Gracious God, open our ears that we may hear your truth, open our eyes that we may see your kingdom, and open our hearts and minds that we might know the cries of our brothers and sisters who are hungry, and hurting, and sometimes even dying without the knowledge of your love for them. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)
As we look at our scripture for today, we find that Paul is talking to a church that has lost sight of what is important. He is talking to a church where one-upmanship is king and that spirit of one-upmanship, that my talent, my gift is more important than yours, is causing division and unrest in the body of Christ.
In fact, if the early church had not been so screwed up and so in need of correction, we might not have even heard that much from Paul at all.
Regardless, the early church DID get it wrong. There were members who felt that what they brought to the table was more important than what others brought and this attitude of one-upmanship was causing division and dissension within the body of Christ at Corinth… and, I would bet, at other churches as well.
In week one of this series, we learned that all of us are given talents and gifts that are to be used for the betterment of the body of Christ. These talents and gifts are given to us, imparted to us, in our baptism as we are incorporated into the Body of Christ.
Last week, we learned that the gifts of the Spirit are inumerable and tempered by how we, as followers of Christ, relate to the community in which we find ourselves. Teachers, preachers, prophets are all important gifts, but so are counselors, interventionists, and administrators within the great scheme of things. And, in the great scheme of things, we find that we are not the independent souls that American exceptionalism would have us believe, but that we are truly interdependent souls that need each other to fully live and move and breathe in this life.
This past Monday, we celebrated Martin Luther King day. Dr King was a champion for the downtrodden. He worked for a racial ideal that declared, as out Declaration of Independence declared, that All Men, and women were created equal. Unfortunately, he lived in a time when equality was an ideal. The color of your skin was more important than the quality of your character and the differences in color and the privileges thereof were not benignly enacted but were stridently enforced, in some cases to the point of injury or death.
Our daughter, Monica, spent her undergraduate years at Birmingham-Southern College, a good United Methodist college located on the Western side of downtown Birmingham, Alabama. While there, as a vocal music major, she was a member of the Chancel Choir at First United Methodist Church located at the corner of 19th Street and 6th Avenue North in downtown Birmingham. One Sunday, when we were able to visit her and worship with her on a Sunday morning, there was an issue on the interstate that connected downtown with Arkadelphia Road where the college was located. So, we traveled the surface streets to get back to campus. As we traveled, we found within three blocks of the United Methodist Church, a structure that looked familiar to me as a history buff. This familiar building located at the corner of 6th Ave North and 16th Street was the 16th Street Baptist Church. And as that realization hit me, tears crept into my eyes. You see, the 16th Street Baptist Church, and African American church located only three blocks from the heart of downtown Birmingham, Alabama, was the site on September 15, 1963, where members of the local Ku Klux Klan, so filled with hatred of the idea that other races were equal to them, planted at least 15 sticks of dynamite beneath the steps on the Eastern side of the church. Dynamite, that when ignited, caused not only the death of 4 young African American girls who were guilty of nothing more than being at church on a September Sunday morning, and it set up a shock wave that was felt beyond First Methodist Church 3 blocks away.
It was an act of cowardice.
It was an act desperation to keep things the way that they had always been for people who only felt comfortable when folks who were unlike them were subjugated and made to feel inferior. And that was not an unusual situation in Birmingham. Folks like the infamous Bull Conner were hell bent on keeping segregation as the law of the land in Birmingham, standing against the tide that was changing as the African American citizens were standing up and saying this isn’t right and we’re not going to take it any more.
It was in this setting, following the Montgomery Bus Boycott, started when Rosa Parks, tired after a day of work, refused to give up her seat on a city bus to a white man and go stand in the back of the bus simply because the law stated that whites has privileges that others didn’t, that the tide of revolutionary change was begun.
It was in this setting that Dr Martin Luther King, as President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came, at the invitation of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, to lead non-violent protests against the segregationist status quo. It was in this setting that, as they protested through lunch counter sit-ins, and other non-violent means of stating their objections to a system that discriminated for no other reason than the color of one’s skin, Dr King found himself arrested and sent to the Birmingham jail. IT was in this setting that some of the leading clergymen in Birmingham, including the Bishops of the North Alabama and Alabama/West Florida Conferences of the Methodist Church issued a statement condemning the protests and suggesting that the blacks should present their objections only through respectful dialog and not through strikes and marches.
It is in this setting that Dr King, arrested for leading non-violent protest for change is incarcerated in the Birmingham Jail simply for advocating that which the Declaration of Independence insisted were fundamental rights for all men, and women.
Dr King, writing in response to the clergymen, declared that, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and States. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever directs one directs all indirectly.” He goes on to say that, “In a real sense all life is interrelated. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… this is the interrelated structure of reality.”
What does it mean to be interrelated? To be part of an inescapable network? I think that it means that we are all in this together. That what each of us brings to the table when it comes to the gifts that God has given us is no more or no less important than the gift that someone else brings to the table. In other words, we are one in Christ Jesus. No one of us is more important, or less important than any other person because the diversity that we bring to the body is its strength.
St Paul reminds us, as he did the church at Corinth, that together, we are more than the sum of our parts. We each bring our individual strengths that contribute to the strength of the whole and by doing so, all of us are lifted up in service to Christ.
And no one, and no thing, is more important than anyone or anything else. In Christ, we are all equal. We are all one. For Christ came for all of us. Christ died for all of us. And all of us are equally saved by his grace and his love.
We are all one in the Spirit and we are all one in the Lord.
Thanks be to God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.