Sermon for July 7, 2013

1 Corinthians 12:4-13

“The Church: Diversity Without Irony”

Today’s sermon is part of a series “The State Of The Church/The Fate Of The Church” in conjunction with the work of the New Visioning Team.

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

Blog:; Twitter: @FranklinCircle

Back in June I began this sermon series on “The State Of The Church/The Fate Of The Church” exploring scripture and our church’s mission statement, which will be interspersed with some guest preaching when I am away from the pulpit.  You may not remember, but on June 16 we looked at the first line of our mission statement alongside Ephesians 4:1-6.  I made the case then that our church should be, and is, a place of teaching and empowerment.  I put forth that this is never a “one-time get your act together” training, but as a journey, a lifetime process of developing, growing, and becoming disciples.  Then on June 23, looking at the next section of our mission statement alongside Micah 6:6-8, I made the case that our church would do well in bringing God great joy to not simply go through the motions of worship and ritual, but to put into action real justice, loving-kindness, and humility.

Today, we come in our mission statement to “The List.”  I have chosen to pair it with a text in the Christian scriptures that deals well with lists: 1 Corinthians 12.  I think talking about the diversity of creation and the church, along with the diverse gifts of the spirit, will help us appreciate them all the more.

But let’s begin with a bold affirmation: It is God’s intention that creation be richly diverse and that we human beings, charged with stewardship of this earth, are called to maintain, nurture, and develop that diversity.

From the first descriptions of creation we see God diversifying everything, from separating the light from the dark and the water from the land, to populating the earth with a mind-boggling assortment of creatures on land, sea, and sky.  God even charges the earth creature with the task of naming these beings (listen to Carrie Newcomer’s song A Crash Of Rhinoceros for a really fun take on this!) in addition to caring for them.  In the words of the King James Version, the earth creature was put in the garden “to dress and to keep it” (Gen. 2:15).  Throughout all of scripture there is a clear and distinct bias towards variety, multiplicity, and assortment in the divine scheme of things.

And when we human beings mess things up by trying to take the dominion part of the equation too seriously, and thinking for a brief moment that we might be gods ourselves, we are reminded

– sometimes gently and sometimes not-so-gently – that we can only foster this diversity, but are never authors of it.

  • When our hubris makes us think we can build a tower to the heavens, God scatters us to the ends of the earth and diversifies our language (Genesis 11:1-9).
  • When the people of God begin to think being a “chosen people” was something for pride and elitism, God reminded us that being “a house of prayer for all peoples” is about faithfulness and righteousness, not our ability to procreate nor our nationality (Isaiah 56:1-8).
  • When we are fearful and afraid of the powers of the world that seek and succeed in crucifying even the most holy among us, we are given at Pentecost both voice and hearing to enrich and bridge the diversity that might otherwise keep us apart (Acts 2: 1-13)
  • When the Holy Spirit began to call people who did not act like us, did not talk like us, did not think like us, we were reminded, sometimes in dreams and visions, that “what God has made clean we must not call profane” (Acts 11:1-18)!

And Paul, here in 1 Corinthians 12, but elsewhere, reminds us that this community, which he so eloquently images as “the Body Of Christ,” was never meant to be homogeneous, but heterogeneous and diverse.  Comparing gifts, talents, skills, and graces used to help others and build community to parts of the body, with which on some level all of us have some acquaintance; he reminds us that we need it all – everyone.  Furthermore, we can’t just “put up with” each other, we need to honor and encourage one another and the unique and different gifts each of us have!

So the challenge is to nurture and develop this rich diversity to which the Divine is clearly committed in the ways that make the most sense in our day.  This is where lists become helpful.  When we were expanding our mission statement back in 2008 we discussed the virtues and limitations of making a list.  We are well aware that no list will encompass the entire spectrum of folks that need to be included in our congregation.  We are aware that every list has its limitations.  But experience has proven several things:

  1. There will always be those in a particular time and place in history who are being left out, ignored, and underserved, and by naming those who, in this moment, are the “least among us,” to use Jesus’ words, we can more certainly serve them.  One hundred fifty hears ago, “slave and free” would be top on our list and quite controversial.  Fifty years ago “biracial couples” would have been ground-breaking.  Oh, maybe that should go back on our list!  Lists help us focus!
  2. Without naming those whom you seek to be intentional about including in your community, there is no impetus to work for inclusion.  To proclaim, “We welcome everybody” usually works out to mean nobody!  But what research has shown is that when congregations get specific about who is included, people take them seriously… even if they aren’t included on the list!  It still shows intentionality and honest effort.  Lists keep us accountable!
  3. Lists were meant to grow and change as the needs, understandings, and situations change.  Already we have seen that “gender identity” for our trans sisters and brothers, as well as for our gender-neutral folks, is more critical than we anticipated.  Also, there is a movement in our congregation towards more environmental and sustainable ways of being church, with the Green Chalice movement on our horizon.  Lists provide a means of measurement for how we are doing as well as where to go next!

The call to be a diverse congregation in the midst of a diverse neighborhood, enveloped within a diverse planet is a tall order.  In contrast to God’s created order, diversity doesn’t “just happen” in human lives.  It has to be nurtured intentionally, and constantly.  Just this past week I was reminded of that in a mostly pleasant but clear way.  The Chautauqua Institute is this amazing community of learning, sharing, and celebrating.  The topic of the week, “The Next Greatest Generation,” was shaped by an incredibly diverse host of speakers and preachers, from the Rev. Otis Moss III of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and the choir from that great church, to Muslim, Jewish, Mainline Protestant Christian, Evangelical Christian, and even Humanist speakers; military, religious, business, and media lecturers; young, middle aged, and older presenters; from all around the world.  But as diverse as the leaders were, the audience was homogeneous: the vast majority being white, wealthy, protestant, progressives.  The disconnect was unnerving at times.

What we have here at Franklin Circle Christian Church is precious!  The diversity, nurtured over the last few generations, which has bloomed recently, is only a start, however.  As challenging as the diversity we already have is, there are those who still feel excluded and need to be welcomed.  As hard as it may feel to manage the rich variety of folks we already have in our midst, we simply must move beyond the welcoming, and even the equipping, to do those things which truly show our commitment to diversity: advocating for the rights and dignity as well as the presence of everyone in our community.

One of the key learnings I came away with from the lecturers at Chautauqua was that the Next Greatest Generation will have nothing to do with territorial attitudes and homogenous communities.  They are all about collaboration, transparency, shared wisdom, and diversity – unambiguous, unfettered, unapologetic diversity.

We should and do celebrate the diversity of this congregation.  But the next step would be to listen to one another in our diversity and discover where our hurts and sorrows are, where our angers and our injustices are, where our growing edges and our dreams are, and then work to support, advocate for, and empower one another to be out in the community, in the world showing everyone that through the will of the Creator, love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit our diversity is not just a label or a list, but a guide to help us change the world to make it a safe and supportive place for all God’s children!  In the words attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world!”

May it be so!  Amen