3 Epiphany C—1/27/19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
Pr. Scott Kramer
My wife bought me this Chinese jacket on our recent visit to be with her family in China. On the sleeves are embroidered two cranes, a magnificent bird that looks a bit like our local blue heron. Cranes in Chinese tradition symbolize long life.
Over the past 30 years, there is a different kind of crane that has made an appearance in China, and that is the construction crane. Year after year on our family visits, I have never ceased to be amazed by the number of buildings going up across China.
Some of these are businesses and hotels. The vast majority, though, are residential—large clusters of towering buildings, packed together, sometimes apparently out in the middle of nowhere.
Many of us have at least some experience of living in multi-family dwellings, even if they aren’t skyscrapers. My wife and I have lived most of our lives in such buildings. We only bought our first and only house when we moved to Lakeridge 15 years ago.
If you live in an apartment or a condo, one of the things you can’t escape is your neighbors. You are literally wall to wall, floor to ceiling, physically connected to one another’s living spaces.
Those of us in single-family houses have the luxury of yards and fences and streets that give us space. We like our space. We like our privacy. And yet, our scriptures offer us a chance to reflect on such cultural values as space and privacy and see how they stack up against spiritual values.
In today’s reading, St. Paul writes: Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. There is no privacy for body parts that are working together. There is no space between them. My leg does not float by itself out in thin air but is connected by joints and muscles and other living tissues, by veins and arteries, to the rest of the body–as that old children’s song many of us have heard, and maybe sung: The toe bone connected to the heel bone, The heel bone connected to the foot bone, The foot bone connected to the leg bone. Without these connections, any body part is not only useless…but dead.
So, what is God saying to us through St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church–we’re all supposed to work together, and get along, and just be one big happy family? Is that what’s going on here? Well, Paul goes into quite a bit of detail about how we are connected to and need one another. On some level, we might all agree with this. In fact, we may not even need God’s help in believing in these connections. But listen to what Paul says next:
The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.
Paul of course is speaking of the church. “Church,” however, in the life of faith is not the goal but the beginning of a conversation. How does what we hear and practice as a faith community on Sunday and beyond translate into our life in the world?
In light of today’s readings, we might first ponder what “weaker” might mean, and start with categories of power: age, class, race, economic circumstances, sexuality. Which among these in our world has less power: young or old, rich or poor, white or people of color, gay or straight, housed or unhoused, able-bodied or disabled?
We at Lakeridge Lutheran have a special opportunity in the first quarter of this year to explore what God might be teaching us in our own backyard—or, as the case may be, parking lot (Tent City 3)—about power relationships.
One of the privileges for people with more power is treating those who don’t have that power as charity cases. Charity is important, but it is not the same as social justice. When Paul speaks of giving greater honor to the “inferior” member, what do you think—is he speaking of charity…or justice? Of giving handouts—or of reorganizing our laws, and attitudes, and priorities?
One day, Jesus returned to his hometown and on Saturday he went to church. Actually, he was Jewish so he went to synagogue (!), and there he was the reader for the day. We are told that he was given the scroll from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free.
This is considered by many to be Jesus’ “inaugural address,” the passage that set the tone and summed up his public ministry, which would unfold over the next 2-3 years.
What do you think good news to the poor would be? If you’ve been poor, or are poor, you probably have a better idea than the rest of us. What would good news be? Just tough it out in this life. You have heaven to look forward to. Would that be good news? No. Or, how about: Congratulations, you’ve won the lottery! Well, that might be good news for the poor!…but, do you have the power to make that happen?
No, the good news that Jesus speaks of is not mere happy talk or optimism–or even good intentions. He’s speaking of transformation: Good news for blind people, he assures us, means sight. Good news for captives, he asserts, means release from captivity. Those of us “respectable people” do have power—as well as a gospel obligation and opportunity–to proclaim good news through attitudes, action, and priorities.
We do, for example, have the opportunity as a society to proclaim good news to the poor by providing universal health care. That’s not optimism or happy talk; that’s concrete!
Now, I personally don’t need universal health care. I don’t need affordable housing. Maybe you don’t need such things, either. St. Paul acknowledges as much, when he says that “our more respectable members do not need this.” It’s one way of saying, “When did the gospel become about serving the interests of the so-called respectable people—people with a roof over their heads, and with health insurance?” The members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect…God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.
What would our society look like if we actually believed these teachings? How might our personal lives—our hearts, our votes, our relationships—how might these be transformed by the practice of such teachings? What if our new parking lot neighbors, for example–those whom society has judged “less respectable”–have been sent by God into our neighborhoods and into our lives, not merely as recipients of charity, but as ambassadors of God’s love, and even…as our teachers?