Carlos Wilton, January 27, 2013; 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you…’”
– 1 Corinthians 12:21a
On the day of a Congregational Meeting, I suppose it’s appropriate — nay, even obligatory — for the preacher to unpack a passage like the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians. It’s Paul’s famous image of the church as the Body of Christ. Paul goes through the various parts of the human body and asks the question whether any one part of the body can survive on its own. “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.’” The very notion is absurd.
In fact, that’s Paul’s point. All this talk about body parts surviving on their own is an elaborate joke. Even the youngest child can see that!
But Paul’s not writing to children. He’s addressing his letter to adults — adults who really ought to know better. Many of them are brilliant and accomplished people. Corinth is a cosmopolitan place, a center of trade and learning, a place buzzing with excitement and throbbing with energy. It’s the sort of place people from the country move to, in search of a better life. What Frank Sinatra sang about New York was probably true of Corinth also: “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.”
So, you have to wonder if some of those Corinthian movers and shakers felt a wee bit offended at Paul’s use of such a simple metaphor. Doubtless some of them, listening to Paul’s letter read for the first time, are looking for a weighty theological tome. What they get, instead, is a children’s book.
Yet, Paul’s very deliberate in his choice of images. This Corinthian church has been torn up by conflict. There’s the Jewish faction that favors circumcision as the mark of a faithful Christian man, and the Greek faction that would rather not bother. There’s the group that says it’s fine to buy your meat pre-cooked from the pagan priests — who’ve been barbecuing it as part of their sacrificial rituals — and an opposing group who sees this as sacrilege. There are those who profess allegiance to Paul, others to a teacher named Apollos, and still others who say, “I don’t care about these factions, I simply follow Christ.”
In short, it’s a mess. So this is why Paul trucks out this simple, children’s-book image, why he offers the Corinthians not Einstein, but Dr. Seuss. It’s an image everyone — young or old, educated or uneducated, male or female, newcomer or charter member — can easily relate to.
In reading that passage this past week, preparing for today, I was struck by that phrase, “I have no need of you.” I got to thinking about all the circumstances in which a person may utter that phrase, and how it’s likely to be received.
Imagine a child, on the threshold of adulthood, saying that to a parent. Suddenly the parent feels useless.
Imagine one partner in a marriage dropping that bomb on the other. How cold! How unfeeling!
Imagine a neighbor, showing up at the house next door with a snow-shovel, offering to help clear the driveway. Such an abrupt answer shuts down the neighborly instinct — perhaps for good.
The truth is, there’s a part of all of us that needs to be needed. We pride ourselves on how we can be of service to others. When the dependency relationship ends — as with a child leaving home to go off to college, or the military, or some faraway job — it can be a little difficult for the caregiver to get used to. Hence, the example of a mother chasing her adult son down the front walk, waving a scarf and saying, “Put this on, it’s cold outside!”
Besides, our whole society has been moving, for some time now, in the direction of glorifying proud self-sufficiency. People who need no one (or claim they do), who’ve got enough wealth in the storehouse to last them for years, are increasingly the ideal. Those common tasks friends and neighbors used to do for one another, in a sort of unspoken exchange, are growing increasingly rare. So much easier just to hire someone to do it. There’s no obligation that way.
“You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” is fine, up till the point that you can afford a backscratcher. Then, it’s so much easier not to have to navigate the web of interdependence.
Garrison Keillor did a riff on this sort of thing a while back that was set off by an item he saw in the newspaper: That, in the wake of high gas prices, the people who manufacture Winnebago motor homes are in financial trouble.
That style of camping has never held much appeal for me; I’ve always preferred the more rustic variety, a little closer to nature. Yet, it’s not hard to see how bouncing around the country in a Winnebago would be attractive to some, who can afford it. Just imagine the freedom: to wake up each morning and pick a direction of the compass, to drive off in that direction just to see what’s there — giving nary a thought to where you’re going to spend the night. You don’t have to worry about such a thing because, like the turtle, you carry your home on your back. While it’s nice to pull into a campground if you can find one, for the sake of the electrical and plumbing hookups, you don’t really need one. You can just pull off the road at the location of your choice. There’s no camp to set up; it’s all right there, just behind the driver’s seat.
Here’s Garrison Keillor’s take on it, from an essay he calls “Eulogy for the Winnebago”:
If you are selling a big box on a truck chassis for as much as a quarter-million dollars when gas is at four dollars and rising, you are aiming at a rather select clientele indeed, folks who might rather buy a beach house in Costa Rica than go cruising the Interstate.
Nonetheless it’s sad to see the motor home fade into the sunset. I used to despise them when I was a canoeist, of course. You paddle up to a campground at the end of a hard day and see a few RVs parked there, the air conditioners rumbling, the flickering blue light of the TVs in the windows, and as you set up your tent as far from them as possible, you feel a moral grandeur purer than you will ever feel again. A holy Christian pilgrim among the piggish heathen.
The fantasy of comfortable vagabondage lies deep within each one of us, though, and once, thirty years ago, driving a GMC motor home around western Minnesota, I fell under the spell. To have the freedom of the road and the comforts of home — your own books on the shelf, your clothes in a drawer, your brand of beer in the fridge — is an aristocratic privilege and I was happy to give up moral grandeur for a couple weeks and enjoy it.
[Garrison Keillor, “Eulogy for the Winnebago,” The Old Scout, June 17, 2008
What he’s talking about, of course, is the privilege of saying to the world, “I have no need of you.” Tooling around the country in a deluxe motor home is individualism writ large.
Higher gas prices make that king-of-the-road lifestyle harder to maintain, of course: and Keillor figures some inevitable changes are ahead. He continues:
So we will need to amuse ourselves in new ways. I predict that banjo sales will pick up. The screened porch will come back in style. And the art of storytelling will burgeon along with it. Stories are common currency in life but only to people on foot. Nobody ever told a story to a clerk at a drive-up window, but you can walk up to the lady at the check-out counter and make small talk and she might tell you, as a woman told me the other day as she rang up my groceries, that she had gotten a puppy that day to replace the old dog who had to be put down a month ago, and right there was a little exchange of humanity….
So when gas passes five dollars and heads for eight and ten, we will learn to sit in dim light with our loved ones and talk about hunting and fishing adventures, about war and romance and times of consummate foolishness when we threw caution to the wind and flung ourselves over the Cliffs of Desire and did not land on the Sharp Rocks of Regret.
One difficult thing about this Hurricane Sandy experience we’ve all been having is that it’s turned the typical dependency relationships on their head. The proudly independent homeowner spending night after night in a shelter, or sleeping on the couch of a friend. The person who did all the right things financially and has a modest-but-sufficient nest egg put away, suddenly having to line up to fill out papers for a government loan. It can be a hard, hard thing to learn to accept help when you’re out of the habit: when you’re accustomed to being a giver, not a receiver.
What is it about that little phrase, “I have no need of you,” that seems so attractive? For most of human history, people have taken it for granted that they need to depend on their neighbors. There are a few historical examples of how, when they deviated from this course, nothing good came of it.
Take the Norse settlement of Greenland, for example. Pushing on west from Iceland, hearty and courageous Vikings brought with them the farming techniques they’d used in their native Norway. They took note of the local Inuit people, who lived a subsistence, communal lifestyle close to the earth, and had long cherished ties of interdependence with one another. The Inuit did just fine in that environment, living that way, but the Norsemen figured they could to better. They looked upon the Inuit as ignorant savages. They prided themselves on being more civilized.
The Vikings set up their little farmsteads, built fences around them, imported pigs and sheep, and began to do things just as they’d always done them, back home in Norway. But a funny thing happened. The Greenland farms weren’t very successful. The soil was rocky, the growing season short. The colonists continued to be dependent on supply ships from Iceland. Eventually, the Norsemen realized Greenland was a losing proposition, so they packed up their farmsteads and their animals and moved back.
All the while, the Inuit were watching them. They could have taught the Norsemen how to thrive in that environment, as they had for generations. There were plenty of seal and walrus and whales, way more than they needed. They would have been glad to share. But the Norsemen weren’t interested. They were so certain: they had no need of them.
The most destructive thing of all, of course, is when people fool themselves into thinking they have no need of God. If you’ve been telling yourself for years that everything you have is a product of the labors of your hands, then it’s kind of hard to clasp those hands before you and offer up a prayer of thanksgiving. If you’ve convinced yourself you’re basically good inside, and there’s not really such a thing as sin — oh, for mass murderers, maybe, but not for the likes of you — then it’s kind of hard to access God’s forgiveness.
As many centuries of biblical authors bear witness, the Lord desires nothing more than to be in relationship with us human children, to guide us and provide for us. Yet, to access that help, we’ve got to get off our high horse. We’ve got to stop pretending we’ve got this life thing all figured out. When things emerge that aren’t part of the plan, maybe then — and only then — do we who have been so secure and self-sufficient give ourselves permission to accept a little help.
There’s no shame in doing so. It’s only human. Compared to the great sweep of human history, this individualist culture of ours, with nuclear families living on their own, apart from their relatives, and “our home (in the gated community) is our castle,” is but the tiniest blip on the timeline. If the Lord sends a hurricane our way to remind us we’re not really so independent as we make ourselves out to be, then maybe the best thing to do is accept that lesson, and see where it takes us.
One of the reasons why the church is having such a hard time these days — and I’m speaking here of all Christian churches, not just our congregation — is that it’s lost its essential role, in the eyes of many. That role is to be an important place for people to come together and draw strength from one another, under the blessing of God. If you truly believe the myth of the self-make man (or woman), if your home is your castle and a paid-off Winnebago the pinnacle of your aspirations, then you’re not likely to make much room in your life for the church.
Maybe Hurricane Sandy is teaching us differently. Maybe this is a wake-up call, that some of the aspects of Christian community we’ve been so quick, as a culture, to cast aside are things that are truly worth recovering.
In a short while, in the congregational meeting, we’re going to hear some gloomy reports about money and worship attendance. There are many ways this congregation has been hard-hit by the hurricane. I’m not talking about shingles blown off the roof. I’m talking about members who have moved away, or will move away; and family budgets stretched so thin while waiting for the insurance adjuster that it’s hard to keep up on Christian stewardship.
How do we get through such a time? By searching out all the resources we have at our disposal, and by coming together as a church community in ways some of us haven’t been doing for some time.
I’m not shy about saying, “We have need of you.” We have a mission — that new mission, in particular, of hosting some of the volunteer workers who are going to help restore the Shore — not to mention maintaining as many of our old programs as possible, because they’re needed more than ever. We need plenty of willing hands and positive, faithful spirits in the months and years to come, if we are to undertake these ministries.
So don’t be afraid to admit you have need of God, and of the good people who are your Christian sisters and brothers here at church. They need you as well. The feeling is mutual. The only way we’re going to recover from this disaster is if we can do it together.
Copyright © 2013, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.