January 24, 2016 - 3rd Sunday after Epiphany - Jew or Greek, Slave or Free, God loves Everyone

            Ancient Corinth was one of the most prosperous of the Greek city-states.  Never quite as powerful as Athens or Sparta, it was still a significant city, largely because its location about fifty miles west of Athens, on the isthmus that connects the Peleponnesus with the Greek mainland, made it a center of commerce for hundreds of years before and after Paul visited the city on his second missionary journey.   The Corinthians were a proud people, wealthy, well educated, and reportedly given to a certain degree of elitism.  It was within this rather elitist society that Paul established one of his earliest Christian communities.  Once he felt his new converts would be able to manage on their own, he continued on to Ephesus, in modern day Turkey, to share with the people there the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

            Given the attitudes of the time and place, it’s not surprising that before long reports reached Paul that dissension had arisen among the Corinthian Christians as to whose spiritual gifts were the most important.  Taking their various gifts of the Spirit as signs of their own spiritual status, the Corinthians argued about which gifts signified the higher level of spirituality.  I’m willing to wager Paul was not pleased.  He dealt with the situation by writing a series of letters.  The two preserved in our Bible as first and second Corinthians are believed to have been the second and fourth of Paul’s messages.  In the portion of first Corinthians we heard this morning, Paul makes two seemingly contradictory arguments that are remarkably relevant to our world today.

            First, Paul reminds the Corinthians that regardless of their religious background - Jew or Greek, or their station in life - slave or free, they were all baptized into one body, all made to drink of the one Spirit.  If I were to express Paul’s message in twenty-first century terms, it might sound something like, regardless of your ethnic background, nation of origin, skin color, economic status, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, age or sex, you are all people worthy of respect.  The message now as it was then, is that God loves everyone. 

            That said, while we are all equally important in the eyes of God, we are not all the same.   Indeed, no two of us are exactly alike.  We all have our own gifts, our own abilities, we each fill our own unique role in the body of Christ.  In Paul’s analogy, where some organs of the body may have functions more critical to its survival than others, but every part is significant in making the body healthy and whole, the same is true in the body of Christ.   If we extend this analogy a bit further, we know that it’s in our own best interests to exercise regularly and to challenge our minds by actively engaging them, and so it is with the body of Christ.  For the body to remain healthy, we each need to identify our gifts, and use them.  In addition, we need to take note of the gifts we see in others, gifts they may be completely unaware of themselves, and challenge those individuals to use their gifts too. 

            I knew by the time I was twelve years old that I wanted to teach high school chemistry, and that’s what I did.  While I did side step into physics near the end of my career, I still spent 32 years teaching the physical sciences to teenagers.  I loved it, and frankly, I was good at it.  However, near the end of my last year at Sheldon, a request reached me via a secretary in the front office who was friends with the first grade teacher at Camp Creek Elementary School.   I had taught both of Katie’s children at Sheldon, and knowing how much they had enjoyed my class, she wanted to know if I would come out to Camp Creek, where Zack was due to start kindergarten the next fall, and teach science to the elementary kids.  Now my entire career I had always expressed nothing but admiration for elementary teachers, saying repeatedly that I couldn’t imagine being in a room full of six year olds, that I’d be swinging from the lights in no time.  But I hated to say no, so I said I’d give it a try.   I agreed to teach a brief lesson every month to Katie’s first and second grade class, as well as to Zack’s kindergarten class.  So it came to pass that in early October of 2002, I headed out to Camp Creek, jars, bottles, and test tubes in hand, to teach a short lesson on testing for acids and bases with red cabbage juice as the indicator.  The long term substitute in Zack’s classroom made it very clear she thought I was out of my mind, but undaunted I launched right in.  Everybody got to squirt some purple cabbage water into a test tube of one household product or another.  The indicator turned pink in the acids, green in the bases, and in combination with neutral substances it remained purple.  At the end of the lesson one of the girls raised her hand and said, “You have one more acid than base.”  I agreed, saying I had thought I had an equal number but something I thought was a base turned out to be neutral.  The killer comment though, came from one of the boys who raised his hand and said, “I wish you were my mom.  Then I could do science at home.”  Well!  No high school student ever said that to me!  I was hooked.  I taught monthly science lessons at Camp Creek for six years, until Zack moved on to middle school.  I must add, by the way, that that little fellow who piped up so endearingly on my first day became one of Zack’s best friends, and though his family moved to Portland after the boys finished eighth grade, Zack and Chase have remained close friends to this day.  Chase is now a freshman at the University of Oregon, majoring in chemistry.  I don’t know if my science lessons had anything to do with that, but they certainly didn’t hurt.  The point of this story though, is that it would never have occurred to me to offer to give those presentations.  If Katie hadnt asked me, they simply never would have happened

            Now in a different world, I might have ended my sermon here, with some eloquently worded exhortation to never stop sharing your own gifts, as you work to draw out the gifts in others, in order to share the love of God with the world.  Sadly, though, that just doesn’t feel like enough in these times.  We are living in a world where forces of evil, I can call them nothing else, are working overtime to use the differences I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon to shatter our nation, to shatter our world. They are using everything from weapons to words, to convince us that we need to be afraid of anyone who is different from us.  Make no mistake, there are individuals, whole groups of individuals who have somehow become totally separated from the Love that is God, and they are frightening.  But that statement does not apply en-mass to everyone of a particular ethnic background, religious affiliation, national identity, or skin color.  As people of faith we are called to relate to individuals, not condemn categories of people.  We need to be looking for the Christ in every person we meet, not just those who happen to fit into the same demographic as we do. 

            I believe much of the tension present in our world today arises from the fact our world has shrunk to an unprecedented degree at the same time the population has grown to the largest it has ever been on our planet.  When I was born in 1946 it would have taken weeks to travel from Eugene to the Holy Land.  Nowadays we can make that journey in less than 24 hours.  Information, and misinformation, circle the globe at the speed of light, in a matter of seconds.   It seems like the only continent free of violence these days is Antarctica. 

            So what are we to do?  I don’t know of one overriding act that would bring peace to our world.  I do know that nothing feeds evil as effectively as fear, and nothing dispels fear as effectively as understanding.  I used to have a poster in my classroom that said, “Think globally, act locally.”  So let’s begin at home.  About ten years ago a young man left Iraq for the relative safety of Syria - imagine that!  In Syria he became involved with an organization that was teaching students English in an effort to help them earn scholarships to study in the United States.  After completing the program this particular young man was accepted at the U of O.  While his tuition was covered by his scholarship his room and board were not.  So Father Bingham, in his first year here at St. Mary’s, formed an ecumenical group, the majority of whose members were from St. Mary’s, to sponsor this student, in order to make it possible for him to pursue his studies here.  He’s completed his undergraduate degree by now, and is currently working on a master’s degree in arbitration and negotiation.   Perhaps we should do more of that, and in addition to offering financial support make an effort to have more of us get to know our student or students, inviting them to Evenings at St. Mary’s where they could tell us about their home country, their culture, so that we might grow in our understanding of the part of the world from which they come.  I’ve had a number of people over the past month or two comment that they wished we could have a short course on Islam here at St. Mary’s, so that we could learn more about what Islam really teaches which might in turn empower us to dispel some of the fear of Muslims that is being expressed more and more frequently through acts of violence against them.  Maybe we could do that.  An interfaith group of Jewish and Christian clergy here in Eugene published a message in the Register Guard right after Christmas calling on “all people of faith and goodwill to resist the pull of fear and hate and to respond to the noblest calls that all of our traditions have to offer: to seek peace and pursue it, to honor the image of the divine in every human face, and to welcome the stranger.”  We need to find ways to honor that call.

            Looking beyond our local area, we could support the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem whose schools and hospitals offer education and healing to Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike, whether of Israeli or Palestinian origin.   In the process of working together to educate children or treat those needing medical care, these institutions help people of diverse backgrounds get to know each as people, something some in Israel seem desperately anxious to prevent.  Indeed, I read in the paper on New Year’s day that the Israeli government had banned from use in schools a book about a love affair between an Israeli woman and a Palestinian man, fearing that it would lead to intermarriage.  While Israel was founded, for better or worse, as a Jewish nation, our country has been known since 1790 as the world’s melting pot.  Ours has been the country where everyone has been welcome to come, enriching our nation with the flavors and traditions of their countries of origin, as they became part of our national fabric.   As a result, statistics show that by 2020 more than half of our country’s children will be part of a minority race or ethnic group, which means that by 2044, there will no longer be a racial or ethnic majority in our nation.  I think that’s wonderful.  I believe the only way humanity can survive is if the distinctions between groups blur, because as the edges of those distinctions dull, so too will the edges of the swords that have been used for so long to keep people apart. 

            In 1963 Martin Luther King stated, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.  Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can dothat.”  More recently, the American Muslim Eboo Patel wrote, “To see the other side, to defend another people, …., is the heart of pluralism.  We have to save each other.  It’s the only way to save ourselves.”  These men describe exactly what we as Christians are called to do: to combat hate with love, and to defend the dignity of every human being.  In this the season of light, let us commit ourselves anew to doing exactly that.  Amen.