Drinking the Right Kind of Spirit

1 Corinthians 12:1-13 and John 2:1-11
© Stacey Steck

Last Sunday, I mentioned how Presbyterians probably drink more alcohol than Baptists, or at least more than the Baptists say they drink. But I’m pretty sure we don’t drink as much as the Episcopalians, and I don’t mean because they still use real wine during Communion. I used to work at an Episcopal Church, Calvary in Pittsburgh, and on my very first day, I went to the office supply cabinet to stock up on pens and staples and such things, and lo and behold when I opened the door, what did I find in there? A box of all kinds of distilled spirits – liquor, by another name – and an especially large quantity of sherry, reserved for the very popular Tuesday evening Women’s Circle. Maybe that’s what the Women of the Church need around here, eh? And then I remembered that old saying, “Wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth.” Now, perhaps the Episcopalians got their inspiration from this morning’s passage from First Corinthians, in which the Apostle Paul boldly declares, “and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” In the beginning, it must have been just wine he was talking about, but you know, since alcohol is just alcohol, any kind will do to be in keeping with the Apostle’s great insight, and so these days, they can enjoy varieties of spirits, including sherry.

Of course, it was not the distillation of alcoholic spirits Paul was talking about but the distribution of the Holy Spirit, especially the way that Holy Spirit distributed spiritual gifts on the believers. Spiritual gifts are those God-given, and Spirit-activated abilities that transcend mere talent or skill and venture into divine and mysterious territory. I’m not talking about those kind of adrenaline-induced feats of strength where in times of stress, people can lift heavy objects that have fallen on their loved ones. I’m talking more about those sixth-sense kind of abilities that aren’t on the regular list of human characteristics, but that come when God blesses us with them in baptism. It’s not a long list, but it’s an important and diverse list, and Paul takes up a good part of this book of First Corinthians trying to correct the erroneous Corinthian thinking that God’s Spirit had been reduced to, boiled down, distilled, so to speak, to only the gift of speaking in tongues. Speaking in tongues is, of course, a spiritual gift, but only one in the list of spiritual gifts, yet it seems that some in the Corinthian church were trying to make it the most important one. So, very cleverly, Paul addresses their issue by placing tongues last among all the gifts he lists. Later on, he will go into great detail about the proper place of speaking in tongues, but for our purposes this morning, what is important is to note is, that, to use Paul’s own words, “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Did you hear that? Three things are given by the Spirit. Many gifts. Many services. Many activities. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’d ever really noticed the services and the activities tucked in there. I think all these years, I’ve been stuck on the more glamorous parts – the spiritual gifts – like the Corinthians were in their fixation on speaking in tongues, and I’ve overlooked what might just be more important in the long run – the way we are called to serve, and the things God gives us to do.

Those two other manifestations of the Spirit, what Paul calls services and activities, are just as powerful, and just as important as the gifts themselves. The root of the word for services is diakonia, from which we get the word deacon, and which means, literally, ministry. And there are so many ways to do ministry, both formal and informal, because ministry simply means service, and we can serve others in countless ways. And the root of the word for activities is energeo, which is the root of our English word energy, so the varieties of activities that come from the same God are the ways God call us to use our energies, those ways we expend or exert ourselves physically, or mentally, or spiritually. So, there are gifts, there is ministry, and there is energy, and God has given to each one of us some of each of that holy trinity. I can’t tell you how many times over the years that I’ve heard people say that they are sure that God hasn’t given them any spiritual gifts, and I’ve tried to talk them out of it, because God gives each of us at least the gift of faith. But even if that weren’t the case, even if God hadn’t given everyone at least one spiritual gift, God has still given us energy and ministry, and from where I stand, I don’t care how great the gift is, if there’s no energy behind it, and there’s no one to make it happen, that gift isn’t going to be going very far.

Be all that as it may, there is something even more important than this, and it may well be the measure of whether what God really gives each of us is true and authentic, and that something is found is Paul’s statement that “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” None of the gifts, none of the wisdom, the knowledge, the faith, the healing, the working of miracles, the discernment of spirits, or even the tongues, and none of the energy, no matter how it’s expended, and none of the ministry, no matter how it is exercised, none of these matter in the least, if their purpose is not for the common good, for the benefit of everyone, and not just the receiver of the gift, or the energy, or the ministry. If these don’t bear fruit that feeds someone else, they’re not from God. If these don’t make someone else’s life better, bring hope to a despairing person, change an unjust system, keep a child from harm, if these ways of living out faith in Jesus Christ don’t contribute to the common good, they are no good, and we are as good as drunk. If we use the gift of faith so that people will laud our piety, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. If we use the gifts of the working of miracles to become famous, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. If we use our wisdom or knowledge to pad our resumes and don’t give anything back to our families or communities, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. If we think the gift of tongues is the most important gift, and that everyone else’s gift is inferior, we’re drinking the wrong spirits. But if we use our gifts for the common good, if our ministries are for the sake of others, if our energies are directed toward building God’s kingdom, then we’ll know we’ve all been drinking of the one true Spirit.

Tomorrow is the national holiday we call Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a day to remember someone from our own Christian tradition who used his gifts, ministries, and energy for the common good. King didn’t use the term “common good” very often, but he sure talked a lot about what he called the Beloved Community, “a term that was first coined in the early days of the 20th Century by the philosopher-theologian Josiah Royce, who founded the Fellowship of Reconciliation. However, it was Dr. King…who popularized the term and invested it with a deeper meaning which has captured the imagination of people of goodwill all over the world.

“For Dr. King, The Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, The Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

“Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

“Dr. King’s Beloved Community was not devoid of interpersonal, group or international conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict was an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and adversaries could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. No conflict, he believed, need erupt in violence. And all conflicts in The Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.

“As early as 1956, Dr. King spoke of The Beloved Community as the end goal of nonviolent boycotts. As he said in a speech at a victory rally following the announcement of a favorable U.S. Supreme Court Decision desegregating the seats on Montgomery’s busses, ‘the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men [and women].’ ” (1)

To me, King’s expression of the Beloved Community is the very essence of the common good the Apostle Paul was describing, the culmination and the purpose of the gifts of God. It’s a reminder of the fact that in God’s eyes, if not our own, that “the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, [and] so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.” But none of that happens by magic. It doesn’t happen unless we all use our gifts, all our energy, and all of our ministry in its service. May we take tomorrow’s occasion of Dr. King’s birthday to reflect on the gifts we have received and how we will use them, to recommit to the ministries to which we are called and in which we participate, and to redouble the energies that make possible all our efforts on behalf of the common good. Amen.

Like Cats Swimming

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
© Stacey Steck

Some animals are afraid of water. It’s just not their element. Cats come immediately to mind, but bats, raccoons and certain other mammals also avoid water except to drink it or clean their food with. In fact, cats are basically evolutionarily opposed to water. Experts believe that domestic cats were descended from Arabian wild cats and that their ancestors lived in an area with very few large bodies of water, so they never had to learn how to swim. There was just no advantage to it. And so they have avoided it to this day. Cats and water just don’t mix. If you don’t believe me, just try to give one a bath.

Otters, on the other hand, couldn’t possible enjoy water more. I could watch them for hours just playing to their hearts’ content. Bears seem to like it while fishing for their salmon. Lemmings must love it, since they are willing to rush into the water together and drown. And then there is that one domesticated species that loves water the most. The Baptists. Did I say Baptists? I meant to say dogs. Yes, dogs love water. You can’t get them out of the water. They’ll chase a ball into the water. They’ll retrieve a duck from the water. And when they finally get out, they shake all over you and get their muddy feet on everything, and then they stink for a long while. Dogs and water do mix, maybe a little too well.

Did I really say Baptists earlier? I guess it must have been a Freudian slip. Maybe what I meant to say is that Baptists are dogs, since they like water so much. Wait, I mean, Baptists are like dogs, because you can’t get ‘em out of the water. They’re always trying to throw someone in and shove their heads under. You see, Baptists don’t do baptisms that aren’t the kind of full immersion, wave-making scenes that dogs love. If a Baptist service doesn’t end with a baptism, they all go to lunch disappointed. They get that hangdog kind of a look if nobody responds to the altar call. Yes, Baptists are like dogs.

Presbyterians, however, are kind of like cats. Cats don’t do water. Cats do Friskies and Fancy Feast. At the lake, we are the ones cooking and eating while the Baptists are swimming. Not to mention drinking our wine. I mean, let’s be honest, we drink way more than the Baptists, or at least if we believe what they say. Yes, when it comes to the Sacraments, Presbyterians, as a general rule, are much more comfortable with the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We love a good meal, and the way we do it, oh so controlled. A sip and a morsel. Crumb-less bread and booze-less wine. No fuss, no muss. There’s no water getting everywhere, no splashing. Nobody gets a hair out of place during communion, unlike even a sprinkling baptism. We’re not as uptight as the Episcopalians and we’re not fired up like the Pentecostals either. We just like our church a certain, respectable way, decent and in order, and if you don’t like it, well, we’ll just show you our tail and walk away, like any self-respecting cat.

Now, it’s true that the sacraments have different purposes, so to speak, beyond their main purpose of demonstrating God’s grace. Baptism celebrates an inauguration. Communion celebrates maintenance. In astronomical terms, baptism is blastoff, a rocket being loosed from earth’s bounds. And once it gets into orbit, communion is firing the little jets every once in a while to keep it safely in orbit, circling around the earth. Orbit is a very comfortable place to be. The view is gorgeous, and you just float in space going round and round the planet. You can do amazing scientific experiments there. You can build international space stations there. But here’s the thing. Without the blastoff, there is no orbit. And in theological terms, without blastoff, we are earthbound, stuck in our sin, with nothing to launch us to that higher altitude from which to see the world differently, and be a benefit to society. The bread and wine are great, but they must be preceded by water.
No, we Presbyterians don’t spend a lot of time with the waters of baptism, and perhaps that’s because they signify what water really is: wild, dangerous, uncontrollable stuff that changes lives and changes history. When we, like Jesus before us in the story we heard from Luke, when we come up from beneath the water, our lives are forever changed, or at least they are supposed to be. When Jesus emerged from the Jordan River, he was propelled into a new phase of his life; he was ready to go, he changed history, he changed lives. That’s what water does. And dogs love it.

But for us cats, it’s kind of scary to invite that kind of water, that kind of experience, into our lives. Remember, water is that wild, dangerous, uncontrollable stuff that changes lives and changes history. And floods destroy things, right? Erosion carries away land. Tsunamis sweep people out to sea and they drown. And our houses are in order. We don’t need upheaval in our lives. We’re fine just as we are, or at least we like to think so. And none of that unpleasant stuff happens at dinner parties. A little bread and grape juice never hurt anyone, right? Ah, but maybe here’s where the tide turns, and where we might begin to consider a return to the water. Because did you know that more people die of accidental choking each year than drowning? And that choking is a leading cause of death is children under 4? Both of our kids had to be rescued from choking when they were little. Our meals, which seem so safe, can be as unpredictable as open water. The threat is real, even for the most careful among us. So maybe Communion is not really the safer option after all.

No matter which Sacrament we’re talking about then, God’s words through the prophet Isaiah are words we need to hear. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior. I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, I give people in return for you, nations in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you.” Lovely, lovely words.
And why do we have nothing to fear? It’s because Jesus went through it all before us. He’s been there. He came up out of those chaotic waters and brought order to the world and invites us to take the plunge with him. When Jesus was baptized in that old Jordan River, he was like the cupbearer to the king, the poor sap who tests the wine to see if it’s poisoned before handing it over to the VIPs. Jesus goes in before us. He tests the waters, so to speak, to make sure they are safe. And you know what? They’re fine. No, they’re better than fine. They’re amazing. They’re life giving and life changing, as they should be. There’s absolutely nothing to fear from God’s water, even for cats like us, who don’t like to go near it any more often than we have to.

It’s true that we only get baptized once, but that can’t be the end of our encounters with water, because there are too many stories in the Bible where water renews the people of God, or sets them on a new course, something each of us needs every now and then. God cleansed the world of sin in Noah’s time with water. Moses parted the waters to lead the Israelites into freedom. God brought fresh water from a rock in the Sinai desert. The waters of the Jordan stood still for the people to pass through into the Promised land. Jonah learned something about himself in the belly of that whale in a big body of water. So many stories of God using water to change lives and change history. And that can happen to us too, if we let it. You see, those waters are still there for us to encounter, at least once a year on Baptism of Christ Sunday, and sometimes more, when we baptize children or adults. If we choose to overcome our fear of water, there’s life to be found embracing God’s wild, dangerous, and uncontrollable side, the one that can free us when we are held in bondage.

Maybe you recognized that the prelude this morning was an old recording by Jascha Heifetz, one of the 20th century’s greatest violinists, playing an even older song about water, “Deep River,” an old Negro Spiritual. We only heard the instrumental version, but Deep River is one of those Spirituals that has words that are sometimes hard to understand, and it’s that way by design. Many of those old spirituals contain hidden messages instructing slaves how to avoid danger, or find their way to freedom, and “Deep River” is no exception.

“Deep River,” it goes, “my home is over Jordan….deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.” Most scholars believe that the reference to the Jordan River symbolizes the Ohio River, a dividing line between the slave states and the free states. And “Campground” calls to mind a place for camp meetings, a type of gathering that, even though illegal in some areas, served as a vehicle for slaves to commune and share their sorrows and hopes. Those camp meetings were among the rare occasions during which slaves could actually experience feeling free for at least a little while through singing, playing instruments and sharing stories. Some of the lyrics most likely have a double meaning as well, suggesting that the camp meeting they looked for was in Heaven, the place where they would truly be set free. Such great meaning in so few words and so much water.

The good news is that we don’t have to become dogs or Baptists to love water, and fully embrace our baptisms. But if we want to experience the kind of freedom water brings, we’ll need to overcome our fear of water, and all the chaos it sometimes brings. And it’s right there in Scripture for us: “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,” Isaiah speaks to Israel as they wonder about their future. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased,” God speaks to Jesus as he comes up out of the water. We’re not cats. We can change our behavior. We can trust God. And we truly can live without fear in the wild, dangerous, uncontrollable waters of baptism. Amen.

A Light Unto the Gentiles

Matthew 2:1-12
© Stacey Steck

Much has been written through the years on the journey the wise men took to arrive in the barn at Bethlehem, but comparatively little about their journey home. Even in the Bible, all we have is that one cryptic line, “And then, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they returned home by another route,” compared to the elaborate lead up to the arrival at the manger. But isn’t what happened after the visit what is really important? Isn’t the route they took home, and the journey they followed the rest of their lives, what really matters? Coming to Jesus is relatively easy. Going out into the world is a little tougher.
But we are in luck this morning, because as a Christmas gift, I received a rare copy of an ancient manuscript which may shed some light on that journey home by the wise men. It turns out even though we don’t have any words actually written by the wise men, we do have the account prepared by the head steward of the expedition, the one charged with the logistics, and making sure the trip went off as planned. He apparently wrote a report that was recently uncovered in a cave in Iraq, during the war there, the very same cave where Saddam Hussein was finally captured. It has now been translated and made public to a select group of pastors, so consider yourselves quite lucky to be here this morning. So here now are the relevant sections of the report of the Chief Steward of the Magi.

“We three kings,” as they used to call themselves, had never been particularly close. They were simply learned astrologers thrown together for this mad journey by their kings who wanted to make sure they has all their political bases covered. Oh, they talked along the way, shared a few Magi secrets of the trade, lamented how long it was taking, but they weren’t what you could call friends. There was no lingering around the campfire swapping stories before calling it a night. It was just dinner and bed, and the road again in the morning with the occasional occupational hazard of stargazing keeping us all up late.

But something changed when we arrived in Judea. I think the first sign was when Herod took of them one by one in for questioning, to see if they could keep their stories straight. As each returned from interrogation, and yes, that is what it was, an interrogation, we learned that Herod would begin each as if it were a conversation over a cup of coffee, as if this were going to be a friendly, getting to know you kind of chat. But he never seemed satisfied by their answers, never convinced by our simple curiosity to see where the star would lead us. And when he finally sent us on our way, we began to feel a little nervous, like someone was following us, although we all did wonder aloud what kind of buffoon Herod had for a security chief who couldn’t find the boy even in such a small, nearby town. But on we went until the star stopped over a certain dwelling, and with no small amount of trepidation, we prepared ourselves to enter into the indicated residence, if that is what you could call it. Our hearts were pounding.

When we finally went in, I have to say it was actually kind of anticlimactic. I mean, it was just a baby and his parents in a small, plain kind of place. I guess I’m not sure what we were expecting, but after you ride a camel for that many months, I suppose you create a picture in your mind’s eye, and this wasn’t it. All we found was a baby and his parents. If he really was a king, it certainly didn’t look like a great start to his reign. But we’d come all that way, and carried all those gifts, so what else could we do but give the gifts, and so we did. When we brought out the gold, I thought the father Joseph’s eyes would burst out of his head. He just kept muttering, “I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it.” And when we brought forth the frankincense, Mary had this adorable sweet smile on her face. It was priceless. I'll never forget that smile. Like she was treasuring away that moment in her heart. They were a little mystified by the gift of myrrh, but then again so was I, the Magi having convinced me that it was somehow appropriate. I never did see their point since it is used to prepare dead people for burial, and this child had just been born, but whatever, let them think they know everything; I suppose he won’t live forever anyway, and will need it sometime. Yes, for all of us, it seemed just a little underwhelming, and we left wondering if it had been worth the trip.

But it was on the way home that something changed for us, especially the Magi. At first, I thought that they were just really focused on getting home again. But after a while I could see that with every passing mile, every day we were further and further away from Judea, that they were each deeper and deeper in thought than they normally were. And then something extraordinary happened. One by one, each of them came to me, of all people, to talk about what they had just experienced. I say it was extraordinary because these were learned gentlemen who needed nothing from me except their food prepared on time, and to have the camels fed and saddled. They barely spoke to one another, much less the help. But for whatever reason they did, I am glad they came to me, so that I might share with you, gentle reader, the secrets they learned in Bethlehem.

The first Magus to open my tent flap was the one they called Melchoir, I believe he was the eldest, and certainly the most learned. It was he who had assembled the gifts we brought. He was a student of the teachings of Aristotle, and was much influenced by the Greek line of thought that gifts were really best only given to equals, especially extravagant gifts. That was why he brought gifts reserved for royalty, since we had heard that the child Jesus was to be the King of the Jews. He began by admitting some uncertainty when we walked into that quite modest dwelling. He said, “What were we thinking? What will happen to these very expensive gifts? Surely they will be stolen. And if not, they will probably be squandered by his parents.” But, he said, “Those feelings later gave way to a more profound reflection. We thought we were bringing gifts to an equal, in the tradition of Aristotle, where gifts are really only given to friends, which is to say, peers of equal social standing. But now I see that we misjudged him. He may have been a king. But seeing him there in that cradle, all that I can think of him now was that he was a human being, and it should have been on the basis of that equal standing between us, before his God and ours, that we should have brought him gifts. We brought gifts fit for a king, but all we really needed to offer was ourselves. And might that not be true for everyone, king or not?” I must say I was dumbfounded. Melchoir took his inspiration from the stars, not from mere mortals.

When Balthazar, the second of the Magi, sought me out, I was even more amazed. He was always a very serious presence on our trip, brooding about whether we were on the right track following the star, a real worrier. When he called for me, I was expecting a tongue lashing about the pace of our return, but he greeted me with an enormous smile, and even offered me an elixir from his cabinet. Then he went on to tell me how ever since the visit to the boy, he had felt his heart expanded, and a great burden lifted. “All these years,” he said, “All these years of study and watching the stars were of the utmost importance to me. I sacrificed much for the wisdom I believed was available in my books and star maps. But perhaps I have sacrificed too much. In the presence of that boy, I felt the wonder of my own childhood. When I looked at his mother, I saw my own mother. I feel that he has turned me from the stars back to earth, and for that I will always be grateful. Here, have another drink!” Well, this Jesus was certainly having an effect on the delegation.

A few days later, it was the third Magi, Caspar, who shared his thoughts with me. Caspar was the one who was most concerned about the politics of the day, who wondered aloud before the trip if it was a good idea to visit an infant labeled a king by some, but who was found in a territory already ruled by a properly installed king. “I am most glad to have made his acquaintance,” he said, “and to have seen with my own eyes the one whom the Jews proclaim will be responsible for bringing the nations together. The heavens know we need it now more than ever. I used to believe that it was impossible for there to be one king of us all, and I still believe that if you mean one king to rule our kingdoms. We are just too divided. But I saw in that child one who can rule all our hearts, and with such an allegiance, imagine how great all of our kingdoms could be. And yet he possessed no force of his own, except what has become evident in his effect on me. And in that there is more power than even King Herod can imagine.”

We learned after our arrival home that we were the first people outside Jesus’ own people to meet him. I cannot yet speculate what historical importance this may have, except that if the experience of the Magi is any indication, he will have an influence on the world much wider than his own nation. In any case, he has already done what I thought previously to be almost unattainable: to turn the hearts and minds of our greatest sages from their contemplations of the heavens to the contemplation of the Kingdom of Heaven, and all its benefits.

Well, there you have it. All you need to know about the journey home of the wise men. The Christmas season has come and gone. We have made our way to Jesus. What will you do on the journey home? Amen.