This Lent, our preaching series focuses on the Christian practices and habits that will make us a distinctive people in the New Apostolic Era. Lisa's sermon is a fine and compact presentation on the Christian habit of Honoring the Body...
The Rev. Dr. Lisa Barrowclough
The Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
Augusta, GA – Sunday, February 17, 2013 – Lent 1C
Jewish midrash tells a story of the beloved sage Hillel, who on his way to the bathhouse, explained to his disciples that he was going to carry out a mitzvah, a commandment. “Is it a religious obligation to bathe?” they asked. “Yes,” replied the wise teacher, “If the statues of kings erected in theatres, circuses, and town squares are regularly scoured and washed by the person appointed to look after them, how much more I, who has been created in God’s image and likeness.”
Disclaimer: If 15 years ago anyone had told an ambitious seminarian that she would one day stand in a pulpit and begin a sermon with a story about bathing, that young seminarian … well, I would have laughed, “I think not!” Well, in the interest of full disclosure, I actually felt that same way just a few weeks ago, when the preaching series schedule was published and I was assigned to the Christian Practice of ‘Honoring the Body.’ God is known to have a great sense of humor, however … and also to desire the stretching and growth of His disciples … and so my Lent has begun with special attention paid to the disciplines of tending to that which is indeed made in God’s image and likeness – the body that we, as Christians, are called to care for and honor.
Whether I want to pay attention or not, our world has a lot to say about our bodies. A quick internet search for “body care products” produces 163 million results – a three-year-old Department of Labor study claims that between 40 and 50 percent of the annual expenditures of the average American family fit in categories associated with care of the body, from gym memberships to health care, from the clothes on our backs to the food in our refrigerators – and, according to the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Heath, half of the top ten stressors in the complicated development of adolescents are directly related to their bodies … what they’ve been told they should look like, what they think they must wear, what they are tempted to try, what is happening to them naturally and, sadly (for far too many), what is happening unnaturally to their bodies at the abusive hands of others.
The world of Jesus and the early Christian church was very concerned with the body as well. A sizeable majority of the Laws of the Torah are somehow related to the body, what a person can and cannot wear, eat, touch, and do. Jesus’ own radical ministry was marked by regular associations with those whose failing bodies made them unclean in the eyes of the faithful; and most of his miracles fed or healed bodies in need. St. Paul teaches passionately about the human body as the ‘Temple of the Holy Spirit’ when seeking to correct the destructive choices folks were making and the abusive habits they had fallen into – he more than once uses the image of the human body to describe the Church, the Body of Christ, as having many members who complement and need one another, and the whole system rejoicing or hurting when any one part does – and he describes compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience as godly virtues with which we must clothe ourselves.
The whole of our faith, of course, is grounded in the Incarnation – the truth that God himself “put on” a human body … and, in Jesus, the creator lived among the creatures. That the divine would walk and talk, and live and die, as an earthly human being is the unique claim of Christianity among the world’s religions, and because of this awesome wonder the holiness of all human bodies is an absolutely central understanding of our faith. Have you noticed that the whole of your body is involved in our worship? The often-mocked “Episcopal Aerobics” of “stand, sit, kneel, repeat” are intentional movements to engage our whole selves in prayer and praise. We touch and taste and smell in church – we see and hear and speak and sing together – and thus we honor our God with our bodies, made in His image. We walk the labyrinth – we get our hands dirty in service to others – we wrap our arms around grieving brothers and sisters – we lift up those who have fallen – we jump with joy for those who have reason to celebrate. We make use of our bodies to the glory of God and the building up of His church and His kingdom.
And because our bodies are intended to honor the One who made and strengthens them, we must take good care of them. In the same way that we are called to be good stewards of the earth, our time, our talents, and our treasures, so too must we be good stewards of the bodies God has given us. This means that what we eat and what we drink – how we wash and what we wear – the ways we are active and the times we are restful – the choices we make about intimacy … being a responsible steward of our bodies means that what we do to honor that which has been made in God’s image must honor God – in ourselves and in others. Like the incarnation, our practices of honoring the body are unique commitments of our Christian faith and they are outward and visible signs of our gratitude to the God who has given them to us. When we monitor and tend to our physical health – when we eat wisely and work off extra calories with exercise – when we practice good hygiene and dress modestly – when we reserve the gift of sex for marriage … when we do these things and more (and importantly, when we teach these things to our children) then we are honoring these vessels, these Temples of the Holy Spirit, as we should.
I say these practices are uniquely Christian commitments because, like so much of what we do and say, the tradition and truth of honoring our bodies is not necessarily the same as the habits and ways of the world in which we live. It has always been so. Our faith was born in a culture that viewed the human body as a commodity that ensured the growth of the empire. Procreation was highly valued, though irresponsibly, even recklessly practiced by the Romans, because babies meant more citizens, more soldiers, more cities. New Christians who reserved sex for marriage made the unpopular claim that their bodies belonged to God, and not to the state. Women, who before Christianity had dutifully born many children and too often died young as a result, suddenly enjoyed the freedom to become educated and to teach others. Those who had, for so long, gone without the basic necessities for healthy living finally had access to goods and services in Christian communities that shared all things in common. And the garments and jewels that had always set the “haves” apart from the “have-nots” were seen less and less among believers called to recognize Christ in one another, and to celebrate the image of God in all whom they met.
They say that history repeats itself, and it is not at all a challenge to find similar disconnects between the views, values, and practices of the faithful and faithless these days. Thankfully our bodies have never again been thought to belong to the empire, but our world is a long way from viewing them as belonging to God. In a highly sensationalized culture, our movie screens, websites, and magazines display minimal clothing on impossible (without photo-shop) bodies while, at the same time (isn’t it ironic?) promoting super-sized junk food filled with sugar and fat. Our culture assumes promiscuity by teaching our children solely about protection and no longer about abstinence, and we’ve made even basic health and wellness the privilege of those who can afford it. The evening news is tragically never without reports of human bodies being exploited and abused and, despite an almost immeasurable wealth of medical advances and services, avoidable sicknesses are spread at increasing rates. But we must not lose heart, for in this unhealthy, immodest, and broken culture, the voice of our faith is a prophetic voice – one with a message of hope and reason – to proclaim … “It just doesn’t have to be this way!”
In this morning’s gospel, the one we hear annually on the first Sunday in Lent, we are reminded of the prevailing weakness of temptation and sin, and (thanks be to God!) the strength and power of God in Christ to save us. The tests of the devil – appealing as they do to the natural tendency of fallen humankind to pursue (often at any cost) self-centered desire, worldly ambition, and the easy-way-out … these are the temptations that haunt us – the longings that seek satisfaction in the dishonorable practices of the culture in which we live and move and have our being. In the gospel Jesus provides for us the ultimate and perfect example of obedience to the One who made us in His image … an obedience we are meant to practice as we live in these bodies we are called to honor. It’s not easy – in fact, it often feels like a forty-day fasting battle in the desert, when we live into the fullness of God’s plan for these bodies of ours. It is hard work to honor our bodies – and to honor the image of God in the bodies of others – but it is for this that we have been fearfully and wonderfully made.
Admittedly, I am not the best practitioner nor teacher of this practice. I pray often for greater strength and motivation in these honorable ways. I began this morning by confessing that I’ve struggled to picture myself giving this sermon, so I might as well also admit that I’ve been remiss in settling on a Lenten discipline. God does indeed work in mysterious ways, doesn’t He?! This practice is an especially challenging one for me – and I’m guessing it may be for a few of you also. Let me wrap things up here with a powerful image of God’s continued work on the bodies He has given us – an image that reminds and reassures me that this hard work is not ours alone. I’m not going to offer any comments of my own (I’m actually not sure I’m ready to) but rather I will just leave the picture with you – a picture of a body that tells the story of so much more. I pray we’ll each hear and see what God intends.
In the fifth book of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” we meet an unpopular young boy: “There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb,” we are told, “and he almost deserved it! His parents called him Eustace Clarence and his masters called him Scrubb,” explains the narrator. “I cannot tell you how his friends spoke to him for he had none.” Self-centered, ambitious, and always looking for an easy way out – Eustace battled with the temptations we read about in the gospel. And so it was that, while he slept atop a dragon’s hoard of riches, with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, Eustace became a dragon himself. At first he tried to look on the bright side, imagining that his fierce new image would provoke fear in others and give him power. He liked this idea! But gradually, through a Lent-like practice of “self-examination and repentance,” Eustace realized that he had been quite a monster even before this unfortunate transformation into a dragon. Eustace began to regret his past mistakes and he wept big (and sincere) dragon tears. … So, enter the lion. The dragon suddenly found himself in the presence of Aslan, who simply beckoned, “Follow me.” Leading Eustace to a clear pool of fresh water, the lion commanded him to undress. “I couldn’t undress,” the boy explains, “because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast off their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the Lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and, instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I were a banana. So I started to go down into the well for my bath. As soon as I looked at myself again in the water I knew it had been no good. Then the Lion said … ‘You will have to let me undress you.’ I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty desperate now. So I just lay flat on my back and let him do it. The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the awful dragon skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. Then … he caught hold of me – I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on – and he threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but for only a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that … I’d turned into a boy again. After a bit the Lion took me out and dressed me.”