1 Corinthians 12:1-13
Today we hear the Pentecost story as we do every year. We also heard two other scriptures, both of which are focused on gifts of the spirit, and in particular, the recognition, naming and celebrating that those gifts are not just given to a few, but given to all people, for the common good. Pentecost in many ways focuses on this as well. The gifts of hearing and understanding, of crossing the lines of difference in culture and ethnicity and even religion: all of these, too, were gifts of the spirit and all of these, too, were given to the entire community of people. I loved hearing our scripture this morning in all the different languages and our service parts led by different people because I felt blessed by those different voices, and the recognition of the different gifts that each of them have: in this case, the gift of languages and crossing divides of understanding with people who speak those different languages. In today’s readings, they were “All filled with the Holy spirit” we are told. So there are two messages here. As Paul tells us in the Corinthians passage, “A demonstration of the Spirit is given to each person for the common good.” So first, each person is given gifts. And second, all these gifts are for everyone’s good, for the common good.
But we struggle with both of these things, don’t we? And, frankly, this is a human problem that has been in existence from the very beginning. In this passage from Numbers, Joshua had trouble with the fact that other people besides Moses were given spiritual gifts, that they could prophesy too. He wanted Moses to stop these other people, to prevent them using their gifts. Of course, Moses was able to see a bigger vision, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all God’s people were prophets with the spirit on them!” And this happens in the New Testament too. In Mark 9 (and in Luke 9), we hear the story of the disciples getting upset with Jesus because someone other than them was throwing out demons in Jesus’ name. The scripture reads, “John said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he wasn’t following us.’ Jesus replied, ‘Don’t stop him! No one who does powerful acts in my name can quickly turn around and curse me. Whoever isn’t against us is for us.’”
But we have trouble with this, don’t we? And I’d say our trouble with this is on both ends. First, we don’t like others being able to do what we feel is for us to do alone. Like in the PCUSA there was a huge debate about whether or not Commission Lay Preachers (so people who don’t have the same kind of theological training as our pastors) should be allowed to serve churches, to serve communion, to moderate session, to do baptisms. Many pastors felt that they did not want to share what we ourselves have been trained to do. On the other end of this, then, is people who feel they don’t have the rights and privileges of serving God in the same way or to the same degree as those of us who are ordained. One of my pastor friends this week was sharing that he is struggling with his congregation because people are not stepping up to help. They are all asking him, “What should we do? Lead us!” And he is burning out. Their need for his leadership is understandable. When things are different and difficult, when people are in grief and in pain, they want leadership. They want answers. They want someone to guide them and tell them what to do. But what all of these stories show us is that, as we say in the Presbyterian church, “the ministers are all the people.” Too often in our churches, people become used to being an audience rather than a participant. And when that happens, they fail to see their own gifts, their own callings within the church. We have different gifts. Maybe you are not comfortable with public speaking, but you are comfortable with listening to someone. Maybe you are not comfortable teaching, but you have gifts for seeing the big picture and looking down the road for what is best to be done. Maybe you don’t have the gift of comforting others, but you are able to tell stories in such a way that people are touched and moved. Maybe you don’t have the gift of seeing what is to come, but you are an artist of some kind: a musician, a painter, a dancer, or a storyteller who can tell deeper truths through your art. We all have these gifts. If you don’t know what your gift is, this is a wonderful time to take space to figure out what it is. Try new things, explore the callings, the tuggings, the urgings of your heart and see what you can learn. But each of us has gifts. And it is not right for us to think that one gift is more important or more valuable than another gift. As the Corinthians passage said, “Christ is just like the human body – a body is a unit and has many parts; and all the parts of the body are one body, even though there are many.” In other places Paul says that the weakest parts of the body are to be honored the most. And truthfully, we are only as strong as our weakest link. That goes for our families, our churches, and also our country, and our world. All of your gifts figure into the leadership of the church, not as watchers, not as people being entertained, but as participants in worship, in the life of the church, in service, and in the community. The new language, then, of Pentecost, is a common language of everyone being touched by the flame of the Spirit in shared leadership within the church and without as well.
The second part of this then, is that all of the gifts we are given are for the COMMON good. They are not for you, they are not for one person or for one family. They are all for the common good. During this time, we look for a difference between social distancing and spiritual distancing. And we find that we are being called to use a different language, or different languages within the church. We are not, during this time, speaking in languages of being together in body, but we are learning to speak a new language in the church of being together on-line, and in prayer, and through bible study. We are learning new languages of being together virtually as we figure out how to care for one another even from a distance and how to care for those most impacted by the virus whether that be because of disease, or lack of work and resources. The languages of our activity are different now. Our activity is more “home based.” But still, the language of Pentecost, the language of prayer, the language of faith, is a universal, communal language for all people, no matter how we are speaking it, no matter where we are speaking it, no matter in what way we are speaking it.
Without Pentecost, Easter is not participatory. Without Pentecost, Easter itself is just something we see, that we watch, that we hear about. But with Pentecost, the church is born. And the church is community, it is action. It is the speaking of a new language, a language of prayer, a language of singing, a language of caring for one another both within the church community and without, but in new ways. The language of Pentecost is putting aside the individual in favor of the communal. What is best for all people? What is best for community?
I think about the times that we are in. I read an article that was talking about how people were much more willing to shelter in place and be careful and protective when they thought that the people affected by the disease were people like them. As soon as they came to see that the people being affected were different or other than them, people have moved to reopen, to not be afraid to risk the lives of “those people over there.” You may have all seen on the news the sign held by someone at one of the protests against the shelter in place “sacrifice the weak: reopen.” He didn’t see himself as part of “the weak” so he was willing for others to be sacrificed. Or another one, “Sacrifice the elderly: reopen.” As we learn that people of color are being more deeply affected by this than white people, I have heard things much worse. But as the church we are called to care for everyone.
I saw a video this week. A man was asked if he thought that it was okay if people died in order to reopen things. He said he thought it was. The interviewer asked him how many people he would think it would be okay to sacrifice in order to reopen the community. The man said, “between 70 and 700.” I don’t know where he came up with that number. But the interview repeated back to him, “So, you feel it would be okay if 70 people died in order to reopen things around here?” “Yes,” the man replied. The interviewer then said, “well, we just happen to have 70 people.” And around the corner came 70 people, in the front of the group was a child, about 5 years old. And as they rounded the corner, the little girl starting running towards the man being interviewed. He looked stunned and he said, “That’s my family!” The little girl who’d started running towards him yelled “Daddy!” and threw herself in his arms. At that point the interviewer asked him again, “how many people did you say could die in order to reopen this area?” To which the sobbing man replied, “none!”
Again, we may think this is hokey. And it was a bit: it had me sobbing by the end, which was the intention, I’m sure. I also realize that things are much more complicated than this. As businesses close, people are losing work, losing income. They are struggling to put food on their tables and to care for their children. These are real problems too and the answers to these problems are not as simple as “stay closed or re-open.” It’s just not that easy.
But in some cases, the situation is a lot more clear cut. I am shocked by how many churches, church communities, for example, have decided to put what? Their pastor’s needs? Above the needs of the community. Churches across the nation are becoming the hot spots of the virus: spreading disease not only among their members but then out into the larger communities because they are reopening too soon. And why are they doing this? What is the loss to the church if we learn how to stay connected through the internet, through phone, through the mail, through our prayers rather than gathering together in person? But churches seem to have forgotten to love their neighbors as themselves. We are called to be Christian first and foremost, called to love our neighbors as ourselves, and churches, of all places, must remember to love their neighbors, their members, those people their members interact with, and the needs of the larger community for healing, for some time and space to figure out cures and vaccines, for some time of social healing, as themselves.
I think about the story of Abraham confronting God when God wanted to wipe out the city of Sodom. In Genesis 18, Abraham approached God and said, “Will you really sweep away the innocent with the guilty? What if there are fifty innocent people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not save the place for the sake of the fifty innocent people in it? It’s not like you to do this, killing the innocent with the guilty as if there were no difference. It’s not like you! Will the judge of all the earth not act justly?” The Lord said, “If I find fifty innocent people in the city of Sodom, I will save it because of them.” Abraham responded, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, even though I’m just soil and ash, what if there are five fewer innocent people than fifty? Will you destroy the whole city over just five?” The Lord said, “If I find forty-five there, I won’t destroy it.” Once again Abraham spoke, “What if forty are there?” The Lord said, “For the sake of forty, I will do nothing.” He said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak. What if thirty are there?” The Lord said, “I won’t do it if I find thirty there.” Abraham said, “Since I’ve already decided to speak with my Lord, what if twenty are there?” The Lord said, “I won’t do it, for the sake of twenty.” Abraham said, “Don’t be angry with me, my Lord, but let me speak just once more. What if there are ten?” And the Lord said, “I will not destroy it because of those ten.” When the Lord finished speaking with Abraham, he left; but Abraham stayed there in that place.
We too, should spare the city, or the church, or the world, because there are at least ten folk among us who are vulnerable and do not deserve to be put at risk.
We forget that God is in all places and in all situations. We forget the spiritual truths that connect us, the spiritual practices of prayer, sabbath, study. We forget that God is bigger than this time and that this time, too, will pass. We forget the importance of healing to Jesus, and of times of sabbatical for all people. This virus is calling us into these spiritual practices. And calling us to learn new languages of connection through conversation which can be done on phone, mail and on-line.
Our challenge is to be tree-planters, which we plant for other people: for our children’s children. Olive trees take 100 years to bear fruit. But people planted them for their children’s children. We tend to be people of “now”. We forget to think of others and we forget to think ahead. But this time is calling us to remember.
The story of Pentecost is a story of understanding, of all people across all differences coming together and speaking and understanding a universal language. That language is the language of the Spirit, the language of God. That language is the language of Love.