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Jul 05, 2020

Body Image

Body Image

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: July 2020

Category: Faith, Gentleness, Patience

Many Christians have been taught to deny the body, feel shame about the body and its desires, or at best ignore the body. Sex in particular has been a favorite target of at least some incarnations of the church. And yet, Scripture itself possesses a vivid erotic poem. Spiritualized over the years, the “Song of Solomon,” speaks of a passionate desire between two lovers? Is this an allegory for God’s love for us? Is it about bodily love between humans? Could it be both? Today we explore the ways in which our faith teaches the body is sacred and how that shapes the ways in which we apply our faith to the actual world.
Scripture - Song of Solomon 2:8-13

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
8 The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
9 My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.
Look, there he stands
behind our wall,
gazing in at the windows,
looking through the lattice.
10 My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11 for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.”

Body Image

I chose to be back in the sanctuary alone because so many of you expressed how much you appreciated seeing me in here last week.  I was a little surprised, frankly.  It’s easy to forget how much physical spaces mean to people.  I can see that you have missed this place.  

I come by it naturally.  Our tradition has downplayed the material side of things.  Our forbearers of the Reformation famously smashed the statues and windows of churches out of concern for idolatry.  They did away with rituals, questioned sentiment, removed the body out of religious practice, at least in any affirming way.  Correctives have a way of becoming overcorrections.  

Physical reality is important.

By now, you may have noticed I don’t do much with secular holidays in church.  That said, I can’t help but notice that as our nation celebrates its independence this year, one of the things we’re wrestling with is how are physical realities are different according to the ways our bodies look.  Look at how different bodies are treated by the criminal justice system.  Look at which bodies enjoy better access to clean air and water, food security, safe neighborhoods, good schools.  Look at whose bodies are suffering disproportionately from the pandemic.  Our bodies can say a lot about how we’ll experience the world.  

I heard an interview recently with Cheryl Swoops, legendary basketball player.  She told the story of how her son went running a couple months ago when a Sheriff pulled up alongside him and said, “You must be an athlete.”  

“I am,” he replied.

“Because there aren’t many of you around here.”

The officer didn’t get more aggressive than that, but it was enough to scare the young man, so he turned and ran home.  Cheryl Swoops now plans her days around her son’s jogging so she can follow him in her car.  He’s 23.  Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Seminary, a predominately Black Presbyterian school in Atlanta, recently posted an image of him sitting in the driveway.  He wasn’t just sitting, however, he was keeping vigil while his teenage son was out jogging.  I have heard too many stories of how Black students and faculty at the seminary in San Anselmo have been treated because of their bodies to think these are isolated or even rare incidents.

Our bodies are important.  

Recently, I was listening to Brené Brown’s interview with Author Austin Channing Brown, preparing for one of our race discussions.  Admittedly, at first I found myself a little frustrated because it felt like the first 15 minutes of the podcast was consumed with talk about self-care practices, a good bit of detail on facials.  I wanted to get to the meat of it (telling choice of words).  Then it hit me, pun intended.  This is not about superficial vanity.  This is about recognizing we carry our experiences, our pain, in our bodies.   We cannot quarantine our life’s experience in the brain.  What does Jesus show the disciples when he appears to them after the resurrection, his scars.  That’s how they know who he is.

These women talking about caring for their skin is them recognizing who they are and what they’ve been through.  If they don’t tend their wounds, they’re more likely to succumb to them and pass them on to others.  These are truly restorative practices.  One of the things I have heard repeatedly is just how exhausting and relentless all of this feels right now.  For some, that’s a new experience.  Others say with as much restraint as they can muster, “Welcome to our world.”

Just as trauma is carried in our bodies, so can our bodies be the starting point of our healing as well.  There’s a church in Atlanta that has a foot clinic, where they wash and tend the feet of people experiencing homelessness.  I may have told you before about a Vietnamese woman who in a refugee camp gave and taught others to give pedicures and manicures, knowing intuitively that healing and tending bodies would also heal and tend souls.  Movements around body image today are so important because they convey the countercultural truth to people that their bodies are a cause for our acceptance, not rejection, and I’m not speaking to those who have changed their bodies to conform with their gender.  They are simply looking for alignment between body and soul, refuge from what society tells them their body should conform to.  

If we’re not careful, we can read a simplistic anti-body bias in our Scriptures, though I believe the supposed opposition of the flesh and the spirit we find in Paul is not what many people think it to be.  Indeed, one of the earliest deemed heresies of the church, called Docetism, was that Jesus didn’t really have a physical body.  Quite the contrary.  Jesus had a body and cared about bodies.  

Theologian Kristen Johnston Largen writes, 

"The emphasis on Jesus’ physical humanity is linked to an emphasis on his physical ministry in which the physical bodies of the people around him are on center stage:  the diseased bodies he healed, the possessed bodies he freed, and the polluted bodies he purified.  Without a doubt, bodies mattered to Jesus, who came to bring salvation to them in the flesh, in their bodies.  Jesus did not simply proclaim a spiritualized, disembodied message about salvation.  He didn’t just talk about salvation--he embodied salvation in his own flesh and blood.  Jesus brought salvation to people in their bodies by breaking bread with them, staying in their houses, walking with them, and laying his hands on them."

Passages like the one for today remind us that our existence is a bodily one and it can be a vessel for our delight.  

Song of Solomon 2:8-9

8   The voice of my beloved!

          Look, he comes,

     leaping upon the mountains,

          bounding over the hills.

9   My beloved is like a gazelle

          or a young stag.

Now, the lectionary was too bashful to give you anything but the tame parts of the Song of Solomon, Solomon, mind you, who was revered for his wisdom.  The wisdom here comes in the form of what is undeniably an erotic poem.  The church has long tried to metaphorize it, but clearly the attraction it describes is physical, sensual, bodily…and God saw that it was good.   “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away…”  Just what was the invitation for, not committee work…communion maybe.

When Jesus broke bread, he didn’t say, “This is an abstract concept, offered generically.”   He said, “This is my body, which is for you.”  May we yearn and work for the day when everyone wants to inhabit their bodies as much as we all wish we could inhabit this sanctuary.  Amen.