That time I wrote a sermon
There's something I have to confess...
I go to church.
Ew gross I've said it.
And yes fine, those of you who know me, know I "belong" to a few church communities, even if I don't attend them weekly. It's a weird thing in New York to say you go to church. It was a weird thing to say in London too, where I went to St James's this past summer because I seriously thought it would be a cute British thing to do. (Nope. Londoners are just like New Yorkers.)
But, when I found myself on the other side of a seven year relationship with only a few friends left and a real gaping hole in my heart, I figured I needed community. Badly. Thankfully, New York being a city of creative, disillusioned, intelligent types, it actually wasn't that hard to find a church (ok two) I could love. Filled with queer folks, musicians, babies, dogs, and perhaps a few atheists, Bushwick Abbey was my jam. And if the Rev. Vince Anderson's dirty gospel music isn't the best therapy you'll hear this side of the Mason Dixon line, then I don't know what is. Through Bushwick Abbey I met all sorts of beautiful, lovely, amazing people I am now so glad to call friends. Ones who call me on my bullshit and inspire me to be creative. And through Bushwick Abbey I learned about St. Lydia's, a dinner church in Gowanus. If Bushwick Abbey melts your cold, cold heart, then St. Lydia's challenges your sleeping brain and sense of justice. Through St. Lydia's I've met more people doing amazing work to create community than I have in my last seven years in New York.
Last month, I had the distinct honor to give a sermon at St. Lydia's. Have I ever given a sermon before? Uhh, please, I grew up Catholic. I think there's a rule barring vaginas from the pulpit. (There's not, but, you know my church barely let us on the altar so, there was my first (stained) glass ceiling. Literally.)
So, my sermon had to grapple with 1 Corinthians 12:12-31. Before you ask, no I'm not that Bible literate (see above, Catholic, New Yorker), so reading a text and having to figure out what the somewhat misogynistic Paul meant by it was a new thing for me. But, you know, if you're kind of into constitutional law or poetry, "exegesis" (new word I learned, which I swear is just someone saying exit Jesus) is this awesome blending of the styles of literary critique and legal interpretation to figure out what an author meant when writing a biblical text and what that could mean for us, without anything being too "preachy" or too fundamentalist--both a big "no thank you" for me.
This, below, is my sermon. For the friends I've lost who are now coming back, if you read this, you're still such an important part of my life, I hope you get that from this. For the new friends, and particularly those at St. Lydia's, I'm so glad we share in a community that challenges each of us. I have become too complacent in my cozy New York life and I'm thankful you push me to remember (Catholic) social justic values.
Scripture: Corinthians 12:12-31 New International Version (NIV)
12 Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For we were all baptized by[a] one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. 14 Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.
15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? 18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. 19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?
20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, 25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30 Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues[b]? Do all interpret? 31 Now eagerly desire the greater gifts. And yet I will show you the most excellent way.
We are approaching the end of Easter right now. Next Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, when the spirit descended upon the apostles. Emily, our pastor is on sabbatical, and during this time we’re hearing from congregants on the topic of spiritual gifts. Tonight we’re looking at 1 Corinthians 12:12-31.
I’ll confess, when I first saw this text I wasn’t keen on doing it. As members of any progressive church, we’ve all no doubt heard the rainbow sermons: we’re all different, but we come together in unity to make this church a beautiful tapestry of diverse faces, genders, races, cultures, abilities, and gifts. Don’t get me wrong. At a time when the daily political rhetoric around the world seems to focus on building walls—literal or political—to keep out those who are different, this message is sorely needed.
But I’m not delivering a sermon to the world. I’m delivering a sermon to you and to me. And while I do think we can better actualize the idea of diversity in this space, oh yes we can, I’m not going to focus on the message of diversity and unity.
I’m instead going to take you on a journey. We’ll discover at the simplest level what Paul was trying to get the Corinthians to understand and live. We’ll unpack the body metaphor.
We’ll see how the gifts the spirit, those roles enumerated at the end, related to the needs of the church Paul was building and the message he was subverting. And at the end, we’ll ask ourselves what this passage means for us: a community that regularly offers our bodies as gifts to each other during communion.
For context, we’re in Corinth. It’s about 20 years after Jesus’s death and resurrection, and about 3 years since Paul has established our church, and left us to our own devices, and as he’s learning through the grapevine that isn’t going super well.
Now there are a lot of ways to understand our city of Corinth, but let me give you the simplest way. It’s New York. And you know what, I’ll even go one step further. It’s friggin' Brooklyn. It's a city that is at a crossroads of commerce, culture, race, status, religious practices--you name it. And we're trying to live in as much harmony as we can muster.
And for this early church, we're smack dab on a simple dividing line of the haves—with all their money, education, social graces, political acumen, and rhetorical shrewdness—and the have nots—with all their poverty, manual labor, faux-pas, political disenfranchisement. And yes, I'm sure there was the Corinthian hipster excited to taste the latest artisanal lamb jerky sacrificed to the gods, just as I'm sure there was a Corinthian grandmother shaking her head at that dumb kid.
So we have this church, divided in many, many, many ways as you can read in Paul’s letter, along what is clearly associated with haves and haves not, or maybe even more simply: Self and Other. I’m here, you’re there. Please just stay over there.
And that division is starting to tear the church at its seams, as Paul is hearing.
But Paul, he’s got a crafty metaphor on hand. And as I learned, in the context of the day, this body metaphor is even craftier.
The metaphor of the body is in fact quite a common Greek political rhetoric of homonoia, or concord, in Latin, meaning unity. Two things are worth noting about this homonoia.
First, the upper classes were often associated with body parts related to the head: eyes, ears, and so forth, whereas the lower classes would been associated with hands and feet, tools of labor.
Second, while everyone would have been accustomed to hearing that we need to give honor to the neglected parts of our body, that we need to work as one body, no one would have expected anything in the way-the-world-works to change. We might talk about unity, but what we really mean is just being nice enough to keep the established boundaries and hierarchy.
But that message doesn’t quite jibe with Jesus's, “The last will be first and the first will be last.” And really it just doesn’t jibe with Paul’s larger Gospel message: no more divisions. Neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female. We are all one in Christ. We are one body with Christ.
And that body of Christ has a lot of members. All different and unique, each beautifully so.
But bodies—these bodies—they aren’t always beautiful. We all have parts we don’t want others didn’t see, parts we wish we didn’t have all together. As much as my pretty green eyes would like to say to my stubby hands, I have no need of you, they can’t.
There’s this really weird thing that was bugging me in the text. At the beginning of this chapter Paul says, I would not have you be deceived. And at the beginning of verse 12 he says, “Not on account of this, is the foot not part of the body.”
So, you know, I started to wonder. Is there ever an account? Ever a reason? I looked for other mentions of hands and feet and eyes and ears, which frankly are everywhere in the Bible. But one struck me. Y’all might remember this from Matthew 18:
"If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you"
Jesus says more than this, and says something like it a few other times. So we have Paul seemingly contradicting Jesus. Jesus says if that foot is causing you to sin cast it out! Paul is saying, you can't say that to the foot! Remember we're not just talking about any old body parts, we're talking about body parts layered with meaning.
Eyes, ears, heads -- nobility.
Hands, feet -- the pedestrian tools of labor.
But they're also the simple tools Jesus uses to subvert order, to work miracles, to summon powers. He heals eyes and ears with his hands. He washes the feet of the lowly.
Through Jesus all of these parts are healed, all are made noble, all fill a service. So when Paul says our heads can't just decide to no longer associate with our feet I'm guessing he's taking something that some of these eloquent, rhetoric-sharp Corinthians might have been wont to say: Jesus said I could chop off my foot if it caused me to stumble, and these plebes are causing me to stumble. And maybe even something the Jews were saying to the Greeks: you’re causing me to stumble, out with you.
But see, apparently *we* don't get to decide who is in this body. Baptized in the same spirit we are the same body. It's not our place to go lobbing off parts of this new body. God set each part of the body and the church in place, for the good of the whole.
So, here's that chance in the sermon when I give you the cliffs notes. Basically, we've got Paul playing whack-a-mole with a bunch of people who don't seem to get the message about loving one another and growing together as one body. And just tuck that message about love away in your brain.
What’s that whole growing together part require? Well wouldn’t you know it, but I think that requires this theme we have: gifts of the spirit. Fancy that!
These gifts, are called charismata, which is derived from the Greek word “charis.” Charis means “grace” or “God’s love" so if that gives you a hint, we don’t earn these gifts for our own edification.
In fact, Paul is pretty darn clear that the spirit gives these gifts for the common good. Later in Chapter 14 he even goes on to say "Since you are eager for gifts of the Spirit, try to excel in those that build up the church.”
So, what do we need to build up the church?
Well first apostles. Their placement at the front of the list can be read at two levels. First remember that Paul is trying to get these Corinthians to pay attention to the effect of social status in their community. So by placing lowly apostles like himself first, he’s subverting the expected status. And second, apostles well these are literally the "ones sent forth with others.” We send them out to share the news so good we cannot contain it.
And then we’ve got prophets—these are folks, men and women!, who don’t so much tell the future as they tell us things we cannot see. These are really celebrated by Paul for their ability to develop the spirituality of others. Then we’ve got teachers, people who help us understand things we cannot understand. And then we’ve got those who do miracles. And then those who can heal, who can help others. Those who have leadership skills. And language skills.
So, I mean, that list is a pretty darn clear inversion of what society expects. Society’s prized roles of leadership and diplomacy are last, the church’s prized role of apostles are first.
Let’s also think about these roles. A lot of these simply have to do with getting a church to function well: gifts to bring in new people, gifts to help the people grow in spiritually, gifts to keep the lights on.
But these gifts themselves aren’t enough yet. They go hand in hand with compassion, with love. More than that, we need to perform them with love.
You’ll remember Paul says, "If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient, love is kind.” That most famous chapter directly follows this part of tonight's reading.
It sounds like one big old love fest to me. And you know what I just learned? The early Christians who gathered together to celebrate the Eucharist called their celebrations love feasts. They’d share a meal and share the Eucharist.
Which takes me to tonight. We’re sharing a meal and the Eucharist, turning to each other to say “Elizabeth, this is my body.”
In the last 11 years I had only taken the Eucharist a handful of times because when my faith took a nosedive, the Eucharist went right out the door too. It felt to me like I had seen the magicians trick. While I could re-enter church, the idea of taking some magical piece of bread and believing it was Jesus was a big no thank you. But in the midst of my OD-ing on church, I experienced the Lydian version of “This is my body” and I got a new definition of communion. In giving you part of my body, and in accepting part of yours, we are making ourselves one body together.
So, let’s imagine Paul were writing to us. What is at work in our community that Paul would call our attention to? What gifts of the spirit do we need for this community to live up to that call?
In Monday night's sermon and sermon share, I got a glimpse into it. A congregant shared a rather personal and I'll say vulnerable story. In the following responses you could sense in the room a desire to help, to reach out and say both “I am with you" and “let me show you the gifts you bring to me, to us.” People are coming here looking for community. They’re flowing into these doors yearning for some form of connection. As much as we are like Corinth, this is in fact New York after all. A place with so many gifted people longing to be grafted into a body that will accept them and love them, and one they can love in return.