Harrowing Of Hell
January 27, 2019

A Cup of Coffee; AJ Jacobs; the Body of Christ

Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To listen to the sermon click here.

Whoever you are whatever you do, you are part of a system that is bigger than you. That is how God designed it. Paul calls it the body of Christ in his First letter to the Corinthians that we hear today.

The reason Paul’s body of Christ metaphor has stuck is that it bears out in facts and in experience. Science supports it, from Chaos Theory to epidemiology; so do sports, and our family experiences, and our work life. If you’ve been listening to the news over the last 35 days…story after story of how when 800,000 people aren’t working who had been working many, many lives are impacted…and how ultimately, the suffering works its way through our communal neural network to impact those who have the power to change the body’s position.

Things are connected. We know this. Nothing new here. People probably knew this two thousand years ago as well. Not much has changed in the way a person lives and moves and has their being in the world between then and now.

The revelation in Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor is that all parts in this system are equal. Now this was new news and it seemed to fly in the face of observable fact. Clearly the Emperor was not equal… look! Clearly the High Priest and the Roman Prelate were not equal…look at their lives; higher status – more honor – better life. And then there were the orphans and widows; the crippled and the slow of mind…

Paul takes the point even further by claiming: the lesser should be more highly honored than the greater. He wrote it this way: “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member.”

Paul turned the world on its head by not only introducing this idea of radical equality, but also turning upside down cultural norms about who is blessed and who deserves honor. People have been trying to figure out how to live like this ever since.

I heard a story on the radio the other day that made me think of Paul, and the body of Christ, and our interconnectedness, and the joy that can come from honoring those who, at first blush, may seem a little less important than others.

A guy named AJ Jacobs was being interviewed.  He is the guy who wrote the book “The Year of Living Biblically,” that was about him trying to live all of the rules of the Old Testament. He calls himself the human guinea pig.  He also claims to be an agnostic verging on atheism. I would have thought that a year of living the Old Testament patterns would have returned AJ to the Jewish faith of his youth. 

Seems not to have done so; or maybe it did? Because one day AJ decided it was time for his family to say prayers before dinner, but since he claimed not to really believe in God, he decided that the prayers should be focused on gratitude to all of those people who helped make the meal possible. 

AJ didn’t give an example, but I can imagine what the prayer might have sounded like: “Thank you for the bounty of the harvest that produced this dinner. Thank you for the farmers, and the fertilizer manufacturers, and the truck drivers, and stock boys, and the purchasing agents at Safeway.” I’m not sure if that is how it went, but turns out that after a while his ten year old son got a little fed up and said: “You know Dad, they can’t hear us. Instead of this little pre-dinner ramble, why don’t you just go say thank you to them directly?” (paraphrased)

AJ, the human guinea pig, took the challenge, and decided to try out this Thank You experiment starting with his morning cup of coffee, seeking to thank everyone who helped make it happen. The obvious start was the barista. Then the people who make the cups, and then the people who make the hot cup holders… cozies, who knew they were called cozies? It spins out from there, and the next thing AJ knows he is in Central America at a coffee plantation thanking the owners and the workers and the guys who drive the coffee to the shipping docks. 

Some folks thought AJ was off his rocker, like the lady he called up who works at the rodent management company that keeps rats away from the warehouses where the coffee is stored.  Along the way AJ would ask the people he was thanking who made their work possible.  You can see how the connections just spawned connections, like when the truck driver said the people who built this truck…imagine going down that rabbit hole.

Anyway, the fruit of AJ’s gratitude (no surprise) was a book called Thanks a Thousand which is full of all of the crazy encounters this experiment generated.  What really stuck me as I listened to the interview was AJ recounting how, as part of the project, each morning he’d get up his usual grumpy self; get his coffee; and sit down at his computer to do his work…which was gratitude correspondence; thanking people and answering emails that were generated by thanking people. And as the work unfolded each day, and as he expressed more and more gratitude over and over again, his mood changed, and he would find himself brimming with joy, and gratitude, and thanksgiving.

And what surprised me is that this surprised him. What surprised me is that he was surprised that his gratitude begot gratitude. It surprised me that he didn’t know that we become what we do…Which is how this whole thing started I suspect, because AJ chose to live the Bible for one year. And he said prayers. And those prayers changed him, because we are changed by what we do. By not realizing the void that opened up when the prayers stopped the gratitude project came into being.  The crazy thing about this project is it could be a lifelong endeavor because the gratitude loop can never be closed by one person’s efforts. It is impossible. Only God can close that loop. Which made me think of the wisdom of AJ’s son: “Why don’t you thank them directly?” 

That is what this place was designed to do; thank the connector for making the connections and closing the loop so it all works together as one body. The formative action of gratitude that we participate in is the Eucharist which means Thanksgiving. In a few minutes I will invite you to participate in the Eucharist. We will hear the story of creation, and bow our heads as we glorify God with the angels and archangels and all of the company heaven; connecting metaphysically and eternally. We will hear how God broke the plan of human mortality to walk with us, and teach us how to live in the world as God made it to be lived in. And then we hear of rebellion, and how humanity, bristling at the idea that God has an agenda for people’s lives rejected the message and killed the messenger on a cross. But resurrection happened to mark God’s love for us. Resurrection is God saying: “I am here for you, and I love you, no matter what.”

The response to resurrection, to this unconditional love is gratitude; Thanksgiving; Eucharist. Coming to this communion table is the start of our thank you to God, because if God can reach into the lives of those lesser than God, that is you and me, we can reach out to those lesser than ourselves…and what we find in doing so is the radical equality that Paul talks about. What we find is that in the heart of our neighbor is a beloved child of God equal to us, and the Roman Prelate, and the High Priest, and even the Emperor himself, in every way. 

To experience this radical equality, however, requires we reach beyond our own patterns and zones of comfort…that is what God modeled in the incarnation and the resurrection; God reached into morality from a place of eternity to be with you and me.

Our response is gratitude, over and over again, in the pattern of worship that forms us into the kind of people who not only see equality in every person we meet, but actively honor it. Paul reminds us: “that when the greater honors the inferior members, dissension within the body dissipates, as the members care for one another. And if one member suffers, all suffer; and if one member is honored, all rejoice.” (paraphrase)

Which brings us to the head spinning reality: that when we bless and honor those whom, by human prejudice have been named the lesser, dissension is reduced and we see more clearly our connectedness…how when they suffer, everyone suffers;  when they rejoice, everyone rejoices.

We are interconnected to each other and to all of creation, and this is God’s preference, and attending to God’s preference seems a reasonable thing to do, not just because it is what God wants, though that might be enough, but also because that is how the world works.

Things are connected. And we are better, as AJ demonstrated, when we are gracious to those who God has connected us with. With this in my mind, I wrote AJ a note, and I asked him if his experience has moved him from his position as a self-proclaimed agnostic on the verge of atheism to a believer in God. 

I suggested that Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter twelve, articulated two thousand years ago what AJ seems to have just discovered…that we are all connected. I further noted that this exercise in gratitude had been institutionalized by the church a long time ago. I recommended the Eucharist to AJ, and suggested it would give him the same result as his gratitude experience, except with a much smaller carbon footprint. I haven’t heard back from him, but I hope to.