Carla J. Bailey, Pastor
A sermon given at
The Church of Christ at Dartmouth College
A congregation of the United Church of Christ
1 Corinthians 12:14, 21-25
I recently spent a few days in Washington D.C. visiting my daughter. She works for the U.N. Foundation for a program called Girl Up, an effort to link the energy and conviction of adolescent girls in the United States, age 10-16, to the lives of adolescent girls in developing countries. The U.N. Foundation, begun in 1998 with a $1 billion gift from Ted Turner, exists to provide program support and global partnerships to implement the declarations of the United Nations. When Ted Turner gave his monumental gift, he was motivated by his dismay that the United States stands in significant arrears in its dues to the United Nations. As of last October, the U.S. owes the U.N. $1.2 billion. The United Nations could not accept Ted Turner’s gift as payment of U.S. dues, so he established the Foundation. The main issue areas the Foundation addresses are child health, climate change & energy, sustainable development, technology, and women and population initiatives. They do this primarily through partnerships. The Girl Up partnership program is based on the belief that the well-being of adolescent girls is the key to eliminating poverty, achieving social justice, stabilizing the population, and preventing foreseeable humanitarian crises.
And maybe they’re right. God knows the usual and customary political and military solutions haven’t been wildly successful. Girl Up believes that if a girl in a developing country can just escape being sold into marriage before she reaches the age of 18, the chances of her children’s access to education and health care rises by 100%. Currently, 1 in 7 girls in developing countries is married by the age of 15. Girl Up believes that for every one year of education a girl in a developing country receives beyond the age of 10, her earning potential rises 10 to 20%. Every year. In addition, UNF studies in developing countries now show that educated girls and women invest 80-90% of their income back into their families and communities for further education and health care. Girl Up believes that adolescent girls
in developed countries like ours are persistent, determined, compassionate, powerful, and influential. Girl Up believes that adolescent girls in the United States care once they know, and act once they care (as opposed to adults in the United States who know and then maybe care but, once know and care, tend to stop acting).
While I was visiting Matrika, I attended a presentation about a program in another branch of the Foundation, attended by twenty-five of the Girl Up workers. A Liberian woman told of her experience learning how to become a political activist and her further experience training young girls in advocating for the Children’s Protection Act in Liberia, a law that has been unenforced since 1989. Her story was compelling, of course, but what was most impressive was the quality of the conversation following the presentation. The Girl Up workers in that room really wanted to learn from her. How did you become an activist? How did you get hundreds of Liberian adolescent girls to visit the parliament, demanding that the law which they passed in 1989 be taken seriously? I left that presentation filled with more hope for the future of our complicated, violent, alienated world than I have felt in years. Maybe it was just the overwhelming pride and joy a parent feels in seeing a child embrace and far surpass the values he or she cherishes. Maybe it was just the responsibility-free rest and rejuvenation that comes at the end of a long and demanding year of work and study. Maybe it was just a pretty day, a lot like today actually, the third one in a row in which I hadn’t read a newspaper. But I don’t think so. I think there’s something good quietly, steadily at work among young people who are wired into the world in ways the rest of us simply do not appreciate.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, he was writing to a congregation that was just getting started. Not only were they new to being a church, they were, most of them, new to being Christian. Some members of the congregation felt as if they perhaps knew better than others how this should all go. They stood on a higher rung, so to speak. They were Jews, after all, like Jesus himself. Metaphorically speaking, they were the brains of the operation. The Corinthian congregation, a strategic one in terms of church development, was what we would now call “highly conflicted” - its internal battles making it difficult to grow, to thrive. In fact, all Paul’s earlier work in Corinth threatened to unravel completely, and why? Were they disagreeing over a particular theological concept? Or was their disagreement over the best strategies for helping the poorest of the poor in Corinth? Were they concerned over their city’s policies related to zoning or voting districts? Was it taxes that had them tied up in knots? No, no, nothing so worldly as that. The Corinthians were simply trying to establish a pecking order among themselves. Which ones of them were more valuable than others? And those of greater value, should they not have a greater say in how things were to go in their congregation?
In a metaphor that has stunning staying power, Paul compared the church in Corinth to a human body with ears and feet, eyes and hands. Had Paul known more about inner anatomy, he no doubt would have talked about heart, lungs, blood vessels, intestines, and so on. His point, of course, was to clearly demonstrate that a human body is all of a piece with different parts that work together for the common good and that each of those parts are attached to each other right from the start. Unlike Mr. Potatohead, eyes, ears, and nose cannot be detached at whim. The brilliance of the metaphor however, is not so much in the reminder that all parts of a human body make up a single entity, a human being or a congregation, but that no single part of the body is more or less necessary than another part. No part is inferior or superior to another part. All make up the body of Christ, noses, ears, feet, brains, hands, muscles and stomachs.
Which brings me back to where I began this sermon, describing the experience of listening to a room full of young American women asking a Liberian woman to teach them how she did what appeared to be unlikely, if not impossible. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that the world is like that single body Paul envisioned the Corinthians to be. Hands and feet, ears and eyes, arteries, lungs, and skin – Liberia, Malawi, Mongolia, Libya, Tunisia, Finland, Greece, Afghanistan, France. And imagine, for a moment, that one part of that global body, the United States let’s say, supposes itself to be superior, more essential to the body than Liberia. What would be the basis for such a claim? We might think we are most essential to the body because of our superior brain, or perhaps because of our mighty military muscles. Perhaps we understand ourselves to be essential to the global body based on our remarkable ability to live within our means, or our obvious care for the most vulnerable among us, or perhaps our careful city planning, or the equitable way all our citizens receive health care, or, well, who knows why? We’re just a superior nation. In every measurable way, we have it all over everyone else, right?
But there I was, this last Tuesday, watching and listening as a group of well-educated, talented, healthy, privileged young women listened to an inferior body part, so to speak, from Liberia, teach them how to make a sea change in the way to bring about the protection of young girls. It was absolutely clear to the American reared and educated UN Foundation employees that there was much to learn from that “inferior” Liberian global body part. In fact, to those young women, it was clear that partnering would be much better for us than it would be for Liberia.
The Gospel turns everything you think you know upside down and inside out. The inferior parts of the body are indispensable. If we believed that, truly embraced and lived globally according to Paul’s brilliant little metaphor, well, things would come to look a little different, wouldn’t they?
Sometime during this gloriously beautiful day, bring to mind someplace in the world that you have heretofore thought to be inferior. And imagine God’s hope that that very inferior part of the world be given the greater glory. Amen.