Gifted (1): Spirit-sent

Is it Pastor Louise?  Or AI?

There has been much discussion (both angsty and hopeful) about the increasing presence of AI in contemporary life. Business interests and law firms, educational institutions, writers, creatives and many others; yes, including preachers are exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of AI’s contributions to the workforce. Students can use ChatGPT to write term papers; they’ve already learned to override the AI-detecting programs universities have developed. At least one actor is suing for copyright infringement for a script she says AI used without authorization. A number of my clergy colleagues have used ChatGPT to write sermons and see if their congregations could tell the difference. Is this Pastor Louise? Or AI?

Well, these are important discussions. Artificial Intelligence can utilize all the information in the world, and can teach itself superhuman skills. It can spread lies and disinformation as readily and convincingly as it can master chess moves and spout philosophical arguments. The exponential growth of AI constitutes a revolution that is happening right now. I will tell you that I have not used AI to write a sermon (yet), mainly because I worry that the reaction might be something like “Wow, Louise, that’s the most articulate, thoughtful sermon I’ve ever heard you preach!” And that would be sad for me.

Our biblical forebears couldn’t have imagined the wonders and worries of artificial intelligence. Yet they thought deeply about human values and ethical practices. Today’s scripture text is a section from the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian congregations, and offers his understanding of human giftedness. Made in the image of God, every single person reflects Divine Love. But that wasn’t enough for the good folk of Corinth. They began to compete for specific expressions of Divinity and rank them in order of importance and worth. Here Paul calls them out, first by reminding them that they are all endowed with the Holy Spirit; and then by reminding them of the common purpose towards which diverse gifts are exercised. In all of it, is this transcendent truth that shapes human society even to this day: the Spirit of God present and at work in us. A reading from the first letter to the Corinthians in the twelfth chapter, reading verses 1 through 11. Listen for God’s Word to each of us in the fullness of our humanity—as we wonder what we’re good at, what we value, how we relate to one another, who we are.  [I Corinthians 12:1-11]

For many years, I repeated a mantra that I thought was very witty: the church would be perfect, except for the people. I usually said it with a rueful chuckle and an eyeroll. But in one of the discussions at Theology on Tap, a participant asked in all sincerity “Is perfection our goal?” And it hit me like a ton of bricks. There would be no church except for people, and people in our perfectly imperfect (or is it imperfectly perfect?), Divinely-created selves, a mixture of good and not-so-good, fabulous and flawed, bold in vision and petty in practice. People who are busy and preoccupied. Yet each of us with an individual and un-reproducible gene sequencing that makes us truly unique. (you know—unique—-just like everybody else)

Over the next few weeks, I invite us to consider our giftedness. Can you easily identify your own gifts?  Is there a difference between gifts we describe as “innate”—natural talent—and ones we’ve developed (perhaps through education, but also life experience, counseling, conscious intention)? How do you express your gifts in work and play, in relationships with others, in decision-making and future planning, within the faith community?

Our text names these “spiritual gifts” and names some of them that were apparently sources of conflict in the early church.  What gifts were better than others?  I’ll bet the elders valued tradition, dispensing wisdom distilled from years of experience, while the younger folk might have lobbied for the gift of prophecy—speaking truth to power, protesting for change.   And can you imagine how insufferable those who claimed the gift of “miracle-working” must have been?!

Let’s not conclude that this list begins to cover the water front—they are simply some of the ones the folk back then struggled with. But we’re not so different. We feel the pull between those who wish we could return to the “good old days” and those who hunger for innovation. We take pride in prudence, even as we risk investment. We love organ music and are inspired when one of our youth leads us in a contemporary song. We value learning and putting it into practice with heart and hand (as well as mind!). We can be deeply grateful for those organized folks who pay attention to details, take minutes and make reports, as well as those who burst with new ideas and enthusiasm. We rejoice in technology, particularly as it was put to service during the pandemic when we could not physically be together; yet we also sense its limits that prioritize convenience but can’t quite replace proximity and human connection. In one experiment, an AI platform was given the task of summarizing the entire New Testament. It did, in five seconds and 17 words [how’s that for a short sermon?!]  But who’s behind that sermon?  There’s nobody there—these are not sentient beings, nor do “they” have a soul.  [this example draws from CBS News 60 Minutes article from April 16, 2023]  What gifts do you possess? What gifts does the church need right now?  What gifts does the world need right now?

I have a feeling the answer to all those questions are similar.  It’s the Spirit of God that endows each of us with gifts—so many gifts and so many diverse expressions of those gifts. The fact is, the needs of the church and the world can be met by the gifts God has abundantly bestowed upon us. Paul reminds those beloved communities of old that it is the one God that activates the gifts and the expression of gifts in every person. And it is for a single purpose: for the common good.   What will help the community? What will heal our brokenness? What will move us beyond paralyzing fear? What will renew hope? What will connect us more deeply to Divine love?  What will reconcile us with one another? What will spark resurrection amid the dying of worn-out traditions?

Well, what about you and me? What about employing our God-given gifts, exercised through the power of the Spirit, for the common good?  The common good Central has envisioned as “the demonstration of God’s love to one another, our community, and the world.”

Today we’re going to take some moments to identify the giftedness of this beloved community. Short surveys are being distributed and I invite you to complete one right now by checking the questions that describe your perspective and/or practice. The survey also guides you to tally the check-marks to identify one or more gifts that you possess. Those of you watching on line can complete an online survey posted this week. I’m going to quit talking now and let us consider our personal gifts. [SILENCE FOR A TIME]

As you tallied your check marks, what were your thoughts? Were you surprised? Did the survey reflect what you already knew about yourself?  Or did something emerge that you hadn’t anticipated? My gaze embraces a very gifted congregation for whom I am thankful beyond words.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. So now I invite you to write your name in the space provided, fold the survey and put it in the offering plates when they are passed in a minute. In this way, we symbolically offer our unique gifts to be put to use for the common good.  But more about that next week. For now, let us give thanks for our giftedness.  Please place your hand on your heart and whisper “thanks.”  Now look up and around the sanctuary at all the gifted people in this space. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”

And thanks be to God!

Oh, and one more thing: The preceding was created with 100% human content.

spiritual_gifts_inventory+short CS