We are defined by our differences. There are those who have, who are mostly folks like us, and the many who don’t. The US now has the widest gap between rich and poor since the census began counting. The top 1/5 of Americans, earning over $100,000 per year, earned half of all income in the US last year, while the bottom 1/5 made just 3%. 1 Those nationwide distinctions remain in place in Durham. In 2008, 12.8% of Durham County residents lived in poverty – a family of four making less than $22,000 per year. That number grew to 17% in 2009. One-fourth of children in this county under 18 live in poverty. 2
As Winnie Morgan cited last week in the Sharing Our Mission, 1 in 3 African American male babies born in 2011 will have the probability of going to prison in their lifetime. 3 These differences sort themselves out all over the place, from the neighborhoods we live in, the schools we go to, the clubs we are or aren’t a part of so, the places we go to vacation, or not. Without even thinking about it sometimes we compare and contrast, sizing up what we are doing and what others aren’t. We do it in our professional lives; we do it with our kids. Ella Brooks’ kindergarten assessment is this week, and we’ll begin swimming in our educational system that can’t help but define and categorize. These differences define when we retire, how we struggle through health care options as we age. These differences shape how we see almost everything. We live and die by these differences.
That is why it is so important we hear Paul’s word to the church. Corinth was a vibrant, cosmopolitan place. A city of about half a million people, it sat in the center of the narrow isthmus (a thin strip of land) that separated the main part of Greece from the southern Peloponnesus. Corinth had ports on both the east and west sides of the city, with an elaborate system of boats in between. You could bring cargo to one port, and have it shuttled over to the other, saving you a trip all the way around the southern tip of Greece. People from all over the known world ended up in Corinth. 4
Paul arrived for about an 18-month visit (recounted in Acts 18), and found himself swimming in an unparalleled array of religious practices. There was an established Jewish community with a synagogue, but also cults of Greek gods, Roman gods, mystery cults, temple prostitution, ritual sacrifice. Religious differences, personal differences, political, moral and economic differences. 5 And these Christians in Corinth were to maintain some sort of coherent identity amidst it all. And then, to top it off, after Paul left there were different Christian leaders, claiming the same God, saying very different things about what it meant to be faithful. In the very first chapter Paul frames his letter by mentioning that word had gotten back to him about divisions among them, struggling to follow together. From Paul to Cephas to Apollos – he says in the first chapter – from television preachers to conservative to liberal Presbyterians, even, different people were hitching their wagons to different leaders, as the community struggled to live into its mission.
And so Paul’s word to the church is a strong one. Strong enough that he seems to make up a word in the process. In this text Paul switches from their favorite term – pneumatikos in verse 1 – translated spiritual phenomenon, to his own. This word, charisma, found only in Paul and the literature dependent on him, was probably invented by Paul. It is undoubtedly related to charis, grace, and points the Corinthians back to the sovereign power of God. 6 They were a bit too caught up in those differences, it seems, about who did what and where – even at the church. That is why Paul needs to be clear. While different people have different gifts, he says, those gifts, those charisma, all come from the same place. We can’t brag or judge based on gifts, Paul says. God gives, and gives to ALL.
And those gifts aren’t for us, anyway. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. Paul then dives into a list. Wisdom, knowledge, miracles, prophecy, tongues. Organizing, listening, encouraging, including others, prayer. And Paul goes out of his way to make sure we don’t forget where those gifts come from. “To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit…by the one Spirit.” He repeats the Spirit with each gift, then pulls it all together again: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” The same Spirit that burst into the room at Pentecost, that sent those disciples running into the streets to tell their good news, continued to be at work in the church. That same Spirit was giving gifts to EVERYONE to use for the good of all.
If Paul is right, then church has something wonderful to share with the world! We need no longer be identified by our differences. The Spirit of Pentecost continues to inspire us all. That Spirit calls to those who sit on the sidelines, who prefer to remain on the periphery, that you have been given gifts, and you must use them. That same Spirit also says to those who do a lot, who do good and important work and might get a little self-righteous about it sometimes, that while everyone’s work is important, no one’s is more valuable than anyone else’s. The Spirit serves a great leveling function, calling us out to work, side by side, for the good of God’s great world. It is a matter of stewardship, the broadest possible sense. You have all been given gifts, Paul says. You, me, the person next to you, in front and behind, the person who drives you a little crazy. Those gifts come from the same place, and work for all.
So I would like to, in the spirit of Pentecost, give you a bit of a summer project. This is a season when things slow down a bit, when some programs take a break, some groups don’t meet. We head to the mountains, or the beach. Don’t let your gifts take a vacation, too. Some of you are sharing them by teaching a summer Sunday School class. There are a few Habitat days left, and we need you. Sign up to keep the nursery, whether you have young children or not. Haywood and Rebecca and I are trying to get four tables’ worth of folks to come to a Housing for New Hope breakfast in mid-July. We want you to come learn how your gifts, our gifts as a community, can be put to work for the common good in those places where people are hungry, where they seem so different from us. Remain keenly aware in these warm and lazy days that you have been given gifts to use for Christ’s purposes in the world.
The other thing I want you to do is to encourage someone else in the sharing of their gifts. Maybe it’s someone you know well who needs a place to fit; maybe it’s someone you don’t know as well. They only way you can draw out someone’s gifts is by getting to know them. That is one of the many reasons I have continued something Haywood did in officer training, which four elders-elect and seven deacons-elect began last Tuesday. Each week they have to meet someone they didn’t know, get to know them a bit, then come tell the group about them on Tuesday night. You can’t lead if you don’t know the people you are leading. When you come to dig in the garden, invite someone you haven’t seen in awhile. When you go to sign up to serve the shelter meal, bring someone along with you. The person on the sidelines, Paul reminds us, is simply someone whose gifts haven’t been put to good use yet.
Walter Brueggemann, in the Introduction for this season’s Journal for Preachers, writes: “The long preaching season between Easter and Advent goes by two names. It is the season of Pentecost, which recognizes that the church is powered and led, given courage and freedom, by God’s own Spirit….but we also call the season ordinary time, the time in between, when nothing special is going on.” Brueggemann goes on to suggest that this juxtaposition of Pentecost and ordinary is something wondrous for the church. “It is wondrous because of our shared assumption that it is ordinary for the church to be powered by God’s Spirit.” 7 That ordinary time is not, in fact, ordinary at all. That it is infused, filled, with the Spirit of grace, charis, who gives every single person in the world gifts, charisma, to use for the good of creation. So that people might be fed and clothed, so the lonely and sick might be nurtured, so that everyone has a chance to use their remarkable gifts. Don’t let them get stale this summer, friends. There is much work to do.
All praise be to God. Amen.
- Data from the 2010 Census, from a report on The Newshour with Jim Lehrer, accessed at: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec10/income_09-28.html
- “Durham poverty rate climbs,” by Mark Shultz, in the October 3, 2010 The Durham News, 1A. Also, “The great divide in household wealth,” by Gene Nichol, also in the 10/3/10 The Durham News, 4A.
- Statistics Courtesy Winnie Morgan, Executive Director of the Early Childhood Faith Initiative. http://www.dpfc.net/EarlyChildhoodFaithInitiative.aspx
- This background comes from the Rev. Elizabeth Goodrich’s immensely helpful paper on this text for the 2011 gathering of The Well in Austin, Texas.
- Goodrich again.
- Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004), p 536.
- Walter Brueggemann’s foreward to the Pentecost 2011 Journal for Preachers, Volume XXXIV, Number 4, p 1.