More than a Sum of Its Parts

More than a Sum of Its Parts

January 23, 2022……….3rd Sunday after Epiphany

1 Corinthians 12: 12-31a……….Luke 4: 14-21

Years ago (dare I say decades ago?!), Melissa and I spent a summer at a Presbyterian Camp on the slopes of Mr. Rainier.  She was a counselor, and I was the director, and we had a wonderful, exhausting, exhilarating summer!  Every week, we welcomed a new crop of campers: sometimes elementary, sometimes middle school, sometimes high school.  But on Day 2 of every week, we played a game with the kids.  We had them pair up with a partner roughly their own size, and then lie on the floor facing their partner.  We had them reach up and grip each other’s right hand.  We told them that every time the back of their partner’s hand touched the floor, they would get an M&M.  We said, “One, two, three, GO!” and they all started arm wrestling.  They were grunting and struggling, trying to get the other person’s hand down on the ground.  Not many M&M’s were being awarded 🙁 .

But sometimes, a couple of kids would wisely take turns going back and forth, counting ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR, FIVE, SIX and then we had to stop the game before they won too many candies!  Those kids who had been struggling with each other had only one or maybe two candies—or maybe none.  And when they saw other kids cooperating and winning many M&M’s, they said, “Hey!  No Fair!”  Then we would discuss the game, and point out that we never said “opponent”—we always said “partner.” 

The game was never a competition to BEAT the other person—it was an exercise to demonstrate the beauty of COOPERATION!

Of course, we understand the need for competition—but NOT ALL OF LIFE IS A COMPETITION to determine winners and losers.  And “the M&M Game” (as it came to be called) was a very tasty way to introduce the concept of COOPERATION—a way to help as many people as possible become winners.

[I would LOVE to see members of the House and the Senate being introduced to the same game!]

Well, our Scriptures for today are all about cooperation.  The Gospel indicates God’s desire to cooperate to bring Good News to those who need it.  And our reading from First Corinthians is a sample of Paul’s writings about what it means to be a part of the Body of Christ (building on last week’s epistle reading).  It is Paul’s most comprehensive use of this extended metaphor (the Body having many members), and it addresses both the unhealthy competition we experience AND how to reverse the losses we experience because of the divisiveness we have in our lives.

Friends, in order to be instruments of the Good News, you and I will need to be part of a UNITED FAMILY, one that is more than simply a sum of its parts.

A Divided Culture

You and I live in a divided culture today—but in Paul’s time it was just as divided.  1. There was a huge division between Jews and Greeks, where each culture practiced overwhelming exclusivity.  2. There was also an awful gap between Slaves and Free people.  (Even if you use your imagination, you still won’t be able to grasp how severe it was.)  You see, a slave was considered to be an object to be owned, described as a “living tool.”  An owner had the COMPLETE and legal right to kill or maim a slave, and to separate families at will.  3. There was a divide between Males and Females (just look at Galatians 3).  Many scholars believe that the Church was the first institution to include women freely:

  • The Synagogue only allowed women to participate in worship from within a screened-off portion of the Synagogue, where they could observe and listen for NOT participate in the discussion of the Scripture readings;
  • At the Temple in Jerusalem, there was a special Court of the Women in which they were allowed to worship—still somewhat removed from the Men, and further from the Holy of Holies;
  • Among the Greeks, women were often kept in seclusion once they were married, while men were free to go anywhere they pleased.

In our day, we have divisions between the poor and the rich, between aristocrats and common people (oh, yes!  There are people in our country who think they deserve to be treated as royalty, as if the law doesn’t apply to them as it does to ordinary people!)  There are deep divisions between political parties, and divisions based on skin color and gender and sexual orientation.  When we observe and listen carefully, much of our division results from our trying so hard to WIN!

I once served as an associate pastor with a head of staff who had to be the “winner” in everything he did—he was very competitive.  Eventually, he began to resent my successes (because, I think, he perceived them as somehow diminishing his success).  I wish that he had perceived me as a partner instead of as an opponent!  We could have used our differences as COMPLEMENTARITY, and exercised what Paul described in verse 25, “Mutual concern for each other.”

This can never be done when we have an attitude that insists we be “winners.”

I love Paul’s expression in Romans 12: “Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”  This means competing with one another as to who can express the most GRACE!  Paul saw divisiveness in the church, so he offered his recipe for complementarity.  Outdo one another in showing honor.


Another way of thinking about this is the use of the term “synergy.”  It is defined as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organisms, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.”  Cooperation that produces an effect that is greater than the sum of their separate effects!  It means working together.  Partnership.  Cooperation versus competition.  Complementarity.

I believe that this is God’s plan for humanity, for the church, for OUR church.  I love telling others about the way God is using this body, developing its members, blessing our community and blessing each of us.  Every one of you have your own gifts, and together we contribute to make this church a beautiful expression of God’s grace.

It’s a Win/Win!

The problem with having to be a winner is that someone else has to be a loser.  I want to finish today with a story that illustrates a better way.  The author, Terry Dobson, was all set to be a winner by making another a loser!  Terry was teaching English in Japan when he discovered the Martial Art of Aikido.  He eventually became a master of Aikido, and this event was an important part of his development.  Here is his story, entitled, “Another Way.”

The train clanked and rattled through the suburbs of Tokyo on a drowsy spring afternoon.  Our car was comparatively empty—a few housewives with their kids in tow, some old folks going shopping.  I gazed absently at the drab houses and dusty hedgerows.

At one station the doors opened, and suddenly the afternoon quiet was shattered by a man bellowing violent, incomprehensible curses.  The man staggered into our car.  He wore laborer’s clothing and was big, drunk, and dirty.  Screaming, he swung at a woman holding a baby.  The blow sent her spinning into the laps of an elderly couple.  It was a miracle that the baby was unharmed.

Terrified, the couple jumped up and scrambled toward the other end of the car.  The laborer aimed a kick at the retreating back of the old woman but missed as she scuttled to safety.  This so enraged the drunk that he grabbed the metal pole in the center of the car and tried to wrench it out of its stanchion.  I could see that one of his hands was cut and bleeding.  The train lurched ahead, the passengers frozen with fear.  I stood up.

I was young then, some 20 years ago, and in pretty good shape.  I’d been putting in a solid eight hours of Aikido training nearly every day for the past three years.  I liked to throw and grapple.  I thought I was tough.  The trouble was, my martial skill was untested in actual combat.  As students of Aikido, we were not allowed to fight.

“Aikido,” my teacher had said again and again, “is the art of reconciliation.  Whoever has the mind to fight has broken his connection with the universe.  If you try to dominate people, you’re already defeated.  We study how to resolve conflict, not how to start it.”

In my heart, however, I wanted an absolutely legitimate opportunity whereby I might save the innocent by destroying the guilty.

“This is it!” I said to myself as I got to my feet.  “People are in danger.  If I don’t do something fast, somebody will probably get hurt.”

Seeing me stand up, the drunk recognized a chance to focus his rage.  “Aha!” he roared.  “A foreigner!  You need a lesson in Japanese manners!”

I held on lightly to the commuter strap overhead and gave him a slow look of disgust and dismissal.  I planned to take this turkey apart, but he had to make the first move.  I wanted him mad, so I pursed my lips and blew him an insolent kiss.

“All right!” he hollered.  “You’re gonna get a lesson!”  He gathered himself for a rush at me.

A fraction of a second before he could move, someone shouted, “Hey!”  It was earsplitting.  I remember the strangely joyous, lilting quality of it—as though you and a friend had been searching diligently for something, and he had suddenly stumbled upon it.  “Hey!”

I wheeled to my left; the drunk spun to his right.  We both stared down at a little old Japanese man.  He must have been well into his seventies, this tiny gentleman, sitting there immaculate in his kimono.  He took no notice of me, but beamed delightedly at the laborer, as though he had a most important, most welcome secret to share.

“C’mere,” the old man said in an easy vernacular, beckoning to the drunk.  “C’mere and talk with me.”  He waved his hands lightly.  The big man followed, as if on a string.  He planted his feet belligerently in front of the old gentleman and roared above the clacking wheels, “Why the hell should I talk to you?”  The drunk now had his back to me.  If his elbow moved so much as a millimeter, I’d drop him in his socks.

The old man continued to beam at the laborer.  “What’cha been drinkin’?” he asked, his eyes sparkling with interest.  “I been drinkin’ sake,” the laborer bellowed back, “and it’s none of your business!”  Flecks of spittle spattered the old man.

“Oh, that’s wonderful,” the old man said, “absolutely wonderful!  You see, I love sake, too.  Every night, me and my wife (she’s 76, you know), we warm up a little bottle of sake and take it out into the garden, and we sit on an old wooden bench.  We watch the sun go down, and we look to see how our persimmon tree is doing.  My great-grandfather planted that tree, and we worry about whether it will recover from those ice storms we had last winter.  Our tree has done better than I expected, though, especially when you consider the poor quality of the soil.  It is gratifying to watch when we take our sake and go out to enjoy the evening—even when it rains!”  He looked up at the laborer, eyes twinkling.

As he struggled to follow the old man, his face began to soften.  His fists slowly unclenched.  “Yeah,” he said.  “I love persimmons, too…”  His voice trailed off.

“Yes,” said the old man, smiling, “and I’m sure you have a wonderful wife.”

“No,” replied the laborer.  “My wife died.”  Very gently, swaying with the motion of the train, the big man began to sob.  “I don’t got no wife, I don’t got no home, I don’t got no job.  I’m so ashamed of myself.”  Tears rolled down his cheeks, a spasm of despair rippled through his body.

As I stood there in my well-scrubbed youthful innocence, my make-this-world-safe-for-democracy righteousness, I felt dirtier than he was.

Then the train arrived at my stop.  As the doors opened, I heard the old man cluck sympathetically.  “My, my,” he said, “that is a difficult predicament indeed.  Sit down here and tell me about it.”

I turned my head for one last look.  The laborer was sprawled on the seat with his head in the old man’s lap.  The old man was softly stroking the filthy, matted hair.

As the train pulled away, I sat down on a bench in the station.  What I had wanted to do with muscle had been accomplished with kind words.  I had just seen Aikido in action, and the essence of it was love.  I would have to practice the art with an entirely different spirit.  It would be a long time before I could speak about the resolution of conflict.  (Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, published in 1993, pp.55f.)

Love one another with mutual affection.  Outdo one another by showing honor.

Let me recap here: 1. God has designed us to NEED EACH OTHER; 2. God has given a variety of gifts and experiences so that we can work together with complementarity rather than competition; 3. The Body of Christ is made up of wildly different people (people who often disagree because we see the world from differing perspectives); and 4. With all its variety, we are still The Body of Christ.  Something Aristotle said is the perfect description of the church: The whole is more than just a sum of its parts.

Prayer: God, please help us to celebrate the fact that we have differences—differences of opinion, differences of experience, differences in strengths.  Help us to avoid competition and grow in cooperation as we seek to offer your GRACE to a world in desperate need of it.