Friday, 16 May 2008

A fine sermon. Preached May 11th at First Presbyterian Church, SRQ, by the Revd. Clay Thomas

The story of Pentecost narrates the birth of a new community. A community
where the Spirit is abundant and falls “on each of them.” A community where
each is heard in their native language. An important distinction from
everyone speaking the language of the dominant empire (Greek or English).
At Pentecost, diversity was preserved.

But our Corinthians reading tells of another kind of story. A new community
has emerged in Corinth, and the community has been blessed by the Spirit
with many gifts, but problems have arisen. In the chapter just previous,
ch.11, Paul chastises the Corinthians for violating the Lord’s Supper and
especially for being exclusive. In the chapter following today’s reading,
ch.13, Paul rails against those who would create false hierarchies based on
spiritual gifts. You might recall the bit about speaking in tongues being
nothing but a noisy gong without love. So in today’s reading Paul is right
in the middle of sorting out a variety of church conflicts (tongues,
Eucharist).

Clearly, in Corinth there are a diversity of gifts
(utterance/wisdom/prophecy), what was not so clear to the Corinthians was
the source or the purpose of these gifts.

Diversity has become quite the global rallying cry lately. But diversity is
not the end in today’s reading. Diversity is not the goal. I think that is
a misconception. Instead, diversity is a reality. Paul is pointing out the
obvious when he says there are a diversity of gifts. It is as obvious as if
I were to point out the different colors in the rainbow to you. What is
radical, and sometimes is obscured is that the gifts are from the same
spirit. Clearly, we can see a diversity of gifts, services, and
activities—but what happens when we understand these to be from the same
spirit, the same Lord, and the same God. Just as diversity is indicative;
unity also is already the case. Paul begins this letter by asking
sarcastically, “Is Christ divided?” (1:13) You see, neither diversity nor
oneness are goals. They are a reality, a vision to be embraced.

What a relief. I mean this is good news. We do not have to create
diversity or oneness. God, in her infinite wisdom has already taken care of
this for us.

Instead, we must recognize our oneness and celebrate our diversity so that
they can be instruments for the common good. Listen again, to verse 7, “to
each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” This
diversity is more than a rallying cry for inclusion, more than tolerance,
more than coexistence as the island park exhibit contended. Diversity is
for the common good.

This chapter of Corinthians has been read as a devotion on nearly every
mission trip. After hearing about the body having many parts and how the
hand needs the eye and the eye needs the ear, the mission teams encourage
one another, reminding ourselves that everyone has something to contribute.
But I think we trivialize Paul’s message when we focus on figuring out,
“What’s my gift?” Surely that is important, but Paul is developing a much
deeper and rewarding argument here. I mean this is bigger than a potluck
where

We all get to bring something. The parts of the body are dependent on one
another to function for their purpose.

Perhaps when we grasp our oneness and at the same time our diversity—we then
truly share one another’s joys, and also share one another’s sufferings.
Paul writes at the end of this chapter:

1 Corinthians 12:26 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

I think that is at the heart of what it means to be church.

It sounds so simple ‘celebrate diversity while recognizing oneness’. But
society has failed at this time and again. You might have noticed that I
stole my sermon title from the French revolution (“Liberté, égalité,
fraternité…diversité”). When the French Republic added fraternite to liberty
and equality; it was adding a moral obligation of community to two
individual rights. But they weren’t quite able to pull off fraternity. In
the early and very bloody days of the French revolution, “fraternity”
clearly was only meant for some. Even today, France, like much of the world
wrestles with diversity being perceived as a disadvantage rather than as an
instrument for common good.

And the solution is not to simply emphasize unity or oneness. The Third
Reich, perhaps the antithesis of our goal, had their own tripartite slogan
that emphasized oneness. “Ein Volk! Ein Reich! Ein Fuher! One people! One
empire! One Leader!”

Oneness that is not counterbalanced with celebration of diversity is quickly
becomes evil.

Michael Hardt, a political theorist from Duke University, believes that even
terms like “the people” or “the masses” fail us. He says “the people” (as
the People’s Republic or We, the people) reduces diversity to a uniformity
and makes the population a single identity). Also, the term the masses
drowns out differences. All colors fade to gray. He proposes the term the
multitudes because the multitudes can act in common while remaining
internally diverse.[1]

How interesting then, that 2000 years ago, Paul developed this concept with
the metaphor of the church as the body of Christ with many members. Hear
verse 12 again, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all
the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”

Paul understood the Need for diversity and for unity. He writes:

1 Corinthians 12:17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing
be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?

Perhaps one of my favorite seminary words is poly phonic. Poly meaning
many, like a polygram (many sides), and phonic like hooked on phonics,
meaning voices. The Bible is Poly phonic, many voices. Many voices that
are diverse, that create tension…that is what is so beautiful about the
testaments to God. The editors could have taken out the scandalous
sections. They could have taken out the psalms that no one liked anymore or
the stories that didn’t jive with their current world view, but they stayed.
So the Bible became a cross section of witnesses to divine encounters. So
in the Old Testament, we have priestly writings that emphasize right worship
and warn against false idols; but we also have prophetic writers who write
about justice and warn against not caring for the widow, the orphan, and the
sojourner. The many voices together help us to see the one God. As the
canon came together in 2nd and 3rd centuries there were some efforts to
harmonize the gospels. Rather than four versions, why not have one, and
eliminate any discrepancies. From the earliest days this was seen as an
error. Instead, the diversity was celebrated while confessing their witness
to the one God.

Many of you have been praying for the people of Myanmar after a cyclone hit
the country hard last week. Anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 people were
killed when the 12 foot storm surges shot up the delta, drowning the most
vulnerable in its path.

Our prayers have been for the survivors, for international aid workers, for
the governments involved. Over the course of the week my prayers turned to
anger, frustration, and disbelief. The junta government, suspicious of
outsiders, has resisted humanitarian aid. The crisis got even worse when on
Friday two cargo planes were seized by the military junta. The U.N. World
Food Program said that they would suspend flights. Some 38 tons of high
energy biscuits, enough food to feed 95,000 people was sitting at the
airport. We can’t imagine anything more backwards. The gift is there; let
the aid workers distribute it!

And yet this phenomenon is not limited to Myanmar. Some 16,000 children die
everyday of hunger related causes. Friends, that is a child every five
seconds. -------- Again, there is enough food in the world to feed the
people of the world. The gifts are here; let us distribute the abundance.

Diversity is here. Oneness is here. Let us live into it.

I believe that at Pentecost God poured out God’s Spirit with abundance. Not
withholding the blessing of the Spirit from young or old, male or female,
slave or free, Jew or Greek. Christ promise to his disciples to baptize
them with the Spirit was fulfilled. Like in the days of Jerusalem, we have
been baptized in the Spirit. The church has been given a diversity of gifts
and the unity of Body of Christ. And yet, our gifts often spoil, the
abundance is often squandered.

It took the church 1900 years to figure out that maybe the Spirit really
could speak through women. Something Peter at Pentecost, and Paul knew
through his work with church leaders like Lydia and Priscilla. And it is
taking us longer to integrate racially—we have a long way to go with that.
And many who have gifts are stilled barred from the pulpits because of their
sexual orientation. The church has been arguing over sexuality for the last
twenty years, and I hesitate to bring it up because it is so painful for so
many of you. For some of you it is painful because it is not an issue, it
is your sons and daughters, or it is your own reality. So it is painful to
debate. For others the pain comes from a perception of the church falling
away from its foundation. So I’m sorry to bring up such a sore conversation
on the church’s birthday, but I believe Pentecost has everything to do with
who God calls and does not call.

Will we let the gifts of God spoil?

In same vein, when I look at the church as a whole, I think perhaps our
biggest failure has been to truly embrace the blessing of a priesthood of
all believers. Once we truly believe that God is working in and thru all of
us, thru all of you, well, then I believe we will be on our way to
celebrating unified diversity for the common good. The Spirit was not
poured out only on the wisest or most pious. The Spirit in Jerusalem flowed
freely to everyone. We have all been called. We have all been given gifts
of the Spirit. May we be good stewards of what is already in our care.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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