Talking with someone in the church – I can’t remember who— we discovered a common experience. At a certain point in our lives, we realized, each of us had seriously thought ourselves, “Oh no, I’m too old to compete in the Olympics!” We laughed, hard, about this. After all, neither of us had displayed that level of talent in any actual sport. Nor had we undertaken, or even considered undertaking, the training necessary. Still, there is this thing in me, and it seems in many of us, that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called “The Drum Major Instinct”. It’s a yearning to be great in some way. To be first and best at something. To live a life of meaning, and impact.
Now, I do aerobic sports to stay in shape– swimming, and cross country skiing and biking. But let me tell you, I’ve never been the fastest or strongest in any of these. A few years ago, at a church meeting (of all places) I did find out that I have unusual talent in a rare sport. I am really good a game called “bag lips”. A paper grocery bag is placed on the floor. The only rules are that the contestant must balance on one foot while picking up the bag with her lips. After each round of competition, the bag is trimmed so that its sides are shorter, and gradually those who fail to reach the bag with their lips are eliminated, until one champion remains. That was me! : ) Ah, the glory! If only there were an Olympic bag lips competition!!
In last week’s Gospel lesson, we saw the spirit-dove descend and heard the promise of baptism with water and the Holy Spirit. And here, again, in I Corinthians, comes the Spirit. “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit… To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” ALL OF US receive gifts. Gifts of the Spirit. Not just those who serve as pastors or deacons. Not only those comfortable praying out loud. Not simply those active in the inner workings of the congregation’s leadership. Not just the adults, but also the children. EVERYONE. ALL OF US.
Paul names specific spiritual gifts: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues and the interpretation of the tongues. With this list, Paul meant to illustrate possibilities, rather than produce an exhaustive or definitive inventory. Scholars think that perhaps the Corinthians believed that speaking in tongues was the superior gift. Here, Paul sought to challenge this belief, to correct their tendency to make spirituality into a competition with winners and losers, “haves” and “have nots”. All of us receive gifts of the Spirit, he proclaimed, and these gifts are various, diverse and equal in importance.
What are your spiritual gifts, and mine? How do we know? In what ways are we being called to use those gifts within the church, and, as members of the church dispersed in the world? What duties might we need to step away from, because they do not use our gifts well? What gifts do we notice in others around us and how will we nurture them? What gifts are laying fallow, unused? Is this the time and place in which they might flourish? These are the questions we are asking in this Epiphany season – that’s what the yellow piece of paper in the bulletin is all about.
Certainly, when it comes to the gifts we are given, the Spirit draws on capacities that are natural to us, fitting for who we are. Spiritual gifts may encompass the things at which we excel … the ability to play a musical instrument, tell a good story, solve a complex math problem, build a beautiful piece of furniture. Spiritual gifts surely draw on qualities we possess, such as generosity, hospitality, fairness, or patience. But at the same time, the language about gifts is more than just a fancy way of talking about our skills, talents, and personal qualities. The most important characteristic of a spiritual gift is its source and its purpose. As Paul says: “all these are activated by one and the same Spirit.”
I want to repeat something I said last week about the Spirit, in case you missed hearing it because you weren’t here, or were too busy laughing at my slip about the hokey pokey. The Spirit, to me, isn’t hocus pocus. In other words, it isn’t a force that intervenes from the outside, suspending reality in order change the outcome of events. Instead, I think of the Spirit as a pulse of God that is the very breath of the world. The Spirit is flowing through us, weaving its way through events and relationships, working in those situations in which people allow for its possibility and welcome its guidance.
My personal experience is that when I pray for the Spirit’s presence and gifts, I often become aware of tapping into a strength or grace that flows from beyond myself and yet is very much a part of who I am. I am empowered with an awareness that I am not acting alone; the Spirit is making use of me. I am interconnected with all things, and accountable to that whole. Paul uses the metaphor of the human body to further illustrate his ideas about spiritual gifts. He writes: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
Our First Church covenant of membership proclaims that we are a community of differing, but kindred, minds. Paul’s body metaphor reminds us that the differing and the kindred do not make much sense without each other. “If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’. The members of the body carry out distinctive functions and yet need each other to be complete and whole. The unity, the kindredness, of the body of Christ is a gift. Lee Barrett writes: “In Christ, the church is already a united body, even if not adequately expressed. Its organic oneness is a gift of grace. The Christian community simply needs to enact what already is.” (Feasting on the Word Year C, volume 4, page 282)
In the sermon from which we heard an excerpt this morning, Dr. King argued that though the drum major instinct can be highly destructive, the Christian life is not about giving it up, but about channeling it. King imagined that Jesus would say to his disciples who wanted to be great: “… don’t give up this instinct. It’s a good instinct if you use it right. It’s a good instinct if you don’t distort it and pervert it. Don’t give it up. Keep feeling the need for being important. Keep feeling the need for being first. But I want you to be first in love. I want you to be first in moral excellence. I want you to be first in generosity…. Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” (The Drum Major Instinct, Feb 4, 1968. mlk -kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_the_drum_major_instinct/)
As we remember Dr. King and honor his legacy, let us ask ourselves how we continue to be accountable to the dream of God’s Spirit that flowed through his life. Dr. King’s vision was not about racial justice in an isolated sense. He is known, of course, for leading a movement to end legal segregation. But what the Spirit really was doing in him and our nation, was about a much, much deeper spiritual change. Dr. King spent his final years of life calling for an end to the Vietnam War and challenging the nation to address its economic inequities through a “poor people’s campaign”. Dr. King’s dream was about recognizing that we, as people, are one, interdependent, body. We are members of each other. And humans are just one part of this sacred earth body with its synergistic systems, animated by the Spirit-breath of God.
Today, racism is legal, cloaked in respectability, embedded in all institutions of society. The differential between rich and poor in our nation and around the world continues to widen. Gun violence is an accepted part of our lives. Indeed, some continue to argue that the public’s right to possess semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines should outweigh the right of our children to be safe. Our climate is warming, and our planet’s life systems are in trouble. Through the power and the mystery and the synergy of the Spirit, we are ALL gifted, everyone of us, for the sake of the common good. We are gifted and we are called, urgently, to be great. Great in serving – serving Christ’s own dream. We gifted to be great in small, everyday ways. great in a diversity and variety of skills, arts, and capacities, great in our dedication to unity, to a kindred mind. Let us then be the body of Christ, alive and at work in the world! Amen.