Sermon preached March 17, 2013
Texts: John 12:1-8
Olivia Newton John "Physical"
Physical. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?... Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you? (I Corinthians 6:15, 19)
If you watch the Olivia Newton John video of her song, you will see some very different looking “temples.” In the beginning are some well-shaped abs and muscular legs. In short order, there are also shall we say, roomier looking temples. I like to think my temple has a comfortable lived-in look to it!
Let’s get physical. Our physical, bodily existence matters. Paying attention to our bodies and caring for our physical existence is another pathway to God.
The verses we read from I Corinthians are classic verses for arguing that our bodies matter. I also think the gospel reading for this morning, in a more indirect way, reminds us of the importance of our physical existence. There we have a dinner scene. When we think of people gathering for a meal, what do we often think of but the smells of food. During the meal Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. To the smell of the food, we add the smell of perfume filling the whole house. To the sense of smell, add touch – Mary’s hands massaging Jesus’ feet, her hair brushing them.
Christianity has always been a faith of the body. From its origins in the Eastern practices of the Hebrew faith to the life of Jesus to the great variety of expressions of Christian spirituality around the world today, it’s impossible to deny the freeing truth that Christianity is to be lived in the body. (Doug Pagitt and Kathryn Prill, Body Prayer, 1) The passage from John, filled with sensuous imagery, reminds us of that. If we are honest, though, we must admit that Christians have not always done well by the body. We have too often separated the soul from the body, the spirit from the physical. They are intertwined, and paying attention to our bodies is a pathway to God.
What might this mean for us?
I think one thing it means is that we engage in practices that contribute to our physical health. United Methodist pastor and author Mike Slaughter writes in his book Momentum for Life, “it is tempting for us to disassociate the selection of foods or the decision to exercise from our commitments to God, but our bodies are no longer our own” (145). To Mike’s statement, I would add words from Desiderata – “beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.” We are invited, as another way to connect more deeply with God to exercise and eat well. My own efforts in this area are more sporadic than I would like them to be. When my days get busy or long, exercise is the thing I often cut from them, and while I have grown some over time, there is still room for improvement here for me.
Another thing that paying attention to our bodies as a spiritual discipline can mean for us is managing our diseases and ailments. No matter how well we exercise or eat, there will be times when we get sick. And for some of us, part of our bodily life that just is involves dealing with a chronic disease.
I was twenty-one when I was diagnosed with chronic ulcerative colitis. What doctors have come to discover is that this condition is caused by my immune system attacking the inner lining of my colon. When it is acting up, it is not a lot of fun to deal with. Chronic ulcerative colitis increases one chances for colon cancer, and the kind of colon cancer typically associated with ulcerative colitis is a faster grown variety. So I get my colon checked every year – a guaranteed annual day of fasting as one of my spiritual disciplines.
I wish I did not have this condition. For a long time, there was a certain level of denial on my part about it. Over the years I have come to integrate this condition into my self-understanding, and into my spiritual life. It has helped me to know, more deeply, the truth of Joan Chittister’s words – We are not pure spirit, sharp mind, angelic creatures. We are a soul wrapped round by a body that, like everything else, will someday go back to the earth, with which, however much we would like to deny it, we are one. (Becoming Fully Human, 45)
We are souls wrapped around by bodies that are related to the earth, to which they will return. This basic truth is grounded in a biblical understanding of what it means to be human. “The linguistic unity in the Hebrew Bible of body, soul, feeling desire, and life is well-known” (Pamela Cooper-White, Many Voices, 42). Soul, body, feeling, desire, spirit, life are all wrapped up together. Paying attention to our physical existence is paying attention to part of us that connects to God. Another element of attentiveness to our physical life as a pathway to God is to manage our desires, and the desire I want to touch on this morning is sexual desire.
Here is where the church has often been particularly unhelpful when considering our physical existence. One could get the impression from the history of Christianity that sexuality is tainted, dirty, bad. That is an awful misunderstanding of Christian faith. We affirm our physical existence as good. We affirm sexuality as a good gift. Soul, body, feeling, desire, spirit, life are wrapped up together. Yet good things can be used badly. Sharon Salzberg: All too often, people will sacrifice love, family life, career, or friendship to satisfy sexual craving. Abiding happiness is given up for temporary pleasure, and a great deal of suffering ensues when we are willing to cause pain to satisfy our desires. (Lovingkindness, 175-176) Our bodies are good, and wholesome discipline is good for them, for us. Sexual desire is good, and wholesome discipline is good for that part of our lives, too.
Paying attention to our physical existence is a pathway to God when we engage in wholesome disciplines with regard to exercise and eating, to managing our diseases, to our sexuality. We are souls, bodies, feelings, desires, spirits all wrapped up together, and that bodily part of who we are will return to the earth one day. Taking account of that is also a pathway to God. On Ash Wednesday, I noted a spiritual discipline of the Dalai Lama. Every morning at 4 a.m. the Dalai Lama rises. He begins the day by offering a gesture of deferential respect (obeisance) to the Buddha. He then sits down on his meditation cushion to contemplate his death. “Knowing that death is certain, but the time of death is uncertain, he prepares for death daily” (Donald Lopez, Jr. The Story of Buddhism, 1). Coming to terms with our own mortality poses deep questions for our lives. I don’t have forever, to what do I want to contribute with my life? Do I genuinely trust that God takes all my best efforts for peace, justice, reconciliation and love and builds on them?
Being bodily creatures and taking account of that as a pathway to God has a couple of broader social implications, too. We are having some conversations these days about health care. A Christian spirituality of the body does not answer particular questions about things like President Obama’s health care plan or whether states should establish health insurance exchanges. If our bodies matter, if physical existence is important for the spirit, might societies have some responsibility to construct systems that provide some basic support for the physical well-being of all? We need to ask questions about health care justice and the conversations need to be deeper and richer than the ones often had by our elected officials.
And if our bodies matter, if physical existence is important for the spirit, shouldn’t we be paying attention to the wider physical context for our bodily existence, the well-being of the planet itself? Joan Chittister: When we learn to live in harmony with nature and not at war with it, we become more human in the process (Becoming Fully Human, 48)
Christianity is a faith of the body, a faith the sees physical existence not as antithetical to the spirit, but part of the spirit. Our faith is meant to be lived sensually, lived employing all our senses, lived with our body. Henri Nouwen: In Jesus, God took on human flesh. The Spirit of God overshadowed Mary, in her all enmity between spirit and body was overcome. Thus God’s Spirit was united with the human spirit, and the human body became the temple destined to be lifted us into the intimacy of God through the Resurrection. (The Inner Voice of Love, 19) Our bodies are pathways to intimacy with God.
And there is one final way we can use our bodies as a pathway to God – body prayer.
MEDITATIVE BODY PRAYER
David A. Bard
1. Create a sacred space by bringing your hands together in front of you. Be enveloped in silence and peace.
2. Stretch your arms up in praise of God and in gratitude to God for the good gifts of life.
3. Bring your arms down just a bit, forming yourself into a human chalice to receive from God blessings and peace and grace.
4. Cross your arms in front of you, letting God’s grace and peace and love penetrate deeply into your heart and mind and soul. Know that you are loved by God just because you are.
5. Open you arms in service to the world. We are not meant to hoard the good gifts of life, but to share them, to give ourselves to others in love.
6. End with the sacred space stance.