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Coming Home to Community Sermon by Jackie McNeil

Click here to watch the sermon.

1 Corinthians 12:12-26

Some of you may remember this story. We’d been here about a year and a half and Cindy was off on her second mission trip to Cherryfield, and with her were some of the church folks that I’d become closest to here. Joshua had come to live with us, and he and I were spending the day together on Tuesday and went down to see some of the tall ships as they sailed past Bug Light.

We’d walked to and around the lighthouse itself and I was taking some pictures. And then, as I stepped down from the lighthouse, looking ahead as my toddler scampered away, I stepped wrong … my ankle went one way and my knee went the other way and I was on the ground. I’ve sprained my ankle many times over the years. I know a slight twist from a severe sprain, just from the sound and the feel of it as it happens. And I knew in that moment that I was in trouble.

Did I mention Cindy was in Cherryfield? For the week? And that I had a toddler? The car was a good long walk away, at the far end of the parking lot, and I wasn’t sure how I’d make it even that far, or if I’d be able to drive once I got there. I limped my way slowly to a bench, wishing I could crawl instead but absolutely unwilling to die of embarrassment. Amelia was in camp on the other side of town. And I was pretty sure I was going to need to see a doctor too. And most of the folks I knew well enough to ask for help were in Cherryfield.

Had I still been in Danbury, I would have known exactly who to call, where everyone lived, and what hours they worked. But we weren’t in Connecticut anymore and my support system had vanished.

Sitting on that bench, trying to determine how severe the injury was while coaxing my three-year-old away from the rocks, I felt unbearably alone.

Now I don’t know how God speaks to you, or what kind of relationship you have with God, but I sometimes get messages. Some are hints, suggestions, whispers even. But sometimes, I just get knocked upside the head.

So sitting on that bench, feeling unbearably alone, I got knocked upside the head and reminded that I was one phone call away from contacting a church staff and a church full of 500 people who would do what they could to help. Duh! Because I may not have known you as well as I knew those folks in Danbury, but in my heart I knew you would help. That I wasn’t alone.

And so I cried – because I’m a mushpot that way – and then I got up and got myself & Joshua back to the car, and picked up Amelia and went home to nurse my ankle. But it was a less daunting prospect once I knew I didn’t have to. And it reminded me of a time before we came here … when Amelia broke her hip at camp. In the midst of that chaos – x-rays, emergency surgery, an ambulance ride to a distant hospital in the wee hours of the morning – I sent an email asking for prayers from our church there. I knew nobody was awake at 2 am. I knew nobody would see my request until hours later, and maybe the crisis would have eased by then. But sending it connected me spiritually to a hundred people who I knew would pray for Amelia, would share my worries for her, would pray for me too.

So to me, that’s what church is. It’s community. It’s laughter, and tears, and meals and prayers, and children growing up together, and knowing that I’m not alone. So in the spirit of Cindy’s sermon series, church is coming home, to community.

Now, is church the only place to find community? Of course not. I’ve also found community in school, college, and grad school. The LGBT community has been integral to my life. Maybe you find community in neighborhoods, or rec leagues, or at the office. So there are lots of ways to find community, but many of them are circumstantial, or transitory, or sometimes hard to find. And if you move, you have to start all over again. So church can offer the kind of community which is easy to find, easy enough to connect to, and, well, this one’s been here for almost 300 years.

But there’s something church can give you that lots of other communities can’t, or at least don’t. In this increasingly divided and divisive world we live in, church brings you into community with people you might otherwise never speak to.

For example: Men. (You know who you are!) I grew up in a family of women. I’ve been an out lesbian since college. I majored in Women’s Studies and worked for a domestic violence agency. Let’s just say that I haven’t had a lot of men in my life. But there are a number of men I’ve come to know through church, and I’m convinced that if we could make these men our standard-bearers for masculinity, our world would be a much better place.

Now, I’m not going all kumbaya on you. I don’t assume that we will solve the world’s problems here. But we might hold the key to solving some … because what I have found among church folks is a deep compassion which transcends political and social differences. You may have never before invited the lesbians over for dinner … but I know you invited Cindy into your hearts and you all know this last week has been hard on her. And that compassion, that empathy, is not reserved for her. In this community, when we share our joys and struggles, we can see beyond the surface to the humanity within. And that connection … it’s beautiful. I might even call it divine.

And that means that we are more than a community. We are a community of faith. We don’t all think alike, or believe the exact same things, but somewhere inside we all believe that we are better with a higher power in our lives, and that we are better together.

In the scripture passage I read earlier, Paul also stated that we are better together. He did so by using an image of us, the church, as the body of Christ. He was not the first to use this image. “The metaphor of the body was widely used in Greco-Roman political discussions . . . to illustrate how unity can exist within diversity in society.”[1] But Greco-Roman authors and orators used this metaphor to emphasize “the predominance of the head so as to re-inscribe the hierarchical order of imperial society.”[2] In other words, they said we are all one body, even though we are diverse; but what matters is not the parts, but the whole, and the head gets to call all the shots.

Paul, on the other hand, used the image to say that we all matter. We all, as individuals, are important. We cannot survive without the other, and no part is more important than another. We cannot look down at anyone and say, “You don’t belong” or “You’re not important enough.” It was a radical reorganization that certainly must have felt like disorganization to those accustomed to being important. Instead “Paul challenges notions of class, status, and privilege assumed to be natural by elites.”[3] It’s a political move, a political statement. “Whereas Greco-Roman authors placed the emphasis on the unity of the whole, Paul emphasizes the importance of the diversity of the parts as they relate to the whole.”[4] It is a theology that could not have been created by followers of a triumphant king. It could only come from those who followed a crucified Messiah. We are all important. We all belong. We all need one another.

Now, I’m pretty smart and I usually get things on the first bounce. So it’s not often that I am blindsided by the obvious. But that’s what happened to me back in that little church in Danbury one Sunday. Cindy will tell you that she looked out from the pulpit to see me crying in the pews. (I told you I was a mushpot …) And even after the service, I just sat there as everyone filed out, a bit overwhelmed. You see, I’ve had a long and often intense spiritual journey. I’ve had those experiences of the divine that are almost impossible to share in words, and I have felt the clear presence of God in my life, sometimes guiding me step-by-step, and sometimes knocking me on my derriere. My base theology is summed up this way: “God is the whole which is greater than the sum of its parts. We are all connected and part of that whole, but it is bigger than all of us.”

But up to that point, I had never belonged to a church. So that Sunday, sitting in those pews, I was blindsided by the obvious. “If I believe in a God of connection, why am I following a solitary spiritual path?”

Yes, I can have my own spiritual journey … but if it is solely mine, it’s not getting me closer to God. And so I need you … I need this community of faith. I need to live in relationship with you, to celebrate and mourn with you, to ache and to heal with you.

If we are part of the same body, this comes naturally. If the toe hurts, the whole body feels it. If the tooth aches, it becomes the center of our world. The parts of the body cannot typically hide from one another. We must do the same. If we are to carry one another’s burdens, we have to see each other; we have to see each other’s pain, and allow ourselves to be seen.

And we’ve got to go beyond the surface. Sure, you can help me with my sprained ankle. Can you also help me with my wounded soul?

Just this past week, people across Twitter have used the hashtag #WhyIDidn’tReport to explain why they didn’t report sexual assaults at the time. People are voluntarily reliving their trauma and sharing their pain in order to try and teach other people to extend compassion to victims, in order to reach across the divide.

The sharing of stories is beautiful and heart-breaking, both because of the content of the stories, and because for some people, that’s the only place they have to share. I have more than that. I have a community.

Why I didn’t report? Because I was 5 years old. Now to be clear, that’s not an open wound, but it is a scar I carry, as much a part of me as my repeatedly sprained ankles and my creaky back. And because we are in community, that is something I know that you will help me carry.

And as for those men I was talking about earlier … You can do more than help me carry that. You can also establish standards by which the abuse, objectification, and demeaning of women is not acceptable in your schools, clubs and social circles.

If we are to be the church to the world, we must first be the church to each other. We need to strive – not for agreement – but for transcendence. To know that we are better together. To know that only together can we be God’s hands and feet and heart in the world.

The divine in me recognizes the divine in you. Namaste and Amen.

 

[1] Pickett, Ray. “The Politics of the Messianic Body.” www.politicaltheology.com

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

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