A few years back I coached baseball. Have you ever tried teaching baseball to elementary aged kids? It’s so hard. I absolutely love baseball, but it’s a complex game. Each fielding position has a different role, and that role shifts depending on how many runners are on base or how many outs there are. Batters must learn how to hit a small ball that is coming at them inaccurately thanks to kids still learning how to pitch. Players must learn how to catch a ball in the air, field it on the ground, transfer the ball to their throwing hand, and throw it accurately. Trying to do that in the span of a couple of months was impossible.
Some kids pick things up a lot faster than others. Some are just more athletic; others have watched enough baseball to get how things work. Certain positions are more coveted than others. Kids want to play shortstop, first base, or pitcher. They’re upset when they play right field, which over time has become one of my favorite positions to play, particularly because of the challenge of how the ball can slice off a right-handed batter’s hit that direction. It’s like fielding a giant curve ball.
As their coach, I had to determine the giftings and abilities of each player regarding which positions they might play. If I had just told them to go out and take the field in whatever position they felt like playing, it would be a mess. We’d have three pitchers, two first-basemen, and four shortstops. No one would be catcher. No one would be in the outfield. With that fielding arrangement, surely our team would quickly lose the game.
To play the game well, you honor the gifts and talents of all the players, placing them strategically in the field and batting order. If someone struggles with grounders, you probably don’t put them at third base, especially if they have a knack for catching fly balls. You know their gifts and encourage them to work together for the benefit of the whole by honoring that each player has a different skill set and ability.
This month we’ve been considering what hospitality means and how we can be a welcoming congregation. Two weeks ago, we focused on how the way we welcome reflects how God welcomes us. Last week Pastor Kristine spoke about the importance of seeing Christ in each and every person, particularly those we might overlook. Today is about knowing our own gifts of hospitality and encouraging others in their giftedness. Just like a baseball team would fail if every player lined up at first base, so too the church body that has a narrow view of hospitality misses out on how to be at our best when it comes to welcoming others. Scripture is clear that we all have individual gifts. Scripture is also clear that the diverse giftings need to work in concert with each other to be at their best.
The focus of our attention today is on some of the common issues we encounter when we speak about how individual gifts can function optimally in the whole group. I’ll present four issues today. These aren’t the only ones, but I think they are particularly crucial when it comes to the healthy functioning of the church, particularly when it comes to hospitality. The first issue is this: We doubt God has resourced us for the task. We don’t think we have gifts to play our role within the group, and so we put up walls that keep us from being a part of the ministry.
That’s part of the issue in our story from 1 Kings 17. This is an entire chapter about the prophet Elijah needing hospitality. Just prior to our reading, the Lord has sent Elijah into the wilderness, and the Lord plays host to Elijah, providing for his needs with water from a brook and ravens bringing him bread and meat. (Interestingly, I think God is tilling the ground in Elijah for his encounter with the widow in Zarephath. Ravens were unclean, yet God uses this unexpected vehicle to care for Elijah. God seems to do that a lot in the Bible – defy our assumptions and push us to a new understanding of openness.)
Jesus knows this story and gets himself in some hot water over it. In Luke 4, Jesus is speaking in his hometown synagogue when he points out that there were many widows in Israel, but God sent Elijah to a foreign widow. Jesus is always pushing on the limits of what we consider acceptable, isn’t he? So, Elijah goes to this widow, sees her gathering sticks, and asks her for some water and bread. She’s not in a good state at all. “I don’t have any bread,” she tells him. That is, she doesn’t have the resources to be hospitable to him. It’s so bad that she’s going home to take the little she has to prepare her own last supper. Three and a half years of drought have led to this. There’s nothing left. She and her son will eat the little they have, and then she expects them to quietly wither away until they die.
What she’s telling Elijah is that she doesn’t have the resources to welcome him. Yet, the story continues with God taking the little she has – flour and olive oil – and making it enough to supply her needs and to care for Elijah, her guest. The witness of Scripture is clear. God supplies what we need. God’s power is perfected in our weakness. So, when you doubt you have what you need to do what God is asking you to do, think again. Consider the abundance of our God and how God can and will work through your own limitations. We can trust that we are resourced because God works through our weakness.
So, we trust God gives us what we need, but that brings up the second issue. Sometimes we struggle to see our own strengths and wish we had gifts that others had. This is like the catcher wishing she could run fast enough to play centerfield, right? God gives us different gifts so that we might be a mutual blessing to each other. Think about it in the context of our story from 1 Kings. Elijah’s provisions have run out, so the Lord sends him to this widow. This widow’s hope has run short. She is ready to give up and die. Elijah brings faith in the Lord with him. He is doing what God has told him. The widow has her hospitality, some flour, and some oil. Together they become what they need so that they can make it through this tough time. So, don’t be jealous that someone has a gift you don’t. Look into your life and see how you can use what you have, even if it feels like not enough, so that you might be able to offer mutual blessing within the community. You are who you are because God made you and loves you that way. You have the gifts you have because God can use them in surprising ways. Don’t wish you were different or could be different. Perhaps you really are the catcher we need, when we already have a centerfielder who needs you to catch his throws to the plate.
A third issue is this: We wish others shared our gifting or passion. It is that impulse in all of us that led to my putting that witty G. K. Chesterton quote on the bulletin today. “Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump,” he writes, “you may be freeing him of being a camel.” A camel without the gift of his hump cannot do what a camel is supposed to do – travel long distances without needing water. In a similar manner, expecting that another shares your passion and gifts creates the situation where someone is not a good fit. It’s like forcing the left fielder to start pitching, when that player has never pitched before and doesn’t have a curveball, let alone a solid four-seam fastball.
I see this as one thing that is in play in the story of Jesus’ visit to Martha’s home. Martha has the gift of being an attentive host. She’s working our tail off making sure the olives are out, the baklava is fresh, and that the wine glasses remain full. Hosting is rewarding work, but it’s hard work. Mary has the gift of listening, and Jesus rewards her attentiveness by welcoming her to sit at his feet as her teacher. Mary is offering Jesus hospitality by listening well to him. Even Jesus has gifts for hospitality that he is using in this story. I think it’s safe to assume that Jesus does not teach every moment of every day. Surely, he had meals where he got to relax. Yet, he welcomes those gathered in Martha’s home to learn from him. This story has three people with distinct gifts in action. It is understandable that Martha wished others would jump in and help her out. Any of us who have served in the church before know the feeling of working hard while wondering why this or that person isn’t helping or didn’t sign up. It is helpful for us to know our gifts and to respect the gifts of others. The body functions at its best when each part plays its part well. Imagine if your mouth decided it no longer wanted to be the entry point for food to the body and demanded that the ears started doing so. Would that work? Absolutely not!
Of course, this brings me to the fourth issue at play in how individual gifts should work together. Martha really has a point about Mary. Perhaps Mary has a history of always sitting things out. So often in church, at home, in volunteer situations, or at work, we look at a need and assume our help isn’t need and that others will do it. Martha always gets the house clean, which allows Mary not to pitch in. It happens all the time in the church. There are countless opportunities to help out, but we pass on the responsibility to others, never using the gifts we have to serve each other. It’s unfair to expect people to serve in ways they have no sense of giftedness, but it’s also unfair to expect that others will handle everything for us. Sometimes the church can be like a baseball team that only has four players willing to take the field, while the others hang out on the bench together. Friends, that is not a winning formula!
God has gifted each of us uniquely. So, seek to know those gifts and know that they are enough for what God calls you to do. What is more, God has given us the gift of this community of faith. We get to do this ministry together, knitting our unique talents and personalities together into a tapestry of faithful obedience. When we are functioning optimally, we’ll find that there is mutual blessing in serving. We’ll find that God is making us into the kind of team that plays so well together that others want to join the team.
God has gifted us with so much. Let’s use our resources of time, abilities, and, yes, funding, so that we may be a blessing to each other and to this community.