Paula Anema Sohl
17 January 2016
Isaiah 62:1-5, I Corinthians 12:4-11
Born Again for the Common Good
My favorite Facebook hero of the week is Angela Villon. She is running for congress in Peru where she has been a sex worker for 30 years. One of her main issues is ending violence against women. She says that the congress is her country’s first brothel: where consciousness, faith, ethics, and principles are for sale; where big business deals are made and where there is corruption under the table. She is running on a platform to educate and empower women, while fighting against sex trafficking and violence. It seems that Ms Villon is bringing her whole self, her body, to the task at hand—all her past, all she has learned, and all of her giftedness without shame. She is campaigning for a government position in her hopes of improving her society.
She probably won’t have to worry about sex scandals coming out of her closet. It seems her history is right out in the light . It seems all she has learned about people with power and money and the circumstances of women in poverty have informed her plans for achieving and making use of political office for the common good.
You might have had the privilege this week to hear Rebecca Bender, a young woman from Grants Pass, who is a surviver of sex trafficking right here in Oregon. She is adamant that she and many other women recovering from similar situations are more than their story; that no matter what they have endured, they can find support for living lives of fullness and inspired service and can offer support to other women in recovery from sexually abusive situations. She is raising awareness about the very real problem of human slavery that is numbered at 36 million people today throughout the world, people whose bodies have been appropriated by others.
The writer of our text in I Corinthians today outlines the gifts that the Spirit gives. I don’t think these gifts just show up all of a sudden. The gifts we bring to our life in community are the gifts from our whole life of experiences, including those that have been difficult, even horrible.
Lucy Strasburg told me if she hadn’t said yes to taking a walk on January 3rd she wouldn’t be learning all the lessons she is welcoming now about empathy and accepting help and managing disappointment and frustration and the gratitude she is gaining as she recovers from her ankle injury and surgery. She is bringing her best to her current task of healing and adjusting and learning more than she expected.
Betty Swinnerton turned 101 yesterday. She continues to integrate with peace and calm the gradually diminishing arc of her life. She doesn’t see well or hear well but she still gives thanks every time I see her for the good life she has enjoyed, the loving family around her, and her circle of friends who remember her still. She has gracefully incorporated the gifts of her resilience and her rich history into the task at hand: gradually letting her life come to its end.
The text offers a list of examples of giftedness: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment, and special facility with languages.
The breakdown in the text says that our gifts are diverse. There are charisms-from where we get the word charisma—these come from the Spirit; diakonia , or services—from where we get the word deacon—these come from the Human One, the Kurios or Supreme One, terms used for Christ, the incarnate one; and energeia—where the word energy comes from—these from God or Theos.
So we have the framing of the three manifestations of the trinity here to help us look at the wealth of our giftedness, gifts of charisma and service and energy, from the life-giver, pain-bearer, earth maker; gifts inspired by a broad manifestation of God nature. But again, our gifts come from all that we are–from the accidents of our birth and heritage, to the myriad of the life experiences that shape us. And according to the writer of I Corinthians, these gifts are given or acquired for the common good. The gifts we have to share develop in the uniqueness of each of our own particular journeys.
In my personal theological understanding I do not see our bodies separate from our souls. It is our bodies in which we discover our giftedness, our heredity, our relationships, our awareness of the world around us, our experience of what the world does to us, and in our bodies we even mediate our connection to the Divine.
Our daughter Hannah gave all of us in the family this book for Christmas this year: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is described as offering “a powerful new framework for understanding our nations’s history and current crisis,” especially around issues of race, asking the questions: “What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it?” and “And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?”
On nearly every page Coates talks about the black body. He recounts the history of exploitation and fear that has been written on black bodies in our country. He states that at the beginning of the Civil War, the stolen bodies of black slaves were worth four billion dollars. “more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by [black] stolen bodies—cotton—was America’s primary export.” He writes, “the spirit and the soul are the body and brain, which are destructible—that is precisely why they are so precious. And the soul did not escape,. The spirit did not steal away on gospel wings. The soul was the body that fed the tobacco, and the spirit was the blood that watered the garden, and these created the first fruits of the American garden….I believed, and still do, that our bodies are our selves, that my soul is the voltage conducted through neurons and nerves, and that my spirit is my flesh.” Coates describes each person as one of one.
In the book, Coates writes to his son in a similar way to that of James Baldwin writing to his 15 year old nephew fifty-three years ago, about how to navigate in the world with black skin.
Coates tells his son, Samori, “I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, shat she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.”
The legacy of slavery in our country, perpetrated by the people who think they are white, and the slavery that goes on today, where anyone thinks they have the right to control or coerce another human being, are evils to be addressed and corrected. The Hebrew scripture today is a call by the prophet to hold the vision of the better world we know is possible. The prophet Isaiah describes the day when the land shall no more be termed Desolate or Forsaken and will be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Holy One.
In the speech the prophet Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in 1967 at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, he advocated a similar hope for the future saying “Difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. And as we continue our charted course, we may gain consolation in the words so nobly left by that great black bard who was also a great freedom fighter of yesterday, James Weldon Johnson,” whose song we just sang, a song often called the Black National Anthem.
Coates adds to what King offers, affirming that there is goodness in the struggle itself. He writes, “And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory, but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.” But Coates doesn’t hold out a lot of hope that the people who think they are white will have the conversion necessary for the changes needed. He urges his son to remember “how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold.” And now Coates writes, they “plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the earth itself.” This plunder he notes “has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more.”
King critiques our system of plunder saying that capitalism forgets that life is social. Like the writer of I Corinthians, he emphasizes that all our gifts must be in the service of the common good.
In his speech King was advocating for guaranteed incomes. We have the opportunity at the moment to speak up for a higher minimum wage, at least moving us one step closer to providing dignity and the power to acquire goods and services to families struggling to get by.
King called the whole country to be born again. We heard last week about the “sacred shift,” as we frame it in Christianity, that we mark with the sacrament of baptism. The sacred shift we need in our country is radical.
The people who think they are white have a lot of work to do and we live in a community that offers us lots of opportunities to wonder together about how we move forward. You can see the photo exhibit at Stevenson Union of the More than a Survivor Campaign that is raising awareness about modern day slavery; you can attend the 27th annual MLK celebration at the Armory tomorrow at noon; you can come to the Unitarian church at 7 tomorrow evening to explore how people of faith can work together for racial justice; you can attend the Race Equity Coalition meeting at 7pm on Tuesday at Stevenson Union, Room 306; you can check out the Native American Student Union winter gathering at 4pm on Wednesday in the Diversions room of the Student Union. Any of these events will improve our cultural agility and move us towards the new birth King envisioned for our country.
The gospel story from the lectionary that we didn’t read today is of Jesus changing water into wine. We don’t know exactly what happened at that wedding in Cana. (You can spend a few minutes with the clay sculpture in our social hall that imagines that happy affair) But we do know that water does turn into wine. By a mystical, chemical, oenological miracle, with a few other ingredients and the passage of time, water becomes something delicious for the common good—for celebrating at weddings, for filling new wineskins of change, for participating in eucharist.
May we commit ourselves anew to that transformation: to become the cup of blessing as well as the nourishing body of Christ. Like Angela Villon and Rebecca Bender, may we take every bit of our life experience and pour it into the service and the feeding of the common good.
With the bread and wine we need for today, may God feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, may God forgive us.
In times of temptation and testing, may God strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, may God spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, may God free us.
May we greet one another with the peace of Christ and go forth in peace.