“How can we use your gifts?” is a phrase often used in churches. Before Melissa and I wandered into an Episcopal church shortly after we were married, we got bombarded by church communities that came off a bit too needy. To be fair, they didn’t often see a young married couple sans kids coming to worship, so we were a hot commodity. But this week I was struck how the Holy Spirit used the disciples. It wasn’t what they could do that was important, but… well, just keep reading to see where I went with this sermon.
A Sermon for Pentecost — Based on Acts 2:1-21 and 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13
Anyone who has applied for a job or a degree program has been asked the question: tell me about your strengths. If asked this one, we know its corollary is coming too. So while speaking about our gifts and talents, we’re racking our brains to determine what to say about a weakness that, while appearing to be a growing edge, is really another strength.
The answers to these questions include things which also match what the company or business or school might need from us. If the description includes “Multi-tasking,” we share experiences of how we’ve juggled many things successfully at once. If the description talks about seeing a project through till the end, we mention times when we’ve been dedicated and singularly focused. I wouldn’t say we intentionally deceive others in our answers, we’re just savvy enough to do a bit of audience analysis before we respond.
For a long time, I’ve understood this passage from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians to be a similar process. Let’s find out what gifts God has blessed you with and get you involved at the church. Love to cook? Perfect! Let’s have you coordinate meals for people going through life’s transitions or facing an illness. Got musical skills? Let’s introduce you to the choirmaster who’s always looking for a few good women and men. Have a knack for teaching? Maybe Vacation Bible School or Faith Formation is your way to connect. We tend to poll the church community and see how we can plug people in.
But that’s not really what the text is talking about. While I will never turn any away from using their talents for God’s kingdom — in fact, I would be thrilled if you did — I think Paul’s striking out into different territory here. And it comes down to one vital thing : The Holy Spirit.
I always get a chuckle out of the Pentecost reading from Acts as the disciples speak in other languages and some from the crowd suggest they’ve merely had a few too many. Peter, rather than stating the obvious, “Um, when does drinking an adult beverage help a person speak in another language?” simply states that it’s too early to be knocking one back. But it’s the serious response from the crowd that we tend to overlook: “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?” How is it that on that day when the Spirit blew through that place that these women and men began speaking in languages they did not know?
They had never studied the language of the Elamites or the one spoken by the Phrygians. They couldn’t speak in the native tongue of those from Crete or Rome or Egypt. They didn’t have a stock answer when asked about their talent in foreign languages because this was an apparent weakness. These disciples hadn’t run off to take a Berlitz class over the past 10 days in order to hone their language skills; they couldn’t speak the languages at all.
In other words, the Spirit didn’t use their gifts but their weaknesses. Surely Peter, who fifty-three days ago denied even knowing Jesus and was the wishy-washiest of the collective group, would never have put “great public speaker” on his resume. And yet here he is preaching like he’s Billy Graham and by the time he’s done 3000 people want to be baptized and in order to join the church community that day as followers of Jesus.
Could it be that the Spirit is more concerned about our weaknesses than our strengths? Does our equipping for services and activities by the Triune God depend upon us opening ourselves entirely before God so that God can use the hidden things—the shadow sides of lives—so that we will truly know that it is Spirit working in us rather than our doing it on our own? In his second epistle to the Corinthians, Paul, in writing about hardships and difficulties, declares that rather than waxing eloquent about his abilities, he “will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me…. Whenever I am weak, then am I strong.” (2 Cor 12:9-11)
Parker Palmer speaks extensively about this in his amazing book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation. Palmer writes, “Before you tell your life what you intend to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truths you embody, what values you represent.” And this means that we must listen to all of our life, the light and the shadow, our frailties and our strengths. He states, “Years ago, someone told me that humility is central to the spiritual life. That made sense to me: I was proud to think of myself as humble! But this person did not tell me that the path to humility, for some of us at least, goes through humiliation, where we are brought low, rendered powerless, stripped of pretenses and defenses… — a humiliation that allows us to regrow our lives from the ground up…. The spiritual journey is full of paradoxes. One of them that the humiliation that brings us down—down to ground on which it is safe to stand and to fall—eventually takes us to a firmer fuller sense of self.” And it is in that place that the Spirit can use us for the good of the community.
I know you’re probably thinking this is some sort of malarkey, that we need to downplay our weaknesses and highlight our strengths. But in the Biblical narrative this paradoxical pattern emerges again and again. Abraham and Sarah are beyond child-bearing years yet become parents to Isaac. Joseph, a haughty know-it-all gets sold by his brothers to slave traders and then, with God’s help, ends up saving his family in addition to the whole nation of Egypt. Moses has a stuttering problem, and God uses him to speak before Pharaoh. Gideon’s army was reduced from 22,000 to 300, and then used only trumpets and torches to overcome the enemy. Zacchaeus, a tax collector and cheat, followed Jesus and repaid those he had harmed. Paul persecuted the church before becoming an apostle. Jesus, the very person at the center of our faith, was put to death and through God’s gift of love overcame the grave and now lives more fully than ever.
God takes our weaknesses, the attributes we would rather hide and the skills we do not really possess, and transforms them to be used for the work of the kingdom.
If you’ve seen Disney-Pixar’s “Ratatouille,” you know how this works. Remy, a rat, has amazing skills as a chef that he refines while riding atop the head —and under the hat— of the garbage boy turned chef extraordinaire, Linguini. Linguini can’t cook without Remy moving him like a puppet, and Remy can’t really cook without a human. (Would you want a rat cooking your meal? I thought not.) Each has gifts to give but they must offer their weaknesses to each other in order for it to work.
I’ve seen it happen not only on the big screen, but also in my own life. On the Myers Briggs scale, I’m an introvert through and through. While I can function in social gatherings if I have to and do just fine speaking in front of large groups of people (I’ve presided at funerals with the assembled congregation well over 700 people), put me in a one-on-one or with a small group and it can sometimes get awkward. Yet I’ve found in my years of ministry that this can be one of the most rewarding experiences for me. I’ve had incredible conversations about faith with folks over a cup of coffee. I enjoy the connections made in small groups, like the Storyline class I ran recently, while needing to fight the tendency not to speak authentically about my own life. I’ve found that when I did, when I became vulnerable, it opened up new experiences both for me and the people I’m with.
That’s the power of the Spirit. I’ve no idea what your weaknesses are or what growing edges you might have, but if I were to bet on it, I’d say that that’s the thing God wants to use in you. That might sound terrifying to you—our culture tells us to avoid exposing our weaknesses at all costs—yet Jesus tells us again and again not to be afraid. He comes to us behind the locked doors of our lives and offers us peace. And I know he would want to say that to Nolan who is being baptized today as well; God wants to use all of us and will lead him to do work for Christ’s kingdom. If St. Mark’s became a place where people trusted the movement of the Spirit, if we knew with certainty that the Spirit will empower us for the work we do together as a community on behalf of the kingdom, nothing would stop us.
So I’m here to say that the Spirit will equip us to do things beyond our wildest dreams; we don’t need to rely on ourselves. We need only to trust that once more the Spirit will come down and alight on us and use us to make visible God’s amazing works. That’s what God will do if we open ourselves up fully before the Holy One. Because to each of us—each of us—is given the manifestation of the Spirit for our common good. That’s the beauty to behold on this day, all of us filled with the Spirit to share our lives of Christ’s resurrection power with our world.
 Parker Palmer. Listen to Your Life. (Jossey Bass: San Francisco, 1999), 3.
 Palmer, 70.