Sunday 27 January 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 3C
Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball—I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me—I am part or particle of God.
Those of you who are more familiar with literature than I am will recognize that as the poetry of the 19th-century Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. I don’t remember much from Mrs. McCann’s junior American Literature class, but one thing I do remember is that transparent eyeball. What a strange image. But an apt one. The idea that I can never truly observe the beauty and mystery of nature because nature will always be effected and disturbed by my attempts to watch it. But if I could become a transparent eyeball, an invisible observer, then I could achieve full communion with God, become part and particle with the Divine.
It’s true that we often experience God best in nature. It’s especially true in a place as beautiful as the Columbia Gorge. The grandeur of Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams. The misty mystery of the forests. The joy of hundreds of waterfalls. The power of the Columbia river. You don’t even have to leave the freeway to be blown away by the incredible beauty of God’s creation. And yet, if you take the time to get out there with your hiking boots, kayak, mountain bike, skis, paddle board, or snow shoes, it is all the more overpowering, all the more consuming.
And the Body of Christ needs people who can seek to be those transparent eyeballs, people who can really appreciate God’s majesty. But according to today’s letter from Paul, the Body of Christ is about more than just passive, awe-inspiring observation. It is more than a transparent eyeball.
The apostle tells us that the Church, Christ’s Body in the World, is made up of all kinds of different and diverse parts. Sometimes it can be a little hard to believe. We sometimes fall into thinking that there is one right and true way to be Christian. We think that we could take any situation and determine the proper “Christian” thing to do. But according to Paul, that’s not true. Different Christians have different gifts, and they function in different roles, and so there is no one right way to be a Christian. Some will spend their lives as that transparent eyeball, shut away from society, marveling in the awesome creative power of God. But others have little use for that kind of contemplation. They might be an ear, listening to the need and pain of the world. They might be a hand, reaching out in love to those who need aid. They might be a foot, spreading the message of God’s grace across the globe.
But those are still really the glamorous jobs, aren’t they? Paul doesn’t just tell us that Body is made up of hands and feet and eyes and ears. No, for Paul, even the Body of Christ has its—unmentionable parts. Did you notice that?
Nearly half of the expletives in the English language are crude names for body parts, and you can bet the same was true in Greek. Paul knew what he was talking about when he said, “Those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor.” We can’t get away with dismissing or disassociating ourselves from those Christians that we consider unclean, or crude, or even vulgar. These are just as much a part of the Body of Christ as any other, and whether we like it or not, the Body is One, inseparable, indivisible.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t try to divide Christ’s Body. And in general, we’re getting pretty good at it. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, there are now over 33,000 different denominations of Christianity in the world. Of course, some of those groups get along pretty well with one another. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada are different denominations, but there isn’t a whole lot that divides us. Even so, we’re still talking about 33,000 different factions of Christianity, many of which really don’t want to associate with most of the others. Some would love to slice up Christ’s Body into 33,000 little pieces, and pretend that theirs is the only one that matters. That’s one of the reasons I think the work of this congregation, and others like it, is so important. We are a visible witness that Christians from different traditions can not only work together, but even come together in organic unity. We are a witness to the re-membering of the Body of Christ. And that is such a powerful sign for the world. I hope you understand that. The dual relationship that we have here is special and worth celebrating.
But let’s get back to the body. Sometimes we have a hard time believing that the Body of Christ has both a right hand and a left hand. That right hand is trying really hard to cut off those liberals over there on the left causing trouble. And the left hand is just as ready to cut off those conservatives over on the right with all of their misconceptions. But let me tell you, neither one of them, the left nor the right, is complete on its own. Both are indispensable to the body of Christ. Neither one of them has everything figured out, and both of them have things they could learn from the other.
There are many ways that we Christian try to exclude people that we don’t approve of. We have all sorts of methods for performing amputations on the Body of Christ. But according to Paul, it doesn’t matter how much the eye might hate the toe, or how much the appendix might hate the colon, whether we like it or not, we are stuck together. There is no way around it. The Body is One. No matter what we might try to do to make it otherwise. Through the mystical power or Christ, we are one.
The Body of Christ needs us all. The Body needs people who will think and study and ponder. The Body needs those who will share the transformative gospel of Jesus Christ with those who most need to hear it. The Body needs those who will point out the ways that the church is failing or causing harm, and call for change and renewal. The Body needs those who will listen and care and bind up those who are hurting. The Body needs those who will strive for justice, who will work to correct the inequalities in our world. The Body needs people to calm things down, to make peace and bring understanding. And the Body also needs people to stir things up, to wake us from our complacency. The Body needs people who listen. And the Body also needs people who speak. The Body needs people who pray. And the Body also needs people who act. We all have difference skills, different gifts, and different functions. But without each of us, the Body of Christ would be incomplete, would be less than it could be.
And sometimes our place in the Body will change during the different seasons of our lives. I may play a different role as a child than I do as a youth, than I do as a young adult, as an established adult, as a retiree, as an elder. Sometimes those transitions are exciting. I can’t believe I’m old enough to light the candles. I’m really glad that I finished my work with that one ministry so that I can focus on this other one. And sometimes it’s nice to be in a different role at church than I am in my job or in my family. Just because I’m a CPA doesn’t mean that all I can do is finance stuff. Sometimes transitions are hard, though. It’s hard to let go of what you used to do after you’ve moved on to something else. Or it’s hard to admit that you’re just not able to do some of the things that you used to. If you’re feeling down about not being able to do the things you used to, I want you to know that you are a valuable member of the Body of Christ, a valuable member of this congregation. The things you do now are valuable, and this is just a different season of your service in Christ, and we need you just as you are right now.
Sometimes church people are really good at doing things for others and terrible about receiving themselves. If you feel a sense of fulfillment at doing something to help others, can you also let someone else experience that fulfillment when it’s your turn to receive? If the heart won’t accept oxygen from the lungs, there’s going to be a problem. And if the brain won’t accept blood from the heart, there’s going to be a problem. In the Body of Christ, there is chance enough for all of us to be servants, and there is chance enough for all of us to graciously accept service. Even Jesus did the same, accepted hospitality. And so can we. When we do, we acknowledge that the Body of Christ is one.
And because we are all one in the Body of Christ, we all rejoice together and we all suffer together. If one member is in pain, we are all effected by it. If one member is diseased, we are all in danger. If one member is poisoned, we all suffer the consequences.
And right now, the Body of Christ is suffering quite a few afflictions. The Body of Christ is Hungry. 13.2% of Washingtonians and 16.4% of Oregonians live below the poverty line. In Hood River County, 8.5% of people are food insecure, 11.8% in Wasco County, 13.4% in Klickitat County, and 13.9% in Skamania County. The Body of Christ is Hungry.
The Body of Christ is Sick. Depression rates went up 33% between 2013 and 2016. Obesity and suicide are up, as well. High-school vaping is up 75% in the last year. According the to CDC, 60% of US adults live with a chronic disease and 40% live with two or more. The deadliest is heart disease, which causes 2,300 deaths every day. Many others are living with cancer, lung disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and kidney disease, including some of us in this room. 115 people die every day in the US from an opioid overdose. There’s even a comeback in measles, with more than 220 cases in the US in 2018, and currently 31 cases in and around Vancouver. The Body of Christ is Sick.
The Body of Christ is at War. Nearly 36,000 people died in Afghanistan last year, as many as 23,000 in Syria, more than 25,000 in Yemen, all places where the US is involved. 0.4% of Americans currently serve active duty in the military, while 7.3% of Americans have ever served. Many have died in war. Many more come back wounded in body, mind, and spirit. The Body of Christ is at War.
And because the Body of Christ is One, we are all in it together. Whether or not we have enough to eat each day, we are effected by hunger. Whether or not we are laid up in bed, we are effected by illness and disease. Whether or not we wear a uniform or live in a war zone, we are effected by war. Whether I am a hand, a foot, a tongue, a spleen, a tooth, an artery, a white blood cell, or a kidney, I am effected.
And as members of the Body of Christ, we have choices to make. We choose how we spend our money, and which causes we support. We choose how we vote and how we lobby our representatives. We choose whom we pray for, whom we listen to, how we reach out. And when we realize that the Body of Christ is One, and that we are all effected by the safety and health of every other member, then the choices we make will reflect that unity.
The Body is One. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it. If one member celebrates, we all celebrate together with it. So let all the members of Christ’s Body reach out together in love.
Let me close with the words of a 16th-century Christian mystic, Teresa of Avila. She said:
Christ has no body now on earth but yours;
no hands but yours; no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.
Yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good.
Yours are the hands with which He is to bless His people.