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Sermon Archives

The Shortest Poem

Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Mar 10

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

In the great Muhammad Ali documentary, When We Were Kings, the writer and sports journalist George Plimpton recounts a terrific story of a commencement speech that Ali gave to Harvard’s Senior Class in 1975. He prefaces the story by saying that Ali was dyslexic and tells of how Ali would often marvel at the long words George Plimpton would read.  He’d see him reading a word like “appendicitis” and Ali would say to him “George, how you get a word like Appendicitis? Its so long!”  Plimpton continues on screen: ‘And there he was, giving this speech at Harvard, telling the students they need to go out and use their gifts and their education to make the world a better place.’ Near the end of the speech, an exuberant student shouted: "Give us a poem!" Ali paused. The crowd quieted. Then he gestured towards himself, and then to the crowd, and said “Me.We.”  Plimpton noted that until that point and according to Bartlett’s Quotations the shortest poem in the English language -- "On the Antiquity of Microbes" -- was just three words long: "Adam had 'em.”  Not so any more.  Ali’s poem? Two words.  Me. We. Will you say that with me?  Me. We. 

I could preach a whole sermon on that but fortunately between last week’s text on Mary and Martha and this week’s text from Paul I don’t have to. Those of you who were with us last week will recall the story of Mary and Martha.  Jesus comes to their door.  Martha welcomes him and then proceeds to stay busy and distracted in her preparations.  Mary, we are told by Jesus, “chooses the better part” by virtue of simply kneeling at Jesus’ feet, this despite Martha’s rising resentment.

Throughout the morning last Sunday -- at our 10 am learning hour, in Reebee’s excellent sermon, during a heartfelt and inspiring congregation wide conversation over lunch -- we named the tensions we feel in our lives between our doing (and often doing too much) and our being, between our action and our contemplation, between our roles and our souls. We had a lot of compassion for both sisters. We ended up with even more compassion for ourselves as we tried to get in touch with our inner Mary’s and Martha’s.  In that story, and in our conversations with one another, we found a powerful invitation to wholeness and balance within our individual lives. For today’s purposes, we can call that conversation the “me”. 

This week, we turn to Paul and to a somewhat different invitation towards wholeness, one that explicitly connects us to community.  The focus this week leans more to “we”. Paul’s not merely interested in questions of individual wholeness and balance.  Elsewhere in his writings?  Yes.  Here?  Not so much.  Here he makes the point that when we honor and recognize each member fully, for who they are, and what they bring, and when we so honor and recognize ourselves, the sum becomes far greater than its parts. We become One Body, the Body of Christ no less.  From me to we.  From me, as in the me that God made me to be, the me that includes all of the gifts and light and strength that I bring, along with that inescapable and all too human flipside – the shadows, liabilities and our limits. To we, as in the great “we” that happens whenever we let the Spirit weave our whole and our best selves together.

In the opening verses of this passage, Paul says there are a variety of gifts and a variety of activities, but the same God who activates them all.  Interestingly, the Greek word for gifts here is  “charismata” or “graced things”.  We all have individual and complimentary charisms!  Martha and Mary had theirs. Paul had his. We all have graced things about us that are gifts of the Spirit and that are activated by God.  In other words, there is a common source of our individual gifts and graces!  Paul also says: “to each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the Common Good.”  In other words, there is a common purpose for our gifts and graces. The Source is the Spirit.  The purpose, or goal, is the Common Good for all.  Hold these thoughts as I’ll come back to them in a moment. Already though, we are feeling our individual lives drawn into something larger. 

Paul next takes us through a bit of a spiritual anatomy course.  He starts talking about ears, eyes and feet and their various complimentary “uses” and functions.  It must be said here that this passage is far too often misused and abused by modern readers to operationalize and bureaucratize our involvement in the institutional church.  Oh, you cook? Great. We need more people to bring cream to coffee hour!  Oh, you’ve got handyman skills? Great. We need someone else to round out our Buildings and Grounds committee.  Before you know it, the church is using this text to exploit our Martha’s and unwittingly leave our Mary’s at the door. I repeat: this is a profound misreading!  Far from creating some organizational machine, Paul is seeking a community, a living body, wherein we can recognize spiritual gifts in each other – those “graced things” that are in each of us albeit in different ways, those gifts like wisdom, knowledge, discernment, teaching, healing, prophecy and faith. These have little do with “doing” and even less to do with tiny little body parts, which I might add can also be misread as permission to diminish the importance of some of our gifts and contributions. These aren’t just skills one learns.  They aren’t just the little ways we each do our parts – the hands that bring the cream to coffee hours.  Paul is pointing to a much deeper reality here.  He’s talking about God-given gifts that define who we are as individuals, how we are wonderfully different from one another, and how we are to belong as parts of a much greater whole.

One more observation. This one is key. There’s a misleading line at the end of this passage.  Take a look.  Verse  31.  Paul writes: “But strive for the greater gifts.  And I will show you a still more excellent way.” One scholar offers an alternative and I think more helpful translation. Not “but you strive”. Instead: “And yet you strive for the greater gifts!” This seemingly minor tweak leads to an entirely different meaning. “And yet you strive”, as in, you want to be the best part, at least the better part. In the very next chapter, 1st Corinthians 13, Paul elaborates on that still more excellent way of love, a love that is not jealous or boastful, and that does not insist on its own way. Can you see why this alternative translation makes more sense? “And yet you strive for the greater gifts?” How, after all, could a self-involved and competitive focus on you, and your striving towards something you don’t have, lend itself to your own thriving, and to the thriving and sustainability of the community!  Answer:  It doesn’t!  Paul’s whole thrust here is go with what you’ve been given, bring it, bring it all, and so move from striving to thriving. Move from striving to prove yourself – to God, to your parents, to your kids, co-workers and friends – to thriving in mutual recognition that our God given wholeness and belovedness has a sacred role to play in something larger!  Me. We.

To recap, the vision of wholeness that Paul offers here presents a paradoxical tension between the individual and communal, a balance between “me” and “we”, even a balance between our being and our doing.  This vision finds its source in God’s spirit. It finds its goal in what Paul calls the Common Good.  And it offers a still, more excellent way of life and living and being in God’s love, a way that is never jealous, nor resentful, nor insisting, but always patient and kind and enduring.

I wonder. What Mary and Martha would make of this vision of wholeness in community. Could they see themselves and their different gifts in it? For that matter, I wonder if we can see ourselves and our gifts in it? Does it connect our me’s with our we?

Paul’s vision is for a 1st century community of deeply committed early Christians. I wonder how we might embody and manifest this in our own 21st century context. I’d like to offer three related themes for you to consider, in your own lives and in our shared communal life. Taken together, they may help us translate all of this talk of wholeness into some daily practices, and perhaps even some new ways of being that give us a fighting chance when it comes to resisting the ways of our always driving and striving world.  I mentioned the themes with a light touch at the end of our post-service gathering last Sunday, and I’ve begun to discuss them in a few small group settings. The themes are Learning, Living and Sharing and they grow directly out of some dark nights of the soul I experienced while on sabbatical.

While I was away, I came to realize that in recent years, I may have become too outwardly focused, too community oriented. I was at time feelings like there was too much “we”, at least for this me.  I had grown pretty reactive to that pocket-sized, digital crowd of demands and people that I was beginning to lose a sense of who I am apart from my busyness and activities.  I had become so functionally oriented, striving to do my part, to be useful here and at home and in the broader community that I was losing sight of the source – the source of my Me-ness.  I needed (and need) more time alone, more time for just me and God, more time for reflection, reading and study. My commitment to follow God’s Word and to walk in the ways of Jesus was becoming more and more assimilated to the words and ways of our hyper-busy, hyper-compartmentalized hyper-connected world.  The great irony is that for all of my connectedness with others, I was becoming disconnected from myself, my family, and God.  My guess is some of you Martha’s, you workaholics and workaholics in recovery, can relate. This reminds of something a clergy friend once said. He said he felt he was becoming nothing but a “quivering mass of availability”.  Bingo, and no, I don’t think this just applies to clergy.  What an awful image though! I clearly was needing some ways to regain my footing and to reorient my life.  And from all of this searching, I came to a three-pronged approach that is already helping me rebalance the we and me.   

First, Learning.  Before you put your scholarly hats on, I want to repurpose this word away from the academic settings that surround this area. Its not merely book learning. I mean the kind of learning that comes from soulful self-awareness, the learning that comes from genuine encounter with scripture and from our teacher and Rabbi Jesus, the learning that takes us to that source of all our gifts. How are we learning the word of God and the ways of Jesus, alone and together? If you are more like Mary, you may already have practices that draw you to the Spirit, to the Source. That may be in moments of daily solitude and weekly Sabbath. This isn’t just any time alone, or time reading, or surfing the web.  This is ‘me time’ with God, me time that allows us to lay claim to our beloved-ness in God, and our unique and God-given gifts and graces, and to root and ground all of our being and doing in that awareness.  This is time for conversation with the wisdom of our sacred texts, our tradition, with our liturgical seasons, time to engage in spiritual practices. How am I and how are you learning what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century?  How are we together learning our stories, songs and traditions that lie at the heart of our religious and spiritual identity?  How, with God’s help, can First Church be all the more a center and a source of this kind of learning?  

Now, allow me to skip ahead to what I see at the other end of the spectrum, to our Sharing. I think you’ll see why I make this jump in a moment. How are we called, alone and together to share the word of God and the ways of Jesus?  Rooted and grounded in soulful learning and receiving, how do we put all that reflection into action that serves a common purpose, and that makes manifest that common good? It may be a sharing of our gifts that happens within and strengthens our First Church community, all of these Martha-like efforts towards hospitality and feeding, for example. It may be sharing that keeps First Church in the larger context of struggles for justice, peace and healing in our city and in our world. And, as you reflect on what this sharing looks like in your own lives outside of any direct involvement here, it may already be happening in the context of your professional and family commitments. So many of us express our faith by virtue of our work and family-related decisions and actions that contribute tons to the common good. But how often are we invited to honor that whole sense of our lives when we come in through these doors. How can First Church be a resource that fosters this kind of outwardly oriented sharing and wider communal engagement (and not from a save the world kind of striving, mind you, but from a soul-centered place of thriving).

Finally, living. Living the Word of God and the ways of Jesus. Living which happens whenever we are finding a good right balance between our learning and our sharing, when we can lay an authentic claim to the coherence and integrity of our souls before God and our roles in the world? Living the Word and the way happens whenever we are walking in balance, whenever we honor our individual gifts, make room for the gifts of others, whenever we are aware of both that Source and Goal of our lives, alone and together. Living the Word of God and the ways of Jesus will inherently and counter-culturally resist the driving and striving ways of the world. How are we living in ways that balance the reflection of inward learning and the action of outward sharing? How are we living in ways that balance the commitments to peace within us and to peace around us? How can First Church be a center from which this kind of soulful but engaged living springs forth?

Taken together, how are you learning it, living it and sharing it?  Not just here at church!  Remember, these are our whole lives.  What needs more or less attention?  Where is the balance tipping for you right now?

And what of this Body – this First Church in Cambridge?  How are we learning, living and sharing?  Folks, I don’t want us to be the social justice church in which people don’t know their bibles.  I don’t want us to be just a family or community in which people only come because they like the other people here (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I don’t want to be the church that does spiritual formation for people of all ages without being engaged in the struggle for justice and peace.  Our individuals and collective lives and identities are held in the balance and the tension of our commitments to learning, living and sharing.

Plimpton wraps up that great Ali story by repeating the poem one last time.  “Me. We,” he says, adding: “It stands for something more than the poem itself.” The same could be said of our passage from Paul, and of the story for Mary and Martha and maybe even these themes I brought back from my sabbatical. They all stand for wholeness, and balancing the ongoing tension in our lives between self and others, between individual and community, between our needs for solitude and our needs for together, between our being and doing, between me and we. Its not just about reorienting our lives to be more reflective, if we are overly active, or to be more active if we are overly reflective.  By the grace of God, we are invited to set that conversation within a broader context, within a greater whole, within the Body of Christ, and to help each other out.
I’m going to forego my usual parting exhortations and charges, and instead hope that I’ve planted some seeds and stirred up the soil of our ongoing congregational conversations. Help me out here! Stay after church, or come back next week and the week after and the week after, and let’s try to finish this one together.

Say those two words with me just one more time. Me. We. Our life and wholeness in God hangs in the balance!


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