Text: 1 Corinthians 12:12-27
For the last several weeks, we have been inundated with media coverage of body parts. From suggestive photos texted to young women by a congressman to grisly discoveries of missing persons, parts of the human body have been the focus of our news. For most of us, these stories have been both disgusting and sad for a number of reasons. Many of us have thought “TMI” – Too Much Information –as we turned off our television, closed a news website, or put down the newspaper. Into this context today we bring the Apostle Paul’s famous discussion about the parts of the body he calls the Body of Christ. On this final Sunday of our Creation Season, I may surprise you in suggesting that Paul offers us a transformative word about what it really means to be part of the whole Body of Earth.
The church at Corinth was having difficulty. We don’t know the exact nature of the problem, but one can read between the lines that the possession and use of—and probably bragging about—spiritual gifts prompted Paul’s response in Chapter 12 of his first letter to this congregation. The Corinthians had a tendency to claim status for themselves, so earlier in the chapter Paul attempted to set them straight about how the Holy Spirit works and how the use of their gifts should function within their community. Paul Sampley, a New Testament scholar, suggests that Paul the Apostle is trying to reduce the Corinthians’ tendencies toward individualism by undercutting efforts to enhance the status of certain people in the church. So he reminds them that the purpose of any gift one is given by the Spirit is to serve the community – to seek the common good.
In our text for this morning, Paul makes his case about the interdependency of believers, resorting to a common metaphor in the Greco-Roman world about the parts of the body and their relationship to one another. It was in baptism, he asserts, that you were made into one body with many members. No matter how many members there are, there is just one body. Again and again he strongly affirms the Corinthians’ unity, but Paul is also careful to affirm their differences. Characteristics like ethnicity or social status are real and impact one’s contributions to the whole, he says. But one is not less or more than the others because of these traits. Rather, the gifts of all members are needed. He explains this beginning with verse 17: 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?…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.” Paul’s point is clear. The gifts of all members are needed.
In this passage Paul addresses two kinds of people in the church at Corinth: those who have a low estimation of their own value and those whose sense of their value is inflated. Notably, most of his attention goes to those who consider themselves better than the rest of the community. So far in this letter, he has already chided them for boasting, for not being as wise as they think they are, for being babies, for thinking they have already arrived, for thinking they stand where they may in fact be falling, and so on. While there must have been people in the church whose self-worth was low, it seems the bigger problem was an over-confident, well-to-do minority that was harming the congregation. So Paul stresses the importance of every member based on his fundamental belief that each person is an indispensible part of the body. At the same time, individuality is honored as each serves the body in a distinct – neither lesser or greater – way.
So what do Paul and the Corinthian church have to do with Creation Season – with the relationship between humans and the natural world? You may be sitting there thinking: I am not a fan of Paul and this passage is focused on humans. Why this text on this day? One answer is that the lectionary passages assigned to this Sunday weren’t a good fit for Creation Season. In fact, the Hebrew scripture for June 26 is Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his beloved son Isaac, where the human child is spared and an animal is sacrificed instead. Not exactly a fitting topic for this Sunday!
That being said, I actually chose this text because Paul’s metaphor of the church as a body consisting of many equal parts seems especially apt for the point I want to make today – one I’ve borrowed from Joanna Macy, one of the best-known eco-philosophers in the United States. A scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology, Macy is both a realistic and a joyful participant in movements for peace and justice for our planet. I want to draw from her book World as Lover, World as Self to explain what I mean.
Macy begins with a compelling question: How can I be present to my world in a way that allows me to rejoice and be useful while we as a species are destroying it? I find her approach refreshing because the news about the harm we have done and are doing to our planet is so depressing that one is tempted to tune out the constant gloom and doom. Because we can’t stand one more bit of bad news, it’s easy to try to ignore it. Instead, Macy draws from the deep well of her Buddhist tradition to be both realistic and joyful at the same time.
In her answer to the question she poses for us, Macy begins by describing the dilemma in which we find ourselves. First she notes that previous generations could assume two things: that there would be future generations coming after them, and those future generations would have a better life than those who came before them – with a better life defined as “an easier life with more stuff.” We cannot assume either anymore, and this reality impacts how we view ourselves and the world.
Macy also describes several different world views that influence our culture. One says that the earth is a battlefield where wars are being fought between good and evil. This view provides certainty and clear boundaries. It is the perspective of many conservative Christians. A second is the view that the world is a trap from which to escape. This approach sets spirit over flesh and can be tempting for those pursuing a spiritual path. It emphasizes detachment and focuses on healing the self. But if the self is always in need of healing, one may never get around to the needs of the world beyond the self.
Another view, the one I want to commend to you today, is that the earth is us and we are the earth. This is a oneness we are born into. Our fate and the fate of all beings are interwoven. There is one Body of Earth and we are all members of it. Like Paul, Macy is quick to say this doesn’t mean we let go of individuality, but rather that diversity and interconnectedness exist at the same time. Because we don’t see this interconnectedness, we protect ourselves with fences, borders, and armies. But none of those things negates the reality that we are part of Earth and it is part of us – which means at this very moment we are destroying ourselves as we are destroying the earth.
So what do we do with the suffering of our Earth Body, which is the reality of the current situation? Macy believes the greatest danger is deadening our response – numbing our minds and hearts to avoid the pain. We do this in the diversions we create for ourselves, in the fights we pick, the aims we pursue, and the stuff we buy. Apathy grows from fear and despair, so we cope with those feelings by disengaging.
Yet if we long to be truly compassionate people, we have to be willing to “suffer with” our earth and all of its members. That’s the definition of the word “compassion” – to suffer with. In our physical bodies, pain is a trigger that remedial action is needed. To relieve it, we often do what the doctor recommends without the security of knowing how or if the painful situation will be resolved. This is also true with the pain we feel for our world. Unfortunately, this pain and our response to the uncertainties of our time tend to breed fundamentalism, self-righteousness, deep divisions, and superficial solutions. But our faith calls us to respond to conflicts and quick fixes with patience and love. Quick won’t solve earth’s problems; only thoughtful, caring actions over time will. And if we allow ourselves to suffer with the Body of Earth, grief will be the result. But this grief is the other face of love. We only mourn for the things and people we care about. As Paul reminds us, if one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it. Says Macy, the monstrous injustice of nuclear war, dying seas, and poisoned air suggest that we never took seriously the injunction to love.
Because she has been working to save the planet for her lifetime, Joanna Macy knows all too well the damage we are doing to our Earth Body. She is also aware that we may or may not be able to muster the will to save it. But she is fundamentally hopeful and encouraging because a deep sense of gratitude grounds her acceptance of this hard reality. She knows human life is precious and our natural world is an amazing gift from our Creator. So with clarity, she names the choice before us: we can proceed to address the challenges we face with a grim and angry determination, or we can proceed with thankfulness. In her Buddhist tradition, life begins with thanksgiving and the same is true in ours. A core Christian belief is that everything is a gift from God and we are profoundly entangled in an exquisite web of life. We’re on a journey together with other humans, the creatures, the land, and the seas, and we don’t have to figure it all out ahead of time. While acknowledging the need for urgent changes now, we have the capacity to choose to work over time. We can alter our experience through decisions we make. We are capable of doing things differently if we are willing to be in it for the long haul.
Several things strike me about the intersection of Paul’s metaphor of the body with Macy’s understanding of our relationship to our earth home. First, there is one body, the earth, of which all creation is a part. We are all “members” of this one body and all of its members need our love and care. Second, all members of the Body of Earth are important and have gifts to offer. As Paul reminds us, the hand is able to feed the foot only because the foot carries the hand to food. I just returned from five days near West Jefferson where I received the gifts that the mountains and trees, hawks and deer, gentle rain and cool breezes shared with me. I know you’ve all had similar experiences. But we humans are like the well-to-do, individualistic minority in the Corinthian church, acting like our gifts and our desires are more important than those of other members of our Earth Body. How arrogant and how wrong that is!
Third, we humans should use our gifts for the common good of all earth’s members, not simply for our individual comfort, just as Paul encouraged the Christians at Corinth to do. Macy reminds us that her Buddhist faith places a high value on self-restraint and low consumption. Wholeness rather than comfort is the goal. In contrast, our culture and sometimes even our faith is caught up in the concept of “mineness.” Yet nothing is truly mine. In Buddhism, there is no such thing as private salvation. We are saved only in working for the salvation of the entire planet. In my view, Christians could offer more meaning and contribute more to the cause of justice for our world with a broader understanding of what it means to be “saved” that includes all of creation.
Finally, Paul reminded the Corinthians that they became members of the Body of Christ through their baptism. Modern Christians sometimes wonder what they can do to become more fully the Body of Christ, but Paul had a different notion. He believed that the baptized were already the Body of Christ and urged them and us to relate to one another in a manner consistent with who we already are. In Paul’s conception of the Body of Christ, believers belong to each other and to Christ. Likewise, we were made members of the Body of Earth at our creation, our birth. All of the members of God’s creation belong to each other and to God. Like it or not, claim it or not, we became members of the Earth Body at our birth. It is who we already are. Oneness with creation is our birthright, which includes both the privilege of enjoying it and the responsibility of caring for the rest of the body we call Earth.
I’ve been thinking a lot about future generations lately. Felicia and I have a college freshman in our family who is both protective of the environment and who tolerates heat very well. She never turns on the air-conditioning in the car, and if it were up to Lizzy, there would likely be no air conditioning in our home. In a conversation about this recently, I was about to say, “I can’t wait to see you when your hot flashes start.” Then I realized that we may not live to see her experience them. Because she was born when Felicia was 42, we may have gone on to our reward when her body makes that aggravatingly hot transition.
Then last week, just as I was thinking about what Lizzy’s life might be like when we are gone, I received an email from my nephew Chris, the youngest in our family. He wrote to share the news that his first child, who is expected in October, is a boy. Now, my nephew was born to a very young teenager and adopted by my brother and sister-in-law twenty-six years ago. Two days after his birth, adoption by parents who immediately adored him offered Chris the gift of a hopeful future. With a joyful awareness that he now has the opportunity to pass on this gift, I stopped what I was doing to say a prayer for the baby’s life and his future.
At the close of her book, Joanna Macy offers this prayer for our family’s baby boy and all the generations of children who will come after us.
You live inside us, beings of the future.
In the spiral ribbons of our cells, you are here.
In our rage for the burning forests, the poisoned fields, the oil-drowned seals
You are here.
You beat in our hearts through late-night meetings.
You accompany us to clear-cuts and toxic dumps and the halls of the lawmakers.
It is you who drive our dogged labors to save what is left.
O you, who will walk this Earth when we are gone, stir us awake.
Behold through our eyes the beauty of this world.
Let us feel your breath in our lungs, your cry in our throat.
Let us see you in the poor, the homeless, the sick.
Haunt us with your hunger, hound us with your claims, that we may honor the life that links us.
You have as yet no faces we can see, no names we can say.
But we need only hold you in our mind, and you teach us patience.
You attune us to measures of time where healing can happen, where soil and souls can mend.
You reveal courage within us we had not suspected, love we had not owned.
O, you who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.
We are all part of one body – humans and rocks, rivers and butterflies, lions and oaks. We cannot separate ourselves from the rest of creation even if we want to and our attempts to do so have nearly destroyed us all. So on this holy day, may the Creator of our Earth Body, the God of the Universe, fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.
Ideas for this sermon were drawn from Joanna Macy’s book World as Lover, World as Self (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 2007).