GIFTS OF THE SPIRIT – 3 AND 4
A sermon by Rev. Richard Miller, Minister of Trinity United Church, Montreal, QC. July 9, 2006.
Today I will continue my report from the meeting of Montreal and Ottawa Conference, focusing on the theme presentations of the Rev. Sharon Moon on Gifts of the Spirit. In early June I took some cues from her sermon on Claiming our Gifts, and last week I tried to summarize her main points on the Gift of Hospitality and the Gift of Healing. Today, I will present some of her points on the Gift of Discernment and the Gift of Hope. Once again, I will give quite a few quotations – perhaps even more than last Sunday.
Sharon began her presentation on discernment in this way. She said,
Today I’d like to speak about the spiritual gift of discernment....of listening for God. It may be easy to listen for God when life is gentle and there is long space for solitude and quiet. But most of our lives, and certainly the lives of our church communities, are not graced with this kind of idyllic Walden--like quality. I am more interested in how we learn to listen for God right in the middle of the chaos and struggle of our individual and collective lives. And particularly in the church, how do we listen for God in conflict situations?
Then she said some things about conflicted churches. And both kinds – those where people are always disagreeing and fighting, and also the ones where everybody is always nice and never disagrees out loud in public – where as she put it, “people think they are being friendly; but conflict and disagreement occur behind a mask.” In such churches, “People don’t feel safe to encounter one another at a deeper level.”
And then Sharon said,
Real community is life lived with others not of our liking but of God's call to love. Community is where we feel safe to be who we are, where we can be real with one another and meet the hunger, indeed, the need to belong; It’s the place where we love one another enough and trust one another enough to struggle together because we are committed to one another and to God, and to Christ’s ministry through us.
In healthy community we discover that because we are loved and accepted by others, warts and all, maybe we can even learn to love and accept ourselves. We can dare to grow towards the divine image in which we have been created.
And did you ever notice how it is in community that God seems to find ways to call out the spiritual gifts each one of us have, and it’s in community that God challenges us to use them[?]
So in some ways, the spiritual gift that I am speaking of is a continuation of the gift of radical hospitality I spoke about yesterday. It’s the gift of discernment; of listening for God.
I tell you, there is so much in what she said, I wish she could come here so we could hear the whole message, and not just my trying to skim off the cream. But let me go on.
Sharon talked about how the United Church as a whole, and the Montreal and Ottawa Conference in particular is going through a huge change – cultural, economic, demographic. Of how “we are now asking as never before ‘who we are’ and ‘what God is calling us to do.’” And she quoted a saying of how “if we don't know what to do, we do what we know.”
And she also quoted Matthew Fox who said “the church is a burning building. We have to decide what we need to save and take with us, and what needs to be let go.” Then Sharon said, “We can deny this is the case and keep on doing what we know. . . . . Or we can dare to shift our point of view away from ourselves; away from our struggles; from our problems; from where we want to go.”
We can turn ourselves around as it were; . . . . shift the point of view and . . . begin to ask a whole different set of questions. Questions that make us look from a different perspective [:]
What does God
desire for us at this point?
Where do we feel God wants up to be going?
What’s God up to around here?
And then came these words of challenge (and this is a long quotation):
I believe the church needs to rediscover discernment; and discernment implies that we actually believe that there is a living presence in, and with, and through us, that we can tune in to. It implies that we believe that we can discover a Wisdom and a Spirit beyond our own.
Do you hear the difference? Not what do we want to do . . . [h]ow can we solve this problem, but where do we think God wants us to be going?
are we hearing the leading of God’s Spirit?
Where does God desire fullness of life for us and through us?
does God want to offer us at this time?
Where does God want to challenge us? to encourage us? to strengthen us? Maybe even to create a whole new thing in and through us?
Sounds obvious! In the church, it should be obvious. After all we profess to believe in a living God. But I’ve been to way too many church meetings where we behave as if God were an irrelevant antique, given a little bow in an opening prayer, but then set aside and largely neglected. We are often functional atheists.
I believe the church needs to rediscover discernment; and discernment implies that we actually believe that there is a living presence in, and with, and through us, that we can tune in to; It implies that we believe that we can discover a Wisdom and a Spirit beyond our own.
And Sharon went on to make the strong claim:
Shifting the perspective to listening for God’s desire for us, can turn a board meeting, or planning group around. My experience is, that despite saying we are a people of faith, a whole lot of us seem to feel as if we have to do it all by ourselves, that we are responsible to make things work with our own resources and knowledge. As if everything depends on us; as if the future is going to be created only out of what we now know. We don’t really believe that God might actually be able to create a new thing in our midst, so we are not even looking for it or watching and waiting for it. No wonder we sometimes despair!
You know, this kind of listening for God is what some of us were learning to do in Companions in Christ. Oh, we were not focusing so much on where God might be leading our church, but the daily discipline of Companions in Christ helped us to hear God speaking in our own lives, and in that small group. I really miss what was happening there, and hope there will be interest in embarking on that journey by others here at Trinity.
Sharon went on to talk about some of the things that took place in First United in Ottawa. I want to quote some more. Listen to her tell the story:
If we had had to rely on the gifts of the small group of elderly folks who were there when I came to create transformation, doing what we knew how to do, we would have folded after 3 years. Because we did not know how to do a whole lot.
We committed ourselves to listen for God [--] in the community beyond our walls, in the people who were coming through our doors one by one in those early days; some of them people like Dave I spoke about yesterday. It was because we tried very hard to listen for God that we were willing to allow the Spirit to blow us in directions none of us could have conceived or created. And the Spirit multiplied our gifts. Genuine hospitality, desire to know strangers who came to our community and to create a space so that they could discover and use their gifts, was a major part of the transformation. Spiritual gifts multiply!
Spirit led us to become heavily involved with addiction, with those who were economically and spiritually poor. It led us into ministries with those who had experienced abuse. It led us into ministry with gay and lesbian people. It led us into a ministry of being a watering hole for those in the social justice community who needed a place to find spiritual nurture. In all these cases, those whom we welcomed brought ideas, energy, and spiritual gifts which changed us; which ultimately transformed who we were. But it happened because we were committed to listen for Spirit wherever it led us; and committed to listen for Spirit in places where we were not necessarily expecting it to be. We looked for and welcomed gifts in those who came as newcomers; rather than making people feel that they had to be there for at least a generation before they belonged and could use their gifts.
Sharon talked about how this will inevitably bring some conflict, and she acknowledged that “conflict can be very destructive if it becomes controlling, or aggressive, or manipulative, or buried, or if individuals go around creating camps within community.” But, she also said that
. . .conflict can be a way for us to struggle to be real; to be faithful; to be challenged to look at things from a different perspective, to try to hear all sides of issues. Conflict can be about God creating change. As Christian communities, we need to learn to deal with conflict in ways that are grounded in love and respect, for this creates safety and trust. It’s what creates an environment where we can hear one another into growth, and learn from one another:
If we are frightened to express our truth to one another, if we are busy keeping the peace at the cost of speaking truth, we stifle Spirit. So how do we listen for Spirit in conflict? How do we learn to use conflict in our communities in ways that allow the Spirit to speak?
And after giving quite a few more examples from what grew and developed at First United in Ottawa, Sharon involved us in some group exercises in listening for Spirit. I would say that just listening to her was itself quite an experience of discernment.
You know, recently someone in our congregation said to me that here at Trinity you have been told so many times that your church would close within five years that many people have lost hope of our church having a future. And I can understand how that kind of loss of hope can happen. When you hear that kind of thing so often, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We look at our numbers in the pews, we look at our numbers in the finances, and soldier on, but we lose our hope, and so we mark time until it happens. I guess my challenge would be that if you really believe that Trinity United Church has no future, then just close down and quit. Pass a motion to disband the congregation, hang a lock on the door, and let Presbytery worry about what to do with the property.
If however we dare to claim that other gift of the Spirit – the Gift of Hope, then I think that Sharon Moon makes it abundantly clear that the place to begin is discernment – discernment of what God wants to do among us and through us. I guess the question we have to face is: do we want to know? Do we really want to know what God wants to do among us and through us? Maybe we would rather not. To quote again the saying that Sharon gave us, “When we don’t know what to do, then we do what we know.” Ah, but is that what Jesus wants of us?
As I leave on holidays, I leave these questions with you to ponder and discuss: What future do we want as a church? And is that what God wants for HIS church here in Rosmount?