A gift from God

Epiphany 5A

In the name of God, the giver of every good gift.  Amen.

In years past when I’ve preached on this text, I’ve followed the example of the commentaries and the text books all those other sources we preachers turn to as we’re trying to figure out how to find some relevant truth to share.  I’ve talked about the metaphorical value of salt and light.  Salt brings flavor to an otherwise bland experience.  Without it’s saltiness, it’s just a brittle rock with very little value.  Light triumphs over the darkness.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”  It’s a beautiful quote, and worth remembering as we face the powers of darkness and hate in the world, as we all inevitably do.  And, maybe when this lesson comes around again in the coming years I’ll preach that sermon.  But this week, I heard something different.

This week, when I heard about salt and light, I heard a call for us to be our truest, most genuine, most authentic selves.  God created salt to be salt, so if it’s lost its saltiness, what good is it?  And God created light to be light.  If we hide our light, what use is it to ourselves or to anyone else.  So, too, God created you to be you and me to be me.  When we make decisions in our lives that keep us from being the best selves that God created us to be, we turn away from God’s intentions for our lives.

We can think of our most authentic selves as being like our vocations – not just our jobs, but what we’ve discerned our purpose as Christians to be.  For me, it’s tied in with being a priest.  But for you it may be singing in a choir, or leading a worship service at an assisted living facility, or cooking for people who are hungry, or to build community, or whatever else.

But maybe a step back from that is thinking about what our gifts are.  We all have different gifts – different areas where we excel and areas where we don’t.  If you’re not gifted with playing a musical instrument, you probably shouldn’t volunteer to provide music for meditation in worship.  If you have a particular gift for administrative tasks and functions, there may be ways that your gifts can be used to help other people reach their own best potentials.

In the lead-up to Diocesan Convention, all of us who were there were asked to go online and fill out a “Spiritual Gifts Assessment”.  Now – things like that can sometimes be hokey, or unhelpful, but this was pretty straightforward and matter-of-fact.  I found value in it.  And the idea was that with a clear, simple assessment of our particular gifts, we would be better equipped to be stewards of the gifts God has given us.

To put it simply – if you’re salt, maybe we shouldn’t try to use you to light the room.  If you’re light, you can help us see the food, but you can’t make it taste better.  We all have value, but that value needs to be focused to its greatest potential.

Of course, there is a danger in this line of thinking.  If we take it too far, it can sound like a free-for-all, “you do you” kind of objective.  But I don’t think that’s really the point.  The point is that we should be our most authentic selves as God made us to be – not that whomever we are and whatever we do is all good, no questions asked.  There are times when our actions help to define us, but there are also times when our behaviors deny our most authentic selves.  We’re all guilty from time to time.  We get frustrated.  We become impatient with one another.  We fail to stand up in the face of injustice.  We leave well enough alone, when it is not, in fact, well enough.

There’s a book that I often quote – I may have quoted it here before, and I certainly will again.  It’s called Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin.  It’s the story of the daughter of an Episcopal priest, and her quest of finding herself while growing up with a chronically depressed parent.  At one point in the book she’s trying, rather clumsily, to flirt with a young priest that her father is mentoring, and she wants to appear smart, and introspective, so she asks the young man about his thoughts on sin.  The young priest defines sin to her as “a falling short of the harmony of your totality” – his idea is that sin isn’t about breaking some rule, but it is about falling out of relationship with God, it’s about being other than the best version of yourself that God imagined when creating you.

I think that’s what it means to be like salt and light.  But it’s not something that comes easily or automatically.  We can’t just follow the rules and suddenly be in compliance with this code.  We have to work for that, and very often the world seems to be conspiring to pull us out of that “harmony of our totality”.  But we have to keep working.  And that work is the work of discernment.  Of coming to know ourselves more completely, and of knowing and owning our relationship with God.  It doesn’t happen overnight, and there’s no quick and easy method for achieving this kind of self-knowledge.  But the first step is wanting to.  And asking God to help you be your best self.  And then reflecting each day on how your actions have helped or impeded your best self from coming forward.

Too often people think they’re either not good enough for the church, or that the people of the church think they’re not good enough.  But the thing is, we are good enough for God.  God made us as we are and wanted us to contribute in our own distinct ways to God’s dream for this world.  God isn’t trying to turn salt into light or light into law, or anything else.  The goal isn’t to become something you’re not, but to be the beautiful, authentic creature that God first envisioned when you were knit together in your mother’s womb.

It’s not easy, but it’s also not as hard as we tend to make it.  The materials are already there.  God has given us everything we need – and very often, what we need is each other.  We all have gifts.  We all are gifts.  Together we are the stuff of God’s own dreams.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.