Gifts for the Common Good

The Christians in Corinth thought that some gifts of the Spirit were far superior to others. Speaking in tongues, for instance. If you had the gift of speaking in tongues, clearly God loved you better than those who were, say, merely good at healing or teaching. According to Karen Stokes, the community at Corinth was already diverse. “Worshiping together were Greeks and Jews, slaves and free people, men and women, rich and poor” [Karen Stokes, Feasting on the Word, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), C:1, 254.]. But within the Christian community at Corinth there was the desire to say that some people were superior, or more beloved of God. Their halos shone a little brighter.


Paul says no: all gifts are of value, and we are stronger for such diversity. All gifts come from God, and all are of value when put to use for the common good. That’s key: you don’t just keep your gifts to yourself but put them to use for the whole community. We are invited to be creative in our resistance to oppression and evil, to come together and celebrate God’s love and justice and liberty. (It makes oppressors so mad when people do that.)


But sometimes we need a nudge to share our gifts. That’s what we see in the reading from the Gospel of John today. The mother of Jesus (who for some reason is not given a name here) notices that the wine has run out at the wedding. These wedding feasts could go on for seven days. The guests are all arriving not in their cars but on foot, and having traveled some distance, they’re going to stay a while to celebrate the event. They brought their toothbrushes and their jammies. So you wanted to have plenty of provisions for your guests. Running out of wine halfway through the week would be a real problem. And Jesus’ mother knows what Jesus is capable of doing. Perhaps he’s been developing his gifts from an early age. She says to him, “They have no wine.” The subtext here is clearly, “This is your cue, sweetheart: fix it.” You can almost see her raising her eyebrows or elbowing him in the ribs.


Jesus is reluctant. “Mom, it’s not my problem. This isn’t the right time.” Did you notice how she completely disregards his unwillingness to act? One can imagine her waving her hand dismissively. Pshhht! She turns to the servants: “Whatever he tells you to do, just do it.”


Jesus’ mother is pushing him onstage, saying “You can do this, son.” You can practically see him rolling his eyes: “Aw, Mom….”


But then he does it. And not just six bottles of wine. Six water jars, each holding 20 to 30 gallons. That’s 120 to 180 gallons of really good wine. Quite the party.


We know that elsewhere Jesus feeds countless people with countless loaves of bread. This is one of his gifts: bread and wine to celebrate—a wedding, a meal with friends, an opportunity to preach God’s Good News to those who hunger for it. We are all invited to this party.


And to this party we get to bring our best selves—all our gifts. God gives us gifts. What we do with them—how we put them to use for the common good in the building of God’s realm—is our gift to God. When we see everyone and value all their gifts, we are all the richer for our diversity, just like the Christians in Corinth.


Using our gifts for the common good can be as simple as wearing a mask, getting vaccinated, staying home when we feel sick, so that we keep friends and strangers alike healthy. That is a gift for the common good: not sharing the coronavirus germs. I don’t know why this has gotten so political. It’s about all of us doing what we can to take care of the whole community.


We are all given gifts. We are all invited to use them for the common good, to help create the world we want to see, the world of love and justice—for everyone—that God desires. Dr. King worked for a world where children of all colors could be known for the content of their character rather than the color of their skin. Imagine the gifts that we all have missed out on because Black children weren’t given an equally good education and opportunities to develop their gifts. Imagine the fabulous sermons we’ve all missed from women who were told by their denominations that women can’t be ordained. Imagine the fabulous LGBTQ people with their gifts who never got to share them because people shut them out. Imagine the brilliant immigrants who spent their work lives sweeping floors and cleaning toilets because those are the only gifts they were allowed to contribute. We all miss out when people are denied the chance to use their gifts.


In 1963, Martin Luther King and a whole bunch of people put together the March on Washington. One of the lead organizers was Bayard Rustin, a Black, gay, former member of the Communist Party in the U.S. Imagine how many ways he had been told his gifts weren’t needed. And yet. His gift was organizing people. And he was unstoppable when the cause was just. Strom Thurmond—you remember him?—tried to shame Rustin and the whole March by reading into the Congressional record an account of Rustin’s arrest for a gay encounter in California, because this was illegal at the time. Rustin and the March organizers ignored Thurmond and kept organizing.


Recently on the radio show “Throughline” on NPR, one commentator spoke not only of Rustin’s gifts but of ways in which all of us can participate, using whatever gifts we have. The commentator said this:

It’s about all of those people who got out there and marched or who got out there and sat in and got out there and demonstrated. You know, most of those names and faces we’ll never really know about. But a movement is about moving people, and Bayard’s contribution really was the ability to organize masses of people.

Everybody can have a role in a movement. You know, we may not all be able to be Dr. King, we may not all be able to be A. Philip Randolph or even Bayard Rustin, but maybe you’re a great artist or maybe you’re a great writer and you can contribute in that way. So we all have a role to play. We can’t sit around waiting for the one leader to come and take us to the Promised Land. (“Bayard Rustin: The Man Behind the March on Washington,” on “Throughline,” January 15, 2022.)


In his final speech, Dr. King said he could see the Promised Land, but he might not get there with us. We are still on that road today, and it takes all of us to get there.


Martin Luther King, Jr., is the one in the limelight at the March on Washington. But without Bayard Rustin organizing it, the march wouldn’t have happened. And without every person showing up, assembling signs, packing lunches, singing, listening, marching, holding hands—without everyone coming together to say this is important—the March means nothing.


Jesus invites us to party for God’s love and justice. Protest rallies for social justice issues have that ethos at their core. In 2014 I got to march for climate change with hundreds of thousands of my closest friends through the streets of Manhattan. Pretty fun! We were sending a big message to world leaders gathering at the UN for a big meeting on climate change. We wanted to be sure they understood how many of us took this crisis seriously. So we marched and sang and prayed and preached and drummed and carried signs. On the way back to Seattle the next day, I bought a copy of the New York Times. There was a photo of this sea of people going on endlessly through the streets. “See?” I said to Jim Miller, who stopped by the church that day, “I’m right there.” I pointed to some speck way in the distance of a photo. I got to be part of that party. It was exhilarating.


Look at the signs in the Powerpoint slides all throughout today’s service. They come from various rallies and marches I have attended over the years. They are colorful, creative, sassy, serious, funny, passionate. Some are professionally printed; many of the best are made by hand. All of them have something worth saying. All of these people came to the party. I have photos from these protests of little kids, grandparents, a few cats and dogs, people on bikes, one man dressed as Jesus, Black people, white people, Asian people, people in wheelchairs, people in tutus, an accountant, people with rainbow hair and body piercings, men, women, feminists, Jews, Christians, Muslims, doctors, clergy, and on and on. Signs quoting Martin Luther King, Jr. Signs quoting Maya Angelou. An oversized puppet of Malala Yousafzai. It’s a party, people! Come speak out for truth and justice and love in all its rainbow forms!


But let’s keep in mind the party to which Jesus invites us. Because we know that parties can get out of hand. It’s not all wine and laughter. All this dancing in the streets can make the Powers That Be nervous, especially when the dancers are talking about liberation from oppression, or when counter protestors show up who have an opposing viewpoint. Or when riot police show up. In Myanmar, when protestors take to the streets demanding a return to democracy, the military shoots to kill. There is a price to pay. And we know that Jesus paid it. As have many, many others over time, in every age. Martin Luther King, Jr., paid the price.


Speaking in tongues sounds like a pretty cool spiritual gift. But all our gifts, all our skin colors, all our sexual diversity, all our ages, all our faith journeys, all our fabulousness can be spiritual gifts put to use for the common good. Know that you are invited to the party, the feast, the protest in all your glory. Come and dance in the streets. Come and drink the wine (or beverage of your choice) at the wedding where Jesus is working behind the scenes to keep the party going. Come and sing the songs of love and justice. Come and join the party for the common good.


I want to close by returning to that March on Washington in 1963. A group called the SALT Project assembled a video of archival footage from that event. We may have shown it before, but it’s worth a repeat viewing. Notice the diversity of people who showed up: Black, white, young, old. People in business suits with hot feet. People assembling signs. People packing lunches. People singing. People listening to Dr. King preach about the dream. Whatever gifts we bring in our day and our age, let us show up to the party and share them freely in the building of God’s realm of liberty and justice for all.


[Play SALT video here to close the sermon.]



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