The week after Christmas, Jill, the kids, and I were in Arkansas visiting family. On Saturday afternoon, my fifteen year old son and his fifteen year old cousin challenged my brother and me to a one hundred yard race on the old high school track. I was wearing jeans and hiking shoes. I hadn’t stretched. And I hadn’t run so much as a furlong in over two years.
Five or six steps into the race, just as I was hitting my stride, my body failed. My hip flexor popped, my left leg buckled, and I fell to the asphalt track hard on my left side. In my imagination, I did a graceful barrel role, something like a Green Beret might do, or a gymnast. To Jill, who was watching with a mixture of humor and horror, it looked like a full-speed face plant. The only redeemable moment came when my daughter Eliza ran up to check on me. As I sat on the track, dazed and woozy, she said, “Daddy, right up until you fell, you were winning!”
For the next three weeks I cursed various parts of my body. I disparaged my leg for buckling. I lamented my left hand that wouldn’t grip my coffee mug, I growled at the bruised rib that made me wince every time I sneezed or coughed. These various parts of my body, so valuable to me when they did my bidding as expected, were embarrassments to me once they’d failed.
In Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians this morning, he talks about the body and its various constituent parts, using the body, of course, as a metaphor for the Church and all its members. Paul talks about the ways in which each part of the body has a role to play, whether seeing or hearing, walking or gripping. Each part of the body adds something that the others lack, and so each part is valuable.
We read Paul wrongly, however, if we calculate that value only, or even primarily, by utility. The apostle is not saying the ear is valuable because it hears, or the eye is valuable because it sees. If he were, then a blind eye could be plucked out or a weakened limb severed, without diminishing the whole. And when we recall that the body is a metaphor for our community, the implication for us if we are among the weakened parts is ominous. Indeed, the modern world has seen its fair share of horrors when communities value their members only by their utility.
Rather, Paul says that the eye is valuable simply because it is part of the body. It is a constituent part of the whole, and as such it has inherent worth. Be it a bulging bicep or a little toe, without any singular part something is missing, the body is incomplete. That is the Church, and thank God it is. We are, each one of us, precious: The aged and the young, men and women, Spanish-speakers and English-speakers, the corporate CEO and the clerk of the mailroom, the encouragers and the complainers, the joyous and the discouraged, the healthy and the hurting.
Do you realize how rare this is? Where else in this world of utility, in which our educational system and our economy increasingly value us only by what we can produce and do…Where else in this world of estrangement, in which relationships are increasingly shallow, if they exist at all…Where else do we find a community that says “You are valuable, period. You are cherished—before you’ve done anything or despite anything you’ve done—you are cherished simply because you are, and are here.” Where else but in this home of the broken, this hospital for sinners, this Body of Christ, this Church.
Were that all, it would be Good News. But it’s not all. We also have the words of Jesus today, when he returns to the worship community of his hometown, when he speaks among his own circle for the first time in the fullness of his power. Today, for the first time, Jesus takes on the role of the body’s voice. And he says, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “I bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind. I come to declare the favor of God.”
In other words, as important as it is first to cherish the body, the body then has work to do! Ours is the work God created us to do from the beginning, which was proclaimed by the ancient prophet; and fulfilled by Jesus; and is continued by Jesus’ only body on this earth, Jesus’ only hands and feet, those of us who gather here to read these words and heed this voice.
You see, we really are the Body, the Body of Christ. We are the ones called to fulfill the scripture again and again and again—everyday—to use the collective wisdom and strength of this Body to release those who are captive to the demons of this world, to bind up the brokenhearted, to grant new sight to those who live in darkness. And this is not a metaphor. We are the ones to proclaim the Lord’s favor wherever we are and wherever we go, and most especially through the ministries of this cathedral.
We can forget all of this. We can forget that we are the Body of Christ, Christ’s only body on this earth. We can forget that each member of this Body—each one—is inherently precious. We can forget that we are called to use our collective hands and feet to release the captive, to use our collective voice to proclaim God’s love to a hurting world. We can forget that his body, like all bodies, was created to stretch and move, and that if it doesn’t, this body, like any body, will wither and atrophy. We can forget and often do forget. Indeed, the Christian church at Corinth had forgotten, which is why Paul wrote them his letter and crafted this beautiful metaphor in the first place. But oh, when we remember…
Alister MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief tells the story of the hardscrabble MacDonald clan of Nova Scotia, transplanted Scots whose labor is used and used up by the world around them, who cleave closely together in their feeling of estrangement both from their Scottish origins and their adopted home. The MacDonalds understand what it is to live as one body. At one point, the novel’s narrator tells the story of a group of MacDonalds who venture into the woods to cut down a tree:
“They went into a tightly packed grove of spruce down by the shore. In the middle of the grove, they saw what they thought was the perfect tree. It was tall and straight and over thirty feet high. They notched it as they had been taught and then they sawed it with a bucksaw. [But] when they had sawed it completely through, nothing happened. The tree’s upper branches were so densely intertwined with those of the trees around it that it just remained standing. There was no way it could be removed or fall unless the whole grove was cut down. It remained that way for years. Perhaps it is still there. When the wind blew, the whole grove would move and sigh. Because all of the trees were evergreen they never lost their foliage, and the supporting trees extended their branches every year. If you walked by the grove…you would never realize that in its midst there was a tall straight tree that was severed at its stump.”[i]
That’s a variation of the metaphor worthy of Paul himself, and what better image could there possibly be for Christ Church Cathedral? We are one body; we are one grove. At some time or another, we are each sawed clean through. But even then we are each precious. When any one of us cannot stand, severed at the very base, the others of us extend our branches so that we all remain upright. The wind may blow, but together the canopy will hold. We stand together, linked arm-in-arm as the Body of Christ, the Church of God. And, God willing, we extend protection and shade to the brokenhearted in this world, that they, too, may know love and joy.
[i] MacLeod, Alistair. No Great Mischief, 239.