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Sermons at First Parish Church

Rev. Elea Kemler
First Parish Church of Groton
January 13, 2019

Prayer

Gretchen Haley writes

There is a place here for every piece of yourself
Bodies, and spirits
Voices and breath
Broken and beautiful
Bitter and still refusing to give up hope

Do not hold back your heart break
Or your joy,
your vision for the world that is already and also
not yet
Let every tender longing of your heart
Be an offering for this time.

And for this community we create together:

Where all bodies are beautiful, all ages, generations, sizes, shapes, abilities, colors — all beautiful.

Where all beings belong.

Let us breathe now together.

Let us try just for a moment to hold ourselves in gentleness, this self, this body, just as we are, breathing in compassion for ourselves, breathing out compassion for one another.

Let us also give thanks for these bodies which got us here this morning, for breath, for heart beat for blood and bone and pray for healing for all who need it, which is truly all of us but especially for those are in pain or suffering, for all who have been told by this world that they are anything less than beautiful.

Let us pray for all who are impacted by government shut-downs and all who wait at closed borders. Let us hold in love the joys and sorrows of this gathered community.

In quiet, let us pray the prayers of our own hearts.

Sermon: The Body’s Grace

The liberal Christian minister and writer John Pavlovitz, author of a wonderful blog called Stuff That Needs To Be Said, sent out a New Year’s message this week about the resolutions we have already fallen short on. As someone who has been to the gym exactly once since January 1st, despite my excellent intentions, I could relate. He writes:

If you’re like me, you probably closed out the last year excitedly mulling over a laundry list of personal alterations, career endeavors, and daily practices you aspired to incorporate into this new trip around the sun. You made plans and declared intentions, and felt a rising hope at the dawn of the coming year and in the possibility of restoration it held for you. And here it is, (barely) mid-January, and you may already feel like a failure. You may already feel like you’ve blown it. You might feel like you watched the ball drop — and now you’ve dropped the ball.

Pavlovitz goes onto to talk about how the truth is that growth and change in human beings does not happen overnight, of course, but in all the tiny choices we make and we change choice by choice over time. And paradoxically, every day is another chance to make new choices, to begin again, really every moment is another chance for renewal and restoration.

I am guessing that many of us made plans and intentions about our bodies this year. This will be the year we will lose 15 lbs or this will be the year we finally get in shape. That was mine. Though in even saying those words I am tempted to ask myself, get in the shape of what exactly? And here is the heart of the matter, as difficult as I find this to accept — we all actually have a shape already. And maybe the real challenge is not to get ourselves into a different one but learning to love and respect and feel tenderness and compassion for the shape we are already in. I suspect I have lost some of you already. But this is not a new idea.

139th psalm has some of the most radical words in the Hebrew Bible which are these: O holy one, I am fearfully and wonderfully made, marvelous are your works.

Marvelous are your works, O holy one. There are no exceptions listed. Each one of us is fearfully and wonderfully made and so are all the people around us — the people at the grocery store buying carts full of Pepsi and potato chips and the ones in the organic vegetable aisle; the people going to the gym and the ones who are not going, the people we find beautiful, acceptable, worthy and the people we do not. All people made in the image of the holy, even the ones we secretly or not so secretly judge for the choices they make.

All people are marvelous works, including us, with all of our human variety, our replacement parts, our cancer cells, our scars, our chronic pain, our physical or mental illnesses and addictions, our not-washboard stomachs, our wrinkles and moles, our eyes and ears that may see and hear slightly less well than they used to. No matter what we have decided is broken and lacking in us, no matter what we are trying to hide or disguise, our bodies are still these on-going miracles. Every breath, every heart beat, every sense and nerve ending, all the quiet organs doing their part to sustain our lives, every moment, that is marvel, a wonder. Walt Whitman, that poet who celebrated the human body, wrote “If anything is sacred the human body is sacred.”

So many of us having trouble believing that the human body is sacred, specifically that our human body is sacred. We have trouble believing in the inherent worth and dignity of our own bodies, which is in fact the first principle of our faith. We are more comfortable with the inherent worth and dignity of our minds perhaps, or our thoughts, or maybe our spirits but not our bodies. So many of believe our bodies are something we have to fight with; our desires and hungers have to be subdued and tamed and we need to wrestle our bodies into some more acceptable condition. We think we are okay because we went running this morning or lost two pounds or because we are getting our mobility back or people tell us we don’t look our age.

If we are not fighting against our hungers or the forces of gravity and the utterly inevitable process of growing older, if we are not trying to be something better, thinner, stronger, healthier, we believe we are not okay. And if, god forbid, we should have a chronic conditions or illness which cannot be cured, or if we have any kind of disability or challenge we cannot overcome, we believe we are definitely not okay.

Where did we learn this? Why do we believe these dangerous and damaging lies which tell us that our human worth and dignity is something that has to be earned or depends upon external circumstances often utterly beyond our control? And how come it is so much easier to try to change ourselves into something more acceptable than to question where these impossible standards came from and who they benefit? Who gains when our standard of human acceptability and worth is so narrow? What if we were to refuse to be ashamed, refuse to accept these cultural norms? What if we refused to apologize for who we are?

To be clear, I am not saying that we should accept living with pain that is treatable or that it doesn’t matter if we give up drinking if drinking is a problem for us or that exercise isn’t good for us in a thousand ways. I am saying that the God of my understanding does not love us more if we are thin or can run five miles or even if we are sober. I believe we are held in love, which is the nature of the universe itself and that love is constant. It is not depending upon our circumstances. Our inherent worth and dignity does not increase when we choose a vegan diet or if we are physically fit. Our physical health may indeed increase when we do these things but I am just as concerned with our spiritual health. And I believe our spiritual health requires that we stop apologizing for the ways we don’t fit a standard for being human which is oppressive and excludes most of humanity.

There is so much to say about this — so much to say about how we have learned to separate our minds and our thoughts from our bodies, how we live in our heads, how we consider our bodies only when they are not performing to our standards, when something hurts or goes wrong, and how religion has traditionally enforced such disembodiment, calling the flesh bad in sharp contrast with the mind and spirit. There is much to wonder about — how it would feel to be more embodied, to know our spirits and our bodies as utterly and intricately connected, to treat ourselves with tenderness and regard and deep respect so that we can get on with the work of treating others the same way. We will talk about some of these things in the weeks to come. But this is not another self-improvement project I am suggesting. Please don’t make any resolutions about it. Let’s just try to notice how it is for us. Notice how we think and feel about our bodies, the things we tell ourselves. Notice the places where we are not kind to ourselves. Notice how we apologize for ourselves, our bodies and how and when we expect others to do the same.

Sonya Renee Taylor is a poet and social justice activist, a powerful writer and speaker and the creator of an online community called The Body is Not an Apology. She has a website and a book and offers online courses and lectures around the country. As an African American woman, she is particularly trying to reach women of color but her message is for everyone: The body is not an apology.

Taylor believes that discrimination, social inequality, and injustice are all manifestations of our inability to make peace with the body, our own and others and her work as she describes it is to foster “global, radical, unapologetic self-love.” She believes this kind of radical self love translates to “action in service toward a more just, equitable and compassionate world.” In her powerful and beautiful book, she offers some incredibly important and radical ideas. I want to share just a few of them with you and ask you to consider them, to just hold them lightly and imagine that they might be true without immediately thinking about why they could not be. She writes:

Disconnection, trauma, lack of resources, lack of compassion, fear, greed, and ego are the sources of our contributions to human suffering, not our bodies. We can accept humans and their bodies without understanding “why” [people] love, think, move, or look the way they do. Contrary to common opinion, freeing ourselves from the need to understand everything can bring about a tremendous amount of peace.

The argument that people “chose” to be this way or the other is at its core an argument about difference and our inability to understand and make peace with difference. The notion of choice is a convenient scapegoat for our bias and bigotries.

Health is not a state we owe the world. We are not less valuable, worthy, or lovable because we are not healthy (as our culture defines it). There is no standard of health that is achievable for all bodies. Our belief that there should be, reinforces the notion that people with illnesses and disabilities have defective bodies rather than different bodies.

Sonya Renee Taylor writes, “When our personal value is dependent on the lesser value of other bodies, radical self-love is unachievable.“

And here is another radical proposal I offer this morning, this one from the theologian and priest and writer Barbara Brown Taylor. She believes we should sometimes pray standing naked in front of a full length mirror. Pray naked in front of a full length mirror. I am just guessing it is not the praying part that most of us find horrifying about that suggestion. But listen to what Barbara Brown Taylor says about this idea. She writes:

I think it is important to pray naked in front of a full-length mirror sometimes, especially when you are full of loathing for your body. Maybe you think you are too heavy. Maybe you have never liked the way your hipbones stick out. Do your breasts sag?

Are you too hairy? It is always something. Then again, maybe you have been sick, or come through some surgery that has changed the way you look. You have gotten glimpses of your body as you have bathed or changed clothes, but so far maintaining your equilibrium has depended upon staying covered up as much as you can. You have even dis­cov­ered how to shower in the dark, so that you may have to feel what you presently loathe about yourself but you do not have to look at it….

There comes a time when it is vitally important for [our] spiritual health to drop [our] clothes, look in the mirror, and say, “Here I am. This is the body-like-no-other that my life has shaped. I live here. This is my soul’s address.” After you have taken a good look around, you may decide that there is a lot to be thankful for, all things considered. … When I do this, I generally decide that it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing. At the very least, I can practice a little reverence right there in front of the mirror. [From An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor]

Again, you don’t have to try it, but imagine trying it; imagine practicing a little reverence right there in front of the mirror. Imagine saying those words out loud to yourself — this is the body like no other that my life has shaped. This is my soul’s address. I am alive and this body, has carried me so far. Imagine being kind to yourself, to the very parts of yourself you are most critical of, most angry at. Imagine treating yourself with tenderness, with the kind of compassion you would show towards someone you love who was in need of your care. Imagine looking at yourself the way you look at something so beautiful, a newborn infant, — Jada or Ezara — or a gorgeous sunset. Try to sit with it for a little while.

Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese begins with these poignant words:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Let the soft animal of our bodies love what they love. Just imagine it. And may that be our prayer this week.

grad-rainbow

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Created 2019-01-15