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Based on the Epistle reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany:
I Corinthians 12:12-31a

2004 January 25
Gretchen L. Elmendorf, Associate Pastor

Expanding the Body of Christ

A couple years ago, I was in the library of my hometown, desperate to get a paper finished, cloistering myself off at an empty table. I was writing about a book called The Disabled God by Nancy Eiesland-a woman with physical disability who advocates that we can learn new theological insights about God through people with disabilities. Though I cared about this subject, my own approach to this paper seemed dry and somewhat detached from the heart of meaning. So I prayed, "God, help me out here. Show me what it is you want me to learn from this book and from this paper?" Five people then descended upon my table, sitting around me. I didn't look up, my head buried in my book. I needed to be alone to concentrate. "Could you guys just go somewhere else please?" I thought to myself. These people were noisy, flipping loudly through magazines. The man across from me was talking to himself. I was getting frustrated and was just about to ask everyone to be quiet when I looked up and saw that the magazine one of the men was reading was upside down. It slowly dawned on me that he couldn't read, nor could any of the people at my table. They were all people who were mentally retarded. The woman next to me tapped me on the shoulder. She could not speak but made singing sounds in her throat instead, and with her big, blue eyes, she peered into mine with such curiosity. She picked up the paper I had been working on, and, rather dismissively, put it back down. She picked up the book about disabilities, and again, rather dismissively, put it back down. I sat with this circle of five people for quite sometime before they left for lunch with their aide. They were friendly; they were curious and open toward me. Several couldn't speak, but even so, they knew how to communicate, through their eyes, through sweet sing songy sounds, through touch, through warmth and kindness.

I was aware of a feeling of spirit in the air, as if something mysterious had been orchestrated. It was as if God was saying to me through the woman with the big blue eyes, put the book down about disability, put the paper down, look at the people before you. That's how you'll Back to toplearn what you need to know right now. That's where you will see my spirit at work.

You know, I think before that day in the library, I thought of myself as being pretty open to being in a diverse community. I had the privilege of working with people from a lot of different cultures. I put myself through some pretty intensive workshops on anti-racism and multiculturalism. I worked on social justice projects. And here I was reading books and writing papers about people with disabilities. If I had read Paul's letter from Corinthians, a couple years back, I might have thought, yes, I know all about the importance of appreciating people's differences and working toward equality. But that day in the library was to change my life and enlarge my perspective on what constitutes the body of Christ. My spiritual life was to be deepened for years to come by people I had never truly encountered before. I would go on to befriend people in this new community and worship with them for years to come. I would be inspired by them and sometimes when I would be with them, I would feel as if I was meeting God, face to face. For this blessing, I thank God.

I think God seeks to bless us all by encouraging us to love people we perceive to be different from us. And the opportunity to do so never ends. There is always a bridge to be crossed. There is always a new way of life to be realized through the perspective of someone new. As members of the body of Christ, we are continually enriched when our eyes are opened, and we see afresh how God works through "differentness." Thomas Yeoman, a psychologist who practices in Concord and who founded the Concord Institute, writes about how spiritually healing it is for a group to embrace difference.

Yeoman writes: "The more differences a group can hold, the healthier it is, and the more connected to the spiritual dimension. These groups are rare in our culture, but those who have had an experience of them describe it as being a place where they are completely free to be themselves, have no fear to express their truth, and where they are held in a field of energy that is vital and healing and in which there is a deep connection with the other members as fellow human beings, neither better nor worse, higher or lower, but equal in beauty and grace."1

Paul has different language, but he tells us largely the same thing using the metaphor of the body. He writes to the Corinthians that like parts of a body, we are all different, but we need each other. "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.'" In effect, Paul is telling us that none of us can say, "Because others are different from me, I don't need them."

"For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body--Jews or Greeks, slaves or free."

Paul tells us also that if we ignore or discount one another because of our differences, we're very much off the track of where we are called to be as followers of Christ. Just picture the bizarre image Paul presents. He writes: "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?" Think about it. Can you just imagine a big body that was all nose or all ear? That's a pretty cartoonish image Paul is offering us. It's easy to see the ludicrousness of such a proposal. But that's how unrealistic it is, Paul teaches, to think that we can get along without one another… to think that one person's role is more or Back to topless important than another's role.

Who do you know right now who you have yet to connect with because they walk in different circles? Is there someone who has crossed your path whose way of life is completely foreign to you? Is there someone who is so different from you that you couldn't imagine spending time with them? I know, for instance … people have told me … that sometimes people who don't have a developmental disability, are scared off from spending time with people who do. It's too awkward. They don't know what to say.

That's where trusting in the Holy Spirit comes in. Because Christ is always calling us into a greater union with other members of his body. It is a lifetime's work. But the work is well worth it. When you make new connections in the spirit of love, you find yourself richly blessed.

There's another message Paul has for us. We know that it's not going to fly to say, "Because others are different from me, I don't need them."

But what's also true is that none of us can say we aren't needed.

We are vitally needed, each person as much as the next. No matter how insecure we've ever felt, or inferior in someway, or not as impressive or important as someone else. Even if we've ever felt unnoticed or taken for granted or like we haven't measured up somehow, none of us can say we aren't needed equally as much as any other person.

Each of you here is important to the whole. Each one of you is blessed and treasured by God, for just the way you are. Each of you is gifted in a special way from God like no other. Each one of you is needed, for what you have to share, in your own, very individual way. Each of you is needed right here in this church, and as people of faith, each of you is needed desperately in this world:

"If the foot would say, 'Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, 'Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,' that would not make it any less a part of the body. None of us can say, 'Because I am not like the others, I am not really part of the body.'"

No matter what your gift is, if you are a rocket scientist, or a baker, you are just as important as the next. Can you imagine just how radical this message is of Paul's in a world that is so competitively driven? Where the best man or woman finishes first. In our world, we are taught that "fitting in" is based upon all sorts of criteria. We fit in when we are well educated, so it goes. The more advanced our degree, the more we are listened to. The more we have published - be it books or journal articles -- the higher we are regarded, it seems. The more money, the more powerful. If we are good actors, have made it to the silver screen and have nautilus bodies, Back to topwe belong on the red-carpet, we are the people to really be watched.

Maybe some of you have watched or heard about the newest reality TV show, The Apprentice, with Donald Trump. The show is so popular it recently hit #1 in the TV. ratings. Sixteen people, each with IQ's of around 200, are given business challenges by Trump on a weekly basis. The goal is, according to NBC, to "think outside the box in order to outshine each other to get to the top." From week to week, a member who does not measure up is fired by Trump in his boardroom and kicked out of the group. The winner gets the ultimate "dream job" of working for Trump's corporation.

Thank God the body of Christ is not supposed to be run like Trump's organization. Thank God that as Christians, it's not about outshining each other. Thank God we can come to church and belong just as we are. Thank God we can come to church and be reminded that God's criteria of fitting in is phenomenally different from the world's. You don't need degrees, or special clothes, or impressive resumes. The only criteria for fitting in within the body of Christ, Paul says, is to follow Jesus. Through the gift of baptism, we all "drink from the same spirit." …. No competition necessary. Only faith in Christ.

I'll leave you with a story.

A water bearer in India had two large pots, each hung on either end of a pole which he carried across his neck. One of the pots had a crack in it, and while the other pot was perfect and always delivered a full portion of water at the end of the long walk from the stream to the master's house, the cracked pot arrived only half full. For a full two years this went on daily, with the bearer delivering only one and a half pots full of water in his master's house. The poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it was able to accomplish only half of what it had been made to do. The water bearer felt sorry for the old cracked pot, and in his compassion he said, 'As we return to the master's house, I want you to notice the beautiful flowers along the path. The bearer said to the pot, 'Did you notice that there were flowers only on your side of the path, but not on the other pot's side? That's because I have always known about your flaw, and I took advantage of it. I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back from the stream, you've watered them. For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate my master's table. Without you being just the way you are, he would not have this beauty to grace his house.'

So ends the story.

Each of us, being just the way we are, adds beauty and grace to the body of Christ. May we be open to one another, may we celebrate our gifts and our differentness together, and may we stretch to be even more of a diverse community, with the love of Christ in the days to come. Amen.

  1. Thomas Yeoman. Soul Wound and Psychotherapy (Concord, MA: The Concord Institute, 1994), p. 11-12.

Copyright © 2004 Gretchen L. Elmendorf.  Used by permission. to top

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