Christ United Methodist Church, Columbia, Md.
Readings for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost: I Kings 2:10-12, I Kings 3:3-14, Psalm 111, Ephesians 5:15-20, John 6:51-58
I: A Glimpse of the Future
Two weeks ago I spent a wonderful long weekend in Dekalb, Illinois at a conference called WOW2000: WOW stands for “Witness our Welcome”, and the Welcome is the one extended by welcoming congregations of all denominations — Reconciling United Methodists like us, Open and Affirming UCC Congregations, More Light Presbyterians, Reconciling in Christ Lutheran Congregations, and many others. One thousand of us — straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, we shared worship celebrations with music, dance, and great speakers; over breakfast we engaged in Bible Study; there were small healing services morning and night; and during the day we had workshops and discussion groups on dozens of topics.
The conference was carefully crafted so that at each step we encountered not only new ideas but new people. I met wonderful people, dedicated to their communities and their families. I met people who are clear that God assigned them their gender and their orientation and clear that they are doing the work of God. The Conference was a rainbow gathering where black and white, straight and gay, able and disabled, all experienced Christ’s healing presence. When Marsha Stevens sang on Friday night, as she has sung twice now for our congregation, I was aware once again how it is the presence of inclusiveness that uniquely enables liberal Christians like me to hear and appreciate evangelical Christians like her. I came away feeling I had seen the future.
In Bible Study and worship we focused on the book of Acts. We studied the experience of the very first church — Jesus’ disciples and other Jews in Jerusalem — as they dealt with the message of Pentecost and its message of inclusion, first of Jews who spoke different languages, and then of despised Gentiles themselves. We heard about Peter’s dream in which God told him not to call unclean people God had now called clean. We heard of Peter and Paul’s efforts to persuade the Jerusalem church that it was not only OK to allow Gentiles into the church, but that it was God’s will that the church become inclusive of all. We witnessed how the church in Jerusalem, like the United Methodist General Conference, had a real problem giving up its exclusionary ways. We saw Paul’s efforts to stay connected with the Jerusalem Church even in the face of their suspicion at his inclusiveness. Rather than holding back on offerings or apportionments in the face of conflict, Acts shows us Paul going the extra mile, taking up a massive collection from Gentile churches for the poor in the Jerusalem church. In Dekalb, Illinois, we looked back 2000 years into the book of Acts, and we saw the future.
II: Getting our Attention
One of the high points of the Conference for me was the choir. When we arrived, over ninety of us signed up to be a choir for the worship services. It was the job of Elaine Kirkland, an extremely talented choir director, to turn us from an enthusiastic rabble into a joyful sound that would make a contribution to others. This was no small task; we had very limited time to learn things we had never heard before. At one point in frustration she said, “what do I need to do to get your attention, take my clothes off?”
I remembered that when I was studying this morning’s Gospel reading. I see Jesus looking out at the crowd who have come to hear him, but like that choir are still just an enthusiastic rabble. I hear Jesus asking, “what do I need to do to get your attention?”
Jesus has spent months walking about Galilee and Judea talking about the future, the coming rule of God and about the need for changes in the way we live and do things and relate to people and God that are so radical they can only be described as being born all over again. He’s spent months working with his small group of twelve and larger group of those who come to hear him that he’s trying to build into a model of the new Kingdom, and it’s so frustrating; time after time he is reminded that though they care enough about him to leave their nets and walk about with him, though they say great words of commitment, they just don’t get it. Somehow Jesus has to turn this enthusiastic rabble into a choir, but first he has to get their attention. What Jesus is trying to get across is so central to his message and so central to what made WOW2000 a profound experience, that to get their attention he says something far more shocking to his audience than a choir director taking her clothes off. “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood,” he says.
For us, these are offensive words, conjuring up our revulsion against cannibalism. For Jesus’ Jewish audience they are blasphemous words, for to them, blood, like breath, is life and it belongs only to God. The Torah forbids eating even the blood of animals, even a rare steak, because blood belongs only to God. “You must eat my flesh and drink my blood!”
Jesus is not just shocking for the sake of shocking. For Jesus, these words are the point.
All of us have come into this room this morning for some reason known only to ourselves. Perhaps a desire to connect with God, perhaps a desire to see our friends, perhaps because it might be more interesting than the morning newspaper, perhaps because of a commitment to our children and their growth in faith. Perhaps just habit. We bring with us hungers for nourishment, some that we might be proud to announce and others that we might be ashamed to admit. Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel are that if you want that nourishment that you came for, you are going to have to become part of me and I will become part of you. This is the point he shocks us to get across.
Jesus’ words about his body and blood are the foundation on which Paul developed the image of the Church as the very Body of Christ. These are the words that will open up the future.
As the Body of Christ, we don’t come into this room just as individuals seeking some private solace and then quietly slipping out. We come to meet God by being made part of each other and part of Christ. Paul’s image of the Body of Christ is one of a body in which pain felt anywhere in the body is pain felt by all, and in which by feeling each other’s pain we feel the pain of God. Paul gives us an image in which diversity is absolutely essential just as it is essential that a human body not be only thumbs, or toes, or eyes. Paul gives us an image of a body which functions because its various parts work together, and which really won’t work right if any of its necessary parts are missing. For four days in DeKalb, Illinois, we were the body of Christ, and when you experience the Body of Christ, you are experiencing the future.
III: Making the Body Real
We are already the Body of Christ in this room, and bodies need to grow, or they die. I believe our future lies in three commitments which can make us even more the Body of Christ.
First, if we are to be the Body of Christ, each of us must picture ourselves as part of the Body of Christ. How we picture our reality makes a big difference in how we experience it. If we picture our presence as if we were just consumers who came to the supermarket to get a can of this and a loaf of that and go home, that may be all Christ Church means to us.
I don’t think I have ever been to a conference as well organized as WOW2000. Tremendous planning and thought went into it, but beyond that the volunteers who worked mostly behind the scenes knew they were part of something tremendously important. On the last day transportation volunteers worked to coordinate bus departures and peoples’ luggage while the final Communion service was taking place. They gave up the chance to be in that service in order for those in the service to know they were being taken care of.
Picturing ourselves as part of the Body of Christ makes us deal seriously with what function we have in the Body! Is there something that needs doing that we can do or learn to do? The Church Council met August 5 and catalogued needs that are still unmet — Sunday school teachers and leadership and tasks tied to expansion of our interfaith center. I treasure this congregation because any time I’ve wanted to do something, my gifts have been welcome. Talk to a church council member about your gifts — there is a place for you in the Body of Christ!
Second, if we are to be the Body of Christ, we must create settings where we can come out of our closets.
The Dekalb weekend was nourishing because people could be who they are. That was especially important for many gay and lesbian folk who still felt compelled to live their lives in secret back home. But even though gay and lesbian people have given us the concept of living one’s life hidden in a closet, they are not the only ones who do it.
Statistics tell us that, on the average, if you are in the presence of three women, one of them has suffered a sexual trauma of some sort. If you are in the presence of four people, on the average one of them has a mental illness or has a family member who does. The pain of these experiences is compounded by the stigma our culture attaches to them. We have people in our congregation who live parts of their lives in closets because some part of their life is something for which they expect rejection if the condition became known. When people have the opportunity to share their pain in a safe setting, the liberation and healing is tremendous. When people have that opportunity in a Christian setting where that pain can be exposed to the love of Christ and the body of Christ consisting of the other people in the room, the healing is expanded even more.
We’re already a congregation that likes to spend time together and that values caring about each other. But I think there are more people out there who would find value in our congregation if we found more ways to connect with their hurts, pains, and rejections. We need settings in which that can happen. Adult education where we can talk about significant issues is one such setting. Our pastor will be starting some Wednesday evening studies. I will be away a number of Sundays, but if I can find some partners, perhaps we can revive a Sunday morning adult class this fall. We need church retreats for everyone and not just the women. We need church delegations to go to liberating and healing outside events if we would capture this sense of healing and liberation for ourselves. If I had WOW2000 to do over again I would not have gone alone.
We need these activities because they are settings where enough safety, mutual respect and support can be created so that it’s both appropriate and possible to share more of ourselves. When safe settings permit significant sharing, we experience the presence of Christ and we are seeing the future!
Third, if we are to be the Body of Christ, we must go looking for our missing parts.
Part of the magic of WOW2000 was the presence of enormous diversity-not just of sexual orientation but of talent and ideas and contributions. We were like a real body-diverse parts making up one whole.
Sometimes we settle for an easy, passive diversity where we say, OK, we’ll accept you if you show up, but we’re not going to go out and look for you! But if one of our real body parts turned up missing, we wouldn’t be so passive! What if we woke up one morning and were missing a liver or even a big toe? We’d be on the phone to doctors and hospitals right away to restore the missing diversity of our physical bodies!
Here at Christ Church we celebrate diversity — but do we already have all our parts? Or have we gotten numbly used to being only half here? We need to be thinking of where the missing parts of our Body are, how to find them, and how to bring them home. Our Church Council will be looking for people to step up to the plate for evangelism roles. Is this something your part of the body of Christ needs to be doing?
We need more gay and lesbian members. And we need more African American members. And we need more Latino and Latina members. And we need more members who have disabilities of one sort or another. And we need more members who are trauma survivors. And we need more members who are experiencing mental illness, and we need their family members.. And perhaps none of these people will have the bank accounts that we need in order to really join in the building expansion program for our Interfaith Center. But I am certain that by the time we have done what it takes to seek out, welcome and include all of these kinds of members, we will have such a lively and dynamic, caring, God-filled, spiritually connected, emotionally connected, social justice oriented congregation that people who have the bank accounts will want to be here too, because integrity and healing will make this a rich verdant oasis. And people who join us will tell others they have seen the future.
I believe when our congregation chose to become a Reconciling Congregation, we chose to be a Body of Christ with all its parts, not just some of its parts. We chose to be among those who said to Jesus, “yes, we’ll give you our attention-make us into a choir that is rich because no voice is left out. Make us into a choir that is harmonious because you are our director and it is nourished by your life.” We chose to be a part of God’s future. It was a choice of faith, that if we sought first the Kingdom of God, all that we need would be added to us.
As we see our bread and our wine brought forward with our offerings, let us remember that it is our commitment and our energy as well as our treasure which Christ uses to bring the future. It is our gifts of time and talent, treasure and prayer, over which we pray, “Make them be for us the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
Author of Risking Connection in Faith Communities: A Training Curriculum for Faith Leaders Supporting Trauma Survivors, Jackson H. Day served as executive director of the International Conference of War Veteran Ministers and pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Hampstead, Md. He earned a master’s and doctorate of divinity from Wesley Theological Seminary.