Sermon: Exercising our gifts

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
February 6, 2022

Isaiah 6:1-8
Luke 5:1-11

I am often envious of those who provide practical help in emergencies, people like my sister-in-law the nurse and my brother who volunteers with the SES and CFA. As an emergency chaplain I have been deployed after floods and fires, and worked alongside Red Cross and Salvation Army volunteers who provide food and material aid in Emergency Relief Centres. They know exactly what they are there to do and can see their work making an immediate difference. In contrast my role has usually been to sit beside people and provide an atmosphere of calm in which they can begin to process their trauma. While I hope that the people who talked to me were less likely to develop PTSD, I have never been certain that my presence was useful. My ministry has always felt so much more nebulous than the practical responses that others can offer when people are in trouble.

But God calls us to do what we can, not what we cannot, and apparently I have not been called to be a paramedic or to fight fires or to provide food. ‘Being good at funerals’ and ‘providing a non-anxious presence in disaster zones’ are weird skills to have, but they seem to be the gifts God has given me. And as the Basis of Union reminds us, the Uniting Church ‘acknowledges with thanksgiving that the one Spirit has endowed the members of Christ’s Church with a diversity of gifts, and that there is no gift without its corresponding service’.

Today we hear God calling two people, the prophet Isaiah and the Apostle Peter. Before their calls, both Isaiah and Peter have direct encounters with the divine, and in both cases the encounter provokes fear and an awareness of unworthiness. Isaiah has a vision of the Lord in the Temple. He sees a Being high and lofty, so beyond human stature that the mere hem of his robe fills the building, a Being worshipped by seraphim who sang words that the church continues to use today: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ Isaiah’s response to this is terror at his own humanity. He has seen God and he is afraid that this means death: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’

Today’s gospel reading tells the story of the miraculous catch of fish. By this point in the gospel according to Luke Jesus has already healed Peter’s mother-in-law, and he is well-enough known to have a crowd around him, which might be why Peter is willing to let down the nets again. Simon tells Jesus: ‘Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.’ Jesus is already someone to be addressed as ‘Master’ and someone whose commands are to be obeyed. But Simon Peter is completely unprepared for what happens, for the sheer, overwhelming, abundance of fish that begins to break the nets and fills two boats to sinking point. He knew Jesus, the teacher and preacher and healer, but now in this miraculous catch Simon Peter encounters God, and his reaction is the same as Isaiah’s, a sense of his own inadequacy. He falls on his knees saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’

The terrifying glory of God has been revealed and, like everyone to whom this happens, Isaiah and Peter need reassurance. We recently heard this through the Christmas story, in which the first thing the angels said to Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds was ‘Do not be afraid’. Jesus tells Peter the same thing, ‘Do not be afraid’. Then he goes on to say something that I suspect at first simply adds to Peter’s terror – ‘from now on you will be catching people’.

These stories of encounters with the absolute holiness of God, which emphasise the feelings of unworthiness of the humans to whom they happen, end, paradoxically, with calls to mission and ministry. One of the seraphs touches Isaiah’s mouth with a live coal and tells him: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Immediately Isaiah hears the voice of the Lord asking, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And Isaiah answers: ‘Here am I; send me!’ And the terrified Simon who told Jesus to go away from him becomes Peter, the rock on whom the church is built.

The Uniting Church’s Basis of Union makes it clear that every Christian is called to ministry. We, like all Christians, are called to follow in the footsteps of Isaiah and Simon Peter, answering ‘Here am I; send me!’ when God looks for someone to send. We are called not to be afraid, even when confronted by the absolute holiness of God and reminded of our own unworthiness. And we can answer with confidence because we are in fact not unworthy. God gives us the gifts we will need to answer the calls made on us, whatever it is God calls us to do.

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The retelling of the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts[1] that I read you earlier equates Dorcas’ call to clothe the poor with Peter’s call to preach the gospel and even raise the dead. Both ‘have more work to do’. As the Apostle Paul said in another context, ‘each has a particular gift from God, one having one kind and another a different kind’. (1 Corinthians 7:7) And there is no point wishing our God-given gifts were different, as I have wished that mine were more immediately practical in emergencies. We are to exercise those that we have.

I have heard from people I have visited in residential aged care, when that was possible, that for them one of the hardest parts of getting old has been their inability to exercise their God-given gifts as once they could. People who had driven others to church, volunteered at food banks, visited the elderly, now found themselves the ones needing to be driven, to have food provided, to be visited. They struggled. I have two things I tend to say when I hear this, and I will say them here, too, in case they can be helpful. The first is to suggest that we not begrudge others the chance to do something helpful for us. With all due respect to the Apostle Paul, I do not actually believe it is more blessed to give than to receive.[2] It is just as blessed to receive graciously, and to provide others with a chance to give. That may be the ministry the elderly and the frail are called to exercise.

The other is that one ministry that absolutely does not depend on being active and mobile is the ministry of prayer. I do not want to say that ‘anyone can pray,’ because for me one of the signs that my clinical depression is becoming acute is an inability to pray, but it is true that prayer does not require the person praying be filled with youthful vigour. It can be done as well, if not better, by the elderly and frail as by the young and strong. Prayer for others is not an insignificant service. Last Sunday I attended a protest outside the Park Hotel on Swanston Street, where thirty-two refugees are currently being held in immigration detention. Near the end of the event one of the organisers asked us to pray, if we were pray-ers, because when they had asked the men what we could do for them, that was one of the responses; that we pray for them. Holding people in prayer is an important ministry, and it is one many of us will be able to do until the last moments of our lives.

‘Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.’ (1 Corinthians 11:4-6) When God calls us, we may wish to respond with ‘Woe is me! I am lost’ or ‘Go away from me, Lord,’ but we know that God wishes us to answer with ‘Here am I; send me!’ So let us do that, exercising whatever gift God has given us for the good of all. Amen.

[1] From ‘Dorcas’ in Forgotten Bible Stories (2105) by Margaret McAllister and Alida Massari.

[2] In Acts 20:35 Paul is recorded as saying, ‘In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive,”’ but Jesus is not actually recorded as saying this anywhere in the gospels.

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2 Responses to Sermon: Exercising our gifts

  1. Catherine van Dorp says:

    “It is just as blessed to receive graciously, and to provide others with a chance to give. That may be the ministry the elderly and the frail are called to exercise.” – Not only the elderly and the frail – I recall having to learn this lesson early on, when we had young children and I was burnt out and we were broke. It was a very humbling experience to be the receiver rather than the giver, and I’ve never forgotten it.

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