November 10, 2019 – Gifts and Talents Sunday
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
I Corinthians 12:12-27
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. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, 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, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.
What shall I call you? It’s one of the first questions I get when people find out what it is I do for a living. What shall I call you? And try as I might over the years to standardize an answer I’m comfortable with, I’ve never actually made it. And so I’ve been called all sorts of things in the last 30 years. Early in my ministry, I was, simply, Reverend Campbell. And then I was Reverend Jim. And then I was Pastor Campbell. And then I was Pastor James. And then I was just James. And then I was Reverend James. And then I was Doctor Campbell. And then I was just James again.
What shall I call you? It’s a loaded question layered with meaning and politics and history. Some people think that the title should always be used as a sign of respect for the office itself. I’m especially conscious of using the title when it comes to my female clergy colleagues, as a way to recognize the struggle women have had in regard to ordination, and the ways that they are still disparaged as somehow being less than. Still others think that titles, in our exceedingly casual society, are off-putting and erect barriers between the people and the clergy who serve them. I’ve also found that titles allow some folks to pigeonhole you, to decide who they think you are or who you ought to be by virtue of that title. So, “What shall I call you?” is a loaded question indeed.
Now, if I am completely honest (and church seems like a good place to do that), at times I can be rather fond of my title. When I was completing my doctoral studies, a retired minister in my congregation in Manhattan, who regularly volunteered in the church office, grew increasingly more uncomfortable as I got closer to graduation. Finally, one day, he blurted out: “We won’t have to call you Dr. Campbell, will we?” And he made this face when he said it. Well, that made me laugh. And I replied. “Dick, I’ll be the same person I have always been. And you and others can continue to call me James. But the letterhead and the business cards, well, that’s another story altogether, and Dr. Campbell I shall be.”
Now perhaps to answer your question – you can call me whatever you like (as long as it’s polite). But I suspect that no matter what you call me or what you call Pastor Alison; no matter how casual or egalitarian you think you’re being, there will still remain a kind of hierarchy in your thinking. Most folks, whether they admit it or not, assume that Alison and I are somehow closer to God or that our work in the church is somehow more important than yours. That kind of thinking is a very old thread in the Christian church, and one that is not easily thrown off just because we call ourselves Congregationalists.
Humans like to order society a certain way. We need to have people at the top and people in the middle and people at the bottom. And the church, although called to be a different kind of community, is more often a mirror of the society in which it exists, rather than an alternative vision to that society.
In the passage that Pastor Alison just read for us, St. Paul famously described the church as the Body of Christ. It’s a wonderful phrase, but the problem is that we’ve heard it so often that I suspect its message of radical interconnectedness no longer connects to us.
Paul says that like the human body, the church is one organism. The head is no good without the hands. And the hands need the big toe. And the big toe needs the ear. Each of these is actually a part of the other. They do not and cannot exist in isolation. And it takes all of these parts, working together, for a body to be fully functional.
Now, for most of my ministry, I have assumed that this analogy was unique to Christianity, our contribution to understanding societal order and human meaning. But proving that you can teach an old dog new tricks, just this week I learned that Paul actually borrowed this idea from popular Roman culture. The great Roman general and statesman, Marcus Agrippa, long before Christ was born, had already made a compelling case using body analogies to talk about the Empire and how it should work. And Paul’s contemporary, the author Plutarch, used body imagery to talk about the levels of Roman society and how they all contributed to the whole. So, there’s nothing uniquely Christian about referring to a group of people as a body. But Paul took that popular Roman idea and infused it with the upside down power of the Gospel.
And here’s what I mean by that. In Rome, the plebeians were thought of as the lowest part of the body – the feet, the toes. And as you went up toward the head, you found the power folks arranged in order of importance – the generals, the patricians, the aristocracy. The head, of course, was Caesar. But Paul uses that body imagery in the opposite direction. He doesn’t just write that all parts have equal value – but also implies something far more radical. He writes: “… 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 greater honor to the inferior members…”
So, this isn’t just an equalizing of everyone, in some sort of Kumbaya moment. This is an upsetting of the power structure that we humans are so fond of.
And this is completely consistent with Jesus’s revolutionary teachings that the first shall be last and the last shall be first and the least among you shall be the greatest. Theologians call this “The Great Reversal.” And Rome rightly understood this radical teaching as a mortal threat to their power and control. And so they killed Jesus. And so they killed Paul. And so they persecuted the early Christians. And so they tried to destroy the message because the message was completely counter-cultural.
Well, the church couldn’t handle this message either, especially as time passed and it came to be more and more identified with the Empire. And the church simply replaced Caesar with its own power structures and hierarchy. We disempowered the people who fill the pews. We disparaged, as secondary or supplemental, the gifts of God that live in you.
When I was preparing for ordination, I had to describe my call to ministry. I had to tell a committee why I believed God had called me to this particular function. We still ask that of candidates for ministry. Having a clear sense of call is one of the marks we look for in someone seeking to be ordained. But being called is not just a clergy thing; it’s a Christian thing.
I once heard a rabbi say that Jewish people were not the chosen people because they were called for special privilege. They were chosen because they were called for special purpose. Callings are about purpose.
So what’s your purpose? What is your calling? What is it that you know how to do that brings you joy? Is it making music? Is it holding babies? Is it cooking a meal? Is it pulling weeds? Is it balancing books? Is it visiting the lonely or the sick? Is it making others laugh? What is your calling?
The great writer and theologian Frederick Buechner was once asked how the average person can find her sense of call from God. And Dr. Buechner, whose gift it is to say profound things simply, replied: You will find your call at “the point where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
In the months to come, as we clarify our purpose and our mission, we will turn more and more of our attention outside of these walls and this institution and into God’s world. We will begin to work more and more as action teams, allowing small groups of us to meet immediate needs as they arise. And in order to do that, we need all the fingers and the toes and the earlobes and appendixes we can get. We need you.
In your bulletin is a piece of paper listing some of the ways that you can use your gifts and talents for God’s work in the world, as well as some space for you to write in something you might be interested in that we didn’t think of. And we’re going to pause here so that you can indicate where you might be willing and able to serve God. And in a few minutes, after you’ve had some time to think and choose, and as we sing, “Lord, prepare ME to be a sanctuary” I am going to ask you, as you will, to bring your papers here, to this basket, and simply offer them to God.