I could not imagine what I might say to everyone today after such a wonderful celebration together yesterday. First, I say “thank you.” Thank you to everyone has worked so hard to bring me here, from those who have prayed to those who searched in other ways – many hands contributed to the process and the details. Thank you for your faithfulness. Most of all, thank you God, for this calling on all of our lives to do Your work in this time and in this place.
This calling is not only mine. Deacon Sandy, Deacon Mom, reminded us yesterday that we live our lives through a very particular lens, the lens of Christianity. Within this life as a Christian, we each have a role, something to do. One of the things that I am called to do is to preach the gospel, to let you know every week of the good news of Jesus Christ. And so, my new church family, that is what I hope to share today … for it is that good news that gives us life.
1988, Boston, MA. The attendants wore aqua gowns, the men black tuxedos. The bride was beautiful in her ivory beaded gown. Everything, it seemed, was perfect. But as the people came into the church, bride’s side on the right, groom’s on the left, an unexpected visitor came in. On this occasion of beauty, new beginnings and the sacrament of marriage, a homeless woman entered the church … and sat down.
What should we do? She’s dirty! She smells! She wasn’t invited. We are anxious, uncomfortable. She was intruding on our day! Is she a member of the body of church? Paul tells us that:
the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and 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.
In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, it is this woman who holds the place – the pew, if you will, – of honor. It is this “dishonorable” person who ought to be treated with the most respect in the church – even as an uninvited guest at a wedding. She is dishonorable only by our standards of wholeness, cleanliness, and propriety; she is not dishonorable in the house, the body, of God. It is exactly those parts of ourselves (as individuals and as a community) that we care not to discuss who hold the most worthy places in the body of Christ, the church.
We were not thinking about the Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians on that wedding day. We whispered, “What do we do? Why is she here? Why won’t she leave?” We decided, in fairly short order, to let the woman stay; rather, we decided not to ask her to leave. Weddings, after all, are public events. (Did you know that?) We may require invitations to receptions and home parties, but everyone is welcome at worship in the church. A wedding is a public event. It was not because of some deep sense of honor that we did not speak up; rather, we let her sit in the back pew mostly because we were too uncomfortable to ask her to leave. “It is a wedding …”
Several years later, in Canandaigua, NY, there was a baptism. The bride and groom, parents now, wore a different dress and a suit; relatives, friends and godparents dressed up for the baby’s baptism. The baby was dressed in the family baptismal gown. What an exciting day! And as we sat in the front pews, arranging ourselves on this perfect day, a homeless man came and joined us. This man sat with us in the front pew. He was dirty and smelly. He was at the other end of “my” row. Yet again, from the letter of Paul, this unnamed man was a person to be honored that day. Who was he NOT to share in baptism? We did not even discuss it this time; no one asked the man to leave.
We can stretch the metaphor of the body in this way, extending it to the body of the church and deciding who has the most value, the most honor. No one is any greater than the other. And yet there is that nagging voice in our heads that says surely I am better than him, or her. Finally, however, I hope that we recognize that we each have important in our roles in this place. We are all of equal value. It is fairly easy to say that; it is much harder to live into those words. (We didn’t want the homeless man to stay – he smelled!) So what is it that Paul informs us with this metaphor of the body?
Paul turns the hierarchy of society upside down. The body is not a hierarchical structure; it is one of unity and interdependence; no one part is “above” another in function. Paul is writing that the body of Christ in the church is a body in this way. As the body is not a hierarchy, neither is the church. We are not a hierarchy of priests, lay leaders, and the rest of the laity. We do not function well and will not thrive if we “do church” in this way. We are not complete if we have a priest “above” and other people “below.” We all have gifts that contribute to the whole; we each have contributions to the body. Sometimes it is in our weakest parts, the ones we do not want to think about or even mention, that we find our strength and our call. We are the church, and we all stand, not beautiful and “better,” but broken and unworthy before the Lord. None of us better than any other before God’s glory.
What is it that connects us as a church? We are individuals who choose to worship here, in this place, in this denomination, in this particular type of liturgy. We share a faith and belief in Jesus as our Lord and Savior, who we crucified and who rose from the dead. We are united in our faith. We know the words: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
So Paul begins with unity: “the body is one.” It matters not what we wear, who we are, what our status is, or whether or not we wandered in from the street carrying the sights and smells of homelessness. This one body is united by the power of the Holy Spirit. We are united in the waters of baptism, as we die to self and emerge as “Christ’s own.” We receive the grace of baptism and become members of the body of Christ.
Being the body of Christ does not mean that we are all the same. We will disagree. “Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.” We need to allow one another to be individuals. We have different opinions, priorities, needs, and experiences. What do we do? We listen to one another with compassion, honoring our differences and seeking Jesus within every other person. We let the homeless person stay. We welcome the weakest parts of each of us into this holy place, and allow those weaknesses to find a home. We seek mutual understanding through the power and presence of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Sometimes, we will need to learn how to disagree. Sometimes we do not even have to disagree, but to simply allow one another to be different.
So the wounded among us are welcome. The woundedness within us is welcome. All of our parts make our physical bodies and the body of the church what it is, and whole, a magnificently made creation of our Lord. We function not always with perfections, but always with God’s guiding hand, with grace and mystery. We pray, dear Lord, help us be forever the body that You have created. Amen.