heaven.
Then our reading from Ephesians is about the body of Christ. it's about the church collectively enacting the things that Jesus Does. Not did… does! “Christ is alive.” We proclaim Christ walks with us even now and we are called - as we talked a bit about last week - to do still greater things if we are in Christ. If, collectively, we form the body of Christ, Jesus expects and equips us to do even greater things than Jesus did! I will confess you I can't quite get my head around that and yet that is the persistent witness and call of Scripture.
Another persistent and call and witness of Scripture is that our diversity is intended. We are not all supposed to be the same. That's the thrust of Ephesians 4. We are uniquely gifted. We are uniquely called. Some serve in this role or that role… some are equipped for this particular kind of service or that particular kind of service… and together in our differences – geographic, genetic, theological… together we form the body of Christ. So often we encounter Scripture that talks about “One God, One Faith, One Baptism” and we read it exclusively or we encounter as we talked last week, John 14 Jesus is “the way, the truth, the life” and we morph that into “my understanding of Jesus is the way” and one of the things the author of Ephesians, be it Paul or one of Paul's followers, is emphasizing is that in our diversity we are called to demonstrate following Christ - not to proclaim our understanding exclusively is the way, but that Christ is the way. Christ is the boundary function. So often we come across as exclusive, as judgmental so often we fail to follow the way of Christ while proclaiming ourselves Christians.
Surveys done these days, the dominant understanding of Christianity for those who are not part of a church, and even for a few who are, is that we are judgmental, exclusionary, bigoted… that we are coercive and unkind. These are the words that come up and none of those look like Jesus to me. Jesus is not coercive.
On this day when we celebrate nurturing love of mothers, we have complex understandings of motherhood. Some of us are blessed with wonderful mothers some mothers well they didn't… they weren't able to fulfill the role the way we might hope. Some of us mourn children lost or alienated. It's a complicated holiday and yet we have an ideal of motherhood – nurturing, loving, equipping their children to grow and to thrive, to leave the nest. I think at least for me an idealized understanding of motherhood and grandmotherhood in fact has a lot to do with my understanding of God. When we get it right as humans, what we do here looks like what God does in heaven. When our relationships are healthy, filled with love and nurturing, when we avoid coercing each, avoid becoming too judgmental, we get a glimse… a foretaste of what heaven is like. In our reading of Ephesians, Paul writes that we are to speak truth in love and that line again often gets taken too narrowly. We Christians say horrific things to each other and to the world at large because think we are we're speaking in love - no we're not we're speaking judgmentally, coercively, controlling. Love is patient, kind, humble. Love serves. Love does not coerce. Sometimes love needs to be tough and boundaries need to be set and difficult conversations need to be had, but speaking in love does not coerce or judge or belittle. Paul writes we “must grow up in every way into him who is the head into Christ from whom the whole body is joined and knitted together.” It is an image of the body joined by ligaments each function enabled by the whole. Speaking truth in love is about us growing in spiritual maturity not about us controlling others or imposing our values on others. It is about sharing them in a way that draws people to Christ. Being Christ-like that draws people not coerces them.
It strikes me as interesting that the dominant understanding of the church today is of controlling and judgment and yet Christ rarely called out sinners. Christ invited sinners to the table. Christ sat with sinners and discussed with them, revealed, confronted certainly, but always with a gentleness. The people Christ decried, the people Christ called out and had harsh words for are those who thought they had no sin! Those who thought their place was to enforce rules on others. No. Christ is with all people. When we think we have an exclusive claim, a final understanding, that our role is to impose - we are not being Christ-like.
There's an interesting passage in Ephesians 4. It almost looks like an aside. In fact sometimes it's italicized because it seems to break the flow of the argument. It says “he ascended” and the author is quoting Psalm 68 there “does it not also mean that he descended?” through those verses we often skip over and I think it's the crux of Paul's argument. There are multiple meanings to this. Certainly, we Christians hold that Christ ascended, that he sits at the right hand of the Father or “above the highest Heavens” as Ephesians put it. That he is “first in all things.” This argument about descending, well some folks - and I am partial to this argument particularly –it says he “goes to the lower parts of Earth” some folks say that that is the line the Creeds that he “descended to the Dead” or even “into Hell.” That he preached the good news even to those in the place of the dead. Others understand that this talks about the Incarnation -that the word became flesh, that he descended from heaven to this earth and there's a strong argument there, but another argument has intrigued me lately and it seems to fit the focus of Ephesians a little bit better and the timing a little bit better. The argument is that Christ ascends - he lives this human life, he suffers, is crucified, dies, is buried and is risen - that he presents himself to his disciples and to others. Paul says as many as 500 had Resurrection appearances – thought we only have a handful of stories and then he ascends. Both Luke and Acts tells us of the day of Ascension - his disciples see him return to Heaven and he has promised the Holy Spirit and in a few weeks we will celebrate Pentecost and the Acts 2 story of the Spirit descending on the disciple as wind and flame and they are filled with the Holy Spirit and they break forth from their locked room and they begin proclaiming the good news. They are no longer afraid and I suspect this passage of Ephesians is talking about that kind of experience when the Holy Spirit gets a hold of us and we no longer have to be afraid or coercive or controlling. That we are filled with love and grace and mercy. He ascended and he descends in the form of the Holy Spirit. It's the essence of the mystery of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. God With Us - at all times, in all places - equipping us to be the church; to be the body of Christ; to live here on earth as Christ showed us to live. To do the things that Jesus does - to do still greater things in His holy name. When we're getting it right, the church will be seen as full of mercy and compassion and love - not judgment and control. The world will see mercy and compassion so that… So That… we grow in spiritual maturity and others are invited to find their path and share their journey. Not so they mimic our understanding or our vocabulary, but that we are drawn together into the greater service. That we are known and seen and experience what it is to be Christ-like, to be nurturing, to the world. Last week we read from 1st Corinthians and we have over the past several weeks read almost all the passages that talk about spiritual gifts. Paul wrote to the Corinthians “now concerning spiritual gifts brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed” and we talked about finding our sweet spot, our unique combinations of gifts and opportunity and call and vocation to do what we are called to do, to equip others to do what they are called to do. To embrace our differences - that some of us are eyes and ears and some of us are hands and feet and we are different. The body is not all the same. We are not called to be all the same.
I want to talk a little bit more about those spiritual gifts because I think that's what this passage from Ephesians and this passage from Timothy are talking about: We, as the church, when we have embraced our gifts, when we have embraced our diversity and our different calls ,when we are working together to nurture and love the world - these are the kinds of things that we are using. The tools that we are equipped with. S
ome folks are called to a gift of Administration or equipped for that to organize people and resources for greater efficiency, effectiveness and success. Some people are gifted Compassion, it moves people to action on behalf of those in need. It is a literal suffering with,m not pity and more than empathy it is compassion. Some of us are gifted with Discernment: a deep intuition and insight, an understanding of what is right that sometimes surpasses words and systems. Some are called and gifted in Exhortation and a lot of times we talk about that in terms of speech and it's a useful gift to have for public speakers and for pastors - but it's really about more than p;roclamation. it's about offering encouragement, wise counsel, unflagging support and empowerment. There are some folks that are never at the front of the room who are deeply gifted in exhortation, encouragement, empowerment!
Some even this day are gifted with Prophecy - the ability to speak God's word to others or more appropriately be open to God, to speak God's word through their lives. Evangelism - that's a word that kind of tarnished these days, but it is a gift of faith: sharing and proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those we meet in words, but perhaps more importantly in action. Apostleship is still different than that - those with the gift of apostleship are compelled to reach out to new and unfamiliar groups and individuals inviting them into relationship and community - seeing where God is already active in them and naming them as Paul did so often. He doesn't come and just impose his understanding - he sees, even in Athens ,that they are a religious people, that they are worshiping a god of mystery and he proclaims and guides faith. Faith itself is a gift a spiritual gift. Have you ever met people that have this abounding foundation of confidence of God's good that works in all things. That all things are working for good. Real tragedy can befall and these folks are resilient. They are rooted and grounded in faith and it is a gift. They know that the people of God together can rise above any obstacle They bear witness to that in their lives. It's not merely belief. It is a foundation.
Some folks are gifted the spiritual gift of generosity. A deep commitment to provide whatever resources are needed to support their understanding of God's Will and plan they underwrite others. They make Mission and Ministry possible with their generosity. Some have the spiritual gift of Helps Support and behind the scenes effort that make groups, families and congregations more effective. I had I served one congregation we had a gentleman who was deeply gifted in helping. He was one of those people that just took care of what needed to be done and when he passed away… for months at this church, a huge 800 member Church… three and four Services. We kept having this conversation. This didn't get done! Who does that and the answer kept coming back to Larry. We had we filled like five pages of things that he had just handled not even being asked, just took it upon himself made it happen. Those folks are invaluable Servanthood is a gift the gift of doing for others sometimes the exclusion of personal needs it's different than helping. it's more sacrificial and we need all of these different types.
You may notice these are not roles or jobs. These are not titles. These are ways people are equipped and none of us are equipped in all of them, all of us are equipped in some of them and all of us can grow in all of them. They can be learned. They can be shared. They can be imitated. Healing is a spiritual gift. Sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, sometimes emotionally sometimes it becomes a profession or a vocation but more often it's just those folks who make you feel better when they're around. They are gifted with healing - the ability to channels God's grace and love to those who suffer.
Tongues and Interpretation of Tongues. Sometimes these make us nervous in the modern setting. We United Methodists, who sit quietly in our pews, have forgotten that our heritage was as Enthusiast! Camp meetings and waving arms and shouting. The Pentecostal movement of today was born out of a Methodist camp meeting at Azuza street. We have more in common than we might think - but tongues is more than just what we might see as speaking gibberish Being ecstatic in the Spirit. Tongues is a gift that allows people to speak, understand and convey concepts across language barriers or understandings - even on topics they've never formally studied. These are people that help bridge cultural, generational and language divides. These are people that connect other people - that allow communication to happen.
Knowledge is a gift the ability to quickly, or even automatically, convert facts, data and information into useful and actionable knowledge. Wisdom is a related gift but different. Wisdom allows people to understand deeper meaning and apply knowledge, beliefs and experience to everyday situations. Teaching is yet another related gift. There are some very knowledgeable people some, very wise people, who are not gifted with the gift of teaching. The gift of teaching allows people to transform data and information into life changing knowledge and skills applied - growing others in their abilities. Leadership is still another gift - a gift of being visionary, a forward-looking gift that enables people to stay focused on where God might be leading us as individuals, congregations and communities at any given time. Miracles are another gift. Those gifted with Miracles never doubt the power and presence of God in creation and are able to help others see and believe in God's power. Sometimes we get nervous with talk of miracles in our scientific age but I - and I suspect you - have seen experiences that cannot be fully explained scientifically. Sometimes we get too rigid with it. We wonder why this person was healed and that person wasn't. We talk about miracles as if they are out of the ordinary. One of my favorite quotes though is the world is full of miracles we're just so used to them that we call them ordinary things. There's a butterfly not a miracle. It's a bloom of a flower not a miracle. It's not each one of our lives a miracle - often we beg for miracles near the end of life when our health is declined or some illness has arisen and we forget the miracle that is life that we got 5 10 50 80 years with that person and their gifts and their insight. All these kinds of things are Miracles and these folks help point them out.
Shepherding is a spiritual gift the gift of mentoring and providing spiritual guidance to others to help them develop in discipleship and Faith formation hospitality is a gift some folks just have a natural ability to make even strangers feel welcome and comfortable those folks are indispensable to a church and again it's not necessarily a formal title but it's a an ability and insight to notice what would make someone who's not familiar with our building more comfortable. Mercy. People with the spiritual gift of Mercy have a great sensitivity for those who are suffering -it often manifest itself in offering compassion and encouragement and a love for giving. Practical help to someone in need
Craftsmanship an ability to use your hands, and mind to make things to. Make patterns and systems that increase the effectiveness of others. Folks with this gift enjoy serving with your hands to meet tangible needs, and their minds to design and build and create
Nurturing. On this Mother's Day we lift up the spiritual gift of Nurturing those who create a space where others might grow and thrive in their own gifts. It evokes wisdom and understanding, knowledge, counsel, comfort, fortitude, piety and reverence. All of those things these gifts overlap and one of the things about finding our sweet spot is understanding how we are gifted. Primary gifts. Secondary gifts. Where we can grow and learn. How we can connect with others who are gifted in complementary ways. Recognizing that we don't have to do it all on our own. We are the body - even the fingers and the thumb oppose each other and if they didn't we couldn't grip. The hands can be opposing and if we didn't work together with them we wouldn't have the abilities that we do. Minds can be opposing and yet create space for growth. Iron sharpens iron. We need each other, even in our differences, because of our differences. Our unique combinations of gifts and so we are called to find our specific gifts and to use our gifts for the good of others. Not to hide them or bury them. Not to try and keep them the same, unchanged, but to invest them. To allow them to grow. To see what God will do with the energy and the time and the effort that we put in.
At the start of the service, I had too many things on my head and got flustered I didn't do the reading I was intending to open the service with … which would have made the first hymn make a little bit more sense in the flow, but as I was thinking about all these things. I realized that again we often think about escaping this world to get to heaven and I've said many times that we are called to be the body in Christ here in this time and place… as I reflecting and I was looking at the lectionary. Normally I will pick Scriptures for the series and then I will go back to the lectionary order and I will see what the church in its wisdom and its tradition has combined and I'll look at hymns and combinations and I got to reading Jeremiah 29 and you're probably familiar with it. I've got the key verse on the screen “but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you” but that line doesn't stand in isolation. Jeremiah 29 begins: “These are the words of the letter that the Prophet Jeremiah sent from Jerusalem to the remaining Elders among the Exiles and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people who Nebechanezzar had taken into Exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after king Jerechiah and the Queen Mother, and the court officials, and the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem The Artisans and the Smiths had departed from Jerusalem… “ Pause there for a minute. There's a lot of different gifts evoke there different roles, different gifts, different places in the order of things and those folks The artisans, the smiths, the priests the prophets, the Queen Mother the court officials - they hadn't just departed Jerusalem. They had been physically kidnapped by the Babylonians and dragged into exile. A forced and coerced intermingling, just as the Assyrians had done to the northern kingdom, now Babylon, the great Empire, was doing to the southern Kingdom. The goal was to destroy their resistance, their religious understanding, their society and incorporate it into Babylon. The next part of the reading is a long list of names and titles that won't mean a lot to us here today, but what it does is set this in a very specific time in Judah's history, in Israel's history, in the history of the world. These things happen in and the Israelites wanted nothing more than to escape and go back to the Holy Land, to the promised land. The land of milk and honey, where God would make everything right and the Prophet Jeremiah - particularly gifted by God to speak God's Word to the people in the midst of this utter disaster - What God Says to Jeremiah, thus what Jeremiah says to the people: “thus says the Lord of hosts the God of Israel to all the Exiles whom I have sent into exile…” Who sent them into exile the Babylonians or God? Is God using this? DEid God cause this? We are asked a deep theological question but here God sovereignty is proclaimed that this thing that has happened part of God's will. That would have been difficult to hear. I don't believe God causes suffering, but different understandings and theologies proclaim different ways and I do believe that God uses everything that happens to guide us to spiritual maturity. So – “to all the Exiles whom I have sent into Exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat what they produce, take wives and have sons and daughters, take wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there and do not decrease but seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. The message to the exiles is this is not short-term. Tou have been gifted the miracle of life. You have been placed in this place with these challenges and these opportunities. It's easy to think about how things used to be but we are here and now and while thinking of the best of the past is worthwhile, nostalgia can kill growth. Nostalgia can cause us not to see the opportunities that God is placing before us here and now: the opportunity to be the body of Christ, to be the church, to be God's people, even if we find ourselves in a foreign, even hostile land and culture. We are called to work for the good of the places where we find ourselves, for the good of our neighbors. To love our neighbors as ourselves. To love - what did Jesus say? …even our enemies. Not to coerce or judge them but but serve, to equip, to proclaim God's good news and mercy to all we meet in a way that draws all people together as one body, one Spirit, one hope that proclaims One Lord, One Faith, one baptism, One God and Father. Not our understanding, but a mystery beyond our understanding, that we are privileged and gifted to be a part of – so that.. So That… the love of Christ might be made manifest in our world. So that we will do what Jesus did. What Jesus does So that we will be filled with the Holy Spirit and we will recognize the Holy Spirit working in others - even those different from us . So that, as Jesus told us, we will do still greater things. So that the love of God will be made manifest here on Earth as it is in heaven. That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen.