by Louise Westfall
A reading from the Apostle Paul’s first letter to the churches of Corinth, in the twelfth chapter at the twelfth verse. Hear God’s Word to the church through his extended metaphor of its startling identity. [I Corinthians 12:12-27]
The conversation was earnest, open. We sat at tables in Central’s narthex lobby at an event entitled “Fearless Dialogue” sponsored by the presbytery’s Racial Ethnic Diversity group, as a follow-up to the Martin Luther King Jr. Marade this past Monday. The ambiguous prompt “where are you from, really?” had allowed for some free-association as we told stories of experiences that had shaped us. I had shared about growing up in small-town Yuma, as a “PK” (preacher’s kid), and the feeling that I lived in a fish bowl, my life streaming publicly for anyone to view (this was long before Reality TV, where apparently this is a good thing). There was our youth group’s black-armband protest of the Vietnam War that turned into a shouting match with some of the popular football team members. And my first (failed) attempt at smoking cigarettes at the drive-in café where a church elder saw my best friend Gail and me lighting up in her car, and promptly called my dad (who was waiting for me at the front door when I got home that evening). Our church didn’t have mission trips back then, but the presbytery did, and my first one was with 15 other high school kids and adult leaders when we sweated through a July week in Kansas City painting a methadone clinic. I still recall the African-American woman, a member of the host church, who sought to explain to us wide-eyed white kids why racial tension so often turned violent. My dad was a frequent summer camp counselor at Highlands, and I can’t tell you how many times I gave my life to Jesus at the closing worship service, around a campfire under the starry night sky. Confirmation consisted of six classes during Lent of my eighth-grade year, and all I remember about it is that we had to recite the Apostles’ Creed –- from memory — in front of the Session. To this day my stomach flips when we say it — although that might be for other reasons now.
Fact is, I am a product of the church. My faith was formed — and is still being formed — by congregations. Congregations of people: individuals with clay feet and broad shoulders to cry on; people with little minds and hearts of gold; members who are “nosy” but are known to overlook bad behavior … just because; there were members who gave headaches and upset stomachs, as well as soothed the savage breast and comforted the broken heart. Imperfect for sure. But they loved the hell out of me and my siblings and I am Christian partly from their efforts.
Why Church? Well, for starters, it’s is a good place to ask “Why?”— and be encouraged to pursue the answer wherever it takes you. The apostle provides other clues about the nature of the body of Christ. It’s inclusive — made up of Jews and Greeks, slaves and free — Paul wasn’t quite ready to add “male and female,” though — thank God — he does include gender equality in a later letter. The body of Christ changes. The body of Christ is vulnerable — to illness and injury and aging. When we are self-aware, we recognize and must confess the injustices, hurts, and terror the Church’s theology and practice have wielded, even to this day. That calls, I think, for a posture of humility and continual renewal of vision in the witness of Jesus. The pundits say it’s always just one generation away from extinction, as if our failures and shortcomings could suffocate the very Spirit of God. That’s not to say the body of Christ known as the Presbyterian Church or the Methodist Church or any other denomination won’t pass away. But the Church? Christ rose from death to say that nothing, nothing can defeat the good purposes of God. The Body of Christ lives, though it may take forms some of us hardly recognize. Friends, Christ is embodied — is real in this place and time — because of its central purpose of showing compassion. To suffer with, to rejoice together, to take care of people — and if Paul’s metaphor holds — all people; without regard to their status or respectability or usefulness to the organization.
The Body of Christ lives, though it may take forms some of us hardly recognize. Friends, Christ is embodied -- is real in this place and time -- because of its central purpose of showing compassion.
Today we ordain men and women who have been called to a particular ministry of compassion within the body of Christ. They are an amazing group of people: quirky, creative, steadfast, humorous, and above all, deeply caring. There isn’t a perfect one among them! Through a committee (made up of imperfect members), God’s call to them was discerned. And they said yes. I’m pretty sure they don’t know all that being a deacon entails, and there will be times when they roll their eyes and cry “Not another fellowship hour!” But I want you to know that every single one of them is compelled by a sense of contributing to the health of Christ’s body known as Central Presbyterian Church.
You may be wondering why there are no elders to be ordained today. We are early in the process of reorganizing the way the Session (the governing body of a congregation) does its work. You’ll learn more of the details, but the idea is to structure ourselves in a way that invites meaningful participation by all members, under the leadership of a streamlined Session (9 individuals and both ministers) who guide the work of ministry according to the vision set by the congregation. These areas embrace: Faith Formation (including worship and learning experiences across a lifespan), Resource Stewardship (including finances, personnel, and building), Service/Mission ( particular projects, initiatives, mission trips, justice advocacy, and community engagement), and Care (the many ways we reach out to build relationships with one another, with visitors and newcomers, with people in need beyond our walls, and yes, provide food and opportunities for conversation regularly!) We know that most people today want to offer their gifts of time and talent making a difference, not sitting in committee meetings. The new organization will develop scores of ways to serve as the hands and feet and eyes and mind and mouth and internal organs of the body of Christ, in time-bounded, task-specific ministries that strengthen this beloved community as well as the larger one encompassing the downtown and the whole world.
I always look forward to the “highlights” video during our annual meeting which follows worship today. The photos tell the story our life together this past year with photos set to inspiring music. But it can only partly reveal who we are and what we’re supposed to do. Behind the beautiful pictures are people: people involved in bodily functions — some of which aren’t pretty! — to tend the health of this church. And somehow, by God’s grace, it gets done: together, imperfectly, we manage to reflect the unconditional love of God, support one another, hold each other accountable, expand our vision, serve the poor, grow in faith, ask hard questions, and bit by bit, part by part, bequeath this living body to our children and their children.
Are you feeling it? A tug to draw closer and become part of this body? At the bottom of your bulletin, find the list of the four big areas of this church’s mission. I invite you to circle one that especially calls to you or intrigues you, sign your name, tear it off, and put it in the offering plate this morning. No, you don’t know what you’re signing on to. Neither do I, at least not precisely. And there’s no obligation. But I invite you to consider it an act of personal commitment, that you are the Vonn Miller of Central Presbyterian Church, all in, and ready to play. And if you’re not feeling it? Well that’s okay. But stick around. God’s got plans for you too.
Someday, one of you — or one of your children — is bound to be asked, “Where are you from, really?” And you will remember a body, an imperfect, maddening, comforting, challenging, growing, body that loved the hell out of you and saw in you, the very form of Christ.
Thanks be to God!