The Body

The week after Christmas, Jill, the kids, and I were in Arkansas visiting family.  On Saturday afternoon, my fifteen year old son and his fifteen year old cousin challenged my brother and me to a one hundred yard race on the old high school track.  I was wearing jeans and hiking shoes.  I hadn’t stretched.  And I hadn’t run so much as a furlong in over two years.

Five or six steps into the race, just as I was hitting my stride, my body failed.  My hip flexor popped, my left leg buckled, and I fell to the asphalt track hard on my left side.  In my imagination, I did a graceful barrel role, something like a Green Beret might do, or a gymnast.  To Jill, who was watching with a mixture of humor and horror, it looked like a full-speed face plant.  The only redeemable moment came when my daughter Eliza ran up to check on me.  As I sat on the track, dazed and woozy, she said, “Daddy, right up until you fell, you were winning!”

For the next three weeks I cursed various parts of my body.  I disparaged my leg for buckling.  I lamented my left hand that wouldn’t grip my coffee mug, I growled at the bruised rib that made me wince every time I sneezed or coughed.  These various parts of my body, so valuable to me when they did my bidding as expected, were embarrassments to me once they’d failed.

In Saint Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians this morning, he talks about the body and its various constituent parts, using the body, of course, as a metaphor for the Church and all its members.  Paul talks about the ways in which each part of the body has a role to play, whether seeing or hearing, walking or gripping.  Each part of the body adds something that the others lack, and so each part is valuable.

Body

We read Paul wrongly, however, if we calculate that value only, or even primarily, by utility.  The apostle is not saying the ear is valuable because it hears, or the eye is valuable because it sees.  If he were, then a blind eye could be plucked out or a weakened limb severed, without diminishing the whole.  And when we recall that the body is a metaphor for our community, the implication for us if we are among the weakened parts is ominous.  Indeed, the modern world has seen its fair share of horrors when communities value their members only by their utility.

Rather, Paul says that the eye is valuable simply because it is part of the body.  It is a constituent part of the whole, and as such it has inherent worth.  Be it a bulging bicep or a little toe, without any singular part something is missing, the body is incomplete.  That is the Church, and thank God it is.  We are, each one of us, precious:  The aged and the young, men and women, Spanish-speakers and English-speakers, the corporate CEO and the clerk of the mailroom, the encouragers and the complainers, the joyous and the discouraged, the healthy and the hurting.

Do you realize how rare this is?  Where else in this world of utility, in which our educational system and our economy increasingly value us only by what we can produce and do…Where else in this world of estrangement, in which relationships are increasingly shallow, if they exist at all…Where else do we find a community that says “You are valuable, period.  You are cherished—before you’ve done anything or despite anything you’ve done—you are cherished simply because you are, and are here.”  Where else but in this home of the broken, this hospital for sinners, this Body of Christ, this Church.

Were that all, it would be Good News.  But it’s not all.  We also have the words of Jesus today, when he returns to the worship community of his hometown, when he speaks among his own circle for the first time in the fullness of his power.  Today, for the first time, Jesus takes on the role of the body’s voice.  And he says, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, “I bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind.  I come to declare the favor of God.”

Jesus reading Isaiah scroll

Jesus reading from the Isaiah scroll

In other words, as important as it is first to cherish the body, the body then has work to do!  Ours is the work God created us to do from the beginning, which was proclaimed by the ancient prophet; and fulfilled by Jesus; and is continued by Jesus’ only body on this earth, Jesus’ only hands and feet, those of us who gather here to read these words and heed this voice.

You see, we really are the Body, the Body of Christ.  We are the ones called to fulfill the scripture again and again and again—everyday—to use the collective wisdom and strength of this Body to release those who are captive to the demons of this world, to bind up the brokenhearted, to grant new sight to those who live in darkness.  And this is not a metaphor.  We are the ones to proclaim the Lord’s favor wherever we are and wherever we go, and most especially through the ministries of this cathedral.

We can forget all of this.  We can forget that we are the Body of Christ, Christ’s only body on this earth.  We can forget that each member of this Body—each one—is inherently precious.  We can forget that we are called to use our collective hands and feet to release the captive, to use our collective voice to proclaim God’s love to a hurting world.  We can forget that his body, like all bodies, was created to stretch and move, and that if it doesn’t, this body, like any body, will wither and atrophy.  We can forget and often do forget.  Indeed, the Christian church at Corinth had forgotten, which is why Paul wrote them his letter and crafted this beautiful metaphor in the first place.  But oh, when we remember…

Alister MacLeod’s novel No Great Mischief tells the story of the hardscrabble MacDonald clan of Nova Scotia, transplanted Scots whose labor is used and used up by the world around them, who cleave closely together in their feeling of estrangement both from their Scottish origins and their adopted home.  The MacDonalds understand what it is to live as one body.  At one point, the novel’s narrator tells the story of a group of MacDonalds who venture into the woods to cut down a tree:

“They went into a tightly packed grove of spruce down by the shore.  In the middle of the grove, they saw what they thought was the perfect tree.  It was tall and straight and over thirty feet high.  They notched it as they had been taught and then they sawed it with a bucksaw.  [But] when they had sawed it completely through, nothing happened.  The tree’s upper branches were so densely intertwined with those of the trees around it that it just remained standing.  There was no way it could be removed or fall unless the whole grove was cut down.  It remained that way for years.  Perhaps it is still there.  When the wind blew, the whole grove would move and sigh.  Because all of the trees were evergreen they never lost their foliage, and the supporting trees extended their branches every year.  If you walked by the grove…you would never realize that in its midst there was a tall straight tree that was severed at its stump.”[i]

Evergreen forest

That’s a variation of the metaphor worthy of Paul himself, and what better image could there possibly be for Christ Church Cathedral?  We are one body; we are one grove.  At some time or another, we are each sawed clean through.  But even then we are each precious.  When any one of us cannot stand, severed at the very base, the others of us extend our branches so that we all remain upright.  The wind may blow, but together the canopy will hold.  We stand together, linked arm-in-arm as the Body of Christ, the Church of God.  And, God willing, we extend protection and shade to the brokenhearted in this world, that they, too, may know love and joy.

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[i] MacLeod, Alistair.  No Great Mischief, 239.

Gifts

My junior year in college I studied for a term in London.  The year before, I had started dating the prettiest girl you’d ever seen.  She was as smart as she was beautiful.  If I wasn’t in class, I was spending every waking moment with her.  And so, though I was excited to be traveling halfway across the world to another country, I also realized in horror that she would be halfway across the world from me, in another country.  I worried that she’d forget me.  I worried that some other boy would take advantage of my absence and crowd in.  Mostly, I simply yearned to be near her.  This was before the age of email, and during my months away we wrote letters to one another on those robin’s egg blue, fold-over “aerograms.”  Even though a letter was ten days old by the time I received it, I awaited the mail each day eagerly.  And occasionally the English postman would bring more than a letter.  Occasionally there’d be a package, a small box full of dime store trinkets, novelties really, and none worth more than a dollar or two.  But to me, those small gifts from Jill Benson—now Jill Thompson—were precious.

I have a writing pen that I use, a black ink ballpoint.  To be honest, its line of ink is not as fine as I prefer, and the pen’s thick bulk is clumsy in my hand.  For writing, I actually prefer the disposable Pilot V Razor Point pens Nelda keeps stocked in her desk.  But the pen reliably in my jacket pocket is the ballpoint.  Every six weeks or so I misplace it, and I conscript the sextons to help me turn the church upside down to find it.  The pen is carved of the wood from a one hundred-year-old, felled oak tree in Flatonia, Texas, where my great-great grandfather was mayor in the late 1800s, and from where my great-grandmother moved to Houston.  The pen was given to me by my father.  Despite the fact that it may not be, strictly speaking, the ideal writing instrument, it is precious.

aerogram (2) (640x360)

Yale theologian and friend of this cathedral, Miroslav Volf, writes[i] that, in our lives, we alternately seek meaning and pleasure, and most often we assume that we cannot at the same time pursue both.  We either engage in pursuits that are meaningful but doggedly difficult and not what we’d construe as pleasurable, such as, perhaps, working with the homeless at the Beacon.  Or, we give up the pretense of meaning altogether and instead pursue a pleasurable life that satiates our appetites but ultimately lulls us into aloofness and apathy about the world.  There’s a problem with both options, of course.  Of the dichotomy, Miroslav Volf says, “Pleasure without meaning is vapid; meaning without pleasure is crushing.”

We know this.  Our meaningful pursuits soon burn us out.  Our pleasurable pursuits ultimately leave us feeling trivial and shallow.  Volf says our response is to try and wed meaning and pleasure, but when we do, the result is often a bare shadow.  Volf says, “We project the power to give meaning into the [pleasurable] finite goods that surround us—the muscle tone of our bodies, steamy sex, loads of money, success in work, fame, family, or nation.”

We attempt to convince ourselves that our pleasures have deep meaning, but in the dark of night when things get quiet, we have serious doubts, and we begin to feel existentially empty.

Magi

The Magi, bearing their gifts.

What, then, is the way out of the conundrum?  How do we find that elusive authentic wedding of meaning and pleasure that sages and mystics have for so long referred to as joy?  Miroslav Volf believes the answer is to be found in gifts.  This is a particularly intriguing notion on this day of all days, the First Sunday of Epiphany, the Baptism of Our Lord, when the gifts of the Magi still sparkle in our mind’s eye, and when the dove descends from the Father’s heaven to alight upon the Son.

But when Volf speaks of gifts, he is not referring to the casually purchased, double-click item on Amazon.com nor the obligatory glitzy Galleria fare that we snag the week before Christmas or one’s birthday.  Those are simply things exchanged.  They are baubles, though sometimes very expensive ones.  True gifts, Volf counsels, find both their meaning and their pleasure not in the objects themselves, but in the social relationship between the giver and receiver. That is why I still keep a box of twenty-two year old trinkets sent to me transcontinentally by the girl I’d recently come to love.  It is why a ballpoint pen made of old wood is a treasure.   Jill’s little gifts, boxed and mailed across an ocean, said to me, “You are remembered, even so far away.”  My father’s pen says, “You have a history, a place on earth and a people to which you belong.  You are part of something that you have now inherited.”

Flatonia pen

Dad’s pen, crafted from Flatonia, Texas’ landmark live oak tree.

These gifts bear meaning, and they give pleasure, not because of what they are, but because of the relationships they embody.  They are, in theological terms, sacraments.  They impart a particular kind of grace.  Returning to Miroslav Volf, they serve as “carriers of the presence of another.”

We know this.  Consider: Why is the inferior painting on your wall infinitely more meaningful to you than a canvass of one of the masters?  Why does it give you such pleasure when you gaze upon it?  Why else, except that it is a fifth grade drawing by your son, or the result of your spouse’s first art class, or the expression of your own internal soul?  Meaning and pleasure coalesce as joy in the gift that bears the presence of a cherished other to us.

But, precious as these kinds of individual things are, they are small, in both meaning and pleasure.  They brighten a day, but they rarely inspire a lifetime of joy.  What if, however, we were willing, deeply and vulnerably, to expand our recognition of gift?  What if we were to allow ourselves to see each life-giving thing we receive—from the air and water that sustain us to the very relationships that bring us those small daily joys—as gifts from God, as bearers of the relationship with one who loves us.

It is a lover’s love.  That’s what our reading from Isaiah today underscores.  Hear these words again, not as dusty scripture but as a love letter, neatly sealed and sent not across the ocean but from heaven to earth.  To the ancient Israelites, God says, “I created you.  I formed you.  I have called you by name, and you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  When you walk through fire you will not be burned.  You are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you, whom I created for glory, whom I formed and made.”

Gift quote

Where might we find joy revealed in the world if our New Year resolution, our Epiphany resolution, were to encounter the creation and all things in it as gifts from the God who expresses such love?  How might the first stretch and breath of morning, the first ray of sunlight creeping through the window, the embrace of a friend or brush of a lover’s hand, serving at the Beacon, earning our daily bread, or even acknowledging the pains and pangs of growing older—how might each of these things impart deeper meaning and pleasure, deeper joy—if we received them as gifts from the One who promises to walk through fire and water with us, who says we are precious above all else?  How much more precious would all these things, and the human relationships bound to them, become for us?

Today we will baptize seven children.  That gift, that holy rite of water and anointing oil, is the first sacrament, by which God seals us forever to the one who was visited two thousand years by the Magi with gifts of their own.  It is the gift by which God says to each of us, as God said to Jesus, “These are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” through which, scripture tells us, God finds meaning and pleasure, and in which we find our joy.

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[i] Volf, Miroslav.  “The giver and the gift,” The Christian Century, January 6, 2016, 10-11.