October 2, 2016 - I Corinthians 12:4-11
A number of years ago, the city of Chicago was searching for a
community slogan, something to boost civic pride and tourist appeal. As
part of that process, city officials invited suggestions from the public.
One newspaper columnist at the time made an observation that perhaps,
sadly, is as true today as it was back when he wrote it. Given the tenor of
the times, the challenge of matching the city’s needs with its financial
struggles, and the stressors of racial tensions and income inequality, he
suggested that the best choice for a city motto should be, “Where’s
Where’s mine? Indeed, that often seems to be a question that
haunts our humanity. Whether explicitly named or implicitly assumed, we
succumb to that mentality far more often than we care to admit. Where’s
mine? Whether with a spouse or a friend, a child or a co-worker, a public
servant or a service or skilled laborer, we encounter various forms of that
question. Where’s mine? Not only in terms of what we receive financially,
but also what we receive spiritually.
Our scripture from I Corinthians 12 today is one that is not usually
used in the context of stewardship or of encouraging generosity. It’s often
used in the context of our spiritual gifts, of noting the talents, skills, and
abilities that God has given us or has honed within us through years of
training and practice. This text is often used in the context of
encouraging others to share time and talents with the church and the
broader community. Indeed, that is an important role of stewardship that
we often uplift when we preachers don’t want to only seem like we’re
asking you for money.
Even though this text is often used in the context of sharing our
spiritual gifts, it’s important to understand the background of what the
Apostle Paul was trying to emphasize. Paul has a distinctive problem in
Corinth. It is a problem generated by those who misconstrue the riches
and abundance manifest in this wealthy port city, and, in turn,
misconstrue the same impact of the Holy Spirit on the Corinthian church.
It’s almost as if Paul is writing to a faith community that keeps asking,
‘Where’s mine?’ as the Corinthian church is filled with schism, division,
And so Paul works to remind the church of Corinth that their
diversity is a strength, their giftedness is a strength, their gifts and
wealth are a strength, but only if they recognize that all of these are
grounded in the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit that binds them all. He has to
remind them to distinguish healthy diversity from schisms. He has to
encourage them to recognize the beauty and the gifts in each other.
Often, we miss the larger point. Paul is not surprised by the
difference among believers. He sees these differences as being inspired
by the Holy Spirit and enriching the beloved community. Moreover, there
is an implied awareness that different persons have different life
circumstances, different callings, and different gifts. All of these
differences are appropriate to God and were, in fact, inspired by God.
That we are different from one another does not trouble Paul, nor does
Paul believe that it troubles God. Paul becomes concerned only when
those differences are taken as status indicators or when they lead to
discrimination within the community.
Paul called this problem, the inconsiderate treatment of the ones
who have nothing. Today, we call that the abuse of power and privilege.
In both instances, it reflects a scarcity mentality, one that proclaims that
what I have is better or greater or more important than yours. It’s a
‘where’s mine?’ mentality, a mentality that exalts the privileged at the
expense of the humble or meek. We witness this mentality repeatedly - in
our homes, in our churches, in our communities, in our nation, in our
election rhetoric. It’s a mentality that is destructive. It’s a mentality that
is not of God.
Paul notes that there are many gifts, but the same Spirit, the same
God who creates and inspires them all. This same God does not speak a
language of scarcity, but of abundance. It is a language of extravagance.
It is a language of faithfulness, of God to us and of us to God. God
lavishes upon us spiritual gifts, gifts of the heart, gifts of God’s presence.
We read in the Bible of God’s abundance, in the lives of the Hebrew
people, in the teachings and stories of Jesus, and in the poetic writings of
Paul. But we also experience God’s abundance in our own lives, in
moments of God abides within us, God provides for us, and God inspires
our faithful service. It all comes back to whether we have a scarcity,
‘where’s mine’ mentality or an abundance, ‘many gifts’ mentality.
One of my favorite stories begins with a family who was moving
from a distant land to a new village. As the family approached their new
home, they saw a farmer working in a field and asked him about the
people in the village. The farmer wisely asked in response, “What were
the people like in the place you just left?” “Oh, they were the worst sort
of people. They were greedy and hateful, always trying to get what they
believed was theirs. I’m so glad to be rid of them.” “Well,” said the
farmer with sadness. “I’m afraid that’s the type of people you’ll find in
this town, too.”
The next day, another family was arriving in the village to call it
their new home. As they approached the town, this family came across
the same farmer and asked him the same question. Again, he asked,
“What were the people like the place you just left?” The response this
time was different – “Oh, we were so sad to leave them. They were the
most amazing people, filled with life and generosity.” “Well,” said the
farmer with a big smile. “I’m pleased to tell you that you’ll find people
just like that in this town, too.”
This all comes home to stewardship, of course. We are called to a
stewardship like God’s that is an expression of extravagance. Underlying
all acts of stewardship is not a God who is cheap or thrifty, but instead a
God who flings love passionately and widely across the human landscape
with abandon. A tidy, nice and considerate God would prudently
distribute spiritual gifts and tangible wealth. An accountant God would
make notes of how gifts are given and returned like financial indicators
on a spreadsheet. The extravagant God of the Bible, however, keeps faith
with a thousand generations and flings open the bounty of gifts to share
liberally and abundantly with us all.
Good stewardship, then, is not a call to turn from prudence to
waste, but instead from the kind of destructive waste that people do to
the kind of holy waste that God does. The late theologian Paul Tillich
once wrote, “Faithful stewardship is the history of men and women who
wasted themselves and were not afraid to do so. They did not fear the
waste of themselves in the service of the new creation. They were
justified, for they wasted all this out of the fullness of their hearts. They
wasted as God does. People are sick not only because they have not
received love but also because they are not allowed to give love, to
Sisters and brothers, I’m going to say something that is distinctly
un-Brethren. Let’s practice holy wastefulness. Let’s be spiritually
extravagant. Let’s spread the love of God through our ministries with
abundant abandon and see where that journey takes us. Let’s offer our
fruits of the harvest this day for the glory of God and our neighbor’s good.
For we have a God whose love is never exhausted, whose compassion is
never ending, and whose generosity is never depleted. Thanks be to God.