There used to be a restaurant in Evanston on the corner of Grove and Chicago Avenue called the Corner Restaurant. I always looked forward to eating there because I got to see the woman who was the hostess and who owned the restaurant with her husband, the cook. She had an amazing gift of hospitality. Just like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods have a gift, she also had a gift. Her gift wasn’t flashy and it certainly didn’t make her world-famous but it was a wonderful gift never-the-less. I would have loved to have her teach me how to emulate her gift but I’m not sure she could have because you could tell it wasn’t something she had learned. It was just who she was. She was always dressed in some beautiful shade of blue or green or red. Her dress and her earrings, her lipstick and her shoes were all coordinated and she always looked like a jewel. Her long, black hair was piled beautifully on her head and her makeup, though heavy was perfectly applied. When you walked into the restaurant she would look up at you and with a lovely smile she would welcome you, ask you how you were and how many were in your party. Then she would walk you to a table, usually saying, “Dear or love, just follow me” and would graciously hand you your menu. When you sat down you always felt a little sad when she walked away taking her lovely glow with her.
Her main clientele were the older people in her neighborhood, and I imagine most of them lived on little more than social security plus a little more. They would eat there every day and she knew them all by name. She treated them like family, inquiring after their health and their cats. My impression was that their only family was the other people who ate at the Corner Restaurant. More than once I heard her inquire about a regular she hadn’t seen for a day or two and she would call them on the phone to make sure they were all right. On cold days she always invited the man who sold StreetWise on the corner in for a cup of coffee and a sandwich, and she treated him with the same respect and care she gave the local businessmen from the bank on the other corner. And I heard that she attended all their funerals.
To me she was the perfect illustration of the first verse of the hymn – With Gifts That Differ by Your Grace, by Methodist hymn writer, Ruth Duck:
With gifts that differ by your grace
Your Spirit fits us all,
That Christians in each time and
may answer when you call.
You strengthen some to take a stand,
To prophesy or preach,
While others give with open hand,
Or heal the sick or teach.
Now I have no idea about this woman’s relationship with God, but I don’t think I have ever seen someone whose gift was so obvious and so beautifully lived.
I can only imagine that this was the kind of person Paul had in mind as he was writing about spiritual gifts in his letter to the Corinthians. He envisioned a community united in Christ but with each person living out his or her own personal calling, their passions, and their gifts. Paul knew that a community of faith, all working together, more fully expressed who God is than any individual or faction. The church, with a capital “C”, is called to an openness to its own membership, by affirming itself as a community of diversity, becoming in fact as well as faith a community of women and men of all ages, races, and conditions, and by providing for inclusiveness as a visible sign of the new humanity.
It is no wonder then that when Paul received a letter from the Corinthians (as he suggests in chapter 7) outlining their deep divisions and fragmentation – he wrote them back a passionate letter strongly and lovingly calling them back to the center of their community of faith – back to Jesus and life in the spirit.
What had happened since Paul’s visit to Corinth and the establishment of the church there? When Paul’s letter was written around 52AD Corinth was a resurrected city. Destroyed in 144BC she had been rebuilt by the Romans in 44BC and over the next 100 years had developed into a thriving port. Her citizens were socially and economically diverse and this diversity, which could also be seen in the members of the church, was causing real problems for the Corinthian congregation. They seemed to be quarreling about almost every important aspect of life– sex, food, religion and money. They were sleeping around, eating forbidden food and eating up the communion meal with little regard for those who came late to worship. There were also members of the community who were speaking in tongues and claiming that it was the one sign which showed you were saved. They claimed that certain spiritual gifts were superior to others and were discriminating against those with other gifts. These divisions, Paul makes clear in his letter, were no more the inspiration of the Holy Spirit than the voices of those who called for Jesus to be cursed. No, they were driven by pride, rivalry and spiritualized selfindulgence. Their lives had taken on the flavor of the culture around them, and they had abandoned the life and death of Jesus at the core of their faith. They considered their needs and desires more important than those of the community and had stopped listening to each other.
We too live in an age that elevates the needs of the individual to god-like status. It’s your thing, do what you want to do, says the song, and Frank Sinatra croons encouragement to do it your way. Autonomy – the ability of the individual to function independently-is the mark of maturity according to many social scientists, and those who depend on the opinions of others are seen as weak and immature. We worship those who have supposedly made it on their own – like Bill Gates – and strive, like them, to do our own thing. Community is found with those who look and talk and think like us and leave us politically and religiously unchallenged. Few communities or congregations today deal with conflict and change any better now than they did in the first century.
Listen to the second verse of Ruth Duck’s hymn:
And yet, because our faith is frail,
we bury gifts you give,
afraid to risk, afraid to fail,
we are not free to live.
At times we use your sacred gifts
for only selfish ends.
Our purpose fades, our focus shifts,
and conflict soon attends.
So what does Paul suggest to this divided church? He clearly tells them that Christian community is truly authentic when it is experienced in diversity and guided in unity by the Holy Spirit. But this is hard to do over the long haul. With this definition of authentic community I’d have to admit that it is hard to find. Conformity parades itself as unity more often than not and communities are usually stuck at one end or the other of the diversity – conformity continuum and the result is death through spontaneous combustion or by strangulation on one hand or boredom on the other.
The final verse of the hymn suggests God’s solution:
Come, Spirit, build your church
that all may do their part,
together finding life in you,
diverse, yet one in heart.
So may your people seek your will,
transformed in all our ways,
we offer body, mind, and skill,
a sacrifice of praise.
When we have failed to be community – when we have settled for less than we want; when we have been too lazy or fearful to discover and claim our gifts; when we are tempted to leave our community out of frustration, anger or boredom or fear of change, the Spirit promises us that transformation is possible. Just as Jesus turned the water into wine at the wedding in Cana, Jesus will transform us and allow us to be all that we have been created to be to live together as the body of Christ in the world.
The movie, Pleasantville, is a visual modern day metaphor about the power of transformation in a community. It’s the story of a brother and sister who are mysteriously transported from their life as teenagers in the 1990’s back to 1958 to live in the reruns of a Father Knows Best type of sitcom called Pleasantville. People in Pleasantville are stuck in the same roles day after day with no hope or desire for change. There is no ambition, no passion nor desire for knowledge. Books are blank and everyone sleeps in a single bed. The people of Pleasantville don’t even know they are just going through the motions. They don’t even know there is life outside of Pleasantville because every road goes in a circle and everything is the same, episode after episode.
In Pleasantville you don’t have to like what you do, you just have to do it. Each person has a role and the two teenagers who have been transported there are very aware that if they don’t play their parts just as they were written, if they alter the plot of the story at all – life in Pleasantville will never be the same. But they can’t help themselves and as they begin to stir things up, change begins to happen. People start to kiss, not just hold hands, and color begins to appear in this black and white world. Soon color is popping out everywhere as people discover their feelings and their passion. There is fire and rain for the first time and people are excited and afraid. Those who oppose the changes proclaim the value of continuity over alteration but it is too late. People have begun to see life in a whole new way, to feel life in a whole new way and they can’t go back to the way it was – to the way they were. Having discovered the depth and richness of the possibilities of life they would rather die than go back to their old life. And in the end the whole community is transformed into technicolor.
The citizens of Pleasantville couldn’t imagine the possibility of living life differently until they were visited by the two teenagers who showed them what life could be like and helped them transform their lives. In the same way the Holy Spirit in our community brings to us the possibility of transformation of our personal lives and of our life together as a congregation. But we must seize the opportunity. Jesus changed the water into wine but the servants didn’t know it had really happened until they drew the wine from the jars. Our spiritual lives and our spiritual gifts are given to us but effort is required of us to seek them out and use them.
1 Corinthinas 12 is a picture of how we are to be church, of what our life can look like in technicolor, of what life tastes like in a community that has been transformed through the gift of new wine. It’s much messier living in the intersection of our gifts and the needs of the community and often more confusing. But the messy middle is where there is great individual freedom and powerful interpersonal sharing and support, says New Testament theologian Richard Hays. Uniformity is not to be expected and inspiration from God is so diverse that its variety can create problems. But God has given to each and every one of us gifts that fit who we are. And as we exercise our gifts motivated by the spirit and love of God our life together can be all that it can be – in life-giving technicolor. .