Scripture: I Corinthians 12:12-26
Dizzy Dean was one of the greatest pitchers in Major League Baseball history. Pitching for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1930s, he was the last National League pitcher to win 30 games in a season. Known for his colorful and somewhat eccentric personality, Dean was once hit in the head by a baseball, and the headline in the paper the next day, probably apocryphal, said “X-ray of Dean’s head reveals nothing.”
As a child, I remember hearing about how Dean’s career ended. Pitching in the 1937 All-Star game, Earl Averill of the Indians hit a line drive straight back at Dean, a shot that broke his big toe. When he came back too soon from the injury, in order to accommodate the painful toe, he altered his pitching motion, and the change in his delivery caused him to injure his arm. As a result, he never again recovered his earlier form.
Hearing that story about Dizzy Dean as a young boy, I learned early just how interrelated our body parts are—injure your toe and it may throw off your arm. My respect for that interconnectedness has only increased over time. Overcompensate for a knee injury, and maybe your hip begins to ache. Develop a heart condition and it may affect your lungs. If you have dementia and your hearing or sight declines, the dementia itself may worsen. Indigestion can cause a stiff neck.
And in recent decades, we’ve all seen the interrelationship of mind and body, and learned a great deal about the hormonal component of our emotions. If you’ve been doing work that is inherently unsatisfying and finally find a field that is fulfilling, or if you’ve been living a lie and finally find your way to living who you are, your energy and happiness will likely increase markedly. One of the films at this year’s Chagrin Documentary Film Festival is the story of three high school athletes who are transgender. One of them, a boy wrestler, talks openly, at several points in the film, about the depression he had felt as a child assigned to be a girl, because he was unable to express himself as the boy he knew himself to be. Because of the lack of a sense of congruity in their lives, some 40% of transgender people try to or succeed at killing themselves. That’s sobering testimony to the connection between mind and body.
Heart and brain and liver and knees and knuckles and hair—all of it works together in this amazing symbiosis. Our forbear, the apostle Paul, reminded the church in Corinth that their church was just like that—a body. That church needed them all, and it needed them to be and do what each of them was created to be and do. In the same way that a body needs ears and eyes and knees and a heart to function best, so a church needs people to live all the range of roles that let a church thrive.
On the back of the door in my church study I keep a sheet of newsprint that Federated leaders put together some years ago at a leadership retreat. We drew a stick figure of a body, and each person there drew in a body part that represented how they saw themselves in the church. One person was a kidney, one a mouth, one a knee and one a brainstem. And each one explained what that body part conveyed as to their contribution to the whole. It reminded me of a similar exercise I had done at another church I served, in which one of the Deacons, Art Mahler, said he felt like the big toe, because he thought he helped the church to balance properly.
It takes all of us playing our role in the body, and playing it as well as we can, in order for the body to function well, for the body to have its fullest life. Which means several things. It means first of all that, just as in business or the family, we each want to be in the right lane in the church. If we’re running in the wrong lane, if we’re trying to play a role we weren’t cut out to play, we’re not going to be very happy, and the church won’t flourish the way it could. What’s your lane? Were you cut out to work on church finances? Or sing in the choir or band? Or greet people as they arrive for worship? Or prepare a meal for someone who has just returned from the hospital? What’s your gift to the church, what’s your lane? Finding the right lane—or, as Frederick Buechner puts it, your “deep gladness”—is part of the challenge.
It means, too, that we actually have to run in that lane, we have to engage in that gladness. Just sitting in the starting blocks does no one any good. For life to be at its fullest, we have to “run . . . the race that is set before us” (Hebrews 12:1). We come to church partly to be fed, to be nourished, to be strengthened for the week ahead. Church is a primary place in which we receive grace. But we come not just to be fed, but to do the feeding as well, to exercise a ministry for the sake of something larger than we are. If you have found yourself mostly receiving here at Federated, my guess is that your life will be enriched as you take on a ministry that makes a difference either here or beyond these walls. We have children here who need their faith formed by people who love God and love children. We have people dying here, in this community of faith, whose families need a caring presence to walk with them in their grief and to help with their memorial services. Your lovely smile and presence may be just what’s needed to greet people as they arrive here on a Sunday morning—it may make their day and remind them that they belong. Your passion for those relegated to the margins of society may prompt you to work with our Loaves and Fishes ministry serving meals to people who are destitute. Or it may lead you to an involvement with our Social Justice Advocacy Ministry.
Find the right lane for yourself. And then jump into the race. That’s a big part of what it means to be the body of Christ. Here’s a third thing: being the body of Christ also means realizing that other people aren’t just like any of us, and that’s OK. If I’m an arm and you’re an ankle, that’s OK. We need each other. We each contribute in different ways.
And the truth is it’s hard work to actually accept that. It’s easy to acknowledge in the abstract that, while I may be an ear, I also want other people to provide eyes for this body. It’s another thing, though, isn’t it, to realize that I may want to put aside more of our budget for deferred major maintenance of our facilities and you may want to give more money away to mission partners. I may understand the Bible in a metaphorical way and you may read it more literally. I may have one vision for our Family Life Center and you may have another one entirely. It’s these differences that make for friction. And if we define ourselves by those differences, and become passionately attached to the particular results we seek, then this body of ours slowly falls apart.
So even with all the differences we have, the key is to remember that we all belong here together. Because we are one body, magnificently given life by God. Together, even with all our differences, even with all our hugely varying opinions, even with all the opposites we may have on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, we are the body of Christ. ‘Isn’t there some mistake?’ you may wonder as you look at these differences. No, there is no mistake. ‘Am I in the wrong church?’ you may think when you’re frustrated that people don’t see things as you do. No, you’re in the right church, because no matter what church you could possibly go to, you’d run into other human beings, and you’d sometimes feel out of your element, and you’d have frustrating run-ins and encounters, and you’d feel at odds with someone else. We’re so different from each other that church can be a blessed mess—and we are still, always, from our inception, the body of Christ.
And what that means is we commit to this place even when we’re perplexed and frustrated and irritated. And it means we commit to do our part and run our race and support the church with our energy and our prayers and our finances, even when it doesn’t go in the direction we’d like to see it go. Because we are the body of Christ. Like the waters of all the earth’s oceans, you and I are inseparably intertwined.
So given the strains that can gnaw at us, if we’re wise we will look always for grace, for the blossoms that arise even in the brambles. A woman named Martha Tucker tells this story: “One summer evening I took a walk . . . with my father. It was not an easy walk. We had been arguing about the usual stuff: my boyfriend was not good enough, my life plans were not ambitious enough. The message I heard was that I was not good enough. I shot back that he was hard-hearted and left the [house].
“He followed. We walked in silence. His attempts to talk were met with my stubborn defiance. I stubbed my toe and looked down. There, as though glaring at me, was a dusty stone almost perfectly shaped as a heart.
“I picked it up, wiped it off, and handed it to my father. He put it in his pocket. No words were spoken.
“Just shy of two years later I married the not good enough guy. We have been married now for almost 43 years, and it is more than enough.
“But that isn’t the moral of the story.
“As my father and I stood in the narthex of the chapel, waiting to walk down the aisle, he turned to me, reached into his pocket, and pulled out the stone. The same stone. The one he now told me he always carried. The one that caused him to think of me, to consider love and relationships and what was ‘enough.’
“From . . . the complex and messy parts of a father-daughter relationship, from a walk down a path while sorting through difficult emotions, I had come to this sacramental moment. A heart-shaped rock—perhaps because of where and when it was found, and certainly because of how it was kept—became the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace” (https://www.christiancentury.org/article/first-person/dirt-essays-readers?fbclid=IwAR2XHXl4ev3m93yARu8z3kI2IgOv60ycv8ae3xk_8WayJj8Yg5OsPDYffTI).
And what a grace it was. Even in the midst of strife and struggle, father and daughter had found that deep reservoir of grace where they knew their unbreakable connection. This is the sacrament of love. This is what is for us to know families and church people as the body of Christ. This is what it is, on this World Communion Sunday, to know everyone as the body of Christ. As we receive this communion meal, may we know the richness of this body, a body that has come to us by the amazing grace of God. And may we go and kindle that grace wherever we may be. For we are the body of Christ. May it always be so.