“Let’s Get Physical” by Mark W. Harris
First Parish of Watertown – March 31, 2013
Call to Worship – “To Praise” by Ellen Bass (excerpts)
I want to praise bodies
nerves and synapses
the impulse that travels the spine
Like fish darting . . .
I want to praise hands
those architects that create us anew
fingers, cartographers, revealing
who we can become
and palms, cupped priestesses
worshipping the long slow curve
I want to praise muscle
and the heart, that flamboyant champion
with its insistent pelting like
Hair, the sweep of it
and feet, arch taut
stretching like cats
I want to praise the face, engraved
like a river bed; it breaks like morning
like a piñata, festival of hope . . .
I want to praise the love cries
sharp, brilliant as ice
and the roar that swells in the lungs
like an avalanche
Bodies, our extravagant bodies . . .
Story for All Ages – The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown
(adapted for First Parish on Easter)
ASHER, (with bunny ears):
Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his father, “I am running away.”
MARK, (also with bunny ears): If you run away, I will run after you, for you are my little bunny.
ASHER: (using mask) If you run after me, I will become a fish in a trout stream, and I will swim away from you.
MARK,(with fishing rod) : If you become a fish in a trout stream, I will become a fisherman, and I will fish for you.
ASHER: (black hat) If you become a fisherman, I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you. (Is there a place that is literally higher that you could climb to?)
MARK, (wearing a back pack and boots, hiking stick – whatever): If you become a rock on the mountain high above me, I will become a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.
ASHER: (flower hat) If you become a mountain climber, I will be a crocus in a hidden garden.
MARK, (with a watering can and a spade): If you become a crocus in a hidden garden, I will be a gardener, and I will find you.
ASHER: (bird hat) If you become a gardener and find me, I will be a bird and fly away from you.
MARK, (in tree hat),: If you become a bird and fly away from me, I will be a tree that you come home to.
ASHER: (use boat) If you become a tree, I will become a little sailboat, and I will sail away from you.
MARK: (use fan for wind) If you become a sailboat and sail away from me, I will become the wind, and blow you where I want you to go.
ASHER: (trapeze) If you become the wind and blow me, I will join the circus and fly away on a trapeze.
MARK (tightrope) If you go flying on a trapeze, I will be a tightrope walker, and I will walk across the air to you.
ASHER If you become a tightrope walker and walk across the air. I will become a little boy and run into a house.
MARK If you become a little boy and run into a house, I will become your father, and catch you in my arms and hug you.
ASHER Shucks. I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny.
MARK. Have a carrot!
Reading “when faces called flowers float out of the ground” by e.e. cummings
when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it’s april (yes,april;my darling)it’s spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)
when every leaf opens without any sound
and wishing is having and having is giving-
but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
-alive;we’re alive,dear:it’s(kiss me now)spring!
now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
now the little fish quiver so you and so i
(now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)
when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living-
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
-it’s spring(all our night becomes day)o,it’s spring!
all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
(all the mountains are dancing;are dancing)
Second Reading from On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The reaction of college student Katie Armstrong upon examining Rembrandt’s “Seated Nude” :
Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock, to Katie, at first–like
a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. But then Katie
began to notice all the exterior, human information, not explicitly
in the frame but implied by what we see there. Katie is moved by the
crenulated marks of absent stockings on her legs, the muscles in her
arms suggestive of manual labour. That loose belly that has known
many babies, that still fresh face that has lured men in the past and
may yet lure more. Katie–a stringbean, physically–can even see her
own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her,
and to all women: “For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you
will come to this point too, and be blessed if you feel as little
shame, as much joy, as she!” This is what a woman is: unadorned,
after children and work and age, and experience–these are the marks
We don’t think too much about Jesus getting older. Buddha was an old man when he died. At eighty he ate some bad fruit, but he was weak already. Muhammad was my age, certainly along in years, and still going strong, but then he was poisoned by an enemy. But with Jesus we think of a young man, only thirty-three. These days still young enough to make a parent worried, will he move back home, or when is he ever going to leave? Now Jesus was no video game playing slouch that lounged on the couch, but he had begun to age. By thirty-three, his work was mainly preaching the coming kingdom and healing the sick. He had long ago left his father’s carpentry shop, and so his muscular arms from manual labor had probably atrophied a little. Perhaps his hair had begun to be thinner. After all, my own father was bald at twenty-nine. Maybe the beard grew longer and thicker as he wandered the countryside. Perhaps he had a bit of a paunch. He liked those gatherings of people, where he could break bread and drink wine. He even said, after I am gone; remember me in this way, around the table. Also his message was getting more popular, and so more and more people probably invited him to their homes. He didn’t need to work. Many of us know him from that pretty boy painting with the long curls and the alluring eyes. But he may have been short and balding, and even overweight. This characterization attests to his humanity. He was not some Adonis, a god of beauty and desire, who is forever renewed, but rather a mere human, subject to all the afflictions we each feel as we age.
Of course that’s not much of an Easter message. We preachers are supposed to speak about triumph over death, and the other minor inconveniences that life brings. A Hobbesian message of life as brutal, nasty and short might work for a philosopher, but it is not popular religious fare. Yet if there was anything Jesus despised, it was hypocrisy; especially from those who formed the political party of Pharisees, the legalistic interpreters of the Jewish faith, who promoted traditional temple sacrifice. While Christianity has for centuries taught that Jesus made himself the sacrifice for all humanity, and transformed Judaism to a new religion, no scholar thinks Jesus wanted that. With the Eucharist, believers ate and drank his body and blood, but it seems highly unlikely that Jesus would have taught that. As a Jew he would not have countenanced that kind of symbolic cannibalism. But he probably did object to the inequality and injustice of poor people making economic sacrifices in the temple to oppressor classes. He wanted to substitute the daily needs of bread and wine for those religious rituals that served the law, but not the people. He wanted everyone to eat and drink together in celebration of life. He wanted the hungry to be fed. And so even though his life was relatively short, and he suffered a brutal death, his message was that we should love and sacrifice for each other, not to fulfill some rule or tradition. For us the real Easter message might well be to love life, enjoy its pleasures in each other’s company, and give your hearts to each other so that all might live more abundantly.
One of the striking things about Easter is the symbolism of the human body. In his last Passover meal, Jesus talks about his friends remembering him as a body, in the form of bread that can feed people. Then he is killed, only to be seen in the story, not as a spirit or ghost, but as a physical body who invites people to eat fish with him, and to touch him. The experience is not about a memory, but the living breathing presence of him in the community. Perhaps the first resurrection lesson of the season is the desire to emancipate us from all the ways the human body is oppressed. Only recently the state of North Dakota has passed incredibly restrictive abortion laws, denying women most of the constitutional rights of choice they have had since 1973. The historic effort to control women’s bodies has foundations in the Christian church with Mary as the virginal Mother, and Mary Magdalene, as the evil whore who fulfills her sexual desires, while the good Mary remains pure and chaste. In the meantime the Supreme Court hears arguments about the Defense of Marriage Act, with the potential for symbolically affirming that all people, gay and straight, deserve the right to express their love for whomever they wish. Bodies that have for centuries been repressed and controlled and persecuted are still being argued over. Can we all be free to express our love, and to bear responsibility for our own reproductive rights?
The freedom to express our feelings of love or desire sexually, or the freedom to choose when to have children are part of a larger understanding of the human body, that can give rise to transforming our whole experience of the world. We live in a society that is obsessed with bodies, although mostly not in healthy ways. The ideal is that a beautiful body is better than a healthy one. But whose idea of beauty is it? Countess dollars are spent on cosmetic surgery, and models become thin to the point of physical collapse. In the meantime we count an epidemic of obesity because we fail to take care of the physical needs of our bodies. While our children need to play, we fill their lives with electronic toys, and cut physical education budgets, so they can pass the test. While we need to walk and bike and swim, instead we look at screens and work some more. Time demands and responsibilities may keep us from going to the gym, or out on the walking path, but we need to give ourselves a gentle nudge out the door. This is not to make the body forever young, or forever beautiful in the commercial understanding of bodily allure, but healthy and beautiful in a natural way so that we reverence our own bodies even as our hair gets thinner, our muscles less taut, and our bones so ever stiffer. Even then we still look in the mirror, and recoil in fright or horror that I am wrinkled or fat, or that my ears stick out, or my eyes are too squinty. We are trying to teach a society that gay or straight bodies are all beautiful for who they choose to be with, but moreover, we should also remember that all these bodies we inhabit are expressions of an inherent dignity of being, and thus are good and beautiful. There is no stronger message in Biblical tradition than people are made in the image of God. All the world’s faiths teach this. Swami Vivekananda wrote of God sitting in the temple of every human being, and when we realize this, then we will stand in reverence before every human being, see one another as the body of the divine. When I see God in you, then we are free from bondage to impossible cultural expectations.
In I Corinthians 6, we hear “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of God, who is in you.” How do we teach that across the culture, giving a true resurrection message for everyone? It is so difficult to reverence our bodies. In the book, On Beauty, Zadie Smith has the mother Kiki observe her daughter Zora saying, “I look fine. Except I don’t,’ . . . This was why Kiki had dreaded having girls: she knew she wouldn’t be able to protect them from self-disgust. To that end she had tried banning television in the early years, and never had a lipstick or a woman’s magazine crossed the threshold of the Belsey home to Kiki’s knowledge, but these and other precautionary measures had made no difference. It was in the air, or so it seemed to Kiki, this hatred of women and their bodies– it seeped in with every draught in the house; people brought it home on their shoes, they breathed it in off their newspapers. There was no way to control it.” The first step in our bodily resurrection is to simply accept that body in the mirror. To begin we need to be forgiving of ourselves for all those parts we judge as bad, and then as soon as we stop criticizing ourselves, and every other person who we see as too fat, too thin, too ugly, too misshapen, then we can make a commitment to being healthy. If we think we are going to have every body part in just the right place, in just the right proportion, we will forever be disappointed. The well known clinical psychologist and writer Mary Pipher says, “In all the years I’ve been a therapist, I’ve yet to meet one girl who likes her body.” Too often shame does us in. We look in that mirror and we are ashamed, and judge ourselves as inadequate or no good. In her poem “Homage to My Hips, Lucile Clifton informs this ongoing struggle for freedom and independence from our judgments of the body: “they don’t fit into little pretty places, these hips are free hips, they don’t like to be held back, these hips have never been enslaved, they go where they want to go, they do what they want to do, these hips are mighty hips.”
Margaret and I recently finished leading a Lenten class. Lent, as you know is traditionally a time when people may try to give up something in order to cleanse or purify themselves, or in some way try to adopt a healthier approach to the way they live their lives. One of our five sessions was on “desire.” Some of us like to indulge our taste buds with certain foods. We are aware of the body’s desires for sugar or salt, and when we indulge too much, it is not good for our bodies. We can overindulge, but many of us, out of guilt or shame, don’t enjoy any indulgence. I also believe that one way we celebrate the resurrection of the body is to enjoy ourselves, and celebrate the good things in life. The poet William Carlos Williams wrote, “This is Just to Say”
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
One response to this poem might be the guilt of having eaten something our loved one was saving for another purpose, or the guilt that we ate anything at all that we were not supposed to. We all know desire, and when we always sublimate our desires, or not enjoy ourselves, or submit to guilt or shame, we forget that this house of self is here to enjoy the sensation of taste, smell, and touch. These plums have become forbidden fruit that he has tasted. But the forbidden fruit of the creation story is not so much how bad we are for taking something we should not eat, but rather for taking responsibility for the knowledge we have gained, knowing good and evil. We should enjoy the fruits of earth, but we also have an obligation to our bodies and to each other to be moderate, to be healthy, to share the fruits with others. Here Williams gives in to desire. He is contrite, and seeks forgiveness, which is what we should do with ourselves, but it is not fifty candy bars he has eaten, but only one succulent plum, and the wonderful pleasure he gains from eating it. We need to let our bodies enjoy the treasures of life. This desire can be abused. There is danger in delight. But have that sensual pleasure first – in tasting that plum, in the joy of dancing that e.e. cummings describes, to awaken the senses, to indulge in a “(kiss me now) spring!”
So there are bodily desires, and there are judgments of the bodies. We have to decide what we enjoy, what our responsibilities are to ourselves and each other, and accept these houses of self, our body home. The world is complicated. We sometimes live by cultural expectations that forever plague and haunt us. These expectations may produce guilt and feelings of inadequacy, if we feel we must live or be some certain way. Part of the bodily resurrection is to let go of these false ideals, and love our bodies as they are, and as they age, to help them work as best they can, even as we awake with a stiff back and throbbing pain in our ankles or wrists. You have to live by what you received. You have to live with what you do with what you received, the food you eat, the exercise you make, the afflictions your body is susceptible to. No one of us is perfect. I aspire to go to the gym more often. Not so long ago, I did not go at all. I aspire to drink more water. Not so long ago, I drank virtually none. I want to eat less salt and more fruit. I look in the mirror and see an aging man with thinning white hair. I see my father. . The other day we measured our younger sons – all six feet, four inches plus of them. We may see our bodies in our children. Zadie Smith writes, “Looking at them both now, [he] found himself in their finger joints and neat conch ears, in their long legs and wild curls. He heard himself in their partial lisps caused by puffy tongues vibrating against slightly noticeable buckteeth. He did not consider if or how or why he loved them. They were just love: they were the first evidence he ever had of love, and they would be the last confirmation of love when everything else fell away.” May we all see ourselves in others, like I see myself in my children. All of these bodies, less than perfect bodies, but the natural bounty of this good earth. We see flaws from our own failed expectations, and from what is healthy for me. I try to forgive. I try to let go. Every day I seek a bodily resurrection – thinner, in shape, eating the right foods.
The traditional Easter theme is about the bodily resurrection of a dead man. This of course comes from an eternal theme of renewal found in life, understood through nature, and also through countless stories of human renewal as well, including beautiful Gods with perfect bodies like Adonis. How we view our bodies and the way we understand or interpret beauty are intertwined. There is a long history of shame associated with bodies. Most often beauty and shame have emanated from the way men have looked at women’s bodies. The way we view bodies, both our own, and those of others can be transformed. Perhaps the resurrection of Jesus is not the first way you would choose to see this transformation, as he is a man who is tortured and killed by the state. Yet his death is prefaced by eating with friends in community. And when he comes back in a body, it is that simple daily task of living that he wants to replicate – sitting at a table, eating together, fishing with friends. Our bodily existence should not be lived out through false ideals. It is lived through desire and limits, love and responsibility, labor and longing, mistakes, and daily wear and tear. There are lines of labor in our stretch marks, and lines of love when we can still smile at one another, and respect each other’s bodies for maintaining strength and enduring as best we can. In the reading the young, naïve student Katie Armstrong finds a new way to see the beauty of the body in Rembrandt’s etching, “Seated Nude”. Previously she has only seen the work of art through her professor’s narrow way of looking at women. The professor sees an old fat woman. But Katie wonders, “Is she really so grotesque? She was a shock, to Katie, at first—like a starkly lit, unforgiving photograph of oneself. Then Katie sees all the marks of living – muscles from work, marks of child bearing, a face that desires and can be desired. “She can even see her own body contained in this body, as if Rembrandt were saying to her, and to all women: “For you are of the earth, as my nude is, and you will come to this point too, and be blessed if you feel as little shame, as much joy, as she!” May we too love and celebrate the unadorned bodies all around us, and our very own – after work, and children, experiences of love and hate, illness and health, reaping and sowing – all the marks of living. Here in our bodies are all the marks, all the trophies of the lives we have lived. Let the beauty of our bodies be an ever present reminder of all we have loved, and all we have done. Each of our bodies reflect hundreds and thousands of ways to kneel and kiss the ground, and give thanks for the life we were given, made manifest through our bodies living on the body of earth.
Closing Words – from Walt Whitman, “I Sing The Body Electric”
The man’s body is sacred and the woman’s body is sacred,
No matter who it is, it is sacred — is it the meanest one in the laborers’ gang?
Is it one of the dull-faced immigrants just landed on the wharf?
Each belongs here or anywhere just as much as the well off, just as much as you,
Each has his or her place in the procession.
(All is a procession,
The universe is a procession with measured and perfect motion.)
O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women, nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the soul, (and that they are the soul,) . . .
If any thing is sacred the human body is sacred.