“Being the Body” a sermon for anxious times

“Being the Body” A Story of Interconnectedness at Lord of Life Presbyterian Church

Sermon by Betsey Moe, 10.19.14

1 Corinthians 12:12-26; 27-31a

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. 14 Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15If the foot were to 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. 16And if the ear were to 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. 17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? 18But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The 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.’ 22On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23and 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; 24whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.

27 Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts.

Five years ago, I told the fictional story of three members of a place called, Lord of Life Presbyterian Church, which, in many uncanny ways, looks and feels a lot like Hamblen. Finally, five years later, I am bringing you an update about Lord of Life Presbyterian.

One of the reasons it seemed fitting to relay their most recent stories to you is that just as we are in a transition time at Hamblen, so also is Lord of Life. Their beloved pastor, Pastor Steve, retired at the first of the year and moved to an RV park in Yuma, Arizona. His departure left  many people holding their breath, wondering what would happen next. What the people at Lord of Life are finding is that in unsettled times, when the future is largely unknown, it’s hard to figure out how to be the Body of Christ. They can all pretend that they’re going along with business as usual, but underneath the surface, there is grief and anxiety right alongside hope and anticipation.

One long-time member named Grady Daniels — known for his warm smile and firm handshake, the consummate usher-greeter — remembers exactly where he was when his wife told him the news that Pastor Steve was retiring. They were at the westbound rest stop near Sprague, Washington. His wife saw Pastor Steve’s email to the congregation on her smartphone and read it aloud. Grady remembers their location so well because he couldn’t drive after that; he was too shaken. In his letter, Pastor Steve had attempted to reassure the congregation that they would get through the transition period. They were, after all, the Body of Christ functioning together. God had worked through them in the past and would provide in the present all the gifts they needed to thrive.

“If the church is the Body,” Grady told his wife, “then Pastor Steve was the heart. And we’ve just gone into cardiac arrest.”

“You’re overreacting,” his wife had said, but Grady was just being honest about the way he felt. “Who is going to preach – I mean, really preach the Word to us? Who is going to visit me in the hospital? Who’s going to do my funeral?” His wife wanted to know how soon he was planning on having it.

The point Grady finally got around to articulating was that he was afraid. Afraid that the Body wouldn’t be able to function without a heart. Pastor Steve had made Grady feel loved and accepted even though he knew Grady’s whole flawed personal history. Grady couldn’t imagine that anyone else – especially a brand new person coming in – could do the same.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to be grumpy about this until a new pastor is found,” his wife said.

“I reserve that right.”

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Another member named Malcolm heard about Pastor Steve’s retirement on the pastor’s last Sunday at Lord of Life. Malcolm was a young, single guy – a web developer — who had started going to Lord of Life a year before. He liked the worship because it was similar to what he had grown up with, and the church was close to his apartment. It was no wonder he was in the dark about the pastor leaving. He hadn’t been to church in about two months, and he must have assumed the email was more church spam. He liked Pastor Steve. In fact, Steve was one of the only people who had learned his name. Malcolm gave him a fist bump that day, wishing him good luck in retirement. Malcolm had no idea what happened when a pastor left. Would some kind of pope appoint a new one? Would the associate pastor become the senior pastor? Would they post the position on Craigslist?

Malcolm decided that he would come back in a year when this whole thing blew over. If the church was the Body, it would probably be limping along, sputtering for breath for a year or so until they got a new pastor, and Malcolm preferred not to be around to watch. As for himself, Malcolm hardly counted as a part of this Body. Perhaps he was a freckle on an arm. No one knew exactly when he had appeared, and no one would miss him if he were to go away.

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And then there was Constance. Constance remembered the buzz about Pastor Steve’s departure in her small group the night after the letter arrived. Some of the women in the group shook their heads in disbelief, a couple women had smug looks like they had seen it coming, some shed tears. “I don’t know what our church is going to do,” one woman said.

“I’ll tell you what I’m going to do,” Constance said. “I’m going to roll up my sleeves and step up my involvement. The church needs me now more than ever.”

“How is that even possible?” one woman asked. It was true. She had sung in the choir for twenty years and had only recently dropped that commitment because of throat issues. She also had served as a deacon, an elder, a Sunday School teacher, pictorial directory coordinator, and the chairperson of the Ladies’ Spring Tea. Currently, Constance delivered clothing bank donations, counted offering money, and dusted the shelves in the sanctuary that held the plants because no one else seemed to notice when they were dusty. Constance had always been of the mindset that some parts of the Body would inevitably under-function, and who if not she would compensate? Now that such an important part of the Body was in Yuma, Arizona, she figured the rest of the Body would waste away and die without someone like her – the Body’s arms, legs, brains…let’s be honest, the central nervous system – keeping it alive.

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Eventually, an interim pastor named Tom joined the staff. He had gifts for speaking the truth in love and for seeking and recognizing the gifts in others.

Grady, Malcolm, and Constance had never sat around a table together, but they found themselves doing so after Pastor Tom invited the three of them to a meeting in his office. When he called each one on the phone, he said he needed their help with “an important project.” Grady’s wife made him go; Malcolm questioned whether Pastor Tom had confused him with someone else; and Constance wondered what had taken so long.

“Believe it or not,” Pastor Tom said to open the meeting, “we have had more first-time visitors in the last two months than this church has seen in ten years.”

“I thought I recognized that trend on the friendship pads,” Constance said. She had been keeping her own charts when she entered the data in on Mondays.

“And these people need to be noticed and greeted and welcomed back,” Tom said.  You know that Lord of Life is going through a major change. It is no small thing when a pastor leaves; it’s like a body that’s had a jolt to its system, but this is no less the Body than it was a year ago. Christ is still here, and that’s what these people see. People are still coming, wanting to give glory to God, the Word is still being preached, and the world is still in need of care. I see you as a team of people who can lead the way in tending to the Body in this season. Grady, Malcolm, and Constance glanced at each other without moving their heads.

“Grady, you have the gift of warmth; you exude welcome and genuine care on Sunday mornings. If we are the Body, I see you as the heart. I’d like to ask you whenever you’re here to stand and greet people and lead by example.” Grady was dumbfounded. He …the heart?

“Constance, I looked in the church database, and in all my years of church work, I have never encountered someone with such a long resume of congregational service. You must know every name and face in this church.”

“Well, ninety percent,” Constance said, trying to stay humble. “I’ve headed up the pictorial directory project six times.”

“Well, Constance,” Pastor Tom said, “I think of you as an eye.” (An eye wasn’t the central nervous system, but it was something.) “I want you to keep an eye out for these visitors that other people might not notice. Introduce them to someone else in the congregation with whom they might have something in common. And keep a record of the contacts you make.”

“I’d be happy to do that,” Constance said.

“Constance, there may be some other things you need to let go if no one else is doing them. Sometimes we need to see the gaps in ministry as well as where the energy is.” She nodded.

“And Malcolm, is it true that you are a web developer?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Would you be willing to help me and team of technology folks think through a new website for Lord of Life? It’s the first point of contact for most new people and one of the main ways many of our members stay connected to the life of this church. It is absolutely crucial – as crucial as the central nervous system is to the Body — that it reflect who we are.”

“Sure,” Malcolm said. “I already have some ideas about that, but no one had ever asked for my opinion.”

Grady, Constance, Malcolm, and Pastor Tom talked through logistics and set some goals before Pastor Tom closed in prayer. The three members left feeling energized the way a body does when endorphins kick in during exercise.

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Contrary to their fears, Lord of Life Presbyterian Church was still pulsing with the Spirit of God. The congregation kept moving, breathing, changing just like all bodies do. These three members and many others were learning to tend to this body– and as they did, each one of them felt more alive.

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