Sermon preached April 19, 2009
Texts: Psalm 133; John 20:19-31
The Bible is not history. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t convey some historically accurate information. The Bible is not science. For the most part it offers little that would be classified as “science,” though there are insights into the human condition that could be part of a science of humanity. Those who read the first chapters of Genesis as if this were modern science are simply mis-reading the text. If we take the Bible seriously, then we should take seriously what it says about itself. In the Gospel of John, what it says about itself is this “these were written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
The Bible is a book that wants to change us, to shape us, to transform us. The God of the Bible who we know most clearly in Jesus, and who we also encounter as Spirit, the God of the Bible desires life for us – new life, abundant life, and living such a life requires change and transformation.
One of the most important ways the Spirit speaks through the Bible to transform us is reshaping how we see life, ourselves, the world. How we see things makes a big difference. Years ago I was walking into a semi-lighted movie theater when I spotted an old friend. I quickly walked up to my friend and patted him on the shoulder, waiting for him to turn around with an excited greeting – except that it was not an old friend at all, but someone I did not know. I was quite embarrassed. Greeting someone with excitement is appropriate for an old friend, but not quite fitting for a stranger. How we see helps determine our response to a person, to life. Whether we see a bear moving across the road ahead of us, or a dog, would call for a different response.
I would argue that both the Psalm we read this morning and the passage we read from John’s gospel want to get us to see the world in a certain way. I think they share at least one transforming perspective and I would call it “the earthiness of God and of faith.”
One of the assignments I gave myself preparing this sermon was listening to two versions of the song from which I stole my title – “Body and Soul.” Will Friewald considers this among the most influential popular songs in the history of American popular music. I listened to a 1947 Frank Sinatra recording of “Body and Soul” as well as a version important in jazz history, Coleman Hawkins 1939 jazz recording. I know, I know, I am pretty brutal with myself in preparing sermons! The lyrics include:
My heart is sad and lonely,
For you I sigh, for you, dear only.
Why haven’t you seen it?
I’m all for you body and soul!
Most of the time we consider body and soul somehow separate though related. We speak as if our soul could be completely separated from our body. We can imagine giving someone our body without our soul, and sometimes that is helpful, as when someone experiences torture or abuse and they think to themselves that their body can be bruised and battered, but their soul remain untouched. We can imagine giving someone our soul without our body. The song “Body and Soul” works because we can imagine their separation, and so singing “I’m all for you, body and soul” has some power to it – a complete dedication.
But I think our Scriptures want to change our viewpoint on this, at least a little. They want us to consider that the body and soul are deeply intertwined, the spiritual and the physical, that there is an earthiness to the spiritual life, the life of faith, that the soul expresses itself in this life and is not simply waiting for liberation in a next life. Listen to the way the psalmist expresses himself. How good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! This is a very soulful thought, but the metaphors are distinctly earthy. It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. Soul is like oil poured over the head, soaking the beard, and like dew falling on the mountain.
Body and soul are intertwined, and so are God and the world. In the language of the church we call this “incarnation,” and here is how one theologian (a Methodist layperson) expresses this idea. God is somehow incarnate in the entire creation – the ordinary and extraordinary, the broken and the whole, the known and the unknown, the familiar and the mysterious world in all its dimensions. God is not reducible to the world; “God” and “world” are not synonymous. The world is not perfect. But God’s place is this imperfect place, and its destiny and God’s are joined. God is with us, and the “us” includes all creation. (Delwin Brown, What Does a Progressive Christian Believe?, 36-37) Another theologian, Sallie McFague, writes, If God is always incarnate – if God is always in us and we in God – the Christians should attend to the model of the world as God’s body. For Christians, God did not become human on a whim; rather, it is God’s nature to be embodied, to be the one in whom we live and move and have our being (A New Climate for Theology, 72). God and the world are intertwined, like body and soul. God’s salvation/healing is intended for the entire created world.
The story of Jesus appearing to the disciples in John 20 is filled with images of incarnation, of the intertwining of God and the world. The Jesus in whom God comes to touch the world in a unique way is the Jesus with scars on his hands and in his side. God did not just take up temporary residence in a human Jesus – the divinity and humanity were deeply, intimately intertwined. Look at the hands, the side, and let it transform you. In the story the Spirit of Jesus is breathed into the very human disciples. They, too, become part of the incarnation of God in the world.
I say this is a transforming perspective because we often take the world for granted. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way. The older fish nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” Two younger fish acknowledge with a nod and continue on their way until a few moments later when one says to the other, “What’s water?” (David Foster Wallace, This is Water) We walk on the earth and pay little attention to it. We breathe the air and don’t think all that much about it. We eat the produce of the land and much of the time don’t consider where the food came from. It’s just there, like water for fish. But if soul and body are intimately connected, if God and the world are intimately intertwined in incarnation, then we need to see the world differently.
Creation becomes a place of revelation, a place where we can learn more about, even experience the presence of God, because God is there. One of the wonderful gifts writer Annie Dillard offers the world is her deep observation. Another is the ability to put those observations into words. I have often noticed that these things, which obsess me, neither bother nor impress other people even slightly. I am horribly apt to approach some innocent at a gathering and… fix him with a wild, glitt’ring eye and say, “Do you know that in the head of the caterpillar of the ordinary goat moth there are two hundred twenty-eight separate muscles?” The poor wretch flees. I am not making chatter; I mean to change his life. (Annie Dillard Reader (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 355). One of the things Annie Dillard observes with minute detail is the intricacy of the created world – the landscape of the world is “ring-streaked, speckled, and spotted” (366). She continues: intricacy is that which is given from the beginning, the birthright, and in intricacy is the hardiness of complexity that ensurses against the failure of all life…. The wonder is – given the errant nature of freedom and the burgeoning of texture in time – the wonder is that all the forms are not monsters, that there is beauty at all, grace gratuitous, pennies found…. Beauty itself is the fruit of the creator’s exuberance…. This, then, is the extravagant landscape of the world, given, given with exuberance, given in good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. (366). Those last words are biblical (Luke 6:38) – the messages of creation are often wonderful repetitions of the messages about God in the Bible, a God of gratuitous grace, of exuberant creativity.
Creation feeds us, body and soul. Hearing that again should give new meaning to the ancient practice of table grace. Grace could become a time when we slow down enough to wonder at the bounty before us, to give thanks to God not just for creating a world from which we dine, but for being embodied in that world. When we eat, we take some part of the divine life into our lives. That should not seem strange to us as Christians – we do it all the time and we call it communion. In some way, every meal is an opportunity for communion, and that is a cause for thankfulness. Creation feeds us, body and soul, with food and beauty. On Maundy Thursday I quoted from a novel I read years ago, and offer those words to you again. Out of all the instinctual needs we humans have to put up with – sex, food, sleep, fresh air, water – the most important and least recognized need of all is beauty. It’s what magnifies us into human beings. (Laura Hendrie, Remember Me, 54). And creation often feeds us the beauty we need to be human.
Finally, in creation we see a web of life for which we have special responsibility. Let me offer you the words of theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether, profound words that will at first have you scratching your heads, but then thinking more deeply about what it means to be human in a world where God is incarnate. “We humans are the evolutionary growing edge of this imperfectly realized impulse to consciousness and kindness” (Gaia and God, 31). What Ruether is saying in a way that perhaps only a theologian would, is that we are a unique combination of the intertwining of body and soul. We are a part of the created world. We share the fate of all living creatures in that we die. Yet of all living creatures we have a remarkable capacity to see the world as an interconnected web. Of all living creatures we have a remarkable capacity for awareness and for kindness. While God is present to all life, God is present to human life in a unique way, and that means we have a unique responsibility for the care and nurture of the world.
So if we see the world differently, as a place where God is incarnate, a place where we then learn more of God and experience God, a place where we are fed by God, and a place for which we have special responsibility, how do we exercise that responsibility? How do we keep a place that feeds us with beauty beautiful? How do we keep a place that feeds us healthy enough to produce healthy food? How do we keep a place where we encounter God thriving, so others can encounter God here for years to come?
I appreciate theologian Sallie McFague’s suggestion. She writes: extending the… inclusive love of Jesus Christ to the natural world… is best begun… by developing real relations with some particular places, lifeforms, entities in nature. Caring for a small backyard garden, or even a single houseplant – is more likely to develop into fighting city hall for an inner city pocket park than is an armchair “love of nature” gained from watching the Discovery channel (Super, Natural Christians, 24). But if you can’t get out, the Discovery channel might not be a bad place to start either!
Do some cleaning. Maybe some of you might join us today in sweeping our parking lot. Maybe some of you can join us on May 2 for our highway clean-up on the Ryan Road. When you are out walking, carry a light bag in which you might put some trash you find along the way. Beautify the land.
Save energy – replace light bulbs with more energy efficient ones, use more energy efficient means of transportation when you can, turn lights off when no one is in a room, use canvas grocery bags. The list here is almost endless. Recently we replaced all the lighting fixtures in the social hall with more energy efficient fixtures, and we will continue to find other energy savings as a church.
Look at the connections between environmental damage and poverty. On Saturday, we have the opportunity for twelve people to see what being poor in Duluth is like, and we still have room for about eight people. The connections between environmental damage and poverty are significant. When landfills are needed, poorer areas are often targeted. When air quality indexes lead to warnings, it is the homeless that have no place to go to escape the poor air. As the impact of climate change continues to grow, it is the poorer areas of the world that will be most adversely affected.
The world is the body of God, a place where we can know and experience God in profound ways, a place from which we are fed by God, a place for which we have a special responsibility as creatures who can uniquely embody God in awareness and kindness.
On this Sunday when we celebrate the goodness of creation, let me end with a poem by Mary Oliver (“Mysteries, Yes” Evidence, 62)
Truly, we live with mysteries too marvelous
to be understood.
How grass can be nourishing in the
mouths of the lambs.
How rivers and stones are forever
in allegiance with gravity
while we ourselves dream of rising.
How two hands touch and the bonds will
never be broken.
How people come, from delight or the
scars of damage,
to the comfort of a poem.
Let me keep my distance, always, from those
who think they have the answers.
Let me keep company always with those who say
“Look!” and laugh in astonishment,
and bow their heads.
Jesus comes saying, “Peace be with you…. Reach out your hand”… touch. Bring the peace of Christ as you touch another, as you touch the earth, this place where God dwells – as you touch even where there are scars. Touch, look, laugh, bow, love, work. Give yourself to this new Christ-life. Give yourself body and soul. Amen.