After weeks of wrestling with the lectionary text for Sunday January 23, 2016, this is the sermon I preached at Wellington Ave United Church of Christ in Chicago. Read more about them here.
The scripture we are about to hear comes from Paul’s first letter to the congregation at Corinth. Paul writes in part to respond to a letter he received from the Corinthians, who are seeking guidance about several disputed matters, but also because he’s been hearing about some serious disorders within the congregation from outside parties.
He’s been hearing about power struggles, inappropriate Christian conduct, and the marginalization of the communities most vulnerable members.
This letter is an attempt to call the congregation back together so they might embody the unity and harmony that, in Paul’s view, necessarily go along with their claiming of Christ. He begins,
“Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose…” (1 Cor. 1:10)
He goes on to talk about the power and wisdom of God through Christ, the ministry of the apostles, lawsuits among believers, warnings from Israel’s history, head coverings, sexual immorality, marriage, abuses of the Lord’s supper – I mean, the list goes on and on. Then, as we near the end, Paul takes a moment to discuss spiritual gifts.
“Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed… there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone…All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses.” (1 Cor. 12:4-6, 11)
This theme of ‘many and one’ sets up our reading for today, chapter 12:12-31. Hear now, from the first letter written to the Corinthians:
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.
13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body.
17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, just as God chose.
19 If all were a single member, where would the body be?
20 As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
22 On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 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; 24 whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25 that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27 Now, [he says] you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues.
29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?
31 But strive [instead] for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
“But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way…”
Let us pray.
Holy One, Holy Many, we come to you today asking for wisdom and understanding upon hearing this Word. O God, what is the Good News for us here and now? Help us hear it, then help us live it. In the name of Jesus the Christ, our teacher and liberator, I pray. Amen.
So Paul hears about discord in the church of Corinth and responds with a metaphor.
“You are the body of Christ.” That is, you are the resurrected living body of Christ.
Now I am sure you have heard it said, “we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world.” Or you’ve heard this scripture used as an example of Christian unity, particularly unity in diversity.
I am sure you’ve also heard a sermon about how important each individual part is to the body, but not so important that one part should be held over another.
Indeed, Paul is attempting to disrupt whatever kind of elitism is going on in the community by making two important points to two different groupings of members:
1. First, for those on the margins: you are part of something bigger, orchestrated by God, this makes you more significant, not less.
2. At the same time, for those who hold places of power, held in high esteem: you are part of something bigger, orchestrated by God, this makes you only as significant as the whole itself. No more, no less.
In other words, being a part of something bigger also means keeping your ego in check.
It’s not just about you!
As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”
On the contrary, 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…
This is a big deal—this is the Good News!—because here they are, squabbling over who has been blessed with the greatest gifts of the Spirit, trying to one up each other left and right: oh, you’re a teacher? Well, I’m an apostle. Oh, you’re an apostle, well, I’m a prophet. Oh, you’re a prophet, well I speak in tongues!!!
They’re doing this because this is the way the world has taught them to relate to one another. (say that again)
That is, based on the world’s value system of who is most worthy, which is based on how productive they are and what kind of work they can do, rather than how they do it, why, or who they do it with…
But then Paul comes in and flips the script, turning their world upside down, letting them know that they’ve got it all wrong! Stating that there are many gifts of the Spirit and we need them all. In fact, no gift is more significant than the other.
More importantly, those that the world deems ‘insignificant’ are actually more significant to the body of Christ. Those deemed ‘less honorable,’ are even more honorable in the community of Christ, he says.
“But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
That is, a body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together.
Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—Paul says, the “lower” the part, the more basic and therefore necessary. (the Message)
For instance, you can live without an eye, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body you are concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. I have no other stomach to compare this one to and so I give thanks to God that this one works—most of the time.
Paul argues we should have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to full-bodied hair? Some of you might feel differently about this one…
Nevertheless, Paul says the way God designed our bodies—in all their diversity of size, shape, color, and ability—is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: that is, every part is dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we pretend not to see.
All are essential. And when each fulfills its function, the whole body benefits.
With this in mind, I want to shift gears for a moment…Last night I had the chance to spend time with Kati and Esther, non-resident members of WAUCC, who are in town for the Creating Change Conference.
Now, the Conference bills itself as the largest, more inclusive national LGBTQ conference in the country. If you’ve been keeping up with the news at all this week, you may have heard about some of the controversy surrounding the conference.
First, there was the issue of I.C.E. being invited to do a workshop about making detention “safer” for LGBTQ people. Then, there was the problem of “pinkwashing.”
Pinkwashing for those of you who don’t know (cause I didn’t until this week), is a variety of marketing and political strategies aimed at promoting a product or an entity to appear to queer-friendliness. In this particular instance, protestors of the event who were attempting to be in solidarity with Palestinian sisters and brothers called out the planners who invited pro-Israeli, Zionists at the event.
Sara Schulman, a writer and professor at the City University of New York, claims that the Israeli government public relations campaign exploits the idea of Israel being LGBT-friendly to promote public perception of Israel as a “modern democracy,” and “safe and secured” place for investment. In other words, pinkwashing the occupation of Palestinian’s land.
Esther and I were discussing some of these issues and more when she reminded me of this broader theme of inclusion and exclusion in Paul.
As Paul speaks from his context, he is mentioning all the parts of the body that are of use – hands and head – but then he mentions the ‘less respectable’ members. What does he mean? The body parts we do not see.
“The genitals” – Esther cried out, parts of the body that release fluids, which in Paul’s context are ‘less honorable’ and ‘respectable’ because they’re deemed dirty and impure.
For example: the outpouring of blood. Women would literally be sent away from their homes while menstruating; this was taught in the Torah, because blood and bleeding made them unclean and bleeding in the home put others—namely men- ‘at risk.’
Moreover, these parts of the body didn’t even have names in Hebrew; instead, we read about women “uncovering the feet” of a man. In Song of Solomon – there are no words for the actual parts but rather the writer uses metaphorical imagery such as ‘flower’ or ‘meadow’ to talk about that which cannot be seen or even said!
In other words, they refused to talk about these organs. And this is why we have an aversion from the beginning of time, believing sex is wrong. Or that it is only for procreation. We don’t value these parts, they’re just necessary for reproduction.
In fact, when the body of Christ uses these parts, to have joy or pleasure, we expel them from the community. “Our body of Christ is an asexual body,” thank you very much!
Everyone who says different gets put on a list. They are other, not holy enough to be included, let alone honored or respected. How do we see this play out today? Take for instance, trans people or trans women in particular, and sex workers –two “categories” of people that might be deemed ‘less honorable’ in some societies (while highly respected in others!).
For some, this has to do with what body parts they do or don’t have. As well as, what they do with those body parts. Do we believe that the Spirit is at work when someone transitions from one gender to the next? Are transwomen part of the body of Christ?
I want to scream YES, YES, YES. But of course, the real answer is more often than not: No – They are not us. They are visitors.
We invite them, and we remain the ‘owners’ of the table, that which is actually God’s table. Nevertheless, at OUR table they are never our equals because we sit at the head, not Jesus, WE are the members that think and work with our hands; they are not “respectable,” their identities are linked to the parts of the body that we don’t respect. The parts we want to put away and hide.
But again, Paul seems to be including parts of the body that are culturally related to impurity; the ‘lower extremities,’ if you will.
With this in mind, what are the parts and members that you consider impure? Who are the untouchables in our midst? Have you ever been made to feel like you are not worthy to be here?
Now I will say, I am quite proud of this congregation and the way in which it has welcomed many of the LGBTQ folks from the neighborhood, many of whom have been transgender, and may or may not have engaged in sex work for survival at some time. Whether you realized this or not, you welcomed them.
BUT would you welcome them again knowing that they might also have engaged in some form of sex-work, that is taking another into their body in hopes of having somewhere to stay that night – what we often call survival sex?
There is a disconnect in our church body politics.
On one hand, we proclaim Jesus as head of the church. As members of the United Church of Christ, this is less about top down decision making, rather we are a horizontal body with equal power and responsibility. (If I had a white board I’d draw a reclining body)
That said, our church structures – council chair and others hold a lot of power; and not one young person sits at that table, though they may be invited. Moreover, very few queer people, zero trans people or people of color, and I am almost certain there are no sex workers – but I’d be happy to debate that.
I say all that to say, when I read Paul’s letter to the congregation at Corinth, I am struck not only by what he says about the body, but by what and who is missing, who is seemingly invisible because we, the Church, make them invisible. Or worse, we as a society criminalize and crucify them, ultimately condemning them to death at the hands of the State.
The name CeCe McDonald comes to mind—an African American trans woman who spent 41 months in jail for defending herself against a brutal attack that resulted in the attackers death. Because we, as a society, do not believe and trust in her value as member of this world, whether it be because she is black or a woman, a trans woman at that, we punished her resistance.
Because the hand trusts the hand and the foot trusts the other foot; that is, we are more inclined to trust those who look and act similar to us, those WE deem ‘respectable’ and ‘acceptable’ in OUR own sight.
But what about God? How does God see our trans sisters and others who are resisting? And missing? Murdered in cold blood.
We’ve been doing church in this neighborhood for over 100 years – the world is changing, our city and society is changing (although sometimes not fast enough); How do we BE the Good News Community that God calls us to be via Paul? How do we engage in some kind of radical church body politics of hospitality—welcoming the Other in ways that are mutually transformative? How can we be the Beloved Body of Christ together?
Paul writes, “If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.”
I want to be a part of that healing and flourishing with you. And I believe that God is calling us to be a part of the healing and flourishing in this city, right here in Lakeview.
So who is missing from this Beloved Body of Christ? Do you feel at home here?
If not, let’s make it so.