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The ‘I’ in “Team”

By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
I Corinthians 12: 12-31

Two weeks ago I participated in a week-long class introducing me and other clergy to co-active coaching. I’ve always thought of coaching someone kind of the way a coach trains an athlete. They don’t know how to do something, and you show them how to do it: the coach is the expert, the athlete is the student. That’s not how co-active coaching works. A friend of mine describes it as like a crosscut saw, the kind with two handles. Each side saws back and forth co-equally. When one is coaching co-actively, the guiding assumption is this: “People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.” I love that. “People are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole.” For many of us, especially in ministry, we naturally want to fix things. We have to get over that to do co-active coaching, because those we’re coaching don’t need to be fixed. They are naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. We are helping them discover within themselves the resources they already have to address the challenge they are facing.

I love the positivity of this model, it’s confidence in the natural creativity, resourcefulness, and wholeness of each person. Over my years of ministry, I’ve come to believe in the same thing in the members of the church. There is not a person in our church’s membership, or even in the general orbit of the church, who is not essential to who we are. Every single one of you sitting in the pews or watching online or who participates in some other way in the life of St. Stephen is absolutely essential.

Today when we ordain and install officers it looks like the spotlight is on so-called special people with special skillsets. But this is a good time for us to focus on Paul’s words in First Corinthians 12, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We often use this passage to emphasize the essential reality that we are TOGETHER the Body of Christ, to focus on the communal nature of being Christian, the fact that together we have the ability to accomplish far more for the Kingdom than if we are by ourselves, and that together we have a better ability to discern the will of Christ than if we are attempting to do it by ourselves; and that we are made a unique community because of the mystical presence of the Holy Spirit uniting us. All this is absolutely true.

But Paul is emphasizing the togetherness of the body of Christ because of the corrosive problem of division in the Corinthian church. This division has taken multiple forms in Corinth, but the most pernicious has developed around what so-called “spiritual gifts” or “spiritual persons.” Certain individuals have claimed that because they have the gift of speaking in tongues or are very good at interpreting scripture then they are superior, specially gifted by the Spirit and more important than everyone else.

The cumulative effect of these divisions is that some are being left out of the Body of Christ. An arrogant cadre have bloated egos and seem to think that the church and God and Jesus revolve around them. And those who don’t have such inflated egos feel like they’re a burden and useless.

Paul is frustrated and angry about this situation and he wants to correct it. What Paul emphasizes is that for a church to truly be a church, interdependence is essential. Everyone needs one another. God put this particular community of believers, with these particular people in it, together for a reason. They need one another.

His angle on this is a little different from the standard football coach pep talk. At some point many of us heard a coach tell us, “There is no ‘I’ in ‘team’!” But Paul instead says, “There IS an I in Team!” He says that you’ve got no team without the individual “I”s who make it up. Just as a human body functions together as a unit, and cannot claim that any part of it is unnecessary or unneeded, so the individual parts of the Body of Christ are absolutely interdependent on each other. If we don’t have one another, each one of us, we suffer as a Body.

In other words: WE need YOU.

Now I know not everyone thinks that about themselves. People will think, I’m a drag on the church. Or I’m not as important as someone else. And in fact, we the church are not always good at affirming the gifts and personhood of others. Sometimes we lose track of those who are homebound or ill, or those who have, shall we say, challenging personalities. One of the sadder things I see as a pastor is when I do a funeral for someone who 20 years ago was a valued church leader but only six people show up to the service. Over the years when they were not as visible, and a new generation came to ascendancy, their contributions were lost or forgotten. But nothing that we have today would be the same if it wasn’t for the foundation they provided decades before. There would be no “us” without them.

But let’s push that even deeper. There are some of us who we think matter more because they “do” more things. In every church I’ve ever served, we laugh or celebrate or complain that “fifteen percent of people do eighty per cent of the work.” I get it and certainly do NOT want to play down their essential contribution. We can’t do without them. BUT…

What about those whose gift is not being a worker-bee? We have faithful church members who for reasons of health or work or caring for a loved one or something else can’t be a deacon or teach Sunday school or even be here on Sunday—but they will bake a casserole for a fellowship event or Room in the Inn, or they can make phone calls, or they contribute financially, however little or much they are capable of giving. Or they simply lift up the church and its members in prayer. The fifteen per cent couldn’t do their work without the eighty-five who contribute in those ways. We desperately need those folks and couldn’t do without them. We’ve had a wonderful illustration of this during these two years of pandemic when we couldn’t gather to fellowship and so the Communications Committee formed a phone tree to call every church member to see how folks were doing. A lot of those callers were folks who for various reasons couldn’t contribute in other ways—but they could make a phone call, check on how someone else is doing, share some love and support and encouragement. That is being the Body of Christ in its most essential form.

As a pastor I’ve learned that everyone has gifts—even complaining is a gift! Whether I like it or not, almost inevitably when I hear a complaint that person is talking about some uncomfortable reality that needs to be addressed in the church. Admittedly you can’t address every complaint in the way a person might want it addressed. But no one gets frustrated or hurt or upset about something in the church unless they actually care about the church—how we act, where we’re headed, who we are called to be. For the last two weeks I’ve had to deal with a real, literal aching pain that may be arthritis. It’s frustrating and annoying and I wish it would go away. Sometimes I try to ignore it, but that can only make it worse. But that pain is a message to me that something is wrong, and I need to address it. This is why Paul’s analogy of the church as the Body is so apt. We need even the parts that hurt. In fact, if we don’t take care of them, we may find it impossible to do much of anything else.

And one challenge being the Body of Christ is that so many of our body parts hurt. We gather, after all, not only as a community of creative, resourceful, and whole people, but also a community of those who are wounded. This awareness draws us to one another because we know that individually we can’t heal ourselves by ourselves any more than a cut on a finger can cure itself without your immune system or lymphatic system. How we treat one another, how we care for and love one another, also makes the “I” essential in this Holy Spirit driven team—after all, if we ignore that cut on the finger, it could become infected, even gangrenous, with devastating effect on the entire body.

A hugely important part of being the Body of Christ is taking care of the individual. It is more important than perhaps we sometimes realize. Paul tells us to “build one another up.” Building up the individual is good for the whole body. One of our jobs is to affirm one another’s gifts–one another’s creativity, resourcefulness, and wholeness. Church is often a really good place for people to discover that they have skills and gifts they never thought they had, because it is a safe and gracious place to try out new things. (At least, we hope it is!) We start young, with choristers and getting the chance to lead worship on children’s sabbath; then there’s acolyting. Every Youth Sunday that a high school senior or three preaches from this frankly intimidating pulpit, I am amazed again we have young people who are so poised, eloquent, and wise. They learned it here, from you.

But this happens with adults, too. We hope that people who never thought of themselves as leaders in other aspects of life can take a chance at leadership in the church and discover and develop skills they never credited themselves with before. Or else try their hand at teaching or doing some creative thing they’ve never done before. They can learn about the Bible or ways to engage in the community that can make a positive impact. They can express their natural creativity, resourcefulness, and wholeness.

Today I invite you to celebrate and think about the ‘I’ in the Team of St. Stephen Presbyterian Church—you, the person—who you are and what a gift you are to this church, to the world, to Jesus Christ. I invite you to reflect on a couple of questions and even get back to me on them. What do you already contribute to St. Stephen and the world? And how can the church support you in that or help you build on that to the next level? And as you are thinking about these things, do something we often forget to do: thank God for you, for the gift you are to world, for the ways that by God’s grace you are already creative, resourceful and whole. Even if you can’t contribute as others can, you are still a gift to St. Stephen and the world, and those gifts keep giving. And thank God for how you might be called to use those resources even now, whether for others and for building up your own spiritual resources, your faith, your confidence in God.

If you are here at St. Stephen, if you are somehow part of this unique body of Christ, then you are already called by God and you are already essential. We are not the Body of Christ without you. Let each of us thank God for that.

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