Tuesday, April 10, 2018

April 7 2018 Sermon at Faithworks - Incarnation and Embodiment

[This is the hardcopy text I was reading from but is not what I said verbatim. I have also included quoteblock bits that were either on slides or were an important part of my preparation.]
Psalm 133 (NRSV)
How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion.

I’m not actually teaching about this psalm. I asked that it be read because I love the poetry, the imagery about how beautiful our unity can be – how very good and pleasant it is when kindred, family, we the body of Christ, live together in unity, it is an overflowing anointing – oil running down the beard and robes of the priest, dew flowing down the mountains of the promised land, how very good and pleasant is this overflowing blessing of unity. I just thought that was so beautiful. (touchstone during preparation)

Part of how we participate in the unity of the Body is following the liturgical calendar and lectionary. I did not grow up following the calendar, and discovering it as an adult has been a blessing to a rocky faith. So in the calendar, it’s still Easter until Pentecost, which is in late May this year. On this second Sunday of Easter, I feel tasked with moving us from the tomb towards the next Season, which is the longest, with the most unfortunately boring name – Ordinary Time.

I was thinking how I associate Advent and Christmas with darkness and Easter with light. I have to think this is by design, since Advent and Christmas coming with the onset of winter darkness. And over those dark months between Christmas and Easter the lectionary points us toward examining Jesus’ life, what he said and did in his ministry between those days in his life. As I run with this metaphor of night and sleep, Jesus tells us parables like he’s telling us dreams, dreams about the Kingdom of God – the Kingdom of God is like a farmer sowing seed, like a merchant finding a precious pearl, like a wise king, a fair landowner, like a fishing net, a wedding feast, like buried treasure, a mustard seed, yeast.

At the darkest point of this night is the Cross and Jesus fulfills the promise – the kingdom of God is the greatest love, to lay down one’s life for another, for all others. But then the tomb is empty and it’s the dawning of a brave new day, we step into the light as the Church, the Body of Christ, and it’s up to us to make those parable dreams come true – to be the kingdom of God on earth here in our time here, to be farmers and wise kings, virgins with their oil lamps awaiting the bridegroom, mustard seeds, fishing nets, yeast. We carry the love of Jesus into the new day, into Ordinary Time –how beautifully designed is that? Because it is the Ordinary workaday time of the year, warm under the summer sun, Planting Growing and Harvest – what beautiful bright kingdom work can be wrought in our regular ordinary days?

And what does it mean to undertake that work as a body, as a body in unity, as a body unified in reflecting Jesus? I think that’s a great direction to orient ourselves toward walking into Ordinary time. And the lectionary readings definitely spurred me in that direction – the Psalm we just heard, the Acts 4 passage about the whole group of believers being of one heart and soul and sharing everything, a passage from 1 John affirming our collective responsibility to be God’s light to the whole world, and in a less obvious way, the story of Thomas. And, if you’ve heard me teach before, you know I inexplicably find it necessary to focus on the least obvious text.
John 20:19-31 (NRSV)
When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”
But Thomas 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!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The second Sunday of Easter is Thomas’ day, because Jesus waits eight days to return. The eighth day is historically important. In the OT, it is the day for blessing and commissioning – a day for priestly ordinations, dedicating the firstborn, the day for circumcision, a day for offerings. It's important that this is the day Thomas experiences the Incarnation, and that blessing propels his faith, it’s a commissioning of his actions in faith. He goes on to start over seven churches in what is now southern India. I didn’t know that; “Doubting Thomas” gets such short shrift as some sort of failed disciple but the truth is his encounter with Jesus on this day activated conviction that fueled incredible work for the kingdom.

So I want to affirm what this story is not:

This is not a cautionary tale against doubt. Thomas is not merely an example of someone with Lesser Faith, who dared to put conditions on his belief in Jesus. Jesus’ words are not a rebuke, “If you can’t believe without seeing, your blessing is cancelled and withdrawn.”

This is not a story about the indulgence of God. Jesus is not merely patronizing Thomas’ petulance by giving in to his demands with a supercilious grace. Jesus’ words are not snide chiding, “You really shouldn’t need such base reassurances as seeing with your own eyes to believe in me.”

This is not a story about Jesus proving he is the last and best prophet because he suffered the most. This is not merely an opportunity for Jesus to say “Yeah look what I did, be convinced by my suffering that what I’ve said are the best truest ideas about God.” And I expect I'd get pushback from some of you on this one, so let me clarify:

The contrast between ancient Israel’s experience and that which the New Testament makes available was not between law and grace, but between mediated grace and embodied grace. –Daniel Block
Listen, Israel already had a prophetic tradition. They had already experienced God’s grace and faithfulness – manna in the wilderness, arrival in the promised land. They had already heard the most important things God has to say, “I see you, I love you, I choose you, follow me.” It’s just that they’d always heard it mediated through prophets. I'm just saying God didn’t need to send another prophet in Jesus to say all those things again – to be the last best prophet. God didn’t need to send another martyr to die for his convictions – to be the last best martyr. We don’t believe in the best prophet and martyr of all time. We believe in the embodied love and grace of God himself.

That’s what Thomas is about!

This story is about Thomas seeing the Incarnation in its completion – Easter is the cross and the empty tomb and now these seven weeks of Jesus revealing himself to create a record of witnesses. Because rising from the dead is the confirmation of Jesus declaring he is God – he wasn’t just a good teacher, or a good prophet, or a good martyr – he has power over death, and now everything is different.

What I hear in Thomas’ demands is the cognitive difficulty of grasping the incarnation because if it's true he so desires to fully surrender to that truth – “He was really God? He really loves us that much? I’ve got to touch it, I’ve got to see him - If I touch the resurrected Jesus I will know how loved I am, I will know God came here, to tell me to my face, I see you, I love you, I choose you, follow me.” And when he does see Jesus, he responds with the highest confession of faith in the gospels, “MY Lord, MY God.” It’s not just a statement of belief, but a declaration of trust and a claim of relationship.

Thomas witnesses Incarnation, and it propels him to represent the incarnation in all his future actions, propels him to stretch the incarnation out into his work for the kingdom. That’s how the blessing of embodied grace becomes his commissioning on this eighth day. There’s a parallel commissioning for us experiencing incarnation, and it’s contained in Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” We believe in embodied grace and are blessed to then turn and embody grace to those around us. We all have our Thomas moment (or moments) when we confront the idea of an incarnate saviour and ask (maybe with some cognitive difficulty) “Does God really love me that much?” and another believer stands in Jesus’ stead, to affirm yes, yes, he really does.

Blessed are we who believe without seeing Jesus directly, but rather Jesus embodied in the life of another believer. We experience Grace, we reorient ourselves to stand in Jesus’ stead and affirm to the next Thomas and the next, yes, really, truly, God loves us all that much. When we believe without seeing, the blessing and the commissioning is that we stand in place of the Incarnation, that we embody grace, that we stretch Jesus’ presence out into the world by being the Body. As this paraphrase of Hubmaier states it, ‘The vocation of the Body of Christ is to prolong the Incarnation in History.”

I keep saying this word Embodiment and I think it’s necessary to define my terms, because it’s the centre of the Incarnation. Embodiment means seating your sense of Self within your body, instead of holding your Selfhood in your mind as something separate from your body. It means living in your body, really uniting all of you into your physical space. Embodiment means erasing the mind-body dualism. It means knowing you don’t have a body, you are a body. You are your body.

We, as a culture, are sort of terrible at Embodiment. We grew up in Modern post-Enlightenment culture, that was the flavour of soup around us. During the Enlightenment, Reason became the elevated ideal, the primary source of authority and legitimacy. And this prioritizing of Reason then defines and widens a mind-body dualism, and the dualism is hierarchical – so Mind is above all and Body is secondary. Under mind-body dualism, our sense of Self is that we are fundamentally Minds who happen to have Bodies, and they are at best inconvenient water bags that require stupid things like food and sleep. And at worst they are incredibly stupid water bags that will not bend to the will of our Minds and be the Physical Ideal the world has told us we Could be if we just EXERTED OUR WILL A LITTLE HARDER.

I encounter this literally every day at work, because it is so frutrating to our minds to have a body in pain that we can’t ignore can’t explain and can’t make go away. The physical work I do of using my body to help their bodies is the simplest part of my job, I sometimes don’t even think about it, I just am in my body doing it. The hardest part of my job is teaching patients to stop treating their bodies as separate from themselves – I honestly think my actual job is bringing people into their bodies, sometimes at their lowest points, at these points of deep pain when embodying that pain is the last thing they want to do, but I know connecting to their body is how they'll heal.

I could talk literally forever about the consequences of our disembodied dualistic lives in terms of physical and mental health, especially for women, and if you want to listen to me rant about it while eating good food and honouring our hunger please hmu after. But that’s not why I’m up here, so let’s talk about the spiritual effects. Because there are theological consequences of this dualist thinking, which impact our understanding of an Incarnate God, and subsequently our sense of embodying his example in our lives. 

The consequences of applying the mind-body dualism to our understanding of the incarnation is a disembodied Jesus – that is, his life is reduced to the ideas he left us. And the consequence of that upon the church’s call to prolong the incarnation is a disembodied Body of Christ – that is, defining ourselves as purveyors of the Best Ideas about God. Rather than the body, we become the Mind of Christ.

And that sets the stage for legalistic and fundamentalist assertions of the best ways to think Jesusly, and that creates a shame framework where the brokenness Jesus came to heal gets twisted into “sin” by which we are disqualified from blessing due to our lesser faith.

Under disembodied theology, our sense of spiritual Self is that we are fundamentally theological Minds who happen to have messy human lives, and those lives are at best inconvenient distractions from being a Good Disciplined Christian. And at worst our humanity is a shameful reality that will not bend to the will of our Theological Minds and be the Spiritual Ideal the church has told us we Could be if we just EXERTED OUR WILL A LITTLE HARDER.

Just as I believe there is freedom in erasing the mindbody dualism in our physical health, I want freedom from that dualism in my spiritual health. I don’t want to exert theological will over my life and ignore or shame the parts of me that will not bend. I don’t want to believe any part of me is beyond the reach of Christ or unacceptable to the God who created those very parts of me. I don’t want a faith that brings me out of my humanity – I claim (with Thomas) “My lord and My God” came down to be in my humanity, came down and embodied humanity fully, and sits with me in the most painful parts of that. That’s where I find how much I belong to God.

God wants freedom from this mind-over-mess dualism in our spiritual health as the Body. Unity is not about exerting a collective theological will over the lives of believers, or shaming the parts of our lives that will not conform to a false Spiritual Ideal. The Spiritual Ideal is our complete lovedness – there is no part of us beyond the reach of Christ, there is no part of us unacceptable to the God who created those very parts of us. The purpose of embodied grace is not to divorce us from our humanity, but to live with us into that humanity and love it – love our mess our sin our bodies and our minds – Jesus came to live WITH us IN that. Emmanuel. We have unity not in conformity, but in knowing how completely we all belong to God, how completely we are all loved by God. 

I’ve probably heard over twenty earnest presentations on the love contained in our incarnate saviour and I cannot say many of them penetrated too much. Talking about embodiment keeps it too much in headspace, it’s words about a concept, and easy to dismiss because we’re so entrenched in mindbody dualism. We learn embodiment by Doing embodiment. So I’m going to do something I thought I’d maybe never do, and give homework from a sermon. I’m so hesitant to be prescriptive about Doing Faith. Obviously I can’t make you do this, it’s just an invitation that I hope will bring these ideas into your body.

First, I invite you to think about something messy and human about your identity that you have felt falls outside the Spiritual Ideal, something over which you’ve tried to exert your theological will, something you’ve set aside as unseen or unacceptable to God because it doesn’t conform. My Thing is I spent most of life thinking my fatness disqualified me from the Spiritual Ideal. But it doesn’t have to be a literal body thing. Just something in your identity that’s been left out of God’s love – your singleness, athleticism, introverted personality, anything [although it was not safe for me to say this at church, obviously I would include sexuality, and God does, too.]

And I want you to discover how loved that part of you is, not only in prayer (but certainly first and foremost in prayer) but then also in physical affirmation by another member of this congregation. So I want you tell someone, someone you aren’t related to but someone you trust. And all of us are going to promise right now, if someone shares their Thing with you, we promise to celebrate it with you, yes/yes?

Honestly you can all just come tell me. Selfishly that will be super gratifying, but for real this is just my favourite thing, people being released from theology that has harmed and discovering the Love of Jesus. Is that cheesy? I don’t even care. This is the third time I’ve been invited to teach and every time could be summarized as like “Y’all do you know how stinking loved we are? Cuz like you have heard the Bible interpreted this way but hey what if we saw it this way instead?” I became so afraid of a weaponized Bible that I stopped going to it, and in deconstructing and reconstructing my faith, I learned to come to the Bible and ask only “what is God saying about God in this?” And over and over what God says is I love you I love you I love you. It is delicious, and I want everyone to taste it, truly if you never get tired of hearing it, I will never get tired of teaching it.

But listen, this is something Faithworks does super well, affirming our brokenness not as something to be fixed but something to be loved. I think I’ve heard Roger describe this church as the island of misfit toys, the church of people burned by Church. We’re good at celebrating how loved we are here. So I know Mel would love to celebrate these unloveable parts of you also. And Roger’s not here to say no, so imma volunteer him, too. But I just think it’s really important to take this beyond an intellectual inventory and make it a community experience. To practice embodying the incarnation with each other, really seating our sense of Ecclesial Self in united lovedness.

Second, I invite you to be curious about people doing Christianity differently from you. I don’t want to make another person your homework because it’s dehumanizing to turn another human into a project. So this can be just an observation exercise and maybe that will organically give rise to conversations and relationship, but just be curious, ask questions even just of yourself, regarding people who live out their lovedness is a different way. And you can share that with someone at Faithworks, too, but for sure, just have an openness and curiosity about different expressions of faith having equal validity because they come from equal love.
The focus on enlightenment rather than embodiment distances us from the messy business of being human. If you’re doing it right, Presence, rather than detaching you, sensitizes you to your environment. It puts you smack dab in the discomfort, the disagreeability, the pain, the awkwardness, and the contradiction – this is where you can grow more skilled at meeting life where it’s at, rather than how you’d prefer it to be. In other words, allowing the full spectrum of events to be included in your experience, rather than mounting resistance to them. –Toko-pa

(in summary) The story of Thomas is not about lesser faith meeting the ultimate theological Mind and being corrected into proper faith. It is about Thomas meeting the completed Incarnation revealed by resurrection, and knowing his wholeness, his complete utter lovedness accomplished by God With Us. This story does not point at us a message of correction, but invites us along with Thomas to discover the Incarnation. And the love we encounter there commissions us to represent that love, embody that Incarnational love, and invite the next person to discover it, too.

When we tell the Thomases around us how much Jesus loves us, and they ask “Does he really love me that much?” we can point to more than the Best Ideas about God as a checklist – Jesus loves if we think just like this. We are not merely the Mind of Christ with the Best Ideas about God, we offer more than holy conformity. So when they ask “Does he really love me that much?” we answer from the whole of our embodied Selves in a diversity of expressions but the same best message about God, God sees you, God loves you, God chooses you, come follow with us. That’s unity in the Body of Christ, that’s how we’re going to make parable dreams come true, amen?

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