Sunday, January 21, 2007

We Need One Another, or The Whole Bird: a Sermon

“We Need One Another, or
The Whole Bird”
1 Corinthians 12:12-31
January 21, 2007

Pastor Rick Warren of the Saddleback Church in California is the Christian world’s equivalent of a rock star, especially among our more evangelical brothers and sisters. His book The Purpose-Driven Church hit the stores in 1995, and after a slow start, took the publishing world by storm. Together with its companion book The Purpose-Driven Life, it sold more than 23 million copies. Here is a snapshot of how powerfully influential these books have been: a couple of weeks ago, newly elected Reps. John T. McGruder (R-CO) and James R. Newhell of Wheaton (R-IL) asked permission to be sworn in to office on their copies of The Purpose-Driven Life.

Recently, however, Rick Warren found himself at the center of a controversy, under attack by those who had previously lauded his work and his ministry. Why? Because Warren felt compelled to host a conference on AIDS at the Saddleback Church, and to invite figures from across the religious and political spectrum to attend. He came under particular fire for his invitation of Senator (and likely Democratic presidential candidate) Barack Obama (D-IL). Rick Warren got in trouble with the religious right for attempting to be inclusive. When challenged, “Rick, are you right wing or left wing?” Warren replied, “I am for the whole bird.”

These are the kinds of things that happen when people, in this case Christians, think they don’t need one another, when they attempt to squeeze one another out. In this morning’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, he is attempting to persuade a group of early Christians that, contrary to the prevailing spirit in their midst, they do in fact need one another. First Corinthians is a letter which, while addressing myriad items in the life of a community, really has at its heart one overarching theme: unity. Oneness. How to live out our Christian vocation in the messy reality we call church whole holding it all together.

The church in Corinth had a lot going for it. In fact, at the very beginning of the letter Paul says something rather remarkable to this group: he says, “You are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor. 1:7a). What’s a spiritual gift? It is a gift from the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God. It is a gift that is given for the good of the whole community. Just before our passage begins Paul outlines what some of those gifts are:

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. (1 Cor. 12:8-10)

Wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracle-working, prophecy, discernment, speaking in tongues and interpreting tongues… that is quite a list of skills to find in one relatively young congregation. And yet Paul recognizes and affirms the presence of every one of these gifts in the Corinthians. Then, in order to help the church understand how vital each and every gift is, Paul begins speaking in an extended metaphor, a metaphor that is still, these many centuries later, one of the most powerful ways we have of understanding life in community. Paul speaks of the church as “the body.” “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” (1 Cor. 12:12). The church is the body of Christ, and the people are members of that body, members here having the double meaning of those who belong as well as body parts. Paul goes on,

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 Cor. 12:15-17)

Paul is playing a little here… he’s being silly, but with an entirely serious purpose behind his joke. Where indeed would the body be without the ears, or the sense of smell, or the hand or the foot?

Now, you know and I know that there are people all around us, whether they are veterans of war or people with Diabetes or simply folks who are enduring some of the trials of aging, who demonstrate to us on a regular basis that, indeed, the human spirit being what it is, people can learn to live and thrive without limbs, hearing, vision, etc. But this is a modern development. We can’t forget the context in which Paul is writing, a context in which the loss of a limb or a sense is a catastrophe, in which there is no such thing as a “support group,” and in which there is a strong current of belief/ superstition that people are responsible for bringing these calamities on themselves. Paul’s point is that the members of the church need one another; they need one another every bit as deeply and desperately as each person needs his or her own hands, eyes, or heart.

The issue at hand in the Corinthian church was this: one particular spiritual gift had begun to crowd out all the others. Those who could speak in tongues were beginning to be thought of as the rock stars of that community, while those with other spiritual gifts were being made to feel as if they were lesser than, as if they were second-class citizens. It might be good to clarify what is meant by “speaking in tongues.” This is a way of speaking that is believed to be inspired by the Holy Spirit, in which the individual communicates with God in a kind of private language, language that would probably sound like babble to an outsider. It has been called the “speech of angels.” The problem with it, in terms of the community, is that it really can be private communication, and, unless there is someone with the gift of interpretation, it’s not particularly helpful in building up the community, the body. In the church at Corinth, clearly, those who spoke in tongues were ruling the roost with their angelic speech. Because of that there was an emerging sense that some people were “more Christian” or “better Christian” than others. No, Paul says, this cannot be.

The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’…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. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
(1 Cor. 12:21, 24-26)

Let me say that last part again: If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Anyone here ever have an earache or a toothache? Both those maladies bear witness to the absolute truth and wisdom of these words. If you have an earache or a toothache, the whole of you suffers right along with that little localized ground zero of pain. And who among us can forget the early reaction of the entire world after September 11? People who had never set foot on US soil grieved with us, and poured out their heartbreak in letters to the editors of our newspapers, saying things like, “We are all Americans today.” When one nation was attacked, the world was in pain. How far we have come from that moment.

Every member of the body needs every other member. We need one another, and our need is absolute. To paraphrase the words of Rick Warren, we need the whole bird. I’m not sure what happens to convince us otherwise, to make us think, either, “We can go it alone,” or “We don’t need those people.” But I am sure of this: when we cut people out of the body of Christ, when we reject people’s contributions or convince ourselves that we are better off without them, we reject a piece of God, we reject those whom God has sent to be with us.

Martin Niemoller was German pastor who had served as a U-boat captain during the First World War, and who was an early supporter of Hitler. But he had a change of heart, and he famously summed up his philosophy on why it was imperative for people of conscience to oppose the Nazis in this poem:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out
because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left
to speak out for me.

We need one another. We need one another when it is time to stand up to speak against tyranny, and we need one another when it is time to frost cupcakes for the bake sale. We need one another when we have heavy loads to carry up a flight of stairs, and we need one another when we have heavy loads that we carry in our hearts. And we need one another, this is key, because we are all members of God’s family, in Christian lingo, the body of Christ. When we reject the gifts of our sisters and brothers, we reject a gift given us by God. And when we reject God’s gift, we reject God.

Years ago I read a small article on a website run by a group of Episcopal monks and nuns of the order of Saint Julian of Norwich. Julian is remembered as a mystic who communed and communicated with God, and who shared her visions in her writings. Perhaps because her spiritual experiences convinced her of the unshakeable love of God, her most famous quote is this: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” On this Julian website, there was an article about church growth and development. The author asked this question, and it has lodged in my heart to this day: “What if we were to fully believe that the Holy Spirit has placed in this congregation exactly those people whom God wants here?” What if we were to take to heart the words of Paul, that we, here, now, are not lacking in any spiritual gift? That we have only to look around us and recognize and affirm and welcome those gifts?

We need the whole bird, every member of the body of Christ. Like the church at Corinth, this congregation has every gift it needs. The Spirit of God has most abundantly blessed you, individually and corporately. In order to use those gifts, it is imperative that we recognize that we need one another. We need one another. Amen.


steve said...

Wow. I really enjoyed and learned from this. Thanks, Mags!

Catherine + said...

Dear Magdalene, this is a beautiful piece. I have never been very excited about Rick Warren but you may have helped me take a second look.

I wrote a piece on my blog using the same quote by Niemoller. It is a timeless bit of wisdom of biblical proportions in my view.

Thank you for pulling all of the threads of scripture, unity and Niemoller together into a post reflecting the true spirit of Christ.