Sermon: For the Common Good

Scriptures: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2: 1-11

Preached: January 16, 2022 at NPC by Rev. Merritt N. Schatz

 

         “Art is a gift from God…so how is it that I can use this gift in the service of God?” My dear friend Cynthia Farrell Johnson asks and begins to answer that question in the video we just watched. In the epistle reading, Paul is telling the Corinthians, and us, that all Christians should be asking ourselves this same question. Whatever the gift – art, preaching, cooking, teaching, music, speaking in tongues, athletic prowess, government, sewing, gardening - whatever the gift, how can that gift be used in the service of God?

         In light of this question and the situation in Corinth, Paul would also love the message on the front of our bulletin today: Sibling Rivalry results in competition that goes nowhere. The Church in Corinth had become a church of rivals.

         In a city full of altars, the Corinthians had come to worship the one God. However, challenges from the city, from people of other faiths, even within their own community, led them to create standards by which they could judge one another of being truly Christian: do you speak in tongues; could you interpret; do you preach or pray beautiful prayers? Soon they were arguing about which gifts were more important. Which gifts showed you had greater faith. Did speaking in tongues rank higher than healing the sick? Should preachers be more honored than teachers or deacons?

         ‘Stop it!’ yells Paul. ‘This is not the Christian way. This is not the Christian faith. This is not what Christ called you to be and do.’ Paul knew that the rivalries in the church were taking the faith of the members nowhere. Even worse, these rivalries were poor witness to the faith by which this part of the family of God had been called.

         The gifts you have, Paul continues, the talents with which you are blessed, are just that – gifts. You have not earned them. You have been given them by God. You can grow these gifts. You can practice to make better use of them. But you do not own them, nor are they for your benefit alone. These gifts, all gifts, are for the glory of God and the benefit of the common good.

         Paul mentioned a whole list of gifts which God offers. He didn’t claim that items on his list were the only gifts. Paul certainly didn’t intend for us to say, ‘My gift, what I do best or most enjoy doing, isn’t on this list. It didn’t make Paul’s top ten or whatever. Guess my gift isn’t that important. Or, maybe I failed God.’ No, Paul was teaching the Corinthians, and us, that there are a wide variety of gifts, all of them blessings from God to be used for God’s glory and for the common good. Much of this first letter to the Corinthians is based on this theme. Paul must have felt the Corinthians needed to hear this in a lot of different ways to get the message across. Looking at our world today, Paul would feel the same way about us!

         Paul celebrates the diversity of gifts, even comparing that diversity to the diversity within the Trinity. We worship One God. Yet this one God shows divinity in a variety of ways – creation, redemption, sustaining and growing faith. The members of the Trinity interact with one another, share one vision and purpose, are indeed one God, but are made evident to creation in different ways. In his commentary within Feasting on the Word, Lee Barrett says, ‘The differences of talents and experiences in the Christian community is absolutely necessary. The sanctifying agency of God is so rich, so multidimensional, that it requires a variety of expressions.” (emphasis mine)

(Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 1, pp. 256&258, slight alteration of wording).

 

         The extraordinary variety of gifts which are evident among Christians, and among all creation for that matter, is a revelation of the extraordinary abundance with which God blesses us. We see this as well in the Gospel reading for today – the miracle at Cana. Jesus is initially reluctant to begin his ministry with such a public display of his power. Yet Jesus bows to his mother’s implied request to aid the embarrassed wedding couple. Jesus could have provided just enough wine for the celebration to continue a little longer. Yet, following God’s lead, Jesus creates an abundance of wine – enough for two or three weddings! And the wine created by Jesus was not the cheap stuff – it was the finest wine!

         This is how God wants us to see the blessings, the gifts, the talents which God bestows on each one of us, on each person – indeed, upon each part of creation. God creates in abundance.

We tend to look at gifts and talents as items of scarcity. We try to hoard them for ourselves and our loved ones. We try to deny that they exist in people with whom we disagree. Like the Corinthians, we may even try to elevate some gifts – sometimes presuming our gifts are the top ones; sometimes feeling like our gifts are of little use compared to others.

         Jesus, and Paul, tell us that the gifts are abundant. So are the needs of the world. We are to celebrate the gifts – all the gifts – and use them for the common good. Or, as Cynthia questioned, to consider how can we use our gifts ‘to comfort people, to entertain them even, to take their minds off of negative things, or even to interpret the Bible?’ We help grow the gifts within ourselves and in others. We look for the gifts which each of us has, and for the needs which those gifts might alleviate. We create bridges between the gifts and the needs.

         It is not enough just to celebrate gifts. Gifts that are celebrated but not used for the common good are too apt to be instruments of pride and selfishness. Gifts that are used for the common good blossom and flourish for all involved.

         One final point to make – how do we determine what is the common good? The life of Jesus Christ indicates that the common good is NOT the same as the lowest common denominator. The common good is not just what everyone can agree upon (as if we could ever get everyone to agree on anything!). The common good is not the LEAST of what we can do. The common good is that which benefits and lifts the community as a whole as well as the individual; the individual as well as the community.

         For example, health care for the community works in the service of the individual but also the community. Those who have health care are less likely to miss work, less like to infect others with ailments. A similar example can be found in education. Good education helps individuals fulfill their potential and provides communities with the persons who can supply needed skills of all sorts. In a democracy, education should, and could, provide a wide range of people with greater capacity for logic for considering candidates.

         In a Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church post on Facebook recently, music director Craig Sparks was commenting on the Disney film, Encanto. He found in this movie, and the conversations concerning it, an encouraging trend to see one another better and to talk about what we see more openly. He wrote, “This is the gift of the Spirit, in this movie and in so much of arts: To see ourselves and to see one another more clearly. To reveal truths unspoken.”

 

(Craig Sparks, music director at Hunting Ridge Presbyterian Church, on their Facebook page, 1/13/22. Permission granted by pastor Deborah McEachran).

 

         In a culture which has developed a deep division between individual freedom and community responsibility, we need to hear and proclaim these truths of the common good: individual freedom must give way to the needs of the community, yet the desires or biases of the community must not deny the individual freedom. As Christians, we need to follow Cynthia’s spiritual practice regarding our gifts and the gifts of others: be open to the divine flow of inspiration; be open to receive what the Spirit is moving us to do. Like her, we do this with our gifts until using our gifts for the common good is as natural to us as breathing.

         Let us proclaim the abundance of God’s goodness and of God’s gifts! Each day, look for, notice, and encourage the gifts of all creation. Give thanks to God for the giving of these gifts – for no gift is small when it comes from God and is used for the common good! Amen.

 

Resources:

Bible

Video by Georgetown Presbyterian Church featuring Cynthia Farrell Johnson. Permission to use granted by Cynthia Farrell Johnson and GPC.

         

Feasting on the Word commentary, Yr. C, Vol. 1, pp. 254-259

 

Craig Sparks, Hunting Ridge PC music director, HRPC Facebook page 1/13/22, permission granted by Rev. Deborah McEachran, pastor of HRPC)

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