For about a decade my sons spent time each summer at an Episcopal camp in the Shenandoah Valley. It was an old-fashioned rural camp with rustic cabins each sleeping 10 kids plus a counselor, separate bathroom huts, lots of outdoor activities, and daily worship. The closing worship was always the same. We parents gathered on the benches in the outdoor chapel on the side of North Mountain. At the appointed hour the campers came marching out of the woods, wearing new T shirts, suntanned, covered in bugbites, singing “Oh When the Saints go Marching In”. Kids of all shapes and sizes, all colorings, the girls often much taller than the boys, a motley crew.
The Scripture reading was always the same, from the 12th chapter of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. It was read by several kids, each taking a few verses. I always choked up at the last verse: now YOU are the body of Christ, and individually members of it. This little body of Christ had bonded through camp food, humid nights, homesickness, scrapes and bruises, and through the incredible care of the young adult counselors, many of whom have since been ordained.
Paul’s image of the parts of the body reminding each other that everyone belongs, is still a powerful one for the church. Now, Paul had no conception of life at a cellular level. What more might he have written if he had known what we know now, that some cells can develop into any one of many different types, that cells have the ability to change form and function depending on where they find themselves in an embryo, even migrating purposefully to where they are supposed to be? What an astonishing thing: God’s creativity is boundless, and our understanding continues to grow and expand. Paul’s vision was limited, but he grasped the essential truth that all are part of the body and all have an equally valuable purpose. And so it is for the church today.
Bottom line: Bodies work. We take it for granted that in a healthy body all the nerves, joints, muscles will cooperate when we initiate a movement. It is a miracle that I can smile or speak or walk up the steps to the pulpit. A lot has to go right. And most of the time, it does. When something happens to interfere with that cooperation we know that something is terribly wrong. Our bodies are incredibly complex, and we are continually learning more about that complexity: the microbiome, the relationship of specific parts of the brain to specific functions, the way DNA forms us – height, eye color, vulnerability to addiction or arthritis. We are continually challenged by new insights to stretch our understanding, to accept more nuance, to re-examine prejudices. Bacteria were once uniformly regarded as the enemy, but now we know that exposure to some bacteria is essential for health.
As it goes for biology, so it goes for the life of the church.
This week the cathedral staff attended a workshop about gender identity and expression. This is an inclusive and welcoming community, but I still have a lot to learn and I am grateful for the training. I learned something about how our assumptions, even the most benign, harm others: I may pat myself on the back for following the lead of our Bible translation and addressing a gathering as brothers and sisters in Christ, but that phrase leaves out non-gender-conforming people. Having gender-neutral bathrooms, as we do in the Great Hall, is a wonderful sign of inclusion but until we put up signage telling people about them, non-gender-conforming visitors won’t feel truly welcome. There is so much still to learn. We were shown a slide with the latest acronym: LGBTTQQIAAP. Got that?
The trainer, herself the mother of a transgender son, shared his story, how he had never been comfortable with the gender assigned to him at birth, and how, when he started his social transition seven years ago, the family struggled to articulate what they were going through. As recently as 2012, most people didn’t have language for the variants of gender identity and expression that are now being discovered: as our understanding expands, so does our language, and thanks to people like our trainer, so will the embrace of the church, I hope.
Our grasp of the diversity in God’s creation is continually expanding, and when we reflect on Paul’s words to the Corinthians we see that every beautiful variant is part of God’s design; every part of the body has a role and a place in the scheme. As we grow in the Spirit we learn to let go of shallow expectations and assumptions. The ear gets to decide that it is an ear, the leg a leg. And all are part of the whole. And nobody gets to say, because you are not an ear you don’t belong to the body.
Being a part of the body means each of us carrying out our ministry, whatever it may be. A hand needs to function as a hand, an ear as an ear. Each of us has a calling and the body functions best when all parts are fully engaged. Last week I performed a movement of a string quartet in a concert with some friends. I love playing chamber music in part because it engages more of my brain than any other activity I can imagine: memory, motor skills, anticipation, social awareness, balance, vision, hearing, physical strength, flexibility… and when all four of us fully engage all those parts of our brains we become in a sense one body, working together to produce beauty. Our first violin arrived a little late and we started rehearsing without him, but the music didn’t work until all were fully present.
We all have a part to play and a ministry to offer. We are all gifted. Regardless of our identity, or our physical or economic health we have much to offer. Think of the person with a painful chronic health issue who recruits and organizes volunteers from home via phone and email. Think of the below-poverty-line senior who ushers at services and comes by to help stuff bulletins. Everyone has value.
The world needs everyone’s gifts and skills. None is more important than another; our diversity is our strength. We especially need people who are different from us. Our governing bodies, whether Congress or the House of Bishops, will only be strengthened by the addition of more women, more people of color, more people with differing worldviews. I was thrilled to learn this week that this year’s class of the College of Bishops, where newly elected Episcopal bishops receive training, is for the first time 50-50 men and women, and several of those are women of color.
That increased diversity might make us uncomfortable; we find ourselves objecting to outward manifestations of difference among our leaders: an accent, a hair style, a non-traditional family configuration, because we are trying to scratch the itch, to smooth over the bumps, to restore comfortable homogeneity.
But that isn’t God’s plan. God isn’t that tidy. The Holy Spirit is disruptive, creative, noisy. Look at our Gospel story from Luke: the Spirit is calling Jesus to do some outrageous things. His mission is not about “steady as she goes” or maintaining the status quo. It’s about breaking people out of jail, opening up a whole new world, cancelling debts, turning the world upside down. And if you read on a few verses you will see that his own people are ready to murder him for this.
Growth in the Spirit means a continual pushing back of our comfort zones, the constant and sometimes painful expansion of our minds and hearts to embrace more and more of God’s creation. The history of the Episcopal Church since St Paul’s was founded 150 years ago has been a history of continuously expanding this understanding.
We have fought for racial equality. We have fought for votes for women. We have fought for universal access to all the sacraments. Our denominational mission of reconciliation encompasses reconciling all the parts of the body so that the whole body works to its fullest potential, answering the Spirit-driven call of Jesus to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Our own summary of that mission goes like this: Love Christ, Serve Others, Welcome All: may this be our rallying cry as we step forward together this year of the Lord’s favor, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.
January 27, 2019 Cathedral Day
The Very Rev Penelope Bridges