Gifts of Grace
This sermon is the first sermon in our series: Chosen. It has been formatted for presentation and not for the prevention of errors. Enjoy!
Tate Donovan is the kind of actor that you would see in a movie or television show and think to yourself, “Is he that guy that was in that one thing,” and you can’t quite place him in the other show that you were thinking about. That is to say that he is famous enough to recognize, and to get a lot of work in the entertainment industry, but not so famous that people regularly come up to him on the street. In fact, I doubt you recognized his name when I said it, but if I put his picture up, you would definitely know who he is. If you were a 90’s TV fan, he was Joshua on Friends.
But, when he was younger, and he considered his future career, he always liked it when famous people were really gracious and spent a lot of time with their fans, signing autographs, and telling them stories. And, as luck would have it, for a short season, in the late 90s, while in he was in a play in Chicago, he was getting stopped on the street a lot. And he was that celebrity that he always wanted to be. He spent extra time with these fans, laughed with them, took pictures with them, and signed autographs until he met a young man who was on a date, who was maybe 18 years old, was waiting outside of the theatre where he was in that play.
The young man approached him with a camera and asked, “Can we get a picture?” And so, Tate Donovan says, “Sure,” walks over and puts his arm around the man’s date and waits for him to take a picture. But the man just stands there, camera hanging about chin-level with a grimace on his face. So Tate Donovan kisses the girlfriend on her cheek and, through his puckered lips, he says, “Take the picture.” So the man does. And they all shake hands and Tate Donovan says, “It was nice to meet you both; have a great night.” And the young man says to him, “Do you think you could take our picture?” He had no idea who Tate Donovan was, and just wanted him to take a picuture, but had just watched him hug and kiss his girlfriend. The young man had just wanted to get someone to take a picture of him on his date. And, Tate Donovan, trying to pretend like he was someone else, a much bigger star than he was, in doing this, he embarrassed himself terribly.
A number of years ago, my pastor told me that I was going to begin teaching children. I had been leading the youth group for quite a while, but I had not yet begun teaching the story of Jesus to younger students. She told me that, in order to learn how to teach the story of God to kids, I was going to have to go observe the pastor of Foothills UMC, Rev. John Farley, as he led their preschool chapel service. She said that he is as good as it gets when it comes to teaching children about God. He’s not here today, so you can know that I am not just kissing up to him now that he, as district superintendent, is my supervisor.
It’s just that she was absolutely right. I sat in a pew as the preschoolers filed in and he had a song he had written for them as a theme song. The children excitedly gathered as he played the opening music. He sang two songs with them, told them a story from memory that was age-appropriate; he prayed with them a prayer that was understandable and potentially meaningful for them. Afterward, he sang two more songs, followed by a repeat of the chapel theme song, and they walked out as he played it for them. In twenty minutes, he had just taught them the pattern and purpose of worship. I was floored. I hadn’t seen a pastor who was that good at leading worship for adults before. I said to myself, I want to be just like him.
So, when I went back to my church home, I mimicked him. I tried to lead chapel and other kids programs just like I had seen him do it. I wrote a theme song for chapel… but it was much worse. I did the two songs, a story, a prayer, and two-song model I had seen… just worse. And, actually, I wasn’t happy trying to be John Farley. It wasn’t helping me fulfill what God was doing through my ministry. Instead of seeking to live authentically within my call, I was trying to live John Farley’s call at my church.
The way was leading children’s programs was a passable way of doing things. No one knew. No one who was there had ever seen John and no one knew that I was being a copycat. But I knew. And something didn’t feel right: I knew that it didn’t feel authentic to who I was and I knew that I wasn’t living up to my own authentic call. But, worse still, is that I wasn’t learning anything new. My wanting to be successful was standing in the way of God’s grace in my life. Instead of relying on God to grow and shape me in ministry, I was just plagiarizing a ‘proven’ method.
We can so often get caught up in trying to be successful that we forget to listen for what God is uniquely doing in us. How many times have we thought to ourselves, “If I could only lead like her…” or “If I could only sing like him….” But this way of thinking doesn’t seek to live into the authentic call that God has for us, does it?
There must have been something very similar happening in those Roman churches because Paul writes to them, and this is the Message paraphrase of it, he writes:
In this way, we are like the various parts of a human body. Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we’re talking about is Christ’s body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But [just like] a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe, we wouldn’t amount to much, would we? So since we find ourselves fashioned into all these excellently formed and marvelously functioning parts in Christ’s body, let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t (Romans 12:4-6, MSG).
We hear these from Paul and they feel cliched. We’ve heard them over and over again, maybe even our whole lives, and have let them begin to have no meaning. They become a Sunday school answer that we give to kids when they miss the cut on the basketball team. They become the consolation speech when we feel inferior. But we say to ourselves, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. We all have a function. We all have a purpose for which we were made. I know, I know. How is that supposed to make me feel any better?” We’ve heard it all before and, yet, we get so caught up in what other people have, that we do not, that we can’t see what God is doing within us.
Paul isn’t giving us a pep talk without a purpose. He’s not sitting on the edge of our beds, like a parent, patting our backs and saying, “Sorry pal. You’ll get ‘em next time.” This passage is an act of worship. And, he’s inviting us to join him. He tells us something like, “Here’s what I want you to do. Imagine yourself in church and the ushers come by with the offering plate. Instead of grabbing your checkbook or a few bills or coins, have them lower the plate to the ground and step inside. Give your life over to God as an act of worship and God will change your life” (12:1-2, paraphrased).
Paul isn’t telling a story that gives reasons for why God made you the way that you are. Although that happens as a part of his letter. Of course, God made you the way you are. Of course, God can redeem anything about you. But, in this case, in these few verses, it’s more like Paul is quoting Psalm 139, which says, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well” (v.14, NKJV). I am wonderfully made by my God. Paul proclaims it loudly. He preaches it to the assemblies of Christians in Rome. But, not only, that: So are you. It’s like he is saying,” It is so clear to me that you are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” that you are proof that God is alive and well in me. You, in your amazing gifts, you prove to me that God is great!
Looking around, Paul names it:
Prophets keep prophesying! Ministers keep ministering! Teachers keep teaching! He’s starting to sound like that Stevie Wonder song Higher Ground: “Preachers keep on preaching. Believers keep on believing!” But, he continues and names many of the gifts of the Spirit, gifts of grace that live in each of us and that come together… in the Church… for the purpose of making new disciples and transforming the world in the name of Jesus Christ (Book of Discipline, ¶120).
And, sometimes, it’s hard to see how one person’s gifts help to impact that mission. Someone might think that her gifts, her talents, his strengths, don’t align very well with the mission of a church. But, maybe, those strengths make that person a really great neighbor, or a really excellent teacher, or an amazing and generous baker. And, then, the connection with the church is what sanctifies that talent, bringing people together, in the name of God, to celebrate a God who creates us to be “fearfully and wonderfully made,” a God who creates us to be so amazing that we can’t help but worship God for the work of his hand that is evident in each other’s lives.
When we live our gifts authentically together, Christ honors it. And, as we hear this message of grace and creativity and the love of God, from the Apostle Paul, I think we can’t help but feel inspired to encourage and empower each other in ministry together. But, not just because it’s effective… and not just because we want to benefit from what each other brings to the table. We should want to empower and encourage one another in ministry, using the unique God-given gifts that each of us has, because (and I want to leave us with this thought from Paul) Romans says that because God is gracious and merciful, make yourselves a holy and living sacrifice (12:1, from memory). The purpose of sacrifice is worship. That means that to be a sacrifice, a living sacrifice, is to worship God with everything thing that you have, in all that you are, and in all that you do. But, that’s not where Paul stops, he then outlines the gifts and strengths given by God that allow each of us to be worship. To be worship. Not to come to worship. Not to add worship into your routines. To be worship. If we allow God’s grace to act and to work in one another, and in ourselves, then God transforms us, making our very lives an act of worship. And, in that worship, we are made like Christ.
May that grace live through us.
This American Life – Episode 241 (feat. Tate Donovan)