Every week at our staff meeting, we do some sort of spiritual practice to gather ourselves up and pause. It is so tempting to rush from one thing to the next, but this always helps us center for a moment. Ryan, if you don’t know, is really talented at leading mindful, meditative practices. And this past week, he led us in a breathing exercise for our spiritual practice, and just like every time we’ve done this before, I was amazed. Amazed at the power of slowing down and thinking about my breath and connecting with my body. Anytime we do this practice, I sit there and realize that I flat out forget about this thing that breathes and moves and carries me from place to place. I’ll get to the end of a day and go, “huh, I guess I kept breathing all day,” or “huh, I wonder how long my feet have been hurting.” It’s wild how these bodies do so much for us, but if we aren’t intentional, we forget about them. Or sometimes we’re aware of them, but only because it hurts and it aches or isn’t working quite right. Sometimes we can’t escape the reality of the brokenness, the imperfections, the shortcomings of our flesh and bones.
But how often do we slow down, pay attention, breathe, and really think about this mysterious, beautiful, complex thing?
Because they are quite amazing, our bodies. They get us where we need to go. They take us to our schools, our jobs. They are a part of our relationships and connect us, through a hug or a handshake or a smile. They bring us joy with dance or a hike. They are our tether to this physical world. And, as Paul gets at in the passage today, they are even a part of the spiritual one, too.
In this section from Romans, he points to this reality that our physical bodies are connected to our life of faith. They are a living sacrifice, or an offering, to God, he says. Even a part of our worship of God. Now, in his world, animal sacrifice was still a huge component of how the people of God worshiped, but he’s saying, no, actually, your body is to be a part of your relationship with God. Not some animals, presented slaughtered and lifeless, but you yourself are an offering that is living, and breathing, and holy, and good.
These bodies, they are gifts from God. In our baptisms and in our belief in Christ, our whole selves have been united with Christ’s body. And if ours is united to his, then ours is redeemed like his. We are made new in Him. From head to toe and everything in between.
Yes, we still grow and age and face the reality of being a creature, we are also infused with mercy and grace and goodness. And even more, Paul says, our bodies are a way in which we connect to God and worship Him and live out this faith. In other words, our faith is embodied. Our belief in God is somehow lived out this way, not just as some practice of the mind or intellectual pursuit.
What if, day to day, we remembered that? Well, what would it even look like? For a start, as Episcopalians, we actually have some of the most embodied liturgy. I heard someone once say, I love going to Episcopal services, but all the movement keeps me from getting in a good nap. Because we are up, then were down, we are standing, then were kneeling, we are crossing, and maybe even bowing, we shake hands, we come forward, we eat and drink, we sing. We move and engage our whole selves in this act of worshiping God. And over time, this physical dimension of our spiritual life becomes as routine to our bodies as blinking or breathing. It becomes engrained in how we act out our belief.
In seminary, I interned at a retirement community, and we had a weekly Sunday morning service. We were coming up on the Baptism of Our Lord Sunday, or that day in the church calendar when we remember Jesus’s baptism, and in turn, our own. The chaplaincy staff and I brainstormed how we might get the residents to remember their baptisms, but we had to be creative. Most places might put the baptismal font in the back of the church, so when you walk in, you touch your hand to water and maybe cross yourself. But, in a place full of the immunocompromised, germs were always a concern. So, no communal water touching. I threw out the idea that we pass out those small glass pebbles that are smooth and rounded, but flat on the bottom. We could get clear or blue ones that resemble water. Wouldn’t this be a sanitary way for each person to take home a token to remember the gift of baptism?
So, during the service, we each grabbed a basket of glass pebbles and started weaving through the rows of chairs. I began placing a pebble in each outstretched hand, encouraging them to remember the miracle of baptism, and feeling pretty proud of myself for having an idea that worked. But before too long, I realized that things weren’t going well. Some of the residents were taking the glass pebbles and popping them in their mouth. They were literally trying to eat them, and I saw caregivers around the room start fishing them out of their mouths. What in the world?! Now a good portion of the congregation had declining memories, and were nonverbal, or pretty unable to comprehend and to participate, but still, why would they just immediately eat something put in their hand that obviously wasn’t food? And then I went to give someone else their pebble, and they stuck their tongue out, and it hit me. We were in church, and the pastors were weaving through the pews offering up something to outstretched hands. And it looked and it felt a whole lot like Eucharist. We very rarely had communion at this service due to mobility and health concerns, but their bodies still kicked into gear as soon as we started coming around. Their minds weren’t even able to process what was going on, but the past 80, 85, 90 years of receiving the Eucharist was so engrained into their life of faith, had so formed their bodies, that they couldn’t help but receive that wafer-like object and treat it like the body and bread of Christ.
And it was perhaps the most profound example of embodied faith I have ever seen. Yes, I felt quite badly that I was almost responsible for dozens of choking incidents, but I also left that service thinking, “wow, how beautiful. And ever since then, I ask the question, “how should I be living out my faith now, so that it will become so a part of me that even when my memory is weak and maybe largely unaware, my body will still know what to do? How can I offer up myself to God so routinely that my flesh and my bones are literally hardwired to worship?”
Yes, our liturgy is a huge part of that, but so too is our work, our recreation, our relationships, I think. We have a choice of how to use these bodies day to day, of whether to serve one another or only ourselves, to show compassion to our neighbor or to pass them by, to preserve creation or to tear it down, to invest in all areas of this city or only spend time in our bubble, to shake the hand of sometime different than us or turn our back to them.
Somehow, what we do with our bodies matters. They are our connection to this beautiful, physical life, they are a gift from God. And they are our offering to God, our means of living out our faith in Christ, our chance to be a part of God’s redemptive work in the world. And the more we do it, the more routine it becomes, so just maybe, like those folks in the retirement community that day, we too will find that at the end of our days, we’ve been so formed that these flesh and these bones still know how to believe. And that even when our memories have run dry, our bodies literally cannot help but to worship and to praise the goodness and mercy of God.
The Rev. Kilpy Singer