Monday, May 9, 2016

Sermon: "God Sings the Body Electric", Song of Solomon 4:1-7/Acts 1:6-11 (May 8, 2016)

Every good sermon starts with a flashback to English class, right? Well, this one does, anyway: in 1855, poet Walt Whitman published “I Sing the Body Electric”, his ode to the human form. This poem celebrates the body’s magnificence in both its function and beauty. It’s an incredibly detailed work, including entire sections that are nothing more than lists of body parts—albeit, lists that manage to convey the poet’s sense of awe: “Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the jaw-hinges…/Wrist and wrist-joints, hand, palm, knuckles, thumb, forefinger, finger-joints, finger-nails …” Over the course of its nine sections, Whitman describes the human form in exquisite detail and proclaims ALL bodies—male, female, black, white, young, old—as awe-inspiring and worthy of honor.

In spite of the poem’s positive and empowering message, it drew an impressive amount of criticism in the 19th century for its brazen discussion of the body. It was labeled, “obscene,” “explicit”, and of course, “sinful”. Speaking so openly about the body—about what it’s capable of, what makes it beautiful, what we love about it—was a big no-no. We may consider ourselves to be more enlightened or open-minded or…whatever than our predecessors were 150 years ago, but if we’re honest, how much has really changed in our collective view of the human body? We still giggle when we hear certain “unspeakable” body parts named out loud. We still look away from bodies that are broken or old or otherwise not ideal, even—sometimes especially—our own. We still consider working with sick or dead bodies “uncomfortable” at best and “disgusting” at worst. We still consider cultivating the mind and soul to be a more noble pursuit than nurturing the body—if you don’t believe me, ask any kid whose recess time has been taken over by additional instruction time, or any older student whose studies take precedence over time spent outside or at the gym.

The fact is that many of us still embrace this attitude, whether consciously or not. Interestingly, this perspective on the body is sometimes described as an expression of “Christian values.” I think the idea is that the body’s an obstacle in our relationship with God—that our spirit’s what God REALLY cares about—and when we spend time thinking or talking about the body, we’re ignoring that which is holy in favor of the corrupt flesh. So, we come to view the body as sinful for being something that pulls us away from heavenly things and towards earthly things. But this isn’t really a Christian view—it’s more closely related to ancient Greek philosophy or gnostic thinking. So we need to ask ourselves: is it more holy, more pious, to shun the physical, or is God actually calling us to join Whitman in “singing the body electric”?

This is a timely question. Today, as most people know, is Mother’s Day. It’s also, as fewer people know, Ascension Sunday—the day that the Church commemorates Jesus ascending into heaven 40 days after his resurrection. (If you do the math, Ascension Day was actually last Thursday, but I figure since so many of you somehow missed the opportunity to be in church on Thursday, we can mention it today.) Each of these celebrations provides an opportunity to reevaluate our attitude towards our bodies. Each one reminds us that, although we may wish it were otherwise, we’re unavoidably embodied beings. Those who gave birth to us gave birth to our bodies in all of their messy, squirmy glory. Those who raised us taught us how to use our bodies, to expand our understanding through the senses, through mobility, through our physical presence in the world. And the one who redeemed us and now sits at the right hand of God did so by taking part in this very same embodied experience alongside us—being born, growing, learning, enduring physical pain, and dying.

The fact of our faith is that, like it or not, God deliberately created us to experience life through our bodies, and EVERYTHING that God creates is good. No exceptions. If you don’t believe me, you can go back and check in Genesis 1: it says so six or seven times. And God’s pretty clear about just how good our bodies are. Like Walt Whitman, God sings the body electric constantly: through scripture, through God’s actions in history, and through Jesus Christ, God makes it clear to us that our bodies are to be honored and loved.

The most obvious example of this (and probably the least frequently mentioned from the pulpit) is Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). This undeniably canonical book of Scripture spends 8 chapters joyfully celebrating love—not transcendent, spiritual love, but a physical, very human love. As with Whitman’s poem, folks have called this scripture “obscene”, “vulgar”, and “explicit”, but in this case, it’d be difficult to say these things from a position of “Christian values”. Song of Songs (sometimes called the Song of Solomon) is definitely Holy Scripture—the Word of God given to us. Listen again to the way it celebrates the human body—

“Your lips are like a crimson thread, and your mouth is lovely. Your cheeks are like halves of a pomegranate behind your veil. Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses…you are altogether beautiful my love; there is no flaw in you.”

Powerful stuff. Now, scholars have long interpreted this book as an allegory of God’s love for God’s people. To me, this only serves to magnify the importance of our bodies: if this is the best way the author could think of to describe God’s love for us—through this graphically physical imagery—then our bodies must be both valuable and holy. I mean, metaphors are used in scripture to help us understand what God is like, and it would be a pretty terrible metaphor if we used something that was dirty and sinful to describe our holy and perfect God…

We also know, of course, that God thought enough of human bodies to become incarnate in one; and not only that, but to be resurrected and then return to heaven in that same body. Jesus’ very life serves as the best proof of the body’s value to God. If it were so contrary to the divine, then there would have been no incarnation or resurrection. If the body were so sinful and dirty, maybe redemption would have looked more like the divine destruction of our bodies, rather than the preservation of them.

But that’s not how it played out. Instead, God became human and lived among us as an embodied spirit (or maybe a spirited body?). Jesus died in a human body and was resurrected with that same body, one whose wounds Thomas was able to put his own fingers into. His body ascended into heaven before the disciples’ very eyes, and he promised us, through Paul, that our own bodies would one day be resurrected. God doesn’t abandon or discard bodies—God uses them and glorifies them! Who are we, then, to call that which God has created out of love, that which God has embraced, that which God has preserved and renewed and exalted—who are we to call it dirty or corrupt or sinful?

Now, let’s say that we accept the idea that our bodies are holy and beloved by God. Let’s say that we can get behind what Whitman tells us, and what Song of Solomon teaches us, and what Christ’s incarnation reveals to us. How does that change the way we live as God’s people?

When we realize that our bodies aren’t sinful in and of themselves and we begin to understand them as a gift, we start to discover that there are far more ways to encounter and glorify God than we had previously imagined. Christians from other traditions already use their bodies to worship God in ways that we might recognize, but that still feel foreign to us: if you’ve ever been to a Roman Catholic church, you’ve probably seen the kneeling pads in every pew, and Evangelical traditions are known for lifting their arms to the sky when they pray. Orthodox Christians sometimes lean in and kiss icons that depict Jesus or Mary. Some churches have ornate processions that mark their liturgy, and others even incorporate dance into worship as regularly as prayer. Although some of these gestures are done in unison, many of them are things that people do alone as the Spirit moves them. Members of these communities find value in using their bodies to worship God.

But I’m willing to bet that at least a few of you are listening uncomfortably in your seat, thinking, “But we don’t DO that.” That’s true; we DON’T generally do this sort of thing. But I’m challenging you to think about WHY we might not feel comfortable doing something like that in worship. You might find that it has more to do with your own sense of vulnerability than with anything else. Many of us don’t like drawing attention to ourselves, and too often, we put our own comfort before the things that honor God.

I get it; I really do. At my former congregation, I was told that people would be uncomfortable if I didn’t bless them with the sign of the cross during the benediction. When I shared my hesitation with the priest, he encouraged me to think of it as praying with my body—just another way to connect with God without using words. That had never occurred to me. And it made sense. And yet, I still felt self-conscious every time I raised my arm in front of the crowd.

We Presbyterians are notoriously bad at using our bodies in worship. The Sacraments are built around the physical, embodied experience of God, but we somehow manage to eliminate as much of that as possible. While some traditions baptize by immersion, allowing people to feel completely surrounded and cleansed by the water, what do we do? We sprinkle a little bit of water on the forehead. Instead of ripping, chewing, swallowing the communion bread from a common loaf, and lifting a shared cup to our lips, drinking deeply as the disciples may have done, we often prefer to pre-cut the bread into cubes and limit ourselves to a half ounce of grape juice, or whatever manages to stick to the bread when we dip it. Now, of course there are reasons, good reasons, that we share the sacraments like this. We’ve come to realize that our wonderfully diverse community requires us to adjust our practices so that everyone can truly feel welcome at the font and table. But we shouldn’t let ourselves forget that these sacred moments are grounded in the experience of the body.

I’m the first one to admit that fighting the impulse to stay still and inconspicuous in worship is HARD. I often feel awkward in my body. Dancing is something that I adamantly insist is outside of my skill set. Holding my arms out when I pray still makes me feel strangely vulnerable in a place where I should feel safe in God’s presence. But just because something is hard doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing. And friends—this aversion to bodily worship isn’t something that we’re born with. It’s something that’s taught. A toddler isn’t afraid to react to the beauty of a hymn by dancing. Children aren’t afraid to run up the aisles in anticipation of communion. It’s we adults who teach them that worship isn’t a place to use our bodies, even in response to the Spirit’s movement among us. Even though we have the best of intentions, we’re in the habit of stifling the embodied worship, and all that does is limit the avenues that we have to encounter God.

Maybe we have to start small. We could pray with our palms facing up and out instead of clasped in our laps. Sway a little bit when we sing a hymn. Take an extra moment to consider the sensation of the bread in our mouths during communion. It could be during Sunday morning worship, or when we’re alone at home. Worshiping with the body doesn’t have to be flashy and obvious all the time. What’s important isn’t necessarily what we’re doing, but that we’re doing it.

Although not a theologian, Walt Whitman recognized that our bodies are more than just vessels of flesh, that there’s something holy about them. He ends his poem,

“All attitudes, all the shapeliness, all the belongings of my or your body or of any one’s body, male or female…/The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair…/The exquisite realization of health;/O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of the soul,/O I say now these are the soul!”

God created you as an intricate interweaving of soul AND body. Denying one is denying the fullness of God’s creation. Forgetting one is forgetting the true wonder of the incarnation. We can’t give God all that we are if we’re holding back such a vital part of what God has created us to be in our worship—our encounters with the divine.

If you take nothing else from today, I hope that you carry with you the permission to try a new way to respond to God’s love. It might feel a little silly at first; it might feel a little uncomfortable, but it’ll be okay. When God does something incredible, it should be impossible for us to just stay in our seats—and God is doing something incredible every day. As the old song says, “You gotta clap when the Spirit says clap!” So clap, dance, kneel, jump, move…and do it all with gratitude and love for the astounding body that you have been given. God is still, and forever will be, singing your body electric. Amen.

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