August 2009 Sermons:
Ephesians 4: 1-7, 11-16.
I’ve been calling our recent Bible study group on Jonah, the church’s “gifted and talented class!” Last month we covered, in four days, the chapters in the Old Testament that had taken a month, even a year, for Bible study groups to discuss in other churches. I think our group was pleased at how well we did. We’ll be getting back together in three weeks to discuss the book of Ruth on Tuesday and Thursday nights.
We speak of gifts and talents together, in the same breath. Both gifts and talents come from God, who created everything. But are gifts and talents the same? Most of the time, we measure giftedness in terms of intellectual ability. School systems compare student achievement test scores. That’s because schools need to classify children by their ability to learn. Teachers have to know the abilities of all their students, so they can teach effectively. When I was in school, different learning styles were largely unknown. There was verbal ability and there was logical-mathematical ability, and that was it. Science is just beginning to measure the varieties of human giftedness.
Giftedness isn’t just for kids. The time for discovering our spiritual gifts extends far beyond our school years. We often say that kids are the future of the church, but we don’t think of older people as the church’s future, too. I wonder if it’s because we’ve read all those articles about how the number of cells gets smaller in a human brain after the age of forty. If we, ourselves, weren’t assigned to the blue bird reading group in first grade, or if we did poorly on our SAT’s in high school, or if we didn’t go to college, or if we’re over sixty, we may have written ourselves off as un-gifted. And that shouldn’t be. There’s a place for competition in this world---but not to the extent that it makes older folks (and non-valedictorians) feel discouraged. God gives spiritual gifts to people of all ages—not just the young and the energetic!
Churches are unique in our society, in the way we celebrate the gifts of everybody in the congregation. The youngest and the oldest members can lead and teach and evangelize. I met a woman in New Jersey who was 93. She was elected to take charge of a Presbyterian church’s bicentennial celebration. Everyone said she did a wonderful job. She was the subject of a recent article in the online journal, “Spirituality and Aging.”
The passage from the Letter to the Ephesians that John read to us, describes God-given spiritual gifts of leadership. Such gifts as teaching, evangelism and prophecy are described in the letter. These attributes weren’t considered important by the ancient Greeks and Romans. In these warlike cultures, peace, gentleness and humility were looked down upon and competition was glorified. Money and military rank mattered a lot more than the sharing of spiritual gifts. Remember that the average person lived to the age of 35. Perhaps that’s why they emphasized the gifts of youth.
The theme of today’s epistle lesson is the unity of the church. The Letter to the Ephesians talks about the calling of Christians to one lord, one faith, and one baptism. If you have your Bibles open to this reading, you’ll notice that the word, “one,” is repeated seven times in verses three through six.
The early Christians always immersed their new members. They didn’t just sprinkle them with water, like we do today. The pastor gave them a bath. Newly baptized Christians got dunked completely during a worship service. That’s how they were symbolically immersed into the congregation and given a new way of life by the Holy Spirit. We don’t dunk people in our font, even though it is the biggest one I have ever seen. But I am supposed to use a lot of water to baptize Dahlia Mae this morning! The water, blessed by the Spirit, will symbolize her salvation in Jesus Christ. Her baptism is the beginning of her life of service.
The letter to the Ephesians talks about the human body as a model for how a congregation should work together. As the whole body grows, with Christ as its head, each individual part is blessed.
There is a big difference between the meanings of the words, “gifted” and “talented,” from a Biblical standpoint. I’m going to tell you about a talented adult, and then a gifted adult. At age 78, Anna Mary Robertson decided to get serious about painting. Until she started putting brush to canvas every day, and then began to refine her technique, nobody noticed how talented she was--- least of all the artist herself. Today, we know her as “Grandma Moses,” one of the greatest American folk artists. Grandma Moses brought joy and beauty to millions of people for the rest of her life. The ability to paint is a talent. Her talent earned her fame and fortune. And she certainly enjoyed her painting until she died in 1961. But artistic ability isn’t necessarily a spiritual gift. It’s a God-given talent and nothing more, unless it’s used to build up the body of Christ.
Now I’m going to tell you about a person who had a spiritual gift. His gift had no name, unless you want to call it Christian hospitality. This man held no office in the church. He had never been given a job description. He didn’t get a paycheck. At his Presbyterian church in rural North Carolina, he reported for the same job, every Sunday morning for thirty-five years. He stood at the door to the Sunday School wing and greeted children as they came in. He was good with names. Somehow he always remembered when a child had been absent. “Where have you been?” he would ask that child, when he or she came back after a missed Sunday. When he became ill, and could no longer do his job, one little girl said she was sorry he wasn’t there anymore. She told her teacher, “I miss seeing God each Sunday.”
A unique background can be a gift to the church, too. Students at my Seminary who had been preacher’s kids had a better idea how to preach a sermon than the rest of us did. Why? Because they had heard so many sermons! Church members who have grown up here in Hokendauqua can keep track of which families are related. On the other hand, if you have lived in a different part of the country, you have insights that others lack. For example, I had to learn to be assertive because I lived for thirty-five years in the New York metropolitan area.
The psychologist thought of a way she could use her talent as a spiritual gift in her church. He said to the woman, “Madam, I want you to send your maid to a nursery to buy every strain of African violets they carry. Fill your porch with as many pots of African violets as you can grow. I want you to take a pot of African violets to every couple that gets married in your church. Furthermore, when a child is baptized in your congregation, I want you give a pot of African violets to the parents at the baptism.”
Twenty years later, Dr. Erickson clipped an article from the local newspaper. The headline was, “AFRICAN VIOLET QUEEN DIES AT AGE SEVENTY-SIX.” The article told a touching tale about her African violets and how they had enhanced the ministries of the church.
I don’t have a pot of African violets for you, Dahlia Mae. Growing plants is not gift of mine. But I am looking forward to welcoming you to this church. And as all of you remember your baptisms, remember, too, that the most important sermons are the ones you preach every day. Your life, the way you choose to live it, that is the sermon people really listen to.
LET US PRAY. Almighty God, we thank you for the gifts we share, in their amazing variety. We thank you for the unity we have in our church. Help us to learn more about how to use our gifts to glorify you. Feed us, Lord; be for us the bread of life that always satisfies. AMEN
Mary Louise Bringle, “Theological Themes in John 6:24-35,” Lectionary Homiletics, June-July, 2006, 6.
Rick Brand, “A Place for Us: Ephesians 4:1-16,” www.goodpreacher.com, July 27, 2009.
Milton H. Erickson, quoted in Donald Capps, Living Stories: Pastoral Counseling in a Congregational Context (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1998), 59-60.
It’s important to dress a child the right way for baptism. I always make it a point to talk with parents about what the baby should wear on the big day. But when it comes right down to it, the family is free to choose the child’s outfit. I’ve baptized infants who were wearing everything from white satin tuxedos, to plain t-shirts and decorated diapers. The child’s comfort should matter most of all, as far as I’m concerned.
Children who are being baptized look adorable, no matter what they have on. But the most comfortable babies are also the happiest. I wouldn’t recommend buying your baby a tuxedo for a baptism. Nor would I suggest putting a hat on your child. Layers of clothing in the summer are uncomfortable—for a pastor in a robe and a stole, or for a baby in a dinner jacket. You can’t blame a child for crying about having to wear a vest and long pants in a hot sanctuary. Christening bonnets look sweet. But they’re tough to take off, especially the ones tied with double knotted ribbons! Madison Lynn’s christening dress is beautiful and just right. Lori Ann and David chose the perfect outfit. She looks lovely!
This is a joyful time for Madison Lynn and her family. This is the first day of a lifelong journey. She is putting on the armor of God today. I feel confident that Madison Lynn will be able to stand firm in her faith. But why does a baby need armor? Right now she doesn’t know the meaning of the word, “struggle,” let alone the word, “sin.” We all need to teach her about the strength of the Lord, so she can live bravely and confidently.
Debbie read a passage we all know. It’s from the sixth chapter of the Letter to the Ephesians. The writer describes the ways God protects baptized Christians. Our strength comes from what we wear, it says. He uses the symbol of a suit of armor: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the spirit. The armor is supposed to guard us against evil.
What does the joy of baptism have to do with arming ourselves? We are peace-loving people. We don’t like the idea of a young person dressed to wage war. After all, we’re not surrounded by legions of Roman soldiers like the people of Ephesus were. We hope our children don’t need that kind of protection in this day and age.
What the writer is talking about here isn’t military might. This letter describes the strength that flows to us from God’s love. With the exception of the sword, he’s talking only about defensive armor. God hasn’t given us spears and cannons to attack. What’s he’s given us is more like the protection of an invisible, bullet-proof vest. The letter recommends a helmet, a shield and a belt, and shoes so we can walk around proclaiming the gospel of peace. All us Christians got shoes!
The most perfect example of a person strengthened by the armor of God is Jesus Christ. He gave His life to redeem us from sin. God calls us to defend the ground that has already been given to us in Christ’s victory. The most important power God dresses us in, is the power to forgive. Jesus forgave the evil forces that sent Him to the cross. We, as Christians, put on Christ at our baptisms. The victory is already won in what Jesus did for us. But, as this letter tells us, the power of evil is still around us.
Christians confront evil every day. Here are some examples of everyday temptations that cross people’s minds—even very good people’s minds! I’m going to ask you to close your eyes and imagine people you know, saying these things: I just found a hundred dollars in this empty shopping cart, so I’ll put it in my wallet and keep it. // Everybody else spends two hundred dollars on the finest leather handbags, so I am going to buy a couple of them, too—and I won’t buy the groceries my family needs. //I’ve fun all week at the beach, and I won’t start my sermon until midnight Saturday night. // There’s no problem if I smoke this cigarette here in my smoke-free office.// I just dented this parked car here. Nobody was watching. If I drive away, the owner of the car will never know I was the one who did it. // My friend stole an advance copy of the midterm exam. If I just look at the questions for a minute, nobody will know, and I’ll ace the test.
Selfish decisions like these can be harmless or deadly. We are most vulnerable to the power of evil when we are tired, or scared, or in a hurry, or strapped for cash. Evil is so powerful that we can’t resist it alone. We need the armor of God to protect us. We receive that armor as a gift, when we are baptized.
Children are spiritually sensitive. Many kids can spot evil a mile away. Because they have so little power, cruelty is real to them. That’s why children and teens love the Harry Potter books. Kids consider powerful adults to be insensitive to their feelings. They love to read about Harry’s aunt and uncle, who lock him in a closet under the stairs and ignore his birthday.
Young people want heroes, and role models, to lead them. We have a responsibility to teach all the children in our congregation the difference between good and evil, as soon as we can. That’s what Sunday School is for.
We underestimate the power of evil in different ways. Some say that there is no such thing as spiritual evil, but only evil individuals. Another way to trivialize evil is to lump it into one evil being ---the Devil. We make a mistake when we blame evil on social forces beyond our control: domestic abuse, poverty, peer group pressures, and stress. And what about the evil in nature? No human being ever invented poison ivy. Earthquakes, volcanoes and hurricanes won’t go away, even if everyone in the world becomes Christian. Yes, evil is still out there, and it’s complicated and powerful.
Jesus Christ is the armor we need. Our belief in the gospel of peace helps us stand firm. We don’t have to help God win. God has already won. We walk in the sandals of peace, so we don’t need to triumph by stepping on others. We wear the crown of salvation, and what’s more, the Holy Spirit has given us baptism. We find the armor of God in an armory—the church. The church helps us to reconnect with each other. It reminds us that there is a reality other than the harsh culture we see in the movies and on television and on Route 22.
Evil destroys. It never builds. Evil wants to transform us into people who tolerate evil. That’s why we need God’s strength. We can’t take shortcuts with our faith. Our strength is God’s strength. By the grace Jesus Christ has given us, let us pray for one another. Let’s put on the full armor of God—not just a shield here and a sword there. We must survive. We can survive, and we WILL survive.
LET US PRAY. Lord Jesus, clothe us in your righteousness. Dress us in the precious garments of our tradition. Protect us with your armor of truth. Dress us in your power. Prepare us for the great celebration that is your coming kingdom. AMEN
Paul Galbreath, “Sacraments: Grace We Can Touch,” Presbyterians Today, May 2009, 22-24.
What can we do to show other people that we love them? Taking time to listen is a precious gift. Today’s epistle lesson from the New Testament talks about the importance of being “hearers and doers of the Word.” Paying attention to people’s words, and taking to heart what they say, is always ministry—whether the listener happens to be a minister or not. And that’s the most important message I get from the first chapter of the Letter of James.
It’s very frustrating when we can’t find anyone to listen to us. When we call a business, most of the time we get a recording, not a human being. A voice drones on and on, without telling us what we want to know. Even if the recording says, “Your call is important to us, please stay on the line!,” we still feel like we’re getting a runaround. Email and Facebook are fun ways to connect with people. And voice mail is efficient, especially if we know the extension of our party. Then we can dial it, at any time! But electronic connections are poor substitutes for heart-to-heart conversations in person.
Jesus listened to people before He began to help them. Think about the healing miracle stories you know from the Gospels. Jesus was the first person to pay attention to the poor folks who came to Him on the street. Some had been sick for many years. Some of them were lepers. Others were women of the street. Jesus stopped to listen to them. He didn’t care what anyone thought, and He didn’t even care if He became unclean! Jesus didn’t hurry away from the people who needed Him, so He could make His next appointment. He stopped to listen—as James, the brother of Jesus, tells us to do. Jesus was attuned to every single stranger around Him. I think His sensitive listening enhanced their healing. Our heavenly father listens to us, too. We get a sense of God listening, when we pray, and when we read the psalms of lament. Because God hears us, we can hear others.
Listening shows you care what another person thinks, feels and believes. That is as true now as it was in Jesus’ time. Carl Rogers, a twentieth-century psychologist, wrote: "I have often noticed that the more deeply I hear the meanings of people, the more there is that happens. Almost always, when people realize they have been deeply heard, their eyes moisten. I think, in one sense, they are weeping for joy. It is as though they were saying, "Thank God, somebody heard me. Someone knows what it's like to be me." When I discovered this passage by Rogers this week, I also found out that he had attended theological seminary as a young man. He later changed his mind and earned a doctorate in psychology. But as far as making listening an important part of his life as a Christian, Rogers stayed on the right track.
Beauty operators practice the ministry of listening. Women tend to “let their hair down,” literally, when they are having it cut and styled. One of my Methodist minister friends started in the beauty business before she went to seminary. Jackie liked encouraging women to tell their stories. She discovered she was a great listener. Her customers stayed longer than they needed to, just to talk with her. Jackie learned about their lives, even as she shampooed, styled and sprayed their hair. That’s how she first felt the call to pastoral ministry.
The best doctors and nurses know how important the ministry of listening can be. Hospital patients have procedures done to them all day long. Medical employees are pleasantly businesslike when they take blood and change bandages. They chat and even make jokes. But patients still have a hard time finding staff members who will listen to them in their loneliness. All they hear is, “Here’s your breakfast!” or “Did you take your meds?” Unless family and friends visit, nobody stops to talk with them about the things that matter-- like, “Will I have a body in heaven if I donate my organs?” or even, “How can I wash my hair if I can’t get out of bed?” Except for the nurses! Nurses who take time to chat with patients are appreciated. And the best-loved doctors have a good bedside manner. That usually means they are good listeners.
According to James, God is the source of all goodness. Our faith in God is lived out in what we do. James says, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above.” Because of what God continues to do for us in the work of Christ, we are expected to share His gift of love with all people. James uses the symbol of a mirror to explain what he means. To hear the Word and not act on it is like looking at oneself in a mirror, seeing the reflection, and when we have turned away from the mirror, forgetting what we have seen. Looking in the mirror has made no lasting impression on us.
To put this in terms of listening, what we hear sometimes goes in one ear and out the other. We can show love for our neighbors by speaking less and listening more, James writes. Are we willing to really pay attention to people, instead of just going through the motions, or brushing them off? And when we listen, can we follow James’ advice and be “slow to speak, and slow to anger?” James warns us to “bridle our tongues, ” for angry words poison our relationships.
To whom DO we listen, and why? We listen to others because we have been truly heard. When we listen, we show our love for God. So be quick to listen. Don’t just hear. Enter into people’s lives. Consider their words, their feelings and their reasoning. How can we tell the world the Christian story, unless we have first listened to people’s life stories? That’s the point James is making when he says we should “welcome with meekness the implanted Word that has the power to save our souls.”
I think I have done my most important work as a pastor while listening. But I didn’t start out as a good listener. In my first years of ministry, I’ve learned how to pay attention, from good Christian teachers in my congregations. You can learn to listen and make a real difference for someone.
Mary Ray, a 42-year-old Presbyterian from Raleigh, North Carolina, had been a Sunday School teacher and wanted to try another kind of volunteer work for her church. She joined the church’s prison ministry visiting group in 2003, and met an inmate named Sarah. The first meeting of these two women was discouraging. The volunteer did most of the talking. Sarah said very little. She refused a Bible and said she had no interest in Jesus.
Week by week, Mary Ray learned Sarah’s story. Sarah was a convicted murderer. She had been abused in her home from the age of seven. Her mother didn’t protect her from the abuse, which continued for years. Sarah became addicted to heroin at 13 as a way to block out her pain. She killed someone, at her mother’s request. She felt this was the only way to get acceptance from her mother, which she’d never had. Sarah was arrested and booked for murder at age 17. Just a few days later, her mother committed suicide. Sarah was convicted of manslaughter as a teenager, and she had spent her whole adult life in prison.
Mary Ray’s church helped Sarah learn job skills and find employment when she was released from prison three years ago. Sarah is now managing a restaurant. The church volunteer, Mary Ray, is still her close friend. They talk two or three times a day. Some days are tough for Sarah, Mary Ray says. She reminds Sarah that along with freedom comes responsibility. Mary Ray’s listening has made all the difference for Sarah—a woman who had never had a life.
There’s a lot of hurt out there. Emotional upheaval is tough to handle alone. We Christians are of a mind, a will, and an emotion to help. In fact, we are the light of the world! The influence of our listening ministry can make the world a better place.
LET US PRAY. Forgive us, O God, for taking your Word for granted. Help us to discover the great power you have given us, to listen to other people. Make us joyful, cheerful listeners and speakers of your good news. In Jesus’ name. AMEN.
Carl Ransom Rogers, A Way of Being (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995), 10.
Madeline S. and J. Lane Miller, The New Harper’s Bible Dictionary (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 301.
Luke Timothy Johnson, The Letter of James (New Haven, CT: Yale university Press, 2005), 54.
James 1 footnote.
Not her real name.
Leslie Scanlon, “Church Members Ministering ‘Where God Wants Me to Be,’” The Presbyterian Outlook, August 28, 2009.
First Presbyterian Church of Hokendauqua
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