Diocese of Florida Convention Sermon: One Body

Cathedral of St. John, Jacksonville, FL
January 21, 2011

We are one body, with a whole lot of different parts. This body called The Episcopal Church has 16 different national parts: Taiwan, Micronesia, Honduras, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Haiti, Dominican Republic, British and US Virgin Islands, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and the US and its territories. We are one body with 112 different dioceses and regional parts. Even in Florida, we are one body in five different dioceses (Florida, Central Florida, SE, SW, and Central Gulf Coast). And this diocese has many different congregational parts, with different languages, liturgical traditions, and theological flavors. You serve people in many ways – young people, college students, returning veterans, the hungry and those leaving prison.
We are gathered as many sorts and kinds and conditions of people, with varying languages and positions and opinions. Yet all of us know one lord, one faith, one baptism, and we claim one God and father of us all. It is a blessing, and a miracle that we can claim our unity as often and deeply as we do.

We can and should think in the larger framework as well – one body in the Anglican Communion, with 38 regional provinces, some of them single nations, others like this one, encompassing several. But we can’t stop there. This part of Christ’s body is linked with Lutherans, Moravians, and Old Catholics in fully organic ways that mean we can and do work together in the intimate ways that we call “full communion.” Mostly that means that we recognize each other as being made of the same Christian body stuff – we can live together sacramentally without making antibodies or defenses against each other. The word is that we’re supposed to keep on working at that kind of recognition relative to other parts of God’s body. But we struggle, mostly because we have a remarkably persistent virus that says that only familiar parts of the body are “safe” to live with.

Think about the bodies each one of us inhabits. Those bodies are made up of trillions of cells, working together most of the time to keep the whole thing reasonably intact and healthy. If your body suffers an affront, like falling down and skinning your knee, many parts go to work immediately to stop the bleeding, mobilize to defend you from germs that might infect that knee, and start cleaning up the damage. The muscles and nerves around the scrape get sore, which serves in part to keep you from overusing your knee until it’s well on the road to healing.

Yet that system we call a body is a whole lot more complex and interconnected than we usually recognize. It’s made up of many different kinds of cells, not all of which have our unique DNA. We have lots of other kinds of life in and on us – insects, like mites, that are usually too small to see; bacteria, viruses, fungi, and maybe even some other things that we might call parasites. But most of those other forms of life are essential to our well-being. The bacteria in our guts help us digest food and absorb nutrients. The little energy machines in our cells called mitochondria were probably originally a different form of life. We know that because all the ones we have are descended from the ones in our mother’s egg. The great miracle is that most of the time this immensely complex system of members works together for our health and healing. Most of that system works unconsciously, far from being controlled by conscious thought, although we can cooperate with it in seeking a healthier state. Or we can choose not to cooperate, by overeating, under-exercising, or even using stuff (like antibiotics) that kills the good bacteria and fungi in our guts or on our skin.

The same principles apply to the larger body of God’s creation, whether we talk about just the human part of creation or the whole planet. Human history is filled with episodes of one group trying to sanitize its environment by eliminating another part of the body. National Socialism is a demonic icon of that, but there’s no shortage of examples in recent years: the internecine slaughter in Rwanda; the struggles in Abyei, on the border between northern and southern Sudan; the struggle between Israelis and Palestinians, or North and South Korea, or the repeated spasms of violence here, between people of different ethnic origins. One part of the body seeks to eliminate another, and the health – and holiness – of humanity in that part of the world is diminished. The sickness can be fatal – for individuals, communities, and even nations.

Yet we do see counter-examples, where the immune system is strong enough to permit health in two parts of the body that don’t readily recognize each other. It’s a very short time-frame, but the referendum in Sudan gives beginning evidence of a healthy self-differentiation, rather than descending into full-scale war. When communities begin to find a common identity and purpose, the whole body enjoys much greater health.

The sickness or dis-ease that results from attempts to expunge the other can last for generations, as well as decrease the viability of the whole system. I’m reading a book right now, Empire of the Summer Moon, about the struggle over the Texas frontier between the Comanche bands and both English and Spanish speaking settlers. It’s a microcosm of the struggle between native peoples and European settlers seeking their “manifest destiny.” The whole body is still suffering – native peoples from poverty, suicide, cultural extinction, and hopelessness; the heirs of the settlers from blindness about relationship to a larger body; and the non-human creation from the destruction of the buffalo, the native prairie, and the assumption that other crops could easily and appropriately displace native ones. The poverty in rural Florida has some connection to the same processes.
We’re all sick in some degree because of our disconnection from the larger body of God’s whole creation. Almost everyone forgot, ignored, or never learned what it means to be part of one body, intended to live in peace and harmony with all the other parts of the body. We’re still paying the price, especially in our lack of awareness of our impact on the rest of creation. What we dig and pipe out of the earth is changing our long-term expectations for flourishing or even surviving on this planet.

Yet God continues to remind us that we are all members of one body, and that that body is supposed to be a bringer of good news to the oppressed, a comfort to those in mourning, and a deliverer of captives. We’re supposed to bring praise, rather than crush spirits. We’re reminded over and over again that we will be given what we need, and that together we can do what no one part can accomplish. This body of Christ is meant to be the healer of nations, whether Haiti or Navajo or Sudan or these United States.

What gets in the way? Our tendency to act like killer T-cells, those important white blood cells that run around our bodies looking for invaders, those awful buggers that aren’t us! Sometimes the better response is the slower one – lest we mistake an unfamiliar life form for an enemy. What’s causing this fever – is it a cholera bacterium, or is it a stray Pentecostal? I’m not suggesting that we cozy up to cholera, but test and moderate our response until we’re certain – because the response is often more destructive than the unexpected visitor. That’s what allergies are, and most of the auto-immune diseases – over-reactions to other parts of the body of God’s creation.

Spiritual discipline is designed to moderate our allergic response to foreigners. Jesus’ words in that gospel are about discerning the difference between fish and eggs and scorpions and snakes. Knocking, asking, and seeking are all ways of slowing down the over-reaction.

We are all members of one body, that of God’s creation. We’re also members of one body called The Episcopal Church, in all its variety. The important truth is that we need all these parts, even if we do have allergic reactions to some of them, because God’s vision of a healed world isn’t possible without all the members working together as a whole. Haiti right now is a good example. All sorts and persuasions are working to serve the healing of that nation, for we are remembering at some deep level that God’s creation will only be healed when each member of the body knows good news, healing, and deliverance.

So let’s quit sneezing and get on about bringing the oil of gladness and the mantle of praise and the year of the Lord’s favor.