We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. Romans 12:6-8
What was Christmas morning like when you were a child? I’m sure there was excitement, anticipation, perhaps even frustration if you had to wait for sleepy parents to wake up and give you the okay to leave your room. Because my sister and I had bedrooms upstairs and my parents were downstairs, I remember several Christmas mornings knocking on the floor with a shoe to let our parents know we were up!
Of course, every family has their traditions, their way of doing things, but the quintessential image of Christmas morning (at least in American popular culture) is the children running into the living room and diving into a pile of presents left by Santa under the tree. Some time - and mountain of discarded wrapping paper and ribbon - later the children might get around to sharing with other family members what their gifts were. It’s quite an individualistic approach, and no surprise when we’re talking about children.
But maybe as you got older your family put in place a different way of opening Christmas presents – one that included the whole family. At some point in our family we developed the practice of everyone putting their gifts next to the place where we were each sitting. And then we go around the circle, each opening one gift while everyone else is watching, so we can all share in the joy, or the humor, or the appreciation of the gift. And there are often stories to be told about each gift - what caught the giver’s fancy, or how he or she hoped it would fit with the receiver’s most recent project, or whatever the story might be. Taking the time to open gifts this way helps the whole family to be part of the gift-giving.
In today’s Letter to the Romans St. Paul is reminding that community what it is to be a family of faith, and how they are to share their gifts – the gifts God has given them for the benefit of the whole Body of Christ. We hear this from Paul several times and in several places in his letters.
It was important to him for Christians in these new congregations and in communities widely separated from each other to be solidly grounded in the understanding that they were intimately connected with one another by faith, and interdependent with one another. That why he uses language about being a body and about being a new family – brothers and sisters.
We have two millennia of hearing that language, and so we may just gloss over it as standard Church language, but it was radical in its time. In neither Jewish culture nor pagan Gentile culture were people primed to think that someone outside their biological family, or ethnic group, or geographic area could be or should be their true family.
And yet, that is exactly what Paul is saying. And because Christians are one family, God has given us gifts that we are to share with one another for the benefit of the whole, in service to Christ’s mission in the world. Those gifts are given to us by God’s grace – whether they are gifts we have wanted, or not! – and they differ from each other. Everyone does not get the same gift.
So what were those gifts that Paul mentioned in this passage? He lists seven here, but in other letters he mentions other gifts. Perhaps these were the ones given to the Roman church specifically, or ones they needed to focus on.
He speaks of prophecy, ministry, teaching, exhortation, giving, leading, and compassion. Prophecy, remember, is a direct word from God to the community, not foretelling the future. Ministry has to do with serving others. Teaching refers to interpreting and applying the Hebrew Scriptures, the words of Jesus and the Spirit-led experience of Christian living. Exhortation is encouragement for acting and living as a Christian, almost like coaching. Giving supplies the community with what it needs materially and financially to function properly. Leading reminds us that even though we say that “Christ is the head of the church”, God knows us well enough to know that we need visible human leaders to steer the ship in a Godward direction. Compassionate action is the way we care for those who suffer – within the Church, but especially outside of it. These aren’t just functions, like an organizational chart of who does what, but God-given gifts that benefit and energize God’s mission through us, the Body of Christ.
What is one of the gifts God has given you? It may not be one of these that Paul mentions; there are plenty of others. What is a gift that God has given you that benefits others, that contributes to the life of the Church as it is incarnated at All Saints’? Maybe you know clearly what your gift is, and you are already exercising it – or finding news ways to make use of it.
I know, for instance, that there are many among us with the gift of compassion, and with the gift of serving. We are blessed with some teachers, and a good number of givers, people with artistic and musical gifts. Some of our Saints are gifted intercessors – praying for others; some of gits of skilled crafts or writing. And a gift that may not be unique to us, but is something we are strong in: creative resourcefulness – and the most recent example of that is the new Rummage Thrift Shop that is taking shape: using what we have on hand, looking at it in a different way, and putting it to good use for God’s benefit.
So think for a moment about what your gift or gifts may be. Perhaps there is even some gift that is only now starting to emerge, called forth from the last five months of living in our pandemic framework. Maybe you are just starting to notice it. Or maybe you have been exercising your gifts throughout these last months, but we haven’t been together to see or hear about it.
It would be wonderful to have a line or two in an email or on a postcard from each one of you that said something like: “One of my gifts from God is…. And I have been putting it to good use these last five months by….” If you do that, you can help us to see more clearly the gifts that God has given to us as a whole for the ministry of the Church. It will also help us to understand more clearly how God has been at work in our midst, even when we haven’t been able to be together. It’s like our family taking turns opening our Christmas gifts one at a time, so we can each enjoy and appreciate what everyone has received. Because the more you exercise the good gifts God has given you, the stronger they become, the more visible God's presence is, and the greater your joy will be.
Let us pray.
Almighty God our heavenly Father, you declare your glory and show forth your handiwork in the heavens and in the earth: Deliver us in our various occupations from the service of self alone, that we may do the work you give us to do in truth and beauty and for the common good; for the sake of him who came among us as one who serves, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. ~ BCP
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 23, 2020