Third Sunday after Epiphany
Tar of Bethlehem, Pastor Kinsey
As we walked up to our hotel that January night, right after Christmas, the neon sign was shining in the brisk evening air. It said, “The TAR of Bethlehem.” And for a moment I was puzzled. Had I missed something in my preparations to visit the birth-city of Jesus? Was TAR an important commodity that I somehow failed to pick up on? Was this a Hebrew, or Arabic name, I was unfamiliar with? Until I realized, it was more simple than that. It was just missing a letter, “S”. Our hotel was, the STAR of Bethlehem!
What a relief! Of course, the Star of Bethlehem – I get that. The 3 kings, followed the star from the east, until it rested over the place where Jesus was born, in the manger – in Bethlehem of Judea!
But the missing letter wasn’t the only thing in need of repair in our hotel. Other light bulbs in various fixtures were out too. And there were cracked walls needing a new paint job. Times were still tense and unsettled on the occupied West Bank, back in 2005. Even though the Intifada was over, tourists had not returned in numbers anywhere near, previous trips to the Holy Land. And Bethlehem’s economy depended on it. We made some great deals with street vendors – as young as 12 – selling olive wood Nativity sets and candle sticks. We received a kind of special treatment. They were so delighted to see us. But many Palestinians, mostly Christian, were leaving every day, for work in countries as far away as the U.S. and Canada.
Bishop Younan and Pastor Raheb of Christmas Lutheran Church were also happy to see us. It was Epiphany, 11 years ago, when we worshipped with them. And the Star of Bethlehem was a guiding light, for all of us, as fellow Lutherans and Christians from half-way around the globe.
“For just as the body is one and has many members,” St Paul wrote, “and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.”
The metaphor of “the body” that Paul used in his Letters to the Corinthians was a familiar one in the Greco-Roman culture of Paul’s time. They used it to illustrate unity. But also to illuminate the basic belief in the empire’s hierarchy. The emperor is the head – the brains, on top, and in charge of everything – and all the other body parts work for him, doing as the head tells them. In that way, they work together – it’s one organic whole, in a certain sense.
But Paul’s conception of the metaphor is something quite different. Every part of the body is equally valued, and needed, to make it work. We all depend on one another to stay healthy. If everyone were an eye, how would that work? If there were no feet, the body’s purpose would be considerably restricted.
And most amazing of all, neither God, nor Christ, is the head, ruling over us. But the people of the church, its many members, all together, are the incarnate, one Body of Christ in the world! Which is a rather excellent conveyance of the way Jesus turned ‘the ways of this world’ on its head, in blessing the poor, the humble and meek, declaring the year of the Lord’s favor, the Jubilee, or 50th Year, when all debts for working people were forgiven, and prisoners freed.
Not long after Paul, along comes church father, Tertullian. But apparently, he didn’t get the memo! When Tertullian recounts the wonder of God become flesh in Jesus, the Epiphany of the body of Christ, he’s astonished that Jesus could come out so well, from what he considered was, in his words, “the uncleanness of the generative elements within the womb, the filthy concretion of fluid and blood—for nine months long.” Hello! Tertullian is so steeped in the Platonic patriarchy of his own culture, he fails to embody the transformation, his Lord and Savior lived and died for – for us!
But no worries! We’re liberated from that stuff, all these centuries later, right?! I’d like to think so. But of course, the church is a large and very diverse body. Even within Lutheranism we can’t agree that women should be ordained pastors. Or, that Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and 3 days later, regurgitated up on shore in one piece, only figuratively speaking!
Too often our local churches and congregations, shy away from the incarnation of Christ in our messy material world. We’d rather dwell in the ethereal world of ideas, where flesh, and blood, and bone, do not cloud the mind – in a spirit world, that hovers above the messy quagmires, we ourselves create.
Sometimes, I’d like to think, for example, that I’m not part of: The church of the inquisition; the church that condoned slavery; the church that for so long, disowned its LGBT sisters and brothers. But that’s not how it works. Unity in the Church is not the oneness I want, or that I get to decide, but a process of living together with every last, and necessary, body part: the arms and the legs, the head and the feet, the phlegm and the blood, wombs and male genitals, intestines and toe nails. As Paul reminds us, “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you.’” And so, living with all the members, is often hard work.
I’ve seen more than one member leave the church because of what’s usually called “church politics,” but most often, is just a part of the nitty-gritty process of working out “living arrangements” with those we’d prefer to veto, and not have to deal with. But Paul and Jesus, seem to think it’s important for us, to “love one another,” every member, not just the ones we like to sit next to. After all, Jesus loved us to the end, enduring the cross, to prove this kind of love.
In reality, most congregations are fairly homogenous, which decreases the drama and tension. But of course, Paul and Jesus are talking about the church universal, all the members of the Body of Christ, everywhere. So the truth is, the more hard work we put in, to find unity, and the ability to walk together as one body, the closer we are to good health, and to the realm of God.
In Dostoevsky’s famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, Father Zossima says,
“Love in reality, is a harsh and dreadful thing, compared to love, in dreams.”
So, we are more than just metaphorical body parts. We have real flesh and blood roles in church and society. Some are prophets, some apostles, some teachers, and on and on. “Do all possess gifts of healing,” asks Paul? “Are all prophets or teachers?” No, but in working together as one body, we strive for the greater gifts, he says, of faith, hope, and love, which we do all have. And of these three, love is the greatest.
God chose what is foolish in the world, and loved it – including Jesus on the cross. Which inspired Paul to write this to his church in Corinth, a message at odds with the culture around him:
“the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,
and those members of the body that we think less honorable
we clothe with greater honor,
and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect;
whereas our more respectable members do not need this.
But God has so arranged the body,
giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body,
but the members may have the same care for one another.
If one member suffers, all suffer together with it;
if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”
That’s quite an Epiphany, even for our world today.
God sent Jesus, weak and small, to transform the world – which is us – into the greater body of Christ. It’s an epiphany! Like a star that can lead us to the lowly manger. Or like the neon, TAR of Bethlehem sign, that flickers in the night, lovable in its own imperfect way, just like you and I – a sign of what is, ‘indispensable,’ in our own, ‘unity in the making’.