All That I Am
Christian Practices V: Honoring the Body
text: “…the throne of God.” (Matthew 5:34)
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – 13.Feb.2011
The Rev’d G. Travis Norvell
Truth like love cannot exist solely as a mental exercise, it must be practiced. Truth like love must be consummated. Christianity, like truth, like love, must be part contemplative and part action. Our gospel, part truth, part love, is best when it moves through the mind to the heart. Our gospel, part truth-part love is best practiced as St. Francis implored, preach the gospel, when necessary use words.
He was a dangerous man, that Francis, someone who dared to embody the truth he found or better the Truth that found him. Although his story comes from the 12 century it is a poignant today as ever.
But why are there so few people like Francis? How come we all do not seek to embody our religion? What prevents us from freely acting and living out in our bodies the truth we have found or the Truth that found us?
We have all watched with delight as the people of Egypt gathered for two weeks to demonstrate and demand their freedom. They gathered with their bodies, they put their bodies on the line, their bodies were beaten and bullied. Everyone thought the Egyptians would back away once the crackdown on bodies began but the exact opposite happened. Etched in my mind are the bodies locked arm-in-arm, etched in my mind are the two images from the Church of Two Saints and Liberation Square. At the Church of Two Saints in Alexandria as Coptic Christians worshipped thousands of Muslims gathered around the Cathedral to protect their fellow Egyptians from another suicide bomber; with their bodies the majority extended the religious liberty to the minority. This has been a Western practice born on the shores of Massachusetts Bay. At Liberation Square as Muslims prayed in an act of non-violent civil disobedience, another Western practice, Coptic Christians arm-in-arm formed a human shield between the praying Muslims and the tanks and the thugs. I cannot find another example when a minority sought to offer religious liberty to the majority. Brothers and sisters we witnessed and are witnessing a new frontier of religious liberty, a new view of the human body, and a new non-violent embodiment of religion.
Throughout history there are images of individuals using their bodies to communicate truth; human beings who have honored their bodies in such a way to transcend the ordinary, their testimonies allow us for one moment to climb Jacob’s ladder and look around heaven. Jesus healing the lame, the woman wiping bathing Jesus’s feet with her tears, St. Francis stripping and handing his clothes back to his father in front of the cathedral of Assisi, and the Civil Rights marchers standing with dignity while police held barking German Shepherds only inches from their faces. With their bodies they offered a higher level of existence for humanity. With their bodies they offered the possibility of human flourishing for all. By embodying their Christianity, by honoring their bodies in acts of love, justice, and solidarity they modeled for us another Christian Practice.
This is our fifth installment of a seven part sermon series on Christian Practices; today we center on the discipline of honoring the body. Each practice: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing our lives, observing the Sabbath, honoring the body, testimony, and forgiveness contributes to a full definition of each other and what it means to practice our faith. All but one, I am willing to be bet sounds fairly doable and even a little enticing. All but one that is, honoring the body. For Baptist especially the issue of the body is a tough issue.
During the season of Lent I asking/challenging/begging/guilting each and every one of you to break up and form into small groups for the sole purpose of exploring and experimenting with one of these seven practices. Perhaps you will meet in the chapel or in someone’s living room to sing hymns, perhaps you will meet in a coffee shop and role play with one another on how to say yes and to say, perhaps you will go for a walk and talk about how you are discerning God’s will, perhaps you will want to organize a kickball game on a Sunday or invite others over for supper to observe the Sabbath, or perhaps you could form a yoga class during Lent to honor your body. I think this one may be the most troubling.
Don’t drink, don’t cuss, don’t chew, don’t go with those who do. Don’t dance, don’t play cards, kids are better seen and not heard, only say amen during worship as a last resort of praise/appreciation and don’t even think about mentioning sex at all.
That’s a muddled Christian view of the boyd. On the one hand we offer the most sensual Christian ritual: full immersion baptism while on the other hand we rarely if ever honor our bodies in worship. On the one hand we have the most beat driven hymnody of any denomination while on the other hand we rarely, if ever, dance, shuffle our feet or tap our toes. A few years ago I accidentally introduced Baptist hymnody to an Eastman School of Music professor. Immediately he went off to find a galvanized trash can so he could bang out the rhythm. On the one hand we have the freest view of communion – jokingly I say our view of the meal is the lowest common denominator, we invite everybody but on the other hand we celebrate this festive meal in the most constrictive manner by sitting down and being served.
This muddled view should come as no surprise.
At the center of Christianity is the doctrine of the incarnation – that God in Jesus Christ became flesh, that God in Jesus Christ passed through the birth canal and crossed the threshold from womb to life. And it should come as no surprise that Baptists have not exactly done a good job of expressing clear teaching on this issue. The late Dale Moody, one time stalwart of theology and biblical studies at Southern Seminary once remarked that Baptists are muddleheaded Apollinarians. Say what? Our theology of the incarnation has yet to fully embrace the fully human and fully God dual nature of Jesus. Instead in practice we communicate that Jesus had a human body but a divine head. If this has been our heritage then no wonder we have the thoughts and prohibitions we do about our bodies.
Then no wonder Pentecostals are the fastest growing branch of Christianity. No wonder that many people my age and younger are turning towards alternative – but formal – forms of Christianity. No wonder many of you here, myself included, are here and not where you grew up. Better to be in New Orleans free and open about who you are than be back home and be someone you are not. No wonder that the very vices Baptists have sought to repress emerge with a vengeance in the forms of tragic addiction. I know, I know correlation does not equal causation but in my brief 36 years and in your years we have all seen the religious impetus.
At least once a week I try to entice one of my friends or colleagues to move to New Orleans. I tell them just by living here, eating the food, and walking the streets you get the equivalent of a PhD in Theology, Sociology, Music, and Gastronomy. Although it should come as no surprise, living here has forced me to change my theology. For theology is not like a plastic flower always green and bright it is a living, growing, and changing organism. This city is helping me live a free life, the real change came last year. 364 days ago I experienced one of the greatest days of my life.
It began with the Jazz service, continued with a mid afternoon parade, then wondering around an uptown neighborhood with a friend for a couple of hours going in and out of homes along the way playing ping pong, eating chicken, and picking up an adult beverage or two, in between parades some kids and I, around our ladders, fashioned together a huge jump rope made of broken beads and began double dutching, then another parade, then a huge neutral ground pot luck dinner, passed football with people across Napoleon, then night parades, when our neighbor reigned as king of Bacchus I screamed I’m open and with my non-preaching hand even I caught a pass, which was subsequently lost an hour or two later when a bass drum baton almost knocked me unconscious as I pulled one my progeny to safety.
That day I felt alive, free, fully human. I laughed, screamed, feasted, played, cried, felt the rhythms of the marching bands as they passed. I was surrounded by people I didn’t know or barely knew and was not anxious. I was exhausted, completely drained and yet fully alive and energized. That day was the turning point in my theology of the incarnation. God became human, God created us in God’s image, God gave us these bodies so that we may live and live abundantly, that we may live in community with one another, love one another, strive to make justice a reality, and heal one another with our bodies.
That day for the first time in my life I felt the embodiment of my Christianity with the rhythms of life. There in that mess of people, beer, beads, food, ladders, and music I realized our bodies are not our enemies. They are God’s gift to us.
Now may be the appropriate time in the sermon to ask yourself what has this got to do with the portion of the sermon on the mount that we read from for the gospel lesson? Take the gospel lesson and the teaching therein and peel them away and what do you have? Or better yet hold the page sideways and see if can imagine the three dimensional roots of this story – like the majestic Live Oaks there is an equal amount of roots under the soil to the amount of branches above. In this passage Jesus is teaching in a creative and didactic way the organic relationship between thoughts and actions. If an individual or congregation, or society can change the way they think then they can the way they act; and if they can change the was they act then they can change the way they think. We all know that we can not change each other, as much as we would like to, we can only change one another and the way we interact with one another.
So what if you and I began to change the way we thought about our bodies, about the incarnation, about the incarnation of our Christianity, about honoring our bodies. Imagine the new and healthier world. Imagine a church where we seek the healing of our own bodies and those in our lives, where sex and sexuality were not taboos but subjects worthy of conversations, where sex and sexuality are not words causing us to blush or feel shame but as honest speech about who I am or who you are as a human being in this body. Imagine if we were honest about the limitations of our bodies. Imagine if we honored our bodies in such a way that we aged together in support of one another attentive to our aching sciatica nerves, failing eyes, and uncooperative memories?
Because Mabel Palmer, via the chaplain Rev. Stephens, asked me to I now lead a worship service at Poydras Home every second Thursday from 10:30 to 11:00am. Recall the sermon on saying yes and saying no, are you going to say no to Mabel Palmer? You are all invited to help me out, this week I sang in three keys while leading the Doxology. I read scripture, pray with and for them, and deliver a brief message. This week, however, I changed my approach. I went with questions, specifically questions about bodies. I figured a group of 20 80-90 years olds were experts on their bodies. I asked them when they look into the mirror what do they see? Do they see someone who has lived 32,000 days or ten year old? They said we see a much younger person, we don’t recognize the person in the mirror. Then I asked an unprepared question if you could would you change anything about your body? They all said no. After all these years, they wouldn’t change a thing.
Their bodies are limited, each day brings new aches and pains…and they wouldn’t change a thing. Those in the twilight of life were done struggling they were honoring their bodies by acceptance and even embracing their bodies.
We need their voices to be heard about our bodies and about embodying our Christianity but they also need our voices and other voices. In December I entered the front door of Poydras only to find a sign that said please use side entrance. I found the door and walked into the dining room and found a room full of the residents, and toddlers, it seemed like thousands of them in pajamas with teddy bears and singing Raffi songs. I looked at Rev. Stephens and asked what in the world was he thinking? I can’t follow toddlers in pajamas with teddy bears singing Raffi, but I had to! During the service all of those gathered were glowing with wonder at the bodies they had just watched. Bodies without limitations, endless energy and complete freedom.
Somewhere between those stories is the good news of the Christian practice of honoring the body. Somewhere between here and Cairo and Galilee is a view of our embodied truth and love. Somewhere in the midst of the gospel is the courage to be, to be the person made in the image of God. Somewhere in this body of ours is a song, specifically the song of William Grant Still the 20th century composer originally from Woodville, MS, All that I Am
All that I am,
All I ever can be,
I owe to You, Lord,
For you have molded me.
All that I have,
All that I call mine,
I owe to You, Lord,
For all things are Thine.
Brothers and Sisters let us accept the invitation to live out, to embody our faith. Let us accept the invitation for the renewal of our minds so that when we look in the mirror we see the image of God, so that when we visit someone from 9 to 90 we are seeing the image again, so that when we greet one another with the peace we are imitating the creative acts of God to heal and restore the image of God within us. You and I have these bodies, they are God’s gift to us let us accept them, let us honor them. Amen and Amen.