Stubborn Ounces

Sunday, February 19, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, February 19, 2017, the seventh Sunday after Epiphany.

Text:  1 Corinthians 12:4-31

 

Several weeks ago, I read David Frum’s article in The Atlantic entitled, “How to Build an Autocracy.”  It’s a quite a piece of writing with lots to ponder.  The thing that’s stuck with me is a quote Frum mentions: “Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.”  He says that when the early Americans wrote things like that, “they did not do so to provide bromides for future bumper stickers. They lived in a world in which authoritarian rule was the norm, in which rulers habitually claimed the powers and assets of the state as their own personal property.”[i]  Frum makes the case that guarding against autocracy requires active engagement by an American public that cares about our “democracy and the habits and conventions that sustain it.”  In other words, we contribute to whatever future unfolds—precisely through our engagement OR disengagement.  It has been suggested recently that we (American citizens) don’t care.  I disagree in principle, but understand how it may appear to be true.  Over the past several months, part of my personal confession is that for much of my life I have not been as vigilant and engaged in civic life as I should be.  In every administration—even those I’ve generally supported—there have been issues and actions that cried out for active, organized “sacred resistance.”  While I have voted and tried to set priorities for my daily living that are moral and just and neighborly and faithful, I know that there have been times I was lukewarm when I should have been on fire.  In other words, I am among those who find themselves feeling both culpable for the sorry state of our current democracy and newly energized and engaged.

 

It’s easy enough to lurk around the edges of community—whether that’s our neighborhood, our city, our country, or our church—to pick up pieces of “information” informally without seeking out the whole story, to use what serves us and complain about what doesn’t.  It is commonplace for us to become complacent and distracted until something happens to disrupt our own lives or that provokes our moral outrage to the point of action.  But the truth is that we are responsible for our communal life all the time. We can’t control everything, of course, but our engagement matters.  This is not just a civics lesson, but a Christian one as well. 

 

As students—disciples—of Jesus, this should be pretty obvious.  We are called to action, to engagement, to service.  We are called to serve by using the gifts we have.  We are called to serve without expecting reward.  We are called to serve others for the common good.  We are called to serve together with others who have different, complementary gifts.  This is the example set by Jesus and the vision laid out by Paul in his letter to the church he’d founded in Corinth.  But the metaphor Paul uses in our passage today isn’t a celebration of how the people were living and serving together.  Paul had received reports that the church was suffering from conflict and power struggles about which gifts—and which people—were most valuable. 

 

Corinth was a bustling urban center with an ethnically, culturally, religiously diverse population. 

In the rhetoric of the time, the metaphor of the body wasn’t uncommon; but in the midst of all that Corinthian diversity, the image of the body would have been used to describe and solidify differences in value.  Evidently, the Corinthian church had fallen into this cultural habit, comparing and contrasting gifts, with some being lifted up and others belittled.  Paul turns the cultural norm on its head by teaching that, in Christ, the different parts of the body are all equally valued; and perhaps because of the overwhelming cultural prejudice, Christians are to give more honor to those parts that others would discount.  Paul teaches us to celebrate the contributions of every member of the body, to rejoice with each other, to suffer with each other.  In other words, Paul reminds the church that we are called to be prophetic, countercultural, to witness to an alternative way of being in relationship and in community, a way that is not about power games over which gifts are most important, but rather a way of being that recognizes the beauty, value, and dignity of every member of the body; a way that engages each person, igniting every gift to be employed in the work of the Kin-dom. 

//

Imagine, if you will, the conversation between Jesus and the archangel Gabriel when Jesus returned to heaven after the ascension:
Gabriel: “You mean your whole plan to save the world depends on that ragtag bunch of followers you left behind?”
Jesus: “That’s right”
Gabriel: “But what if they fail? What’s your backup plan?”
Jesus: “There is no backup plan.”

 

“Now YOU are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor 12:27) You are the body of Christ.  You have a gift to share that no one else can offer in the same way you can.  If you are “checked out” then there is a gaping hole where your particular presence and contribution belongs.  Our mission at Foundry is to love God, love each other, and change the world.  This is not a vision in which the “professional Christians” love God, love each other, and change the world on your behalf.  The clergy are not the only ones who can pray, the staff are not the only ones who can provide leadership or welcome or vision.  As pastor and church consultant Bill Easum says, “Never hire staff to do ministry.”  What he means is that pastors and staff in healthy, growing congregations are hired not to “do” the ministry but rather “to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up” (Eph. 4.12 NIV—“equip the saints for the work of ministry” NRSV).  Jesus prepared his disciples and followers for works of service—equipped others to do what he did—and left the work in their (our) hands!  Our vision at Foundry is to be a community of servant leaders—both clergy and lay, paid and unpaid—in which each and every one of us give and share and live and serve and pray and care together as the Spirit leads. 

 

There may be folks who are feeling overwhelmed or inadequate or uncertain about what gift you have to offer.  If that is the case, I encourage you to seek out a trusted friend or pastor to talk to.  I also encourage you to pray about it.  There may be others who think this truly has nothing to do with YOU.  You are free to think that, of course… There may be some who feel like nothing you can offer the church or the world would make any possible difference.  That is simply not true.  Your gift matters.  Your engagement matters—for your own life, the life of others, the life of the church, the life of the world. 

 

I returned yesterday evening from the women’s retreat and one of the recurring themes in conversation is that there are simply too many challenges to address and resist right now. What difference can we possibly make and where do we even begin?  All we can do is what we can do… And we can do something or nothing.  Either way, we’re making a difference for better or worse.  In this month’s Forge newsletter I shared this poem:

You say the Little efforts that I make
will do no good: they never will prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in balance.

I don’t think I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
in favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.[ii]

 

Who and what feels “the stubborn ounces of [your] weight?”  You change the world by engagement or disengagement.  You change the world by sharing your gifts or withholding them.  You have a right to choose.  But there is urgency about the decisions you make.  There is no backup plan.  As Jim Harnish, our guru for this series, writes:  “There are children who may never hear the stories of Jesus if people with the gift of teaching do not teach them.  There are lost, confused, spiritually searching people who may never experience God’s love unless people with the gift of evangelism share the good news with them.  There are adults who may never grow in their understanding of Scripture until someone with the gift of discernment guides them.  There are people who may never find their way into the church until people with the gift of hospitality welcome them.  There are people with broken hearts and broken lives who may never find healing until people with the gift of intercession pray for them.  There are new opportunities for new ministries that may never be accomplished unless people with the gift of leadership show others the way. There are lonely, isolated people who may never find their way into Christian community until people with the gift of mercy extend care to them. There are important issues of justice and peace that never will be confronted until people with the gift of prophecy confront them.  In short, God has work to be done in this world that will not get done until we offer the stubborn ounces of our weight to make it happen.”[iii]

Now YOU are the body of Christ…

 

[i] David Frum, “How to Build an Autocracy,” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/03/how-to-build-an-aut...

[ii] Bonaro Overstreet, “To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything If You Can’t Do Everything”

[iii] James A. Harnish, A Disciple’s Path: Deepening Your Relationship Christ and the Church, Companion Reader, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2012, p. 63.