Gifts for the Beloved Community: Sermon for January 17, 2015

1 Corinthians 12:4-11

12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit;

12:5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord;

12:6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

12:7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

12:8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit,

12:9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,

12:10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

12:11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.
In 1963, a young man stood in an empty space, waiting. Everyone had been told when to arrive, but aside from a small group of his friends and supporters, no one had come. People had told him this would happen. They had said it was a bad idea, that it was too soon, that he didn’t have the authority to do it, or the resources he needed. From the highest reaches, the word had come down: call it off, because you will only hurt your cause.

The young man was the Rev. Martin Luther King, and the place he was standing was the National Mall, right in front of the Lincoln Memorial. The date was August 28th, and there was supposed to be a march on Washington that day. But that morning, no one was there.

Dr. King started to wonder if his doubters had been right. Other civil rights leaders had told him the march would never succeed. Even President Kennedy had asked him not to do this. But he had pressed on anyway, and now, with the Mall empty in front of him, it looked like everyone had been right.

This morning we read a passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. In it, Paul tells the church in Corinth something that every church that has ever existed needs to hear: Now concerning spiritual gifts, he says, I want you to understand…there are many gifts, but they come from the same God. There are many ways to serve, but they all serve God. It doesn’t matter if you are a healer, or a teacher, or a preacher, or a prophet…every gift or ability you have, it comes from the same place. And what’s more, Paul says, every good gift is to be used for what he calls the “common good”.

Paul was writing this letter to a divided community. He had heard that they were dismissing one another’s gifts and their need for one another. And so he wrote them this letter and he talked about how each one of us receives good gifts from God. And each of these gifts is important. And he tells the church members, use your gifts not to serve yourselves, but to serve the common good, or what Dr. King might have called the “beloved community”.

I think Paul could have just as easily been writing to the people surrounding Dr. King as he planned this march. The ones who said to him, “it’s too soon”, or “you can’t do this”, or “you’re going to fail”. I think he could have been saying to them “not so fast…because this man has been given a gift from God. Don’t dismiss this gift because it doesn’t fit into your timeline. Don’t reject it because it makes you uncomfortable and afraid. Let him use his gift because you are about to see something amazing.

gty_march_on_washington_martin_luther_king_ll_130819_33x16_1600That day as Dr. King stood on the Mall, a car finally arrived. Some people got out and walked over, and he must have thought “well, at least someone came”. But he asked them about their trip, and they said something unbelievable. They told him they would have been there earlier, but the roads were packed. The highways were filled…people were coming to Washington from all over.

You know what happened next. You know that around 250,000 people came that day. You know that Dr. King gave a speech that told the world about his dream. And you know that day that the country reached a tipping point when the passage of the Civil Rights Act became inevitable.

But the most amazing part of that story to me is that even when everyone was telling him “no”, Dr. King pushed ahead and decided to march anyway.

I don’t know how someone decides not to listen to every negative voice that surrounds them. But I know Dr. King did it. And the best I can figure is that he did it because he knew God was going to show up at that march no matter what, and he knew that God had given him the gifts to make something great happen.

But how did he know? I think that’s the more important question. I think Dr. King knew he had those gifts the same way that virtually all of us come to know of our own gifts: someone told him. And someone told him not to waste them.

That is wisdom each of us needs to hear. Because while we might not think we have any gifts, and certainly not the kind that Dr. King had, the truth is that each of us has been given extraordinary gifts by God. We just don’t always know it. Or, even worse, we know it but we are too scared to use them.

I always try to be careful to talk about sin in ways that won’t make people flee the building. But I think when we fail to name something we give it even greater power over us. Like Hermione Granger talking about why she would say “Voldemort” when others wouldn’t, we should be reminded that sometimes “fear of the name only increases fear of the thing itself”.

And so, I want to talk about wasting our gifts in terms of sin. Paul Tillich, echoing centuries of relatively privileged and self-assured theologians, wrote that pride was the cause of every sin. And that’s true sometimes. But not long after he said that, a group of women theologians challenged him. They said that when you’ve spent your whole life being told that you are in some way special, perhaps your pride does make you stumble. But for those who have spent their whole life being told what they cannot do, it’s not pride that causes us to not use our gifts. Instead, it’s the exact opposite. It’s our self-doubt, and our belief that we are somehow lesser than others.

Often that’s what keeps us from using every good gift that God has given to us. And, yes, that’s sin. Not in the sense that we are evil people, but in the sense that God wants something more from us, something better for us, and we are letting our fears come between us and God.

And so, here are the questions: What gifts has God given to you? And what gifts have you resisted claiming?

Put another way, if you believed truly in your heart and mind that God had given you your gifts and you would not fail, what would you be doing with them?

I’m asking you these questions not just because I want you to have the joy of finding God’s gifts inside of you. This is not about living your best life ever. I’m asking them because God did not give you these gifts only so you could use them for yourself. God gave them to you, like Paul says, so that you can put them to use for the common good.

The world needs those gifts right now…perhaps more than ever. It would be a mistake to think that the time for heroism and courage is in the past. It would also be a mistake to think that injustice is a thing of the past, or that the Civil Rights movement fixed everything.

Our world is in need of people who have gifts. It’s in need of people who have the courage to use them. Our gifts are like the puzzle pieces that God has given to us to fill in the places of suffering in our broken world. And when we hold them back, they do us no good, and they are denied to others.

And so, we cannot hide them. No matter how big or small they are, no matter how insignificant they may feel to us, or how inconvenient using them might seem. These gifts are not just ours; they are for the world, and we cannot keep them to ourselves anymore.

I’ll close with this. In the movie Selma, which followed Dr. King in the weeks leading up to the march over the Pettus Bridge and into Alabama, there’s a powerful scene in which Dr. King is strengthened and empowered by the gifts of another. His life is being threatened, his family is living with terror, and once again, two years after the march in Washington, he is trying to lead people out of their fear and into their faith.

And so he picks up the phone, and dials a number. And on the other end of the line we see the great Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson pick up. And he asks her to sing him a song, and right then, in the dead of night, her voice soars:

“Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home.”

In the end Dr. King’s gifts would change this country, and this world. Even as they cost him his life. And yet, he could do no other.

But he did not do it alone. He was surrounded by others who had gifts; like the ability to sing a hymn over a telephone line in the dead of night with a power that could make you believe that God was close.

If that is true for a man with the gifts Dr. King had, how much so is it true for us? And how much so is it true for all of those who need our gifts?

If there is any simple way to honor the legacy of Dr. King, and all who had the courage to fight for freedom, it is this: have the courage to give the world the gift that God has given to you. Do not keep it to yourself. Share it for the common good, and share it to build the beloved community. Amen?

When Pride is Not a Sin: The Season of Ending Gay Shame

In 10th grade my history teacher insisted we memorize the Seven Deadly Sins for an exam. Unlike most of the other things I tried to remember at age 14, years later I can still list them all: pride, greed, lust, gluttony, anger, envy, sloth.

In high school I thought those sins must have come from some sort of Biblical list. Years later I found out that the development of a listing of the Seven Deadly Sins was actually a gradual, fairly random, process across centuries of Christian thought. Like all traditions handed down through the centuries, they have taken on a life of their own and, for many, become an accepted, unquestioned part of Christian tradition. We caution those who are “too prideful”, labeling their actions un-Christian.

It was the Seven Deadly Sins that made the budding theologian in me question my first gay pride parade at age 18. I wasn’t questioning the morality of LGBTQ people and their relationships. I was questioning the claiming of “pride”, a sin that, if Christian tradition is to be believed, is the root of all destruction.

Of the Seven Deadly Sins pride has sometimes been called the worst. It is often seen as the root of the six other deadly sins. Even the 20th Century mainline theologian Paul Tillich, sometimes criticized as “too liberal” by conservative Christians, wrote that pride was the occasion for all sin. As I queued up for my first march in a pride parade I wondered, “Shouldn’t we find another name for this? Solidarity, maybe? Celebration? Something not on a “sin” list?”

Years later in seminary I though more about the “sin” of pride. I was reading Tillich and responses to his work. I was also taking Greek, a requisite for ordination. The wonderful thing about learning Greek was that it allowed seminarians to go back to the original sources of Christian thought, the Scriptures, and read them as they were first written. It made us go deeper and learn the contexts of the traditions we held onto hundreds of years later.

I learned that what the Seven Deadly Sins calls “pride” is actually more correctly “hubris”. In Greek the word for hubris has less to do with feeling good about one’s self, and more to do with shaming another through abuse and violence. Hubris is arrogance brought about by the shaming and victimization of another. It is, rightfully, named as sinful.

Applied today to the status of LGBTQ people in this country, hubris is not demonstrated in the pride parades held across the country each June. It’s not in the waving of a rainbow flag or marching with a banner. It’s nowhere to be found in the crowds gathered to proclaim their pride in who they are and in those whom they love.

Instead it’s here:

It’s in the pastor who preached in North Carolina that gays and lesbians should be rounded up, placed inside an electrified fence, and held until death.

It’s in the parents who taught their child to sing a hateful song about LGBTQ people at a Maryland church that included the words, “ain’t no homos going to make it to heaven” and then broadcast it, complete with the cheers of their fellow parishioners.

And it’s in the clergy who condemn committed LGBTQ relationships as they hide the sins of other clergy against children. Or who preach a Gospel of hate that encourages the bullies who force LGBTQ kids to the point they feel life has no hope.

These are sins. And they are deadly.

Paul Tillich’s insistence that pride was the root of all sin was later challenged by a growing field of women who were theologians. They pointed out to Tillich that for those who have been traditionally oppressed, pride is not an occasion for sin. Instead, the absence of pride, the failure to see one’s self as a good creation of God, was the real occasion for sin. The shame that kept one from doing the things God was calling them to do became sinful.

I want to be careful there to not label those who are mired in the shame created by an often homophobic world as sinners. They are not. Rather, the culture that creates that shame in young people growing up LGBTQ is, and that must be changed. A culture whose hubris comes from making LGBTQ people second-class citizens, who makes criminal in some states the very mention of the word “gay” in the classroom, who allows so-called reparative therapy practitioners to keep their licenses, is a sinful one because it is a soul-destroying one. It must be challenged. It must be changed.

And this is how LGBTQ people and their allies change it: they claim their pride. They claim it in parades. They claim it in front of wedding officiants. They claim it in the face of bullies. And they claim it on everyday that God has given to them.

43 years ago this month, at a bar called Stonewall, a group of LGBTQ people who were being attacked claimed it. After years of systemic degradation, violence, and victimization at the hands of hubris, they refused to live in shame anymore. That’s why each June we who are LGBTQ gather in their honor, and in memory of them and of everyone else who has ever stood up and refused to be ashamed anymore.

It is a good act. It is a holy act. And it is an act of faith. An act of claiming the life and the future that God has created for us. And when one is trying to live into the calling God has given them to live, and to resist those who would deny that calling, it can never be called a sin.