I Corinthians 12: 12-31
A sermon preached by Rev. Wendy Vander Hart, Assoc. Conference Minister, on September 22, 2019
Grace and peace be to you from Jesus Christ the head of the church. I bring you greetings, blessings and all manner of good wishes from the 70 churches of the Metropolitan Boston Association of MA Conference, UCC.
I want to thank Pastor Hannah and church leaders for the invitation to be here, preach and be present with you today. It is a blessing to be in this space to worship God and lift up our covenant connections as the body of Christ. Bless you Pastor Hannah as you engage in ministry for this season. Bless you Church in the ministries you fulfill and for the ways you live the love and justice of Jesus in this community and beyond.
I celebrate who you are in the present and I am praying for your future. Before we move to the scripture text would you help me celebrate who you are in the present by thanking someone next to you for being part of this ministry? Reach out to someone and say “thanks for being part of this ministry!”
The topic for this sermon is “What is Your Part?” If you are a visitor today or a long-standing participant I hope you will find this a provocative sermon for your personal life. But overall these words are posed to the whole of you, church.
So tell me how you got here today? Did you walk, take public transportation, drive, Uber? I drove here but I figure there are at least one hundred people involved in my arriving here safely this morning. There is the public works staff who keep MWRA water flowing into my home that allowed me to take a shower. And then the Eversource workers that keep the lights on and the cool flowing in my house. Then there are all the hands that brought Tejava unsweetened iced tea, Josephs Wheat Pita bread, Whole Foods Peanut Butter and peaches, to my table. Somebody wrote articles in the Globe that keep me informed. Others devised programs and algorithms that connected me to friends, family near and far as I checked on Facebook this morning. Still others stayed to the right so the bicycles had room to whiz by me on the left on the bike path for my 5K daily morning walk. When I crossed the street, a half dozen cars obeyed the red light and did not run me over. Then there are the folks in Jordan who made the clothes I am wearing that kept me sheltered on the way here and well… you get my point.
It takes interdependence to get through life on a regular basis. If that is a true statement, why would church be any different?
The words from I Corinthians 12 were written to a new church start founded by Paul. As he went off to other places to plant new churches, word got back to him that the church folk in Corinth were squabbling with each other about where people were sitting at the communion table and who was eating more than their fair share. In responding to what has trickled back to him, Paul uses an image of the body to address these issues and provide us 2000 years later with a beautiful image of the church – the body of Christ.
If ever there was an image of interdependence it is this one of all the parts of the body working together for the good of the whole. It was not a new image for that time and place, but Paul twisted the use of the body for a different purpose. Where in the Roman world, (especially among politicians) the image of the body had been used to reinforce who was the head and that the other members served that head to strengthen hierarchy, Paul wrote of the body with an emphasis on the unity of all parts as essential for the wholeness of the body.
“The end result of the body metaphor in Paul’s hands is not the same old hierarchy, or even the inverse of that culturally-expected pattern of domination with new people placed on the top, but a deep unity of the whole body, with each part cared for by the others.”
Pauls’ words to the church at Corinth meant that contrary to accepted opinion of the times, the head could not lord it over any other part of the body – all had equal and important parts to play for a body to exist at all. In other words – this is the first text that asserts congregational governance! Our United Church of Christ forebears believed that the body of Christ was constituted not when the pastor was in place preaching and teaching but when the body was gathered discerning the movement of the Holy Spirit.
Even Jesus did not act alone. He gathered disciples, he was funded by widows, he slept in other people’s homes and said whenever two or three of you are gathered, there I will be in the midst of you. To be the body of Christ is not a solo proposition. The only body Jesus has in the world is the church. And how wacky is it on God’s part to entrust something so precious to not just one human being but to put many human beings together and expect that what we do and who we are will give the world a glimpse of Jesus still alive and living in this world. The church exists because God wants it to- through us and many times despite us. My colleague Kelly Gallagher says – “no one can kill the church, many have tried but because it is God’s, it will never die.” That does not mean the church is not a fragile thing, most bodies are. But I can tell you this – there are not many churches that can do the deep discernment work of envisioning their purpose and then agree to remove their pews, reconfigure generations old worship space and still pass the peace of Christ genuinely amongst each other. So I bear witness to the resilience of this body among the bodies that make of us the United Church of Christ.
A number of years ago I just happened to be present in worship when the former Lead Pastor of First Church in Somerville, Molly Baskette, preached on this text. She proclaimed that in her role as Lead Pastor she had finally figured out which part of the body she was – the placenta! She went on to describe her understanding of being part of the birthing process for new ways of being church.
In many congregations we too often act as if the Pastor is the head, the brains, the one who directs everything and without whom the church could not exist. And that is understandable – some of us pastors might even believe that about our place in the body! But the apostle Paul would knock those pastors down a peg or two for introducing hierarchy of form and function into the body metaphor. No one part is greater than another and at the same time every part of the body is needed to be a body.
Ten years ago you installed Hannah to the role of Pastor. She joined this body to preach and teach, commune, baptize and faithfully serve. When I asked Hannah what part she identifies for herself in this body, she named the circulatory system. Much like the circulatory system functions to bring blood and nutrients where they serve the whole of the body, Hannah described routing things where they need to go, seeing the big picture and calling out resources here and attention there- looking at the needs of the whole. We celebrate the circulatory function that Hannah contributes to this body and for the ways she contributes to your health and vitality as a church.
Even while we celebrate your Pastor’s contributions to the whole we also recognize the bodily function each and every one contributes to being church. What matters most in these days is to keep being the church. What matters most in this time is to keep embodying Jesus in the unique ways you know how to practice our precious faith. What matters most is to play your left hand role, your spleen role, your liver role, your eye role, your right foot role, your nose hair role, your appendix role, your hearing, tasting, touching, feeding, laughing, testifying roles for all the world to experience. Because where our world is right now, we cannot afford to lose a body like yours. This body is a gift to the United Church of Christ and it is a treasure to the world, not because of who your pastor is or is not, but because of who you collectively are. Thisbody only exists because God wants it to and has called each one of you exquisite beings to contribute to the whole of it. You got here together and together is how you will carry on.
There is another dimension to the Apostle Paul’s words worth mentioning here. The churches he founded were not solitary communities unto themselves. Each one contributed to, prayed for and supported the far flung bodies gathered in Jesus name from Philippi to Galatia, from Rome to Jerusalem. When a need was known in another community, prayers ascended and offerings were taken to contribute to those needs. The church at Corinth was a body with other bodies much like our United Church of Christ is today. The church of Jesus Christ is not a self-contained movement – networks of churches contribute together to being good news in their locales. I praise God for the unique gifts and ministries you offer to our collective UCC self- you are a blessing to the whole of us!
This sermon is going to end with powerful words written in a song by Hezekiah Walker and I offer them to you as a prayer for your ministry.
I need you
You need me
We’re all a part of God’s body
Stand with me
Agree with me
We’re all a part of God’s body
It is God’s will that every need be supplied
You are important to me
I need you to survive.
May it be so. Amen.
Brian Peterson, Preach This Week, Luther Seminary