SCRIPTURE LESSON: Ephesians 4: 1-13

We Serve the Church in Life-giving Ways and as the Spirit Leads

This morning our focus is on the fifth of six promises we make when we covenant as members of Community Spirit: to serve the church in life-giving ways and as the Spirit leads.

Maybe this promise seems painfully obvious; after all, serving others is central to Christian discipleship.

What isn’t always obvious is that whatever form our service might take—whether it’s organizing a food drive, being our tech deacon for Zoom worship, whether it’s working with UVA on the Kiddos Caucus, or anything else—these efforts are meant to feed our souls while also revealing the Spirit’s leading in our lives.

I once belonged to a church that did not understand what we at Community Spirit have known from day one. At that church the message the congregation heard was not “do what genuinely gives you joy.” Not “let the Spirit draw you into service.”

At the church that didn’t know better the unspoken, consistent message was “We need warm bodies.” That was it.

To get a call from that church’s Nominating Committee in the fall was agony because, well, the caller just needed someone, anyone, for this committee or that. Not your gifts. Not your inclinations. Not your hopes or dreams or potential. Just someone—anyone—to round out the roster.

Same on a church work day. What mattered was not whether this pursuit sparked any joy or opened onto a sense of satisfaction. What mattered was that there were pews to polish and weeds to pull. What also mattered was whether the Chair of the Building and Grounds Committee was happy with the turn out.

Nothing kills joy faster than a sense of obligation. “If you won’t, then who will” is a dangerous question, the antithesis of the life to which Christ calls us. It’s a quiet heresy too because it worships at the altar of scarcity when the reality is that God’s world overflows with abundance, and that abundance spills over into our lives in service of all kinds.

The fifth of six covenantal promises we make at Pentecost each year is to serve in life-giving ways and as the Spirit leads.

The implication, the expectation even, is that we will ask ourselves not only what needs doing but, diving more deeply, we will seek the Spirit’s counsel, its wisdom, its dream for each of us. And as a consequence, our service—whatever it may be—will open onto meaning, purpose, and joy.

With attention to the Spirit and to what pursuits give us life, ours is a more faithful way to proceed but it’s not without its risks. It’s a risk to create a church culture where our service is tied to feeling a sense of call and upon finding joy in what we’ve taken on.

At root, it means we want each other to be honest and forthcoming. That we want our “yeses” to genuinely mean “yes” just as we want our “nos” and “not nows” to be received with grace.

Being honest and forthcoming may mean some of what we hope to accomplish goes undone because the Spirit just isn’t there.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because sometimes churches need to rethink and retool instead of doubling down on getting volunteers for certain efforts. Sometimes we need to say to ourselves “Hey, no one feels truly called to this. Maybe something new is trying to happen. Maybe it’s time to explore other possibilities.”

A small church was having a hard time finding Sunday school teachers because no one wanted to miss out on worship.

Instead of forcing the issue, instead of twisting arms and making folks feel guilty because they genuinely weren’t interested in giving up worship for a semester or two at a time, the church wisely entered into deeper, more honest conversation, as well as sustained prayer and discernment.

Out of this season of faithful listening came a new approach. Instead of taking kids out of worship on Sunday morning for their classes, the church made worship wildly intergenerational and offered faith-related programming for children and youth midweek after school.

Because these changes were Spirit-informed, they brought new life and vitality to a congregation that had been limping along with something that had ceased to generate much joy.

But in order for this to happen, people had to be honest. And they had to be willing to let one framework go so that they could embrace a new one.

So, embedded in our fifth covenantal promise is an invitation to a kind of honesty that helps us hone in on how we can be the church together in life-giving, Spirit-led ways. It keeps at bay the well-intentioned but nasty habit of asking people to serve in ways that genuinely aren’t for them.

Our covenantal promise also opens the door to something else—giving permission to members and friends of the church to step forward to take on something they may have never attempted before. Not all gifts we want to give come fully wrapped or highly developed.

One of the most beautiful moments in my ministry was when ten-year old Amanda Forbes came up to me after worship one morning, pointed to the front of the church, and said “I want to lead worship some Sunday. Can I?” There was so much to love about her question. “Of course,” I said, “Let’s make this happen.”
But here’s the thing. Amanda was petite and the pulpit was massive.

In order for Amanda to give her budding gift, someone needed to build a wooden box to set behind the pulpit so we could all see and hear her. Someone did. And before her Sunday as our liturgist came, someone had to spend time coaching Amanda on the finer points of worship leadership. Which someone did.

Amanda rocked the house the first time she led worship. And then again and again and again. Amanda was born for this role and I can only say thank you, Jesus, for giving her the confidence to tell us how she wanted to serve us. And thank you, Jesus, for calling others into service so that Amanda could serve.

It’s easy to be charmed by a story of a fourth-grader who bravely steps up to serve. What we may be slow to realize is that we are all Amanda, even if we have carried AARP membership cards in our wallets for years.

We are, each of us and all of us, on a journey to discover our gifts and to grow into ourselves.

Which means that even as experienced as you may be in doing this, that, and another thing, as natural as it may be for you to serve the church based on strengths and interests you honed years ago, there are still gifts and talents waiting to emerge, ones God has placed within you to stumble upon and share.

When I was a parishioner many years ago, a new choir member happened along. A passable singer, she asked the choir director if he would meet privately with her for singing lessons and he agreed. Halfway through her first session, the choir director asked her to try something and when she did, out flew the voice of an angel. What an unexpected discovery.

Not everyone hits a vein of gold like that on the first try but when the church is doing what it does best—which is loving each other, supporting each other, trusting each other—then we create a climate where it’s safe enough for us to take risks doing what we’re not quite sure about.

One last thought about our covenant around service. It’s important that we recognize that not everyone comes to church wanting to give the gifts they use in their day jobs or have developed over the course of a career.

Just because you were an educator doesn’t mean you want to teach a confirmation class or lead a book study. Just because you made a living as an accountant doesn’t mean that keeping the church books will ring your bell.

Remember: Jesus didn’t ask fishermen to continue being fishermen so they could feed the other disciples. He didn’t ask Matthew the tax collector to adapt his professional skill set to serve the needs of Jesus’ burgeoning ministry.

No, Jesus had a knack for calling forth new gifts, new inclinations, even new identities from those around him. And in doing this, he invites us to be together in ways that increase the likelihood that we will discover God-given capacities that bless us and others when we dare to trust them.

The Spirit moves where it will, scripture reminds us. Including and especially in our own lives. There’s no telling, no telling, where it might be leading each of us to serve.

The way we know it’s the Spirit is that even if we’re feeling shy or uncertain about trying something, we notice a bubble of joy forming or feel a happy little tug inside or notice a little flame starting to glow. And we step forward in faith. Or perhaps, a friend in the church or a pastor says to us “give this a try and see what you think.”

The kind of service to which we are covenanting on Pentecost Sunday is summed up this way by the Christian writer Frederick Buechner.

He says “Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world deep hunger meet.”

And here, in this community of love, is where you will find all the permission and support you need to land upon and root yourself in that important, even life-changing intersection of deep gladness and the world’s deep need.

Let us pray:

You, O God, know us better than we know ourselves. Show us—and keep showing us—the service to which we are each uniquely called. Let joy and the Spirit both guide us, now and always. Amen.