By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Psalm 139: 1, 13-18
Gnosticism was a heresy that threatened the early Church. I like to say that the easiest way to understand Gnosticism, in a nutshell, is this: “matter doesn’t matter.” For the Gnostics, the physical stuff of this world was viewed as being in opposition to the immortal and eternal soul and the soul needed to be liberated from the physical form. Now this belief was condemned as heresy by the Church. But, over my life, I have come to realize that a lot of Christians didn’t get that memo and that many Christians still maintain a strained and peculiar relationship with the physical world, particularly our own bodies.
Several years ago, I attended an evangelism workshop. The facilitators were a clergy couple, church planters, whose lives appeared to consist of nothing except prayer and service… and not in a healthy, well-balanced sense. They awakened around 5 a.m. each morning to spend hours before the day began in their prayer closet. Now John Wesley would have been proud that they rose so early (being an early riser himself). But Wesley went to bed much earlier. These contemporary evangelists didn’t end their day until around midnight. Between their morning and evening prayer times, they made themselves available non-stop to serve the needs of the community members where their church was being established. It was an impoverished neighborhood and I’m sure they didn’t need to look hard to find people in need.
But when I looked at them, they looked exhausted with bags under their eyes. They had a staccato, anxious quality to their presentation as they guzzled cups of coffee to keep themselves awake and alert. Both were overweight (though I never saw them eat any particularly bad food); but of course research now reveals that on-going sleep deprivation plays a significant role in weight gain.
This morning I am launching a new sermon series entitled “Response Ability.” As human creatures, God designed us with the ability to respond and adapt to our context and circumstances. Yet, I think we are living, increasingly, in a culture where we struggle to have a healthy sense of responsibility. We seem to be caught in a tug of war between two polar extremes. On one side, people struggle to control everything and to fix every problem and every person associated with it. This approach seems to serve partisan politics very well. We simply need to identify the root (often a particular population group whether liberals or conservatives) of a problem and then fix it, often through restrictions or removal. It should be easy-peasy. All we need is the right politician to pass the right bill and our entire complex problem will disappear. On the other extreme, we have those who will tell us that – thanks to the system (whoever the system happens to mysteriously be) – we lack the capacity to make any difference. We are just another cog in the machine, powerless to effect any real change in a hopeless situation.
But as human creatures we are called to live in relationship with others and as Christians we are called to do that in ways that reflect the lifestyle of Jesus. So, over the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring some topics around this theme of response ability and this morning we’re going to start with health. As I’ve already mentioned, we Christians have always struggled with our corporeal form – are our bodies to be ignored, beaten into submission, attended to, coddled?
Our Old Testament lays a foundation that reminds us that the created world is of great value to God. The Genesis creation accounts demonstrate the care God puts into this created world and the delight God derives from it. Many of us have spent time with pre-schoolers (children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, etc.) talking to them about how special they are. We may say something like “you’re a very smart little girl, aren’t you?” or “aren’t you a helpful young man?” And they will often reply, “I am” without batting an eye. They accept their inherent value and goodness. But it won’t be long before they see things differently. As adolescence unfolds, they will begin to question – as many of us still often do – their talents, their intelligence, their ability to help others, their ability to make the world a better place. Yet, this morning’s Psalm reminds us that God delights in us. God put great care into making us; like a work of art carefully and creatively woven or knit together.
In Hebrew (or Old Testament) thought, body and spirit together constituted the whole human person. It was the ancient Greeks who were so fond of separating them and setting them in philosophical opposition to one another. As many Psalms reveal, among ancient Israelites, humans are viewed as living in a material world which provides the context for our relatedness to one another and all of creation. So we are whole people, not disembodied souls to be split apart.
And that is why we need an appropriate sense of responsibility for the well-being and goodness of our bodies. The health or well-being of our bodies impacts how we live and the ministry of Jesus demonstrates this reality.
Much of Jesus’ ministry involved healing. Yet, that healing was performed and interpreted within a particular social and cultural context, the first century Palestinian world. We learn something of God’s purpose for us, the responsibility God places before us, by better understanding the gospel healing stories in their context. They focus, primarily, on two things: our relationships or our place in the social order AND our ability to live out our purpose. Let me say that again: physical well-being (understood in the context of our biblical gospels) is about maintaining relationship and living out our God-given purpose.
But, before I continue, let me provide a quick disclaimer. What I have just said ought to inspire us to responsibly do all we can to care for our physical bodies. Yet, in a sinful and broken world, that does not insure that our best efforts will always yield predictable results. Sometimes people will still get sick and bodies will be broken and, sometimes when that happens, we will not have any good reason why. We might want to concoct a reason, assigning blame to the sick person, another person, or even God. But it is often beyond our ability to determine and we can cause great harm when we pretend to know the unknowable. Even so, the reality of potential sickness (of body, mind or spirit) should not prevent us from doing our “responsible best.”
As I’ve already mentioned, the many healings Jesus performs in our gospels demonstrate the importance of health in maintaining relationship and living out our life’s purpose. One of the best illustrations of this – and a healing story I have already preached here at Trinity – is the story of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. It comes early in Mark’s gospel.[i] Jesus’ ministry has just begun. His first stop has been a synagogue where he has healed a man possessed by a demon. From there they go to the home of Simon Peter. Now Jesus would have been viewed not only as a healer but as a rabbi in that culture and to host a rabbi in your home was an honor and the responsibility for extending the hospitality of food and drink was an honor that fell to the oldest woman in the home, the matriarch. But Peter’s mother-in-law is sick with a fever; so sick she can’t get out of bed; she can’t carry out her important and honorable social role. It would have been an embarrassment to her. Now that might seem an archaic way of thinking to us, but in Jesus’ culture, it was of huge value. Furthermore, Jesus is going to continue to perform additional healings and ministry while he is at Simon’s home. But he’s going to need some sustenance to strengthen him for those ministry tasks. So Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law and she gets out of bed and prepares a wonderful meal for Jesus and the other disciples. She does her work so that Jesus can continue to do his work. So, once again, this healing is about two things: Peter’s mother-in-law’s relationships (with her son-in-law, the rest of her family, her village) and her purpose (providing hospitality to an esteemed guest in her home).
In the ancient world, sickness often created an impenetrable social boundary and prevented people from living and working in community. Beyond the physical pain and suffering, it was an isolating and demeaning experience. Healings by Jesus break down those barriers of isolation and restore people to their rightful, honorable place in their community.
And even today, though we live in a very different social and cultural context, sickness can still be an isolating experience and it can still prevent us from doing the things that give our life purpose. And so we should be inspired to do all that we can reasonably and responsibly do to care for our bodies and to maintain our health because our bodies are the way in which we engage with others, with the world around us; and our bodies are the vessels through which we work and serve and carry out our purpose.
Authors Richard Rohr and Parker Palmer both write of how God places a sense of call and purpose within each of us. God forms us and knits us and creates us to reveal a unique facet of the divine. Each of us reflects the love and grace of Jesus to the world in distinctive and beautiful ways. Father Rohr uses the analogy of a garden and that each of us is like a seed planted in the garden of life. He writes:
As I learn more about the seed of true self that was planted when I was born, I also learn more about the ecosystem in which I was planted—the network of communal relations in which I am called to live responsively, accountably, and joyfully with beings of every sort. Only when I know both seed and system, self and community, can I embody the great commandment to love both my neighbor and myself…[ii]
Friends, you are fearfully, wonderfully, and beautifully created by God to live in relationship with God, with others, and with the created world. We are blessed with skills and talents, unique natures, dispositions and life experiences that mold and shape our call to serve. And our bodies are the gift we have been given through which we connect and serve. So I want to encourage all of us this morning to consider: how well are we caring for our bodies? The food we eat, exercise, adequate sleep and rest, managing our stress. Do we take seriously our response ability to care for ourselves as whole persons – body and soul? What lifestyle change might we make so that (like the Psalmist) we might better honor our creator and his creation… for we have been wonderfully made?
[i] Read this healing story in Mark 1:29-34
[ii] Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation; March 28, 2018
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