(A sermon for the Third Sunday after Epiphany)
When the United Church of Christ broadcast its first TV ads a couple of years ago, one was the notorious bouncer ad, an edgy image of bouncers standing outside a grey stone church, stopping people who didn’t fit a particular mold from entering to worship. The good-looking blond family was welcomed, but those who might be considered less esteemed members of the body were kept away: gay people, people of color, a person in a wheelchair. Whether or not you liked the ad, and plenty of people didn’t, it raised some interesting questions about just what it means to be the Body of Christ, to live together in a community we call church.
Paul calls upon us to consider our function in the body, to be aware that unless we work together we cannot be Christ’s Church. He writes eloquently:
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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. 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? (1 Corinthians 12:14-17)
You may remember from last week’s sermon, if you braved the weather, that the members of the church in Corinth were at odds over certain spiritual gifts. In particular, they had come to consider speaking in tongues to be the best of spiritual gifts, to the detriment of all others in the view of the community.
Paul goes on to say:
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; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. 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. (1 Corinthians 12:22-25)
Members of the church in Corinth differed also in their economic status. Earlier in the letter, Paul reproaches the well-off in the flock for eating big meals together and drinking heartily before the poorer members of the church arrived for worship. You see, they did not simply share a drop of juice and a morsel of bread to remember Christ. Their table fellowship, their breaking of bread, consisted a whole meal. Paul reminded them that those who had much needed to share with those who did not, rather than the “haves” leaving crumbs for the “have-nots.” How would we feel if we arrived here to discover that a certain group had been enjoying fellowship together, including a gracious meal, leaving only the clean-up and leftovers to us?
This began in my mind as a gentle sermon, intended to set a tone for our time together, to begin to encourage you all gently to consider what the mission of this church might be in the coming years. It’s my hope we’ll begin to talk about how we understand the membership in this body of Christ, and that we will look together into this community and into the wider world to seek the “lesser members” we are to “clothe with honor” by showing love and care and support. I believe I imagined this as work we had plenty of time to do in the coming year. I believed it until I woke up and heard the news on the radio yesterday.
You may have heard, too, about the death of Hanley Denning, a young woman who grew up in Cumberland and Yarmouth and graduated from Bowdoin College in 1992. Hanley went to Guatemala in 1997 to improve her Spanish language skills, given the growing number of Spanish-speaking children in the North Carolina Head Start program where she taught. She never came back to live in the U.S. after discovering the plight of children living with their parents around the City Dump in Guatemala City.
Hanley devoted her life to founding and running Safe Passage, a mission to kids living around the garbage dump in Guatemala City. Whole families live in ramshackle and makeshift houses around the dump, and they support themselves by going through other people’s trash looking for food and things of value to use or sell. We middle-class Americans cannot imagine the sight, I don’t think. I feel worried enough that I will see a rat when we go up to City By the Sea Recycling Center! When I first heard stories about Hanley’s work, I tried to imagine all the city’s garbage going there, too, with the attendant rats, and vultures instead of our local crows circling over the area. Where do you take your refuse in Sanford? Imagine it city-sized, everything that no one wants any more dumped in one sprawling location.
Then imagine families setting up camp there. The long term families have cinder-block dwellings, the newer arrivals have shelter made of cardboard or tin. The children living there were not going to school and therefore had no hope of being able to do anything but follow in their parents’ footsteps. Safe Passage intervened to help get the kids into school, first by starting a drop-in center, to get to know the families and gain their trust, and later by paying for school fees, books and the cost of school uniforms. It was a big adjustment just to show up at a certain time! Eventually the drop-in care was phased out; to come to the center now, the children must be enrolled in and attending school.
Hanley did not have to imagine it, because she walked right into it. What she imagined instead was education as a way out, as safe passage from the life of the discarded to a life we take for granted.
That dump is no metaphor, no image, no symbol. It is a place where real people live and real people die.
We tend to look at the image of the Body of Christ as a metaphor, don’t we? It’s an image we can use to remind ourselves that we can’t do without each other, that each one is needed to fulfill particular roles, that you will do one thing, and I will do another, and somehow we will create a marvelous unified whole. You have a carrot, and you have some barley, and I have a potato, and we all have Jesus Christ, the rock or stone reminding us to cook the soup of church together.
But let’s take it one step further. Suppose this is more than a metaphor? Suppose it is a metaphysical truth?
The 16th century Spanish nun, Teresa of Avila, wrote, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours, yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ’s compassion to the world, yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good, and yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
Christ has no body now on earth but ours: our hands, our feet, our eyes, our feet are to go about doing good on behalf of Jesus Christ.
When we actually stop to think about BEING the body of Christ, if we own it, we realize we are really in the soup. We are in deep. There is no turning back.
Christina Rivera worked at Safe Passage and wrote this a few years ago:
“Hanley scares me. She scares me because she shows me the power and potential of what one human being can do. She scares me because she shows me the potential of what each one of us could do. She scares me because she shows me what I could do, if I were brave and selfless enough.”
To be committed Christians and to live as a committed church may sound scary, too, if it requires understanding ourselves as Christ’s body, no less. That understanding demands of us that we listen to one another, that we care about each other, that we coordinate our efforts the way we coordinate our left hand and our right when tying our shoes. Working together easily must become second nature, a positive assumption that drives us in our life as a community of faith.
Too many churches, and too many denominations, spend their time fighting over things that may not really matter. I can get excited about a good argument as easily as anyone, but Hanley’s death holds the possibility of reminding us that distracting each other with conflict may mean waiting until tomorrow or next month or next year to decide what good work we might do—and that may mean never doing anything at all.
Right here, today, let us take another moment as we pray together to listen for God and to consider how we might be Christ’s hands and feet. It is my conviction that if we will do so, the rest of the things that worry us will fall into their proper places, and that we will find ourselves, by the grace of God, in the soup. Amen.