This sermon is inspired by Michael Sahfi, a writer with The Guardian; N. Graham Standish, a clergy spiritual director; poet Mary Oliver; and blogger, author and Pastor, John Pavlovitz, whom I had the pleasure of hearing speak last night at Plymouth Congregational Church.
John Allen Chau was a dedicated Christian steeped in missionary work. At the time of his death, John was 27 years old. He was born in Vancouver and he attended Vancouver Christian High School, whose mission statement is “Preparing students for a life of transformation and service through excellent, Christ-centered education.” At Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma, John was involved in student missionary groups trips to South Africa, Iraq, Burma, Kurdistan and most recently, India. John’s diary reveals that he was obsessed with being a missionary and specifically with the idea of bringing Christianity to North Sentinel Island, which lies 500 miles off the southern coast of Myanmar in the middle of the Bay of Bengal. But North Sentinel Island is protected by law and not open to tourists. Outsiders are banned from going within three miles of the island coast and Indian ships patrol the waters to protect the inhabitants from outside diseases.
The Sentinelese are one of the most isolated and most vulnerable tribes on the planet. The current tribe is at least 30,000 years old and their ancestors have inhabited the island for the last 60,000 years. They are short and dark-skinned, and they hunt wild animals and gather fruit, honey and insects. And they have repeatedly made clear they want to be left alone. On a neighboring island that served as his base, John told locals that he just had to visit the Sentinelese and preach to them. He wondered if North Sentinel Island was Satan’s last stronghold where none had even had the chance to hear God’s name. The pull he felt to change the natives into Christians was overwhelming.
But fishermen warned him that it was risky. In fact, John tried to go to the island a couple of days before and he was chased away. One arrow pierced a bible he was carrying but rather than deterring him, to John this was a sign that God would protect him, no matter what. The night before John returned to the island, he had a sense that his death might be imminent. In his journal he wrote, “I‘m scared. Watching the sunset and it’s beautiful—crying a bit, wondering if it will be the last sunset I see. God, I don’t want to die. Would it be wiser to leave and let someone else to continue? No I don’t think so.” Fishermen knew how to avoid the ocean patrols, so the next morning John paid them a few hundred dollars to ferry him into the bay. He then completed the rest of the journey to the island by himself in a kayak. The fishermen stayed offshore in a dinghy and they could hear John singing gospel songs and shouting “Jesus loves you” as he stood on the sand. Then they saw an arrow hit John and they watched as John was taken into the forest.
One way to begin our discussion about spiritual gifts is to break down Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians into three parts this way: gifts, service and purpose. Towards the beginning, Paul says: “There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of work, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.” Paul ends with, “All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and God distributes them to each one, just as She determines.” In between these bookends of the chapter, the Apostle Paul lists gifts that all flow from God, meaning that we can only claim our spiritual gifts as given by God and as a part of God. And with those gifts and talents inside of us, God too, is inside of us. In fact, the word “gifts” is derived from a translation of the Greek word meaning “those gifts that the Spirit offers.” We don’t have time to talk about all nine of the gifts that Paul names in the chapter. But they are listed as wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, distinguishing between spirits, speaking in tongues, and interpretation of tongues. The most popular gifts, such as “speaking in tongues” and “the interpretation of tongues,” are listed at the end, while wisdom and knowledge are at the top. But I have questions about this list. Knowing that God doesn’t give all gifts to everyone, I can understand that we wouldn’t all have the ability to prophesy or the ability to speak in tongues. But when Paul says, as we heard earlier, that “God distributes them as God determines,” does that mean that not everyone possesses the gift of faith, knowledge, or wisdom? As we are in a sacred space, please hold your White House spiritual gift jokes for coffee hour.
And what about gifts not on this list? Where is courage and compassion? What about art or dancing? Teaching and singing? Are those types of gifts not important enough? Of course they are. As with Paul’s other letters, in this letter to the Corinthians Paul was addressing specific issues that were facing that community at that particular time. Your acceptance of and your belief in the spiritual gifts that God has given you are necessary elements of whether and how God’s spiritual gifts manifest in you for the common good. Individually and as a congregation, how do we reflect on what a we believe about ourselves and our spiritual gifts?
This is where spiritual gifts meets our “Threshold” theme. What does it mean to go into wild threshold places? Into the holy space where darkness meets the light? What does it mean to embrace a fertile and wide expanse of possibility, beyond the safe constructs of culture and expectation that suffocates our courageous and creative selves? “To each is given manifestation of the spirit for the common good.” Manifestation is an Epiphany word. It calls attention to wisdom’s ability to take things that are hidden or mystifying and bring them out into the open. Let’s call it out into the open.
Earlier this morning during the Family Gathering, we each made nametags with our Spiritual gift written on them. If Mary Olliver were here, she might ask, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” I will simply ask, What is your spiritual gift? Each of you received a nametag when you came in the sanctuary. If you didn’t get one, please raise your hand and the ushers with get one to you. On my nametag, I wrote “Encouragement,” Si se puede! Yes we can! We’d like you to take a minute to reflect and then write down your name and a spiritual gift that you have. If you have difficulty naming your spiritual gift, just ask someone sitting near you what they think your spiritual gift might be. At coffee hour, as a way of deepening our relationships with each other, we encourage you to ask other people to tell you about the spiritual gifts they wrote down.
John Chau believed he had a spiritual gift. As a missionary, he believed his gift was converting others to Christianity. Missionary work takes its charge from “the great commission” in Matthew 28 where Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” The problem is that John put his own principles above people in a way that is contrary to the example that Jesus life gave us—that the humanity of the person must always be protected. People who knew about the Sentinelese told John that they wanted to be left alone. But he was unwilling to accept that. John Chau died because his zeal for evangelism clouded his judgment and the spiritual gift of wisdom was eroded. Again from his journal: “I think I could be more useful alive, but to you, God, I give all the glory of whatever happens. Please forgive any of the people on this island who try to kill me, and especially if they succeed.”
The diversity of spiritual gifts that God has given us reflects the diversity of our people and of our community, always remembering where these gifts come from. This is from earlier in 1st Corinthians:
People, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were noble by birth.God chose the foolish things of the world. . . . the weak and the despised.
Mary Oliver might say “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear, It mustn’t be fancy.” The gifts from the Spirit are not arbitrary. They are given with purpose “for the common good.” Of course, “common good” is not always easy to know. Mary Oliver has some advice about that too.
|You do not have to be good.|
|You do not have to walk on your knees|
|for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.|
|You only have to let the soft animal of your body|
|love what it loves.|
|Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.|
|Meanwhile the world goes on.|
|Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain|
|are moving across the landscapes,|
|over the prairies and the deep trees,|
|the mountains and the rivers.|
|Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,|
|are heading home again.|
|Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,|
|the world offers itself to your imagination,|
|calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting|
|over and over announcing your place|
|in the family of things.|
This is the Gospel according to you, the Gospel that speaks to you, the Gospel that loves you, and the Gospel that glorifies you and your spiritual gifts. Amen.