Monday, January 28, 2019

Many Members, One Body: The Gift of Diversity

'Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 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. 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? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 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." On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker 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; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.'
--I Corinthians 12: 14-26

In the classic comedy Anchorman Will Ferrel’s character Ron Burgandy, the legendary San Diego news reporter, is confronted with the reality that the network sees a lack of diversity around his station and wants to correct that oversight.  One problem: hardly anyone in this 1970s male-dominated organization even knows what diversity is.  But Ron Burgandy knows:  

He's kind of a big deal.

To which Ron's boss comments that he'd be surprised if the network were concerned with the lack of an old, old wooden ship. We laugh at stories like Anchorman because they show us the absurdity of misogynistic, patriarchal systems, but we still live in a world that has real trouble with fully embracing diversity.  Whether it is women in positions of leadership or appropriate representation of LGBT folks in tv and film, we still have a ways to go before diversity is seen for what it really is:  a gift from God (not an old, old wooden ship!). 

The church in Corinth was a place that struggled with embracing diversity.  People were divided along various lines such as religion, gender, nationality, and even which spiritual gifts they possessed. Corinth was a community that stressed uniformity and hierarchy.  Certain individuals were simply seen as better because of the spiritual gifts they were given or because of where they came from, and everyone else was just supposed to fall in line.  New ideas and customs were not welcomed, which may explain why both Paul and Clement felt the need to write to the Corinthians,  not once but twice.  To illustrate his undercutting of such customs, Paul compares the community of the faithful to a body, and just as a body does not consist of one member but many, neither does this community.  An eye cannot hate an ear; after all, if the whole body were just the one member—just an eye—then where would the hearing come from?  One member cannot say to another, ‘I have no need of you.’ God has so arranged the body, says verse 18 of this letter, which means that such diversity is, in fact, a gift from God and should be embraced by the community.  Because God has arranged it so, when one member of the body suffers, all suffer, and if one member is honored, all rejoice.  To put it quite simply, Paul is saying to the Corinthians:  you’re all in this together. 

It might seem rather basic and even a bit elementary, but remembering that we are all in this together, that we are all part of the same body and that we all need each other, is a lesson that we should hear over and over again.  That gift of diversity that God gave us is one that we still have not fully embraced, sadly, and one place where this is best seen is in the Church.  

Last week I attended several events in my part of North Carolina that honored the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The last of these event was a worship service at a local Pentecostal Church put on by the Randolph County Ministers of Reconciliation, a group that I had never heard of in my almost 4 years in this area.  When I asked a clergy colleague about them I was informed that they were, as it was put, “the black ministerial association.”  You see, for almost 4 years I had been under the impression that there was only one group—the Greater Asheboro Ministerial Association—which, encompassed all of the churches in my area.  Unfortunately, that group has not had any kind of gathering or put on any event in over 2 years!  In a place as small as Randolph County, North Carolina there is no reason for two groups of clergy—all of whom are Christians, by the way—to exist independent of each other, especially when the only thing separating them is their skin color.  I wondered if perhaps someone along the way forgot Paul’s words about all of us being members of the one body. When I struck up a conversation with the vice president of the Ministers of Reconciliation at that service and told her I wished to join, she got choked up and said, “We’ve been praying for this!”  The “this’ was that their white clergy brothers and sisters would take notice of what they were doing and join them.  We still have a ways to go.

Everywhere we look we see division, discord, and members of the body cast one another off or say outright, “We do not want you to be part of us!”  God’s gift of diversity is being squandered, replaced by fear and mistrust.  Now the feet are ganging up on the hands.  Now the right arm has said to the left there is no need of you here and has cast it off.  Now the body is splintered and broken, and in some places even bloodied and left for dead. 

What we fail to understand, whether we are talking about a church, a community, or a nation, is that we are all in this thing together.  The suffering of one of us affects all of us.  Think about a migraine headache.  A migraine doesn’t just hurt your head, but it makes it painful to see, to walk, and even to listen to music.  Pain in one part of our bodies disturbs and distorts the rest.  A long time ago the Greek philosopher Plato put it this way:  “We do not say, ‘My finger has a pain,’ instead we say, ‘I have a pain,’ thus, there is an ‘I,’ a personality that gives unity to the many and varying parts of the body.”  Leave it to the ancient Greeks to make sense all of these years later!

Image result for plato
Plato got it.

God has blessed our churches, our communities, and our nation with the holy gift of diversity, of a blending of many members to make up one great body. Today the apostle Paul speaks through the ages to people who, like those in Corinth, struggle with the idea of embracing that which is different.  Fear sets in because it takes tremendous vulnerability to open oneself up to a person or an experience that is not like our own, but the more we reject those other members, the more the body will be broken.  Whether the rejection is along the lines of religion, race, nationality, sexuality, gender, or economic status, the more we cast off the members, the more we all suffer.  The good news that is there for us today is that we can—we must—embrace that sacred gift that God has given to us.  For when we do, we can make this world look more like the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed was already here.

Remember, brothers and sisters, that you are all part of the one body.  Diversity is not something to be feared or mocked.  It is God's precious gift to us all. And yes, even those whom you can think of now, whom you may wish were cast off, are too part of the one body.  May we embrace one another’s diversity, whether black, white, gay, straight, old, young, Christian, non-Christian.  We are all part of the same body.  We need each other.  We cannot do the work God has given us without each other.  The people in Corinth never quite understood that, which is why historic markers that you’ll find there today say things like, ‘The apostle Paul preached the Gospel here, unsuccessfully.’  We have advantages that they did not have, and so we are fully equipped to embrace God’s sacred gift of diversity, to respect the experiences of our fellow members.  True, we may find some of our members still broken and bruised, unable to accept that gift.  But through holy work of reconciliation, of truth-telling, and of sacred listening to one another, and by walking the way of love, we can heal those broken, members and ourselves and be made whole through the grace of God.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Party Never Ends

'On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.'
--John 2:1-11

Each month, on the 3rd Thursday, I visit with two inmates at a local prison.  At the end of my time last week I was walking out of the building with the chaplain, who was suddenly stopped by an inmate who had a very serious question.  The inmate wondered:  “If I pray hard enough, God can do anything through me, right?”  The chaplain nodded.  The inmate continued:  “So if I ask God to let me turn water into wine like Jesus did, and I pray hard enough for that, God will do it, right?”  As you can imagine, that started up a whole conversation around prayer and the motivations behind prayer, but suffice to say the inmate’s thoughts were that if he could perform such a magic trick people would believe him, and it would bring them to the Lord. 

Fresco of the Wedding at Cana in the ceiling of Annunciation Cathedral in Jerusalem.

That is what the turning of water into wine sort of feels like: a magic trick, and one that we find nowhere else in Scripture. Whereas the other Gospels show Jesus’ first public action to be his baptism in the Jordan River, John instead has Jesus' inaugural action be to change six jars of water into wine, so that the couple and their parents will not be shamed for allowing the wine to go out, thus being seen as inhospitable.  This, John tells us, was the first of Jesus’ signs. Yet, what that inmate did not understand, and what we sometimes forget when we hear such stories of Jesus' miraculous actions, is that signs always point beyond themselves.  In the case of this sign, the feature of the story that is being pointed to is not the magic trick but what Jesus' actions point to within the context of the setting itself, the wedding banquet. 

It was said:  "A wedding is a time for good wishes, feasting, and joy.  The Gospel of John tells us how Jesus shared in such an occasion when he performed his first miracle at a wedding in Cana of Galilee, giving there a sign of new beginnings.”  If that sounds familiar to you, it’s because you among those who heard those words spoken by The Rev. Marshall Jolly at the beginning of a certain wedding in Greensboro of North Carolina back on June 2 of last year.  As my then-fiancee Kristen and I were putting together the liturgy for our wedding, we were very intentional with those opening words, and we wanted to make clear the primary significance of Jesus’ presence at the wedding in Cana; that is, Jesus appreciated a good party.

The Rev. Marshall Jolly presides over our wedding on June 2, 2018.

That is not to say that Jesus was a "party animal," nor that he condoned over-indulging on alcohol at social events.  Rather,Jesus saw the importance of celebrations and participated in them himself.  As the wine starts to go out he makes sure that the party keeps going, that the celebration does not stop.  What I find especially interesting about this story is that Jesus doesn’t even take credit for his action.  Instead, his turning of the water into wine happens “off-screen”—if you will—and the one given credit is the bridegroom, who keeps the good wine until the end.  What matters in this moment is not that everyone at the wedding sees Jesus perform this miracle, like when he later feeds 5000 people; after all, it seems that only the servants, Jesus’ mother, and the disciples even know what has happened.  What matters is the celebration itself, and what everything about this scene represents.  Any wedding is cause for a grand celebration among the community, and that is why Jesus’ presence and actions at this wedding matter. 

It is the love between the couple, the guests’ love for the couple, and God’s love for the whole of humanity that is encapsulated by a wedding banquet.  Not only does this story remind us of that, but by turning all of that water into wine, Jesus shows us once again the abundance of the grace and love of God.  The six jars equaled roughly 180 gallons of wine.  Think about that for a second.  There is no wedding party on earth that can drink that much wine!  It’s a laughable amount, and that is the point; so, again, the significance of the story is not the magic trick itself.  Jesus' actions point to the gospel truth that the Good News of God, which Jesus has come to proclaim, can be compared to a wedding banquet that has more than enough libations (wine or otherwise) to satisfy the needs of all its guests, a party that never ends.  This is the gospel of abundance, which tells us that the grace, mercy, and love of God are unending, that there is always more than enough for everyone, and Jesus has come into the world to not only share in our celebrations but to even use them to remind us of that gospel truth. 

As I said in my post last week on his baptism, Jesus undertook the fullness of the human experience.  This is the radical nature of the Incarnation, that God would not only come among humanity but would deem to put on humanity, to participate in our sorrows and joys, which are so often given shape and meaning in our rituals, such as a baptism or wedding.  A wedding in first century Palestine, for example, lasted for seven days, and even in a place like Cana—which was and is a peasant village—there was copious amounts of food and drink.  Folks who went about their daily lives struggling to even get a morsel of bread got to kick back and celebrate with those they loved because everyone contributed from the abundance of what they had.  It is this act of celebration that Jesus adorns because it gives shape to that which Jesus came to proclaim, and that which we know to be the great truth of God:  love. 

It is the unbreakable bond of the love of God for humanity that we celebrate at a wedding.  The binding of the couple’s hands—which came to be known as the tying of the knot—symbolizes the unity not only of the couple but of all of us to God our creator.  To borrow words preached by The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a wedding he officiated in 1948, the couple becomes “the heirs of a legacy of togetherness.”  Yes, it is the togetherness of the couple, of the blending of their families, friends , and communities, but the power of a wedding is also the reminder that we are part of the legacy of togetherness between the whole of humanity and God, and Jesus is the knot that ties us all together.  Certainly Dr. King understood that, and we who work so passionately to create God’s Beloved Community understand it, as well, as we seek to walk the way of love. 

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. giving his speech "What Is Your Life's Blueprint?' on October 26, 1967.

 The wedding in Cana is a rather quirky story, one that is often misunderstood and sometimes reduced to a comedic trope when tv or films talk about or portray Jesus—just watch Dogma or Family Guy.  

Jesus turns water into funk, from season 1 of Family Guy.

That’s surface-level stuff. It’s not about Jesus performing  a magic trick, but it’s about what his action represents.  In a culture that valued so highly hospitality and celebration, Jesus makes sure that they do not run out.  He not only meets our needs, but he provides far more than anyone could ever dream.  He shares in our parties because the love that is poured out in them is a reflection of the love God has for us all, love that binds us together with God in the person of Jesus.  And this love, through the power of God, will someday marry the whole human race one to another.  May we always celebrate, walking the way of love, finding our joy overflowing with abundance, for as Jesus reminds us today, and as the great 20th century American poet Robert Earl Keen sang:  the party never ends!

  Robert Earl Keene sings 'The Road Goes On Forever (and the Party Never Ends),' circa 1990.