Sermon for May 29th, 2022
1 I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2 Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4 For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6 We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7 ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8 the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Spiritual Gifts (and how to give them): Leadership & Generosity
Today is the final sermon in our series on the spiritual gifts, and since there are two gifts left in our list from Romans 12, today's sermon is a double header! We'll be talking about leadership, and also about generosity.
And since we're talking about leadership, I'm reminded of the story about a ship captain back in the 1800s who had a special routine when an enemy ship was spotted on the horizon. The captain would say to his ensign, “Get me my red shirt.” On all of these occasions the ship would fend off the enemy ship. One night the ensign asked the captain why he always asked for his red shirt. The captain replied, “It's a matter of leadership. If I am wounded in battle, the blood will not show and the men will continue to fight.” The ensign was impressed that the ship had such a brave leader. The next morning the lookout shouted, “Ten enemy ships on the horizon.” The captain said to his ensign, “Get me my brown pants.”
Some of the spiritual gifts are a little bit of a tough sell. Like prophecy, serving, compassion, or generosity (more on that one later)... Convincing people that they have these gifts to offer can be like pulling teeth. But some gifts seem to go the other way, and leadership is one of these. I did a search on amazon.com for books about leadership, and came back with 122,189 results. By contrast, if you do an amazon search for "followership" or books about following, you get 297 results. That's a ratio of 411 to 1.
Book publishers are not stupid--what they publish is generally a reflection of the market demand. So for every one person out there looking for a book on how to be a better follower, there are 411 people out there who'd rather be a leader. Leadership is popular in our culture, it is valued and sought after. Everyone wants to be a leader, and very few want to be followers.
Jesus, who was arguably one of the most influential leaders in all recorded history, had some pretty counterintuitive things to say about leadership. When two of his disciples came up to him one day and said, "We want to be leaders, we want to be in charge, second only to you," Jesus said to them: "You already know that the leaders of this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those underneath them. But it will not be so among you. Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many."
So how does a Christian, a follower of Jesus, give the gift of leadership? Not by stepping up, but by stepping down. By putting the needs and desires of others ahead of one's own. You don't have to wait for a title or a position to start doing that. Leaders are not created, elected, chosen, or ordained. Rather, they emerge and become apparent to all by the choices and decisions they make in whatever capacity they find themselves. And they do this over and over again. I think that's what the Apostle Paul means in our passage from Romans when he ties the word "diligence" to the spiritual gift of leadership. Diligence, in modern English implies consistency. In Greek (σπουδῇ), it has the sense of "carrying on" and "pressing forward."
Think of a tiny drop of water--it has little power to effect change in its own right, but when that small drop is is applied over and over again with consistency, with diligence, it will wear a hole right through the strongest rock. Be diligent in serving others, in following others, in loving others, and in time you will find that you have given the world a gift...the gift of your leadership.
The final gift in our list of spiritual gifts is generosity in giving. This one is pretty straightforward, but here I want to remind us one more time that spiritual gifts are not innate talents or abilities that some people have and others don't. We can all think of people who seem to have a knack for being generous with their time, their attention, or their material resources. And we can also think to ourselves, "Well, if only God would give me a little bit more--time, money, talent, then I would be more generous."
But spiritual gifts in the Bible (all of them) are precisely what God gives to us AFTER we have already made the decision, the commitment to help others when a need arises in the community. In other words, spiritual gifts are not about (or FOR) us. They are about the people we are called to serve. And especially in the case of generosity and giving, I think Paul, when he wrote these words, had in mind the needs of the Christian community, which is the church.
I want to make an important clarification here, in keeping with Paul's teaching in this passage which downplays the individual and elevates the community, the body of Christ. We do not give TO the church. We ARE the church, and we give to each other, and to our community. That's an important distinction. I think that too often, we tend to see our relationship with our church in the same way we see our relationship with Wal-Mart, or UTEP, or the dentist. We give the church money, and in return, we get spiritual goods and services for ourselves and our families. That's not giving, that's buying, and this church isn't for sale.
A healthier way to look at giving and the church is this: We are a team, working toward a common goal. We pool our resources, our finances, our time, our talents, all according to our various abilities, and together we give a gift to El Paso and to the world. That gift is First Presbyterian Church. That gift is the good news of the gospel. That gift is Jesus Christ, and his message of hope, love, and forgiveness.
Generosity is good, but in our culture, it tends to be associated with the quantity of the gift. When a billionaire donates millions of dollars to a charity, we talk about what a generous gift has been made, even though it often amounts to only a tiny fraction of his or her wealth. On the other hand, smaller, more consistent gifts given at great sacrifice over a lifetime often go unnoticed, and are rarely labeled generous. Generous sounds big. It sounds hard.
But there's a great irony to that, because the word "generosity" in Biblical Greek (ἁπλότης) had a double meaning. Yes, it meant bountifully or abundantly, but in other places where this same word occurs in the Bible, it's translated as "simply" or "with simplicity." Think about the most meaningful gifts you've received in your life--gifts from your children, or from your parents, or from a friend who knows you well. They were probably simple gifts, uncomplicated, and unpretentious. Not insignificant, but simple. God adores simple gifts, too.
How do we give simple gifts to God? I'd like to share with you how we can do that in just 23 simple steps. Just kidding, I only have three.
1. Be consistent. The simplest things in life are the things we do over and over again on a regular, consistent, routine basis. Like breathing. It's simple. It's a reflex. You don't have to think about it, you just do it. Big, once-in-a-lifetime gifts get all the attention, but I would much rather have smaller, consistent gifts over the course of a lifetime. Those kinds of gifts are what make the church go 'round, and perhaps the world, too. So if it's a gift of your time, schedule it. If it's a gift of your talent, schedule it. If it's a financial gift, budget for it on a weekly or monthly basis. Whatever you do, do it consistently, until it becomes a simple, reflexive habit.
2. No strings attached. Strings over-complicate things. Whether it's a gift to the church or a Christmas present to a family member, don't give expecting something in return. Remember: That's not giving, that's buying. If you want the church to act a certain way or treat you a certain way because of your gift...try going to Wal-Mart instead: You'll get better results. A simple gift is one that you forgot about as soon as it is given. If you find yourself fretting about how your gift is or isn't being used, or constantly checking up on the person you gave it to, that's a good sign that you never really gave it away at all...you're still holding on to the gift.
3. Follow your heart. Jesus says in Matthew 6:21 that "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." That teaching was a warning not to store up treasures on earth. But instead of letting your treasure dictate where your heart is, try letting your heart dictate where your treasure goes. In other words, give your time, your talent, your treasure to the things you truly love. Keep it simple. Dare I even say this? If you don't absolutely love First Presbyterian Church...then don't give us a dime or a minute! Because if you're giving out of guilt, shame, fear, peer pressure, coercion, or any other less than sincere motive, you'll just be resentful in the end. That won't help you, and it won't help us. We'll be ok. And you'll be a lot happier giving to something you're passionate about. But if you love this church, if you love this family, and if you love the mission that God has called us to in this community...then follow your heart.
Generosity and Leadership, like all of the spiritual gifts, are interconnected--and all of them are at your disposal, all of the time. When you start practicing one, opportunities for the others will begin to present themselves. Just don't get stuck in one gift, as in "my gift is teaching, not encouragement." Because you can't truly teach without encouragement; and you can't truly lead without being a teacher; and you can't truly be generous without compassion; and you can't be compassionate without ministering to others; and you can't truly minister to others without the hope of the gospel (which is prophecy); and you can't truly share the gospel without teaching or leading or encouraging.
Finally, you can't truly give any gift (spiritual or otherwise) to another person if you are excessively focused on yourself, or your limitations, or all the things you don't have. Trust in God, from whom all blessings flow. Trust in God, who provides for his children like a loving and responsible parent. Trust in God, who provides for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field everything they need to grow and thrive and be beautiful.
You are beautiful too, and you have everything you need. So give it away. Give your spiritual gifts to the world--all of them. Give simply. Give consistently. And may the God who created you continue to bless you with every good gift, and through your gifts, may the world be blessed in turn.