Scripture: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
In just one morning, perhaps even this one morning, the diversity of creation serves us well. We awake to the sounds of an obnoxiously, but necessarily loud, beeping alarm clock in our carefully crafted bed in between cotton fiber – harvested, spun, and woven - into sheets. We turn on the bathroom light with the confident flick of a switch and activate the faucet with ease, allowing the water to run over our hands. It’s a little too cold, so we adjust the temperature. Perfect.
We make a pot of coffee and read through the Sunday paper – online or in hardcopy black and white print. All under a well-built roof, each shingle carefully laid and set in place to protect us from the wind, rain, and snow.
We get into our car – metal on wheels - and drive through town and see the array of opportunity and commerce at our fingertips - flower shops, restaurants, hardware stores, auto repair shops, lumber yards, barber shops, optical stores, banks, gift shops, food pantries, hair and nail salons, hospitals, schools, libraries and houses of worship.
The diverse gifts of our neighbors, of our brothers and sisters serve us so well. The gift of design to warm a home or to arrange the flowers we send upon the birth of a child or an important anniversary. The mechanic who replaces our car battery so we can get on our way to wherever it is we so desperately need to get on our way to, the teacher that motivates and encourages our children to pursue their own gifts, the salons that beautify, the public libraries that promote learning and growth among all ages and people, the restaurants that feed us with good food and socialization.
Our daily lifestyle is the product of divine anatomy – of the diversity that God has bestowed upon humankind. Ordaining us to be different, to be particularly gifted, to be utterly unique. Together, we are a living, breathing organism – a body, whole and complete – hundreds of different parts all working together so that what we experience is a single movement – a single body breathing in and out/in and out – children born and growing, teachers taught then teaching by way of streets plowed free of snow, trash emptied so that it doesn’t overflow, rot and fester, news written and printed, mail delivered and sent, people driving to and from their places of work to feed and fuel the economy. Combined, and building upon those of generations past, our gifts have allowed society to progress and evolve.
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In perhaps one of the most illustrative and powerful metaphors in all of Scripture, Paul compares the human community to the physical body here in his first letter to the Corinth church – eyes and ears, hands and feet.
We imagine that Paul uses this image of the body in order to respond to a particular situation that was going on in this small church in the city of Corinth. Most likely they were arguing about gifts, arguing that some gifts were better, higher and more lofty than others – for some in Corinth it was the gift of prophecy that was the most vital to the community, but others were saying no, no the only gift that matters to the church is the gift of speaking in tongues, but still others thought, no, those who were able to interpret others who were speaking in tongues –they possess the greatest gift. But Paul writes to them and interjects this analogy of the body and community into their conversation.
This metaphor, however, is not original with Paul but is one that was already prevalent in classical literature. But, what Paul does is give it a radical and revolutionary and powerful twist. Previously, the comparison had reinforced hierarchy, suggesting that menial workers should obey and support their military, business, and political leaders. Those at the bottom of the social ladder should stay put and be grateful for the guidance and protection of their natural superiors – sort of like a brand of Social Darwinism. The thought being that the brain makes the more critical and crucial decisions than do the lowly organs that sustain routine daily functioning.
What Paul does, though, is invert the metaphor. Rather than arguing for hierarchy and subordination, Paul uses the image of the body to illustrate diversity and interdependence – saying that the eye is in need of the hand just as the head is in need of the foot. All gifts – those of wisdom, of teaching, of prophecy are all part of the natural diversity of God’s creation and are all equally vital to the community’s ability to function so that when one is suppressed, the whole body suffers. If there is no ear, the body cannot hear. If there is no eye, it cannot see. If there is no foot, it cannot walk. No arm, it cannot reach out beyond itself.
Suppressing gifts, suppresses progress, suppresses God’s will and desire for us.
Yesterday afternoon, just across town I sat in a chapel full of young adults listening to personal testimonies from a group of men, some as young as 17 and others as “old” as 35, who had struggled with addiction – some to drugs, others to alcohol - early in their life. They were from an organization called Teen Challenge Boston, a Christian residential drug recovery program. The program is heavy on faith and leans on scripture and prayer and developing a personal relationship with Christ as the sole source of recovery. As part of their recovery, these men put feet to the gospel that they now know in their heart – they speak to teens about their experience, they share where they have been with the hope and prayer that other young people will not have to walk through the valleys and the depth of where they have been.
The testimonies that they shared with us were so honest and powerful. Growing up in a house where the only thing to eat was a raw onion. Another gentleman, Kevin talked about how his alcoholic father had told him, “I’m leaving and I’m going to take you with me,” and the very next day he was gone, but had left Kevin behind with his mother and autistic brother.
A young man named Cleveland painted a picture of how the drugs and the guns and the gangs played like a movie outside the window of his grandmother’s apartment where he grew up in Camden, New Jersey. This was life. He didn’t know any other way or truth or life.
Suppressing gifts, suppresses progress, suppresses God’s will and desire for us.
We know this to be true in the home and in society. Most of these kids grew up in families and communities that told them in word and deed or lack thereof, that they weren’t good enough, that they didn’t have any gifts. That they weren’t worth sobriety or education or food or love.
Now, in the midst of his testimony, one young man said, “All it would have taken is one person to change everything - to tell me that I was good enough.”
All it would have taken, Paul would affirm, is one person to move from stumbling around in this boundless world to an awareness of this truth – that we have been divinely ordained with gifts, many and varied, that we are all connected and vital and valuable to the whole. That we are each and all made in and by the image of God and transformed by the love of Christ. And that God has a purpose for each beloved life.
Embracing giftedness isn’t just important because it’s morally the right thing to do – but because it allows us to truly be free – to live the calling to which we have been called. Our gifts make us equal; our gifts make us free. And, all gifts in God’s divine anatomy are necessary for the common good. The writing that provokes thought, the painting that evokes beauty, the music that emotes, the house that shelters, the hands that mend and heal the human body, the care that comforts the human heart, the mouth that is able to speak a word of love to those who have never heard it before.
And here, in the church, in particular, we are called to live as divine anatomy. Here we are called to offer our truest and purest gifts to one another. The gifts that allow us to express our very humanity: friendship, kindness, patience, joy, peace, forgiveness, gentleness, love, hope and trust. Here in this place, in this beloved community, full of people from various and diverse backgrounds and experiences, we are called to seek our own gifts, to exercise and practice our gifts for the betterment of the whole, and to encourage and affirm the gifts of others.
Here we are called to be the very body of Christ in this world - to sew, to paint and to knit - liturgical clothes and prayer shawls - to teach children of the love of God, to sing of the love of God, to bake, to fix – broken sinks and refrigerators, to be the beating heart of mission in the world – here our gifts come together in a beautiful concert, in a divine symphony.
Here we are called to celebrate the diversity that God has bestowed upon humankind. Ordaining us to be different, to be particularly gifted, to be utterly unique. Together, we are a living, breathing organism – a body, whole and complete – hundreds of different parts all working together so that what we experience is a single movement – a single body breathing in and out/in and out/in and out – giving true life to the world.