Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Sermon: "Bodily Renewal" (Delivered 3-23-08)

Reading: John 20: 24-28
“But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

“A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’”

Happy Easter! I know that our gathered congregation this morning contains many who are new to the Unitarian Universalist tradition as well as many who are long time experts. But I want to begin by inviting you to take out your hymnals and opening them to one of the cover pages that contains the UU Principles and Purposes. This page has two sections, a top section with the seven UU Principles and then a lower section containing the six sources. (If you have a really old version of the hymnal, yours will contain only five sources. The sixth source – “spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions” – was added in 1995.)

Over the years I have noticed that people consider these sources differently. For some they are a buffet, or a menu. It is a list of things we can choose from. “Give me a large order of Humanist teachings with a side of Prophetic deeds of women and men. Hold the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, please.” For others, though, the list is more like a recipe. Our faith is supposed to contain all six ingredients. Although we may differ in how to balance all the textures and spices, we realize that to do away with any of the six is like trying to bake a chocolate cake without chocolate or flour or baking powder.

The first time I ever quoted the Bible from this pulpit, I introduced the text apologetically and with a bit of trepidation. After the service, a member of the church approached me and scolded me. “Don’t be afraid to say what you want to say. Don’t apologize for quoting the Bible.” This is not an apology. The cake this morning will be heavy on the Bible and I know you are wise enough to translate the message into your own terms.

As it so happens, the conclusion, the main point, and the climax of this Easter message happened not two-thousand years ago but a little over a week ago. We know the story of the Good Samaritan. The story of the Good Samaritan contains the central ethical commandment of the Jewish and Christian traditions. The parable of the Good Samaritan is the Golden Rule transformed into a story.

Well, a little over a week ago in Seattle, the Good Samaritan got trumped. This true story involves a barista, a person who makes coffee drinks at a Starbucks coffee shop. This barista had a regular customer who came in every day and ordered coffee. One day, the regular customer came in looking distressed and dejected. The barista asked what was wrong. The customer explained to her that she was suffering from kidney disease and would die if she did not get a kidney transplant, but did not have a match. The barista said, “I will give you my kidney. Let’s see if we are a match.” It turned out that she was a perfect match and she donated her kidney to her customer. The Good Samaritan only gave the guy his coat.

Last Fall I discussed possible themes for a springtime sermon series with the worship committee. They suggested that I preach a series on the theme of renewal. So I brainstormed. One sermon, I thought, could be about the renewal of relationships, how broken relationships can be healed. A second sermon could be about community renewal, about how communities rebuild after devastation – communities like Greensburg, Kansas or New Orleans. Communities like Virginia Tech or Northern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. A third sermon, I decided, could be about emotional renewal. How do we rediscover love in the face of indifference, hope in the face of cynicism, joy in the presence of grief?

Renewal is a theme so apropos of the Spring time, this season of calving and hatching, of bud and bloom and spray. Samuel Longfellow wrote of the Spring with these immortal words that we will sing at the end of the service. He wrote, “Oh life that maketh all things new, the blooming earth, our thoughts within, our pilgrim feet wet with thy dew, in gladness hither come again.”

But, then a fourth topic for this series of sermons on renewal came to mind: bodily renewal. I looked at my Spring preaching calendar. I did the math. One of these four would have to be my Easter sermon. So, Easter could be about relationship renewal, community renewal, emotional renewal, or bodily renewal. The choice made itself.

In a Christian church, this choice would be absolutely obvious. But, the story of the resurrection it is far from the obvious choice for those of us who call ourselves Unitarian Universalists. Many Unitarian Univeralists tend to avoid the idea of resurrection entirely, and if we do consider it, it is in a severely metaphorical sense. And, had I decided to make the Easter story a story of relationships, emotions, or community, the metaphor would have been absolutely fine as well as valid Biblical interpretation.

The Easter story as it is told in the Gospels is a story of renewal in all these metaphorical senses. To understand this, all you need to do is simply put yourself in the shoes of the disciples and try to experience the story as they might have experienced it. The Easter story is a story about the disciples losing their relationship with their guide, their teacher, their beloved “Rebbe” Jesus. And it is about the renewal of that relationship when Jesus returns. The Easter story is also about the emotions of the disciples. The story tells of their fear, their numbness, and their grief. It is also a story of guilt, about Peter’s cowardice and his feeling of shame for betraying Jesus three times. The Easter story is about their emotional healing, how they grow beyond fear, grief, and shame. And, most certainly, the death of Jesus on the cross is about the destruction of community. Following the crucifixion the disciples scatter, just as the twelve tribes of Israel scattered into Diaspora following the destruction of the first Jewish temple. And, with Jesus’ reappearance, the community of the disciples that had been torn asunder, could come together once more. Each of these metaphors is true, as true as art is true, as true as poetry is true, as true as love is true.

But, I want to go deeper. I want to get down into the nitty-gritty of the Biblical scriptures, because there has always been something more to this story for me, making it more than a story of emotional, relational, or community renewal. And this something more is found in that text I read earlier. John 20:27. “Then Jesus said to Thomas, ‘Reach your finger here; look at my hands. Reach your hand here and put it into my side.’”

Being named Thomas, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with this passage. I identify with Thomas. Like him, I will not believe until I see it for myself. Therefore, I am not too keen on the way Thomas is rebuked at the end of this passage.

For those of with some experience when it comes to Biblical interpretation, it is not hard to interpret this passage safely. We can easily interpret this passage as an instruction about how to have faith. After Thomas touches Jesus, Jesus remarks, “Happy are those who have faith without seeing.” Within such an interpretive framework, the passage makes sense. It is an instruction about how to have faith without actually meeting Jesus in the flesh, without actually witnessing a miracle. This type of faith was important to instruct, no doubt, considering John’s Gospel was written at least seventy years after Jesus’ death by people who had never met Jesus and also, I would expect, found it important to believe without seeing.

I want to do something very, very Unitarian and offer you an unconventional interpretation of this text. But, I also want to do something very, very un-Unitarian and take this text more literally. You see, what has always been challenging to me about this passage is its insistence on the body, its sheer physicality. The text is extremely insistent on the resurrection being not just an emotional resurrection or a relational resurrection or a community resurrection or a spiritual resurrection. It is a bodily resurrection. And, I think we do not want to be too quick to dismiss this. I want to maintain a good relationship with the scripture and not discount the degree to which the body is primary in the story.

It should be pointed out that all the Gospel accounts are very focused on the body. Healings abound: of lepers, of the crippled, of the blind. This somatic, bodily focus is not surprising. For one thing, the Platonic dualisms that would separate mind from body and spirit from matter had not yet fully worked there way into Christianity at the time the Gospels were written. For another thing, the resurrection of the body was a perfectly acceptable part of the Jewish faith, the Jewish faith that Jesus was born into and lived out to his fullest understanding of it. And Jesus’ resurrection isn’t singular in any sense of the imagination. Lazarus is resurrected in the eleventh chapter of John. The other three gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) each depict the resurrection of Jairus’ daughter.

It would require a Biblical scholar more advanced than I to give a full account of how the body was regarded in Hellenic Jewish culture, two millennia ago and half a world away. I can only say that the body was something very, very important. (And I can only bore you for so long with this textual analysis.)

So, instead of two millennia ago and half a world away, let me end by offering a few reflections on bodily renewal right here and right now. I believe bodily renewal exists all around us. Where? For one thing, it exists in the most amazing, astounding, and ingenious workings of surgeons and doctors. In modern medicine we see the dying rise to live again. The hair of the chemotherapy patient returns. The soldier who returns from Iraq an amputee is fitted for a prosthetic arm or leg. Defibrilators bring people back from the dead. This morning we took up a collection to bring medical care – to bring life – to women and babies in Haiti. This morning we have blessed and abetted bodily renewal. We have participated in resurrection.

Medicine may be the most obvious place to look, but it is far from the only place. In Florida and Arizona this month the precision of the batting eye and the pinpoint control of the pitcher return to form again, as they do each year. The person training for a 5K or a marathon runs further and faster each day.

I could go on and on with examples like these. I could talk about the stroke victim regaining the ability to speak. I could talk about the athlete who returns from a brutal injury. And these examples may seem to us, well, they may seem to us to be ordinary and secular and, well, far less miraculous than Jesus healing the diseased and the lame and certainly less miraculous than the resurrection on the third day. Maybe so, maybe so. Or, maybe appearances can be deceiving. Maybe renewals, hundreds of little resurrections, happen all around us every day and we have just decided to call them medicine, rehabilitation, and exercise rather than miracle.

But, then again, every so often a story comes along like the story of that barista in Seattle. Jesus said, “Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood.” In Seattle she said, “I will give you my kidney.” And yes, the story is a bit chicken soup-ish. And yes, in our modern, rational, scientific culture this type of thing does not have the mystery that we find in the Biblical accounts. But why shouldn’t they? Just as today’s sun and rain will green the world once more, bodily renewals and resurrections do happen, if only we would have the eyes to see them.

I know many of your resurrections: renewed relationships, renewed community, emotional renewal, spiritual renewal, and, yes, bodily renewal. I have seen some of you face chronic disease with grace, wisdom, and courage. I have seen you recover from surgeries. I have held your babies in hospital rooms. I have also seen selfless acts of compassion and generosity. I cannot regard these as anything less than the miracles that they are, than the miracles that you are. Thank you and amen.