Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling,one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift.Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people.’ (When it says, ‘He ascended’, what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things.) The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
Many Kinds of Gifts or It Takes All Kinds
The scriptures this week tell an interesting story about receiving and passing on gifts from God. They do so by telling stories from two different faith communities: the ancient Israelites and the slightly less ancient church in Ephesus. At first blush, these two communities could hardly seem more different. It is interesting, though, that despite the difference, we'll see important ways that God worked in their communities. God didn't work in exactly the same way, primarily because the people didn't need the same things. God always seems to address people in our particularity, not in some kind of generalized way. Nevertheless, despite the different situations and different people, God showed up, and the people were able to get what they needed. Both communities felt God working, bring grace in their lives. Let's spend some time together talking about how that happened.
In Exodus, we have what some may describe as the biggest group of whiney whiners in all of the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites who are wandering in the desert. I think I may have accidentally ended up on a tour bus with some of these folks this week. First the van was too hot, then the air conditioner was too cold. The traffic was too bad and the tourists were too slow and in the way. To be fair, though, I also thought the tourist were too slow and in the way. As it turns out, I can be a whiney whiner, too. They also commented on how the trip was too long or had messed up their schedule and how hot it was outside. I was waiting for someone to start talking about delicious fleshpots back in Berkeley, but it never happened. The folks in the Bible story needed to renew their faith in God, the faith that drew them out of slavery in the first place. The people I was spending time with just needed to chill out.
Now, to be fair, it was probably reasonable for the Israelites to be worrying. They were in the wilderness after all, and the wilderness, as we have discussed before, is a hard place to live. Scholar Wil Gafney points out that they've been in the wilderness for a while, now, too, probably six weeks. She states that it has been six weeks since the miracles of the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the plagues in Egypt. It has also been six weeks since they left the oasis with fresh water and abundant food. They are six weeks into a journey that they don't know will turn into 40 years, and they are definitely getting worried. They had great faith... that's what had gotten them to this point in the first place. But, in the midst of the sand and the dwindling provisions, they needed a little renewal. They needed something to remind them that if God had gotten them that far, God would make sure they got the rest of the way. Who here hasn't needed their own bit of manna and quail in order to have the courage to take the next few steps towards liberation? The gift here is that God heard their needs, and, instead of dismissing them as whining, God provided them with a way to keep going and a lesson on how to take enough without taking too much.
The second group of people we are reading about today are the members of the church in Ephesus. Like the Israelites, the Christians of Ephesus seem to have some conflict, though they aren't complaining about food or freeway traffic. They seem to be complaining about each other, or at least fighting over who gets to be included in Christ's community and who has the most important gifts from God. Before we try to figure out why they are arguing, it seems important to learn a little about where they live. According to scholar Sarah Henrich, Ephesus was an exceptionally important and diverse city in ancient Rome. There was a lot of different religious faiths rubbing elbows in the city, and a lot of different ethnicities of people trying to make their way in a bustling urban area. Ephesus was particularly important for followers of the goddess Artemis, who's temple was located in the city. When you have that many people from that many ethnicities and religious communities in one place, it is not surprising that you would find ethnic conflict. Some of that conflict is definitely a part of the Ephesian church.
While they don't seem as conflicted as, say, the Corinthians (they seemed to be fighting all the time), the author of the book definitely felt like he had to help them figure out how to be one church, despite all of the walls that they and society had constructed to keep them apart. This author had to explain to them that Christ had broken down the divisions between Jew and Gentile,the ethnic divide that seems most important in this community, and that they were to no longer be bound by those cultural divisions. There is a second, also important conflict in this community. Not only are they having trouble navigating the old division between Jew and Gentile, they are also arguing about what kind of spiritual gifts are most important. Apparently, rather than celebrating having members who have a diversity of talents and gifts from God, they are arguing over who's gifts are most important. It would be like our Sunday School teachers fighting with our trustees over who's job was more important. They apparently spent at least part of their precious time together jockeying for position, trying to assert that prophets were more important than pastors or teachers more important that apostles.
This author, like Paul before him in the letters to the Corinthians, had to explain that such arguments were a waste of time and took away from the unity that they were seeking in the Gospel. He had to explain that all people received grace through Christ, and that just because the gifts may be different, that doesn't mean that one set of gifts is better than the other. These folks needed to be reminded that it takes all kinds to build the church, and it does the Gospel no good to pit people in the church against each other based on what they have gifts for doing at church. As scholar Susan Hylen put it, Christ does not require uniformity to create unity in the church. Grace abounds in many different forms and the church is richer for it.
So, what can these two groups of people tell us about being the church today? Well, I think these two stories can both tell us something important about grace, albeit grace that shows up in different ways. Exodus shows us that, sometimes, gifts fall right in our laps at the times we need them. We are lacking something important... vital, even, to our well being. And, then, it appears. Our call is, then, to use that gift in responsible ways. It's like when our church investments did so well last year at church. Lord knows we could use the money. And, we are so lucky to have trustees who know how to steward those investments well. One of the major questions we had when we saw that we would have a budget surplus was how could we use that money wisely and to further the mission and vision of the church. We don't want to be people who let the gift spoil, but we don't want to waste it, either.
In Ephesians, though, the gifts are different. They aren’t things that fall out of the sky or investments that do much better than we imagined they would. In Ephesians, we ourselves are the gifts. Or, more clearly stated, we have been given gifts that allow us to serve our neighbor, or to quote the biblical text, to equip the saints. Rather than waist what we've been cultivating inside ourselves, we are called to use these gifts for equipping the saints so they can better follow the Gospel. And, importantly, there isn’t a hierarchy of gifts. People may have received all kinds of gifts from God. Some are teachers. Some are prophets. Some make sure the lawn gets mowed and the toilet paper gets refilled every week. All are needed in order to build the body of Christ. Because everyone's gifts are need, being the body of Christ means that we are working together through our differences, not trying to erase them.
I've been trying to figure out how to end this sermon for a couple days now. I think, when it comes down to it, what we learn most from these scriptures is that we will receive grace, that is, gifts from God. Sometimes, the gifts will surprise us. That is half the fun. And, these gifts will sustain us on our way. Other times, we, ourselves, by virtue of that spark of divinity in us from creation as well as through our careful spiritual cultivation, carry the gifts inside of us. It is our calling to figure out how to use them to equip the saints in our lives. We are made of God's breath and stardust. We can be the gifts and make our community and our world a better, more just place. The gifts don't have to all be the same. We just have to be ready to make use of them. Remember, it takes all kinds. We can be the church together.
Resources that Pastor Chrissy found helpful in writing this sermon
Wil Gafney's commentary on Exodus: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2536
Sarah Henrich's commentary on Ephesians: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2599
Susan Hylen's commentary on Ephesians: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=373
Sara Koenig's commentary on Exodus: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1329
Kathryn Matthews' discussion of Ephesians:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.