Sermon: The Soul's Address

The Soul’s Address
Psalm 84
John 1:1-5, 10-14
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
August 23, 2009

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born not of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”(John 1:1-5, 10-14)

It was not the first time. It was not the first time that God had come up. What did God think about all this? What did the bible say? I looked this woman in the eyes. I noticed the stark contrast between she and I. Her dark skin, her age – she looked much older than she probably was – I was this white girl just out of college, looking even younger than I was.

Her kids were quiet in the next rooms, but probably not asleep. Her husband in jail for the night. No kids yet for me; My husband home asleep in bed. And of course there was her black eye, the bruised finger marks on her arm, the apartment in disarray from the fight a few hours earlier.

What could I say about God that she would really believe? If I told her what I really thought, would that erase somehow the words of her own pastor? The pastor who had told her that divorce was a sin and an abomination – that if she left him she would risk eternal damnation; The pastor that had told her she just needed to be a better wife and the beatings would stop? The one who effectively kept this woman, and her children in this abusive home for years – taking beatings they did not deserve.

How could this young white girl say anything about God that would change anything for this beaten and bruised black woman and her children?

It was probably one of the final factors that sent me to Seminary – my year working as a legal advocate for battered women in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As someone who grew up in a church that did not require us to memorize scripture, I felt at a loss in moments like these – somehow trying to counter what I knew to be an abuse of the texts and stories I loved but not having the texts right on the tip of my tongue to respond with.

Sheepishly, in the middle of the night I whispered, “I think that God loves you and wants you to be safe. I think that this is not what God intends marriage to be, and it is not your fault. I think that the sin your pastor didn’t talk about is a husband beating a wife that he says that he loves. I think God cares about your body as much as he cares about your soul.”

I’m not sure why Christianity has swung so far on the pendulum that many Christians seem to care more about the soul than they do about the body. It fascinates me that the public Christian voice tends to be from folks like Reverend John Piper – who this past week suggested that God had sent as a warning the tornado that touched down in Minnesota, toppling a steeply at Central Lutheran Church, and ripping off part of the roof at the convention center which was housing the ELCA national delegate who happened to be discussing the issue of ordination standards for lesbian and gay candidates for ministry.

There are certainly plenty of texts in our Bible that suggest that a life of the flesh is at odds with a life of the spirit. Perhaps the ethereal and cosmic language that John uses in his gospel to describe Jesus feeds part of that tendency. Paul’s letters are certainly part of it – as he so often rails against living in obedience to the flesh and pushes his communities to follow the leadings of the spirit of Christ.
Paul was a Greek. It was natural for Paul to separate out the body from the spirit – it was the way they understood the world. There is the material, and then there is the spiritual. While they might reflect each other, that is, the material can become like the spiritual, ultimately the material can never be spiritual. Jesus, on the other hand, was a Jew. For Jews body and soul are inexplicably intertwined. One cannot be separated from the other.

As we followed the story of David in July and have moved into the reign of Solomon we find ourselves at the point when Solomon has built the temple in Jerusalem. It is a grand and amazing temple. And yet Solomon knows that his God is bigger even than this structure – he says, “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less the house that I have built.”

Centuries later John wrote about this same God who had somehow become incarnate in this very real and fleshy person of Jesus, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

So the question is – if God really cared so little for our flesh, why would God take it on and wear it so willingly? Perhaps it is not so much about our souls as it is about our bodies. Stanley Hauerwas said in contrast to Piper, “Christianity is not a set of beliefs or doctrines one believes in order to be a Christian, but rather Christianity is to have one’s body shaped, one’s habits determined, in such a way that the worship of God is unavoidable.” (Taylor, p45) A long way from Solomon’s temple – now maybe the temple is here, in this body where we live…

This summer I’ve been reading the newest book by Episcopal priest and teacher Barbara Brown Taylor. I know I’ve mentioned it before. You may find that I will mention it again. The book is called “An Altar in the World,” and the chapters are divided up into practices for the Christian life. Christian practices have been the topics of many books in recent years – marking the transition of our culture (as I mentioned last week) away from doctrine and belief systems and towards the embodiment of the Christian life through living it out. Traditional practices include prayer, hospitality, worship, service to the poor, among other things.

But Taylor mixes it up a bit, which is why I love her book so much. Her practices include: The practice of paying attention, the practice of getting lost, the practice of saying no, the practice of feeling pain…

She also includes the practice of “wearing skin” as essential to our faith in a God that chose to wear our skin so fully. As part of this practice, she believes that each of us, at least from time to time, should pray naked in front of a full-length mirror, especially when we are full of loathing for our bodies. “Whether you are sick or ill, lovely or irregular,” she says, “there comes a time when it is vitally important for your spiritual health to drop your clothes, look in the mirror and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” (Taylor, p43) After you have a good look around, you may decide there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. It’s not one of the ways of prayer we learned in Sunday School, that’s for sure!

If we believe in the incarnation – if we really believe that Christ is the Word of God made flesh wholly and completely. Then we have to accept that Christ was flesh in every way that we are – that he heard his bones crack when he knelt to be down on the ground with children, that his feet ached from miles and miles of walking, that he felt hunger, and pain, that he felt sexual attraction, that he felt his skin warm in the sun, and chills in cold night air, that he felt and knew all that we feel in our bones, our muscles, our skin.

Over our vacation Jason and I visited some good friends in Michigan who we don’t keep in touch with as well as we would like. We spent the night at their house – ate dinner with them, watched our kids play and take baths together, slept in their guest rooms. In the midst of the evening, the wife shared that about a year ago she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Because she is so young and the chances are so much higher that the cancer would return, she had chosen to have a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, radiation – all that comes with aggressive cancer treatment.

Since we had been out of the loop we had not known any of this – and now it has been a little over a year since her surgery. Today she is cancer free and expects to remain so, thanks be to God, and is excited to start trying for another child soon.

So –over dinner – we talked about her body. We talked about what it was like to have the surgery – to go through it all as a family just starting out. She shared the details of the surgery: the pain from the scraping of her chest cavity, the long process of reconstruction, the scars. She shared how there is one more surgery, where they create nipples for her out of skin from another part of her body – but she’s hesitant to do it because it doesn’t feel quite part of her, instead it feels fake and unnecessary – and it’s one more surgery. She also talked about how she loved her scars; How they remind her of all that she has been through – they remind her of how grateful she is – of what she survived. And she feels beautiful both because of and in spite of them.

“And the Word became Flesh, and lived among us.”

As we start to consider the reverence that God had for the flesh when he decided to make it his home for the better part of 33 years in the body of Jesus – we may start to revere that flesh that God gave us – cellulite, creaking bones, wrinkles, gray hair and all. And what’s more – because our bodies are what connects us to all other people – we might start to revere their bodies too.

Because if God loves all of me, including my body, I have to trust that God loves all bodies everywhere: Bodies of children filled with lead poisoning, bodies of hungry people who come to Hope food pantry, the body that is cancer free or cancer ridden, the bodies of overweight people sitting next to us on the subway, the slim bodies of teenage rock stars. And not just those bodies but the details of those bodies – the scars and wrinkles, the stretch marks, the broken bones and nipples and balding heads.

“While we might not have anything else in common, we all wear skin. We all have breath and beating hearts. Most of us have wept, though not for the same reasons. Few of our bodies work the way we want them to. The vast majority of us are afraid of dying.” (Taylor, p41)

That Jesus too, has this in common with us…that these bodies were important enough to redeem, to heal and feed, to bathe and kiss, to weep over… well, that shows a love and grace for us and our bodies that is wonderfully and terribly deep. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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