Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church – Electra Street
28th of July 2013
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
Today is the fourth and last week in our month of ‘giving’ services. So far this month we’ve looked at giving our money; giving our time and talents; and last week the Bartletts talked about UnitingWorld, which provides us with an opportunity to give in partnership with people overseas. Today I want to invite us to think of giving ourselves.
Worship services that emphasise ‘giving’ can be problematic. There are two ways that they can go; they can either inspire and encourage people to give more, or they can make people feel inadequate because they just can’t.
Think about services that talk about giving money. Some of us will find that we can give more money than we thought we could, which is exciting and liberating. But some of us truly can’t give any more money than we already do. Remember that widow’s donation, everything she had to live on, which she gave because the system devoured widows’ houses. That sort of giving is not to be encouraged.
Our second service this month talked about giving our time and talents, which might be more available than money for people who are retired or unemployed or a student, and are at least as important. Australian volunteers contribute more than 713 million hours of unpaid work each year, for some 700,000 not-for-profit, community and government organisations, and that the value of all that volunteering is more than $14.6 billion each year. Churches have long known that we would disappear without volunteers; one of the problems of the church in recent generations has been the increase of women in fulltime employment, because they’re no longer available to keep the church running with their voluntary labour.
But even the emphasis on giving time and talents, rather than money, can make people feel inadequate. We live in a society that frequently judges people by our productivity, by what we can do. If we’re not contributing, the world tells us, then we’re surplus to requirement, dead weight. What if, because of age or illness or other circumstances, we can give neither money nor time nor talents? Does the church say the same thing as the rest of the world; that anyone not contributing is unwelcome?
Absolutely and utterly not! The church is one of the places where we don’t have to do anything. Everything of any importance has already been done for us by God. ‘We do not have to create, sustain and save ourselves; God has done, is doing, and will do all.’ Here in the church, as members of the community, family and body of Christ, we’re absolute equals, and our equality is based not on anything that we’ve done, but on our identity as the children of God. There’s nothing that we need to do to earn our position as God’s children.
That’s all very well, you might say (or at least I’m going to say for you) but we don’t give our money, time and talents just to earn a position in the church or to prove that we’re worthy of being God’s children. We do it out of gratitude and love and joy. So what can those who for whatever reason can’t give money, time or talents give?
Today’s Bible readings are a very unsubtle hint to the answer. At the heart of Christianity is love. Christians are people who respond to God’s love by loving God and others; this is how we’re known as disciples of Christ. All our giving is putting love into practice. And love is something that all of us can give, whatever our circumstances. This Sunday, the last in our giving month, I want to encourage us all to love one another and so to give ourselves.
We are made to love one another, because we’re made in the image of God. The Trinity tells us that God in God’s very self is a community of love. We’re invited to join Father, Son and Spirit in their relationship, and we’re invited to imitate that relationship in our relations with others. Being made in God’s image means that we’re created to love and give and care.
Today’s two readings from the Apostle Paul describe what love looks like. Commentators point out that the description of love in 1 Corinthians 13 is a commentary on the life of Jesus. Only Jesus has been able to fully show this sort of love and it’s his life that defines love as patient; kind; not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; not insisting on its own way; not irritable or resentful; not rejoicing in wrongdoing; bearing all things, believing all things, hoping all things, enduring all things.
Loving others as God loves us is difficult, but in baptism we ‘put on’ Christ, and whatever is his become ours, including his way of loving. This is why Paul is able to tell the Colossians to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience – because they are already clothed in Christ. So Paul tells the Colossians, and us, ‘Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.’
How do we put this love into practice? How do we give ourselves?
I’ve recently been reading a book written by Lynne M. Baab called Friending, which uses these passages from Corinthians and Colossians to talk about what being a friend looks like for Christians. She describes lots of different ways of ‘friending’ but the way of being a friend that struck me most was ‘listening’ and, related to it, ‘praying’. Listening is something everyone can do. It doesn’t require money or physical health or strength. It does take time and it does involve the development of talents, but it’s something that everyone can learn to do. Baab writes:
Deep listening comes from a willingness to let the other person be at the centre of attention. Listening is entering into other people’s worlds, letting them have the platform until they’re finished. It’s not about collecting factoids about other people or hoarding information. It’s not about colonizing or being in control. It’s not about using listening skills as a way to show we’re great listeners, while feeling contemptuous and superior that someone would say such stupid things. True listening, in fact, depends on having some measure of love for the person to whom we’re listening.
This listening is a skill to be cultivated. Baab, who describes herself as a natural talker, says that she sometimes has to check with her husband as to how much she’s talked: ‘I’ll say something like, “There were four of us, and I think I talked about a quarter of the time. Do you think I did?’” And she writes: ‘For those of us who like to talk, the true and humbling fact about listening is that we have to shut up.’ But it is possible to learn to listen, and it’s one of the best ways we can give ourselves.
Listening is connected to praying, which is another thing that any of us can do. Baab writes, ‘Listening and remembering are closely connected to prayer. When I listen carefully to a friend, I am more likely to know the best ways to pray about the situation she or he is concerned about. When I pray about something, it cements that person and that concern in my heart and mind, so I am more likely to remember it. Then I am more likely to reach out to the person and follow up in some way.’
We are the church. Individually and as a community, praying is one of the things we are called to do. It doesn’t take money and it doesn’t take any particular talent. It’s something we can do anywhere, at any time. For some of us prayer happens while lying awake in bed at night; for others while doing the dishes; for me, I pray best while walking, although I’ve discovered not while running. None of us need ever feel useless while we have the opportunity to pray. One of the best ways we can give and one of the best things we can give is through prayer.
I want to end this sermon by giving you some time to do exactly that. Earlier I talked about the fact that as God’s beloved children we don’t have to do anything to earn our place, but even here in church our worship of God is often about doing, and there’s no time in the service to simply be with God. And yet our heritage tells us that sitting silently is one of best ways we can draw closer to God. In a famous story of Elijah from 1 Kings we’re told that he encountered God not in a great wind, or an earthquake or a fire, but in the ‘sound of sheer silence’. In Psalm 62, the psalmist writes: ‘For God alone my soul waits in silence, for my hope is from him’.
So for the next five minutes, I invite you to sit, waiting in silence for the God who comes in the sound of silence. I wouldn’t do this in a church with wooden pews, but here we’re lucky enough to have comfortable chairs. We won’t have sheer silence, because we’ll be able to hear incidental noise from both outside and within. Just note the noise, and put it aside. Your mind will wander, but don’t worry about that. Notice that it’s wandering, and draw yourselves back to focussing on God. If you’d like, use these five minutes to pray for whatever is on your heart. This time is for you to spend with God, in whatever way you wish. But don’t worry about constructing a beautifully worded prayer. You don’t have to do anything. If you need something to focus on, there’s a slide on the screen with some words from Isaiah. But feel free to close your eyes and just be with God. We have five minutes.
 Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes: The wisdom of the desert (Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2003), p. 48.
 Lynne M. Baab, Friending: Real Relationships in a Virtual World (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2011), p. 116.
 Baab, p. 114.
 Baab, p. 120.