Listen to the sermon HERE.
Many of you are probably familiar with he Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” The first verse sings,
Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be…
And that truly is a gift, isn’t it: to come down where we ought to be, to have that feeling of, “yes,” this place is just right, this job is just right, this relationship is just right, this prayer is just right.
“Simple gifts” does keep things simple, but sometimes it’s not so simple to recognize a gift. Especially if we think of what St. Paul refers to as “spiritual gifts” in today’s Letter to the Corinthians—things are not always so simple.
In, and around the Church, when we think of “spiritual gifts,” a lot of us tend to think of those obvious and extreme kinds of gifts—speaking in tongues and the gift of interpretation, such as occurred on the Day of Pentecost and happens now among Pentecostal Christians. Or, in parts of Appalachia and elsewhere, there are Christians who read a few verses of scripture, take them literally, and believe that God gives them the spiritual gift to handle live snakes while in a kind of deep prayer or trance. Another spiritual gift that stands out is healing. And so, there are certain spiritual gifts that really stand out and we’re likely to think they belong only to a few.
But notice the long list of spiritual gifts Paul mentions in today’s reading:
the gift of wisdom,
working of miracles,
speaking in tongues and the gift of interpreting what is spoken
Later, in the same chapter, Paul adds other gifts—in no way meaning to be exclusive in his listing, but to expand what we think of as a spiritual gift. He adds the gifts of teaching, of administration, of offering assistance, of doing “deeds of power” (which are not necessarily miracles, but simply a good project well-conceived, followed-through, and completed, all for the glory of God.
And perhaps that’s what makes a “spiritual gift” different from another kind of quality or characteristic someone might have. A spiritual gift comes from God and works with God to somehow enlarge and expand, a spiritual gift works somehow and some way in the unfolding of God’s kingdom.
And while spiritual gifts come from God, we often need other people of faith to see the gifts that are within us.
I bet each of us can think of a teacher, a family member, a neighbor, or a mentor who looked at us and noticed something we hadn’t quite yet noticed. That person said, “you’re really good at this… have you ever thought of doing it more? Sometimes it takes another person to work as a kind of spiritual mirror before we can see the gifts within ourselves.
This weekend our country remembers Martin Luther King, Jr. and reflects on his legacy. Martin Luther King, Jr. was clearly a prophet, but that prophecy didn’t come out of nowhere. He had family and community all around him to reflect and grow and nurture that spiritual gift within him. As he wrote, “I’m just a Baptist preacher…. this is my being and my heritage. For I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great-grandson of a Baptist preacher” (King, “The Un-Christian Christian”). Whenever he doubted himself, King not only had God supporting him, but he also had that whole line of folks among the Communion of Saints who cheered him on and who prayed for him.
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision shocked people and shocks some people still—but that’s a part of being a prophet. In our first reading, Isaiah is shocking the people of God who have felt lost, abandoned and cut off. Isaiah shocks them awake by saying, not only has God never forgotten you for a minute, but God loves you with a love that surpasses marriage and the greatest love affair imaginable—“You shall be called by a new name . . . .You shall be a crown of beauty . . . . You shall be called My Delight . . .”
There’s a bit of prophecy in today’s Gospel, the Gospel also includes a number of other things—the first of Jesus’s signs, the enlargement of God’s realm, the making of little into much—but it’s also about the unveiling and use of spiritual gifts.
The Virgin Mary exercises several spiritual gifts in this story. She has the gift of discernment—of “reading a room,” and taking in a situation and seeing it not only for what it is, but also for what it can become. She has a gift of encouragement, as she suggests doing something to Jesus.
If we think back a couple of weeks, we recall how Mary, soon after receiving the news that she would bear the Son of God, visited her relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth seems to have worked as a kind of spiritual mirror for Mary, helping Mary see within herself the grace, the blessedness, the faith, and the strength to follow God. Mary’s gifts of discernment and faith grow and increase.
In today’s Gospel, we see Mary a little older and Jesus a young man. When they attend the wedding, it’s Mary’s gifts that save the day. She tells Jesus, “Do something.” And we hear his comment that sounds a little like a snarky teenager to a parent. I think this is one of those rare windows in which we see Jesus developing as the Son of God, as he slowly realizes his own spiritual gifts. I imagine Mary shooting Jesus one of those looks that only a mother can give—the kind of look that says, “You know what to do, now stop complaining and do it.”
And Jesus does it. He makes the miracle of water into wine—not so much for the wonder of the miracle itself but for what it shows and promises. It says, “this is how God works. God stirs up abilities and talents and strengths within each of us that we never might have imagined. And miracles will occur.”
Elizabeth provides a mirror for Mary.
Mary provides a mirror for Jesus.
And Jesus, as the Risen Christ who shines through each of us, provides a mirror for us, and through us, for one another.
One of the great blessings of “being Church” is that we have a room of holy mirrors—the saints in the windows and the saints in the pews. Let the Holy Spirit stir up spiritual gifts in you. And let the Spirit use you to stir up, encourage, and enflame spiritual gifts in the people near you. It’s the easy work of the world to criticize, to see what’s lacking, or to measure, quantify, or assess. But it’s the work of the Spirit of God to unveil, to encourage, to embolden, and to nurture spiritual gifts.
That great Shaker hymn I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon continues on . . .
‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ‘round right.
I like the “turning, turning,” the re-turning in that hymn, because it suggests to me that, as people of faith we are always learning, growing, turning and returning to God. As long as we live on this earth, and perhaps beyond, God’s Spirit fan and inflames spiritual gifts within us. May we be attentive and faithful to grow.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.