I have a vivid memory of the day I got into college. It was December 15th of my senior year of high school, and senioritis – that condition that makes it impossible to take any aspect of high school academics seriously because your applications are already in – had set in. My best friend, Ben, and I had both applied early decision to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Applying early decision meant that, in exchange for a commitment to enroll if offered a place in the incoming class, you got your decision much earlier than other prospective students. You got it before Christmas.
The notification date was December 15. Ben and I left for school that morning knowing that by the end of the day we’d have news that would change our futures. We were on pins and needles. By lunchtime, we couldn’t take it anymore. We slipped out of the lunch room and cut classes to drive home and check our mailboxes. First we went to Ben’s house. There was an envelope. It was thin. We weren’t sure what that meant. He opened it. It was a simple, one-page letter congratulating Ben on being accepted to the incoming class and promising that more materials would be arriving by mail very soon. We yelled and screamed. We jumped up and down. Then we got back in the car and drove to my place, anxious now that the specter of one of us getting in and the other one not had risen up.
We arrived on my street and the mail truck was parked way down at the end of the block. The mail carrier was nowhere in sight. So, we drove up and down the side streets and finally located the guy tromping through the snow. I asked if he had my mail. He said he did. I asked if he could just give it to me. He said he wasn’t supposed to. I begged. I told him my college acceptance letter was in his bag, and that I was dying to know if I’d gotten in. He relented, and handed me a thin envelope. We knew what that meant. We yelped with excitement before I’d even opened it. Then I sliced the envelope open with my fingers and pulled out the good news, “We are very pleased to inform you that you have been accepted into the incoming class of 1995…”
Once again, we screamed and yelled. We jumped up and down. We actually, literally, burst into song.
“We’re going to Macalester, Macalester. We’re going to Macalester, Macalester. We’re going to Macalester, Macalester. A-whoopdy-whoopdy-whoopdy-whoopdy-woo!”
What it lacked in lyrics, it made up for in enthusiasm.
We drove back to school kings of our destinies. We were soaring with excitement. We were high on pride. We strutted into our AP Calculus class a full 30 minutes late, waving our envelopes in the universal gesture of acceptance known to college bound high school seniors across the globe. Our teacher was gracious and didn’t scold us. Our classmates were rapt with curiousity. “Where did you get in?”
Then, from a desk near the front of the room, a voice that marred our moment of victory like a key screeching across the paint job of a car you love. “Macalester? Isn’t that a second quartile school?”
It’s not important who said this. I’m not going to name names, because in this world of facebook and blogs, someone will read this sermon online and word will travel and it will eventually get back to Yvonne Hsu that I called her out.
Oops. There it is. Oh well.
I’m not going to overstate my case here. I’m not going to claim that she ruined my perfect day. I was still bursting with excitement at the vision for my future that letter represented. But, then, I was also just a little bit angry. Why did she have to go and rain on my parade? And then I was a little insecure, knowing that each of my classmates was also waiting on a letter from a school that had been ranked by some guidebook. And then I began to feel the outlines of a way of living that had already started the first time I got tracked out of the general education classes and moved into Advanced Placement courses. It would continue here, today, with this letter. You could line us up, my classmates and I, based on what school we’d gotten into, and me and Ben would now be in the “second quartile.” Then graduate schools, or first employers. Then salaries or square footage. Then number of cars. Then number of children. Then promotions. The gift of each happy day converted into something anxious, a comparison to our peers. Have I done enough? Have I achieved enough? Can I be proud of my life?
From “we are very pleased to inform you that you have been accepted,” to “can I be proud of my life” in less than an hour. I know I’m not the only one. We’ve all experienced these highs and lows crammed right up next to each other. We know the peculiar suffering of a gift degraded. We’ve known how easily our pride and joy can be converted into shame and embarrassment since the first child said to her playmate, “what’d you get for Christmas?”
These competitions and jealousies are the backdrop to the lesson we heard read this morning from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. On first reading it seems so upbeat, so affirming. “There are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.” How inclusive! I wonder though, why Paul would have felt the need to make such assurances. I wonder what was going on in the community to necessitate such a pastoral letter.
It turns out the community in Corinth was dealing with the kind of competition and insecurities that don’t limit themselves to calculus classrooms. It was an amazingly diverse congregation, made up of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free people, men and women, rich and poor. And like any community with that kind of diversity, people had very different practices, very different ways of worshipping. The Greeks had no Jewish background, they weren’t familiar with all the Jewish laws and customs and holidays that were the backbone of the newly emerging Christian cult; but they had customs of their own. In the mystery cults of Greek religious practice, people were all about entering into ecstatic states and altered consciousnesses and speaking in tongues. That came to Christianity from our pagan converts. In Corinth, which was in Greece, there were lots of newcomers joining the church and bringing their customs with them. As they began to outnumber the Jews, their customs and rituals began to be valued above the gifts and talents of others. Speaking in tongues was becoming the litmus test for whether or not one “had” the Holy Spirit – as if the Holy Spirit were something we could possess as opposed to being something that is given to us as a gift.
To a community that was lining itself up and beginning to establish a hierarchy of spiritual gifts (speaking in tongues, first quartile; the utterance of wisdom and knowledge, second quartile…), Paul sends a letter aiming to do three things:
First, Paul wants people to recognize that, as much as the Holy Spirit is something to be had, we all have it. He says, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by t
he Holy Spirit.” He’s writing to people who are all worshipping together, all confessing Jesus as their Lord, as their guide for a way of being that brings liberation, redemption and reconciliation. So, since they are all making that confession, they are all exhibiting the power and presence of God in their lives. They can stop looking for external validations of their worth. They belong to God. That is enough.
Second, Paul wants to question the ends to which people are putting their gifts. He is shifting their attention from pride in the gift to pride in what can be done with the gift. He writes, “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Who cares if you can speak in tongues, he asks. The more important question is: what are you saying and how is that word building the community up instead of ripping it apart? The same could be asked of our educations, or our talents, or our offerings. The pride doesn’t come from having them, it comes from giving them for the building up of the world.
Lastly, Paul says “all these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” Here we are reminded that our differing and diverse gifts have a common source. For as many times as we remind ourselves in worship that all are welcome, and there is always enough, we are still aware that we are not all the same. We are not striving for a community of equality at the price of our individuality – and neither is God. The goal is not to divest ourselves of what makes us unique, but to come to value and appreciate all the many and marvelous ways of being human and to lift those qualities up in our worship, in our workplaces and in our whole lives. This means paying attention to the songs we sing and the words we choose, so that we avoid creating hierarchies of culture, privileging some people’s backgrounds at the expense of others. This means paying attention to the buildings in which we live, work, worship and play so that our words of welcome are matched with architecture that is accessible to the many different kinds of bodies into which we are born and live our lives.
Last week we considered what the baptism of the Lord might have to do with something as political as immigration reform. This week we ask whether or not our worship has anything to do with practical matters that fill our everyday lives. Paul talks to his congregation about the need to check their impulse to use worship practices to elevate some at the expense of others. And Jesus, through the gospel of John, seems to be saying something about the relationship of ritual to reality as well.
Jesus shows up to a wedding banquet, a celebration to be sure – but one filled with anxiety about getting it right, pulling it off, making it count. It was a public occasion that had as much to do with displaying the wealth and power of the parents as it did with the children being married. Running out of wine at an occasion for which you’d perhaps asked people to travel great distances at even greater personal cost would have been a source of great shame for the hosts. Mary, Jesus’ mother, sees the need of the host and asks her son to do something about it.
This is not the epiphany Jesus appears to have been planning. It is not the manifestation or revelation of God’s power at work in the world that Jesus wants to use as a kick off to his ministry. He tells his mother, “my hour has not yet come.” But his mother knows, and has known since before his birth, that in Jesus God is coming as a servant and not a lord. She knows that his power, because it is from God, is responsive to the needs of people and not the needs of privilege. She simply tells the servants, “do whatever he tells you.”
Jesus calls for the empty clay jugs used for Jewish purity rituals to be filled with water. This is John, the poet of the gospel writers, so we see the symbolism writ all over this moment. Purity rituals that are empty. Waters of baptism and inclusion transformed into wine of abundance and at the same time self-sacrifice. How to translate this third epiphany in a season of epiphanies that began when foreign royalty traveled to the manger to meet an infant king, and continued when the waters of baptism revealed Jesus as God’s beloved?
Perhaps it is simply this: in Jesus, God requires that our rituals be filled up with meaning. In Jesus, God does not ask us to give up our worship and our ritual – but instead to fill it up. Let the meaning of our holy play in this room of rituals be filled up with reality. Let this water abolish purity for the sake of inclusion. Let this wine abolish shame for the sake of restoration and reconciliation. Let the good gifts of the earth – water and food and drink – be shared joyfully so that no one is shamed before their neighbors, no one goes begging door to door. Let the gifts God has given you be used for the building up of the common good.
Brothers and sisters, the letter has arrived. We are very pleased to inform you that you have been accepted. Accept your acceptance. You might even scream and yell and jump up and down, as Ben and I did, which I suppose was not all that different from speaking in tongues. But whatever your gifts are, remember where they come from and what they are for, the common good. You are gifted to be a gift. Somewhere in your life, at home or at work, here in the neighborhood or suffering to the south in Haiti, someone is dying to hear the good news you hold in your hands. How will you share it?