I feel something changing in my preaching. I think it is a product of the work I’ve been doing through PrairieFire, the work I have been doing on my own with God. My sermons don’t feel as tight or as clever as they once were – or I once perceived them to be. But I hope that they feel increasingly true, like this one about the role of our bodies in telling the world about God.
Every Sunday during this hour, after the hullabaloo of the Children’s Celebration and noise of the sermon, we arrive together at a time of shared prayer, our time of joys and concerns. Just a few minutes long, anyone can offer up a need or news to be held collectively in our hearts, to be offered collectively to God’s heart. Cancer, finals, births, deaths, whatever needs to be said.
Last Sunday Jim offered a prayer that I can’t remember hearing before. Jim said that he didn’t want to sound arrogant but, as he listens to these requests each week, he finds himself feeling grateful to not, as far as he knows, be living with cancer or other kinds of bodily suffering. Grateful to be OK, for now.
I think he spoke for a lot of us, how many of us feel when we hear just how much others are enduring because of these fragile, temporary structures of skin and sinew. Jim didn’t sound at all arrogant, but humbled. It is humbling to know what comes for us all, how limited this bone and brain always proves to be.
It feels like today’s passage is somehow how about humbling bodily existence and what that tells us about God.
On the surface, this scene is a fight about what does and does not “defile” a human body between Jesus and some Pharisees, one of the streams of Judaism present at his time. (Please always remember that Judaism was not then and is not now completely homogenous and we need to be very careful about drawing conclusions about a religion of which we are not a part.)
The Pharisees are appalled that the disciples aren’t washing their hands before a meal. Jesus retorts that such practices are empty ritual. Ritual cannot protect us from defilement, he says, because defilement comes from within. What separates us from God is not soil under our nails but the dirty deeds—avarice, slander, murder—that begin in our own hearts.
I think this argument is a false dichotomy and that they are both right.
How many times since the Wuhan virus broke have we all been reminded to wash our hands? It is essential to the reduction in disease transmission. I know the Pharisees didn’t have germ theory, they surely did know that what we get on our hands can defile a body. Likewise, we can agree with Jesus in that we can take part in a ritual, like passing the peace, and still harbor ill will, warring, in our hearts.
So what makes this story interesting, makes it soul-compelling, to me today is not their disagreement on defilement but their agreement on the centrality of the body in a life of faith. And we have had that agreement for a long time.
Theologian Tamara Eskenazi, using the book of Levitcus, writes that ancient Hebraic rules (like the handwashing) point toward the body’s role as a locus of divine encounter. This understanding is shared by the Jewish apostle Paul who writes in a letter to the burgeoning ecclesia in Corinth that “your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (1 Cor 6:19).
And Jesus’ entire ministry is embodied.
The good news of Jesus Christ is, in part, that your illnesses are seen, your hunger needs to be met, your fatigue deserves rest. Jesus is not a prophet of a divine detached but a sacredness soldered to our very skin. His message culminates in Holy Week. Look at the theological claim of that story of execution: In Jesus holiness took on every human, corporeal, respiratory, gastrointestinal, coronary, auditory experience imaginable, even excruciating, as an act of ultimate solidarity. Or maybe Jesus revealed that holiness always has been part of every human corporeal, respiratory, gastrointestinal, coronary, auditory experience imaginable, even excruciating.
Across so many differences and traditions and time, we can agree that the body is central to faith because it is where we meet God. But it is more than that.
What I’ve described up to this point is called theology of the body. It is God-talk about our bodies. We can flip the terms around, though, to practice body theology instead of theology of the body. That is, listen to what our bodies say about God, not only what God says about our bodies. After all, body theologian Christopher Richardson writes, “We do not just have bodies; we are bodies.” By extension, contextual theologian Marcella Althaus-Reid suggests, our “body-self speaks to us with the authority of divine revelation.”
Rather than neutral, receptive spaces for God to occupy, these fingers and follicles are actively bespeaking God. Sitting on the cushion, your body is bespeaking God. Smelling the parlor coffee, your body is bespeaking God. Missing the touch of a parent or a child or a lover, your body is bespeaking God.
Or might be.
Jesus says that no food is special and no food banned because it all ends up in the sewer, anyway. But what about the body? How do we know when our heartbeat is prophetic
and when it is just being the muscle and electric impulses that is always has been? And if, as Jesus says, the forces that will break and spoil us come from within that heart, why would we ever risk listening to it at all? How can our bodies be our site of encountering God, of telling God’s story, if it is also the place where we reject God or refuse to tell that story?
I think that is where this table becomes so important.
Holy Communion, as a ritual, can be as hollow as any other if that is how we approach it, but consider what it offers to us if we are willing to receive.
We call a sacrament, a visible sign of God’s invisible grace, this ordinary bread, ordinary juice. God’s grace made visible in the context of a story of ordinary betrayal and extraordinary reconciliation. At the table we remember that our whole bodies are complicit in starvation and in plenty, in creating rifts and bridging them. At the intersection of our intent and the grain and the grape, measured against the length of the open table, we can discern what is of us and what is of God in these old, young, achy, energetic, living, and dying bodies.
Including dying. Including the dying we lift up each week in prayer. Because if our living bodies speak God, so do our dying ones. All of our dying ones, not just that of the Christ.
Which means that even though each of us will die only once, God has died countless times. God has acquired brain lesions, tremors, addiction; God has been shot dead and crushed in collisions; God has fallen asleep in a child’s crib and in a hospice bed, only to never to wake up.
God knows what death is like and will companions us through our own.
Both Jesus and the Pharisees are right. Rituals matter but only in as much as they redeem that which is not Godly in us. So, after the hymn, come to the feast. Come, learn how God is speaking to you through every part of yourself. Come, learn how to speak God through every part of yourself.
Come, praying, “With this mere body I hear you. With this mere body I serve you. With this mere body I will die with you. Beyond this mere body I know that there is you.”
Eskenazi, Tamara. “Reading the Bible as a Healing Text.” In Healing and the Jewish Imagination: Spiritual and Practical Perspectives on Judaism and Health, by PhD Rabbi William Cutter, 77-94. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights Publishing, 2007.
Richardson, Christopher K. “God in Our Flesh: Body Theology and Religious Education.” Religious Education 98, no. 1 (2003): 82-94.
Althaus-Reid, Marcella. “‘Pussy, Queen of Pirates’: Acker, Isherwood and the Debate on the Body in Feminist Theology.” Feminist Theology 12, no. 2 (2004): 154.
Delivered at Ames UCC on February 16, 2020
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie