31 January 2016

God Gifted

1 Corinthians 12:12-31b

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany/ 31st January 2016

“Now you are the body of Christ,” wrote Paul, “and individually members of it” (1 Cor. 12:27).  “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” (1 Cor. 12:12).  

When Paul considered the church in Corinth this was his image.  Many members, one body.  One body, many members.  It was a body viewed as a whole, with many parts, each indispensable and equal in importance.  It’s such a beautiful, organic, living, dynamic metaphor for the church of Jesus Christ. We’re a body.  Not a machine.  Not a building.  Not an institution.  Not a business.  A body

And not just any body, but the body of Christ—the living, breathing body of the once-dead-now-risen body of God’s only begotten son.

And not some day, not one day when the church finally gets its act together, not when all the pews are filled and we’re exhausted from all the mission we’re doing and we have more money than we know what to do with because people are giving in wild abandon—no, not that day.  Not then, but now. 

We’re not on the way to becoming the body of Christ. You are, we are, you and I are, right now, the body of the Risen Christ.  By virtue of your baptism you have been grafted into the flesh of Christ.  This is who you are; this is who we are, together. 

This is what Paul wanted the Corinthians to see when they looked at themselves in a mirror.  Even if they could only see in that “mirror dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12), one day they will discover face-to-face and know who they really are and always have been, even when their vision was obscured by a dim mirror. 

Paul gives us this vision as a gift—and it really is sheer gift.  It’s a gift that every member of the body is invited to claim and share.

So remember who you are; act, live, breathe like a body.  Care for the body.  Love the body.  Really live in this body. Treat the body with the respect it deserves and all its members—all—with the honor they deserve.  This is what Paul is getting at here.

And it’s a truly remarkable affirmation knowing that this church was so divided and full of conflict.  Yet, despite its divisions Paul always sees the church as a whole, as already possessing a unity found in the “one Spirit” (1 Cor.12:13).  And because this sense of the Spirit is informing how he sees all the members of the church he invites them to do the same.  Claim who you are already and live from it, he says.  See the unity, the one-ness of the community, because Christ is one.  Christ is not divided.  Right?  And realize that the person right beside you is essential for the work of the Church.  All the members are connected, like every member of a body.  “If one member suffers,” Paul wrote, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). 

If we keep reading, chapter twelve pours over into chapter thirteen, the great so-called “love chapter”.  You know it, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries, all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.  Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  (1 Cor. 13:1-8a).

Chapter 13 is usually read alone, often at weddings; however chapters 12 and 13 are really one piece and they should be read together.  (I’ve never attended a wedding in which both chapters were read.  Have you?)  The reason Paul is writing at length—and beautifully—about love and what love really looks like is because the Corinthians have been fighting and arguing—fighting and arguing over what the church should look like, fighting and arguing over the types of people who should be welcomed there, the forms of worship that should take place there, the kinds of theology that should be preached there, and squabbling over who’s going to be in charge, who gets to have the power.  As a result, they’ve forgotten something crucial.  They need to remember who they are.  They need to remember that they are the body of Christ—which means that they don’t belong to themselves. 

Without love the members of the body go off on their own, doing their own thing, with their own agendas.  Without love all becomes fragmented.  Without love one member thinks it’s better than the other, instead of seeing how each member is connected to every other member. 

Yes, First Church, Corinth was a mess; it was a terribly divided congregation, painfully so.  It troubled Paul to no end—and he didn’t have the best relationship with them.  You can tell how much it weighed on him by the length of this letter, as well as the others he sent to them.  There were considerable problems there. 

And some of the people in that church needed an attitude adjustment.  He refers to them as the pneumatikoi, the spiritual ones, so-called, the “spiritual elite,” people who thought they were more spiritually gifted than everyone else (see 1 Corinthians 1-3).  They saw themselves as “super Christians.”  It’s in this context that Paul wrote, earlier in chapter 12, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.  To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good” (1 Cor. 12:4-7).  In this light you can begin to see why the only gift that matters is love.

To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  Not just some.  To each is given a gift of the Spirit.  Not just some.  Everyone—each.  Each person.  Each person in the body of Christ is gifted with at least one gift of the Spirit, probably more.  The Spirit has gifted each person who has walked through the waters of baptism.  You’re probably not the only one to this receive this gift; there could be many in a particular community with the same kinds of gifts.  But you definitely have a gift.  You are gifted and talented.

Gifted and talented.

I remember as a boy that I never liked these words, “gifted and talented.”  I had friends growing up who were chosen for the Gifted and Talented Program at school.  From my perspective as a boy it was all very esoteric.  All of a sudden, from out of no where, I started hearing about friends who were identified as “special,” mysteriously chosen, set apart, invited to take different classes, participate in special programs apart from the rest of us, classes we were not invited to because we were deemed not smart enough or bright enough. Perhaps you were part of the Gifted and Talented Program when you went through school.  Perhaps your child is in this program now.  I’m sure it’s a good program, beneficial in a variety of ways, formative.  But from my perspective, someone on the outside, who wasn’t in the program, I remember how it made me feel as a boy.  I thought and felt inferior, inadequate, that I wasn’t gifted, that I wasn’t talented—at least not with the gifts and talents others considered worthy of a program.  What I had to offer, I thought, had little or no value.

And that’s when the seeds of envy were planted in me. They were better than me and I wanted to be included in that special group.  On the plus side, I think at some level the experience motivated me to study hard; it sparked a desire to achieve, to really push myself.  I’ll show them!  On the negative side, it sparked a desire to achieve, to strive to at least appear gifted and talented in my teachers’ eyes, thus hiding the true gifts and talents embedded in my soul—gifts and talents entrusted to me by the Spirit.  I had to discover these later as an adult.  That boy is still there in me and he acts up every now and again.  But I assure him that he’s okay.

Jean Vanier has this to say about envy.  Vanier is a theologian, humanitarian, and founder of L’Arche Community.  Last year he received the prestigious Templeton Prize for his work developing communities, all around the world, for developmentally disabled persons.  (If you’re not familiar with this work, I highly recommend his books of reflections and essays.[1])  Vanier says, “Envy comes from people’s ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.”[2]  This is a beautiful, concise, and accurate description of the origins of envy.  Envy surfaces when we’re ignorant of our gifts—when we don’t know what they are.  Or, if known, envy emerges when we lack belief in our gifts—when we don’t value them or honor them or trust them.  And very often the things we’re most envious of in other people are really projections of who we are inside, but for a variety of reasons cannot see or acknowledge as our own. 

"Kierkegaard" by Luplau Janssen, 1902.
Many years ago I came across profound wisdom in a statement by Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855)—that blessed Dane.  Kierkegaard has been one of my theological heroes for a long time, a faithful and trusted companion on my journey.  (His surname translated into English means, literally, “cemetery”—kierke, meaning “church” and gaard, meaning “garden” or “yard;” hence, “church yard” or “cemetery”.  With a name like that you can only imagine what his childhood was like.)  With searing psychological and spiritual insight, this is what he said: “Comparison kills.”  When I first heard those words, many years ago, it was as if the hammer of Thor had struck me, and cracked me open, and released my soul.  Kierkegaard said, "...the more comparison, the more indolent and paltry a person's life becomes...comparison kills,” he said, “with its insidious chill.”[3]

He’s right.  There are healthy forms of comparison, of course.  But when we’re always comparing ourselves to others—what others have, what others are doing, what others are achieving—if we’re always looking outward, valuing what’s “out there,” more than what’s “in here,” within us, that which has already been entrusted to us by the Spirit, we are doing ourselves a great disservice and effectively rejecting God’s gifts in us.  This is not the way toward life, this is not what the Spirit intends for our lives, this is not the way of Christ.  Pathological comparison kills; with its insidious chill it slowly, ever so slowly over time kills our souls.

Envy, if left unchecked, has a way of working its wicked way into our souls and then into our relationships and communities. It’s a toxin that pollutes everything.  The congregation in Corinthians was Exhibit A for this. We see it at work in the Church, in relationships and families, in our communities and places of work.  

A more biblical perspective would have better served me as a boy.  To be in the body of Christ means I am gifted and talented.  If you’re in the body of Christ then you are gifted and talented.  Your gifts and your talents don’t make you better than anyone else.  We’re all the same in the eyes of God—equally loved.  Whatever gifts or talents I have or you have are not given for your sake alone and not because you’re better than anyone else.  We are gifted in order to share our gifts with others.  The Spirit has gifted us each in a unique and particular way so that our gifts can be used for the common good.  We’re not allowed to hoard them or protect them.  We’re not allowed not use them.  The gifts are to be shared.  They’re given to us so that we can give them to the world—it’s one of the ways God acts in the world through us.  By virtue of our baptism, God blesses us with abilities and capacities that can, quite literally, transform the world.  Perhaps that’s why there’s sometimes a reluctance to accept our gifts and talents, because then we’re responsible for them and have to do something with them.  And this probably frightens us.

What are yours gifts?  Are you using them? If not, why not?  What are you afraid of?  What’s holding you back?

What are our gifts as a church?  Are we using them?  If not, why not?  What are we afraid of? What’s holding us back?

Do you not know? Have you not heard?  “You are the body of Christ.”  Now. “Now you are the body of Christ.”  Thanks be to God!



[1] Jean Vanier, Community and Growth (Paulist Press, 1989), 51.
[2] Jean Vanier, Befriending the Stranger (Paulist Press, 2010); From Brokenness to Community (Paulist Press, 1992); The Heart of L’Arche: A Spirituality for Every Day (Novalis, 2012).
[3] Sören Kierkegaard, “Upbuilding Discourses in Various Spirits (1847).  The full quote is:  "...the more comparison, the more indolent and paltry a person's life becomes.  This consciousness is the straight gate and the narrow way. It is not the way as such that is narrow, although quite a few people walk along it single-file; no, the narrowness is that each one separately must become the single individual who must press through this narrow pass along the narrow way where no comparison cools, but also where no comparison kills with its insidious chill." Kierkegaard’s Writings, XV (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 152.

17 January 2016

Dreaming the Dream Forward

John 2:1-11

2nd Sunday after Epiphany

17th January 2016

Well, that was quite a wedding, wasn’t it? Don’t you wish you were on that guest list? Wouldn’t you have loved to be on the guest list?  It was quite the party.  Everyone was there.  The disciples were there and Jesus and his mother, who bossed Jesus about. And lots of wine was consumed, so much they ran out of it, no doubt embarrassing the host.  That’s probably why Mary told Jesus, the ever-responsible one, to do something about it. 

Having wine at a wedding was a sign of generosity and hospitality.  Wine didn’t flow freely in Jesus’ time.  It was a cash crop, like olive oil.  The poor drank little wine.  They drank water with their daily diet of cheese and bread and olive oil.  Weddings were different.  The couple’s family had to save for a long time in order to have wine at a wedding reception.  Family and friends passed harsh judgments on those who couldn’t throw a wedding in style.[1]  The wine was supposed to flow freely.  So there’s shame here in Cana.  The family couldn’t afford their guests.  It was not enough.  Mary tells Jesus to do something about it and then she say to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Jesus orders the servants to take the large, stone water jars used for purification, six of them, obviously empty, and fill them with water.  They did as they were told, drew some out, and gave it to the wine steward who, unaware of the miracle, was impressed by the quality of the new wine.  The steward says to the groom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now” (John 2:10).”  It’s a sign, John tells us, Jesus’ first sign.

Ah, but what does it signify?  That’s the question.  This “miracle” story is highly symbolic.  When we read John’s gospel we need to remember that there’s always two narratives, two levels of meaning, two stories going on at the same time.  There’s what’s happening on the surface of things and then there’s the deeper, more significant symbolic meaning.  This is “just” a wedding that runs out of wine.  I’m sure that happened all the time.  It’s an ordinary domestic scene.  And, yet, this miracle actually symbolizes something else for those with eyes to see.  This text, like most of John’s gospel, is swimming in symbolism.  A surface reading of the story misses the point—which I’ll get  to shortly.

First, I’m struck by the way today’s gospel lectionary beautifully complements the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday this weekend.  It might seem like a stretch to suggest that Jesus’ miracle at Cana has anything to do with King’s life and witness and struggle.  But there’s a connection.  The text has something to say to the Church as we continue to dream the dream.

We know his famous “I Have a Dream” speech given on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 28, 1963.  We’ve seen photos of that event.  Seen the film footage.  You might have been there (Al Davies).  Whenever I visit the Lincoln Memorial  (my favorite monument in DC), I’m always struck by the juxtaposition of the massive statute of Lincoln, with the Gettysburg Address carved into the wall to Lincoln’s right and the Second Inaugural Address to his left, one of the most theologically profound addresses ever given by a president.  Whenever I’m there I look for the stone marker at the top of the steps that indicates the exact spot Dr. King offered his speech, with Lincoln looking over his shoulder. “I have a dream,” he said, “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”[2]  One day.

Two days after the speech, the COINTELPRO, a covert program of the FBI, which at times acted beyond the law, said, “In the light of King's powerful demagogic speech yesterday he stands head and shoulders above all other Negro leaders put together when it comes to influencing great masses of Negroes. We must mark him now, if we have not done so before, as the most dangerous Negro of the future in this Nation from the standpoint of communism, the Negro and national security.”[3]

There was much suffering and pain and death in the years following that speech.  And, thank God, we have come far, very far, since the days of segregation and Jim Crow.  It was said with the election of Barack Obama as president that we entered into a post-racial America.  I didn’t believe that in 2008 and I certainly don’t believe that now.

   It’s all too painfully obvious to us, especially in light of recent events in Ferguson, New York, Charleston, Chicago, and right here in Baltimore this year, that for many African-Americans, that dream is still “a dream deferred,” to quote the poet Langston Hughes (1902-1967).  King’s “I Have a Dream” speech was actually connected to a poem by Hughes, written in 1951, called “Harlem.”  It goes like this:

                What happens to a dream deferred?
                Does it dry up/ like a raisin in the sun?
                Or fester like a sore—And then run?
                Does it stink like rotten meat?
                Or crust and sugar over—like a syrupy sweet?
                Maybe it just sags
                like a heavy load.

                Or does it explode?[4]

   It’s a good question.

   Maybe there’s a problem with the dream itself?  Some might say, “Well, what King offered was only a dream,” meaning it was a “fantasy,” it wasn’t realistic.  “It raised expectations that can’t be fully realized in American society.  It’s nice to be optimistic, imagine a future, but don’t get carried away.”  Some contemporary authors, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, who grew up in West Baltimore, seems to suggest in his recent bestselling Between the World and Me, a series of letters to his son, that King’s dream, rooted in the Judaic-Christian vision of justice and redemption, along with the American dream, are both illusions, at least for African-Americans.  Struggle, he says. Stop dreaming.[5]

   Unfortunately, people don’t put a lot of stock in their dreams, in the power of dreams to transform us and change us.  Some, such as Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), think our dream life is a big trash compactor that processes all the stuff from our waking life.  Others, such as Carl Jung (1875-1961), believed that dreams are given by the psyche, maybe even by God, to compensate for the extremes of our waking life, to offer balance.  Dreams can also have a prospective dimension to them; their message originates from some place deep, often with a greater wisdom and generosity than our skittish, frightful egos.  These dreams call for action, for change, they move us forward; they lead us toward transformation and wholeness.  Jung also believed that profound dreams, “big dreams,” can be lived and relived in order to fathom their meaning and depth.[6]  Dreams can be a kind of North Star that leads us in the way we should go.  From this perspective, we need to dream the dream forward, or, better, live the dream forward.  (I’m firmly in Jung’s camp, by the way.)

   King’s dream, vision still needs to be lived forward.  We’ve made great strides.  But as they sing at the end of the musical Hairspray, “I know we've come so far, but [baby, baby] we've got so far to go.”[7] There’s still so much work that needs to be done.

Throughout King’s ministry the dream was expressed in his vision of the beloved community. King said, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives" (Nonviolence: The Only Road to Freedom, May 4, 1966).  His words resound with the gospel; they echo Jesus' teaching on the Kingdom of God (or Kin-dom or Realm, even Empire of God).  The beloved community is the dream—a dream that shapes our waking life.  And if we’re going to enter into that community, if we are going to live from the dream, if we’re really going to get there and are serious about wanting to get there it will only come through change: qualitative change in our individual souls, in our hearts, change in the nature of our thoughts and feelings and quantitative change in our lives, in our actions, collective action strong enough that moves us off from dead center or the way things are.  The status quo is often status woe, especially for those without power or privilege.

Why is this so difficult for us?  Why?  Why is it so difficult for us, both as a Church and as a nation, to talk honestly and openly about racism?  We all struggle with this, whether we’re black or white or neither.  Whether it’s the sin of racism in our past or the consequences of the unconfessed sin of racism that plagues our present, we need to honest about it.  Racism is sin and every institution—church, nation, corporation, family—that benefits from being racist or helps to support racism is sin, is caught in sin, is a partner in crime against the human spirit.  It’s why Jim Wallis, of the evangelical-social justice Sojourners community, calls racism America’s “original sin.”[8] Philosopher Eddie Glaude, Jr., who teaches at Princeton University just released a book this week with the title Democracy in Black:  How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul.  

Until we confess the sin of racism, both as a people and as individuals, and acknowledge our own complicity in it—no matter how difficult and painful it is to do so—and then repent, which means changing our hearts and our minds and actions, both individually and collectively, nothing will change.  Christians have to act.  Christians have to call out other Christians when they’re being racist.  Christians needs to confess their complicity in the sin of slavery.  Christian culture isn’t innocent.  We helped to cause the mess we’re in.  The first slave ship to arrive on these shores in 1564, a British vessel, was named “The Goodship Jesus.”[9] 

The Goodship Jesus, the first slave ship to arrive in America.
Ta-Nehisi writes to his son, “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”[10]  History is never destiny, though. The Church must be able to embody the change and transformation that it teaches.  If the Church, of all places, can’t be a model for reconciliation, if we can’t change ourselves and bring about the change, then what are we here for? 

Why is it so difficult?  

I was recently remind of W. H. Auden’s (1907-1973) searing words:

           We would rather be ruined than changed

           We would rather die in our dread

            Than climb the cross of the moment 

            And let our illusions die.[11]

We can’t do this ourselves.  That’s why the water is changed into wine.  There is no way for the followers of Jesus to follow him and claim his name without change. Sure, the wedding guests needed wine.  So Jesus made wine.  But there’s another level of meaning in this story that says something about what matters most to Jesus and those who love him.  To trust in him means that we will undergo change and experience change until we die.  And we need to change.  We need to be transformed.  The entire Christian life is all about ongoing change and reform.  Those six, stone jars were originally made only to hold water, water for purification.  They must now be put to a different use.  “The water of one era must be replaced by the wine of another.”[12] 

Wine, itself, in this story is symbolic of the New Age, it’s the New Way that Jesus offers the world.  It’s a sign of the Messianic Age.  In the book of First Enoch, written before Jesus’ time, we’re told “in those days,” the Messianic Age, the vines will produce wine in plenitude.  Philo the Jew (25 BC – 50 AD) of Alexandria, a contemporary of Jesus, spoke of God’s presence in the world in terms of rich, red wine.  Curiously, this comes from Philo’s treatise called On Dreams.  Jesus provides wine, loads of wine–do the math–about 180 gallons of the finest wine!  This revealed his glory “and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11).

If Jesus can do that to water, just imagine what he is doing and wants to do with us and for us—we who are mostly water.  We need to be made into new wine ourselves something needs to occur within us.  We are supposed to embody God’s New Order, God’s New Age, God’s Kingdom.

Dr. King’s dream wasn’t King’s dream.  It was and is God’s dream and we need to allow God’s dream to dream through us, to dream us forward, allow God’s dream to shape us and to change us—into new wine!

[1] Gerard Sloyan, John (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 36.
[2] Full text of his speech may be found here.
[3] Memo hosted by American Radio Works (American Public Media), "The FBI's War on King.”
[4] Langston Hughes, “Harlem,” Selected Poems of Langston Hughes (Random House, 1990)
[5] Ta-Nehesi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015).
[6] See C. G. Jung, “General Aspects of Dream Psychology,” The Structure and Dynamics of the Psyche, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 8 (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1981), 237ff.
[7] Hairspray, music by Marc Shaiman and lyrics by Scott Wittman, 2002.
[8] Jim Wallis, America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America (Brazos, 2016).
[9] Coates, 71.
[10] Cited in Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976), 14.
[11] W. H. Auden, “Age of Anxiety” (1948).
[12] Sloyan, 39.