Saturday, January 16, 2016

Sermon: "Ready or Not...", 1 Corinthians 12:4-11/John 2:1-11 (January 17, 2016)


I know that there’s only one God, but if I WERE polytheistic, I’d say that the lectionary gods were smiling on me this week. Today in worship, we’re celebrating the ordination and installation of new church officers, our new Deacons and Ruling Elders, and what lands in my lap but this passage from 1 Corinthians. I couldn’t ask for a better topic than the variety of gifts given by the same Spirit. We may not necessarily experience all of the gifts that Paul outlines in his letter to the Corinthians these days—when’s the last time you heard a reliable prophecy?—but certainly we’ve all observed how the diversity of God’s gifts to us works to make God’s presence felt in the world around us. In fact, I’ve personally seen a variety of these gifts shared right here at FPC.

A contemporary rewriting of 1 Corinthians might read something like this: “To one is given organization, to another patience with the homebound, to another technical prowess, to another intellectual curiosity, to another compassion for the sick, to another skill the kitchen, to another knitting…” I’m sure we can all see how having a community filled with different talents and passions is a benefit to our mission. Not one of us, not even the clergy, is in possession of EVERY SINGLE ONE of the gifts needed to give life to a church. The Holy Spirit distributes these gifts widely and generously according to the will of God, and it’s our job to work together each day to use them in a way that will build up God’s Kingdom.

That makes for a really nice ordination sermon, doesn’t it? We all want to hear how we have each been blessed with a unique set of talents, and that it’s our duty to discover them, nurture them, and use them in service to the church. It’s such a positive message! In the course of examining some of these wonderful new deacons as required by the Book of Order, we got to talking about what makes them come alive, what energizes them in church life, and I remarked, “Isn’t it incredible when the needs of the church and our particular gifts align perfectly, and the thing that gives us life also gives life to the church?” And it is; it’s wonderful when this happens, and it’s easy to see God’s hand at work in times like these. It’s comforting to think of church life like a puzzle: if we can only identify that one place where we fit in perfectly, we can settle in and watch as the rest of the picture falls perfectly into place.

But—and of course you knew there was going to be a “but”—what happens when we can’t find the place that our puzzle piece fits? Or what happens if you know what your passion is, but the church isn’t in desperate need of your particular gift at the moment? Or if you just don’t feel ready to do what the church asks of you? THIS type of scenario doesn’t feel quite as comfortable to us. We might think, “If my gifts aren’t needed, if I’m not ready to be where the church needs me to be, something must be wrong. I must be in the wrong place, or God must have a different plan for my life. I’ll just sit back and wait to find the place where my puzzle piece fits.”

We need to be really careful not to equate “uncomfortable” with “contrary to God’s will.” It would definitely be easy if everything that was right felt good, and everything that was wrong felt bad. But we all know that that’s not the world we live in. In fact, sometimes the best choices we make are the hardest ones. And nobody ever said that a life of following Christ was supposed to be easy. Jesus himself regularly told those who followed him that the cost of discipleship was denying oneself. Of course, the rewards are unquestionably worth the struggle, and there are plenty of moments along the way that remind us why we do it, but the journey itself is littered with tough decisions and sacrifice.

But lest we begin to think that God’s put us in an unfair position, remember that we’re not the first ones to walk this path. We’re not the only ones who have ever said, “But I’m not ready!” Don’t forget that Jesus was human, too. When we read the gospel of John, where the author puts a magnifying glass up to Christ’s divine nature, it can be difficult to think of Jesus as anything other than a self-assured manifestation of God, always in complete control of every situation. But in John’s account of the wedding at Cana, we catch a glimpse of Jesus that we might be able to relate to.

First, a bit of background: at this early point in John’s gospel, Jesus hadn’t done much aside from collecting disciples like trading cards. No miracles, no major teachings, no self-identification, nothing. So when we arrive with the disciples at Cana, we arrive with a low-profile Jesus whose only credentials are the unsubstantiated faith of his followers. Not a bad position for Jesus to be in, frankly. Since even the disciples didn’t know at this point what Jesus was capable of, he would have been largely unhindered by outside expectations at this social event.

Or at least he should have been, if it hadn’t been for his mother. (It’s always your mom, isn’t it?) The one person who knew him better than anyone called him out. “They have no wine,” she told him, the obvious implication being that he could do something about it. I always imagine a little maternal elbow nudge and maybe a knowing wink accompanying this loaded statement.

And how does our Lord, the King of kings, God incarnate, respond to his mother? “Lay off, Mom. This isn’t my problem. I’m not ready yet.” Now, of course, Jesus doesn’t say it in these words. He literally says, “My hour has not yet come,” and theologians have had a lot of fun over the years unravelling what this really means. But even if we go with a fairly conservative interpretation—that God has a plan and this isn’t part of it—we’re still left with the facts of the situation: there is an obvious need. And for whatever reason, whether personal or divine in motivation, Jesus is hesitant to meet it.

To be fair, the circumstances were far from ideal. Jesus knew that once he began to perform miracles in public, it would be the first step on his journey to the cross, and if it wasn’t his time yet, why hurry things along? It wasn’t his business—it wasn’t a grave injustice or misinterpretation of scripture; this was the consequence of poor planning on the parts of the hosts. On top of that, the water jars that were available were intended for purification rites, not for such base purposes as holding libations. Jesus had plenty of excuses. And yet, the need was impossible to ignore. As Theologian Craig Keener notes, “…the groom was facing a potential social stigma that could make him the talk of his guests for years to come.”[1] By all accounts, Jesus would have been within his rights to put off his first miracle a little while longer, but to Jesus, the need that he saw at the wedding outweighed the fact that the moment wasn’t perfect. And so, knowing that this would set the wheels of his crucifixion in motion, knowing that this would reveal his true nature, knowing that he just wasn’t ready, Jesus performed his first miracle.

All of us, I think, at some time or another, have felt like Jesus at the wedding. When we’ve been asked to do something, to fill some role, we’ve each had the experience of thinking, “No, I can’t; the time isn’t right,” or “No, I’m not ready,” or “No, I’m not an Elder, I’m not a Deacon; I work behind the scenes.” And sometimes, that’s the right response. Sometimes, we SHOULD hold out for a better fit. Sometimes, God truly IS calling us to a different ministry. But not always. That’s why our tradition places so much stock on discernment. We’re not necessarily supposed to be discerning whether the task is a good fit or whether we want to do it, but about whether God might be calling us to this particular ministry at this particular time. It’s really nice for us when the gifts align perfectly with the needs, but God doesn’t wait for it, and neither should we.

When we sense a tugging from God toward something we don’t want to do, instead of arguing or reasoning our way out of it, maybe we should start asking how the Spirit is doing a new thing within us, stretching our self-imposed boundaries and our arbitrary limits in order to help the Church to grow. God is gracious; God will NEVER leave our needs unmet. But sometimes, the way God meets those needs is by pushing us outside of our comfort zone and challenging us to something new.

Of course, we should never deny our gifts. They’re part of who God created us to be, and on our best days, they’re what makes the Church work. Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul explains that each of our gifts is a different part of the body of Christ. All are necessary to make the body whole and able to function. But if I may take the liberty of extending Paul’s metaphor a bit further in this age of medical progress: sometimes, the body ISN’T able to work properly. Sometimes, a part is missing, for whatever reason. If this missing piece is central enough to the integrity of the body, we don’t give it up for lost. We improvise—maybe replacing a thumb with a toe, maybe grafting skin from one part of the body to another. It sounds unpleasant and unnatural and uncomfortable because it is—at first. But it allows the body to continue living and thriving, and eventually, the body adjusts, and what was once awkward and painful becomes second nature. The part that was once out of place finds a new home and contributes in a way that was previously unimaginable. If such a thing is possible by human hands, how much more must God be able to use us in the same way?

We have all chosen to be here. We have all chosen to be a part of this family, God’s family. Part of being a family is seeing where something needs to be done and stepping up to do it, regardless of the context or timing or desire. Or at least that’s what my mother always told me when I wasn’t in the mood to do my chores. Sometimes, it takes the nagging of a mother to help us recognize our role in the family—even for Jesus—but the responsibility and the need is there either way. And maybe, even though it’s not what we expect when we’re not ready, we can STILL find energy and purpose in the uncomfortable places to which God calls us. The good news of the resurrection is that God will never call us to work that brings death, but only ever to that which brings life—always life.

As we ordain these new leaders to the work of God in our community, let their public response to God’s call inspire you. Use this opportunity to ask yourself where God might be calling you to serve in the Church, even if it’s not a place that you expect, even if you’re not ready. And to our new Deacons and Elders: don’t let this be the end of your discernment. Keep following God’s call throughout your term of service and beyond, even to places of discomfort and anxiety. Challenge yourself whenever you find yourself thinking, “I’m not ready.” Christ’s example at Cana shows us that readiness isn’t a prerequisite for stepping up to meet a need. All that’s required is a desire to follow God’s will and faith that God will use you—ready or not—for good.


[1] Keener, Craig S. The Gospel of John: A Commentary, Volume I. p. 502.

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