Homily for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Richmond VA
Lectionary Text Reference:
There is one Body, one Spirit, one hope in God’s call to us. Amen.
It is January, so unless you’ve been living apart from every kind of media…print, broadcast or social…you’ve been hearing a lot about about bodies. On any given day, the ways that I am encouraged to alter, improve or otherwise enhance my body seem to increase exponentially. This isn’t just an aberration of my age or demographic. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness and self-care industry has grown to a world-wide market economy of $4.5 trillion dollars…and that was in 2018. At this time and place in our collective lives, we’ve never been so consumed with our individual bodies, and even more so with the parts of our individual bodies that we find most problematic. You see, couched in the term “wellness” is often a motivation by problem. We engage in wellness because there is something about our bodies that we dislike, or something that could happen to our bodies that we fear. It might be cosmetic, or hereditary. It might be aestetic, or medical. Imagine if I asked you right now to make a list about what you love and what you would change about your body if you could: well, I’m going to guess that most of us would have one list that was a lot longer than the other. I think today’s scripture might be a reminder to us that we are losing sight of the forest by focusing on the trees…or perhaps losing sight of the body by focusing on its members.
Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
Today’s Epistle lesson brings this concept of the body centrally into our understanding of our common lives in Christ: we are the Body of Christ. Bodies have been a focus of attention and thus, a powerful human metaphor for a long time. That includes Greco-Roman culture in which the church in Corinth was immersed. We know from other writings that the political rhetoric during the rule of the Roman Empire used the body metaphor to concretely explain why it was that appendages (“members”) needed one authority (“head”) to exercise control, so that all the parts of the body were working together. When we read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, what we should be hearing…along with the metaphor…is a sharp rhetorical argument about the difference between our lives in Christ, and the body politic of the world around us. Paul doesn’t describe Christ as the “head” or persuade members to see themselves as inferior and dependent appendages. Instead, Paul poses a counter-cultural and counter-political argument about the very nature of the Church as the whole Body of Christ:
God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
Paul’s argument here is as direct and perfectly clear as any political body metaphor. It isn’t that it was difficult for people to understand intellectually. It’s that in 1st Century BCE Corinth, just like in our 21st Century, we are taking in so many social messages from the empire around us which are built on a superiority/inferiority hierarchy that it’s all too easy to conform our theology, our knowledge of God, to those clamoring voices. And for many of us, it relegates us to the inferior. And then, it becomes all too easy to focus all our energy on manipulating that which we deem inferior about ourselves to the will and control of what we have been told is superior. And when we do that, it becomes all about managing our individual inferiority, over and over again.
What Paul suggests…and what I am inviting us to consider and affirm today…is that there is an entirely different and God ordained way of being together as the Body of Christ. This way isn’t about hierarchical adherence, or conforming to norms or perfection, or even pretending that every member is perfectly perfect all the time. No: we are called to be a body with all of the members together being Christ with and for each other: freely distributing honor, wealth, confidence among members with a reciprocal understanding of shared needs which ebb and flow through our lives; sharing the same God-sourced care for one another; mutually suffering and mutually rejoicing. This image of the Body of Christ is about synergy and solidarity; it allows a continued healing flow as needs among the members change and it works together for the good of the whole, not the ego maintenance of the individual. Today, as in the first century, it is a counter-cultural and counter-political message.
I think it’s helpful to have a concrete image of what this kind of care can look like. The image that I offer up to you is one written by social worker and trauma therapist Resmaa Menakem, in the introduction to his book My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies. I’ve selected this book as one of the readings for Social Work and Spiritual Care course I’ll be teaching this summer during my time at Church Divinity School of the Pacific; it’s also a book that we use to teach in the MSW program when we focus on trauma recovery. But, this time, I’m choosing to use it in both a social work and a theological context. So, I would like you to imagine this opening dialogue between the author and his grandmother not only as the author’s personal recollection but also as a spiritual conversation, a parable of the Body of Christ:
When I was a boy I used to watch television with my grandmother. I would sit in the middle of the sofa and she would stretch out over two seats, resting her legs in my lap. She often felt pain in her hands, and she’d ask me to rub them in mine. When I did, her fingers would relax, and she’d smile. Sometimes she’d start to hum melodically, and her voice would make a vibration that reminded me of a cat’s purr.
She wasn’t a large woman, but her hands were surprisingly stout, with broad fingers and thick pads below each thumb. One day I asked her, “Grandma, why are your hands like that? They ain’t the same as mine.”
My grandmother turned from the television and looked at me. “Boy,” she said slowly. “That’s from picking cotton. They been that way since long before I was your age. I started working in the fields sharecroppin’ when I was four.”
I didn’t understand. I’d helped plant things in the garden a few times, but my own hands were bony and my fingers were narrow. I held up my hands next to hers and stared at the difference.
“Ummm hmmm” she said. “The cotton plant has pointed burrs in it. When you reach your hand in, the burrs rip it up. When I first started picking, my hands were all torn and bloody. When I got older, they got thicker and thicker, until I could reach in and pull out the cotton without them bleeding.”
My grandmother died last year. Sometimes I can still feel her warm, thick hands in mine. (Menakem, 2017, p. 4)
What Resmaa Menakem is illustrating in his book goes beyond the ways in which our bodies carry generational trauma and moves us to consider the ways in which we bear collective responsibility for naming, feeling, and healing that trauma first in our bodies and then through transforming our collective, social well-being. He goes on to say:
Our bodies have a form of knowledge that is different from our cognitive brains. This knowledge is typically experienced as a felt sense of constriction or expansion, pain or ease, energy or numbness. Often this knowledge is stored in our bodies as wordless stories about what is safe and what is dangerous. The body is where we fear, hope and react; where we constrict and release; and where we reflexively fight, flee or freeze. If we are to upend the status quo of white-body supremacy, we must begin first with our bodies. (Menakem, 2017, p. 5).
What if we re-read our Epistle lesson and understood it as instructional not only for the church but for our entire world? That might mean that we stopped trying to intellectualize oppression or classify those who are hurting into fixed groups, demographically or ideologically. It might mean that we encouraged the tired to rest their feet on us, and within that same loving support we leaned into them and showed them our own hurting places and invited each other with childlike earnestness to hear the stories that accompany the scars. Those actions of our bodies would move past the constriction we feel, would release us from the fight/flight/flee reflex, would help us bear one another’s burdens, including the burden of history. We would move away from the temptation to say that history is not ours, because we would see it in the broad, thick hands that had developed with resilient strength to protect against the burrs of systemic racism and realize it belongs to all of us. We would do these things as a body, and hold these things as a body, and heal together as a body, and feel in the Communion of Saints the beauty of those hands from which not even death can separate us. Imagine, if you will, the transformative potential of that understanding of the Body of Christ. Imagine the power of that to transform this world.
There is a portion of one of our Eucharistic Prayers, Prayer C, which I hold on my heart whenever we come together for worship. I invite you to hold it in your own mind today as we come together for Holy Communion: Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.
Friends, today’s Epistle challenges us right here in 2022 in the midst of our ego-driven world of haves and have nots. It has relevance to how we are church with each other, and how we live as the church in the world. It invites us into a whole new way of encountering those who are socially marginalized, through seeing and naming our own marginalized places and allowing others to massage our wounds, just as we invite others to stretch their tired legs over us and rub the painful hands while we hear the stories that help us see the strengths in those same hands. This vision, and our common worship, invites us to be transformed in body, mind and spirit.
As you hold these images today, hear the prophetic words of Isaiah Jesus read in the Temple echoing not only to us but through us, the Body of Christ:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.
The eyes of all in the synagogue…all in the pews…were fixed on Jesus.
Then Jesus began to say to them…and Jesus says to us…
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
May it be so, my friends. May our coming together as the Body of Christ transform us to make it be so.