Friday, January 21, 2011

Only You

Sermon preached January 16, 2011

Text: I Corinthians 1:1-9

You know you are getting older when:
• You hear snap, crackle and pop at the breakfast table and you are not eating cereal
• Your back goes out but you stay home
• When you are on vacation, your energy runs out before your money does
• It takes twice as long to look half as good
• Getting “lucky” means you found your car in the parking lot
• You find many favorite television shows on the retro tv channel

Many of my favorite television programs are programs from the past – like MASH. It is difficult to believe that the final episode of that program was aired twenty-five years ago, yet it remains a favorite.
For a comedy, the show often shared serious messages. I recall an episode in which Dr. Winchester was operating on a patient seriously wounded in battle. He worked tirelessly to save the man’s life, but could not save a damaged right hand. By the way, MASH was a television series set in an Army hospital during the Korean War. When the patient awoke, he was devastated. He told Dr. Winchester that he would rather have died than lose his hand as he was a concert pianist. Winchester works to convince the man that while his hand is lost, he retains the gift of music – it is in his head, his heart, his soul and not in his hand. He introduces him to “Concerto for the Left Hand” – a piece of music the composer Maurice Ravel composed for pianist Paul Wittgenstein who had lost his right arm during World War I.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…. He will also strengthen you to the end. (I Corinthians 1:4-6) These are words of Paul written to a church hundreds of years ago. Today they are words spoken to you. You are recipients of God’s grace. You are gifted, not lacking in spiritual gifts. God continues to strengthen you.
You may say to yourself – me? Gifted? Yes, you - - - you are gifted, touched by God’s grace, rich in God’s gifts.
You are gifted just because of who you are. No one, no one has your combination of talents, experience, knowledge. Only you know the world the way you do. Only you see the world with your eyes. Only you touch the world with your hands. Only you bring to this moment and every moment who you are, and that is a gift.
Celebrate who you are in Jesus Christ. Celebrate the gifts of God’s grace that are strong in you. Celebrate those gifts, and dedicate yourself to using your gifts, your life, to share God’s grace, to build God’s dream for the world in Christ.
Winter for me means walking on the treadmill more often than walking outside. I like to listen to something or watch something when I walk, and this winter I continued watching the Ken Burns Baseball series I began late last winter. In the episode on the 1940s I heard again the story of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play professional baseball in the major leagues. I was struck by this powerful story, struck by the gifts that Jackie Robinson brought to this moment. When Branch Rickey signed Jackie Robinson to a contract, Rickey, a person of deep faith, a Methodist, grilled him – presented him with difficult situations, even screamed at him in language that Rickey would not use, just to see if Jackie Robinson could handle the pressure. Rickey asked Robinson not to fight back for three years, not to respond to racial epithets or being run into. Jackie Robinson said, “yes.” Robinson’s unique combination of athletic talent and temperament made this work. He was a strong and determined person, a person with an inner fire, but one who, for the sake of a greater cause was willing to temper his assertiveness. Jackie Robinson was a gifted person, and used his gifts to help change the world.
This past week President Barack Obama used his gifts for language and oratory, his thoughtfulness, to speak words of healing and encouragement to our hurting nation. He used his particular set of gifts to offer comfort and hope after the Tucson shootings. Only he could have done this in this way – just as Ronald Reagan used his gifts for communication after the Challenger tragedy, or Bill Clinton used his particular gifts to offer words of hope and healing after the Oklahoma City bombing, or George W. Bush after 9-11. Each of these presidents marshaled the gifts they had to a greater cause and made a difference with their words. Whatever we may think of some of their politics, in each case, they were willing to offer their best gifts to make a difference in the cause of hope at a crucial time in our country.
In the mid 1950s, Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama was searching for a new pastor. A predominantly African-American church, they had let their previous pastor, Vernon Johns, go, because they felt he was often too controversial, especially when preaching on racially-charged issues. The church sought a pastor who might be more traditional – an educated and trained pastor, more conventional and less controversial (see Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters, p. 25). They found a pastor who was near to completing his Ph.D. from Boston University. His doctoral dissertation was a comparison between the concepts of God found in the theologies of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman, and he would critique them both from the perspective of Boston University Personalism (Branch, 102). He seemed to be just who they were looking for.
When a Montgomery Black woman named Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white person in December 1955, and was arrested for it, this pastor, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. head of the Montgomery Improvement Association, led a bus boycott. It catapulted him into the national spotlight as a leading spokesperson for civil rights for African-Americans. This pastor hired because he was well-educated and trained, used his intelligence and gifts for oratory to call our nation to be better, to live up to our promise. “Now is the time to life our nation from the quick sands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood; now is the time to make justice a reality for all God’s children” (“I Have a Dream”). His words continue to inspire. His gifts continue to give: We must work unceasingly to uplift this nation that we love to a higher destiny to a higher plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humanness.
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind… so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift…. He will also strengthen you to the end.You are gifted. You are a gift. Celebrate your gifts. Listen to your calling. Your calling is to offer who you are in each moment to the grace of God and the work of God in the world. Most of our moments won’t thrust us into the spotlight of history like a President, like a Jackie Robinson, like a Martin Luther King, Jr. But without the countless players in Negro League baseball, Jackie Robinson would not have had a place to first play the game professionally. The civil rights movement required countless people most unknown beyond their community, their neighborhood, to press the nation forward. We must not look at the gifts of a Robinson or a King and say ours are not enough. God has given us the gifts we have to use for good. Only you have your set of gifts and experiences to share in the moments that are yours alone – and the greatest gift you have is the gift of your very self.
Celebrate your gifts with gratitude. Help others celebrate their gifts. Hone your gifts, develop the gifts of God in you. Share your gifts with the world to make it kinder, gentler, more caring, more just. Only you can do what you can do, and I give thanks to God always for the grace of God that has been given you in Christ. Amen.

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