When we read Paul’s letters, we’re reading someone else’s mail. That means there’s a certain amount of guesswork about what’s going on. What we can figure out from the preceding eleven chapters of this very long letter is that the Christian Church in Corinth has experienced a conflict, a divisive controversy. There were issues of social class and privilege, creating insiders and outsiders. Here, Paul is addressing the fact that some of the Corinthian Christians were claiming to be super-Christians, more important and more spiritual because they could speak in tongues. It sounds odd to us, now. Presbyterians aren’t known for speaking in tongues; what’s the big deal? But it was a big deal; it was pulling the Corinthian Church apart.
Paul doesn’t demean speaking in tongues. He uses the analogy of the human body to explain that the church needs the diversity of many different gifts, and the members with these different gifts are interdependent, just like a body. The metaphor pretty much speaks for itself. You get it right away: obviously, a body’s eyeball isn’t going to tell the foot to get lost. The human body has many different parts with different functions but they all need each other. So, by analogy, in the Body of Christ, we all need each other. We need what is different about us.
In fact, says Paul, our differences are God’s gift to us. Today, the Closely Knit Group meets after worship. Among other things, they knit the prayer shawls that our deacons distribute to people who are ill or in crisis. It’s a beautiful ministry of caring and compassion. But think of a church with nothing but knitters. No Dave Jones or Mary Ilyin to shepherd our remodeling projects; no Martha Spears to work with our older adults; no Martha Olsen Joyce to guide us in communications. Our eyes might be useful, beautiful even; but we need hands and feet and elbows and lungs and livers, too.
Of course, as Paul knew well, it’s much easier to imagine a well-functioning body when you’re thinking about livers and elbows than when you’re thinking about other human beings. We don’t handle the variety outside our body nearly as well as we handle the variety inside. It is good to be reminded, now and again, that our differences really are a God-given gift; that oneness does not mean sameness; and that unity does not mean uniformity. As John Pavlovitz writes, “Real diversity often comes disguised as a problem. When disparate groups of people intersect, there is going to be turbulence. …. The church is not a static thing that we ask people to discard their individuality to join; it is a living organism that we invite them to connect with and change with their presence. It is always becoming.”
The church is always becoming. It is always, if it is healthy and growing, becoming something new and different. New people bring change, and that is as it should be. It’s an axiom that if you, as a person, as a body, aren’t changing and growing, you’re dying. That goes for the church, the Body of Christ, too.
That is important, worth remembering, but another verse caught my attention today: “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Here, Paul’s metaphor keeps on working. A toe might be a small body part, but stub it, and see how it impacts everything. We all actually know that an earache or an upset stomach or a twisted ankle can define your whole day: the suffering of one part of the body really does make the entire body suffer.
But let’s bring that part of the metaphor into the arena of the Church as the Body of Christ. That’s when it’s helpful to know not only what comes before these verses, but what comes after, as well. Paul concludes this chapter by saying, “…strive for the greater gifts.” That sounds, at first, like a contradiction of what he’s said before. Is he saying some gifts are more important, better than others? What follows is Paul’s description not of better gifts but of a “better way.” Chapter 13 is the passage most people associate with weddings; it’s Paul’s gorgeous poem about love. He isn’t talking about romantic love; he’s talking about the love of Christ, who was compassion incarnate. Still, First Corinthians 13 is perfectly appropriate for a wedding because every spouse eventually figures out that the person you’re married to is infinitely different from you. Every spouse eventually figures out that the work of marriage is to love, to have compassion for, to suffer and rejoice with someone who is as different from you as a foot from an eye.
Just like every person in the church, and it was the church, of course, Paul addressed. Part of being community, part of being the Body of Christ, is having compassion for each other; suffering together, and rejoicing together. We do that pretty well sometimes, and not so well other times. In my experience, when we don’t do so well, it isn’t because people don’t care; it’s because they don’t know. One of the major challenges to “suffering with” others, having compassion for others in our culture, especially here in Marin, is that somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone or any help. We need to look as though we have it all together. Many of us are more than willing to extend a helping hand, compassion, or empathy to others but we’re reluctant to say when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both. Brené Brown writes, “Connection doesn’t exist without giving and receiving. We need to need.” Until we can receive compassion with an open heart, we are never really giving it with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.
Sometimes we don’t want to let people know what’s going on with us because we imagine our problems are small, we don’t want to bother people, and they wouldn’t understand, anyway. Besides, we think, what we’re going through is insignificant compared to what’s going on in the news around us. Well-meaning friends told author F. Scott Fitzgerald that the cure to his struggles was to think about the fact that other people were going through a lot worse. He wrote, “But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work – and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.”
I read about pastor who was sent to serve a church called Ideal Presbyterian Church in rural South Dakota. “Ideal.” That’s a lot to live up to. The area seemed idyllic and peaceful, but the 70-member congregation had just been split by a theological controversy over the meaning of the virgin birth. They were hurting each other, neighbor divided against neighbor, family members alienated from one another, because they didn’t subscribe to the same dogmas.
Traveling from farm home to farm home, the new pastor learned not only of their agony about this crisis of faith but also their personal anguish about marital conflicts, depression, and unresolved grief after tragic deaths. Instead of an idyllic village far from the frantic pace of urban life, he discovered it was “three o’clock in the morning, day after day” for these people. They needed loving care, and they needed the reassuring, reconciling word of the gospel. A recent seminary graduate in a suburban church reports that it’s “three o’clock in the morning” for his church’s parishioners as well: “My church is a suburban church in a new, growing community. To drive through and see the wealth, the boats going to the lake on Sunday … you’d think what these people need most is a word of judgment – and sometimes they do. But for all their success, there is unbelievable hurt. The mid-life slump, divorce, mixed-up kids, inability to control credit-card buying, lack of time, etc. are all very real.” What these people needed was not judgment, he said, but healing.
My friends, I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t know what three o’clock in the morning, day after day feels like. I don’t know anyone in this congregation who has not experienced that kind of three o’clock in the morning at some point or another. I look out at you this morning, and I see many stories. And that’s on top of the structural stress we all face these days because of what’s going on in our nation; stress we aren’t trained to recognize. There is a broken heart sitting next to you in the pews this morning. Maybe it’s broken and healed over, or maybe it’s a fresh hurt. But next to you is someone who knows what three o’clock in the morning, day after day, feels like.
We were never meant to go it alone. The challenge in a culture like ours, in which looking good and looking as though we have it all together are just part of the air we breathe, is to connect in meaningful ways so that we build trust and build connections. No one wants to share their three o’clock in the morning story with someone they don’t know and trust, with someone who can’t put aside judgment; and not least, our judgment about needing others. This morning we have new nametags and I’ll say more about them later, but we’re starting a campaign to get you to wear them every week. Every. Week. It might seem like a small thing. But it says, “I want you to know me by name, and I want to know you by name, too.” When you think about it, that isn’t small at all. It’s the first important step toward the kind of connection that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when the relationship is a source of energy, resilience, strength and healing. Which we all need, now, more than ever. As C. S. Lewis put it, “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.’”
Kyle Childress writes that at his church, every Sunday for more than twenty years they have ended worship with a benediction he first learned from an African-American pastor. It begins, “Let’s take each other’s hands,” – and the people do – and then he says, “Now look who you’re holding hands with, and hold on tight! Because we’re going to need each other this week.” Several times over the years he’s had church members in unexpected crisis tell him later, “When I first heard the news, I didn’t know what to do or who to call. Then it hit me – who was I holding hands with Sunday? And that’s who I called.”
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
 John Pavlovitz, Building a Bigger Table (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017), 88.
 Richard B. Hays, Interpretation: First Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 216.
 Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazeldon, 2010), 20.
 Brown, Rising Strong (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 182.
 Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, 20.
 Donald E. Messer, Contemporary Images of Christian Ministry (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1989), 91-92.
 Ibid., 19.
 Kyle Childress, “Firm in Community,” November 8, 2010, http://www.christiancentury.org/blogs/archive/2010-11/firm-community