Sunday, January 27, 2013

Growing and Shaping the Body of Christ

A sermon for January 27, 2013

I was at an anniversary celebration at St. John’s in the Village Thursday night, where the Rector was celebrating his 25th anniversary as rector of that parish, and Bishop Dietsche was the preacher. He told a wonderful story about going upstate to a shop that sells old wood for reuse—he and his brother are both amateur woodworkers, as it turns out. The owner of the shop pointed out some big wooden arches to them and asked if they noticed anything special about them. They looked at them for a while and then suddenly said simultaneously, “The grain curves with the wood!”. And then they were perplexed—how did someone do that? I guess—Bishop Dietsche explained this better than I can—that to get curved wood, normally you need to slice it into slivers and laminate it. These huge arches were not laminated—the grain curved perfectly in the shape of the arch.

The owner was happy to enlighten the Dietsche brothers. These arches came from a Buddhist temple in China, built around 1800, and taken apart, presumably, as part of the cultural revolution. The arches were made from trees planted by the monks around 1600 and shaped as they grew so that when they were ready for harvest—200 years after planting—they could build the temple. 

Talk about long term planning. Bishop Dietsche talked about how what fascinated him were not necessarily the monks who planted the trees—that must have been a very exciting time—or the monks who harvested the trees—what an honor to be reaping the benefits of generations of work—but rather, the monk who was taking care of them around 1700—right in the middle. That monk didn’t get the excitement of starting the project or finishing it, but he was entrusted with tending the trees so that there could be a harvest sometime in the future. 

Bishop Dietsche pointed out that all of us in the church today are like that monk. We have been entrusted with a church. We didn’t start it—and I’m not sure if I’d say we have a 2000 year old church beginning with Jesus, or a 475 year old church beginning with Henry VIII, or a 180 year old Church beginning on Stanton Street on the Lower East Side—and we won’t finish it. 

I thought this was a beautiful image for the Church of the Epiphany on the occasion of our Annual meeting. How do we fulfill this sacred trust? How do we make sure that even as we contribute our part in the story—our faithful care of the Tree of Life that is Christ’s church—we always remember that we can only be a part of it because someone before us gave it to us; and that we are responsible for handing it on to people after us.  

Another image that has a similar bent is from our Epistle today: the idea of the church as the Body of Christ. There are many members, and all are dependent upon one another—the heart cannot say that it doesn’t need the liver; the hand cannot say it does not need the foot; and it must work in concert to be healthy. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”  

It makes it reasonable to ask, what part of the Body of Christ are you? In 2007 or 2008, our Vestry did this as an exercise while we were on retreat, and it was a fascinating experience. I put up an outline of a person, we discussed this passage from 1 Corinthians, and then the Vestry members each drew in the part of the body they most identified with. We had a bunch of eyes and a couple mouths; a spine, maybe a foot or hand or two. Someone was the bones. I think there were several brains. (Or was it no brain?)

I’ve got a similar outline for us today as a whole parish instead of just as a Vestry. This isn’t an attempt to create a freakish, Halloween-style monster. But rather, it’s an attempt to have both an individual spiritual epiphany, “Oh, this is where I fit in” as well as a collective sense of who we are. And it’s what allows us to realize that we don’t have to be all the parts of the body at once—as Paul asks in the Epistle, “Are all apostles? Are all teachers? Are all prophets?” We don’t all have to be on the Vestry; or all help with the homeless dinner; or all sing in the choir—but some of us must do all those things for the body to be complete.  

What part are you? I encourage you to think beyond the glamorous parts—who wouldn’t want to say, “I am the hands of the Body of Christ. I do the work of Christ in the world”? but we need a liver, too. We need someone to filter out the impurities in our system. We need lungs—the people who breath in the Spirit and distribute it to the rest of the body. We need arteries and veins, carrying oxygenated blood to our fingers and toes. A heart. A brain. A friend in seminary proclaimed “I am the eyebrow on the body of Christ.” He felt marginalized, but that he was very expressive.  

What gift, or skill, or charism do you bring to the church? What is God calling you to do or be? Are you in the center… on the edge… internal or external… muscular or an organ or a bone? Think back to the last time you took biology and the role and function of all the parts of the body… and name your place. 

It’s been interesting reflecting on this question for myself this week. I think I’m a different part than I was the last time we did this. I see myself right now as the skin. I embrace all the parts. I feel a little exposed sometimes, but also protective. 

I know there are some of you in the congregation who are temperamentally similar to me and who absolutely hate this sort of exercise where you are mandated to do art. But if you’re one of those people, be patient… this is a good thing to do. And you don’t have to. But you can, and it will help us all if you do. So after the service today, take a look, take up a pen, and fill yourself in. Leave your name if possible—that will help. And let’s see what Christ’s Body looks like at Epiphany.

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