Texts: Genesis 2:20-25 and Song of Songs 1 One of the ways I like to engage folks around me as a I prepare for a sermon is to ask about stories in their lives that relate to the mornings topic. And so when I asked for stories in which people’s bodies failed them, I heard a lot about bowels that were out-of-order. Those stories were funny and they are funny right because we all have experienced times in which our digestive systems speak for us without our permission. But I’ve decided to spare you this morning, and begin with a different story.
Many of you know last year I went to Atlanta with several of the college students from Summit, and while we were there we spent a couple days working on an urban farm. Well the first day we spent our time clearing a large area of brush to open a space where they would build their new chicken coop. What I didn’t realize until a couple of days later, was that I had pulled old brown ivy off of tall trees that were of the poison variety. Now I’ve had poison ivy before, but this was different. My entire body broke out, and for those of you who have also suffered from this allergy, you will know that it’s not just a rash, but that it excretes clear liquid that then dries kind of yellow and of course does itch.
So while we continued our week of service I sat at the Open Door Community, one of the intentional communities that serves the poor and imprisoned in Atlanta, and began asking questions about their house so that we might learn some things about how to build our own, next door. Now this was the worst day of my reaction, and I sat there blotting this pus from my face asking “Tell us more about how you invite and choose new members to join as residents of your community” Literally soaking up the constant stream of seeping liquid from my face with rough paper towels. It was one of those moments where my body was going to do what my body was going to do, and regardless of what I might say, my body spoke first. And I, sadly, was ashamed. I was embarrassed that my body was misbehaving and getting in the way of what I was trying to accomplish.
This comes from Heidi Neumark in her book Breathing Space, she’s a pastor in the Bronx. She tells a story of embodiment at the communion table. She was up front at the table, in her white celebratory robe with a colorful stole, praying those familiar words of the great thanksgiving, proclaiming the gift and the abundance of life that communion promises us. Now her daughter was only four months old and still breastfeeding, and as she lifted the chalice, the floodgates opened. She looked down where her breastmilk had bled through her white robe and the colors of dye in that beautiful stole, and created an embarrassing mess of a rainbow on her front.
She writes, “this story will probably provide someone with one more argument against the ordination of women. To me, it’s a reminder that religion is not and should not be a disembodied affair.” After all, our very own God came to us in the flesh, and we remember God’s flesh and blood at the very table where she was standing! And yet we remain ashamed.
Which is why we also tend to blush when we hear that familiar story of Eden. The one that affirms the goodness of creation and the goodness of our bodies. “They were naked and unashamed.”
The two stories that I’ve shared with you this morning, and yes even all those stories of I didn’t share about our unbridled digestive systems, tell us that we all too often are ashamed and embarrassed. Our bodies interfere with our own lives, they remind us of things we’d rather not think about, and their unpredictability makes us uneasy. They do, tend, to speak first for us, whether we like it or not. This month at Summit we have been working with the theme of sexuality and spirituality, because though we are a church that has openly welcomed and affirmed non-straight folk for a long time, we realize that the church (the large Church including ours) has not done well to speak about all of our sexualities. In fact many say that the church’s homophobia is really just a scapegoat for the reality that we are erotiphobic, scared to talk about sexuality at all. And so we focus on those who are different - Or queer .
And in the last two weeks of worship we have touched on two very different ends of a spectrum. The first was an affirmation of the beauty and goodness of relationship. It was a celebration of the gift of intimacy. And then last week, we recognized that despite the gift of relationship and the goodness of intimacy, we are a broken people and often get it very wrong.
So if we are, on the one hand afraid to talk as people of faith, about sexuality at all, and if we often are getting it wrong and hurting one another, then I can’t help but begin to ask why? What is it that takes us to these warped places where we mix up what relationship and sex is all about?
I believe it is because we are ashamed. It seems to me that at the very root, if we can dig down deeply enough, our fear is often connected to our own bodies. And our shame about them. Now just like a tree has many roots, so do our problems with sexuality. I’m not suggesting this is the only root cause. But we fail all too often to see its impact on our lives because we think it’s just our body. It’s just this collection of cells and water and blood and it doesn’t really influence the important things in life.
And if we talk about then at all, we usually talk about them negatively. I realized that again this week at the Tuesday night bible study. I had two questions prepared that I could have asked to prompt conversation. The first was, “Name one or two things that you would change about your body if you could.” A question we’ve heard before. A question we’ve answered before. But I didn’t want to go there; no that was too negative right of the bat. So instead, I asked about how or when people become aware of their body since often we tend to ignore it. And all of the answers were negative, or dealt with pain, or aging, or weight and not fitting to others expectations about beauty. And all of that’s true, our bodies are awkward and weird. They don’t reflect the images we see about what a perfect speciman looks like.
We might have large pimples, or deep bruises. We get greasy and dirty and smelly. Sometimes our feet feel too big or our nose too wide or our lips too small, our teeth are not straight or bright white. There are countless reasons. We might feel like we’re too short, too large, not shapely, or strong enough. We might have a part of our body that has been damaged or scarred, our skin might be too dark or too pale, our hair too dull or curly or there might not be much hair left! Our bodies are imperfect, or as some call them, queer. The definition of queer is “strange or odd from a conventional point of view.” And so we cover up. And we hide, and attempt to control those bodies that speak without our permission.
This morning we all can learn from the woman in Song of Songs. For as she beckons to her beloved, she is not remotely sorry for the reality of her body. She boasts of a lot of things throughout the book, but perhaps her most famous line is in verse 5, I am Black and Beautiful.
Now there has debate about whether the Hebrew is dark, or tanned, swarthy, weathered, but the word is only used a couple of times in Hebrew scriptures and it is always to describe the color black. It is also the first word in the sentence, indicating it’s emphasis, you might read it “Black am I…” Not only that, but she goes on to compare her complexion to the tents of Kedar (a tribe whose tents were a symbol of their name which means darkness) and the curtains of Solomon (who is of course a king). Both connect her blackness to people of distinction and nobility. She pooh-pooh’s the standards that her community has set for beauty, and confidently speaks about her own body. About the queerness of it.
And so the task for us is that we must reconcile ourselves to our own bodies. Recognizing the imperfections and the beauty and pleasure our bodies offer us. And that is a hard thing do. To cast aside our notions of beauty that have been ridiculously sketched in our collective imaginations. The ones that make it to the billboards and the movies, and cheerleading team. This week I read an interesting piece of research on a blog about the social networking site, Facebook. There is a study that suggests that “it may skew the way users perceive their own lives….those carefully selected photos of cheerful, contented people cumulatively convey a self-esteem-shattering message: Our lives are fantastic! What’s wrong with you?”
I love this commentary because it speaks about not only the pursuit of perfection for our bodies, but of perfection for our whole lives. I use Facebook and I love reading blogs, but they do allow us to Photoshop our lives so that we might not only hide or cover up the imperfections of our bodies, but also edit our imperfect, different and queer lives. We all do it. Whether we’re on Facebook or not. And we do it because we are afraid, ashamed. We know, we know too well, the pain that we spoke about last week. And we won’t let ourselves go there again. It’s easier to be isolated and alone and protected than it is to risk the hurt.
The problem is that when we do that, we rob ourselves of that heart swelling joy, the embodied joy, that can only come when we open ourselves up intimately with one another. Remember… we are created in God’s image, and God said it was good. And God is relationship in the Trinity. We are created for intimacy, both sexual and otherwise. And if we say we believe in sin, that means we are going to get it wrong. We will not be perfect. And our relationships will include pain. But, and as my seminary professor used to say, listen for the gospel when you hear the word but. But, even though it will sometimes be painful, it will eventually be freedom. Freedom from the ways in which we bind ourselves because of our shame, and freedom from the judgments that other impose upon us.
One writer talks about living this way as living emotionally naked. She uses this morning’s text from the garden about living naked and unashamed and says we clothe our lives and our emotions just as we cover our bodies. And she recognizes that the ways in which we are ashamed about our bodies are always going to be connected to how we are ashamed about emotional selves. We cannot separate our spirit from our body (Elizabeth there’s not even a word for it in Aramaic!) So whether we find ourselves in romantic relationships or as single folk. We are all emotionally connected in community together. And so living emotionally naked matters. She ends with a helpful reminder (for those of you getting anxious about being emotionally naked). Just like in a romantic relationship, You don’t have to get naked right away. Just take off your hat. Kick off your boots. Let us see your eyes, and your frumpled, maybe greasy hair, and your beautiful face.
We must do this with one another. We must speak about our queerness, our imperfections, and we must speak about our beauty. And friends we must do it early for our children. Dr. King spoke about the time he had to tell his daughter that she was not allowed to go to Funland, the amusement park in Atlanta, because it was only for white children. He said, “One of the most painful experiences I have ever faced was to see her tears when I told her Funtown was closed to colored children, for I realized the first dark cloud of inferiority had floated into her little mental sky.”
This morning, my seminary professor was wrong, the gospel is also in the “And”. Because God created them naked and unashamed.
Brothers and Sisters, you are imperfect and beautiful.
Your nose bumpy and beautiful.
Your teeth crooked and beautiful.
You are short and beautiful.
You are bald and beautiful.
You are wide and beautiful.
You are scarred and beautiful.
We are all queer and beautiful
You are black and beautiful.