1 Corinthians 12: 1-11, Rev. Karen Bowles
I will speak this morning of some ‘W’ words – ‘worth’ and ‘weal’ and ‘warf and weft’.
Infighting in the church is certainly nothing new. It is as old as this Jesus movement. And I use the term ‘movement’ deliberately. Jesus never set out to establish a new religion. He lived and died a Jew. And this begs the question – what was Jesus doing? Why was he wandering the countryside inviting reprisal and gathering followers?
From all we know in hindsight, he was not coveting the title of the Messiah, the Saviour. If he had been, he would not have this title today. This might work for a couple of terms but not beyond. No he was wandering and preaching and teaching and healing because he could not do else. Because he had good news to share. Because he wanted to relieve the suffering he saw around him. Because his was a widened perspective. From Mary Oliver the poet who died this week:
“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
Jesus was paying attention. And he spoke and taught and died because he was paying attention before the corner of his world was ready to hear and to see. He was compelled by the Spirit – by that which he could not see but knew was real. Because he was paying attention and recognized his gift. And what was his gift? He knew his worth – our first ‘w’ word. His gift was to know he was gifted, given, endowed, loved, held and therefore able to live without fear. And he knew he was gifted, given, endowed, loved, held and able to live without fear because he knew every one else was as well. It is that simple, and by God, we have made it that complicated.
And this complicating began early. In this letter from Paul to the fledgling church in Corinth – we hear Paul intervening from afar, from Ephesus, admonishing, advising, giving counsel and pleading for unity. The tiny band is arguing: Who is the best, who is the wisest, who is the most worthy, who deserves the leadership, the position, the money? And in this particular sandbox of Corinth 2,000 years ago, it is those who speak in tongues apparently possessed by the Holy Spirit that are seeing themselves as most worthy as most gifted. Now my moments of being elevated by joy have been in moments of prayer or meditation eliciting sometimes a sense of peace, overwhelming gratitude, enveloping and equanimity making…
But this was indeed a thing in the early church. Getting slayed in the spirit is still part of the church – this communal ‘het up ed ness.’ I remember my great grandfather’s story as a teenager experiencing his mother ‘confessing in tongues’ at the yearly revival meeting, being so embarrassed he wished the ground would swallow him up. This sort of communal outpouring perhaps was a welcome outlet for a farm woman living miles from her nearest neighbour – when church was the only weekly outing. And it was thought to be a sign of the favour of God in some circles and indeed it still is. Genuine expressions of the joy of recognizing the Spirit should never be discouraged. These are not genuine if they are seen as exclusive, better than, more worthy.
So, in the group in Corinth they are arguing about whose gifts were the best. Did speaking in tongues or miracles or healings or prophecies rank first in the hierarchy of gifts — whose gift made them the most worthy to call Jesus, Lord? A question we are unfortunately still answering.
Just to recap these fledgling communities – these are house groups – far removed from the huge cathedrals of later years. They are composed of those who identify as both men and women, the unnecessary complication of gender segregation comes later. They are composed of Greek and Jew, slaves and not. The unnecessary complication of race segregation comes later. They are encouraged to pool their resources. They make meals together and eat together. The unnecessary complication of the hierarchy of domestic duties comes later. They are trying to live true to the good news Jesus brought and they are finding it heavy weather. They are reviled by some, looked on with in amusement by others, and seen as a bit of a thorn in the side of the Roman and Jewish authorities. I am pretty sure that those who lived back then would be astonished by the eventual reach of this movement and I am certain that Jesus would be dismayed at how unnecessarily complicated it was initially and how difficult it would become.
So, back to Corinth – whose gift is better? Whose gift is worth more? And Paul answers: ‘to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.’
And here we come to another ‘w’ word – an oldy but a goody – weal – from this word we get wellness and wealth and commonwealth. It means a sound, healthy or prosperous state – ‘to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common weal.’
In Keeping In Touch, the newsletter that goes out over the net each week it says ‘Karen will be preaching on Sunday on being gifted’. How humble of me you might say rather wryly (another w word). But I meant it.
It is difficult for us in the West to imagine our gifts as any other than personal – than individual. Think of the expressions we consider worthy in our lexicon – Going it alone – self made – rugged individualism. Contrast this with the East where, in some cultures there is no concept of ‘I’ only ‘we’. This has been equally complicated in its expressions that have led to the subsuming of individual gifts for the stated objectives of the whole, usually dictated by the few.
Yet there is a place, a state rightly in between, that Jesus spoke about – a place of ‘we’ with room for ‘I’ – a place of ‘I’ with room for ‘we’ – a place with widened perspective flowing from increased interaction between all peoples on this good green earth. The manifestation of the Spirit for the common good is demanded of all if we profess to follow Jesus. This week for Christians is the week of prayer for Christian Unity. We might see this as a complicated difficult ask fraught with the potholes of 2,000 years of disparate human made division. But we also might see this as an opportunity to widen our perspective to see as Jesus did in his small corner of the earth with benefit of and taught by the burden of the last 2,000 years. The earth will not stand for its destruction. If ‘I’ does not include ‘we’ – if we do not find the space for the worth of each other or the need to recognize that our gifts are given for only the common good we will have failed Jesus and his commandment to love one another as literally, ourselves, every ‘animal and human’ as the passage from Isaiah read by Mary Lee warns us.
I have recently finished the Book of Joy describing the content of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu on their meeting to celebrate the Dalai Lama’s 80th birthday. And these conversations were filled with understandings that we might call simple. And these conversations we might call simple were always marked by humility. From Bishop Tutu: ‘Sometimes we confuse humility with timidity. This gives little glory to the one who has given us our gifts. Humility is the recognition that our gifts are from God and this lets us sit relatively loosely to those gifts. Humility allows us to celebrate the gifts of others but does not mean you have to deny your own gifts or shrink from using them. God uses each of us in our own way, and even if you are not the best one you may be the one who is needed the one who is there.’
And I have come to understand that simple does not mean stupid. Becoming simple means becoming wise accompanied by and sometimes in spite of all your knowledge. And the opposite of this ‘wisely simple’ way of being is either ignorance, never being taught or exposed to, or fear – always taught or exposed to, never innate.
Ignorance not corrected through education or exposure always ends in fear. And fear taught always denies the innate reality of one’s gifts – of being gifted. And fear’s bodyguard is anger and exclusion. And that too is the denial of one’s gifts. The earth will not stand for its destruction. We are slowly figuring this out with our ever expanding knowledge. The great privilege of knowing the earth’s secrets is the gift of knowing wonder and beauty and loss. And our earth is entirely too small and too precious for us to continue to fear one another or to fear learning from one another or refrain from sharing our gifts.
“The soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.”
So to put shared reality of being gifted to practice, the verse from our gospel passage today that says: ‘You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak’, we would bring to bear an understanding of the gift of those we today call ‘pagan’. From a song by Dar Williams called the Christians and the Pagans: The pagans say: But we love trees, we love the snow, the friends we have, the world we share, And you find magic from your God, and we find magic everywhere,’ I know many Christians who would agree. The earth does not need our small mindedness. The Dalai Lama and the Archbishop Tutu would agree. And certainly Jesus who, speaking from his own God given gift, would ask you to see the joy in that simplicity, in all its complexity.
And here is where I get to the last W words ‘warp’ and ‘weft.’ This is a weaving term. “Warp” is a series of threads that run from the front to the back, and “weft” is a series of threads that run in a pattern through the warp. I spent many hours watching my grandmother, who had a masters in physics and chemistry, weave on her loom the warp through the weft. You needed both to weave a strong piece that would not fray or become loose or fall apart. I remember her for that careful weaving – that was her gift as far as I was concerned – sitting with me explaining what she was doing. I was entranced by her ability and her careful weaving of those two and more than two threads to make a pattern. And her gifts were so much more than that weaving that I knew nothing about – and is it not the same for all? One in this community brings much to bear in her life – but I remember most her lemon squares and one from Regent’s Park taught me about acceptance and not judging but I am sure there are many more gifts in her life. We are complicated but we are at our best when we manifest the Spirit for the common good. Paul was right. Tutu is right.
It is really that simple and that interconnected and that interdependent. Who is the most gifted? You are. God given. Hope affirming and joy making. Simple. And wise. But it begins with spending your own gift for the right purpose. For the good of all.