(A sermon [!] preached on August 14th 2016.)
I Corinthians 12: 4-11 4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
We begin asking our children at an early age “What do you want to be when you grow up?” They often say what they know best or see on TV: Firefighters, superhero, teacher.
Both firefighters and teachers are, certainly, superheroes, amen?
(As an important aside: We are praying for you teachers as the school year begins. You are nurturers of human souls, encouragers, social workers, disciplinarians, nutritionists, sometimes-parole officers, surrogate parents, fans, cheerleaders, constructive critics, co-adventurers. And, not incidentally, you teach. We thank you!)
“What are you going to be when you grow up?”
As kids move towards high school, we are more serious about the question. By this time, we are matching report cards with vocational possibilities. “You’re good in science, maybe you want to be a doctor.” Or, “You’re good in math, perhaps engineering is for you.” Or, “You are a super cool person, groovy in every way, perhaps you should consider becoming a Presbyterian pastor!”
Teenagers feel a certain amount of pressure to begin narrowing their vocational options down at this point. In some cultures, the pressures at this age are enormous.
David Elkind, a brilliant child psychologist and professor at Tufts University, wrote The Hurried Child: Growing Up Too Fast and Too Soon, and, All Grown Up and No Place to Go. Both noted how society tends, often with the best intentions, to rob children of their childhood and innocence by pushing them to excel and beat out their peers for the best colleges. To hurry a child, he would say, runs the dire risk of “crippling” that child.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s not always such a fun question. It sometimes comes with some painful implications. What do you mean you don’t want to take over the family farm? What do you mean you don’t want to be a mom?
The standard questions for college students are: What’s your name? Where’re you from? And, What’s your major—which is a way of asking: What do you want to be when you grow up? Given that each school day in college (including Saturdays and Sundays) costs about $350, the pressure can be enormous to “figure it out.”
What do you want to be when you grow up?
But the question doesn’t stop in high school or college. For some there’s years of graduate school to keep trying to figure it out. For others of us, “life” calls or “duty” calls and we end up in a life that we had little freedom to choose. The war came. The baby was born. Dad died and the eldest daughter had to go to work to support his mom and siblings.
As people approach retirement age and the newer chapters that open up in older years, I’ve heard their friends kindly ask, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” I know a guy who gave away all of his neckties. Another friend stopped wearing socks, which for him represented a kind of new-found freedom from convention.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
For some of us some of the time that question mocks us; we’ve not had the luxury to ask and explore this question. Life’s circumstances have prevented us (we think) from being free enough to explore it. We can only dream about it. But dream we must. I think this question is a theologically important question, and I think we should ask a version of it often.
* * *
Paul’s discussion of “spiritual gifts” provides the proper framework for the question. These verses from his letter to the church at Corinth suggest a lot of other good questions: First, a good thing to do is turn the question around a little bit, from “What do I want to do/be when I grow up” to “What does God want me to do/be when I grow up?” Second, how has God blessed me? What am I good at? Some of us are good with our hands. Some can make music. Others are great listeners. Some have compassionate hearts; when I think of big hearts, I think of the late Peggy Lawton, a beloved saint who used to be a member of St. Giles. A third question, related to the second question, is: What do I like to do? What would I enjoy being? A firefighter, a superhero, and teacher? Fourth, What does the world need from me? How are my gifts, my passion, my energy, my heart needed? Not only “How can I do good in the world,” but “What good is needed right now from me?”
I think what Paul is getting at is a deeper question: “What has God called and equipped me to do in the world?” This is a question about of our vocation and purpose, and it suddenly becomes about so much more than merely our job. Paul’s job, after all, was a leather worker/tent maker. His vocation/purpose/call, however, was spreading the story of God’s love in Jesus Christ.
Paul’s broad answer to this bigger question—“What has God called and equipped me to do in the world?”—is that we are called and equipped by God to serve the common good. God gives everybody spiritual gifts, and “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”
It’s good news to believe that God has given us good gifts.
And it’s a high calling to use our gifts for the common good. It’s a high calling to know that God has given me gifts to share with the world to make the world better, to serve my brothers and sisters.
These God-given gifts are sacred. And we are called to use this gifts to the fullest of our potential. Martin Luther King, Jr., put it this way:
“If it falls to your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music … sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the host of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
What do I want to be when I grow up?
I want to use my God-given gifts to make our community stronger and more compassionate. I want to make God happy by connecting with human suffering and need and using my gifts to alleviate human need and to heal human suffering. I want to build up God’s people, not tear them down. I want to be a giver, not a taker. I want to be a healer, a dreamer, a partner with God who loves and serves everybody.
Giving thanks that God has wonderfully made me and generously and creatively blessed me with gifts to share for the common good, I pray that God will give me the courage to show up and use those gifts to God’s delight and glory.
Let me close with this poem from Carrie Newcomer called “Showing Up.”
And utterly unique.
There are gifts you were born to give.
Songs you were born to sing
Stories you were born to tell.
And if you do not give it,
The world will simply lose it.
It is yours alone to offer,
No one can give it for you.
Listen, because this is important,
This wounded world
Needs all the songs we can pull from the air,
Every story that helps us to remember.
It needs every single gift,
Large and small.
This grateful world does rejoice
Every courageous time
We are true to ourselves and to our gifts.
And so it is,
We embrace the song
And the story
And all our gifts
Because the world has such great need
And because the world exceedingly rejoices
And because there is no sadder thing
Than to leave this world
Having never really shown up.
* * *
God has equipped us with all sorts of gifts. God has given us all sorts of abilities. So, when we ask ourselves What do I want to be when I grow up? maybe the best answer is, ME.
I want to be me.
 In 1984, Professor Elkind wrote a second book about a slightly older teenage generation, All Grown Up and No Place to Go: Teenagers in Crisis. He found, that left largely on their own teens were turning to their friends and media for family ties and real education. In this new reality, without down time with mature mentors, teenagers were learning by imitation, rather than deliberate and slower integration, and that the result of this was an internal compartmentalization. They were becoming in Elkind’s words, “patchwork selves.”
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...