Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Our Body of Christ

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
January 27, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: 1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a   

Paul, when he wrote this body metaphor of 1 Corinthians should have spent time talking about hips. He talks about all those notable parts of the body: eyes, ears, hands, feet. He talks about the obvious. No one thinks about hips. Unless, (unless) you have ever had hip surgery, then you know just how important the hip is. The hip is an essential joint that keeps the whole body together. We need to praise anything that keeps the whole body together. Not only that, hips support the trunk of the body, the back, the spine, the head. Hips seem to work in the background, unless you dance. Then, hips are important for dancing, which may be why we clothe them. Dancing hips might just get too sultry or if you ask my teenage sons about my dancing, (Pastor McCarty’s teenage sons about his dancing) too silly, too embarrassing. Most of the time for most people, dancing aside, hips are just there. 

Paul should have mentioned hips, because hips find ways of becoming useful. Hips find ways of being useful that may not match their original intent. Have you ever held a child on your hip. Maybe you were doing something with your right hand, and the child is a little older, a little heavier, but still of an age that wants to be held. So the left arm holds the child and the hip helps. 

Have you ever opened the door with a hip? I open doors often with my hip, especially when I am grilling outside and my hands are full with plates and spatulas and foods and seasonings. Open the door with your hip; close the door with your foot. One of my sons (Pastor McCarty’s son) when he was maybe five years old was helping carry things outside for a picnic and went to open the screen door with his hip, and crack went the safety glass. It cracked, broken, but did not fall apart—no shards, no jagged edges to cut him, thankfully. He was upset, but we laughed it off because we knew exactly how he learned to open doors with his hip.

Have you ever blocked a doorway with your hip? Either to get someone’s attention, to keep them from walking by you, or to keep them out of the room, or out of the house. Hips have a knack for finding ways to be useful to the whole body. God did not make hips to hold things. God did not make hips to open or close doors. Maybe hips were intended to block entrances—maybe. Hips, however, recognize they do not serve themselves, they serve the entire body. They hold the body together and, not only that, hips have developed creative ways over the years to make themselves useful beyond what God intended their purpose to be. Yet, we clothe the hip. Maybe you even find it awkward to talk about hips, to hear about hips.

Here in 1 Corinthians, when Paul takes Aesop’s fable and crafts it for the sake of the church, he would have been well served by the hip. This is one of Aesop’s fables by the way. You remember Aesop, from your elementary school days. I think most of us have read Aesop’s fables at some point during our childhood. Perhaps you have read them to children or grandchildren. Remember the story of “The Lion and the Mouse.” 

The Lion catches a passing Mouse and the mouse promises the lion if he will not eat her, one day she will repay the kindness. The lion laughs amused at the thought of how a mere mouse could benefit him, but lets her go just the same. Some time passes and hunters ensnare the lion in a net they have left behind. The lion roars in agony, and the mouse returns and eats away at the cords of the net freeing the lion. 

Most of you probably recognize that story—my quick encapsulation of one Aesop’s more famous fables. Paul, in our reading today, takes another fable from Aesop and modifies it for the Christian community. Actually, Paul takes another famous fable of Aesop, but perhaps not as famous today as it once was. Here is one version of Aesop’s telling.

In former days, when all a man’s limbs did not work together as amicably as they do now, but each had a will and a way of its own, the Members generally began to find fault with the Belly for spending an idle luxurious life, while they were wholly occupied in laboring for its support, and ministering to its wants and pleasures; so they entered into a conspiracy to cut off its supplies for the future. The Hands were no longer to carry food to the Mouth, nor the Mouth to receive food, nor the Teeth to chew it.

They had not long persisted in this course of starving the Belly into subjection, ere they all began, one by one, to fail and flag, and the whole body to pine away. Then the Members were convinced that the Belly also, cumbersome and useless as it seemed, had an important function of its own; they could no more do without it than it could do without them; and that if they would have the constitution of the body in a healthy state, they must work together, each in his proper sphere, for the common good of all.

Manuel Komroff, who compiled this version with other stories of Aesop, calls this story “The Belly And It’s Members” but others call this “The Body Politic.” The story over the years before and after Paul has a long history of use and study. The story may originate 1500 years before Christ in Hindu culture. Besides Aesop, the Body Politic metaphor has been used by Plato, Aristophanes, Cicero, and Livy before St. Paul and then Plutarch, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Shakespeare, and Thomas Milton after Paul. Some used the metaphor, while others abused the metaphor, like Henry the Eighth who described himself as the head of the church. Though Henry was not alone in this abuse as others used the metaphor to defend a king’s or a pope’s position as the divinely ordained head of the body, a notion that our Lutheran Reformation challenged.

Paul’s version of the Body Politic seeks to curb one of the abuses of the fable. We all have this desire to pick and choose what part of the body we represent. The head and the belly were once two popular choices. Menenius Agrippa described the Roman Senate, of which he was apart, as the belly. Shakespeare has Agrippa explain this to plebes and laborers who did the manual work. Henry Eighth described himself as the head of church and country. Even without such lofty ambitions, most of us want to be something mentionable: a hand, an eye, or ears, or the strong chin of the church. Few want to be the hip or the thigh or the feet of the church. It is like the old vaudeville, the old theater joke of the horse costume. Two actors have to don a horse costume and both want to be the head, neither wants to be the (pause) backend.

Paul warns about these problems: Parts of the body trying to be something that they are not. And parts of the body trying to separate themselves from other parts that are not like them. People want the power to name and label, to say you are a foot, or a hand, or an eye, or the nose, all of which misses the point. The gift of Paul’s fable comes when you see all parts of the body as essential, so that the label matters not. Which is to say that you are more than a foot, or you are more than a hand, more than an eye, or more than a hip. Whatever part of the body you might be does not really matter. You are powerfully part of the whole body, and the whole body together is a pretty amazing thing? The whole body of Christ, of which you are a part, is a remarkable thing.

I suspect you want to think of yourself as an individual member first and as part of the body second. Such individualism often tempts us as the heresy of the day. Instead of this individualism, Paul asks you to first recognize your place is in the body of Christ. Your baptism makes you a part of this congregation and a member of the body of Christ. This happens before anything else that defines who you are. Before anything else, your presence here in this worship defines you and gives you both purpose and nourishment. What does Paul say? “We are all given the one Spirit to drink.” Which is to say you are nourished by a holy word the feeds you and a holy meal, the Lord’s Supper, that makes real your presence in the body of Christ. It is like this worship is the belly that gets nourishment out to the members of the body.

Also, you participate in the care of the whole body. Recognize from Paul’s metaphor that Paul expects the whole body to welcome other members of the body. “The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” When you hear that, (when you hear that) we all are members of the evangelism committee. That truth lies with what Paul talks about here. Caring for the whole body includes making the entire body feel welcomed and necessary. Reminding one another that they are an important part of the body. We clothe hips and yet hips hold the whole body together. May that be said of all of us.

The care of the whole body is where the hip metaphor works well. Every congregation has tasks that are hard to fill: maybe counting offering, maybe teaching Sunday school, maybe social ministry or stewardship committees. Like a hip helping a left arm hold a child, we find ways to serve the body based on what the body needs at the time. Just like hips holding a child. Frankly other parts of the body find creative ways to help out. Have you ever pushed a button with your elbow or with your nose, because your hands held too much? You once used your hands to crawl, because your legs and feet were weak. The human body is amazing and amazingly adaptable, and so too is the body of Christ.

The Body of Christ gathered here today and around the world finds wonderful ways to amaze us. And Paul reminds us the “God has combined members of the body…, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.” I repeat this to you recognizing, confessing what Paul says in Colossians 1:18: The head of our body, this body, is indeed Christ our savior. Amazingly, Christ has bound himself with our weakness. Frankly we should all be clothed. We all deserve these clothes we wear, and yet Christ has bound himself to us in one and only one body. We call that mercy, forgiveness, grace.

Just as remarkable, Christ allows his glory to be seen in us. Christ has a lot of glory and it shines in you because of the hip. Today Christ allows his glory to fall upon the hips like a child being held there and the hips shake and dance rejoicing. Even though we clothe them, hips are amazing, for all the reasons I mentioned above. And as Christ’s glory falls upon the hips, the whole body, even though it finds a need to clothe the hip, dances rejoicing and the whole body is honored. Which is to say that His Glory rests as well on you and in you as a member of this remarkable, amazing body of Christ. 


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Baptism By Fire

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
January 13, 2019
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts: Isaiah 43: 1-7   Luke 3: 15-22

I heard this joke this week preparing for today. "Man comes to church early in the week and pleads, “Pastor, I have never been baptized. I need to be baptized. I need to be baptized this Sunday.” Pastor looks out the window and says, “Jack, It’s January. We will probably have to chop ice off the river to find a good spot.” 

They do full immersion at this church, outside, an important detail to the joke as you will hear in a minute.

“I can’t wait Pastor. Jesus doesn’t want me to wait any longer.”

“Jack it’s snowing.”

That’s okay Pastor I can take a little cold for Jesus.

Sunday comes and the men of the church cut ice out of the river to create a baptistery of flowing water. The Pastor puts on his hip waders, grits his teeth, and steps into the river. Here comes Jack wearing swimming trunks beneath a white baptismal robe and golashes that go up to his knees. Grinning from ear to ear, until he steps into the water. "Brrrrrr"

Pastor takes Jack and dunks him once, “I baptize you in the name of the Father.” Jack comes up wet, shivering and teeth chattering. "Brrrr."

“And I baptize you in the name of the Son.” Pastor takes Jack and dunks him a second time. "Brrr." Jack comes up wet, shivering and teeth chattering.

Pastor goes to dunk Jack the third time, and Jack locks up and resists.

“No, no Pastor, I can take Father and I can take Jesus but I can't take the Holy Spirit.”

In our Gospel lesson this morning, John talks about the one who is coming. One coming with power. One who will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Maybe that joke gives an idea what baptism with fire might be like--like being baptized in a freezing river on a snowy day in January. You could do it, but would you want to do it.

Baptism by fire, undoubtedly you have heard the term before. We often use the term to talk about a new recruit being thrown into a high stress situation. Captain Roger Sankerdial in Queens New York was still a recruit in training at the police academy when the twin towers went down. Looking back he talks about his baptism by fire. Recruits were placed on traffic detail throughout NYC that September day--all hands on deck. Turning two-way streets into one-way streets out and creating access lanes for first responders trying to get to ground zero. He tells it this way: 

That first night I worked all night: 17 hours, maybe. It looked like it was snowing with the dust and soot gathering on our hats, and we’d brush each other off regularly. Whenever I had a break I’d wash my face and put water in my hair, just to get the grey out of it. I coughed a lot.

From “Baptism by Fire: A NYPD Recruit Shares His 9/11 Story” by Adam Janos on aetv.com. 8 September 2017.

Captain Sankerdial’s story is an interesting one and I will post it on our church’s facebook page for those who are interested. Baptism with fire, by fire is a spiritual term that comes in part from this Gospel verse. Mennonites talk about Baptism and Fire. Some of their early practitioners were burned at the stake for heresy. They became martyrs to a new expression of Christ. Baptism by fire did not require dying for the faith so much as the willingness not to back down from your beliefs when the persecution loomed real. You could do it, maybe, but you are never really sure until such a moment arises.

This Spirit (this Holy Fire) changes you and brings about justice and burns the chaff. Some people hear the burning of the chaff and think this points to eternal fires of torment. But no, again I say no, this use by John tells about the Holy Spirit burning you with a Holy fire, a nurturing fire. Sometimes a good fire can serve just as nurturing a purpose as a good rainfall.

Author Cindy Schreuder offers this description of a prairie fire from the front page of the Chicago Tribune in 1995:

Pushed forward by the wind, the flames raced across the prairie. Thick, dead grass stalks wavered for just a moment before buckling and falling into the flames.
Nineteenth-century settlers spoke of the violence of the burns, their noise, heat, power and attraction. They are reactions modern-day scientists share. “A prairie fire is something like a great thunderstorm—you experience the raw power of nature,” said [Stephen Packard, science director for the Nature Conservancy, Illinois]. “After you’ve burned it off, nothing is left. It’s so pure. Every leaf that emerges is new and shiny and wet. Every flower petal is perfect. It reminds you of being young.”

From “Science of the Seasons: Spring the Miracle of Renewal”in the Chicago Tribune, 24 May 1995. 

We need that in the church that which makes of feel young again.

The Holy Spirit also burns with fire. And as this gospel passage is all about a Holy Fire—Holy H-O-L-Y—that also cannot be quenched. The Holy Spirit that flutters upon Jesus in bodily form. A Holy Spirit that we associate with baptism. We often think of Baptism by Water, but going back to baptism by fire I will tell you more of Captain Sankerdial. He was a 31 year old cadet in the police academy. His family immigrated to New York Guyana when he was 5 years old. He served a stint of active duty in the Marines and then became a claims adjustor for an insurance company. When his company downsized, he took a buyout and a 50 percent pay cut and became a police officer. He talks about what it was like to be 31 years old and at school again, police academy.

I was about 10 years older than most of the other recruits. I was even older than my instructor.  Some of the other recruits thought the academy was tough and they’d complain. It flowed better for me than for a lot of the others. I loved it. I savored every moment of it.

From “Baptism by Fire: A NYPD Recruit Shares His 9/11 Story” by Adam Janos on aetv.com. 8 September 2017.

Maybe not young again, but the experience energized him. Fire, energy, power. That is the Holy Spirit in your life.

Baptism by fire, like being baptized in a cold river on a snowy January day. Or being a new recruit responding to the call to show up in New York City when two  iconic buildings have come crashing to the ground. Or being told to either deny your faith or perish. You could do it, but do you want to do it.

With your baptism and in your baptism here at this font you accept Jesus. As you remember, I hope fondly, that you are baptized, you accept Jesus. The fire starts to come as you allow Jesus to change your life. When you let the chaff of weakness and disruption and sin burn away. 

Perhaps one of the hardest things that Jesus teaches us to do is pray for our enemies. Do you remember Stephen’s prayer when he was stoned to death. “Lord do not hold this sin against them.” Much like Jesus prayer from the cross, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they do.”

Philip Yancey in his study on prayer ponders what might happen if every church in America took the name of one member of Al-Qaeda and prayed for them. How might that change the world? How might God use all of those prayers to bring peace in the world?

Or another example, not really enemies, I hope, but it feels like that at times. What if everyone took a member of congress, or the senate who is not of the political party they affiliate with and prayed for them by name regularly. If you are a democrat, pray for a republican. If you are a republican, then pray for a democrat. And do not use prayers with an edge, like “wake them up” or “get a clue.” Offer genuine prayers for their health and their well being. Thank God for them and their service. Pray for their family and their staff and their constituents. How might that change us?

Is that ministry of prayer like being baptized in the river, ice cold water on January? Something that you could do, but do you really want to do it.

And while we pray for those who make us unsettled, annoy us, and drive us crazy, maybe we can offer a prayer for those people we annoy. Those people who don’t like us, we can pray for them while they pray for us. We can pray like we are the tax collectors.

I love it that tax collectors and soldiers came to John in the wilderness. And you just know that some of them met Jesus there. Jesus the one who has the Holy Spirit and power and fire. Some of them accepted Jesus. Some of them allowed Jesus to change their life. Zacchaeus comes to mind, Luke chapter 19.

I give thanks that you accept Jesus and these words on this cold, cold, day. And I pray for your safety and your well being. I pray for the ways in which Jesus changes your life and even at times takes over your life, as unsettling as that might be.