Sunday, September 18, 2011

Many Gifts

Many Gifts

© 2011, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Romans 12:1-8

We have gifts that differ

according to the grace given to us.

Once, a couple of years ago, I decided to drive up to Seattle to visit my daughter and her family. I left our house in Salem around 4:15 and called as I left to tell them I’d be there by about 9 PM. Somewhere south of Wilsonville, traffic slowed to a crawl. It was stop and go in all three northbound lanes, for no particular reason except the same reason that you can’t put two feet into a single shoe. There were just too many cars on the road to fit. So I sat back into the now-you-move, now-you-don’t traffic jam driving for the next several hours. I had my first of many regrets of the day that I hadn’t driven a car with an automatic transmission, as I shifted up and down repeatedly through the gears, mainly the lower ones. It was stop-and-go, with go never reaching more than a few brief 30 mile per hour spurts, until we were well north of Vancouver, Washington. I realized I was going to be at least a half hour later getting to Seattle than I had thought. Maybe the trip would be OK after all. I settled back to cruise along at the posted speed limit...

... until I was just south of Olympia, when we returned to the previous stop-and-go, now 5, now 20, now 10, now 2 miles per hour, seldom reaching speeds over 30, with some complete stops lasting minutes on end, until we were well north of Federal Way. I kept praying for the wisdom to remember to buy a train ticket next time, not because it gets there any faster, which it sometimes doesn’t, but because at least you can snooze or read through the delays. I arrived at my daughter’s house a full hour and twenty minutes late, just in time to say goodnight as we all got in our PJs and went to bed.

I don’t know how you respond in these overstuffed traffic situations. My method is usually to spend the stop and go periods in the passing lane, and just stay there, paying no attention to the fact that the other lanes sometimes move faster, sometimes more slowly. I don’t see much purpose in jumping lanes to try to gain a few car lengths when no one in any lane is moving faster than 10 MPH, and you can see cars bumper-to-bumper all the way to the horizon. But I have observed that patience in traffic is not widespread. There are so many lane jumpers. They wear me out. ZOOM! they jump in front of the car to the left, barely squeezing in, as that lane moves ahead a few hundred feet. Then they notice the lane they had been in begins to move, so ZOOM! they jam back in. The result over a half hour of stop-and-go driving is that they gain maybe a few hundred yards – along with muttered death threats from folks who are trying just to move along in an orderly way. I have to say, I quietly smile with guilty satisfaction when someone, who has jumped in front of me in my lane for a few hundred feet, then shifted over to another lane, only to be stopped abruptly, that moving past them when my lane begins to move again brings a brief, bitter sort of satisfaction.

I’d like to think that most of these lane jammers would not think of shoving their way to the front of the line at a movie ticket booth, or during a wait for a ride at the fair, so what makes it OK to do it in a car?

Apparently they are not all that reticent about pushing themselves to the front in lines where others wait patiently. A friend of mine recently wrote about similar behavior by unruly people in the informal lines that form at Starbucks coffee shops during peak hours. There are always those who think that no matter how many folks are in line ahead of them, their order will be placed at the head of the queue, and they sometimes try to grab each coffee out-of-turn as it comes from the baristas, forcing other customers to claim their orders from their grip, all the while complaining bitterly about the indignity they are suffering at having to wait their turn, earning the enduring enmity of those who have come to know the informal rules of play at Starbucks.

These folks could all be poster children for the “everything revolves around me” generation. Advertising picks up on this, focusing the majority of ads toward strictly personal preference, without regard to the effect on others. One person has suggested that a better description of our current third millennium would simply be to call it the “ME-lennium,” a time when the individual and individualism are valued above all else.

Of course, while we’d like to think this sort of ultra-individualism might have bypassed the church, which was founded by One who said, “Where two or three are gathered, I am there,” but we’d be wrong. My own numerous generation, now that we are approaching or are already into our retirement years, are still known with the increasingly ridiculous-sounding name “Baby Boomers.” And we are particluarly skilled at the business of privatizing religion and faith, and setting that example for our children and grandchildren. The online humor newspaper, The Onion, has even spotted this trend, running a tongue-in-cheek satirical piece not long ago about a new fashion in religious upbringing with a headline reading, “More Kids Being Home-Churched.”[1] Many folks of my generation – as well as others – follow private religious quests, or seek some source within themselves to find a private connection to a higher power that will bring a satisfying spiritual life.

While this may be the way chosen by some, it is certainly not the Christian path. The Christian faith has always found its natural home in community, where, while we may have a very personal relationship to God through Christ, we do not have a private one. We are not alone. We are in this together. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” said Jesus, “I am there among them ...”[2]

Even after two thousand years of knowing this to be true of our communitarian faith, there are still plenty of us who just don’t get it. Often, over my years in ministry, I have heard departures from this line of thinking from members and visitors alike. Visitors sometimes arrive at the church with a checklist of things they want to get out of their church affiliation, and being a selfless member of a community that takes notice of the needs of others doesn’t often make the list. To be fair, oftentimes even long-time church members carry a similar list around in our heads, and if we don’t find that this church gives us the payoff we want, well we believe we can just drop out of this community and keep on shopping until we find a place where the ministry of the church caters to us personally – unaware, like the frustrated speed-demons I encounter in traffic, that sharing this road less traveled with others along the way is among the most basic of requirements of answering the call of Christ.

Of course, we should receive ministry through the community of faith, we should be able to turn to our church family and find support in crisis, guidance in difficult times, a sense of extended family when we need one, comfort when we are hurting. But we need, in equal or greater measure, each to find our own way in the community to offer the same things we need to others when they need them. We cannot always be recipients, we must also be practitioners of the ministry of Christ. Our place is as one among many in the community.

And, similarly, one of the marvelous things about being in this community of faith is that it is but a portion of a much larger community. The ministries of the Presbyterian Church (USA) extend around the world, on every continent. One example: one seminary intern I worked with a few years ago, preceded her seminary education by giving her time as a mission volunteer for an extended assignment in South America, just as our own Kristi Van Nostran has been doing in Central America on our behalf. I think of this every time I hear someone speaking in a superior way about belonging to a “non-denominational” church, as though denominational organizations and affiliations were signs of some sort of weak or inadequate witness, somehow less representative of the real gospel. The reverse is really closer to the truth, in my opinion. Back when Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi, within a few hours I found messages in my e-mail from our denomination, informing me of the emergency management personnel of our Presbyterian Church (USA), already in place to receive funds, and organize volunteers.

In church as well as in life itself, we cannot extend ourselves very far without being firmly grounded in some community. We cannot find our place or fulfill our spiritual longing without realizing that we are a part, not the full essence, of the body of Christ. Though we each make the body more complete, none of us has the capacity to know God fully or follow in complete faithfulness. For this, we need each other.

Paul was on target as he made the analogy between the church and the human body. We are not meant only to enjoy the diversity of gifts we find in the church, we are to depend on them, we need each other. Only by sharing the gifts we bring to the community – teaching, singing, praying, supporting, advocating, caring, welcoming, showing hospitality, giving, leading humbly, following faithfully – can we experience God in our midst. Each of us has something of value, something essential to add.

In the last two words in today’s reading Paul says, “in cheerfulness.” Cheerfulness isn’t half as enjoyable if there is no one to share it with. Here at First Church, in our community of faith, we grow and learn and serve and mourn and dance for joy and play together. It’s the way we come to discover the joy of knowing God.

So smile at someone today. It’s a gift everyone has to share.

And, oh, when you do decide to change lanes, please use your turn signal!

Copyright © 2011 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “More Kids Being Home-Churched,” The Onion, September 14, 2005 | Issue 41-37

[2] Matthew 18:20.