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"Body Politics" - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on January 27, 2019 by Kathy Miller

Body Politics

Scripture (1 Corinthians 12:12-27)

Our reading this morning comes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Because this is a longer passage that I suspect many of us are familiar with or have heard before, I’m going to read it from the Message translation by Eugene Peterson.

Listen now for God’s word to us in this time and in this place:

You can easily enough see how the giving of gifts by the Spirit of God works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you’re still one body.

It’s exactly the same with Christ.

By means of his one Spirit, we all said good-bye to our partial and piecemeal lives. We each used to independently call our own shots, but then we entered into a large and integrated life in which Christ has the final say in everything. (For this is what we proclaimed in word and action when we were baptized.) So that each of us is now a part of Christ’s resurrection body, refreshed and sustained at one fountain—his Spirit—where we all come to drink. The old labels we once used to identify ourselves—labels like Jew or Greek, slave or free—are no longer useful. We need something larger, more comprehensive.

I want you to think about how all this makes you more significant, not less. A body isn’t just a single part blown up into something huge. It’s all the different-but-similar parts arranged and functioning together. If Foot said, “I’m not elegant like Hand, which is embellished with rings; I guess I don’t belong to this body,” would that make it so? If Ear said, “I’m not beautiful like Eye, bright and expressive; I don’t deserve a place on the head,” would you want to remove it from the body? If the body was all eye, how could it hear? If all ear, how could it smell? As it is, we see that God has carefully placed each part of the body right where God wanted it.

But I also want you to think about how this keeps your significance from getting blown up into self-importance. For no matter how significant you are, it is only because of what you are a part of. An enormous eye or a gigantic hand wouldn’t be a body, but a monster. What we have is one body with many parts, each its proper size and in its proper place. No part is important on its own. Can you imagine Eye telling Hand, “Get lost; I don’t need you”? Or, Head telling Foot, “You’re fired; your job has been phased out”? As a matter of fact, in practice it works the other way—the “lower” the part, the more basic, and therefore necessary. You can live without an eye, for instance, but not without a stomach. When it’s a part of your own body that you’re concerned with, it makes no difference whether the part is visible or clothed, higher or lower. You give it dignity and honor just as it is, without comparisons. If anything, you have more concern for the lower parts than the higher. If you had to choose, wouldn’t you prefer good digestion to beautiful hair?

The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part is dependent on every other part, the parts we mention and the parts we don’t, the parts we see and the parts we don’t. If one part hurts, every other part is involved in the hurt, and in the healing. If one part flourishes, every other part enters into the exuberance.

You are Christ’s body—that’s who you are! You must never forget this. Only as you accept your part of that body does your “part” mean anything.


The Word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.



I was on a presbytery retreat this past fall for pastors who were new to the Milwaukee presbytery, and, over dinner one evening, the topic of devotionals before meetings came up. One pastor shared that she frequently asked questions of her committee members before a meeting as a way to get folks talking. One week, they had just read the scripture text from this morning and so this pastor began by asking them which part of the body they most identified with. One person shared that they felt like an ear—called to listen to people. Another person felt like hands—called to reach out and help. A third person felt like feet—called to help the church change and continue moving forward.

However, there was one person on the committee who wasn’t quite sure how to answer the question, and after a brief pause and a look of consternation, another committee member who was a nurse by profession, said, I know what body part you are, you’re the colon. This as you might imagine, only led to a puzzled and confused look as the original person repeated, “a colon”? “Yup,” came the reply, “because you filter out ‘the waste’ and help us to focus on the important stuff.”

We all have different roles to play. Some people keep us on task while others wander far afield to gather fresh inspiration and out of the box ideas. Some keep us moving forward while others look around and ask if we’re still going in the right direction. We all have a role to play; we all have different gifts to bring to the table; and, as Paul so succinctly pointed out in our passage for this morning, we only work as a church when we work together.

Between reading all of the annual reports and the fact that this Friday will mark six months that I’ve been at Covenant, I have found myself reflecting on my experience at Covenant thus far, particularly in light of this passage from Paul. And so, this morning, I would like to offer some reflections on what I have learned about all of you these past six months, and while there are any number of things to share, I have (for your benefit) limited myself to four.


First. This is a congregation that is willing to ask hard questions.
It was probably within the first two months that I was here that an active member of the congregation brought to my attention some concerns about the ways in which Pastor Jenny and I were hired. If you don’t already know, Jenny and I are what is called Stated Supply pastors, which means we work on year to year contracts. While this is becoming more and more common in the Presbyterian church, the norm has traditionally been a model referred to as called and installed. There are a variety of reasons why Covenant has chosen not to go this route, and while Jenny or I or any elder can happily talk to you about those reasons until you’re sorry you asked, what I want to highlight this morning is both the courage and trust of the person who brought these concerns forward as well as the response of the session who was ultimately the group that discussed and responded to these concerns.

While I grant you that I may not be the most intimidating person you’ve ever encountered, I nonetheless think that many people would hesitate to bring to a staff member a concern about the manner in which they were hired, if only for fear that that individual would take it personally or feel as though the concern was with who was hired rather than how they were hired. But you all have created a community in which that is not a barrier to asking hard questions. You all have created a sense of connection that allows you to trust that people will hear in your questions the intent with which you are asking them.

Even only having been here for a few months, I never once worried that perhaps this individual had concerns about the process because of who was hired rather than how they were hired—I was clear from the beginning that we belonged to one another because we belong to this body.

And, when the issue came before the folks who had overseen the process, the people who would perhaps most be offended or defensive about how things were done, the response was much the same. It was an elder who pointed out during a session meeting, what amazing things it said about this place and all of us that someone who was frustrated with a process didn’t just leave the church but instead asked to have the issue addressed. I sat through multiple meetings in which the current leaders of this church spent significant time and energy thinking through the process and identifying things they would do differently and considering other ways of doing things in the future. The desire was to learn from what had been done, to take a different perspective into account and allow it to speak to the process and the future. This is a congregation that is willing and able to ask hard questions.


Second. This is a congregation that cares as much about how questions are answered as what those answers are.
When session began to talk about the budget for the 2019-2020 year, there were a number of hard questions that had to be asked and answered when it became clear we would be in a deficit situation—how would the money that was pledged be spent, would we continue to give ten percent of our operating budget to mission outreach organizations, where could cuts be made? All hard questions. But it was during a session meeting when the budget was being voted on that one elder bravely asked whether or not the session should present a deficit budget given that we have historically created a budget based on the anticipated income rather than creating a budget based on what we anticipate needing and then hoping that they money comes in.

As is always the case—at least in my experience—when money is involved, there were a number of strong feelings around the table about how to proceed. And, if you’ve read your annual report, you’ll know that the ultimate decision was to present a deficit budget along with an explanation about where the additional money will come from if it doesn’t come from gifts or additional offering during the year. What was striking, however, wasn’t the eventual decision, but how the session got there—the amount of time and care invested in making sure that everyone’s perspective and questions were heard and understood. The amount of energy that went into—not convincing people of one answer or another, but—trying to bring everyone on board so that there would be agreement and a sense of comfort with whatever decision was reached.

The session could have simply voted and used a majority vote to approve the budget and not worried about the one or two people who had concerns, but that was never once suggested. Instead, that session meeting went quite late as conversation went back and forth around the table, each person doing their best to acknowledge what they heard others saying and adding to it their own perspective. In the end, the vote was unanimous and while there might have been those who would have chosen to do it differently, it was a decision that involved each and every person around the table.


Third. This is a congregation that cares.
You all care about one another and about the community and world in which you live. Two weeks ago I attended the Stephen Ministry Leader Training and was reminded of what an incredible time commitment Stephen Ministry is, for both the Stephen Ministers who engage in 50 hours of training and then commit to spending an hour a week with their care receiver in addition to supervision and continuing education, and for Stephen Leaders, who lead that training and coordinate that care and supervision. It would be impressive if we had one or two folks willing to make that kind of commitment, but we have over a dozen. And, a fair number of them provide care to folks in the community who have no connection to Covenant and likely never will.

And while Stephen Ministry isn’t for everyone, there are even more of you who willingly provide meals or rides or chores to folks in need. You have delivered over 30 meals in the six months I’ve been here, and that’s only the meals for folks in our congregation that you’ve signed up for or told us about, it doesn’t include the meals you just dropped off without being asked nor the meals that you cook, take, and serve at the hospitality center or the Veteran’s homes. You go out of your way to make sure that everyone who wants to be here on Sunday morning has a ride. You take people to the doctor and to run errands. You send cards and call one another and pray for one another. You take care of one another.

Not only that, you take care of others. You are committed to giving ten percent of the operating budget away even when it would be easier to use that money to create a balanced budget. You’ve created an entire committee to help us find ways to care for God’s creation—you risk fruit flies to save your food and bring it to be composted, you wash dishes rather than using paper plates that have been thrown out, you choose lightbulbs that save energy and ask questions about how we might use our land and our space to help give back to the environment and be good stewards of God’s creation.


Fourth. This is a congregation that is changing.
You have welcomed new members and helped to embrace a number of folks whose own church had to close. You have a number of relatively new staff members, new committees, a new bioswale, a new driveway, and a new composting bin. And, you have two relatively new pastors who do things differently than they’ve been done in the past and who have been known, on occasion, to ask their own hard questions. This is a church that is changing.

I don’t want to imply that any of these things have come easily. You all are impressive, but you’re not superheroes. I’ve seen you struggle to sort through your own emotions in order to get at the question that will be most helpful. I’ve seen you grapple with your own egos and defensiveness in order to see the best in others and their actions. I’ve seen you wrestle with frustration when folks ask questions you don’t understand or act in ways you don’t agree with. I’ve heard you take deep breaths and remind yourselves that community matters more than results, that people (even when they’re being annoying or hurtful or inconsistent) are worth the time and energy it takes to bring them on board. I’ve heard and seen you working hard to adjust to two new pastors who have crazy new ideas and different ways of doing things.

But most of all? I’ve seen you continue to show up. You are here on Sunday mornings. You take time out of your weeks to come to Bible Study and committee meetings. You sign up to deliver meals and drive folks where they need to go. You pray for one another, call one another, visit one another, care for one another. I’ve seen you continue to find new ways to contribute to this community, to care for the people who are here, to reach out to the world in which we live. I see you doing the hard work of being the body of Christ, of finding the places where your own skills and gifts are needed while also recognizing the skills and gifts of others.

Do we still have work to do? Of course. We will always have work to do, that's the reality of trying to live into this countercultural idea of being part of a larger body. We will always have to work to remember that our significance comes not from our own gifts and abilities but from what we are a part of. We will always have to remember that even when it would be easier to do it alone, without one another we’re just a pair of legs propped against a tree, just a head rolling into a cherry tree.[1] And we’ll always have to work to at rearranging our various parts to figure out how we best fit together, at making space for the new people who join us, and at grieving the loss of those who have left us. But all in all, you all embody (see what I did there?) what it is to be the body of Christ. And there’s no other body I’d rather be a part of.

Thanks be to God.

[1] For the Children’s message on this particular Sunday, I read the book, Head, Body Legs by Won-Ldy Paye in which various body parts struggle to get along until they find another and form a whole. The illustrations in this final paragraph come from that book.

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