Saturday, May 9, 2015

What Do Penguins Have to Do With It? (Sermon)

“Once upon a time a colony of penguins was living in the frozen Antarctic on an iceberg near what we call today Cape Washington. The iceberg had been there for many, many years.  It was surrounded by a sea rich in food. On its surface were huge walls of eternal snow that gave penguins shelter from dreadful winter storms.  As far back as any of the penguins remembered, they had always lived on that iceberg.  ‘This is our home,’ they would tell you . . .  ‘and this will always be our home.’”[1]
I’ve just read to you the opening words of a book entitled Our Iceberg is Melting!  This is a little book to which I was introduced at a ministry conference last fall, and it’s a book that our session read this past spring.  You may have heard some folks referring to “the penguin book” – this is the book we’re talking about.  You may even see some pictures of penguins floating around – because of this book.
Our Iceberg is Melting! is a charming and humorous little fable about a group pf penguins who live on an iceberg which, as a particularly curious penguin named Fred discovers in his wanderings one day, is in danger of breaking apart.  Fred returns to the penguin colony with this bad news, and the penguins launch an effort to figure out what to do next.
Penguins trying to figure out what to do about their melting iceberg bear some surprising similarities to Presbyterians trying to figure out how to transform their congregational life.    Some of the penguins are curious and adventurous, and want to get as much information as they can about new possibilities.  Others are in denial, and insist that the iceberg has always been their home and that they can never change their home.  One penguin in particular is named No-No, because his response to every new idea is, “No no, we can’t do that!” Eventually, the penguins decide to send out some scout penguins, to look around the ocean for other iceberg homes.  And they also get to work on developing new ideas for how they might live in the future.
The penguin book was actually written by a couple of business professors, who wanted to explain, in an easy-to-understand and quite delightful story, how it is that a community faced with a crisis goes about creating deep change. Sound like any community you know?  Sound like any process you knw? In fact, the leadership of this congregation has made great use of the book as we have worked out a framework and structure for meeting our own iceberg challenges.  
I think that perhaps my personal favorite chapter in the book, and the chapter which happens to connect with our epistle reading today, is the chapter in which the teacher of the kindergarten penguin children expresses her dismay about the proposed changes, and then undergoes a compete transformation herself.
As the process the penguins are going to explore begins to unfold, the kindergarten teacher weeps.  “’With all the change,’ she says, ‘the colony may not need a kindergarten. It, it. . . may not need a teacher who is a bit too old to adapt.’”
But the penguin in whom she confides, a friend named Buddy, responds, “No.  The little birds will need to learn even more in a world that will be ever changing.  A kindergarten teacher will be even more important.”
I wonder if some of you might feel much like the kindergarten teacher.  When things change, sometimes they seem to move so fast that perhaps you think, “I am too old to adapt, and perhaps the matters to which I’ve given my time aren’t important to anyone anymore.”
But Buddy is right.  When things change, your gifts and skills are needed more than ever.  Your wisdom, your years of experience on this earth and in the church, are essential to the success of a new future.
Our Scripture passage from Corinthians today reminds us of the value of our many and varying gifts.  The people of Corinth, to whom Paul was writing nearly 2,000 years ago, were something of a cantankerous lot.  Corinth was a busy port city on Greece, a place through which all sorts of people passed and in which all kinds of folks worked, people with all sorts of religious beliefs.  The fledgling church in Corinth was itself a struggling, divided congregation, and Paul’s letters reflect his efforts to counsel them on their many quarrels.
One of debates in Corinth had to do with spiritual gifts.  What are the gifts of the Spirit – these gifts of wisdom, of knowledge, of faith, of healing, of miracles, of prophecy, even of speaking in tongues?  How should they be used, with both humility and effectiveness? How might we respect and encourage the gifts of each, rather than argue over who is going to do what, and how?  Moving from Corinth ro rhw present, what gifts are in evidence here at Boulevard?  And how are those gifts going to be ignited?
And, most importantly, where do these gifts come from?
Let’s start with that last question.
Our gifts come from God.  From God.  It’s important that we remember the source as we investigate how to use our gifts in the future.  Our own gifts did not just spring from thin air, nor are they  something we ourselves created. They come from God, which means that they are treasures given us to develop and hone for God’s purposes.  They are not gifts given to us just for ourselves and for own objectives; they are given to us for the world.
And how are these gifts ignited? Paul tells us clearly: They are activated by the Spirit.  It’s the Spirit of God who generates all of our ideas, all of our activity. 
Wesley White tells us that “[g]ifts are activated by a common good (a holy spirit moment) that senses a turning tide and shifts gears to a next gift, already present, even as we momentarily shift away from a previous gift. This activation process . . . calls for a gift of humility to let go and humility to step forward.”[2]
All right – that was a lot of words. Let’s think about them for a minute.  Gifts are activated by a holy spirit moment – a moment in kairos time.  We’ve talked about that before – about how chronos time is chronological time, the time we measure by our watches, but kairos time is opportune time, special time, time in which something new is emerging.  And this time we’re in, this time of transition and transformation in our church life, is most assuredly kairos time. It’s a time not to be squandered, it’s a special God-time in which gifts are activated for something new.
And, as Wesley White says, in kairos time, a turning time, we shift from previous to next gifts.  Or, at the very least, kairos time shifts the ways in which we use our gifts – if we respond to the “gift of humility to let go and humility to step forward.” 
As you can imagine, I’ve been thinking a lot about gifts this past week.  And here’s what I’ve concluded, at least at this point, about Boulevard Church gifts:
First,  you all have a great gift of hospitality. It’s evident in those who help in so many ways with worship – preparing and greeting and ushering and serving as liturgists and communion servers and Powerpoint operators coffee hour contributors and hosts.  It’s evident in our community meals and in Grandpa’s, both of them projects in which many of you participate in long hours of preparation and  then in greeting and serving our neighbors.  Hospitality.  A tremendous gift in this congregation.
But here’s a second conclusion I’ve reached: That your gift of hospitality has not even begun to be exercised to its fullest capabilities.  That your gift of hospitality has been awaiting this kairos time to be ignited and expanded by the movement of the Spirit.  That there is so much more potential here than has been unlocked at this point. 
I want to tell you a bit more about the penguin colony as an example.  Remember the kindergarten teacher and her tearful worries that she would be of no use in a new colony? Here’s a bit more from the penguin book:
“The penguin kindergarten teacher responded to the challenge set before her by developing a new curriculum.  She realized that the little penguins needed to learn how to help as their colony made big changes, and so “she gathered her young students together to tell them tales of heroic action to help others under difficult and challenging circumstances.  She found some great stories.  She told them with enthusiasm.  She explained that the colony would be needing heroes to deal with new challenges, and that anyone, including the youngest of them, could help.”  Imagine the enthusiasm of the little penguins, as they began to realize that they were called to be heroes, and to help the grown-up penguins be heroes as well!  Those little students became some of the most effective change agents in the colony!
What do you think of that?  That penguin was one very fine teacher, able to adapt to a new summons, a new call, with tremendous energy and creativity.  If the penguins had not realized that their iceberg was melting, she would have continued with the same old same old for the rest of her life, and never had the opportunity to renew and enlarge upon her considerable gifts.  But faced with the call to move forward in a kairos moment, she rose to the occasion, and brought the little penguins right along with her.
What about you?  Can you meet the challenges of the future like a penguin?  Can you respond to God’s call as the Corinthians did?
What might a new iceberg mean for us? Maybe we host weekly meals instead of monthly meals; maybe we open a food pantry.  Maybe Grandpa’s begins to run special days, such as a filled-backpack day for kids in August, or gift days for new parents.  Maybe we find a way to offer basic health screenings in a non-intimidating environment.  Maybe we welcome the Waterloo arts community to host an energetic day of creativity for all ages on our front lawn?  I promise you, we have not even begun!
We don’t know what the future holds, any more than either the penguins or the Corinthians did.  Perhaps we will start a new congregation in the Beachland building.  Perhaps we will do it here.  Perhaps we will do something altogether unknown at this point.  Whatever happens, there will be big changes, changes whose success depends on our response to the movement of the Spirit -- to the call of the wild, restless Spirit of possibility, that we use our gifts to bear fruit for the kingdom of God.
Do not squander this kairos time, my friends.  Do not fail to recognize the grace of God dancing in our midst.  There are gifts sparkling all over the place. Remember that you are people of the resurrected Christ and of the creative Spirit.  You are people gifted for God’s future!

[1] John Kotter and Helger Rathgeber, Our Iceberg Is Melting: Changing and Succeeding Under Any Conditions. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2005.

[2] Wesley White on the Lectionary., 2007.

Image: "Falkland Islands Penguins 41" by Ben Tubby - Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -


  1. I love the penguins! Thanks for posting.

  2. Robin this is so so so so so so so so wonderful. I love the humor and the gentle push to think about why/how change is so difficult and yet the gifts needed are there. Bravo!!!!


  3. Beautiful! And much needed where I sit....

  4. Here are to penguins and Presbyterians.