January 27, 2019, 3rd Sunday after the Epiphany Year C, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
House of Mercy is a Christian church in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was founded in the spring of 1996 out of the “free church” or American Baptist tradition. While they are a church, Pastor Debbie Blue says their vibe isn’t very “churchy” though their worship service includes word and sacrament, old hymns, and liturgical art. And while they are a church, they have never had members. That’s because most of those who attend House of Mercy tend to be uncomfortable with traditional church culture or definitions.
This lack of membership issue was never a problem until House of Mercy became part of the ELCA or our Lutheran denomination because the ELCA by its constitution requires some sort of membership for voting privileges at official meetings of the parish like our annual meeting to be held today. So, while those who are part of the House of Mercy community tend not to be interested in formal membership or anything that defines who is in or who is out, their affiliation with the ELCA required they do something to address this.
What they decided on is something they call “dismembership.” Pastor Debbie Blue describes dismembership this way, “We believe the community gathered around the gospel is always dismantling devotion to culturally constructed practices of power. We are disciples of another way. We are dissenters—disrupting, disturbing, disarming. People . . . become cooperative dismembers, like a co-op: when agribusiness, housing developments and banks are about serving power and money, people form cooperatives to better serve the community.” (https://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2010-01/dismembership)
She said the graphic they used for this initial campaign of dismembership was a body that was well, dismembered. While not meant to be disturbing, she wrote in an article in The Christian Century that when she thought of it in light of today’s reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, she became disturbed. Not because of what you might think would disturb someone thinking about body dismemberment though. Pastor Blue said the issue was that while it relatively easy for us to think about God breaking with our ideas of the holy in coming to earth to be incarnate and becoming like us embodied in everyday human form in Jesus, it is more difficult to think about ALL of US as human members making up the body of Christ. This is especially true in thinking about the failings of the church throughout history – the Crusades, its support of slavery, its silence in the face of genocide as in Nazi Germany, the sexual abuse of children by clergy, and the misogyny and homophobia Christians have sadly earned a reputation for – she said it is uncomfortable to think about God embodied in a church which is so clearly imperfect and flawed.
And it isn’t just the church as an institution that is imperfect and flawed, it is after all, all of us who make up the church – its members – who are imperfect and flawed as well. And so, as hard as it is for us to see God embodied in the church as an institution because of its imperfections and flaws, it can be even harder for us to see God in certain members of the body of Christ. We look at some and see their flaws and think they should be excluded from Christ’s body because they don’t meet OUR criteria for inclusion. Maybe we judge them to be less important as some others because we can’t see what they offer to the whole as vital while others, including us, clearly offer very important contributions the body can’t survive without. Or maybe it is simply they grate on our nerves and we see them as way too annoying to be included with the rest of us well-behaved, prim and proper members.
This was what was going on in the Christian community at Corinth that we read about in our second lesson today. Paul was writing to them because there was a lack of unity in the community. It seems some felt the gifts they possessed made them more important to the body of Christ than others. They thought their gifts should allow them a higher position or place of honor within the church community. And the opposite was true as well. Some thought that others possessed gifts that weren’t as important and thus meant that they should be looked down upon and treated differently because they didn’t have as much to offer to the whole.
Paul writes to this Christian community to shoot this mentality down. He writes to let them know that in spite of all that seems to make them different from one another – whether they be Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – in Christ they are made one. Baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection they are joined together in him and their diversity become unified as one in his body. And living as the many members of his body with all their differences they each contribute to the completeness of it. If even one member of the body is left out or doesn’t fully contribute the whole is made less. Each of them, no matter what they have to offer, is necessary to make the body function as it should and to fully reflect the fullness of God and God’s love for every single one of us.
It’s clear in his letter that some in the Corinthians community may feel like their differences make them dismembered or separated from each another, but because they are one in Christ they are one body so Paul calls them to live in a manner of who and what they already are. He tells them they don’t have to struggle to figure out how to find a way to unity as they gather together with their different gifts and skill sets from their disparate ways and backgrounds. They may be broken human beings, suffering from grief, illness, depression, addiction, or loss. Whoever or whatever they are, in spite of all those things that make them different, Paul reminds them that Christ has already joined them together as one in him and he calls them to live as that one body he has already made them to be. By grace they have all been saved and have been called by the God who came to earth to live among the weak and the lost so that ALL would know God’s inclusive and unconditional love and so that they all could become members of Christ’s body offering necessary and unique contributions to its wholeness.
Today we can still fall into the same trap that those in the Corinthian church did. Believing that what we have to offer isn’t good enough to share with the whole so that it doesn’t matter if we show up to take part or not. Or that we won’t be missed if we don’t offer our contribution because our gifts don’t match exactly with what we think is needed by the community. Or perhaps we think the time has passed for our contribution as we’ve already given all we can in the past so it is someone else’s time to share their gifts instead. Or perhaps we think someone else’s gifts aren’t nearly as important as our gifts and so we think we can exclude them and the community will be just fine without them. Paul tells us all of this thinking is wrong. By God’s grace ALL of us are made part of Christ’s body and contribute a necessary part to the whole. ALL of us are important members of the body of Christ and are needed to be part of it ALL the time and if we fail to fully share who God made us each to be then ALL of us are made less because of it.
Christ has brought all of us together to be one as his body here at Christ the King-Epiphany in Wilbraham. Episcopalians and Lutherans. Democrats and Republicans. Knitters and quilters. Coffee hour bakers and breakfast chefs. Weekend gardeners and career farmers. White collar workers and blue collar ones. Altar guild servers and assisting ministers. Acolytes and ushers. Property maintenance types and flower guild ones. Choir members and money counters. Finance committee members and social ministry and outreach ministry members. Each and every one of us gathered here at Christ the King-Epiphany contribute to making this one whole and complete community. We each bring our unique gifts and when we share them fully in our work and life together, the body of Christ here in Wilbraham becomes more fully the one God created and called us to be in baptism in our life together in him.
Today in our annual meetings we will celebrate all the many individual members here who over the past year contributed their unique gifts to making us whole as the body of Christ in this place. We will also look ahead to the coming year and invite all of you to be part of the work in front of us as that work will require the contributions of each and every one of us to be completed. The work we do here as Christ’s body would not be possible if not for all the many and varied contributions in of each and every person who is a member of this community. Each of you has something unique to offer and if you don’t share it, we are all made less because of it.
I offer many thanks to God for each of you and how you have shared of yourselves and your gifts so fully this past year, making us the body of Christ God called us in baptism to be. And I look forward to seeing how in the coming year every one of us will continue to do this and how we will find new ways as well to live out this call in our life as one together. As we move into this new year of ministry together and seek to follow and go wherever, whenever, and however God calls us to as Christ’s body, I leave you with a prayer for us for the year ahead from Haiku Prayers, a page I follow on Facebook.
We are connected.
Christ’s body interwoven.
Spirit, please move us!