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Advent II

Lexi Boudreaux
Sun, Dec 08

Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, oh God, our rock and our redeemer, Amen.

As we journey into the second week of Advent together, I am especially aware that this is a season of our lives where we are paying attention to our ability to live in transitional space, to exist on the threshold, the threshold between darkness and light, exile and new birth, longing and fulfillment. In this time we pay attention to the whole world’s longing for what is to come in the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.

As I reflect on this transitional flavor of Advent, my mind has wandered to other seasons of transition in my life.  After graduating from college I was working as a clinical research coordinator with young adults who were on the Autism Spectrum.  Every day I sat with our patients and their parents through their appointments. As they grappled with the exhaustion that comes from needing long-term care, I was forced to confront my own relationship with chronic illness as well.

For most of my life I’ve been fighting with my body for one reason or another.  For six years growing up I wore a back brace to try to stop the progression of large curves in my spine due to scoliosis. I now have metal rods that hold my spine in place, which reduces my mobility, but allows me to live a relatively normal existence. During my treatment my body continually betrayed me by resisting every effort to form myself into something that wouldn’t crush the life out of me. It was difficult for me to see my body as anything other than something to tolerate as best I could. As I was wrestling with processing these resurfaced feelings from the past I was also feeling disconnected from a sense of community and with that, disconnected from a sense of the holy. I was searching for something to hold onto, something to tell me that God was there.

 I found what I was searching for when I wandered into an Episcopal church down the street from my apartment one evening. It happened to be Ash Wednesday, the day that begins the penitent season of Lent (which I know is a little liturgically off season) and they were offering the imposition of ashes during the worship service. I had never engaged in the practice before, but something about the music and the space felt so inviting that I went up to the woman offering them. She looked into my eyes and said firmly, but with compassion “Beloved Child of God, repent and believe in the gospel.” As she pressed an ashy thumb against my forehead in the sign of the cross, before I could even think anything of the experience, I noticed that tears were welling up in my eyes. In that next breath, I was reminded that my body was the mediator through which I experience the holy in this world. When I was wrestling with memories of the past I realized I wasn’t holding the good and the bad together; I wasn’t fully seeing the already and not yet. Before my mind could begin to process this sacramental and intimate moment, I knew that the phrase spoken was not a command of shame, but a loving reminder to believe in the beloved-ness and the holiness of my own body, the good news that all of us so desperately need to receive.

It took me a long time to understand where my body fit into my understanding of God’s love for me. I’m wagering a guess that a lot of Christians have had a similar experience considering how little we talk about our bodies in church spaces. A part of the beginning of my journey into divinity school was attempting to understand my own suffering and the suffering of others in this regard. Nothing that I could have read or studied could have communicated what I needed to know, that living in the body I have is a gift to me and can be a gift to others as well.  In that moment, God could only meet me through a gentle touch and the rhythm of an embodied liturgy. I couldn’t reason my way to an answer. There was wisdom in my body that knew something about God and what it meant to know my fragile life was entrusted to her care.

Even though humanity feels the weight of its mortality the only way we can experience God and the holy is through our bodies. Through these glimpses of the holy we, as children of God, gain the strength and the awareness to hold the tension of the already and not yet of Advent, of the anticipated and already received gift of the redemption of our bodies, as Paul alludes to in his letter to the Romans.

I saw a quote the other day about the practice of Advent. It read, “To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache—our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime.” This cosmic ache is exactly what Paul talks about in this passage from his letter to the Gentiles in Rome when he describes the state of a groaning creation as if laboring in childbirth. Paul wrote this letter around 56 CE while he was collecting funds from Jesus followers for the church in Jerusalem. It is speculated that Paul is writing in response to disagreements between the minority Jewish community in Rome and the even smaller group of Gentiles in the region. One of the main ideas of his letter to the Romans is communicating how people other than Jews might gain membership among God’s people. In this passage, he is encouraging his audience to have faith that the Gentile community will be adopted into the family of the God of Abraham.

One of my favorite professors in New Testament studies once announced to our classroom that when she started her PhD focused on the writings of Paul she did not know that she was signing up to get a PhD in circumcision, but here she was knowing way too much about the subject. Of course, the whole class laughed at her exaggeration, yet as with every joke there was some bit of truth to it. It is true that Paul is deeply concerned about our bodies and what that has to do with living a life of faith in this post-resurrection world.

Even though Paul and Jesus were Jewish most of their earliest interpreters were Greeks. As much as I love them, the Greeks had a dualistic understanding of the body and soul. Through this lens they cultivated a suspicion of the human form, attributing the good with the spiritual and the bad with our bodies, as if we could separate the spiritual out of the form in which we experience it. Christianity, in some circles, turned its back on the goodness of the body, which is ironic for a faith that is based on the fact that God came down to earth as flesh and blood, in my opinion. As a result, historically, many Christians, or perhaps still many people living in Cambridge or other university towns would prefer to believe that we are all floating brains than pay attention to our own flesh and the wisdom it has for us. At times, I’ve definitely fallen into this category myself. It is often easier to hide behind facts or fancy theological terms than to get real about how God is working in our lives.

While Paul spends much time in his writings telling communities what they should be doing with their bodies, I don’t think that Paul is saying that our bodies are fundamentally bad. (I personally think he gets a bad rap in this regard.) How could he when the psalms of his sacred scripture address God as the life force that lovingly and carefully knit him together in his mother’s womb? I do think he is saying that we experience suffering and limits in our lives due to our mortal bodies and due to our inability to sometimes accept our differences.

Whether we suffer from chronic illness, judge ourselves based on images in the media, are wrestling with our mortality, or are treated differently because of how we show up in the world at some point or another I bet we can all relate to times we have not felt at home in our bodies. And yet, Paul says, we are the ones who have tasted the first fruits of the Spirit, or in other words, we are the ones who have glimpsed the first sight of the holy. Yes, bodies are limited and fragile, but they are also the containers in which we live, some can create life, and most can heal themselves from wounds that the world inflicts. We suffer, yes, and yet we are already adopted into the family of God. The reality of God being once present and dwelling in a mortal body in Jesus Christ clears a path for us to see a way through our sufferings. There is indeed a way into holiness that exists fundamentally within our mortality.

Words are only a small part of the equation of how we know what is holy. Our hope is in embodied knowledge of a living and breathing God, that God deemed human flesh as an adequate dwelling place. There is a freedom in knowledge that does not come from words, but from direct bodily experience of God.

In Barbara Brown Taylor’s book An Alter in the World she speaks about the difference between knowing about God and knowing God.  She talks about the spiritual practice of “wearing skin.” She says, “the daily practice of incarnation—of being in the body with full confidence that God speaks the language of flesh—is to discover a pedagogy that is as old as the gospels.” She talks of the practices that Jesus taught the disciples, that he knew “the disciples were going to need something warm and near that they could bump into on a regular basis, something so real that they would not be able to intellectualize it and so essentially untidy that there was no way they could ever gain control over it.”

What are the things in our lives that are so real that we are not able to intellectualize them? What are the things that our bodies viscerally know as holy? I invite you to think about this during the Advent season and once you’ve identified those practices, hold onto them-- for when you don’t know how to pray, for the moments when you can’t reason yourself into knowing holiness, when you look into the darkness and need the very spirit to intercede with sighs too deep for words on your behalf. When words fail, these practices, whether they are lighting a candle, laughing with grandchildren, doing yoga, taking deep breaths, or giving a prolonged hug to a loved one, are precious and life-saving when our labor tires out our minds to the point of exhaustion.

These days it seems like this exhaustion is all around us in the form of compassion fatigue. Since I visited an open session of the homeless trial court that runs in Harvard Square I’ve been starkly aware of the presence of police in that area. The officers will walk up to someone whose body appears to be without a home, they will let them know that they are trespassing, and they will escort them out of the building.

As people who are waiting for new life we are not just laboring for the liberation of the suffering of our own bodies, but of every body. In a divided country that criminalizes poverty and limits people’s access to adequate mental and physical health care, the holiness of all of our bodies is so often denied. In the United States, over 700 women a year die of complications related to pregnancy. Two-thirds of those deaths are preventable, but occur due to unchecked biases against women’s knowledge about their own bodies when they seek the care they need. The metaphor of a woman in labor that Paul chooses for the state of creation as we wait for Jesus shows that this work of holding onto hope in the darkness is hard and dangerous. In Paul’s day, most women were very unsure if they would survive birthing a child at all. With each contraction they pushed through this thin veil between potential new life and the darkness of death.

Regardless of what gender we are, with these high stakes constantly bombarding us in our personal lives and in the news it is difficult to listen to the quiet pulse of the holy. Someone who has made it her life’s work to sustain love and hope in the world and who has a hand on that pulse is Valerie Kaur. I had the privilege of hearing her speak at the UCC annual meeting of the Southern New England Conference several weeks ago. She is a civil rights advocate who is motivated by her Sikh faith. She said in an address at the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington D.C. “and so the mother in me asks, what if. What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb? But is the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead? But a country that is waiting to be born. What if the story of America is one long labor? … What if this is our nation’s great transition? … What does a midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love and through love.”

I would extend her questions for our country to the struggles we face in our own lives that we are contemplating this Advent season-- this midwife through the waiting for the birth of a child who will show us life out of our deepest despair. To use her phrasing: what if our hope is not dead? But a new way of living out our faith is waiting to be born. What if the story of our suffering is a part of one long labor? What if this is the moment of our greatest transition when it comes to our relationship with God and with one another? I think this is the essence of what Paul is asking us to wrestle with.

When we take time to pay attention to our experience of God we breathe in the spirit of the holy, refilling our souls so that we might have strength to labor in this world that contains so much brokenness and joy held together. We draw wisdom from our bodies and honor their holiness so that we might create new life where there seems to be none, so that we might seek out God’s word in the flesh all around us and so that we might have hope for what we do not see and wait for it with patience.

Amen

 

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