Out of Control
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
June 8, 2014
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
1 Corinthians 12: 1-11
Genesis 11: 1-9
Let us pray, for a welcome mind and a loving heart
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.
1 Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I do not want you to be uninformed. 2 You know that when you were heathen, you were led astray to dumb idols, however you may have been moved. 3 Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of working, but it is the same God who inspires them all in every one. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.
Today is Pentecost, which is recognized as the day of the church year where we celebrate the birth of the church. The story of Pentecost is familiar, yet mysterious. It's familiar in that one day each year, today, it gets told, similarly to the Christmas story and the Easter story, it has it's place year to year, so to some extent it is familiar, but Pentecost is not as familiar as those other much more famous church holy days. There was a time when Pentecost was given similar importance to the others, but the strangeness of the story maybe make it not as memorable to modern Christians. Flames on people's heads and speaking one language and hearing in many different languages just don't inspire carols quite like the manger and the empty tomb, but the very idea of inspiration has its roots in Pentecost, rather than Christmas, for on Pentecost we recognize the coming of the Holy Spirit, the paraclete, the sustainer, by its very meaning inspiration and thus the church. It's ironic in one sense that the Holy Spirit is the person of the trinity most connected to the church because often churches have the hardest time with the Spirit because it is out of control. . . by its nature it is out of control. . . it is ethereal, mysterious, ungraspable, always outside of our reach and understanding, and so since we fear a lack of control almost more than anything else, we often downplay the place of the spirit. One of the major ideas of the Presbyterian denomination is the idea, and it comes from scripture that things always be done decently and in order. . . often such a statement at least in practice, seems to cut off that spiritual third side of the trinity. For in the Father we can see the order of creation, and in the person of the son we can see the heart of decency, but the third person of the trinity is there to challenge that easy parallel. Such it is to have a trinity, a balance of three. . . lest the balance created by two could create too much understandable graspable totality all within reach. The spirit instead is always pushing us to be more, think more, and understand more than what is at first so simple to us. At the same time the spirit sustains us and inspires us, strengthening us like no other, but in so doing keeps us humble, sustained but not content, and therefore striving, and not at rest.
This uncontrollable nature of the spirit reminds us that there is always more to God than the past or the present. There is always more to God than what we can say or what think we know. There is just more, recalling from the great book of Ecclesiastes, trying to completely know God is like trying to catch the wind. . . vanity of vanities. . . recognizing this difficult truth, that God is bigger than what our minds can grasp, results in that highest of human virtues, that at the same time is the lowest by its nature: humility, lest we were to ever think that we had it down and were in control.
The Pentecost story mirrors the Babel story, which is why I had Paula read that again today. For in the Tower of Babel story the tongues of the people were confused, and they could not understand the language of each other. In the Pentecost story, though the tongues are still confused the ears hear anew. Everyone, though they may speak different languages, understood the one speaking voice in their own language, truly a miracle, but there is also great symbolism in the pairing of these two stories, and it gets into the real importance of the Holy Spirit to the life of the church, though we often seek to forget it, since it makes us uncomfortable. It is the message of most of Paul's letter to the church in Corinth, and is an important message to remember in today's modern, assembly line, systematic life of the contemporary world. There is a real problem of uniformity and conformity. That though the church should be one, the diversity that must live within that oneness is natural and should never be forgotten. On Pentecost, one voice was speaking, but each heard it with their own ears, but at Babel one voice was speaking and all were falling in line.
I heard it said a few weeks back that the real crux of the Tower of Babel story isn't the tower at all, nor the tongues being confused, but the fact of "bricks." This tower was to be made of bricks, rather than stone. . . each brick, molded and shaped, uniform and perfect, made especially to fit together, leaving no space, just the strength of an impenetrable wall, built upwards to the sky. How interesting then that it would be the people at the end of the story who being too uniformed are confused into diverse speaking. God could have certainly just broken the tower to the ground, grinding the bricks back into stones, but instead God works to diversify the people. The people then are the bricks, and the tower is expedience and progress. People are molded and shaped into uniformity building a better future, but the problem is that people are not tools with which to build, but rather the reason for building, just as God built this world for people to live in. There is a real danger when people cease to be the object of the love of creation, and begin to be the tools and resources of the building, for God doesn't create that way, nor is the world supposed to work that way, though people seek to make it so. The suggestion of the story then is that the bricks are symbolic of the dangers of people conforming or being unnaturally conformed, that though the tower is built, the cost of the individuality of the people is what is much too dear. There is a great warning to the temptations of people to find easy answers, to look to curb uniqueness in favor of the expedience of one size fits all humanity, making people into tools and building blocks for civilization, fitting people into types, seeing people as types, softening up the rough edges to make people actually fit into categories even and especially when they don't. People like bricks are judged then by their usefullness and not by their humanness, the divine image that lives within each of us, not just some of us, and not just those who fit in. This was what I was thinking about when I wrote the prayer of preparation for this week, it is the Pentecost call of how the church should be built:
May we build with stones and not bricks,
Remembering that through each nook
And within each cranny, made by uneven
Edges, the wind blows, flowing freely,
As it has since time's beginning
On the newly formed and divided waters,
That though the lines may be crooked,
Each holds a unique space and place,
Filled by each as only each can, leaving
A vacancy when absent that cannot be filled
By any other piece. There is a value
Such a wall knows, that its finely
Crafted descendants have forgotten
Through the mind numbing conformity
Of molded bricks with all the right angles
Of efficiency, facility, and progress.
It is in this idea that I want to look at the spirit and how it offers us more in what we are and what we can be. In the piece of Paul's letter to the church in Corinth we read this morning, one word was repeated again and again, and I almost chose it as the title of this sermon. . . it's "variety" "varieties of gifts" "varieties of service" "varieties of working." Variety, but the same spirit. . . that is the truth of the spirit. . .it is all over and inspiring all kinds, in all kinds of different ways, but yet within all of the glorious diversity there is the one shred of uniformity and that is the God that is being served.
We talk a great deal about diversity in today's world. It is a buzz word on the news and in board meetings. Schools, churches, places of business, they all seek to sell the fact that they have diversity, but what they mean when they say they have diversity is that they have the inclusion of multiple uniform and recognizable groups apparent in their make up. It is why you will see the hand picked rainbow of people depicted in the photographs of every pamphlet and brochure. Check us out we are diverse and you can see it on the surface. . . it is interesting though that each institution is seeking to be "diverse" in the same way. . . all on the surface, diversity only skin deep, for the unspoken truth of this skin deep diversity is that it isn't diversity at all, but the worst kind of dehumanizing conformity, for it forgets that there is no group of people that is not diverse, for there are no two people who are alike. . . though we seek to bind ourselves to our alikenesses, we often do so at the expense of our variety. . . and such control, is all too human, and in such loses the uncontrollable nature of the spirit led world.
I once tried to show this truth through a series of pictures, always asking the question, which picture is of something made by God, with the spirit, the ruach, flying over the surface of it, and which is a human construct, formed within the human rational mind. The first picture was a natural map of Virginia, with the rivers at angles, streams, curving here and there to match the patternless contours of the ground, and the other was a map of Richmond, with it's streets and blocks, systematically straight and perfect at right angles. . . at least for the most part (the dreadful secret is that even within human nature there is not the ability to perfect a vision for no one man builds a city). Everyone got that one. The next though was tougher, one was a picture of a Nazi regiment, marching perfectly in step, perfect uniformity and forced conformity, but then that picture was paired with another of children where there was 2 white kids, one a boy and one a girl, one black kid, one asian, one hispanic, and one middle eastern kid. All total there were 3 boys and 3 girls, below it, UNICEF. I gave it to the audience, and here was the twist. Of course they initially thought that this rainbow was created by God, and they said so with a great smile of someone who had just taught the world to sing by buying everyone a coke, but the ugly twist was that this picture too was a human creation, with all the apparent diversity the truth was that it was skin deep and a picture that shows the same problem of the Nazi uniformity. . . for it only sees the outside where each fit into groups, rather than the full picture where each was a unique person, waiting desperately to be led by the spirit.
It's easy to do less, but I do believe that we are called to be more, to see more, and to do more than what is easy. Our categories are not enough because they don't see people, and our formulas and systems are not enough because they do not allow for the spirit to challenge the normal and the ordinary into the truly extraordinary. On Pentecost Sunday, we wear red, and adorn the sanctuary with red, and it is the only day we do so. It is a day and color that stand out from the rest, from the normal, let us celebrate today what sets us each apart, for within what sets each of us apart is what makes us whole and one, and that is our creation, our redemption, and our being sustained in life, led by, even though it makes us uncomfortable, the wonderful power of out of control, Holy Spirit. Amen.