"Why Compare? Enjoy Your Gifts!"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - January 18, 2004

Isaiah 62:1-5; I Corinthians 12:1-11

    Many years ago I had the privilege of working with junior and senior high school students.  In a number of ways, they were a fascinating group because during that age most of us can remember our trying to fit in and find acceptance from our peers, all the while experiencing raging hormones that sent our moods all over the landscape.  Many of us who are now living in adults bodies would never dream of returning to those years. 

     I only had an hour to spend with each group on Sunday evenings. That was never enough time to accomplish all that I wanted to do with them.  I recall spending a month of programs that featured the verses found in Paul's letter to the Corinthians, the same verses that are in our lesson today.  No matter what I did or how well I illustrated the point Paul was making, I could not get those kids to personalize what he was teaching. They fuzzed over like I do when I am looking at financial spreadsheets. 

     Here are the words Paul wrote nearly 2,000 years ago, 

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit gives them.  There are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served.  There are different abilities to perform service, but the same God gives ability to all for their particular service.  The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all. 

     Nearly all of them had their energy concentrated and focused on two questions, "How much do other people like me?  Where and how do I fit in?"  I remember an 11th grader sitting off by herself during one of our social functions.  She was depressed.  As we talked she said, "I am not going to attract anyone looking like this.  Look at my hair, my flat chest and look at these horrible pimples on my face."  I asked, "So, you want to attract boys with curves and smooth skin?" She said, "Well, Yeah!" as she shot me a look which said, "Where have you been, Dick?" 

            The next week I discreetly planned a lesson just for kids like her.  I got all the senior highs to sit around in a large circle.  I took two of the more self-confident, physically attractive seniors and created what today we would call, a reality show. The two of them had to pretend that they were on their first date -- alone.  There were no friends to diffuse anxieties.  There was not a play or a movie on which the two of them could focus.  They were sitting alone with a small round table between them.  They had to use their words to get to know each other. 

            My overly sensitive 11th grade girl watched the two very intensely.  She wore a smile during the entire episode.  Here were these two beautiful teens struggling to have a conversation with each other.  Many times their discussion was so awkward that the entire group laughed which only compounded the couples self-consciousness.  Finally, the two of them folded under the pressure and could not continue.   

            This mini-drama destroyed the illusion that having a beautiful body, lovely hair and a smooth complexion had the power to enhance someone's people skills.  We can entice each other with our looks but we do not know what to do with them once they are sitting across the table from us?  

            It took this kind of intense production for these kids to understand Paul's words.  Absolutely nothing in the Bible matters until we open our eyes to insights that we can personalize and use for our internal growth. 

            The very obvious escapes us.  We do not know what skills we have until we use them again and again.  Then we learn that Paul gave us thoughts that will enhance our growth.  Everyone was given something by God that they can use for the benefit of everyone else.  When we start comparing ourselves with the strengths we perceive in others, we are looking in the wrong place.  We should be glad that lemons do not waste their time wishing and fantasizing that they were apples.  Yet we do that.  What is it that we do not understand about Paul's words? 

            The place was Montgomery, Alabama, and Dr. King was deeply involved in raising the consciousness of Americans when a call came to his home.  It was a vile, vicious caller who told King that his days on earth were numbered.  He did not tell his wife who had gone to bed.  He stayed up and paced the floor.  He had reached his saturation point.  Fear had compounded, not only for his family but for everyone associated with him.  "What would happen," he thought to himself, "if I crumble emotionally in the presence of my followers? 

            He slumped over the sink and prayed fervently about being depleted of strength, of having his courage slip from his grasp and of his fear building to enormous levels.  He had no sooner said, "Amen" when he felt his fear lifting like 2,000 lbs. of weight.  Everything was restored -- his resolve, his courage and his desire to move forward.  Three days later his house was bombed, but he remained unshaken.  Tomorrow America celebrates the fact that he persevered. 

            We have to move beyond our fear—our statements of "Please love me—Please find me attractive."  A person has to enjoy who they are before they will bloom.  We become attractive like a magnet when we discover we have something to offer, some fruit we can give to the world.  All of us have to start somewhere and sometimes that starts in our adult years.  Sometimes it means leading a cultural revolution when we would rather be doing something else.  Paul wrote the truth, "The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all."          

            Our denominational calendar indicates that this is Ecumenical Sunday.  Paul has a message for all those of us who feel that everyone else must receive our message and celebrate it the same way.  We Christians often carry ourselves with arrogance when we believe that our corner of reality is all there is.  Those of us who think this way are comparing ourselves to others rather than living our truth.           

          When we clear life's stage of all our religious references and preferences, what we find are actors, much like ourselves, who are facing the same issues.  These themes are the same whether we are Muslim, Jewish or Hindu.  Life-issues are the same whether we are Presbyterians, Baptist, Episcopalians or Roman Catholics.  We have to bloom and bear fruit and we cannot do that with much authenticity when we are always scrutinizing the competition

            God did not give us such labels,  we created them.  God did not require a certain theological orientation before we could produce what is inside of us.  It is we who must open our eyes to the abundance that is our inheritance, and I am not talking about wealth of the gold and silver variety.  Everything we could possibly need is right inside of us and most of humanity is like my former youth group -- they remain unconvinced.   

            We received several engaging Christmas cards this past year.  One of them had the word "Peace" in ten different languages.  That card spoke volumes about humanity's common value. Another card had the following words on the front, "All faiths, all hearts, all visions, all dreams, all hopes."  Inside were religious symbols accompanied by the following communities of faith:  Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism.  The folks who created that greeting card were obviously thinking in terms of the human family and of the possibility of what would happen if everyone faithfully bloomed and bore fruit in their own unique culture. 

            In 1968, Lois and I spent seven weeks on a dig at Heshbon, Jordan.  There were 21 Archaeology students with us from Amman University.  After the second week 19 of them quit.  I inquired of the two who stayed why the others had walked off the site.  We were told that they gave up because  they had to get their hands dirty working along side common laborers. The 19 wanted to supervise. Only two students were able to move beyond the boundaries the others had imposed upon themselves. How can we bloom if we refuse to grow in the direction our branch has been bent?    

            We all know people just like the 19.  They say, "That is not in my job description."  They take all the sick days they get even though they are not sick.  They watch the clock and will not stay on the job another minute longer than they have to. They claim to have more deaths in the family than they have relatives just so they can take off work for a funeral. How can we reveal what is inside of us if we have predetermined the best way to cut corners?   

            Some of you may have seen the recent Fed Ex commercial.  A female within an office is telling a young man to ship something by Federal Express.  He said, "I can't do that.  I have an MBA."  She said, "Oh, you have an MBA!  In that case, I'll have to show you how to do it."  Forget that Masters degree in Business Administration!  He was no better off than the 19 students who walked away from refining a skill they were refusing to develop.  How can we bloom when our own thoughts block our growth? 

            We need to remember, "The Spirit's presence is shown in some way in each person for the good of all."  We must begin accepting life's challenges as nothing more than answers to prayer.  We pray such things as, "O God, help me to become a better person.  O God, use me wherever you wish.  O God, help me to grow more into your likeness.  O God, enable me to become a disciple who never tires under the burdens I must carry."  How do we expect God to answer such requests? 

            We will not understand many of God's answers as long as we are convinced that we are the victim, that life is unfair, that we are being attacked by others or that good fortune belongs to someone else because nothing good ever happens to us.  Knives do not become sharp until their blades are held against the grinding wheels of a sharpener. 

            Even a casual student of Paul's recipe for discipleship will recognize that such a person is waiting for good things to happen to them.  That may be a long wait.  People who process life in this manner will miss 95 percent of God's answers because they are too busy looking for something or someone to save them.  God does not do that for banana trees or tomato plants. What are we thinking?  More importantly, how are we thinking?  All we have to do is bloom and we will bear fruit. 

            We spend a lot of time making judgments about others by comparing ourselves to them.  What nonsense!  Some people even commit suicide long before they have opened the door to their vault that contains all their treasure.  Comparing ourselves to anyone else is not only ridiculous, it is also quite impossible to do.  We are one-of-a-kind so there can be no comparison that is accurate.  

            What Paul is talking about here in our lesson has to do with how our energy flows.  He is not talking about what magically happens to us because we happen to be a Christian.  He was addressing what can happen to all of us because we were created by God.  We have a bit of God's Spirit in us whether we like it or not and whether we believe it or not.  In defining creation, our beliefs count for very little.                

            It is this part of us that creates paintings, designs buildings, writes curriculum and software, pioneers new techniques for surgery, conquers the barriers of tribal hatred, inspires students who had been judged as unteachable, thus leaving the world a stronger foundation from which newborns will grow up to build tomorrow's world. 

            If the Christian Church does not lead the way by tearing down the barriers and walls it has unwittingly built, then very clearly Jesus is being ignored.  He died on the cross verbally embracing those who were killing him.  This kind of self-expression, this kind of consciousness does not and cannot build walls that separate people.  Why do so many people who claim to be his followers allow beliefs of separation to govern their lives?  

            We are all evolving and we need to encourage each other, not isolate the "haves" from the "have nots.”  Rather than comparing ourselves to others, we need to celebrate our gifts.  Right now, what the world needs is our kind not a duplication of someone else.  When we develop our unique presence, we will discover that we are doing the will of God


Merciful God, as we race toward the dawning of each new day, we do so amidst a chorus of distracting voices.  We find our moods change.  We over-react to the insensitivities others ventilate in our presence.  We find patience, quietness of spirit and understanding, skills which remain underdeveloped.  We allow moments of self-pity and frustration to cloud our decision making.  We thank you for the way worship often lifts us above our fragile and budding desires to walk by faith.  We thank you that when life confronts us, we understand immediately how much we have yet to learn.  Thank you for loving us, for encouraging us to become more empowered to remain the light in darkness.  Amen.


Loving and always faithful God, quiet our spirits during these moments of gathering.  We give power to so many fearful thoughts that take up residence in our minds.  The uncertainty of some event, some circumstance or some crisis of health in a loved one, inspire us to think of little else.  Such thoughts are like hurricane winds that remove from our minds the sense of your presence and power.  We are fragile and sometimes we cannot focus on you in spite of our wishes to do so.  We thank you for your patience with us. 

Lead us, O God, to extend our energy rather than waiting for others to validate us.  Lead us to understand that if we suffer about anything, we are doing so in a land of plenty.  Whisper to us in your still small voice to open our eyes and see the vastness of creation and learn that our problems are nothing that you and we cannot handle together.  We are not alone.  We have each other and we have you.  We are all grateful that Martin Luther King, Jr. learned this in time to begin a process to correct our national consciousness.    

Just as every life form on the earth knows instinctively how to bloom and bear fruit, so can we.  May we learn to dispense compassion, understanding and accommodation in everything that we do.  May our lives translate into character and integrity when we stand amidst the swirling winds of uncertainty and hostility.  May we hear again, "Fear not, for I am with you always even until the end of the world."  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .