This is an adapted form of the sermon I preached this morning, the Third Sunday after Epiphany. The text I preached on was 1 Corinthians 12:1-12. It’s the second week (should have been the third, but ice happened last weekend) of our Stewardship Campaign.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg enrolled in Harvard Law School in 1956. She was one of nine women in a class of about 500. The dean of the school reportedly asked these nine women, “Why are you at Harvard Law School, taking the place of a man?” Ginsburg faced this discrimination throughout her early career. After graduating with a law degree, she was rejected by firm after firm, who essentially told her, we don’t want you working for us, because you’re a woman. And that means you don’t have the gifts to be the lawyer we want.
And yet, in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was confirmed as a Justice on the Supreme Court. Whether you agree with her politics or not, it is clear today that she most certainly had, and has the gifts to practice law, no matter what they told her at Harvard.
The history of our country is littered with examples like this, times when certain people were not allowed to do certain things because someone else believed they didn’t have the gifts for it.
The history of the church is sadly no different. It is only in the last fifty years that some branches of the church, including our branch, began telling women, “You have the gifts to be pastors.”
The church over the course of its history has told people of various races, “You don’t have the gifts to do such and such.” It has told women, “Remember your place. You don’t have the gifts.” It has told people who don’t have enough money, “You can sit in those seats back there. You don’t have the gifts.” It has told people who are gay and lesbian, “You are sinning in the wrong way. You don’t have the gifts.” It has told people who aren’t ordained, “You aren’t as important as pastors. You don’t have the gifts.” Instead of exploring and discovering just what gifts all these people might just have, the church assumed that only certain people were spiritually gifted.
This misunderstanding goes all the way back to the church at Corinth in the first century. Some people at that church had a special spiritual gift called “speaking in tongues.” These people were occasionally moved by the Holy Spirit to speak in a strange language they didn’t even know. And others had the gift of interpreting what they said, and claimed it was a message from God. Well, that certainly is a spiritual gift, but many people at Corinth were proclaiming that it was the only spiritual gift. They said that if you aren’t speaking in tongues, you didn’t have the Holy Spirit. Paul wrote them a letter, and in today’s second reading he responds to this idea.
“There are varieties of gifts,” Paul wrote, but the same Spirit. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Some receive wisdom, others knowledge, others faith, others gifts of healing, and so forth. What if you don’t have any of those gifts? Paul says that saying, “Jesus is Lord,” is also a gift of the Holy Spirit! If you can proclaim that you trust in Jesus, then you have a spiritual gift! If you believe in the Holy Spirit at all, that is a gift! And so just asking the question, “Do I have any spiritual gifts?” means that you do. If you believe the Holy Spirit gives gifts to people, then you do have those gifts yourself.
But you can be forgiven if you don’t believe that. Because the church, after all this time, still often misunderstands spiritual gifts. One of the mistakes the church has made is claiming that spiritual gifts are the things you do when you volunteer at church. Spiritual gifts are things like reading scripture aloud, and singing special music. Spiritual gifts are things like shoveling our sidewalks, and folding the newsletters. Spiritual gifts are whatever you can do to make things run more smoothly at church. That’s about it. And the best spiritual gift of all is becoming a pastor.
But that’s just not true. The Holy Spirit did not give us gifts in order to build up the church. That’s part of it. But nowhere near all of it. The Holy Spirit isn’t primarily concerned with making a difference in the church. The Holy Spirit is concerned with making a difference in the world. That includes the church, but also so very, very much more. The Holy Spirit gave us spiritual gifts in order to make a difference in the whole world. And we can do that in many ways beyond the work of a congregation.
How do people share their spiritual gifts? Some have the gift of medicine, and use that gift through their hard work as doctors, nurses, and so forth. Some have the gift of working heavy machinery, and they use it through their hard work as excavators or construction workers. Hold on, you might say! Those aren’t spiritual gifts; they’re talents that these people have practiced! Yes, but who do you think gave them those talents? Who do you think inspired their mentors and teachers to teach them?
How do people share their spiritual gifts? Some have the gift of listening, and use it by patiently listening to friends who need to speak. Some have the gift of social media, and use it by sharing creative and hopeful things on Facebook, or Twitter, or wherever. Some have the gift of compassion, and use it in every interaction they have throughout their day. Whatever it is that you do that makes the world a little better – that is a spiritual gift, a gift that the Holy Spirit has given you.
And so I invite you today to think about your spiritual gifts. Think about this question: “How will you change the way you share your spiritual gifts?” But I encourage you not to answer how you might volunteer differently at church. That’s not the only thing spiritual gifts are about. Instead, think about what gifts God has given you to share with the world, and how you might share them in new ways in other parts of your life. Take a few minutes, and jot down an answer.
God has blessed you with gifts. May you be blessed to see those gifts, and be blessed to share those gifts, and be blessed to enjoy those gifts.