I spent some time on Friday following one of the heritage walks downtown in the Civil Rights district. If you’ve been downtown at all, you’ve probably passed and read some of those signs that mark significant events and places in Birmingham’s Civil Rights history. Though there are currently four separate march routes that spread across several blocks each, I’ve always read individual signs by happenstance, usually through my car window as I’m stopped at a red light.
I had never followed a whole path before. So Friday – on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s actual calendar birthday – I decided to make the time to not only walk through Kelly Ingram Park, but also to trace the route that covers the Selective Shopping campaign, the economic resistance that led to peaceful protest and violent response.
Foot soldiers and firehoses. Pickets and police dogs. Even though we know the history – some of you lived through it – it never ceases to hold new lessons for us. It is a part of who we are and who we will become. It is a part of our context. Walking that whole path brings a vivid sense of our city’s history and of how that continues to shape our journey forward as we seek – or not – common ground and the common good.
This letter of Paul’s to the Corinthians is born of another specific context and it speaks into that context. It’s one of a series of letters – only 2 of which have been preserved – from Paul to a congregation that he had founded some years before. Much of the letter consists of his pastoral responses to their questions.
He’s giving them practical advice about being church together in that time and that place and with those people. Corinth in this era is a big, bustling Greek port city with a diverse population. The people of Corinth were trying to live out the teachings of Jesus in the middle of a busy urban area and in the middle of the call of their daily lives. In the hearing of this passage you can probably already begin to imagine how it might apply it to the life of our times.
The conversations we have in this church are always in a specific context too. We are looking at the challenges of finding and getting used to a new pastor. We bring the busy-ness of the past week and the anticipation of the week ahead of us. We come with the awareness of endless political squabbling, bloodshed in both distant lands and here in our own city, water from the tap in Flint, Michigan that has been unsafe to drink for more a YEAR and HALF and somebody’s just now doing something about it. We’ve got the passing from this earthly life of some of our most loved cultural icons. And we come together this night on the eve of the day that asks us to remember the life and the witness of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That’s our context too. This is what we share, our common life.
Paul is trying to help the Corinthians deal with what’s going on in their shared life. The problems we confront today are both similar and different. As I read the passage from Paul and thought about this holiday weekend and all that’s going on in the world, I started thinking about these words of civil rights activist, scholar, friend and biographer of Martin Luther King, a man by the name of Vincent Harding.
Harding describes one of our problems in this way – and it’s a danger that is so concrete in this time in our country – he says “For you know and I know so many people who believe that the comfortable darkness in which they now live is the best thing they could ever have, and that everything else is much too risky. And many of you know all the people who are quite sure that they cannot change the habits of their lives and try out a new America.”
Often we look at what we CAN’T do. Or if we look at what we can do, we think somehow it’s not good enough. It’s not important enough. WE are not enough. And when we get stuck in that place, we fail to see what we have to give. We get so wrapped up in our shortcomings and self-doubt that we don’t risk sharing our real and needed gifts with one another.
If we can’t be and do everything, we can fall into the trap of thinking it’s safer to do nothing. We might not take the risk of offering ourselves into a society that has been known to shred people body and soul. Or we think if we give of ourselves we’ll give it all up. There won’t be anything left. We don’t have faith that God is at work in the world and that the world can be transformed through God’s abundant love. We don’t have faith that God is at work in us and through us.
What this passage makes clear is that all of our gifts and talents are important – and are needed. Pick the metaphor that works for you: the puzzle comes together when we all put in our pieces; the painting takes its final form only when we each add our brushstrokes; the choir sounds right only when all of our voices join in. That’s a just a start on the metaphors.
But whichever image you hold in mind, Paul is telling us that the church and the world recognize and need our diverse gifts. That’s a joy. And that’s a responsibility. Paul does not – because Jesus does not – give us much space to stay out of everything. We might want to hide.
And to be clear, we’re all allowed a day on the couch or some time spent staring at the TV. If we don’t pace ourselves, it’s going to be hard to keep at it. But our world needs us. Our world needs people to bring the love of God into our common life, for the common good. Because our culture hides our fundamental interdependence from us. We need something beyond ourselves, but we don’t always see it that way.
Hear the words of Dr. King. At Riverside Church in New York in April 1967, he preached, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
To create what King calls a person-oriented society, we have to honor and nurture the gifts of ALL people. We must see the beautiful diversity that God has put into this world – diversity among our humanity and among our ecosystems – as our treasure here on earth.
A people-oriented society affirms that there is a variety of gifts, but always the same Spirit;
That there is a variety of ministries, but we serve the same One;
That there is a variety of outcomes, but the same God is working in all of them;
That to EACH PERSON is given the manifestation of the Spirit FOR THE COMMON GOOD.
Each person. Each. Person. For the common good. Even as we strive to find the courage to share our own gifts in this world, we must also look for the gifts in others.
EVERYBODY has a role to play in following the example of Jesus.
EVERYBODY has a role to play in the active witness of THIS church.
EVERYBODY has a role to play in making Jesus’ love manifest in a world where the dominant cultural narrative going on 50 YEARS after the death of Martin Luther King is STILL one of
heterosexism and homophobia, and
hatred of our neighbors disguised as so-called patriotism.
We all know there’s evil. A lot of it resides in our systems and structures, in the ways that they protect the powerful and sacrifice the powerless. And sadly it resides in people. Some people are so damaged by this world that all they can do is spread that pain around. It leeches out of them and separates them from their own humanity and from their capacity to bear witness to our shared humanity.
That, my friends, is what sin looks like. And we live in a world that profits off of sin and death and despair. But the Gospel response to that is not MORE SIN and MORE DEATH and MORE DESPAIR.
The Gospel response to that is life and connection and the use of our own gifts and valuing of the gifts of others. We strive toward a world where no one is an outcast, no one is stranger, right? In the name of Jesus Christ, we seek to heal the wounds of sin, the pain of separation, the damage that we human beings do to one another and to the earth.
We are called in our diversity to make compassion and justice a reality, to create a world where we do not damage the hearts and minds, the souls and bodies, of one another. That is a world in which the love and example of Jesus Christ indeed reigns supreme.
There is work to be done – maybe more work than ever – and that work is the task given by the Gospels to us all. If we listen to Paul, however, we realize that we do not all have to do it the same way. We just have to pick up our God-given gifts and use them to make the love of God manifest in a world that so desperately needs it.
We are NOT working for what theologian Holly Hearon calls “the false peace of the status quo”. We are working together – we MUST work together – for a world where God’s justice and God’s love are made real for each and every soul and for all of Creation. That is the common good.
The world feeds us shallow commodified consumer-oriented relationships. It draws us to mute – or not so mute – idols that will lead us astray. It sparks in us not only the desire to judge one another, even over the most trivial things, but a sense that we are ENTITLED to judge one another, even over the most trivial things.
It teaches us that we NEVER have enough and yet lures us with the promise that that next purchase, that next THING we acquire will fulfill us, will make us content.
True contentment can only come from being
right with God,
right with ourselves, and
right with one another.
There’s no way we can achieve that all the time. But in relationship with God and with one another, we can make that our intention. It can be our compass point.
And when we do this right, we all carry one another all along the way.
We all use whatever gifts we bring, whether it’s the widow’s mite or Mary’s attention or Martha’s hospitality to contribute to the common good.
In this congregation there are healers and there are prophets. We have wisdom in discourse and the word of knowledge among the people here. Among the people here in this room right now. And we got a lot – a LOT – of faith.
In this place, there are community organizers and artists. There are people who build and people who teach and people who feed. There are caregivers and financial stewards. Some of you create safe spaces and others brave spaces. We need both.
In this place, there are people whose work contributes to the well-being of the vulnerable and often marginalized among us – children, the elderly, those with mental illness, the poor, the immigrant, LGBTQ people. There are people who show up and put their shoulders to whatever needs to be done wherever they are, day in and day out.
And it may be that some of y’all have miraculous powers. I don’t doubt it for a minute.
Claim your God-given gifts with the humility and confidence that comes of knowing that you are a child of God. Then use them in ways that are small and ways that are large to make this world into a place that honors that of God that dwells within each person.
That is the common good.
We’re not all good at everything – and everything is not all about us, but this church has always been a place where the boundaries of community are porous. We don’t circle up and make a big deal about US and THEM.
The lines between us sitting up here as a church congregation and the world out there – that’s always a thin line here, one that allows us not only to see the pain – and the beauty of the world around us, but to use our gifts for the common good.
Let us do that work.