Benediction Online

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Present Your Bodies

I have really been enjoying the BBC television series, Call the Midwife, not least because I was born in the 1950s, delivered by a midwife at home less than 30 miles from the docklands. In our first reading we heard about two early midwives, Shiphrah and Puah. Like the sisters and midwives of Nonatus House, these women were strong and brave.  They stood up to Pharoah when he demanded that they murder all boys born to the Hebrews, saying “The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them." These two midwives were such heroines that, even though they were women, their names are recorded in scripture and live on in our memories.

Every day midwives experience the physical, messy, bloody side of being human. There’s no way around it. We are beings with bodies. It’s an integral part of who we are. A human being without a body is no longer a human being. The church has often tried to avoid this reality, not wanting to deal with the sweat and blood, with bodily orifices and appetites, relegating our bodies to some second class status.  Many contemporary spiritual teachers continue this tradition. Oneness with God is achieved, it seems to them, in some body-less inner space where we are pure spirit.

Often Paul’s teaching seems to support this notion as he contrasts the things of the flesh with the things of the Spirit. It’s true that he talks about flesh with disdain, but it is not the flesh that the midwives know so intimately, not the flesh that makes us human but rather a generic term for the aspects of living in human society which pull us away from God. When Paul talks about flesh he is not talking about bodies but about activities and attitudes that separate us from God; the sin matrix.

I think that’s clear from today’s reading where he says, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice.” This is not denying that we have bodies or beating them into subjection; this is Paul telling us to give them to God who wants to be loved and served as much by our bodies as by our minds and our hearts and our souls.

“Present your bodies as a living sacrifice” Now I tend to think of sacrifice as when something, usually an animal, is killed and offered to a god on an altar, or alternatively as something which someone gives up for another’s good. For example, we say that parents sacrificed so that their daughter could go to college. But in this verse Paul is not asking us to throw ourselves on an altar to be slaughtered, neither is he asking us to give up our bodies for someone else’s good. So let’s take another look at sacrifice. The Latin word sacrificium comes from a combination of facio to make and sacer meaning sacred. So to sacrifice is to make sacred. To give something precious to God and make it holy.

Paul says “present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” This is an interesting statement – giving our bodies to Christ is spiritual worship. What a different picture from the teachings that suggest our bodies are less than our souls. So we are called to dedicate our bodies to God just as much as our talents, our money and our hearts.

And that means looking after them.  Most of us who are over thirty have some challenges with our bodies. We know that they need less alcohol, less sugar, perhaps more protein or green leafy vegetables. We know that they need less drugs and more exercise or more sleep and less caffeine. But that all takes time, discipline and planning when there are so many more important things to think about. “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” I know it will change my approach to the gym if I start thinking about it as part of my spiritual worship… it may still be a bother but how can it be sloughed off when it is part of my practice of worship?

I want to share with you a poem by Janet Morley; The Bodies of Grown Ups

The bodies of grownups
come with stretchmarks and scars,
faces that have been lived in,
relaxed breasts and bellies,
backs that give trouble,
and well-worn feet:
flesh that is particular,
and obviously mortal.
They also come
with bruises on their hearts,
wounds they can't forget,
and each of them
a company of lovers in their soul
who will not return
and cannot be erased.
And yet I think there is a flood of beauty
beyond the smoothness of youth;
and my heart aches for that grace of longing
that flows through bodies
no longer straining to be innocent,
but yearning for redemption.
(From All Desires Known)

Paul continues his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Now that’s a little more comfortable isn’t it? But I is the renewing of our minds that will help us to take the counter-cultural step of looking after our bodies, of offering them to God, treating them as precious and holy.

Here in California we live in a culture where beautiful bodies are admired and cherished, yet even here one in four adults is seriously overweight. Perhaps because the California body beautiful culture stems from a desire for eternal youth. That is not what Paul had in mind. Let’s listen to Janet Morley again.

And yet I think there is a flood of beauty
beyond the smoothness of youth;
and my heart aches for that grace of longing
that flows through bodies
no longer straining to be innocent,
but yearning for redemption.
“A flood of beauty beyond the smoothness of youth.”  That’s where most of us are. Beyond the smoothness of youth. We are no longer innocent, no longer in the first bloom of youth. Our bodies have grown with us and show the marks of our lives. Like our souls, our bodies are yearning for redemption.
Which is perhaps why all our major sacraments involve our bodies; we are baptized with water, we eat the bread and the wine of Christ’s life; we are anointed with oil. It is why we talk about the resurrection of the body because we cannot be human without a body, we cannot be redeemed without a body. Jesus was resurrected in a body which could suddenly materialize out of nowhere, but was also solid enough that Thomas could have put his finger in the nail holes.
We understand ourselves as the mystical Body of Christ and Paul goes on to talk about us all being members of one another and members of the body. Why then would we think that bodies are less important than minds and hearts?
Our bodies are more than carrying cases for our important brains and souls. Our bodies are the way we live and move and have our being. Our bodies are the way we know one another and the way we interact with the world. Sure, some of us may need the corrective reminder that we are not just our bodies to help us with self-discipline, or to help us with pain. But most of us are pretty good at thinking that bodies are less important.
Midwives like Shiphrah and Puah or like Jennie, Cynthia and Trixie in Call the Midwife know that bodies are truly miraculous. It is from our bodies that the miracle of new life emerges. It is in our bodies that we know redemption.
So let us heed Paul’s words, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Never Give Up

Jesus and his disciples took a trip to Tyre and Sidon. Ever since he heard that John the Baptizer had been beheaded, Jesus had been trying to get some time away. First he went to a deserted place but five thousand men with their families followed him asking for healing. So he healed and fed them, creating 12 baskets of left-overs from just a few loaves; then he did manage a few hours of private prayer but when he got to Gennesaret once again he was mobbed. And then Pharisees and scribes from Jerusalem showed up. So now Jesus is off to modern day Lebanon for some rest and quiet.

But it is not to be. Just then, we read, a Canaanite woman came out and started shouting at him. And Jesus didn’t respond. Jesus “did not answer her at all.”

Today the Benediction Weekly tells us about the humanitarian crisis at our borders; the Presiding Bishop has also called for today to be a day of prayer for Iraq and the Middle East in response to the violence there which has included the slaying of Christians, Yazidis, and other Iraqi religious minorities; the destruction and looting of churches, homes, and places of business; and the displacement of thousands under the threat of death. Ebola is spreading in West Africa, and doctors are leaving for fear of contracting the disease; in Liberia there are only 250 doctors left to serve a population of four million. Tensions are mounting in Ukraine. And closer to home, currently 43 wildfires are raging in the West; rising sea levels are threatening archaeological sites and global warming continues apace. Our political system is at a stalemate and our democracy is threatened by the corrupting force of big money.

What is there to say?

It’s all too much. “Jesus’ disciples came and urged him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.’” Like the disciples, we don’t want to know…

And neither it seems, does Jesus.

In the midst of the tragedies of our day, it can seem that God is silent. But God is always present and God is always working in us and around us for our own good. But God works with things the way they are, with people the way they are.

Perhaps this is what is going on in this perplexing story. In Mark’s gospel, this demanding woman is called a Syro-Phoenician, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite. That was an archaic term, rather like us calling a Danish person a Viking; an archaic term which underlines the woman’s status not only as a non-Jewish foreigner, but also as a member of a historically hated race. So she has two strikes against her – to a Jew she is the lowest of the low and she is a woman. In the honor based society of the day, for Jesus to acknowledge her would be to allow her equal status, to agree that she has some kind of claim on him.
It’s not surprising that the disciples expect Jesus to send her away. We are offended by Jesus’ silence and his apparent unwillingness to respond to her evident need but his contemporaries considered it normal.
Jesus and the Canaanite woman were not social equals. Jesus saw his ministry first and foremost to the people of Israel. Those were the givens. That was the situation within which God was working. And what makes the difference is the woman’s faith. Jesus commends her in the strongest possible terms, “Great is your faith.” This is unique. It is the only time that Jesus says “Great is your faith.” 

There is not much that we can do directly about Ebola in Liberia or the advance of the Islamic State fighters in Iraq or the death toll in Gaza. But we can pray. And God will use our prayers. Our prayers become part of the reality with which God works. Our prayers are a positive force in the midst of the great evil which sometimes seems to be engulfing our world.

We can pray, and like the woman in the gospel, we can refuse to give up. Refuse to give up believing n Loves’ redeeming power, refuse to give up believing that Love can transform ourselves and our world.
It may seem foolish to think that our prayers, our actions in this privileged community can make any difference. But we are not in Iraq, we are not in Ukraine. We are in Los Osos, in San Luis Obispo county. This is where God has put us, this is where we get to bring the reign of God. We are called to bring beloved community and God’s transforming love into our lives and into the lives of those who are our near neighbors even as we pray for those who are far away in situations we can barely imagine.

The disciples were not offended because Jesus cold-shouldered the woman; but they were worried because the leaders of their religious culture, the Pharisees, were offended by Jesus’ teaching. Sometimes our own cultural lens blinds us to the places where in following Jesus we may need to give offence, the places where we are called to be counter-cultural. For Jesus was not a sweet, meek and mild person. Jesus was a down to earth gritty person who dealt with the realities of his time and place.

In our time and place it is easy to get caught up into polarized positions. It is easy to write someone off because of their political views. It is easy to assume because we disagree about one thing we will disagree about everything.  But our baptismal vows call for us to look for the Christ in all persons. Our baptismal vows call us not only to seek the Christ but to serve the Christ in all persons. It is easy for us to get caught up in contempt for those who seem misguided or just plain wrong. But we can never be contemptuous of the Christ.

We can make a difference. We can make a difference in people’s lives as we build together a spiritual center which helps mercy, compassion and peace find a place to incarnate. This is what is important, not whether we wash our hands before meals, cross ourselves at the right moment or agree with each other. We are the ones who are called to bring hope to the world. We are the ones who are called to keep the light burning and never give up. We are the ones who are called to love one another and all whom God sends us; and to pray again and again for healing and peace.
And so now let us pray. For the people of Iraq, of Syria, of Gaza; for those effected by Ebola; for those in the Ukraine; for those in South Sudan; for those in detention and displaced persons camps; for all those living with war and conflict.

Eternal God,
in whose perfect kingdom
no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness,
no strength known but the strength of love:
So mightily spread abroad your Spirit,
That all peoples may be gathered
under the banner of the Prince of Peace,
as children of one Father;
to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen.