This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost.
Let me start today by telling you a parable.
After Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden of Eden, the animals could see that they couldn’t rely on these humans to take care of everything. After all, they’d messed up spectacularly so far!
So the animals decided they’d better work on equipping themselves for survival, and they started a school. They wanted the best school possible, offering their students a well rounded curriculum of swimming, running, climbing and flying. In order to graduate, all the animals had to take all the courses.
Now, the duck was excellent at swimming. In fact, he was better than his instructor. But he was only making passing grades at climbing and was getting a very poor grade in running. The duck was so slow in running he had to stay after school every day to practice. There was only a little improvement, because his webbed feet got so badly worn. With such worn feet, he was only able to get an average grade in swimming, but average was quite acceptable to everyone, so no one worried much about it…except the duck.
The rabbit was at the top of her class in running. But after a while, she developed a twitch in her leg from all the time she spent in the water trying to improve her swimming. The squirrel was a peak performer in climbing, but was constantly frustrated in flying class. His body became so bruised from all the hard landings he had, he did not do too well in climbing and ended up being pretty poor in running.
I think by now you are getting the point of the story. Each of the animals had a particular expertise. When they did what they were designed to do, they excelled. When they tried to operate outside their area of expertise, they were not nearly as effective.
Now take the same principles, but apply them to the church. Many churches are full of the equivalent of running ducks or flying squirrels. People who are trying to do the best they can, but they are doing things they are not gifted to do; because that’s what was needed at the time, or because somehow they got the message that that’s what they “should” do.
What if we could get the ducks in the water, the squirrels in the trees and the birds in the air? What if each of us could actually focus on the things we’re particularly gifted for?
Here’s the thing; Paul tells us in a number of his letters that the Holy Spirit gives each Christian gifts which are meant to be used to serve the Church and further our mission. But the key to the Church actually working well is each of us recognising what our gifts are, and where they can best be used.
One thing that worries me as the vicar here, is that often I ask people what they think their gifts are, and they can’t tell me. I’m not sure if that’s because you’ve never been encouraged to think that you each have gifts, and that we need all of them to be all that we can be as a community. Or maybe it’s because people think it’s not humble to be confident about what your gifts are and how you use them (or want to use them). But I think it’s important that we’re each able to know what our gifts are, and to think about how best to use them in contributing to the community of faith. That’s part of what it means to be a Christian!
Now, back when I was in a more charismatic sort of parish, the thing to do was to fill out a survey with an awful lot of questions, and add up all your scores, and it’d tell you which gifts your answers suggested you were most likely to have. That’s not a terrible thing to do, and there are lots of such surveys online if you’re interested, although these days I’d probably suggest taking them with a grain of salt as well.
(Of course I would, those surveys tell me my strongest gift is discernment. But I digress…).
But if you don’t really want to do that, there are gentler ways of exploring what your gifts might be. One more reflective approach suggests thinking about it this way:
- Look up. Ask God to show you what your gifts are. Be prayerful as you consider your gifts, and flexible as you explore his leading.
- Look at Scripture. Read through the passages where Paul talks about spiritual gifts. See if any of them seem like they fit you.
- Look back. Think about the past. What have you enjoyed doing as a Christian? What have you found energizing? When have you heard other people mention you’re good at something, or are excited about something? When have you done something that had a positive impact in some way?
- Look in. As you look into yourself, what do you feel passionate about? What really excites you? If you were guaranteed success, the resources and gifts to achieve it, what one thing would you most like to do for God?
- Look out. Ask other people to suggest what they think your gifts are. Choose some people who know you well, and choose some who only know you a little. Be sure they are people who want the best for you. Encourage them to be honest and truthful.
- Look around. As you consider the parish and the local community, what needs exist? What openings are there for exercising gifts? Do any of these opportunities interest/excite you even if you don’t feel qualified or skilled? If you could choose one area of involvement in your church, what would it be?
- Look forward. What are the plans this community has for the future, and how might you fit into that?
But really, what’s important is to take the idea that you have gifts, that the Holy Spirit gives us each different gifts, so that together we can be more than we could be, each of us on our own. It’s part of God’s gift to us in baptism, that we each have unique things to bring and a part to play, and it’s part of what we offer back to God in giving ourselves to him in baptism, that we should use those gifts as God intends. I might even go so far as to say that we each have a duty, in the Christian life, to do so.
I’d like to think that if I asked each of you, in a week or so, “What do you think your gift might be?” everyone would be able to give me some sort of answer, even if the answer is, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m not sure, but maybe something along these sorts of lines?”
It’s okay to take time to figure it out; so long as we’re taking the question seriously. Because taking our gifts seriously is an indispensable part of taking our faith seriously.