This past Sunday I gave my second sermon at Azle Christian Church. I think it went pretty well. I stumbled over my words a little bit and had a couple awkward moments where I might have paused to long so that it sounded as if I didn’t remember where I was going, but other than that I think I did a good job. I was going to try to post a sound recording of it so that anyone who wants to could listen to it, but I couldn’t figure it out by today. So instead, you get to read the manuscript. Three caveats: I don’t read from the page per se, so what I preached was a little different than what will be posted, I spent a little too much time on my first story, and I realize that I could have made a better transition between my two stories. So I have stuff to work on. But here you go.
“The Lion or the Hummingbird?”
1 Corinthians 12:4-11
October 14th, 2012
Paul had a problem. Paul lived during a time where there was a culture of extreme hierarchy that influenced the Church in Corinth’s way of thinking. This culture was embedded into the church’s psyche because the Church wasn’t made up of only Jews, but made of both Gentiles and Jews. It was made up of Roman converts who turned away from the Roman Emperor worship of the time and took up belief in Jesus as the son of God. Now I’m never going to say that conversion is a bad thing, but one has to realize that even though that recent convert has admitted to a change of heart or even an indwelling of the Holy Spirit into their whole way of life, he or she is still going to be influenced by their previous life.
This meant that these Corinthian Jesus Followers, I pause to call them Christians because nowhere in Scripture does Paul call himself or churches he started Christian, had been raised in a society where women were treated as little more than cattle and that slavery was the expected norm. People had value to society, but that value was not inherent like we believe now. The Corinthians did not read Genesis where we find that all humans are created in the image of God and therefore need only turn inward to find value. Instead, for the Roman culture, value came from where one was at in the social hierarchy.
In his article that was specifically about the levels of poverty in the Roman Empire during the time of Paul, Steven Friesen breaks up the Roman society into seven categories. The first category was the Imperial elites; the emperors, the local royalty, and the Senators. Next came the Regional elites, followed by the municipal elites. These three categories house about 1.23% of the total population of the entire Roman Empire. Fourth was people with moderate surplus resources. People who were stable near subsistence level were next. The lowest two categories, people at subsistence level, which was often below the minimum level sustain life, and people below the subsistence level comprised a combined total of 68% of the population. These people had no basic way of moving up the hierarchy because they either were just getting by without the ability to sell goods or sell their labor, or they couldn’t even feed themselves.
The people who were below subsistence level had no value at all to the rest of society because they could not contribute to it. In looking at it this way, in the Roman Empire, one’s value was placed on how close they were to the Emperor.
And so what Paul was trying to do, to some extent, was eradicate this way of thinking within the Corinthian Church. And while the Church could have found much worse ways of employing this hierarchy within the church, we find out that the Corinthians had started to place special emphasis on those that could speak in tongues, or as Paul calls it glossalia, and other Spiritual gifts. Paul wants to get rid of the idea that any one person’s gifts are more important than another’s. He tells the Corinthians that those people who can perform glossalia are in deed special, but they are not special because of their Spiritual gifts. They are made special because of Christ, and so those who have different Spiritual gifts, or those who have no apparent gifts at all, are still important and special because they are still members of the Body of Christ. Not only are all important, Paul later tells us “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;” While this may be a ploy to give those of the Corinthian community who were treated poorly a better standing, I truly believe that Paul thought that all persons who were baptized believers all had the same value because they baptized by the Spirit into ONE body of Christ and that he believed that all persons have something to contribute because, and I quote, “All these [gifts that is] are activated by one and the same spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” Let me tell you a story about a man whose gifts forever changed an entire empire.
Born in the year 1745, Olaudah Equiano lived the first eleven years of his life in what today is Nigeria, Africa. When he was eleven, he was captured in his native lands and sold into slavery. He made the horrific Middle Passage where slaves were made to be chained together, cramped into small compartments where they were not allowed release for any reason, including to relieve themselves. Once in the Western Hemisphere, he was taken to Virginia where he was sold.
His master’s name was now Michael Pascal, a lieutenant in the British Royal Navy. Even though he was a slave to a naval captain, he was still able to see and experience the horror of being a slave in Virginia. One of the worst punishments that Equiano witnessed was the medieval and barbaric iron muzzle, a device that was forcefully placed on the slave’s head so the slave could no longer speak or talk. During his time on land, he was smart enough to realize that the reason slaves were treated this way was because of their skin color, so he attempted, with obvious failure, to wash his face of its color so that he might be spared from such cruelty.
After spending time in Virginia, Equiano followed his master onto the ship and set to war against France. Even though he was a slave, he was still expected to fight with the regular sailors. His master saw that Equiano was of good intelligence, so Olaudah was sent to England where he would be trained to read and write. It was during this time that he was baptized into our Christian faith and, coincidentally, sold to another master, to another Captain, James Doran. Equiano argued that since he was now a Christian, no man had the right to sell him. His argument fell upon deaf ears because he eventually is sold to a trader by the name of Robert King. This is where his fortunes change.
King, by all accounts, was a good man of his time. He told Equiano that for the price of forty pounds, Equiano could buy his freedom. After working on ships for sometime, Equiano eventually started selling and trading goods on his own. He was able to raise the forty pounds to buy his freedom. King, good to his word, released Equiano from the bonds of slavery. Upon his freedom being granted, Equiano left the colonies where King had been living and moved back to Britain. Once there, he went met some of the leading abolitionists of the day.
Pressed by the Countess of Huntingdon, which knowing a Countess is significant in and of itself for a former slave, Equiano wrote his story. In 1789, he published his autobiography entitled, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African. In it, all Equiano did was tell the story of his life. He told of the horrors of the Middle Passage, the treatment of slaves in the West Indies, the punishments he endured, his conversion to Christianity, and his eventual freeing from enslavement. The main thrust of the book was not his trials and tribulations that were endured because of his color, what most readers got out of the book was the fact that the black slaves from Africa were not creatures below their white masters, they were humans too that should be treated as such. It showed the inhumanity of institution of slavery. This book had the same, if not more, impact in Britain than Harriet Beecher Stowe’s masterful anti-slavery story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had in this country. This may be because Equiano’s book was not a fabricated story, but a real, lived life that had an actual face to go along with it. The main character was not a phantom, but a person in the flesh and blood.
And so Equiano’s contribution to the world, if I may, his gift, was his story. A story changed the world. His story infected the mind of a man named William Wilburforce who championed the Slave Trade Act of 1807 which outlawed the Slave Trade in the British Empire. His story still resonated when Britain completely abolished slavery in the entire empire in 1833. Equiano’s gift was his story, nothing more, and certainly nothing less. All he had to do to change the world was tell it. One man’s gift effected an entire world.
I’m going to change gears a little bit: There once was a great forest. All manner of animals were in it from frogs, lions, giraffes, raccoons, even hummingbirds. Life in the forest was fantastic, it was basically like an animal version of Eden, but on one night a storm rolled through. All it took was one flash of lightening. The fire started.
This wasn’t your every day forest fire. Because the forest was so lush, there was plenty for the fire to consume. If we know anything about fire is that it does not care about you, I, or the animals. This forest fire was the worst that the world had seen. It decimated everything. And because the fire was so large, the animals had to abandon their home and flee far away.
While one of the lions was running away from the fire he saw a spec in the corner of his eye. It was only a quick flash and then it was gone. The flash was going to and from the fire. After a couple more of times of seeing the flash he realized that the spec was one of the hummingbirds. After he saw the hummingbird a couple more times, the lion stopped the bird and asked her, “Hummingbird, what are you doing? Don’t you know there is a fire back there?” The hummingbird replied, “I am carrying water from the lake to help put out the fire.” The lion was utterly flabbergasted; he thought to himself, “why would this tiny hummingbird do such a thing?” So he asked, “why are you doing this? You are tiny and the fire large, do you think you can put it out?” The hummingbird hovered in the air for a little bit in thought, then replied, “Lion, I know I my body is small and that I cannot carry a lot of water, but this was the body I was given. I am doing my part, don’t prevent me from doing all that I can to save our forest. If you don’t want to help me that is fine, just let me do my part.” With that the hummingbird was off to carry more water. The lion was left stunned, left thinking, “what should I do?”
We all have gifts, gifts given by the Holy Spirit, gifts to contribute to the rest of the Body of Christ and the world. They could be our story or even our body. So what are you going to do? Are you going to be like Equina and use your gift to enact change? Are you going to be like the lion…or the hummingbird?