Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Third Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C] - January 27, 2013 (1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)

Last Sunday I ran into a group of our high school Sunday School students who were ranging the halls of the church on a class assignment. Apparently they were supposed to look all around the church building and reflect on what the church means to them. The three particular students I ran into were especially curious about seeing a part of the church they’d never seen before: the boiler room. They had walked past its unassuming, brown door dozens—who knows…maybe hundreds?—of times, but they’d never had the chance to go in there and see what it was about. Knowing I carried a master key, they prevailed upon me to let them in. As I opened the door, they got instantly quiet. I don’t know what they were expecting to see. For a few seconds, none of us could see anything because I couldn’t remember where the light-switch was. I fumbled around, flipped something I thought might be the lights, but nothing happened. When I finally found the real light-switch, I realized that I had accidentally shut off the master switch to the boiler…Oops!

You see, I rarely go in the boiler room myself. It remains that damp, closed-off, room that is shrouded in dark…even for those of us who work here every day. As they looked around, I wasn’t able to tell if the three youth were impressed or not. I told them about the time the sewer lines got backed up during one of the weeks we were housing the homeless and how the whole boiler room flooded with raw sewage because that’s where the main overflow drain is located. I showed them that the large ladders we use for hanging things on the sanctuary cross are kept there, too. And then there’s the boiler, of course. I guarantee we’d all notice it immediately if that stopped working properly, especially on a week like this. It’s a crucial room for the church building—its existence affects our everyday functionality in here, its upkeep is critical to our mission, its proper usage costs us more money than just about any other room—and yet the door stays locked and hardly ever has any visitors.

It’s the kind of room that the apostle Paul would have found fascinating and probably would have used as an example in his letter to the Corinthian church, if he could. “The body does not consist of one member, but of many,” he says to the conflict-ridden and often-divided congregation in Corinth. He goes on to say, “the members of the body that seem to be weaker—or darker, or damper, and less often used, we might add—are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect.”

Of course, Paul was not talking about a physical building and its different rooms when he was talking about the body of Christ and its many members. He was talking about people and their gifts. And if there were ever a congregation who needed to learn to think of themselves in that way—that is, as a body with many different members, some of whom seemed dispensable but, in fact, weren’t—it was Corinth.

map of the ancient Corinthian isthmus
Corinth was a very diverse and cosmopolitan city. Because it was situated right on an isthmus, a bridge between two major land masses with a double harbor, it became a major trading and merchant center. A lot of commerce flowed through Corinth, as did a lot of travelers. The result was a very eclectic community that contained a strong element of social climbing. People in ancient Corinth were easily impressed by signs of visible status and intellect and usefulness. And so, even within the Corinthian churches, Paul found that people were easily impressed by…signs of visible status and intellect and usefulness. The people who possessed gifts, even spiritual gifts that, for whatever reason, were viewed with greater respect were prone to try to dominate and belittle the others. And, surprisingly, those who possessed lesser-desired gifts would actually go along with it, to some degree. Gifts that the church in this age doesn’t seem to have much use for these days, like speaking in tongues, were held in high regard at Corinth. In fact, that gift in particular seemed to be the one everyone wanted, and the way they were prioritizing it was harming their entire community and mission. Things like this ne-e-ver happen in the church nowadays, right?

Paul thinks the metaphor of the church as Christ’s body will help them understand how they must function together, that the effectiveness and success of the whole community is dependent on the participation of every one of its members. Even though people in the church may look different and occupy different roles, there is no one person or part that is more important than any other. In fact, God has arranged the body that the greater honor is given to the inferior member. Those who look and feel like a boiler room—dark, locked up, never visited, never worshiped in—actually possess some of the most vital functions of the whole church. In the end, however, no one is indispensable.

Other than the naturally intuitive aspect of this image of the church as a body that works together, Paul knew the Corinthians would latch onto this metaphor for another reason. In ancient Corinth there was a large temple to the god Asclepius, who was believed by many to be the god of healing. People would come to the temple of Asclepius there in Corinth to pray for healing and cures for different diseases and injuries. Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of clay body parts in the area where that temple stood. Noses, arms, hands, feet…worshippers either bought or made themselves clay replicas of whatever part of their body needed healing and offered it to Asclepius there at the temple. In the shops that surrounded the temple, these earthen body parts could be purchased for worship, and historians imagine that the inside of the temple of Asclepius was typically littered with hundreds of disconnected clay body parts haphazardly strewn everywhere.

body parts excavated from a temple of Asclepius
You see, for the Christians in Corinth, that disconnected mess in that pagan temple would have been one of their main associations with the body. Paul means to tell them that they are a body, too, with many different parts, but put together in a whole, arranged carefully so that everyone can see their functioning depends on everyone else’s full participation. Can everyone have the same gifts, or occupy the same position in the congregation? Naturally, no. But that is not all. Another important end result of this body image is that each member’s well-being is somehow mystically connected to everyone else’s. “If one member suffers,” Paul goes on to say, “all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Just as the pain of a wounded or injured hand would radiate throughout the rest of the body, so should the hurt and pain of one church member be felt and borne by everyone else. And, by the same token, joys are also shared. A healthy and well-functioning congregation is not only one where all people are present and sharing their gifts for the good of the whole, but one where prayers for each other and service to each other, especially in times of hardship, are flowing like the blood of a circulatory system. Paul’s image does not mean that the church exists to make members feel appreciated.

We should pause to notice that nowhere in this letter’s twelfth chapter does Paul mention feelings, and yet so much of our modern-day participation in and commitment to the body of Christ seems to depend on our feelings about it. While feelings of worth are important, they are not the sole reason for the church’s ministry. Paul is more concerned here with the fact that the body is learning to understand and assimilate the contributions of each and every member for the mission of the church. Whether or not you feel you are important doesn’t mean you aren’t, and each member bears some of the responsibility for contributing even when they have not been properly appreciated. Interestingly, Paul does have quite a bit to say about certain gifts that are greater, gifts that do have a lot to do with making sure everyone is taken care of and functioning at their best. Paul will want members of the congregation to strive for those particular gifts…but we’re going to come back to that next week.

I ran across a video clip the other week about the pair of brothers who have been recognized by Sports Illustrated as the 2012 Sports Illustrated Sportskids of the Year who I think do an excellent job of illustrating Paul’s lesson to the church. Conner and Cayden Long, both in elementary school, compete in triathlons. Cayden, who is seven, was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy and is unable to walk or talk. His nine-year-old brother Conner had the idea to enter themselves as a team in a triathlon event in order to connect better with his brother. When Conner swims, he pulls his brother behind him in a raft. They’ve devised a system, of sorts: when Conner bikes, he pulls Cayden behind him in a trailer, and pushes that trailer in front of him when he runs.  It may seem that Cayden doesn’t contribute much to the effort, but when you watch them even for a second, you’d see that really isn’t true. He clearly enjoys it. One of his gifts is his smile and his laughter. Another is his bravery at undergoing such a potentially dangerous situation for someone who isn’t really mobile.

At one point in an interview Conner says concerning Cayden: “He’s the same inside as you or me…and he understands what you say about him…and if people could race with people who can’t walk or talk or have any kind of autism…it might open the eyes of people” who need to learn to care more. The brothers never really cross the finish line first, but they finish first in another sense, an unlikely lesson to the community of Christ’s followers about sharing one another’s burdens, about honor and function within the body, and about the true growth that comes from including everyone’s gifts within the accomplishment of the whole.

Well, I’m pretty sure that’s not the exact lesson that the high school Sunday School teachers were attempting to teach last Sunday as they sent the students out to roam around the church building, but it is nevertheless what I ended up getting out of it after I bumped into Mark, Amanda, and Emma in the hall. It was a gift of happenstance, planned by the Spirit and enabled, quite frankly, by our communal life together—bone to bone, flesh to flesh, heart to heart—designed, you see, to bump into one another and learn from one another on this great big triathlon because we are, after all, one body. And individually members of it.

Boiler room.

Or Sunday School classroom.

Or sanctuary.

Or Cayden’s triathlon trailer.

All a part of Jesus Christ.

Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Second Sunday after the Epiphany [Year C] - January 20, 2013 (John 2:1-11)

Right in the middle of our Christmas day celebrations this past year the water main burst in our front yard. We discovered the issue in the middle of the afternoon, just as we were getting ready to put all the food on the table. As you can imagine, it quickly became priority numero uno. The soil between our sidewalk and the water meter (yes, it was “our problem”) was rising fast as if it were a large, wet, bubble of grass. Water was beginning to spill into the street and onto our sidewalk. We had no idea how much damage the leak was doing or how much it was costing us by the minute. We had a house full of company and they were beginning to research hotel options for the night in case we lost all water. And as far as the celebration at hand was concerned, we couldn’t finish cooking, we couldn’t wash dishes—heaven help us, we couldn’t even make coffee!—we couldn’t, quite honestly, focus on Christmas until we find someone who could solve the problem. But who? I didn’t know where to begin. And on Christmas day, of all days? You don’t have to be a genius to know that Christmas day isn’t the ideal time to have a major outdoor water problem.

As it turns out, some plumbers do work on Christmas day…for a pretty penny. After calling around a bit, I finally found our savior of the day: a guy named Steve who had just started working for one of the local plumbing companies. For about three hours he labored with pipes and an acetylene torch in our cold, dark, wet front yard getting the water to flow again, and—need I say it?—saving Christmas.

Jesus finds himself at a wedding in Cana that hits a similar snafu, except, believe it or not, the emergency is even more severe. They’ve had a wine bust; that is, there wasn’t any more. At a first-century wedding, if the wine runs out, things start to wind down pretty quickly. The party is essentially over, and people start to research hotel options, if you know what I mean. It is difficult for our twenty-first century minds to comprehend what a major deal this was, but like our broken water main, it is an issue that must be addressed immediately.

Weddings in those days were pretty much the biggest celebrations anyone was ever a part of. Regardless of the size or wealth or status of the families whose offspring were being united in marriage, all weddings involved enormous parties. They typically lasted for a week or more. The wedding hosts, the bridegroom and his family, were responsible for lining up all the food and drink that would be consumed. In a small village like Cana, that would mean enlisting all your friends and connections, calling in all your favors, and asking them to deliver, ahead of time, jugs of wine. So, if you ran out of wine, especially only two or three days into the occasion, it didn’t just mean that your guests would leave. It basically announced to everyone that you didn’t have a whole lot of friends, that you hadn’t provided people a lot of favors in the past. It did a number on your honor, an embarrassing situation that your family might never recover from.

Jan Cornelisz "The Marriage at Cana" c. 1530
Mary, Jesus’ mother, would have understood all this right away. As a guest at the wedding and a woman from the area, she would have likely been involved in food preparation and distribution. Like I said, weddings were a whole-town affair. But unlike me on Christmas day, Mary immediately knows who to turn to. Another guest happens to be at the party who can, shall we say, transform things: Jesus. His initial reaction to her request may catch us off guard. He doesn’t seem willing to respond and save the day, and, in the end, save the honor of the bridegroom throwing the wedding. This isn’t the ideal time, he says—meaning that the hour for showing the real transforming power of his life has not yet happened. There will be a time when it will become clearly evident just what he is able to change. There will be a time when it will become plain as day just how he really is able to save and to restore. That time is not now at this anonymous wedding in podunk Cana. Nevertheless, he gives in to his mother, has the servants fill up six huge stone jars with water, and somehow by the time the ladle makes its way to the steward’s lips, all that water has become wine…good wine. The party lives!

John tells us that this is the first of Jesus’ signs, which is his word for miracles. John calls them signs because, in his mind, they don’t just display Jesus’ power; like a sign, they symbolize or say something in particular about who Jesus is or what he does. For John, they communicate something specific about the nature of Jesus’ life and how his life interacts with ours. God is revealing God’s glory through Jesus incrementally—shining the light on him from a different angle each time—and when we read them the way John unpacks them we can better understand how precious Jesus really is.

You see, for the guests at that wedding party, the members of that village and those families who were gathered there, the amazing thing that happened was that the water turned to wine. For the bridegroom, the astonishing, marvelous occurrence was the rebirth of his party. For the steward, the miracle was that the generosity of the bridegroom: he had saved the best wine for last.

But we know that the real miracle, the real sign, was the guest who made this transformation happen. His presence, his love, his grace has the ability to take what is a bleak and dire situation and make it new and hopeful again. His death on the cross—the hour of his ultimate glory, the hour he really came for—will transform the bleakest of situations, the deadest and most macabre of parties into an experience of everlasting life and renewal for us. In other words, Jesus is God’s glorious new wine that is poured out for everyone at just the right moment. It is being poured out now. Any time sins are forgiven, relationships are rebuilt, hope is restored, or pain is shared…there is Jesus bringing new life to an urgent situation.

There are a lot of characters in this story all running around...Mary, Jesus, of course, but also the disciples, the steward, the bridegroom, dozens of guests. What if the church were to see itself in this story as those stone jars? What if the church, the body of Christ, were to serve in the world as the vessels through which the world can taste the life-giving wine of Christ? In fact, that becomes the basis of my prayer for the church today, especially during this Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: that we can learn to understand ourselves not so much as people who are trying to keep an institution afloat or an organization up and running, but instead as a vessel, a trough, that presents to everyone the transformation that is Jesus’ love. My hope is that we can learn on an ever deeper level that we do not exist for ourselves and our own self-betterment but that we are offered up in the glory of Christ to be present in the midst of a suffering world.

There has been so much talk in wider church lately, and even in the Virginia Synod about our mission and our relevance (whatever that means) to the world and society around us. In my mind, Jesus will always be relevant to a dying world, just as good wine will always be relevant—and life-giving—to a dying party. The question then becomes not who will save our party but how will we present his wine? How will we be active in faith and love for the community around us, to the friends and strangers we know and meet on an individual basis?

Times have changed, my friends. People, by and large, don’t just look for congregations to join. They’re looking for something that tastes good.  They need to know that life can be transformed, that the ordinary can really become extraordinary. And everyone here this morning is one of these vessels. Together, we are one big vessel that can present gallons upon gallons of faith to the world. In what ways are you being ladled up? How is the urgency of this moment calling us into action? Do we stand there like stone jars that think they can only be used for washing “because that’s all they’ve ever been used for?” Or do we hand ourselves over to the One who transforms, the One who gives us signs of the glory yet to come, so that the world will know what we know: “Hey, there’s a party going on here. Don’t go looking for a hotel just yet! Now is the time. And the best wine has just started flowing.”


Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.