|The Rev. Dr.
Kristin Johnston Largen
Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg
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This passage from 1 Cor. is a great text for any preacher, I think, not least because there is lots of gospel here. Paul reminds us that we are all gifted by God, there is great diversity of gifts, no one gift is better than another, and we all need each other: our gifts work best together for the building up of the body of Christ and the world. For those of you preparing for public ministry, this is an encouraging reminder that the church needs a wide variety of people, with a wide variety of talents and trades.
However, as I was meditating on this text these past few days, and waiting on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, what came to mind for me—somewhat surprisingly, perhaps—is that there is also some law in this text, even if it is more implicit than explicit. And, it is this “law” that I want to discuss this morning. But, don’t worry: I am a Lutheran pastor after all, so this sermon will return to gospel at the end.
As you know, in Lutheran theology and biblical interpretation, the law aspect of a text is that which convicts us of our sin and drives us to Christ. And so the law aspect of this text that I would like to reflect on with you is the realization that there is in all of us a complex web of sinful impulses and motivations that all too often keeps us from recognizing, naming and celebrating the gifts of others. Let me say that again: there is in all of us a complex web of sinful impulses and motivations that all too often keeps us from recognizing, naming, and celebrating the gifts of others. And in particular, I would like to lift up three primary impulses that often are behind this failure: envy, self-absorption, and distraction, each of which causes us to sin not only against each other, but against God; each of which is an enemy of a loving community of gifted Christians.
There is a reason why envy is one of the seven deadly sins. It lures us beyond simple covetousness—wanting your friend’s new shoes, your neighbor’s new car, your brother’s new house—into that dangerous space where we actually want to be someone else: I want the call you have; I want the husband you have; I want the body or the brain you have; I want the life you have. And this envy creates a barrier of resentment, anger and guilt between us, leaving us unable to say anything positive about someone else because holding up their successes highlights our lack; celebrating their talents reminds us of our deficiencies. And so we are silent in the face of others’ gifts and greatness.
I hope it is obvious why this is such a deadly sin: a community cannot thrive in the presence of such tensions and anxieties, and no one’s gifts get used to the best of their ability when we’re always second-guessing each other and ourselves. And, even more tragically, I think, this kind of envy is also a slap in God’s face—a reproach about how we were created, a rejection of the life we have been given, and a denial of God’s careful, loving formation of each one of us as unique. Because, when we are all pre-occupied with what others have, and who others are, we neglect who God is calling us to be, and we allow our own special gifts to rust from lack of use. This is why envy is the enemy of a loving community of gifted Christians.
Self-absorption is another primary reason why we fail to recognize each other’s giftedness; and I have theory about why that poison infects so many of us—certainly, sometimes it is simply egoism, but often it is more than that. I think there is a crucial lesson that all of us must learn at some point; and if we don’t, self-absorption is typically the result. At some point in our development as human beings, we must realize that the best metaphor for the most important gifts in life—love, grace, forgiveness, joy, hope—is not a pie with a limited amount of pieces, but something more like an amoeba, that expands and grows to include more and more without excluding what’s already there. Love swells with each new beloved, joy increases with every new celebration, and grace deepens with every unexpected kindness and unanticipated blessing. There is always more than enough to go around.
But, if we never learn this important lesson, we learn to operate out of a model of scarcity, rather than plenty, and we learn to view each other as competitors for limited gifts, rather than fellow harvesters of a bumper crop. This is why we hoard; this is why we keep score; and this is why we do not say anything when we see beauty, truth or goodness in someone else, because we are afraid that such an admission might mean there is less for us, it might mean that we won’t get noticed. So, we turn inward, focusing on self-protection, self-preservation, and self-promotion. If there is a pie, I don’t have time to worry about others, I need to get my piece. We end up competing for the very things we have been given for free by God in Jesus Christ, denying the gifts by trying to earn them. This is why self-absorption is the enemy of a loving community of gifted Christians.
Finally, there is the very 21st century problem of distraction, a distraction that comes in the form of too much information, too many ways of communication, too much noise, too many forms of stimulation. It is impossible to notice anybody’s gifts when you are text-messaging one friend while talking to another; or sending email while on the phone; or watching TV while listening to a child/parent/spouse talk about her day. We all do these things, and we all know that they negatively impact the kind of attention we give to each other; and without such attention, recognizing and lifting up another’s gifts is impossible. How can I celebrate your gifts when I don’t even invest the time and attention it takes to know who you are?
There is a reason why Richard Foster’s classic text on Spiritual Formation is called A Celebration of Discipline, because it takes discipline to fight this culture of distraction, and to form and shape our hearts, thoughts, and actions into attentive, loving community with God and with each other—it is not a natural, self-evident way of living, particularly in today’s society. It takes effort, and it isn’t easy; but without cultivating such attentiveness, we can live whole stretches of our lives in the company of people whose precious gifts we never really see, we never really hear, we never really notice. This is why distraction is the enemy of a loving community of gifted Christians.
But, after all, I promised gospel, and here it is: in Christ, we have been
rescued and redeemed from all of this, this anxious desire, this fearful
stockpiling, this frantic lack of focus.
Certainly, Christ shows us the way to such a life in community in his own life and ministry; but even more than that, Christ draws us along that way, as he unites our lives to his in Holy Baptism and feeds us with his body and blood in Holy Communion. We don’t have to do it all ourselves; through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ is working in us, making possible the impossible, making family out of strangers, making saints out of sinners. And this most precious gift of Christ himself—the gift that brings with it all other gifts—we all have been given already, in abundance, and in freedom and love. No need to worry someone else has more than you; no need to worry you haven’t done enough to earn it; no need to worry you’ve been overlooked. This gift is yours—it always has been, it always will be.
So, as you continue your own process of discernment and formation in these
days to come, I encourage you to include in that process sympathetic
awareness of the processes of others,
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