Going to Pieces

I had a lot of fun with this one, involving others in the church. Took some risks, but they paid off. And for the record, I used actual names instead of role descriptions in the first part of the sermon, but those have been removed to protect the guilty, so to speak.

Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27

All About Me!

Boy, it’s good to be in church today, isn’t it? I mean, I got up this morning, and I just knew this was going to be good. I mean, I’m the preacher, right? So it’s my name on the building outside. And you all have come this morning to hear me speak, right? So how awesome is this? I’ve got almost a hundred people devoted to coming here to see what I have to say. It’s all about me, me, me. And boy it feels good. I mean, I’m the most important person in the room, right?

[Deacon interrupts by coming forward, clears throat, hands note]

What’s this? [Reads note] “Pastoral Relations meeting on Wednesday at 5:30 pm.”

Oh, come on! That’s not what I meant! It’s just that it’s Sunday morning, and Sunday morning is all about the sermon. It’s not like anybody else contributes anything of substance.

[Organist stands up and says something to get the pastor’s attention]

Oh, sorry. I forgot about you. You play the prelude, giving us the opportunity to prepare ourselves for worship. You support our hymn singing as we seek to praise God in song. You lead us in the Doxology, and you always play something beautiful to guide our reflection and contemplation during the offering. And you also close our service with a rousing postlude, lifting up our hearts and encouraging us as we go out into the world.

You are definitely vital to our Sunday morning worship. But it’s really just the two of us doing everything, so………

[Deacon interrupts & stands up]

What? Oh, yeah. I did forget about our deacon of the week, our lay leader for the service. You open our service with the invocation prayer, inviting God’s Spirit to move among us. You give us important information during the announcements about opportunities to serve and to study as we grow in God’s love and grace. Oh, and you remind us of the need to be good stewards with the resources God has given us, as you invite us to contribute to the needs of the poor and of the church through our Tithes & Offerings.

The Offering. [snaps fingers] I suppose I have to acknowledge the contributions of the deacons who serve as ushers and take up our offering. Could you folks please stand too?

Did I forget anyone else?

[Song leader stands and says something to get the pastor’s attention]

That’s right. Without your strong voice, where would we be? Some of us can’t carry a tune in a bucket, and sometimes a song is not very familiar, so it helps to have a knowledgable voice lead us along.

[Praise Band stands up]

Oh yeah, and the Praise Band. Like the organist and the song leader, the Praise Band supports our praise of God, and leads our singing

But that has to be it, right? There can’t be anyone else [microphone cuts out] that’s had a part this morning.

What’s going on with this thing? [Fiddles with mic] Oh, now I see! [Mic comes back on]

Invisible to most of you our sound technician is working in our sound booth upstairs. Without their/his contribution, you wouldn’t be able to hear anything anyone said.

I forgot about the behind-the scenes help.

That means we have to recognize the work of the secretary in the office: preparing our bulletin, choosing hymns to sing, and ensuring that we are all on the same page, so the speak, as we come to worship.

And we need to recognize our custodians, who with their family clean and prepare our sanctuary for worship each week.

And I need to acknowledge my family, who support me and provide space and opportunity to prepare.

And I need to be conscious of others who have supported me in prayer, and who have prayed for our church and our worship. All of you contribute something significant to this moment, which would not be the same without your intervention.

And then there’s everyone who has contributed already during this worship service. I mean everyone who shared a word of kindness during our greetings. I mean those of you who have sung along with the hymns or the praise band. I mean each person who has prayed along with our prayers or read along with the scripture reading in your Bible. I mean anyone who shouted “Hallelujah!”

And of course I need to identify God as the one who supports and inspires me, giving me a word to speak. It is also God, of course, who stirs our hearts in worship, who reveals to us the parallels between the biblical story and our own, who exposes and transforms the rough edges of our soul, and who challenges us to love others, too.

OK, so it’s not just me. If you have done any of these things—if you have had any involvement in our service today in any of the ways I have just mentioned—large or small—would you please stand, just for a moment?

[Applaud]

Without the contributions of everyone—and I mean EVERYONE—this worship service would just go to pieces. It takes everyone—EVERYONE—from the preacher to the pray-er, from the Deacon to the custodian, from the leading musicians to the following singers. It takes YOU, whether you can sing, whether you can read, whether this is your first time here or your thousandth Sunday in worship.

God has brought us together. God has gifted us. And we each have roles to play in worship and in the story of God’s work in the world.

There’s a common misconception that worship is about us. Well, no. That isn’t the misconception—the misconception is that worship is about you. That those visible persons are the performers—persons like the lay leader, the musicians, and the preacher. And the audience? Well the audience is you, of course. You with your stadium seating like you are at the movie theater. You with a program like you are at a music recital. You who observe rather than participate.

But that’s all wrong. It’s backward, and I’m not the first person to point it out. You see, the audience is God. And we all are actors, each with a distinct role to play in this performance we call worship.

We bracket our service with prayer and a benediction, much like the prologue and epilogue of a Shakespearean play. We perform and listen to music because there are things that we need to say to God that are beyond words. We read God’s word—our sacred scriptures—as a testimony to God’s faithfulness to us and to remind us to mimic that faithfulness in our relationship with God. You all are the hearers of the sermon, but I too play a part in the drama of worship, because my sermon is first and foremost testimony of God’s action among us.

We are all the actors in worship; God is the audience. In truth, I don’t think it matters one lick if we like the music, the instrumentation, the prayers, the sermon, or any of it. It’s not about us. It is not for our pleasure. It’s not for us to like.

It is for God. And we each have a role to play.

This is, of course, what Paul speaks of in our scripture lesson in 1Cor.

Back to 1 Corinthians

Paul takes what was a common metaphor for interpersonal relationships, and he turns it on it’s head. That’s very “Jesus” of him, really. You see, before Paul got ahold of it, the body metaphor was used to keep certain people quiet and subservient. The rough, calloused hands aren’t nearly as important as the brain that controls them, after all—right?

But Paul, reflecting on illness and health, realizes that all parts of the body are affected when one part is sick. So he transforms the metaphor, using it to argue for interdependence within the body, and even the significance of less visible or less seemingly important parts.

Paul’s notion of interdependence was reinforced in my mind during my illness earlier this month. I had a fever of 102. Every part of my body ached—I couldn’t sit, stand, or lay down comfortably. I couldn’t sleep because of the pain. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t even walk straight!

And when I finally went to the doctor, I learned the root cause was an ear infection gone wild. I didn’t even know my ears hurt, since everything else hurt so bad. How could my ear make my back hurt so intensely? How could it take the strength out of my hands? How could it interrupt my ability to think clearly? How could it affect my mobility?

The answer, of course, is the Truth that Paul stumbled upon and recorded in 1Cor12: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” It is this way with our physical bodies, and it is this way with the body of Christ as well.

The Analogy of the Body

With its apparently infinite complexity and organic unity, our bodies are a perfect metaphor for the body of Christ, the church. We as human beings are a pretty diverse bunch, as different from one another as are the parts of the human body: 206 bones, 639 muscles, 6 pounds of skin, almost 45 miles of nerves, and nearly 100,000 miles of blood vessels & arteries—to say nothing of the ligaments, cartilage, blood, fat, organs, and everything else.

There are two reasons, I think, that make the human body a good image for us to consider. First is that the parts of the body are incredibly diverse, yet it is obvious to us that they need one another for the survival of the body. Break a finger and you will learn how important that hand is. Have your eyes dilated during an eye exam and you will realize how vital sight is. Abdominal or back surgery quickly reminds you that those muscles get used during absolutely everything. So we understand how diverse parts rely on one another to survive.

The second reason I think this is a great analogy is that we can easily identify our roles with parts of the body. What I mean is this: “Often people find it difficult to name their place in the church, but asked to envision themselves as a part of the body, children and adults of all ages have little difficulty identifying themselves as hands, feet, brains, and funny bones!” (Whiteley, Feasting, 279). So, for instance, yesterday a group cooked and delivered meals as part of our role in the Loaves & Fishes ministry. Those who cooked might easily see themselves as hands, while those who delivered meals might see themselves as feet. We might have even had some tongues, as we wanted to make sure everything tasted great.

“We come to the water of baptism as individuals, independent and relatively self-contained. We come out of that water changed. Our identity is no longer solitary; we can no longer truly be known without reference to that community into which we have been incorporated: the body of Christ, the church. After baptism, we are more than just ourselves; we are by definition beings-in-relationship. Where the spirit of God once moved over the face of the deep and brought life to the world, the Spirit of God remains the source of the life, the breath of the church, moving among us and within us” (Whiteley, Feasting, 279-281).

But sometimes the body that is the church can get out of sorts, just like our human bodies. This seems to have happened at Corinth. Paul writes to them and urges them to appreciate the necessary diversity in the Body of Christ. He challenges them to remember that “God has arranged the members of the body,” and so recognize that God has given the apparently weaker persons more important roles than they can understand. And Paul works to teach them that their honor or dishonor—their success or failure—their celebrating or grieving—is contingent upon everyone participating and having their presence and role valued.

In this teaching of Paul we should hear Jesus frequent command to “Love your neighbor as yourself. We should also hear Paul’s words in Philippians 2:3: “In humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

Antony & His Better

There are countless stories from the history of Christianity that continue to urge us to do just that—to consider others better than ourselves. One of the my favorites involves Antony of Egypt, the founder of monasticism.

Antony had withdrawn to the desert some years ago, and he spent much of his time in prayer. Over the years, he has drawn quite a bit of notoriety and attention, as others are inspired to live the radically counter-cultural life that Antony embodies.

As the story goes, he is praying one day when he hears a voice saying that he is nowhere near as close to God as is this tanner who works in Alexandria. So Antony grabs his walking stick and hurries to the city. He urgently requests the tanner tell him about his work so that he, Antony the Great, might learn something from him.

The tanner replies: “I am not aware that I have done anything good. When I get up in the morning, before I sit down to work, I say that the whole of this city, small and great, will go into the Kingdom of God because of their good deeds, while I alone will go into eternal punishment because of my evil deeds. Every evening I say the same words and believe them in my heart.

With that, Antony concedes that he has not even begun to approach the level of sanctification that this tanner has achieved (DRDF, 41).

You want a stronger church? Heed Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12.

  • Stop thinking your contribution is more important than someone else’s. And stop thinking that so-and-so isn’t doing anything.
  • Learn and appreciate what makes us different, while recognizing that we have all passed through the waters of baptism and we all failingly seek to walk the path of Jesus.
  • Work to improve the health of each other—physical health, spiritual health, mental/emotional health, and economic health. When we strengthen one part of the Body, the whole body is strengthened.
  • Imagine that everyone else in church is doing more and is closer to Jesus than you are—and believe it. Then do the diligent work of prayer and submission to God’s transforming love, while working on accomplishing God’s mission in the world.

Part of what makes this passage from 1 Corinthians 12 so powerful is that these principles don’t just work in the community of faith we call the church. We talk of the church as the “bride of Christ.” And indeed these same principles work to transform our marriages.

You want a stronger marriage? Heed Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 12.

  • Stop keeping track of offenses.
  • Stop monitoring how much more you do than your spouse.
  • Each day, tell yourself that your spouse is harder working and more loving than you are—and believe it. Then live your day doing everything you can to keep up.

These verses are rich with meaning, and now is the right time for us to hear them. They speak of balance, integrity, respect, value, and unity—all things we might be hard pressed to find in the world. But the Body of Christ is where we belong, and belonging means participating. If we do not value one another, we will certainly go to pieces, becoming (as Paul graphically illustrates) a grotesquely disfigured perversion of the Body of Christ.

But if we can learn to love—then we will be a part of the most beautiful, graceful, powerful, and transforming entity the world has ever known. We will be the body of Jesus Christ, carrying God’s love to the world, giving grace and building peace everywhere our beautiful feet tread.