The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
1 Corinthians 12:21-26 (NIV)
Along my journey I have lived in a handful of different places from really small towns (e.g. 110-318 people) to larger towns (e.g. 10,000-30,000 people), and a couple of urban regions (e.g. 250,000- 9,000,000 people). Across all of the places I’ve lived I have served and worshipped in a number of churches, both small and large, and of different denominational or theological backgrounds.
One of the things that I’ve noticed is that there has virtually always been at least a couple of special people in every gathering in which I’ve been a part. In the quiet this morning I bring to mind a number of faces and memories I’ve not thought about in a long time. These special individuals are a combination of persons who get labeled “odd duck,” “slow,” “off,” or any number of phrases such as “a few bricks shy of a full load” or “the elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top.”
I’m chuckling to myself as I recall one gentleman named Norman. Norman was a huge grizzly bear of a man, who was cross-eyed unkept. His hair was never clean or brushed. His clothes were always disheveled. He commonly paired an ratty, old suit jacket he owned with his dirty overalls. Norman’s speech was always gravely and slurred. His body odor generally arrived ahead of him and lingered well after he left. He would typically arrive late to the meeting and he was known to belch in the middle of my message with the decibel level of your average 737 at take-off.
Norman was also amazingly sweet spirited, regularly attended, never ceased to display a grateful heart, and he always had a kind word to say to any who would take the time to actually have a conversation with him.
Today’s chapter of Paul’s letter to the believers in first century Corinth is normally interpreted to be about how different individuals in the church have different gifts and abilities and they all work together to make up the whole. When Paul writes the words, The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” it is typically interpreted to mean that we all need each others gifts and talents. At least, that’s the way I’ve typically read it and presented it.
As I read the familiar passage this morning, however, I was struck by what Paul had just addressed in the previous chapter:
…for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?
In other words, the divisions among the followers of Jesus in Corinth were not just about differences of talent, culture, philosophy and doctrine. The divisions included the “haves” and the “have nots.” This might have been socio-economic status, but also might well have included those who were healthy and those who were sick, those who were “normal” and those who were…special. So when Paul writes, “those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor” he was talking about those among us whom we typically marginalize, ignore, shy away from, and from whom we distance ourselves.
I’m reminded this morning that what originally differentiated the followers of Jesus in the first century was that they welcomed everyone to the table no matter the gender, race, nationality, background, health, talent, or socio-economic status. The “everyone is welcome” attitude was breaking down big-time in Corinth, as I observe it has in most places I’ve lived and worshipped.
This morning I’m thanking God for the special people in my midst who are typically difficult to appreciate, often painful to talk to, and sometimes are just plain awkward when trying to make connection. I’m also confessing that I too often shy away and distance myself from those who are different when I should be leaning in, honoring, and loving. Even if they belch loudly in the middle of my message.