Amy Clark Feldman
November 16, 2014
1 Corinthians 12: 14-27
It is good to be together again after our retreat last weekend. Perhaps as they have for some of you, snapshots of the weekend kept coming back to me throughout the week –and as I look at the bulletin covers the children designed, and our “name-badge body,” I remember how each of us brought different gifts to our worship time – how by worshipping together, eating together, getting a chance to rest together, we came to better understand what it is to live as the Body. As our passage in Genesis says, it was Good. But we missed the part of the Union Church body that wasn’t with us, and so we especially recognize what a gift it is to all be here now, with our visitors, sharing some of what we learned and experienced.
Before we continue, let us pray: Holy God, We are Your Body, and You are our God. Continue to be with us now, that the words of my mouth and the mediations of all of our hearts would be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
One of the great gifts of the retreat, I think, was time to take God’s invitation to rest – to get out of our routines. I think it’s fair to say that some of us came into the weekend feeling the weight our busy lives, maybe our own smallness in the face of all life can throw our way. Taking time for rest in that beautiful place, being together as a body in the way we were, left us standing a little bit taller, more connected to God and one another.
Brita Gill-Austern, who helped plan the retreat as member of this church, is also a professor of mine at Andover Newton Theological School, and she told us a story earlier this fall that has stuck with me. It’s an old Jewish tale of a Rabbinical student who goes up to his teacher, a wise Rabbi, and says “Teacher, what is it that I must do to be holy?” The student is insistent that the Rabbi give him an answer, and the Rabbi puts his hands in his two pockets, and pulls from one, a picture of a crown, and from the other, a handful of dust. Referring to today’s passage in Genesis, the Rabbi says that the path to holiness is to keep these two things always in our pockets – that when we are feeling lowly and overwhelmed, questioning our worth, we should reach into the pocket with the crown and remember that we are just less than God, near to Him, made in His image and Good; and when we are feeling high and mighty, and too sure of ourselves, we are to put our hand in the other pocket and remember that as humans, we are little more than dust. The path to holiness, says the Rabbi, is to always keep our hands firmly in both pockets, fully humble in the knowledge of our full worth. There is a children’s song about this Rabbinic Story that goes, “We are great and small, tiny and tall; through it all, we are great and small.” If there were those who came to the retreat feeling a bit small, dusty and tired, I think most of us left feeling our hands more firmly in both pockets – more connected to the greatness of our gifts and our nearness to God.
The scripture passage we focused on as the theme of the retreat was the passage we just read from 1 Corinthians 12. It is part of a letter Paul writes as a pastor, to the struggling church in Corinth – and it gives them and us a whole other way of thinking about our smallness and our greatness. Paul has good reason to be worried about this church in Corinth. Corinth was a busy and diverse city. It was an important place for Paul’s ministry and he had spent considerable time helping to start this church and get it going – and now that he’s moved on, he receives word that it is going off the rails in just about every way imaginable. He writes this letter to them to give them clear instructions about how to proceed. In the section of the letter we are reading today, Paul is dealing with two main issues. The first is that the church is splitting along the lines of its diversity – and notably, when they gather for Communion, the rich are eating lavish meals and the poor are relegated to the peripheries and left to go hungry. Paul opens this passage with a resounding NO to that kind of behavior –worldly hierarchies have no place in the body of Christ. In Christ there is no east or west, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek.
The second and related issue is that there are those among the membership of the church who believe they have Spiritual Gifts that make them better than other members – that they are purer, holier, and that their exceptional gifts mean they should have a place of power or control. Again, Paul says NO – and launches us into this beautiful image of the Body. On one level, Paul is saying to the member who thinks he is Spiritually superior “My friend, remember that you are but one member — you are small; you are a foot— a great foot perhaps, but no more needed than any other member of the body.” And to the poor and hungry member, Paul is saying “My friend, stand up, you are a FOOT! As great and needed as the other foot in there I just finished speaking with –Know your great worth. Come be part of the whole.”
We could stop there – with this message of equality and inclusion – but Paul invites us deeper – because understanding this image of the body is at the very heart of God’s plan for us and the world in Jesus – and Paul doesn’t want it to be misunderstood. As I spent time with this text over the past few weeks, I kept coming back to the image of this foot – the one who says “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.” We don’t know what it is about not being a hand that has upset this foot– maybe he doesn’t feel as needed or deserving as the hand; maybe he’s just confident in his foot-ness; that if the hand needs the body, he as the foot can go it alone. We don’t know. The image in my mind, though, has been of that foot striking off on its own, bouncing down the proverbial path, self-contained, maybe self-confident at first, but becoming increasingly tired and lost, and eventually railing against God: “O Lord, why can’t I see where I am going?”; “Why can’t I hear your voice?”; “O Lord, why is moving along this road alone so exhausting.” It would be funny if it weren’t so sad; funny if we couldn’t relate so well to the predicament.
We live a world that tells us we can and should do it all. It is a world filled with messages about how to be more self-fulfilled, self-motivated; as parents and children, how to juggle it all, how to succeed beyond the competition; take the bull by the horns; forge our own paths. I wonder if all this self-actualization has really left us a bit like that foot, out in the cold – tired and lost.
For me this passage was also an invitation to look with new eyes at some of the messages about the body and Jesus that I have carried with me — in particular the message that in our individual lives we should strive to be and become like Jesus. Somewhere along the line, I had internalized that message to mean that if we, as individuals, only strive more, do more, become more perfect, live better and more moral lives; if we ask ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ at every decision point of our days, we, as individuals, might ourselves become more like Christ – that that is what God wants. Becoming like Jesus is not a bad goal – there is no better example to follow – but, Paul tells us, it’s an impossible goal to live up as individuals. Paul makes it clear that that is not God’s plan. While he tells us we are always to strive for what he calls the ‘greater gifts’ Jesus embodied – the greatest gift of all being Love – he also makes it clear that becoming like Jesus is never meant to be an individual pursuit. Jesus is far too big for that. We can strive to become the best and most loving and most compassionate foot, or hand or ear we can be, but to become the Body will take ALL people, everywhere, to bring ALL their gifts, fully to the body.
I find freedom in that truth. It takes some of the pressure off, but it also gives us a new responsibilities. It turns out that in order for God’s plan in Christ to work, for God’s restoration and healing of our broken selves and world to take place; we must each do two important things: The first is to realize the greatness of own gifts and use them for the whole. It means that our gifts will never find their full potential unless they are used for the good of the whole; and the whole will never be whole without each of our gifts. And the second, just as important, is to become more aware of and embrace our smallness, our limitations. Our responsibility, this image tells us, is to find the boundaries of our gifts, and then knit ourselves along those boundaries with threads of love and humility to others who can help. In finding the boundaries of our gifts, we can allow others who need our gifts, to knit themselves to us. God’s plan, it turns out, requires us to engage in the daily spiritual practice of relying on others, and allowing others to rely on us.
We are great and we are small, but our greatness comes from always knowing that we never need be alone – that we are always meant to be part of something far greater than ourselves.
I’ll share one more snapshot that has stuck with me from the retreat before closing. In the open plenary session – each of was invited to think about and chose which part of the body best described us – some of us where the eyes, able to see things more clearly; some were hands and arms reaching out to others; some were the liver, or the heart, or the brain. As part of this exercise, we were asked to contemplate, not only what our own gifts are and what they can add to our body as a church, but also what other parts of the body, what other gifts we need to seek out in order for our gift to be fully realized.
I identified as an EYE, and throughout the weekend, I watched. I watched, the feet of other members of the community play soccer with my son, I watched mouths sing music that reached deep into our souls, I watched ears listen to one another, arms offer hugs, imaginations and bodies bringing movement to the scripture passages. I watched as this body, and the individual members of it, came to live out, in our own small way, God’s greatest hopes for us.
Today we turn a page on our church calendar. As we celebrate Thanksgiving next Sunday, we say goodbye to fall and then the following week, enter the season of Advent. Advent is the season when we realize that just as we are limited as humans, God limited himself to take on human form among us.
As we enter Advent, we are invited to consider how we can more fully live into the hope for our lives and the hope for the world that is the Body of Christ. The whole is not whole without each and every one of us. What gifts will you bring to the body this season? As we prepare for the Christmas birth of this small baby and His great promises; how can you live more fully into your own small, but very great place in the Body of Christ?