I am a good cook, I always have been. Since I was growing up and was a latchkey kid, spending the afternoons after school at home “doing my homework” (with finger quotes) and other activities. I taught myself to cook once I got tired of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and macaroni and cheese and after a little exploration it turned out that I could manage to cook an acceptable meal for the whole family each evening.
It is a gift. I did not deserve it, nor did I work for it. I’ve developed it to be sure but at the core it is a gift, given to me without my asking or even without my understanding. If I had been otherwise gifted, I might have eaten the damned sandwiches and mac and cheese and been happy doing that.
But I can taste things just by imagining them, I can cook in my head and see what will taste good together, change the technique and see how it changes the dish. I do not know how it works and I don’t know why it happens but it does and I think it is a part of what makes me a good cook, and why I enjoy it so much. It feels good to exercise your gifts, and to share them with others, I truly believe that is why God gives us gifts, for them to be exercised and developed and shared with the world and not buried in the ground.
I have shared this gift with the people in this church and friends of mine at dinner parties at my home and strangers when ever they come to me hungry, any of them, when ever. I will share it next Sunday in a pot of chili that I will begin cooking this afternoon so that the chilies can fully develop and the meat can become totally infused with the broth.
As it may be obvious by this point in the sermon, I LOVE talking about it. I have a food blog that I let lay fallow for a few years, for the kids who have never lived an agricultural day in their lives, that means I let it rest, ignored it for a while and then just recently remembered how much I loved writing about food and started doing it again. I remembered how much I loved it Sooooo much that I posted to it three times yesterday. And did my winter rose trimming as well.
I think that the urge to engage, to proclaim your gifts is not necessarily boasting, is not necessarily sin, after all; what would be worse, to wander a little down the path of boasting of your gifts, or denying them from the first? If I took the gift I had for food and never ever expressed it, never tried to share it, never exploited and developed and embraced it, wouldn’t I be denying God’s will all the more? Aren’t I better off wallowing in the sinful pleasure I take in chopping and stirring and braising and roasting, as the gifts of God sing through my hands and in my mind instead of piously living a life of self-denial, of monk-like reserve and circumscribed behaviors, not speaking, not inviting, not sharing, but hopefully; well, hopefully not sinning, right?
Like that’s going to happen, like not sinning is the likely outcome of a life of denial and reserve. As if that were what God had in mind for us!
Well, that’s all well and good, we live with the truth of sin and so we are empowered by our confession, simply by our knowing that sin is always at the door waiting for us and cannot be avoided; that we have to live the lives that we have been given with the gifts that we have been given with the people we have been given and the ministries that we have been given all within the knowledge that the grace of God is what allows us to function, with our pride-fulness and our arrogance and our foolishness and all the rest we know for a fact that none of that can overcome God’s will that we must be saved, we must be freed from the pain of that sin so that we could, in the end, come home.
So we can all get up each morning, give thanks to God for all of the gifts that we have, everything we have been given, give thanks for the grace of God shown us in Jesus Christ and then get dressed, open our doors, greet the sin waiting for us, and then just get on with our days, our lives, using what we have been given so that not just we, not all people might know the love and grace of God, that others may feel the love and the grace of God in their lives.
If we huddle down and try and avoid the sin crouching on the doorstep, if we hide from our weaknesses and try and avoid temptation by avoiding contact with anything we run the risk of denying everything we have been given, not trusting in God’s love and grace and trying to accomplish our righteousness by virtue of our own power, our own ability to avoid sin, to achieve perfection.
We run the risk of denying everything that we have been given and in the process, denying the rest of the world the opportunity to hear the good news, to see what it looks like when someone lives without fear, when someone lives their values, lives their beliefs, warts and all, real life, real flesh, real people.
How can they know the freedom that we have found in Christ if we are hiding? If we are not living our freedom, then the love and grace of God has been wasted, squandered and Isaiah 55:11 says “it is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” God’s promise is that you will be saved, freed from fear and the pain of sin, God’s word will not return empty, but will accomplish God’s purpose.
But only if you get up each morning, give thanks to God for all of the gifts that we have, everything we have been given, give thanks for the grace of God shown us in Jesus Christ and then get dressed, open our doors, greet the sin waiting for us, and then just get on with our days, our lives, using what we have been given so that not just we, but all people might know the love and grace of God, that others may feel the love and the grace of God in their lives.
And here’s the thing, we all want to crow about the things that we are good at, the gifts that we think reflect well on out there in the world. I am proud of being a good cook, I like doing it and sharing it. I like being a good theologian, a good singer, a good husband and father. i will exercise those gifts with joy and vigor every day of my life.
The gifts that we have that reflect well upon us in the world around us are the fun ones to exercise. Everybody wants to use those gifts, that’s no challenge.
Dancers love to dance and singers to sing and preachers to preach.
Only recently have some of the less savory gifts come to the fore, come to be celebrated or maybe just acknowledged. I cannot remember a time when grumpiness was something I was allowed to indulge in, or anger, after all Wrath is one of the seven deadly sins and anger seems pretty close to Wrath. What about impatience? What about intolerance of injustice? None of these things are listed in Paul’s litany of spiritual gifts, these things we usually consign to the pile we call “sin” or “weakness” and try and fix them, deny them in a way that we would never deny the wonderful gifts we have, the singing and the dancing.
As if they themselves were not gifts, they don’t show us in the best light and so these things are bad.
But let me tell you a little story. I used to smoke. I know, lots of pastors used to smoke, Flak included, but in college I used to smoke about two and a half packs a day, when I quit for one Christmas Season during my sophomore year, the store on campus had to change its cigarette order to avoid having way too many cartons because I wasn’t buying them anymore.
I smoked at seminary when I arrived, having reduced my intake to a little less than a pack a day by that point. I was one of perhaps four or five smokers in the entire class I graduated with, although the class that entered in 2004 seemed to have a LOT of smokers in it. I smoked a particular brand, I was brand loyal. and from the very day I started smoking, succumbing to peer pressure in a pool hall in Galeton, Pennsylvania, I hated the fact that I smoked, I felt ashamed that I smoked, I knew that it was bad for me, I could feel the weight of the tar in my chest, the wheezing in my lungs, and I hated that was not strong enough to quit.
Not that I didn’t try. I quit smoking all the time. I used to joke that quitting smoking was the easiest thing in the world, but that not starting again was the really tricky thing.
But it was not until I was visiting Ken Lantz in the hospital about seven years ago. He was in intensive care for pancreatitis. I am breaking no confidences here, we put him on the prayer list. He was there and was talking about how this was an avoidable illness, but that he was not as careful about his health as he ought to have been, that this was the result of his not heeding the advice of doctors and so felt the shame of being somehow responsible for his condition.
I immediately flashed on all of the cigarette ads I had ever seen, the campaign of disinformation perpetrated by the tobacco companies making smoking cool and mainstream and also their openly pursued campaign of making smoking more addictive than it already was. I started getting angry, a little bit at Ken, I admit it, I don’t like it when people mess themselves up, they ought to know better, but mostly at myself, I was mad that I had been so stupid as to do this to myself for the past two decades and had paid for the privilege of poisoning myself.
By the time I was in the lobby I was fuming. Consumed with the deadly sin of wrath. If there had been a Tobacco company lobbyist in the lobby that morning he may have lost some teeth. I stalked my way out of the hospital, reaching into my breast pocket and pulling out the brand new pack of cigarettes, only one missing, and tossed them into the trash right outside the front doors of Memorial Hospital.
It was anger that allowed me to do it. Anger harnessed to good purposes. Thank God there was no lobbyist there that morning or wrath might have taken a different route, but as it was, I took the gift of an angry disposition to fuel my desire to stop smoking, building a narrative of this being done to me, my being fooled into participating in my own ill health.
With that anger as fuel I quit smoking.
But I do not brag about my anger. I do not brag about my impatience like I do about my cooking, or my singing, I hardly ever use it to reach out to people, I’m kind of bad at that, but it is there, it is a part of me and while it may not cast me in the best light that does not mean that it is not a gift.
It is like the water in the stone jars. It is neutral, not what is desired. People want wine, we here in Sonoma county know that as well as anyone, and nobody wants the water. It is not what you think of as a blessing at a wedding, it might be useful later when it comes time to wash up, but right now it would not cast the groom in the best light, serving his guests water.
It is Christ that takes what we have, good or bad, desired or despicable and transforms them into a blessing, a sign that God’s love is with us, God’s word, planted within us will not come back empty, but will accomplish God’s will in us.
You can’t force it, you can’t direct it, all you can do is surrender to it and let it change your dross into blessing, your water into wine.
So about spiritual blessings, To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the impatience with ignorance. To one is given the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of anger at injustice and the wasting of God’s gift of life and to this one, healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another steadfast mule-ish obstinate stubbornness in the cause of Christ, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.
Not everything you think of as a curse is only that. Nothing we have come to call sin is irredeemable in the hands of the Lord, who through the Spirit and in His own time comes to transform your water, your sin, your anger and your better blessings into the finest wine, saved for the last like any good host would do because in that there is the best gift of all, to know that all of you is loved, the gifts we would shout about to every passer by and the things we struggle to think of as gifts. All are a part of God’s good creation in you, and all have the potential to carry forth the will of God whose word will achieve the purpose for which God sent it.
All we have to do is get up each morning, give thanks to God for all of the gifts that we have, everything we have been given, give thanks for the grace of God shown us in Jesus Christ and then get dressed, open our doors, greet the sin waiting for us, and then just get on with our days, our lives, using what we have been given so that not just we, but all people might know the love and grace of God, that others may feel the love and the grace of God in their lives.