Sermon: Keeping It Together

28 January 2007

The Rev. Bryn Smallwood-Garcia
Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
January 28, 2007

Keeping It Together

1 Corinthians 12:12-31

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

You should know that I love this text from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, because I have found it to be a very helpful image of our life together as a church. We are the Body of Christ, united in the one Holy Spirit, Jesus resurrected and alive in this world, still on a mission to proclaim and build God’s Kingdom of Love. Around the world and throughout the ages, Christians have been called to join this sometimes unwieldy and disjointed body. Whether we’re lay people or ordained pastors, we are each called to take up Christ’s yoke, because we are meant to be joined together in a shared ministry.

Together we are to rise to the challenge of Luke’s gospel, paraphrased in today’s call to worship, the prophetic speech from Isaiah that is often dubbed “Jesus’s inaugural address.” We are expected to bring good news to the poor, and proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. Together we are to claim the call of the “Great Commission” found at the end of Matthew’s gospel, to go forth and make new disciples who, fortunately, can help with the task. It’s a big job, and we can be very thankful that yoke doesn’t rest on any one of us alone, but upon all of us together – the whole, living and joyful body of Christ.

When the original barn was raised that was to become the Congregational Church of Brookfield 250 years ago, the hands and shoulders of many strong and courageous men went into the job. Behind the scenes, skilled and faithful women made every stitch of the clothes the workers wore, and they baked every scrap of bread they ate – even if it was unlikely in those days that they hammered nails or directed construction. Even the frailest elders and smallest children would have put energy into the project – taking part in hundreds of minor chores and offering countless words of prayer and support. Even their farm animals were hard at work on God’s house, in one way or another (even if called upon only to be “lunch”). In short, when God’s people get together, and set their minds to do a thing with God’s help, by golly, it gets done.

What Good News this is for us now! What an important reminder – as we are embarking on a new ministry together today, as our annual stewardship drive gets under way, as our Anniversary Committee plans for a year of celebration of our 250th year in ministry here in this place, and as our Anniversary Campaign gears up to provision us well for the future – that none of us has to do this alone. That’s especially good news for me, your new pastor. Everywhere I went in town in these couple of weeks between our arrival on the ground at JFK and this day, people have been saying, “Oh, so you’re the new pastor at the Congregational Church. Those folks are really looking forward to meeting you.” It’s more than a little bit daunting, because despite what you may have hoped, I did not learn in seminary how to walk on water. What I have learned, though, in nearly 20 years of lay and ordained ministry, is how to help people work well together.

If that doesn’t seem to you much of a spiritual gift, then you’ve never tried to coach a team, conduct a choir, teach cub scouts to pitch a tent, manage an office, prepare a holiday meal with your whole extended family in the kitchen. Here’s the rub. The good news is we all get to work together in ministry – the bad news is we all HAVE to work together in ministry. You know? If we are one body, and each of us is a member, and our church is about 500 members, then what you have called me here to is not to do something pretty hard, like run a 3-legged race. What you’ve called me to do is something REALLY hard, what most of the world would say is impossible – you’ve called me to coach a 1000-legged race.

So here’s my first word of advice for us all – something that becomes obvious when you think of us as Paul does, as one body – if we are to get anywhere together as a church, especially as we are so very newly united as pastor and congregation, we would be extremely wise to take it slow at first. Have you ever seen one of those newly grown adolescents whose feet are not exactly to scale with the gangly arms and legs? I never exactly had that problem – of growing too tall too fast – but I had that problem during pregnancy, when my body rapidly grew out and not up. You know what a mistake it can be to leap up too fast and try to run. The center of gravity is off. Coordination is shaky. You learn to kind of amble through the day, to take it slow, for safety.

If you’ve been eagerly awaiting my arrival, because you couldn’t wait for this interim period to end, what I just said may make you groan with dismay. Maybe you are chomping at the bit to get this body off and running at a full gallop. If so, you’ll find this text challenging. Why can’t others be a runner’s leg, like me? How can they be content to be a stomach, just to sit and digest? And what about you eyes? You have a great vision, and you have darted your gaze far and wide, and have seen the future of our church clearly for years now. What use do you have with the ears? They just sit there, growing excess wax, and listening for God’s voice in the voice of their neighbors.

A well-balanced, well-coordinated body knows and loves all of its parts, and works to strengthen all of its gifts. We thank the stomach for nourishing us and giving us the physical resources we need to do our work. We thank the legs for their dauntless strength and energy. We thank the feet for their tireless and unending support. We thank the eyes for their foresight and clear vision. We thank the ears for their compassion and patience. We especially thank the nose, at the center of everything, an essential but mostly overlooked part of every Spirit-filled breath. Its steady faithfulness is barely noticed – until something goes wrong and we are forced to do without it. We complain when it is out of commission, but do we remember to thank it when it is healthy again?

We do well as Christians to give some thought to discerning what part of the body we believe ourselves to be – and perhaps to ask our most trusted friends what part THEY believe us to be! So think about where you fit into this particular body of Christ, beginning with today’s “Opportunity Fair,” because as I begin to get to know you, I’ll be asking. As your pastor, in order to help us work better together, I’ll need to know who exactly you are, and where you believe your place and your call to be.

I’ve done this exercise on retreat before, and it has never failed to be valuable. One time in Orinda our church created a giant body outline with masking tape on our Fellowship Hall floor. Then we spent some time in prayerful listening to the reading of this text. Then, in silence, we walked to the spot on the body where we believed we belonged. Those who named themselves “feet” told their story of the view from “down under” – and it should be no surprise that one of them had actually visited the crawlspace under the church pretty often, quietly fixing the furnace, or the drainage, or whatever needed doing. I can’t remember every person’s place exactly, but I remember that as soon as I heard them speak about their choice, it all made perfect sense.

Our head of adult education I believe stationed himself somewhere around the brain; I think the co-chairs of Care & Fellowship commission were hands, and some folks from Mission & Outreach were arms. One sort of shy teenager moved to be the spine, and although he say so at the time, because he didn’t know exactly why, he said later he realized right then that he wanted to be a structural engineer and not go into business like his father. A couple of the little kids chose to be elbows, which they explained was because they were “funny bones.” Their job, as they saw it, was to help the body stay happy. And we realized how important it is for a healthy body to remember to laugh.

So now I’ll share with you where I believe my place and my call is supposed to be. Despite what you might think, I don’t believe that my place is to be the head of this body. And that’s not just because, as a small person, I don’t feel comfortable with heights. It’s actually our United Church of Christ polity – in our constitution, only one person is to be head of the church. Jesus Christ is the head of our church.

So where do I feel called to place myself? That day on retreat I felt called to be the armpit, which seemed a little humorous to me at the time, but it is an image that sticks with me, and a place I still long to be. I realized that on the body of Christ, that that was where I most needed to place myself in order to do my ministry – very close to the great heart of Jesus. My ministry had always been about drawing people into that place of spiritual warmth and comfort. It was about the Love, greater than any one of us, which draws us in and keeps us together. Because I believe, with the apostle Paul, that from that place of total acceptance and amazing grace, we are equipped by the Holy Spirit to perform works and miracles far beyond what we ever could hope to accomplish alone.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.


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