Romans 12:1-8
1I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. 2Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.

3For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. 4For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, 5so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. 6We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; 7ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; 8the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.

Today we’ll be talking about the spiritual gift of exhortation. To exhort simply means to encourage. Now, I am fortunate to be the pastor of a congregation full of great encouragers. But not all pastors are so lucky.

A young minister had just finished preaching his heart out one Sunday. In the line of people greeting him after the service, a little old lady stopped him and said, “Pastor, that sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!” The pastor was ecstatic. “Wow! No one has ever said anything like that about one of my sermons before! Tell me, how did it remind you of the peace and love of God?” “Well”, said the woman, “it reminded me of the peace of God because it passed all human understanding and it reminded me of the love of God because it endured forever!”

Last week we talked about the spiritual gift of teaching, and I shared with you how, as a former high school teacher, that particular gift is near and dear to my heart. Last week’s sermon on teaching was, for me, an easy sermon, an enjoyable subject to talk about.

So it figures that this week we come to exhortation, or encouragement. I’ve spent the past seven days sweating it out, racking my brains for any shred of what I might possibly share with you about this one. As a pastor, it is certainly part of my job to encourage people, but (and I hope this is a shock and surprise to you!) being encouraging is something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I have to work hard at it.

Growing up, my father was a computer programmer. A big part of his job was analyzing software to find glitches and problems. He was pretty good at doing that with kids, too. My mother was an officer in the United Sates Army. She was tough: She was “Major Mom,” literally. So my brothers, my sister and I, we were well programmed and well disciplined. Now, please don’t misunderstand me—there was plenty of affection in our family; we loved our parents and we knew they loved us. But words of encouragement just weren’t exactly my family’s strong suit. When we wanted to encourage each other we’d say things like: Suck it up. Keep your chin up. Life isn’t fair. Suffering builds character. Build a bridge and get over it. Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger. Or my personal favorite…If you don’t stop crying, I’ll give you a reason to cry!

Perhaps because of my stoic upbringing, I am fascinated and amazed by people like my wife, Amy, who is a constant encourager. You can tell the difference in our personalities by how we approach Facebook: I’m a selfish Facebooker. I post things to facebook, broadcasting my thoughts, my opinions, my pictures, my location to the entire world, but I rarely ever read anyone else’s Facebook updates. By the way, I’m sorry I missed your birthday on Facebook. Amy, on the other hand, rarely ever posts anything to Facebook, but she reads everyone else’s updates, and likes them, and comments on them, and tells me, “Hey, you need to call so and so, he’s having a rough week.” When I told her I was struggling with what to say this week, she gave me a hug and told me, “I know you’ll think of something amazing to say.” Encouragement is second nature to Amy.

So this is the hard part about Paul’s teaching on Spiritual Gifts: If—as is commonly, and incorrectly taught—Spiritual gifts were innate abilities, secret superpowers that God gives to some people and not others, then whenever one of you came to me as your pastor, pouring out your deepest fears and struggles in life, I could just look you in the eye and say…stop it! Put on your big boy britches and get back out there. Build a bridge. Oh, and don’t forget to attend my Bible Study next week, because I’m a really good teacher. But encouragement? Sorry, not my gift. Talk to my wife.

I don’t think I’d last very long as a pastor with that kind of mentality. And I don’t think we’d last very long as a congregation if we only gave the spiritual gifts we felt innately qualified to give.

I think part of the reason Paul’s teaching on Spiritual Gifts has been so misunderstood is because of the analogy he uses in Romans 12, the image of one body with many parts. Like all analogies in the Bible and elsewhere, it can be helpful up to a point, but you can also take the analogy too far.

Paul says, “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” and then he goes on to list the gifts. We read this list, we find one we like, or that we think fits our personality, and we say “I’m the foot. My function is to walk. When the church needs to go somewhere, call on me. But when the church needs to listen, or speak, don’t call me. That’s the ear’s job, that’s the mouth’s job.

Reading the passage this way warps the analogy into something overly individualistic. First of all, a foot doesn’t think to itself, or talk to itself, or compare itself to any other body part, or even realize that it’s a foot. The body acts as one unit, and the principle teaching that Paul wants to get at here is that we, the church, are one unit. The “parts” that Paul is speaking of are not the individual people who make up one body, but rather the various gifts and ministries that make up the body. So when we want to go somewhere, we don’t say “Ok, now who is a foot?” but rather, “what is the gift that will get us where we need to go, and who among us is willing to seize the opportunity and give that gift?” If two people respond, we’re grateful, but it may take us awhile to get there. If everyone responds to the need, to the opportunity…then we’ll get there a lot faster.

So who gives the gift of encouragement? We all do. When do we give this gift? Whenever there is a need, whenever there is an opportunity. And for this gift, there’s almost always an opportunity. I’d like to spend the rest of my sermon answering the question of “why” we should give the gift of encouragement.

The biblical answer is because it’s what Jesus did. His greatest and best known words, the Sermon on the Mount, were at the core, words of encouragement:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are you who who mourn, for you will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for you will inherit the earth. Blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for you will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for you will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for you will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for you will be called children of God. Blessed are you who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for yours is the kingdom of heaven.”

In our passage today from Romans, the word “exhort” or “encourage” is the Greek word παρακαλέω. It literally means “to call alongside,” and that is a good description of what Jesus did: He called out to people and walked alongside of them, sharing their burdens and lifting their eyes to heaven. In fact, when he was about to leave his disciples, he promised that he would send to them the Holy Spirit. The Greek word Jesus used to describe the Holy Spirit? παράκλητος (the encourager). The last and greatest gift Jesus gave was the gift of encouragement.

I’d like to share three stories, that I hope will demonstrate that words of encouragement aren’t just about making people feel better—they’re actually about transforming lives.

Many of you know that my favorite book of the Bible is the book of Job. It was the subject of my senior thesis at seminary, and I devoted about three of my four years at seminary to studying it in depth. I’ve written many papers, sermons, and songs about this book, but it wasn’t always my favorite. In fact, I was a nervous wreck when I turned in my very first paper on Job, in a class my second year in seminary. Somewhere in the midst of writing this paper, I had pretty much decided I was done forever with this difficult, complicated book.

To make matters worse, the professor of the class had a reputation for being one of the toughest teachers at Princeton seminary, and he often complained in class about grade inflation, which he felt it was his personal mission to combat. Some of you may also remember the story of my first day of Hebrew class, and the professor who embarassed me by announcing to the entire class that my first name, Ira, was the Hebrew word for “Ass.” This was the same professor. Not my favorite person. I needed the class to graduate, or else I wouldn’t have touched it with a ten foot pole.

I have kept the note that this professor attached to that first paper when he returned it, and I still read it often: He wrote, “Neal (notice he didn’t call me Ira!), I love the way you research and think and write. This is the rare student paper from which I have also learned, and I spent more time on it than I could spare. A mark of your success, too, is that I find myself wanting to follow up on a number of your ideas—especially those you laid out as areas for further research.”

I got an “A” on the paper, but the grade meant next to nothing. His words of encouragement, on the other hand, meant the world. Obviously. They completely transformed my perspective on Job, on my professor, and my seminary experience. Dr. Seow, as it turned out, was a phenomenal teacher—but I’m not sure I would have experienced much of his teaching if I hadn’t experienced to those words of encouragement. Teaching targets the head, but encouragement targets the heart.

Second story: Martin Luther King, Jr., early in his career survived an assasination attempt, when a deranged woman stabbed him in the chest at a book signing. The knife wound came within a fraction of an inch from piercing his heart, and for awhile his doctors didn’t know if he would make it. He tells the story this way:

“They allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states, and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what the letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply, “Dear Dr. King: I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.” She said, “While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I am a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I am writing you simply to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

Final story: This story appeared in Guideposts Magazine, January 1985.

Mary Ann Bird grew up knowing she was different, and she hated it. She was born with a cleft palate, a misshapen lip, crooked nose, lopsided teeth and garbled speech. Other students would avoid her, give her strange looks, or openly make fun of her appearance. Throughout her childhood, she was convinced that no one outside her family could love her.

Then she entered Mrs. Leonard’s second-grade class. Mrs. Leonard was round and pretty and fragrant, with shining brown hair and warm, dark, smiling eyes. Everyone adored her. But no one came to love her more than Mary. And for a special reason.

The time came for the school’s annual hearing tests. Mary could barely hear out of one ear and was not about to reveal something else that would single her out as different, so she cheated. The “whisper test” required each child to go to the classroom door, turn sideways, close one ear with a finger, while the teacher whispered something from her desk, which the child repeated. Nobody checked how tightly the untested ear was covered so Mary merely pretended to block hers. All through the testing she wondered what Mrs. Leonard might say to her. She knew from previous years that the teacher whispered things like “The sky is blue” or “Do you have new shoes?”

But when Mary’s time came, and Mary covered her good ear just enough to be able to hear, she heard seven words that would change her life forever, words that she believed God had surely put into the mouth of this beloved teacher. Mrs. Leonard whispered to Mary, “I wish you were my little girl.”

First Presbyterian Church, may your words encourage each other, may your words lift up hearts and transform lives, and in giving the gift of encouragement, may you bless the world.