We have three wonderfully rich readings to dive into this morning: the call of Samuel and his faithful response, Paul’s somewhat difficult word to the Corinthians about fornication and the body, and the call of Nathanael to follow Jesus. So, naturally, with so many great texts to choose from, I actually want to start out by talking about the one text we didn’t read this morning. The psalm assigned for today is Psalm 139, which actually happens to be my favorite psalm (though that’s not why I want to read it). I want to start there because of the way it draws out some of the themes I want to highlight in our readings for today. Psalm 139 reads:
O Lord, you have searched me and known me.
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is so high that I cannot attain it.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when as yet none of them existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
I am so moved by the intimacy of the relationship between Creator and creation that this psalm reveals. I love this image of human beings being knitted and woven together by God’s hands. And I know I’m not the only crafter in the congregation – many of you know the preciousness of holding something you made with your own two hands. Just like God, you know every stitch of it – not to mention where all the flaws are! God knows our sitting down and our rising up, God knows the words that we speak and is “acquainted with all our ways” – because the things that we do matter to God. Our lives and our bodies are precious and holy in God’s sight, because we are God’s own beloved creation.
I find that reading this psalm also sheds some helpful light on our second reading – which is a kind of uncomfortable text from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians about fornication and the body. I think the only topic that’s harder to talk about from the pulpit than money has got to be sex! And that’s because, sadly, the church has done a lot to shame and moralize about sexual behavior, especially with regard to the LGBTQ community. But I think Psalm 139 comes close to expressing what Paul is actually saying in this text. Paul isn’t writing to shame anyone for their sexual behavior; rather he is writing to remind them of the preciousness of their bodies in God’s sight. The Corinthians had come to believe that the resurrection from the dead was only a spiritual resurrection – so it didn’t matter at all what they chose to do with their bodies. “Hey, all things are lawful for me!” Paul is writing to tell them that nothing could be further from the truth. He emphatically stresses the value of human bodies to God, saying to them, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” and that “the body is meant for the Lord and the Lord for the body.”
Paul also writes: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” “Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him.” This is that same intimacy with God that we saw in Psalm 139! This Christ is the same God who wove us together by hand, who wants to get up close and personal with us. Paul warns against sins against the body because he knows that God doesn’t want anything to get in the way of relationship with us. For God, human bodies and human lives are just too valuable.
I’m really glad that these texts were assigned for this week; because I think they are full of good news that speaks directly to a lot of what is happening in the world right now. To start off with, we’re in mid-January. Right about now is usually the beginning of the end for a lot of well-meaning new year’s resolutions about going to the gym and eating “right” and losing weight. And a lot of us will respond to my saying this with sort of a rueful chuckle, thinking about gym memberships we aren’t using and calories we aren’t counting. And you might even expect me to stand up here and urge you to get back on those resolutions, because by golly, your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and that temple needs some serious maintenance!
But I am absolutely not going to do that.
Instead, I can only express how profoundly sad it makes me that this is the time of year that we have all been trained to look in the mirror – and hate what we see. It’s such a common cultural attitude that it’s easy for us to joke about it. But in reality, it’s deeply sad that we have been taught to feel shame about the bodies that God has so lovingly created, that God’s Spirit continues to inhabit. We are taught in so many ways to be constantly critical of our own bodies and of the bodies of others.
It’s an attitude that pervades our culture far beyond the scope of new year’s resolutions. Our evaluation of the worth and morality of ourselves and other people has everything to do with bodies. We marginalize and isolate people whose bodies are older, while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on anti-aging products, acting like aging is some kind of a disease, and not a sign of an amazing body that has successfully survived for many decades. Our language is full of slurs against people with disabilities, words like “dumb” and “lame” and “crazy.” The #MeToo movement over the past year showed how many women have to come forward and say something before anyone will actually believe them. And systemic racism is clearly alive and well when the president of this country feels entitled to complain about refugees from “shithole countries” – turning away people fleeing violence in places like El Salvador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, because their bodies are the wrong color and they speak the wrong language.
Our country is still full of the kind of discrimination against minority bodies that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought against over half a century ago. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the effects of segregation and slavery continue to linger: they show up in the vast inequality that exists in income, housing, health, and education. These effects show up in the disproportionate number of African Americans imprisoned or killed by their own government every year. And here in the borderlands, we are keenly aware of the discrimination faced by immigrants from Latin America, especially asylum-seekers and DACA recipients. These are folks who have come seeking safety from violence or just seeking a better life. They make the long journey to get here, only to be arrested and immediately demonized as criminals and rapists, and treated inhumanely by a government that refuses to help them.
The sheer scale of discrimination against people of color and other marginalized communities can leave us all feeling angry and helpless. The oppression and shaming of bodies everywhere – including our own – should make us feel angry. We feel the grief that I imagine God feels over the way that human bodies and human lives are systematically devalued and destroyed. These feelings leave us longing for God to raise up another leader like Dr. King to stand up and fight for justice. We long for leaders who aren’t afraid to challenge the systems of this world that seek to rob all of us of the value that God has given us.
And it’s in those moments of longing that I think that we need to go back to our mirrors, to look in them and see – not our failures in need of fixing, not an endless litany of flaws – but faithful and capable servants of God who are being called to stand up and say something. I think that if we listen for the quiet voice that called Samuel in the temple, we may hear that it is calling our names. Or if the voice is too quiet, maybe we can just listen to the hymns that we’re singing in worship today and notice that there’s kind of a theme going. (haha)
We are called – like Paul, like Samuel, like Philip, like Nathanael – to be bearers of God’s message of justice and love for the world. The God who lovingly knit us together in our mothers’ wombs calls and equips us to share this divine love with others. Our Creator calls us to share this love with a world of bruised and broken bodies that desperately need it. We are called to affirm the goodness and holiness of human lives and human bodies, to push back against the narratives and the systems that try to teach us to hate others and to be ashamed of our selves. We are called to bear witness to the tender, intimate love that our Creator has toward all humanity.
So I invite you today, when you go home; look in the mirror and first bear witness to yourself this wonderful news: you are not a project to be worked on and your body is not a problem to be solved. You are a precious child of the Creator, one-of-a-kind, handcrafted by God. You have been formed and equipped with gifts to help spread God’s love and justice in the world. God’s Spirit is calling to you, just like it called the prophets who came before you. So listen for that voice, and when it calls again, you shall say: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.
If you’re interested in body positive/body justice stuff, here are a few more pieces of my writing you might enjoy:
• On the Plus Side — an article I wrote for LSTC’s diversity blog about the single narratives surrounding fatness
• My Own Independence Day — a reflection on my struggles with body size and self-image (some profanity)
• What Becomes of Boasting? — a body-positive Reformation sermon