Our neighbor—I’ll call her Rachel—brought her daughter over to play with Eliza one afternoon. The girls (who are first-grade classmates) scurried off to play. Rachel followed my spouse Jen and me into the kitchen. The conversation started light-heartedly but quickly went deeper—into her struggles with her five children, her aging father, and her significant other, who was filled with anger and drinking too much. We don’t know Rachel that well so it was a bit awkward. I realized, though, as the tears sprang to her eyes, that she was simply desperate to talk to someone outside of the tense and increasingly toxic environment in her household. Tangled up in these painful family dynamics was the stress of an impossible financial situation. Rachel had been homeless a few years back and had worked hard to make the transition into stable housing and a job driving a bus. She was in school, looking forward to gaining certification as a chemical dependency counselor. Meanwhile, she said, she was earning something like $200 a week. And all of her partner’s wages were being garnished to cover child support payments he owed. The bills they couldn’t pay were piling up.
I just stood there, listening, overwhelmed by the monumental scale of the struggle in her life. This encounter makes me aware of a tension. On the one hand, I feel a sense of alienation. I recognize that there is a fundamental difference between Rachel’s experience of the world and mine. Our daughter came home from playing at their house one day noting the differences. She realized, for instance, that her friend sleeps on the floor. She doesn’t have a bed. In our house, on the other hand, we just don’t have to worry about stuff like that. Of course, poverty and wealth is about far more than having or not having material things. The truth is, I have riches that I can’t sell or give away, advantages that will always be with me: the color of my skin, the lack of trauma in my early years, the excellent education I was given… just to name a few things.
Even as I recognize that there is a divide between Rachel and me, I also know that we are bound together. As she stood there in my kitchen with her eyes fixed on mine, I felt it. We are connected. We are related. This sense of kinship was not a warm fuzzy feeling. It was a deeply distressing moment of clarity about the fact that my comfort and her suffering are not innocently separate; they have a direct correspondence to one another. It’s like Dr. King said, in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
In a real sense all life is inter-related. All [humans] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be…. This is the inter-related structure of reality.
In I Corinthians, Paul writes: “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 goes on to stress the unique contribution each member makes to the whole. No one member is more important than another. The body simply cannot function without diversity. “If the whole body were an eye,” Paul points out, “where would the hearing be? Nor, can the body work if it is not unified. The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’”
New Testament Professor Brian Peterson offers some helpful context to our hearing of this passage:
The image of the body as a communal reality is not unique to Paul…. Other writers in the Roman world (especially politicians and philosophers) used the same image. Most often, it was used to support the social hierarchy (whether of the family, or the city, or the empire as a whole). The point was that every body needs a head, and in society that was provided by the wealthy, the rulers, and the elite. Every body needs hands and feet to do the hard and dirty work, and that was provided in society by just about everyone else. Paul, while drawing on the same image, turns the point in a very different direction. The unity of the body does not, in fact, mean that the less honored members get abused and treated roughly; rather, all the parts belong to one another, and therefore the “weak” parts are treated with special care. The end result of the body metaphor in Paul’s hands is not the same old hierarchy, or even the inverse of that culturally expected pattern of domination with new people placed on the top, but a deep unity of the whole body, with each part cared for by the others.
Paul comes to the counterintuitive conclusion that the “members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” In other words, the body, to become whole, and healthy, particularly needs to honor the humanity, and the gifts, of those with less power, wealth, or status. Jesus, in his opening sermon in Luke, declares that his mission, is to liberate these weaker members of the body—to free those held captive by the dehumanizing traumas of poverty. Jesus’ body, his very being, is the fulfillment of a longing that is as ancient as the Dead Sea Scrolls and as fresh as this morning’s newspaper. The prophet Isaiah calls this deep unity for which we long “the year of God’s favor.” This is a reference to a practice prescribed in the laws of the Hebrew scriptures. “The year of God’s favor,” also known as the jubilee, is supposed to take place on each fiftieth year. In the jubilee year, all debts would be forgiven, slaves would be freed, and everyone would return to their ancestral lands.
This weekend, our new General Minister and President of the UCC, John Dorhauer, visited us here in Minnesota. I met him at an event on Friday evening and listened to him speak yesterday at United Theological Seminary. Wow. I am amazed by his vision for our church, and the thoughtful, careful way the national staff is creating on-the-ground strategies to make it real. I know that his address was recorded and I will get it out to you once it is available. I hope that every single person in our church will take the time to listen. It’s that important. “The Spirit,” he said, “envisions a future in which the United Church of Christ matters…. The church must be on the move or it is not the church…. It is always about calling out and sending forth, not gathering in and hunkering down…. We must ask, what do we bring to the world that the Holy Spirit will continue to invest in?” You can hear in these quotes that the Spirit of God is the key actor in Rev. Dorhauer’s leadership of our church. Through the Spirit, God is present, God is active, God is guiding.
He hears the Spirit saying that we matter, as the United Church of Christ, because of the aspect of the Gospel we embody in the world that would otherwise be in danger of diminishment or extinction. Our birth narrative is summed up in the words of the dying Christ, who prayed, in the Gospel of John, “that they may all be one.” Our unique character as a church is a passion for unity, a yearning for partnership, an impulse toward extravagant welcome, a capacity to love across enormous differences. The spirit is calling us to lead the way, to show the world how to be one—not just with other Christians, but with the whole cosmos. The survival of the planet depends upon it. This is what the Spirit is doing, Rev. Dorhauer says, and it is up to us to cooperate. There are many things we will need to let go of in order to walk this path with the spirit—including the ways our church has been built to maintain white privilege.
The body of Christ holds our human alienation together with our mutuality. Inhabiting this relational space is painful and confusing. We cannot dissolve the discomfort and tension that comes with recognizing the gulfs between us. We cannot simply erase all that informs our divergent experiences of the world. When Rachel stood in my kitchen and poured out her story, a familiar feeling of frustration came over me. I could listen, I could support, I could share a bit of money when things were really tight. But what could we do together that would really alleviate her situation of poverty, or my situation of unearned advantage? How are we to move toward genuine liberation? I believe that this very struggle, as painful as it is, is exactly where we need to be. We are the body of Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God is upon us to heal us, to create from our discord and division a unity that honors our diversity, and to keep us on the move toward the vision of jubilee for all creation.