What are your gifts? What are you really good at doing? What comes easier to you than anything else? I’m not asking about your job. Your job and your gifts might coincide, but they don’t always. I’m asking, What makes your heart sing when you do it?
What are your gifts? How do you use them?
The people in the church at Corinth had gone gift-crazy. Paul had started the church several years before with people who were, for the most part on the margins of Roman society. Completely out of the power structures in their civic lives, they had created another power structure in their church life, a power structure based on gifts.
In this spiritual hierarchy, certain gifts were valued more highly than others. Take, for example, speaking in tongues. The tongues speakers were at the top of the heap. After all, they had been given God’s secret language. * Which is okay, if that’s your spiritual gift. Trouble was, when people spoke in tongues during worship, it had become a show. They didn’t do it to help others worship God; they did it to draw attention to themselves. The same was true with other gifts. The Corinthians had chosen to use their gifts to build up themselves rather than to build up the community….
…which was taking a toll on the community. There was conflict, dissension, tension… people were dividing themselves into cliques and camps. “I’m in Paul’s group.” “I’m in Peter’s group.” “I’m in Christ’s group.” Instead of the community being a means of sharing God’s love with others, it had become a place of showmanship and distrust and humongous egos.
Boy. I wish these ancient texts related more readily to contemporary life, don’t you?
Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity and, later, The Fuller Center, was a very gifted man. Those gifts are evident in Millard’s spiritual memoir, Beyond the American Dream. One night while reading the book, Allen said, “Millard Fuller could sell anything to anyone!” Someone else put it a bit more colorfully. “Millard could talk a bulldog off a meat truck.” Cypress knees, mistletoe, chinaberries dipped in silver paint… You name it; Millard could sell it. He had a gift for business. When Millard and law and business partner, Morris Dees, set up business in Montgomery, they went from renting one three room office suite, to owning several buildings in the matter of three years or so. They went from 1 employee to 150 in the same time frame.
After a while, their business endeavors—which now included selling Christmas wreaths, college phone directories, a university birthday cake service, cookbooks, and tractor seat cushions— were much more lucrative than their law practice. They gave up law to devote their full attention to the business….which paid off. (Literally!) The Fuller and Dees Company soon was worth one million dollars.
If anyone ever had the God-given gift of salesmanship and business-making, Millard Fuller had it. And in the beginning, when he was in law school, he had committed that gift to God. As he contemplated making his first million, Millard said to himself: “Look, you’ve wanted to make money all your life, but you are also involved with the church, so you’ve got to work these things together. You’re not going to be the stereotyped greedy rich man. You’re going to be humble and sincere and generous. You’re not going to crowd God out of your life in the process of building a business and making money.” (p. 86) True to his promise, Millard was active in church life. He used his many God-given gifts to help start and grow a UCC congregation in Montgomery. The church thrived and Millard made significant contributions to that thriving.
But his heart wasn’t in it. Despite the gifts he gave to the community, Millard’s number one purpose in life was making money. By the time he made his first million, Millard had become the “stereotyped rich man.” He was gifted almost beyond imagining…but he’d used his gifts to draw attention to himself. He’d used his gifts to build up, not the reign of God, but the person of Millard Fuller. Once he’d made three million dollars, Millard’s life collapsed.
After years of neglecting his family, his wife, Linda, left him. She flew to New York to meet with a UCC pastor friend of theirs and try to decide if there was any hope for their marriage. Ever the salesman, Millard hopped a plane to New York and eventually convinced Linda (and himself) that he was ready to change his ways and recommit himself to his marriage, to his family, and to God.
After a trip to Florida with Linda and the kids, the family stopped by Koinonia Farm in south Georgia on their way home to Montgomery. Koinonia was—and is—an integrated Christian community that seeks to live the principles of peace and justice. A friend of Millard and Linda’s lived at Koinonia and they stopped to see him.
What they’d planned on being a two hour visit stretched into a month. Millard had become clear that he’d been using his gifts for business in the wrong way…and doing so had cost him dearly in terms of his relationships and his faith. From Clarence Jordan and the partners at Koinonia, Millard learned how he might direct his energy into more life-giving and kin-dom of God building ways.
I love conversion stories….Stories about people who were going down the wrong path finally—sometimes suddenly– coming to see the light and beginning to live their lives in more faithful, generous, and life-giving ways.
Like the Apostle Paul in the Bible… there he was, a self-professed “Jew of the Jews,” persecuting Christians, hauling them off to Jerusalem for imprisonment and worse. Then he sees a bright light on the road to Damascus, hears Jesus speak to him, and his life changes forever. Paul becomes the best known of all Christian teachers and prophets. He undertakes several missionary journeys and starts churches all over the Roman Empire. The fact that the Christian church exists today is a tribute to the work of Paul. See what I mean? Who doesn’t love a great conversion story?
With Millard’s story and with Paul’s, though, as fascinating as the actual conversion is, what’s almost as striking is what doesn’t change for them. If you read Paul’s letters—like much of this letter to the Corinthians—he’s just as grumpy and brash as he was when he was persecuting Christians. Paul’s personality and gifts for organizing and implementing grassroots movements didn’t change much at all after his conversion. Once he “saw the light,” he simply began using those gifts for a different purpose.
That’s also what happened to Millard. Millard’s gifts for business didn’t change one iota after his conversion….he simply began using those gifts for a different purpose. That’s how he started Habitat for Humanity and, later, The Fuller Center. Before his “conversion,” Millard had used his spiritual gifts for himself. After his conversion, Millard had used those same exact gifts, for (more literally than for most of us) building up the kin-dom of God. Before his conversion, Millard had hoarded God’s gifts of grace to him. After his conversion, Millard responded to God’s gifts of grace by sharing it with others.
God has given us so many gifts—wonderful gifts, extravagant gifts, uncommon gifts. Oh, how good, and fun, and right to use those gifts to make our way in the world. In fact, God gives us those gifts as the means of making our way in the world.
But God also gives us those gifts for another purpose, a purpose Paul summarizes well in I Corinthians 12:7. It’s printed in your bulletin under the sermon title. I invite you to read it with me: “To each has been given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good.”
Why has each of us been given gifts by God? For the common good. That’s what Millard had been missing until his conversion experience. He’d been given beaucoup spiritual gifts by God. He had received God’s grace but had hoarded it. He used his gifts for his own glory, not God’s. It was only when Millard began using those gifts for the common good that things began making sense for him. It was only when he began sharing God’s many blessings with others that the full impact of the gift of God’s grace resonated through his whole body and spirit and life. And just look at how the world changed for the better!
What are your spiritual gifts? What are you building up with them? How might using your gifts help you contribute to the common good? How might using those gifts change the world for the better? How might you help build the kin-dom of God?
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013