Trouble in River City

(Sermon for Sunday, January 27, 2013 || Epiphany 3C || 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a)

rivercityWe got trouble. Right here in Corinth. With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for “pool.” Wait a sec. That’s the trouble in River City in The Music Man. Let me try again. We got trouble. Right here in Corinth. With a capital “T” and that rhymes with “G” and that stands for “gifts.” Spiritual gifts, that is. And while the con artist Harold Hill makes up the trouble in River City in order to sell marching band instruments, the Apostle Paul is intensely earnest in his diagnosis of the trouble in Corinth. The trouble in Corinth was certainly Trouble with a capital “T.”

Last week, Margot hinted at this trouble when she mentioned the Corinthians bickering over the dramatic spiritual gifts God had showered on the community. Our second lesson today picks up right where last week’s left off, and now we see Paul lay out the trouble plainly. The new church in Corinth has many problems – rival groups trying to assert dominance, questions about marital relationships, even issues concerning what to wear and what to eat. But none seems as contentious as the trouble Paul addresses in today’s reading.

When you boil Paul’s words down, you find that the trouble he sees is, in the end, the most common trouble of all – people not valuing one another. The very commonness of this trouble wrenches it from the dusty pages of scripture and puts it front and center in our lives. The capital “T” Trouble of people not valuing one another happened back then in Corinth. But just look around this world today – in our society’s discourse, in our communities, even within our own families – and you’ll see the effects of people not valuing one another.

But let’s start with the trouble in Corinth, the trouble that began over their spiritual gifts. Paul goes to great metaphorical lengths to teach the Corinthians that they are all part of the same body. Each part of the body has value, no matter if your part is the hand or the foot, the eye or the ear. Apparently in Corinth, certain people had been made to feel that their contributions to the body just didn’t matter, that because they were “feet” and not “hands” they had nothing to offer. I can only imagine how angry Paul got when he heard about such hurtful nonsense.

Paul first addresses these people who were being denigrated. Don’t believe what they tell you, he says. Just because you don’t fit their exact specifications for membership in the body doesn’t make you any less of a member.

Then Paul addresses the other side. (In certain other letters he doesn’t seek to cover up his anger, but here he manages to keep his indignation just below the surface.) To the ones engaging in the denigration, Paul says: “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.”

This has always been the way of God, hasn’t it? To lift up the lowly, to shield the easy targets of denigration and devaluation, to bring people together as one body. But even in those early years of the church, when everything was fresh and new and exciting, even then the brokenness of human nature reared its ugly head. Even then, the forces of division (you might say the forces of evil, of Satan) tried to halt the spread of God’s good news. In today’s lesson, the good news is that all people have value. All people belong to the body. I can think of nothing that the powers of darkness and division would abhor more than this simple truth, which Paul reminds the Corinthians and us.

After Paul speaks to these two sides of the trouble, he circles back to the issue, which sparked the trouble in the first place – the gifts God had showered on the people of Corinth. How utterly broken their community must have been if the forces of division had been able so easily to turn God’s gifts into sources of strife. But that is what they became. So Paul lists a sample of the gifts again and notes that no one has all of the gifts. That’s not how this whole “body” thing works. Each member has a gift to share, he says to the Corinthians, so you will not tell people they have no value just because they don’t display the gifts you think they should.

(Next Paul tells them and us about the greatest gift of all, which is an antidote for the trouble in Corinth, but we won’t read that part until next week. I’ll give you a hint, though. The gift is love, and the passage is one you’ll be familiar with if you’ve ever been to a wedding. But I’ll let Margot tackle that next week.)

For now, let’s stick with the capital “T” Trouble because we haven’t yet seen how this trouble exists now in our society, in our community, and in our homes. Remember, the root of the trouble is the utterly broken human tendency not to value one another. We witness this brokenness in our political discourse when partisan differences degenerate into personal attacks. We witness this brokenness in our community when our children can’t go online without fear that a cyberbully is waiting to tear them down – anonymously. We witness this brokenness in our homes when relationships of trust and respect erode into ones of suspicion and convenience. In each of these instances, the other is not valued for one reason or another and the body is broken.

Let’s dwell for a moment on the example of marriage. With our second anniversary approaching in a few weeks, I’ve had extra cause to thank God for the gift of my wife Leah. But along with this wonderful gift I am also aware of the scary capacity, inherent in my own brokenness, of failing to put in the effort to make sure she knows that she is valued. So many marriages fail because of this kind of inattention, and with God’s help, I am determined never to give her cause to question her value.

Remember, the good news is that all people have value. All people belong to the body. Each of our relationships is a microcosm of this great reality. Our relationships are opportunities to show one another how much we value each other, and by extension, how much God loves us. Being active members of Christ’s body means participating with God in healing the brokenness that keeps us from valuing the other.

So this week, I challenge each of you, and I challenge myself, to act on the reality that we are members of Christ’s body, each with our own inherent value. Seek out your partner – your spouse if you are married; a friend, sibling, or relative if you are not. Sit down with that person. Look her right in the eye. Hold his hand. Dwell in a moment together where nothing at all matters except your connection to one another and your joint connection to God. Say a simple pray of thanks for that person’s presence in your life. And then let her know how much you value her. Tell him how valuable he is – not because of what he has done or not done – but simply because of who he is.

If you are having trouble in this relationship, perhaps this will be the chance for a new start, with God inviting you once again into the reality that each of you has inherent value as a person. If you are not having trouble in this relationship, perhaps this will be the chance to add a recurring practice to your interactions that will confirm your value to each other. Either way, I offer this challenge to you as a way to participate more deeply in your own relationship with God.

As we notice and celebrate the inherent value we see in each other, we will be working with God to heal the brokenness of this world. And we will be helping to fulfill the prayer we prayer every week: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Because, is heaven not the place where each of us will finally and forever know in the deepest recesses of our souls that we are truly valued, that we are truly loved.