Last week, Paul talked to us through his first letter to the Corinthians about spiritual gifts. He talked about how there are a variety of gifts, and although they are all different, they are all activated by God. As Charlie talked about this lesson last week, he encouraged us to reflect on our own spiritual gifts, and then to use that discernment to determine how we might support the ministries of Hickory Neck. In fact, today we will gather our Time and Talent forms, blessing our discernment and our offering of those spiritual gifts.
If the portion of Paul’s letter last week affirmed that we all have gifts, the portion of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians we hear today tells us how the use of our gifts within the church is not just a nice thing to do – like bringing someone flowers. No, today Paul explains to us the sharing of our gifts is critical to the operation of the church as an organism. In other words, without each of us giving our gifts to the church, the whole church either limps along as an incomplete body or does not function at all.
Any of us who have had an injury or are currently suffering through a portion of our body not working knows how this works. A couple of weeks ago, my hands got really dry and a little crack developed on my thumb. Literally, the crack was about an eighth of an inch in size. And yet, it was one of the most painful experiences. Over the next few days, I realized the pain wasn’t going to stop and the cut wasn’t going to heal until I put on a Band-Aid. The first challenge is figuring out how to make the Band-Aid stick when the cut is not on a flat surface. Then, of course, do you know how hard keeping the thumb dry to maintain a Band-Aid is? Suddenly, you find you are washing your hands and your face in super awkward contortions – sometimes electing to use only one hand while washing your face, or giving up altogether so you can help give a bath to your little one. And once you have the Band-Aid on your thumb, you do not have the same kind of grip on things like jars and bottles you are opening.
This drama is the same for any part of us that is damaged. We never realize how important one of our body parts is until we lose or have limited use of the part. For a brief period of time, once the body part is healed, we find ourselves thanking God for our thumb, or kidney, or heart. But we are a pretty forgetful people, and eventually, we stop thanking God for the incredible parts of our body. We walk, eat, talk, ponder, laugh, exercise, and breathe without thinking about all the tiny parts needed to make those functions possible in the first place. Everyday, we could easily pray through hundreds of parts of our bodies, thanking God for each part that works. And yet, I know very few healthy people who engage in such thanksgiving and gratitude. Even folks who were once ill or injured seem to forget the painful reminders of not being whole once wholeness is restored.
Paul uses the classic metaphor of the body to help the Corinthians see that the body of the faithful is no different. Once the community has done a spiritual assessment, once those Time and Talent forms are turned in, we are not done. We do not take those forms and say, “Okay, we got an usher, someone willing to adopt a church garden, a Sunday School teacher, and someone to make meals. We did not get someone to operate the sound system, or deliver welcome baskets to newcomers, or help layout the newsletter. Ah well, we’ll be fine.” Paul knows we cannot operate the body of Christ this way in the same way that anyone with a broken toe or someone with fluid in their lungs or ears cannot operate at full capacity. As Paul familiarly says, “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.’”[i]
Paul’s letter today reminds of a few things. First, we are not fully honoring our own bodies when we do not offer our gifts to the church. When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, I tried out many things. I remember a Marketing department tried to convince me that I would be a great asset to their team. And, I probably would have been pretty good at the work and the team did seem to have a lot of fun. I remember how I loved working at a Food Bank and my awesome boss, even though most of my fellow volunteers were not people of faith. I remember being thrilled when I landed at a Habitat for Humanity affiliate, serving a good cause, talking about our faith, even praying at staff meetings. And yet, something still felt unbalanced. And so the church became my playground. I learned how to lead Morning Prayer, I fumbled my way through an adult bible study, and they even convinced me to co-lead the Middle School class! What Paul would remind seekers like you and me is the church is the place where we can find a sense of wholeness by using all the parts of our bodies. The church may be the place where the teacher by weekday brings his gifts to the Sunday School classroom on Sundays; or the church may be the place where the teacher by weekday finds her gifts are better utilized organizing a portion of the Winter Shelter. The Church is the place where our head and our hands, our bodies, are affirmed.
The second thing Paul’s letter does is remind us how essential each person in the body is. When other ancient writings used the metaphor of the body, they used the metaphor to determine social or political status; whomever was the head had power over the hands, feet, and legs.[ii] [iii] Not so with Paul. Paul says the head is just one part of many. In fact, those parts we often forget about are usually the essential missing link to powerful ministry. So, you may have been at home this week thinking, “Meh! Hickory Neck has nine toes, they will be fine without me.” Today, Paul asserts ministry does not work without you – whether you are the pinkie toe or the big toe! Not all of us are great lectors, are handy with a wrench, or are tech savvy. But we are all good at something – and when that “something” is not offered, the body of Hickory Neck is not whole. Each of us, even the littlest one who goes to the nursery on Sundays, or the homebound member who rarely gets to join us, has an ability to make us better. In fact, Paul might argue that those two individuals should have the highest honor in the community. In other words, even if you do not think you have a gift special enough to give, the church needs you.[iv] Hickory Neck is not whole without your offering.
The final thing Paul’s letter does is a little more subtle. Even when all of us fill out our Time and Talent forms, and even when we make that stretch and agree to lead Children’s Chapel, take communion to a parishioner, or help with marketing, Hickory Neck will still not be complete. There will always be parts of the body that are not operating at full capacity because not everyone is here yet. This is why whenever a newcomer decides to become a member, we encourage them to look over the Time and Talent form – even if they join at a time well past stewardship season. Each new person who enters through our doors has something new and fresh to teach us – something we as the community of Hickory Neck were missing until that fateful day you walked through our doors. But if each new person makes us more whole, that means there are a lot of other holes in our body from all the people we have not yet invited into our fold. For every neighbor, friend, and stranger who was looking for wholeness and yet we did not invite to church, our community suffers. For every person whose socioeconomic status, skin color, or sexual orientation is not like ours that we did not invite to church, our community suffers. For every person who is not my age, does not have my physical or mental abilities, or does not agree with my politics that we did not invite to church, our community suffers. When we read Paul’s letter and when we look at our Time and Talent forms this week, we will invariably see the people we forgot to invite to church who would make us so much better as a community.
Today’s word from scripture is both affirming and convicting. Paul wants us to know that each us has the capacity for wholeness when we use all the gifts God gives us. Paul wants us to know that our Church needs us, in all our unique, odd, loveliness. Paul wants us to know that the Church is the place where everyone has a place. But Paul also wants us to know that we are not done. We have sometimes not affirmed our own beautiful selves, we have sometimes held back our gifts from the church, and we have sometimes avoided welcoming in the very people who would make Hickory Neck a fuller version of her fantastic self. Our invitation this week is to say yes: say yes to honoring our own bodies with all their fabulous gifts; say yes to trying new adventures at church that will bless us in ways we cannot imagine; say yes to inviting a person who we might not even consider compatible with our image of who Hickory Neck should be. Paul promises God will arrange the body so that we can all rejoice together. Amen.
[i] 1 Corinthians 12.21
[ii] Lee C. Barrett, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 278.
[iii] Troy Miller, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 279.
[iv] Raewynne J. Whiteley, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, vol. 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 283.