Sunday, January 24, 2016

The Indispensable Toe

I Corinthians 12:12-31
January 24, 2015

            I suspect that one of the worst days of my brother’s life was in the late spring of 1975. He was home for the summer after his first year in college. Late spring in Nashville is like late spring in Shawnee. If the weather is nice, lawns need to be mowed. So my brother Brad decided to do a nice thing for my parents and mow the lawn as a surprise.
            If I’m marking time correctly, I would have been 9 that spring and Brad would have been 19. He was not reckless. He was not careless. He had mowed the lawn plenty of times before. It’s also important to note that he was not mowing the lawn barefoot or in flip flops or sandals. He was wearing tennis shoes. But as he was mowing, Brad hit one wet spot in the lawn and his foot slipped. It slid under the mower. He pulled his foot back quickly, but not quickly enough. It cut off his big toe.
            What started as a normal, sunny spring day degenerated into the realm of awful. That’s why I suspect it still ranks as one of the worst days of Brad’s life. Maybe you’re thinking, “That was awful, but it’s just a toe.” Guess what happens when you lose a toe, especially a big one? You lose your sense of balance. You have to learn how to walk again. My brother is tough. He recovered. His life was not ruined. In fact he has led quite a full life up to this point and I suspect that will continue. Brad also has a wicked sense of humor. When he was finally ready to go barefoot or wear sandals, if someone asked him about his missing toe he would tell them that he lost it to a shark while swimming in the ocean off the Florida coast.
Seeing the effects of Brad losing a toe made me realize how important a big toe really is. I say that knowing there are people who survive and thrive after much greater, more dramatic, more traumatic injuries and after losing whole limbs. Therefore with that perspective in mind, losing a big toe or any toe is not a complete disaster. The toe is not as indispensable as I’m making it seem. Yet, our big toes help our bodies function. Even though we can live without them, in an ideal world every toe is indispensable.
Of all the metaphors that Paul employs, his image of the body as a way to see and understand the church is one of the most profound.
“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.”
Paul was writing to a church divided. The church in Corinth was struggling with many issues of contention. One that was especially divisive was the idea of superior and inferior members. If you remember the first 11 verses of this chapter that were read last week, Paul addressed the Corinthians on their understanding of spiritual gifts. “Now there are varieties of gifts. But the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord.”
When I read these words, I can’t help but picture the Corinthians pointing fingers at one another and saying, “My gifts are better than your gifts.” They seemed to think that there was a hierarchy when it came to spiritual gifts. Perhaps preaching and teaching were at the top. Or maybe they believed that the gift of healing outranked the gift of encouragement. Either way, Paul debunked their understanding. All spiritual gifts, whatever they may be, were given by the same God. The Corinthians were using their gifts against one another. But Paul told them, emphatically, that their gifts – all their gifts – were given to them to be used for the common good.
Paul pressed this point with his use of the body metaphor. Bodies are made up of many different members. But all of these different members make up the whole body. Then, to make sure he got their attention, he added the words, “so it is with Christ.”
We are all baptized into one body. Whatever our differences of race, ethnicity or status, we are baptized into one body through the same Spirit. Because of this, we need each other. Again, using the image of the body, Paul wrote,
“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.’”
To emphasize this, Paul stretched the analogy into the ridiculous, painting an image of a body made up of all ears or all eyes. Every part of the body, even those parts that seem to be weaker are needed and necessary. The parts of the body that seem lacking in honor are clothed with greater honor. The parts of the body that seem lacking in respect are given greater respect. If one member of the body suffers, all members of the body suffer. I used to get strep throat a lot as a kid, and believe me, when my throat hurt my whole body hurt. In the same way if one member of the body rejoices, all members rejoice. Every part of the body is needed. Every part of the body is necessary. This is not a competition. In Paul’s metaphor, there is no such thing as a dispensable toe.
This is one heck of a powerful metaphor. I go round and round with Paul on many things, but this metaphor is brilliant. But let’s remember that Paul was not merely encouraging a group of disparate people to get along. He was reminding them and powerfully so that they were the church – the body of Christ.
I have preached on this passage several times over the past 20 years. I have read it even more. It is frequently used in other aspects of church life to address the issue that the church is supposed to be in unity. We are not called to uniformity, but we are called to unity. Paul’s metaphor is about living in community with one another; working together for the common good.
Yes, this is all true. The church needs all of us and all of our gifts. But here is something I hadn’t really considered much before. Paul called the church the body of Christ. That’s one of those statements that is so well-known and familiar to us that I think we forget its meaning. We are part of the body of Christ in the world. In other words we are part of the incarnation. Jesus was the incarnation of God into the world. It stands to reason then, that we as Christ’s body continue the incarnation. In this season of Epiphany, the church as the body of Christ should serve as revelation of God’s glory to the world.
But do we? What do we reveal to the world? Do we reveal unity? Do we reveal love? Do we reveal compassion and wisdom and kindness? There are times when the answer to these questions is, “Yes.” But there are also times when the answer to these same questions is a resounding, “No!” In this country, and around the world, many people look at Christians – Christ’s body in the world – and see nothing but enmity, injustice, intolerance, crippling pride, and cruelty rather than compassion. I think so many of us in the church talk about ourselves as Christ’s body but we forget that a body is embodied. We are the visible sign of Christ in the world. We are part of the incarnation.
Yikes! That is tough to hear, because I know how often I fail in my call to be a part of that revelation and incarnation. I know I am not alone in this. The truth is the church has always been made up of a motley crew of sinners. Jesus entrusted his gospel and good news to a band of followers who never really got it right while he lived. When the Holy Spirit came upon them, they found their voice and they found their courage. But even then they were still a motley crew of outsiders and odd ducks. So it continues to this day. We are a motley crew. We are a group of sinners who come together to be the church, not because we get it right, but because God is gracious. It is God’s grace that makes us the church. It is God’s grace that works through us in spite of ourselves. It is God’s grace that makes us the church. No matter how bad we can be at being the church, we are still needed and necessary to the ongoing incarnation of God’s love in the world. No matter how badly we fail at this, at being the church, God’s grace does not.
We are the body of Christ. And we are all necessary to the body of Christ. Let’s take that a little closer to home. Let’s look at how the body of Christ is manifested and made visible in Shawnee, Oklahoma. It would seem that with all the hundred plus churches in Shawnee, there are a lot of hands and eyes and ears. There are a lot of big, important members of the body around here. But at the risk of offending some, I think perhaps we are the big toe. We’re small. We’re struggling. We are trying to discern what comes next. I know that many of us would like to work up to being a hand or an eye or an ear. Even a forearm would be nice. Let’s face it big toes are not glamorous. Unlike hair, no one comments on the long and flowing big toe. Unlike the neck, no one remarks about the graceful line of the big toe. No, the big toe is far from glamorous. But without the big toe, the rest of the body loses its balance. Without the big toe, the rest of the body limps. Perhaps we are the big toe of Shawnee. But that does not make us any less necessary. We are needed. We are members of the body, and I wonder if our call right now is not to become another body part but to celebrate our big toeness and to do what only a big toe can do. What are our gifts? How do we keep this community balanced and walking? We may be the big toe, but believe me, every toe is an indispensable toe.
Let all of God’s children (and toes) say “Alleluia!”

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