Sermon: Don’t Think Too Highly

Asbury Our Redeemer Partnership
Sunday 24 August 2014
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Romans 12:1-8

Paul has an important message for us today. Although, it’s not always the easiest message for us to hear. It’s a message about how we live together in community. It’s a message about how we recognize our own gifts, how we respect the gifts of others, and how we choose to interact with each other.

Part of it is a very familiar message. Paul talks about the church as a body. Just like a body, the church is made up of many parts—it’s made up of many different people. And like a body, not all of the parts are the same. Bodies have toes and noses, eyes, and thighs, fingers and femurs, capillaries and kidneys—more parts than we could name if we spent all morning, and each of them has a different job. We humans are the most complicated machines on the planet. The knee can’t do the job of the neuron. The pinky can’t do the job of the pupil. The tibia can’t do the job of the tongue. They’re each very different. They each have different abilities. They each have a different job to do. We can only exist because of the diversity of our parts. 37 trillion cells in the human body, and they each have to perform their one particular task. That diversity of purpose is what makes each of us a human being instead pile of 37 trillion amoebas.

And we know from experience that our human communities function in the same way. It is the specialization of human society that allows for civilization. We can only have engineers because someone is baking the bread. We can only have musicians because someone is tending the crops. If we didn’t have different gifts, if we didn’t have different skills, then we couldn’t have civilization.

In the church we see a similar circumstance. If the same person who prepared the altar also had to lead the bible study, distribute the food, create the bulletin, weed the flower beds, call on the sick, evangelize, sing the solos, clean the bathrooms, preach the sermons, and make the coffee, chances are none of those jobs would get done very well. Each one of us has a very particular set of talents and therefore a very particular way that we can be of the best use to God. We’re not talking about a starkly deterministic system, in which each person is born into one and only one function, where everyone’s roles are determined ahead of time and no one can ever change or learn or grow. That would be pushing Paul’s metaphor too far. But we all know that there are certain things we are each better at than other things. There are certain things that we are more gifted at, or get more joy from doing. And it’s good that we have a diversity of gifts in the church, because there are a lot of different things that God has for us to do. Disciples of Jesus Christ are not cookie-cutter replicas of each other. God’s Kingdom is reaching into the world in a variety of different ways and across a variety of different circumstances, and so, God needs a variety of different disciples in order to meet those challenges.

So that’s all fairly intuitive. It’s not particularly controversial or challenging. We have different gifts. Do the things that you’re good at. Leave the things that you’re not very good at to someone else. That actually seems kind of comforting. It’s like Paul is letting us off the hook for being responsible for the kinds of things we would rather not be responsible for. Oh, my gift’s not gardening, so I guess I don’t have to worry about pulling the weeds. I’ll leave that to someone else.

But that isn’t really the force of Paul’s argument. Paul is hardly ever in the business of getting people off the hook. And the force of Paul’s argument becomes clearer when we look at how he introduces the metaphor of the body. He begins, “ I say to each one of you: don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”

Don’t think more highly of yourself that you ought to. That doesn’t sound like the feel-good, each-one-of-us-is-unique-and-special-like-a-snowflake message we were getting from the body metaphor before. What is Paul trying to say about our place in the body that is the Church if he starts out like that? Don’t think of yourself more highly than you ought.

Paul continues, “Instead, be reasonable since God has measured out a portion of faith to each one of you.” That sounds even worse than before. Now, not only is Paul warning us not to think too highly of ourselves, but he’s suggesting that the difference between us aren’t really difference of kind, but differences of quantity. Each on of us has been given a certain amount of faith by God. God gives some people lots of faith and other people not very much faith at all. That’s the way that we are different from one another, Paul seems to be suggesting. It’s because some of us have lots of faith and others have hardly any, and there’s nothing we can do about it. God chose, seemingly at random, whom to bless with more faith, and we just have to deal with it.

And that sounds like a pretty horrible message. It probably wouldn’t have sounded so bad several centuries ago, when people really believed that they were born into a particular station in life and all they had to do was fulfill their role and not rock the boat by trying to be something else. But for us twenty-first century Americans, this message is utterly abhorrent. We believe in freedom and individual choice. We believe that we can do anything we set our minds to. We believe that we can become anything, do anything, so long as we make the choice to do it and follow through on our commitment. Self-determination is one of the founding principles of our society.

And here is Paul seeming to say, “God just makes some people better than other people. It’s important that you know your place.” What a backward thinking jerk!

Now, I’ve overstated Paul’s case a bit to make a point. The reality of what Paul is saying is not that harsh, but it is almost as uncomfortable.

I don’t think Paul is trying to enforce hierarchy in the way I was suggesting. But he does seem to be making a very difficult point about relationality. It is about how we function together as a unit. It is about how we treat each other, how we communicate with each other, and how we express power and control with and over one another.

And what Paul is saying seems to be something like this: if I am not particularly good with plants and I don’t have a very good sense of design, perhaps it would be best if I didn’t try to dominate the church’s landscape committee. If I don’t understand music very well, it’s probably best if I don’t insist on being the choirmaster. If I’m not very good with people, it would probably be better for all concerned if I weren’t heading up the welcome team. Those are some extreme examples, but I think you get the point. Paul says that we should express our gifts in proportion to the faith and grace that we have in those areas.

Here’s another way to think about it. We should not try to express our gifts in a way that stifles the gifts of others. If there are three virtuoso violinists in the orchestra and I’ve been playing for a year and a half, but I insist on taking every violin solo, then I am stifling the gifts of others. Or if I am the manager of that same orchestra with three extraordinary violinists, but I prefer banjo music, so I insist on programming only music that features the banjo, then I am stifling the gifts of others.

If I think too highly of myself, and if that causes me to think that my talents are far superior to anyone else, or it leads me to believe that my preferences are more important than those of anybody else, then I may very easily fall into a pattern of suppressing the God-given gifts of those around me. And when I suppress gifts of those around me, I wound the Body of Christ. When I suppress the gifts of others, especially on account of my own ego, I wound the Body of Christ, no less than if I were driving in nails.

But that is a very bitter prospect to face. It’s hard, because it means we have to look clearly and soberly at ourselves. We have to evaluate our own gifts, without making the mistake of undervaluing ourselves so that we never share our gifts with anyone, and without making the mistake of overvaluing ourselves, so that we hinder those around us.

If we are a body together, then the actions and goodness and disease of each one of us effects all of us. If I overvalue my preferences and demand my own way in everything, it effects us all. If I overvalue my gifts so that I keep others from expressing theirs and so that the needed work never gets done, it effects us all. If, through my words or actions, I wound one of my sisters or brothers in Christ, then we all carry the wound. Christ carries the wound.

And that is an awesome responsibility. It is an awesome responsibility to be a part of the Body of Christ. It is an awesome responsibility to be a part of a community. Thanks be to God, who gives us every good gift. May God grant us the additional gift of knowing how to use them. Amen.

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