Sermon for Sunday, January 22, 2017 || Epiphany 3A ||Matthew 4:12-23
Two weeks ago, we began an Epiphany sermon series in which we are imagining our way into God’s eyes and trying to see ourselves as God sees us. What is God’s point of view? What does God see, name, and celebrate about us? And how can we incorporate that divine point of view into how we interact with God’s creation?
We began with Belovedness. God sees and names us as God’s Beloved. When we enter this reality, we see, name, and celebrate that each person we meet is also the Beloved of God. Living in this reality means affirming in word and deed the dignity and value of all people. Last week we talked about God befriending us. God calls us into mission alongside God, not as subjects or employees, but as partners, friends. And this friendship leads us to create strong relationships of our own, often befriending the unlikeliest of people, many of whom are those who have received little love.
Love leads to friendship, which leads us out into the world, participating in God’s mission of healing and reconciliation. Here we return to God’s point of view because we wonder how we possibly could contribute anything meaningful to such a vast enterprise as God’s mission. We imagine our way into God’s eyes again. We discover that God sees, names, and celebrates us as gifted.
I’ve had a rocky relationship with this word, Gifted. Sometimes I think God called me to ordained ministry in order to help me re-learn what this word means. When I was in fourth and fifth grade, I was acting out in school, and my teachers concluded I was bored. So they gave me extra projects to do. I learned all about the electoral college in fourth grade during the 1992 election. And in fifth grade I got interested in genetics because of Jurassic Park.
None of my classmates got this extra work. Naturally, my ego enjoyed this fact. I concluded that I got extra work because I was smarter than they were. And if I was smarter, that made me better, higher, more deserving of accolades. When I moved to Alabama in sixth grade, I was placed in a special program for kids like me, and this program had a label: Gifted.
I spent the rest of my academic career making top marks. I was the valedictorian of my high school class; summa cum laude in college; honors in this and that. I effected a veneer of humility, enough to make my well-wishers wish me even more well. But deep down, two diseases festered. First, I continued to equate my academic success with my own superiority. I judged everyone I met on that single axis – intellectual achievement – and refused to believe there were plenty of other ways to be gifted that I might have no knowledge of at all. Second, I persisted in attributing my academic giftedness to myself alone. I was the sole source of my success; never would I consent to share this thing that defined me by acknowledging the help of family or friends or teachers. And certainly not the God who knit me together in my mother’s womb.
When I was in seminary, my first spiritual director, the Rev. Margot Critchfield, diagnosed my disease within our first few meetings. Was my malignant pride really that obvious? Yes. Yes it was. I was Mr. Darcy at the beginning of Pride and Prejudice.
Margot invited me into a period of deep self-reflection. With God’s help, she healed those two diseases – or at least put them in remission. Margot helped me broaden my understanding of giftedness. I had so narrowed the definition of “gifted” that I alone fit the description. With God’s help, she expanded me. Just as I am the Beloved of God, which must me so are you, then this logic holds true when it comes to giftedness. If I am gifted in one way or another, then so must you be, whether or not I understand or value those gifts.
From God’s point of view, giftedness comes in infinite variation. Some gifts manifest in certain talents and skills – the gift of painting, for example, or woodworking. Other gifts manifest through traits of personality – generosity, hospitality, infectious joy. Still others grow out of teamwork, in which giftedness blossoms through symbiosis and each member’s contribution makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. God sees, names, and celebrates a different constellation of gifts in each of us. And I guarantee you that God’s tally of your gifts is longer than your own.
When Margot started working on me, I balked at the expansive new world she was revealing. In my zero-sum thinking, if I wasn’t the only gifted person, then what good was there in being gifted? Or as Syndrome, the bad guy in Pixar’s The Incredibles puts it, “Everyone can be super. And when everyone’s super, no one will be.” Thankfully, Margot stuck by me.
Such an expansion of viewpoint was only possible with the healing of the second disease, which is the one Margot tackled with gusto. She helped me redefine pride and humility. Humility is not saying you’re bad at something you’re actually good at. Humility is not merely demuring when you’re given compliments. True humility is the proper attribution of giftedness to the Source of all good gifts. Yes, we might work on our gifts; train at them; get better at them. But they still came from somewhere. Our gifts came from God, and they were nurtured by more people than we can ever remember, let alone thank.
Whereas pride leads to isolation, in which we use our gifts only for our own aggrandizement, humility leads to openness and sharing. We claim our giftedness, not to make ourselves feel special, but to use our gifts to make others feel so.
That’s why we find Jesus walking along the Sea of Galilee. He notices a pair of brothers out in a fishing boat, casting a net into the sea. The Gospel writer Matthew reiterates, “For they were fishermen.” The writer names their gift just to make sure we notice it. Then Jesus calls them to join him in mission, using the gift they have been cultivating for a lifetime. “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.”
From God’s point of view, each and everyone of us is gifted. I find it especially ironic that for someone who spent much of his young life believing himself to be the only gifted person in the room, God has led me down a path where it is now my job to help others discover and cultivate their own gifts. But this is God’s way, turning old flaw into new fruit.
This week, I invite you spend time in prayer, asking God to release you either from malignant pride or misunderstood humility. Ask God to help you claim your giftedness, which will help you be a blessing in the world. It is to blessing we turn next week when our sermon series continues. In the meantime, I’ll close with some incredible words from Gunilla Norris, who invites us to see the worth in even the smallest of our God-given gifts.
“In sharing our gifts they multiply, and we become ourselves more and more. However small our offerings may seem to us, there are countless ways these gifts are received. We will not know the full extent of this. Does a tree know who or what benefits from the oxygen it produces? It must give to be alive. We, too, must give to be alive.” (Sheltered in the Heart)