By Rev. J.C. Austin
The knuckles on my fingers had turned bone-white as I gripped the steering wheel hard. I took a deep breath and forced myself to relax slightly. The car wasn’t even moving, after all. But it was about to be, and that was what I was afraid of. I was sitting in a 20 year-old Volkswagen Golf, parked on a hill in between a truck and a car in the town of Lüderitz on the western coast of Namibia, the desert country just north of South Africa. I was spending about two weeks driving through Namibia while I was on break from my studies at the University of Cape Town.
It hadn’t been an easy trip; the Volkswagen was well past its prime, and even then it would have had a hard time navigating the corrugated dirt roads that were common in Namibia. But the trip to Lüderitz from the capital of Windhoek seemed easy: it was a paved two-lane highway the whole way, so I could drive at least 75 miles an hour in comfort. Until the sandstorm, that is. I remember cresting a hill and seeing it, billowing towards me like an angry red cloud across the whole desert valley I was going into.
Before I knew it I had plunged in. I had thought it would be impossible to see in, but it was more like a fairly mild snow shower. The wind shook the car a bit, but I found that visibility wasn’t so bad and if I decelerated to about 60, it was not really a problem. So after about 20 minutes of driving through the sandstorm, I came out the other side and proceeded on towards Lüderitz, thinking that I had a new story to tell.
But that wasn’t the story. The story was when I got close to Lüderitz and realized what the storm had actually done to my car. As I began to tap the brakes to decelerate into the town, I realized that nothing was happening. I pressed harder, then stomped: nothing. The sandstorm had somehow eaten out the brakes, or at least the connection between the brake pedal and the brake pads. That was a problem. But it wasn’t the only one.
Naturally, I took my foot off the accelerator when I realized the brakes weren’t working and…also nothing happened. That was an even bigger problem: the accelerator was stuck, stuck almost fully depressed on the floor, and so I was hurtling into the town of Lüderitz at around 65 miles an hour with no way to stop or even slow down.
The car was an automatic transmission, so I couldn’t simply downshift, but as I got towards the top of the last hill into the town, I wrested the gear from Drive into Neutral. The transmission didn’t like that, but at least it decided to stay in the car a little while longer, for which I was grateful. We descended into the town far too quickly, but luckily the main road then climbed another hill, and about two-thirds of the way up I had decelerated enough to where I could roll to a stop and park using the emergency brake, which fortunately still worked.
I got out of the car and began walking through town, finally coming across an auto shop, where I explained my problem. The mechanic assured me that he could fix it without too much trouble, but there was just one more problem: not only did he not have a tow truck, there wasn’t one in the whole town, so I would have to get the car to him.
So, I walked back to the car, only to discover that a truck had now parked in front of me and a car had pulled in behind. That wouldn’t normally be a problem, but now I was going to have to come out of the parking place with the accelerator floored, so I was only going to get one shot at it. I sat down in the car and turned it on, and the engine screamed to life, redlining the rpm gauge. I turned the wheel as far to the right as it would go, sat there for a moment looking at my white knuckles, and then took my deep breath. I checked to make sure there was no traffic coming, then in one quick movement released the emergency brake and threw the car into gear.
You know how fighter planes take off from aircraft carriers, with the pilot’s head being thrown back into their seat from the G-forces of such a rapid acceleration? It was kind of like that, with the stuck accelerator pushing us forward as fast as the Volkswagen would go.
Luckily, I cleared the truck, swerved back onto my side of the road, threw the car back into neutral as I cleared the top of the hill, and was able to coast down to the auto shop and come to a stop just outside, where we pushed it the rest of the way. After a couple of hours, the mechanic came out. The brakes had been easy, he said, but not the accelerator. “I finally got it,” he said, “and it works fine now, but it took some doing. It was really, really stuck.”
Having the accelerator on your car stuck to the floor is bad; terrifying, really, like suddenly finding yourself in an action movie in real life. But honestly, the word “stuck” almost never describes something good. If your car gets stuck in the mud or sand or snow, it may not be life-threatening, but it’s not going to be a good day. If you’re writing something or working on a project and you’re stuck, it means you’re a long way from done, but have no real idea how to get there. You can get stuck with the bill, or stuck with someone at a party, or stuck in a relationship, and none of those things are good.
Being stuck is first and foremost about feeling a lack of agency or power. When you’re stuck, you’re in a situation you don’t want to be in, but can’t seem to get out of. Sometimes that’s merely annoying: staring at a blank page with no idea of what needs to be written on it, or sipping awkwardly at your drink in the corner while someone drones on about their work as a frozen pea tester (that’s a real job, by the way.
But it can be much more serious than that; it can even be life-threatening. It’s not usually in the sense of careening into an unfamiliar town in a speeding, semi-out-of-control car, but it certainly can be that way metaphorically or even literally sometimes. It’s like that when you feel stuck in a toxic relationship or workplace, when forces beyond your control are placing you in physical or emotional or spiritual danger.
But when something is stuck, it also often means that it is joined together with something else to which it doesn’t really belong: sometimes accidentally, like my car accelerator; sometimes intentionally, like those old TV commercials for superglue with the guy who is hanging off a girder on a skyscraper by his construction helmet that is keeping him alive because it is stuck so firmly by the glue to the girder. But in either case, they aren’t intended to go together; they are joined in a way that they really shouldn’t be because someone or something has forced the issue.
Our reading today from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is one of his more well-known and popular writings. It’s often used as justification for an argument that we in the Christian Church or in a particular denomination or congregation need to “stick together” despite our differences, that we are different from one another like the parts, or members, of the human body, but we need each other and belong together like the different parts of the human body make up a greater whole.
And that’s not wrong; in fact, it’s a fine sentiment that more or less goes with the metaphor of the body and its members. The problem is that most of us aren’t really sure that we believe it, when you get right down to it. First of all, we’re not sure we really believe Paul’s argument that one kind of body part can’t say to another, “I have no need of you.” We do that all the time in the Christian church. Sometimes it is explicit, telling women or Black people and people of color or LGBTQ people that they are neither needed nor welcome in leadership or in the Church at all.
Sometimes it is a little more subtle but no less clear for that: offhand comments about how Christians or Presbyterians or “people around here” share the same perspectives about important issues, hold the same commitments, support the same candidates for public office, read the Bible in the same way, with the implication, and sometimes even the outright statement, that those who actually think or believe or feel differently are not needed, not wanted, not welcome.
And so, secondly, we often don’t really think of ourselves or others as “members” in the sense of body parts, the way Paul talks about individuals being part of the church as the Body of Christ. We tend to think of ourselves and others as voluntary members of an organization; we are members because we’ve decided to “join” ourselves to the church but can just as easily un-join ourselves if it feels like it is no longer a “good fit,” or worse, encourage others to do the same, whether passively or actively.
Paul, however, is calling the Corinthian church, which both delighted in and was deeply conflicted about its significant diversity, to something much more powerful and important and enduring that simply “sticking together.” He is calling them and us to understanding themselves as joined together in Christ in the sense of being fitted, connected, inexorably intertwined the way our feet are to our legs, or our hands are to our arms.
For a member to be severed from the body, then, whether ourselves or someone else, is not a casual release, but nothing less than a dismemberment, the painful loss of something that was not simply stuck there but belonged there, something that made an essential contribution to the well-being of the body that might be compensated for with effort and intention, but which can never be truly replaced.
The single greatest challenge to the Christian Church’s witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ is North America today is not the rightness of our theology, or the quality of our worship services, or the usefulness of our buildings, or the cleverness of our social media presence, or any of the other things that church leaders so often identify and argue about. And it’s not that those things are unimportant, but they are not what’s most significant in terms of obscuring the good news of the gospel to people who aren’t sure about this whole Jesus thing.
No, the single greatest challenge for people who aren’t Christian is the perception that the church talks a big game about love and grace and community, but spends most of its time arguing within itself about who is right and who is wrong, who is good and who is bad, who belongs and who does not.
So one of the most important things we can do as Christians, then, is to take Paul seriously when he says, “God has so arranged the body…that there may be no dissension in the body, but the members may have the same care for one another.” One of the most important things we can do is to view both ourselves and the other members of Christ’s body not simply as stuck together but belonging together, intended to go together, stitched and joined together by God through the power and action of the Holy Spirit; each one of us not simply acceptable but essential to the health and strength and capacity of the body.
Like the Corinthians, like most of the early church, like Christians during the Reformation and the Great Awakenings and right up to the present day, we do not all agree on the most faithful ways to pursue or even define God’s love, justice, mercy, and peace, not even within this congregation. And what Paul is assuring all of us is that is not a problem but a gift.
It is a gift because none of us alone knows the full mind or will of God, understands the full depths and meaning of the Scriptures, discerns the true breadth of God’s Spirit at work in the world and calling us to follow. It is a gift because it helps us not to confuse the uniformity of our perspective or experiences with God’s will or truth. It is a gift because it is precisely in that lack of uniformity that we can find our true unity in the grace of Jesus Christ in the very midst of our differences, like the color spectrum of light that gives it its full power and warmth and brightness and beauty.
It is a gift because it both calls and empowers us to “strive for the greater gifts,” as Paul puts it, trusting in God to lead us into and show us “a still more excellent way.” And the best, the only, proper response to this gift is the response to any gift: “thank you.”