Sermon preached on January 18, 2009
Texts: Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; I Corinthians 6:12-20
A minister, a priest and a rabbi went for a hike together one summer afternoon. It was a very hot day, and after awhile, the three men were sweaty and tired. Fortunately, their hike took them by a small lake, and since the lake was fairly secluded, the three decided to take a swim. Removing all their clothes, they jumped in with delight. Feeling refreshed, the three got out of the water and decided to let themselves air dry, then they got the idea to pick some berries while they did so. As they moved across an open area, who should they find hiking but a group of women from town. Unable to get back to their clothes in time, the minister and the priest covered up their private areas as best they could and the rabbi covered his face as all three ran for cover. After the women had left and the men were dressed, the minister and the priest asked the rabbi why he had covered his face rather than his more private parts. The rabbi replied, “I don’t know about you, but in my congregation, it’s my face they would recognize.” (A Minister, A Priest, and a Rabbi, 170).
There is a lot of humor about the body, much of which will never be heard in a sermon on Sunday morning. We are good at making fun of the human body. He’s so thin that if he stood sideways and stuck out his tongue he would look like a zipper. He’s so fat that when his beeper goes off people think he’s backing up. She’s so big that when she wears a yellow raincoat, people holler out, “Taxi.” (Keillor, Pretty Good Joke Book, 75, 78).
We have a very interesting relationship to our bodies in our culture. We often denigrate them, think less of our bodily existence. We are often uncomfortable with our bodies in some way, and sometimes uncomfortable talking about our existence as fleshy creatures. I love these lines from an Anne Lamott essay which capture this sense of dis-ease about our bodies. This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing – it’s another thing I’d like to bring up with God. Bodies are so messy, and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says, “We think we’re human beings having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits, having human experiences,” (a) I think it’s true, and (b) I want to ram the car. (Plan B, 271). When you listen carefully to Anne Lamott’s words, you really do get a sense of the confusion about the body – “been issued a body” - - - what were we before being issued a body? Her words mirror some of our confusion and discomfort with bodily life.
There may be some good reasons for our confusion and ambivalence about bodily life and our bodies. Ernest Becker, who thinks profoundly about the human condition, as does Anne Lamott, but Becker does not have as light a touch (The Denial of Death, Escape from Evil), Becker writes: Man is a worm and food for worms…. He is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-grasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways – the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. (The Denial of Death, 26) I told you Becker lacked a light touch.
Becker hammers home to us the reality of our bodily existence, but he also reminds us that we seem to transcend this existence. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature. (26) Not bad.
What I really appreciate about Becker is that he gets us closer to what I think is a more biblical view of the human person, of human existence, of bodily life. Our culture tends to want to separate spirit, soul from body. Our bodies are issued to us. We are spirits having a human bodily existence. Yes, we have this deeply spiritual side, this symbolic, reflective side, but our bodies are more than just issued to some disembodied spirits. Whatever our spirits are, they are intimately connected to our bodies, body and soul, body and spirit are deeply intertwined.
One of the earliest images of the human person is the image from Genesis where God breathes into earth, clay, mud – breathes spirit. Life is always this combination of earth and spirit, inseparable. The Psalmist builds on that tradition. God is as near as our bodies. God was near as our bodies formed in our mothers’ wombs. We are fearfully and wonderfully made – “intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”
Paul also builds on this tradition, adding a specific Christian emphasis. Our bodies are a part of Christ – our bodies! He also says our spirits become one with Christ – body and spirit interconnected, intertwined. Our bodies, Paul says, are temples of the Holy Spirit, and they can glorify God. I appreciate the way Eugene Peterson renders parts of this passage in his Bible translation/paraphrase The Message. Didn’t you realize your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit? The physical part of you is not some piece of property belonging to the spiritual part of you. God owns the whole works. So let people see God in and through your body.
That’s some significant body language – let people see God in and through your body. All this philosophical and theological speculation on the nature of the human person has a concrete pay off – pay attention to your body and let people see God in and through it. Let your body language, the language of your body, be the language of God’s love, God’s peace, God’s justice, God’s goodness. It’s Paul’s basic point, even sex should be a way in which we let our bodies speak the language of love and some kinds of sexual expression just don’t do that. Let your body language be the language of God’s love, peace, justice, goodness.
How? Glad you asked.
Love your body. Talk about a difficult and counter-cultural idea – love your body - - - and yes, the very body that got you here today with all of its extra rooms, and earned lines and hair that is places you never thought it would be or not in places you think it should be - - - the very body that sometimes lets you down. Love your body.
Among the best writing Anne Lamott does about faith is about faith and loving the body. For too long, and despite what people told me, I had fallen for what the culture said about beauty, youth, features, heights, weights, hair textures, upper arms. Sometimes, in certain lights, I could see that I was beautiful, not in spite of but because of unusual features – funky teeth, wild hair, acne scars. My mother’s nose, very English, with pinched indents at the tip and what she called her horns – incredibly helpful to my self-esteem as a child and which I now call my proton nobulators. My father’s crooked teeth. Cellulite that would make Jesus weep. (Grace Eventually, 71) Her humor lets us know that while she may struggle with this sometimes, Anne can see her body as it is and love it as a beautiful work of God.
We should see the same thing when we look in the mirror. It would not be a bad spiritual practice, in fact, for us every now and again, to look in a full length mirror and thank God for the beautiful body we have been given. If you wear glasses, put them on! If you really want to be adventurous in your spiritual practice, take your clothes off before you look in the mirror. Hey, if some pastor in Florida or Texas can invite all the married couples in his congregation to make love every night for a month, I figure it is not that big a deal to invite you to take your clothes off and look at your body. You probably take your clothes off sometimes anyway. I am trying to be funny, but the point is a serious one. Look. This body is a place where God dwells. It is sacred space.
Moving on - - - Care for your body is a spiritual discipline. Spiritual disciplines/spiritual practices are ways to tend to the sacred places in our lives, and from a biblical perspective, our bodies are such spaces. Loving our bodies does not preclude the idea that we may want to change them just a bit, not so much for some cultural concept of beauty, but to keep them healthy, keep them as beautiful as they were created to be. It begins with affirming our beauty now. Anne Lamott: If you cannot see that you’re okay now, you won’t be able to see it if you lose twenty pounds (74). Affirm your beauty, affirm your body as a sacred space, then see how you might like it to be a little healthier. Positive change usually begins with a positive attitude about the present.
Last June, all the United Methodist clergy in Minnesota were given the opportunity to be part of a walking program using a pedometer. You wear the pedometer, and it plugs into your computer and lets you know how much you are walking. I decided to participate. I knew my exercise was not what I wanted it to be. Exercise will not make me Brad Pitt, but I want to be as healthy as I can be. I have worn my pedometer every day since I got it programmed right, and I like how it is helping me think about caring for my body. I have a goal of walking 10,000 steps every day, and if I don’t get there just by my activity, which is most days, I make sure I spend some time on our treadmill until I get to 10,000 steps. This is a part of my spiritual practice, of taking time to tend to the sacred in my life. The treadmill is a great place to pray, to reflect, or just to celebrate life while listening to some music.
I continue to try and love my body, and also take better care of it. I would still like to lose some weight. This Lent I am considering giving up red meat as a spiritual practice. I think it would set me on a little better course for the future. There is much to be said for the positive social effects of eating less red meat. I am in the discernment phase of this, but I feel like it’s what I want and need to do. It will be part of a spiritual practice of caring for my body.
Knowing that our bodies are sacred places is one root of our concern for human bodily existence, for seeing that people are fed, are clothed are housed. Every body is a sacred place, a place where God dwells. No body deserves to be without the necessities of life. To speak the language of God with our bodies, to let people see God through our bodies is to be concerned with the bodily well-being of others, and with the well-being of the planet which sustains us. It is to do what we can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, bring medical care to the sick, lessen our negative impact on the planet.
Because we are concerned with the bodily well-being of others and the well-being of the planet itself, we need to use our bodies to speak the language of God’s love and justice in very concrete ways. We have many who have gone this way before us, whose example and inspiration gives us courage and spurs us on. One such person is the man whose birthday our country celebrates this weekend – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King knew what it was like to use his body, a sacred place, for the sacred purpose of tearing down walls that divide, for the sacred purpose of reminding us all that sacred bodies come in all shades and hues.
Sermon, “Loving Your Enemies” (Strength to Love, 40): While abhorring segregation, we shall love the segregationist. This is the only way to create the beloved community. To our most bitter opponents we say: “We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws, because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as co-operation with good. Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Bomb our homes and threaten our children, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. What powerful images these are of using the sacred place that is the body for the sacred purpose of justice and love. Martin Luther King, Jr. marched with his body, stood with his body, took hits to his body, spoke with the voice of his body the language of God’s justice and love.
April 3, 1968, the night before he died, at Bishop Charles Mason Temple, Memphis, TN: It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night. And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers? Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. (A Testament of Hope, 286) If we are a little closer to God’s dream for the world, God’s promise land, it is because of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. who used his body to speak the language of God’s justice, God’s love.
Your body is sacred space, a place where God dwells. Love your body. Take care of your body. Let your body language be the language of God’s love, God’s justice, God’s peace, God’s goodness. You don’t have to be a Martin Luther King, Jr. to do it. Your own body will work just fine. Amen.