Drew’s sermon from January 20th, 2013. The text is 1 Corinthians 12:1-11. In it, Paul talks to the Corinthians about how all our gifts come from the same God, and we should all use them towards the same purpose. The story for the text comes from an old folk tale I used to hear when I was a kid, called Hardy Hardhead.
I don’t really know if these are a thing around here, but when I was growing up I used to love to hear Jack tales. Most of us have heard of Jack and the Beanstalk, but not everyone realizes that this was just one tale of many that roams around the Appalachian Mountains.
I used to go to a summer camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains, up near my grandparents house. And when we were in camp we’d beg the counselors to tell us a story about Jack while we sat around the campfire. We loved to hear those stories. And the one we most loved to hear was called Hardy Hardhead. We liked it best because of all the different characters and the great triumph, but I think most of all we liked it because it was the longest, and it meant that we could stay up a little later hearing about Jack.
Jack is always going out to seek his fortune, and in this particular story Jack has heard that there was a witch who put an enchantment on the kingdom, and wouldn’t let it go until someone could beat her in a series of contests. Jack goes out to try his luck, and as a result of his generosity with an old stranger, finds himself in possession of a flying ship. On his way to the witch’s house he sees a man running his head into boulders and crushing them into gravel. Jack stops him, and says, “Hello stranger, what’s your name?” And he says, “Hardy Hardhead.” And Jack says, “Hardy Hardhead you sure are, want to take a ride in a flying ship?”
Well, Jack starts to pick up all sorts of companions like this. He meets Drinkwell, who was running up a creek and drinking it, Eatwell, who can swallow a cow whole, Seewell, who was watching a gnat follow a hawk all the way over in England, and Harkwell, who was at that moment listening to a chigger grind his teeth on the next mountain, and Runwell and Shootwell (guess what they can do).
Funny story about Shootwell. The city of Memphis used to have a street named Shootwell, but then they built the hospital on that road. Well, it didn’t seem right to have a street named Shootwell that lead up to the hospital, so they changed it to Getwell.
Anyway, Jack and his companions go meet this old witch, and she’s got all sorts of tricks that she thinks she can use to beat them, but together with his friends, Jack beats her at everything. She does a flip and lands on a bed of nails unharmed, then Hardy Hardhead does it on his head. She drinks up a creek, Drinkwell drinks up a river. She eats a cow, Eatwell has it swallowed up before she gets past the first leg.
The last task is a race, to the ocean and back, with a shellful of water. Runwell runs well, but the witch convinces him to rest for a minute on his way back, and bewitches a jawbone and places it under his head to make him sleep. But Harkwell hears snoring, Seewell sees the jawbone, and Shootwell manages to shoot it out from under him from all the way back at the witch’s house.
In the end, Jack manages to take this group of people who were all a little bit out of focus, and do something for the common good. Each of Jack’s new friends has some special talent they are using for something remarkably useless. Harkwell is off listening to a bug grind his teeth, and Jack says, “Come, follow me” and leads him to do something worthwhile. All of a sudden, instead of being a bunch of people each doing their own thing, Drinkwell and Shootwell and Harkwell and all of them have put themselves to a common purpose, and saved the kingdom doing it.
Now Paul has heard some reports from the church at Corinth, the people there have got some questions about spiritual gifts, and Paul has written to them to help straighten them out. See, what was going on in Corinth, was a little bit like what was going on with all of the folks Jack kept meeting on his way, except worse. Jack met a bunch of different people all with different talents just using those skills without any sense of what for. And in Corinth, the same thing was going on. Everyone was showing off their stuff without any sense of the common purpose. Only it was worse, because some of the Corinthians were saying that their gifts were better and more important than the gifts of the other members of the community. For all Hardy Hardhead’s rockbashing, at least he wasn’t wandering around trying to tell people how much more important he was than all the people who could Seewell or Shootwell.
Because when there is a hierarchy of gifts, when some are considered more important than others, the community finds division instead of unity, and that is exactly what had happened within the church at Corinth.
What Paul tells them, is that instead of focusing on the differences between those gifts, they should remember where those gifts came from. There are all sorts of gifts, he says, but they came from one God. Each of them is a demonstration of the Spirit, but each of them demonstrates the same Spirit. It doesn’t matter if your gift is to teach, or to preach, or to cook, or to landscape, or welcome people with a smile on your face, every single gift is essential in that it bears witness to the essential truth that Jesus is Lord. No one should think that their gifts are less valuable than someone else’s, just as no one should think that their gifts mean that they are more important than someone else.
This is something that the Presbyterian Church has taken steps to remind itself of recently with some changes in language in the Book of Order. Instead of making a big distinction between elders and Ministers of the Word and Sacrament, they have recently gone back to using some old language, from the Book of Order more than 200 years ago, calling our elders “ruling elders” and teaching elders” to remind us that the gifts of the minister are no more important than anybody who has been called to be a part of the church’s ministry.
The only difference is that the pastor’s call is to teach, and those who sit on Session are called to rule, or lead the church. So when I was ordained almost a year ago, it was not to lift me up over everyone as the head person or the leader, but it was to ordain me to serve in the way that I was called to serve, through teaching and preaching and the distribution of the sacraments.
The second thing that Paul reminds the Corinthians of, is that our gifts are for service, not for display. Just as Jack calls his new friends to a higher purpose than their own amusement, Paul calls the Corinthians to use their gifts for the good of all. He tells us that just as each of our gifts come from one source, each of them should be united in a single purpose. Each gift, he says, is a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. It is not for our own glory that we have been blessed with a beautiful singing voice, or the ability to host and entertain, but for the benefit of those who live in the world around us and the glory of God are we given gifts.
There’s all sorts of preachers on TV telling people that God wants you to be rich and have more than everyone else; they tell people that God gives so that you can get. But the truth is that God gives so that you can give. Each thing we are blessed with is given to us so that we could use it to bless others.
In other words, the church is sort of like Jack’s flying ship. It is a group of people all with diverse and different skills and abilities, called to one purpose by one who values each and every one for what they are able to give. Just as Jack called his disciples to come into his flying ship and join him in his goals, so Jesus called his first disciples to leave their boats and follow Him in delivering the good news.
Working alone, each of us can only use gifts for our own purposes, which are often directionless, and sometimes destructive. But working together, we can achieve great things through the one who called us together. No one gift is more important than the others, but each one of us does a task that is essential for the success of the mission we have been given: being the body of Christ in the world. Submitting ourselves to Christ, and recognizing that all our gifts come from one source and have one purpose, we can achieve the purpose of the church: to recognize the Lordship of Jesus Christ in our lives and go out into the nations to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven.