Sermon Delivered Sunday, Feb. 4 at All Souls Bethlehem Church, Brooklyn
One of my former TAs Todd Thurman, a PHD student philosophy, recently posted something that really stuck with me: “Every day I am really struggling between my desire to stay engaged and alert to what is happening to our country and my desire to just stop looking at any news or social media for the sake of my own sanity and well being. Like if you feel me.” In a time of national crisis, I think of our individual well being, our mental health, our self-care are important now more than ever. Not only so, I think we have inherited an Enlightenment cultural, intellectual tradition that can neglect the body. And we must get to the root of things. As I wrote in my blurb, “in a world of survival through profit over person, of knowledge over wisdom, mind over matter, light over dark, of self-shaming selflessness, our bodies and their inner emotional lives are the first to go.”
I am speaking about the body today because I believe that our bodies are something sacred and how we relate to our own being reflects how we relate to the nation: the body-politic, to the rulers and authorities of this world. In wrestling with the readings today, I am pulled to say that the cosmic Christ is a home for this, that the breath will sustain us, I believe that there is indispensable wisdom to the Vodou truth what is above is just as important as what is below.
The Christian tradition includes within itself this core principle: the sanctity of people through the image of God. Something both bodily and transcendent is affirmed. The Jesuit theologian and paleontologist Pierre Theilard de Chardin, wrote my matter “is the totality of the Universe possessed by me partialiter.” So there is a relationship between our individual body and the larger whole.
But what is the body-politic? My wonderful partner and I had a little human squabble about this and whether this term was outdated and accessible. There was that. So, Before I begin, I must define the body politic as a corporate, communal entity similar to the body. And I say this not because I am better, but because I have the duty to interpret our times, yours and mine, times through spiritual tradition. I thank God for the priesthood of all believers, the congregationalism that allowed for a confluence of UCC, UU, and Disciples of Christ to band together.
In the spiritual traditions of the Upanishads, Haitian Vodou, and Colossians 2, there is a focus on breath, on what is both above and what is below, and fullness in Christ. So, if there is this focus on the body, what can the body teach us about the body-politic, the social organism, the larger whole. Even the tradition of natural science is saying, Ib Bondebjerg writes for the department of Department of Media, Cognition and Communication“Our body, biology, brain and neural system play a very crucial role for how we are formed, but at the same time biology, culture and society certainly interact in very specific ways.” Things are incredibly interconnected: there is a stickiness, messiness, permeability to this earth.
After the Enlightenment, there has been splitting between mind and body, even a distrust of the body and its inner insight. Descartes doubted human perception while Hume restricted thought and ripped wonder and spiritual insight and variety of worldview from its root. The heritage we live in reflects a distrust of the body, beautifully illustrated by poet and activist, Audre Lorde, ““The white fathers told us: I think, therefore I am. The black goddess within each of us - the poet - whispers in our dreams: I feel, therefore I can be free.” There was a distrust rejection of part of the whole.
For the author of Colossians, who the majority of the scholars consider a Pauline interpreter of the tradition, there is nature imagery: rootedness, bound, fruit. There is a living growing whole and the question to seek Christ who is whole: “5 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16 for inh him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him….He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together.” It means keeping oneself rooted in this cosmic christ: “or in[h] him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible,”. Like the poetry of Mary Oliver and Alice Walter. So nature, the body, does have much to do with the whole, this is a practical question and nature has a lot to teach us.
The scripture reading began with a concern and warning against us: “ See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit.” At the time, there was a concern with gnosticism: a movement that attempted to please a philosophical system, and not the whole, that may elitist,. This can be see in the verses below our reading “Do not let anyone disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling[h] on visions,[i] puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking,[j] 19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the whole body, nourished and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows with a growth that is from God.” There was a concern with the disparate movements that lost rootedness in the whole, the cosmic Christ.
Today, we see the many ways in which something can be neglected whether: spiritual movements that demand the exclusion and rejection of other religions. Or Eurocentrism that resists to the colorfulness of multiculturalism. Or intellectualism that demands privileging one kind of evidence against the other. So the question of body is a question of fullness, of bindingness to the whole, theologically, does not demand either or, of pitting one against the other.
The danger of this text, such a resistance to “other” philosophies is uniformity, exclusion and religious pride that sees itself as the center, not acknowledging the seeming variety, plurality of the cosmic whole. Not only so, I believe that what has been left out of much Western cultural tradition is the bodily, the feminine, the natural, the third world. Thank God for the openness to other religions and spiritualities.
The nature and function of Haitian Vodou in society seemed to sustainably challenge and transform Haiti across the board. It allows the 1) embodied, 2) the ecological, 3) the socio-political, and the 4) cosmological to symbolically express themselves on their own terms as an ongoing conversation of various and powerful spirits: the lwa. These spirits honor a multi-dimensional tree of existence of different worlds. These spirits are consolidated in private altars at home and communal rites of spiritual transformation. Not only did the religion maintain and celebrate the Afrocentric embodied, sexually liberated, and spiritually trans formative elements of life, but it also insured that the most pervasive and vicious slave-run sugar industry in the Caribbean was destroyed.
The scripture reading today also came from Haitian Vodou, the song of faith: My temple is above, my temple is below.
My spiritual mentor, Donna Schaper, once said focused this question of balance, throwing it back in our courts: “if we are looking too much within, look outside. If we are looking too much outside, look within.” So its a lot about balance, equilibrium, homeostasis. I personally feel that the insight into the world of science is real, the cause for equality does not demand an abandonment of our technological resources, but the liberative use of them, the sharing and giving-up of power: seeking the whole and through that being empowered in a more expansive way.
In nature, balance, or homoestasis is a very senstivie and powerful process. To this process is central positive and negative feedback. And the communication between the sensors and the brain of a positive feedback mechanism is blood clotting. Once a vessel is damaged, platelets start to cling to the injured site and release chemicals that attract more platelets. The platelets continue to pile up and release chemicals until a clot is formed.
There are also negative feedback systems: the control of blood sugar (glucose) by insulin is another good example of a negative feedback mechanism. When blood sugar rises, receptors in the body sense a change . In turn, the control center (pancreas) secretes insulin into the blood effectively lowering blood sugar levels.
For many of justice-minded people, dealing with the authorities and powers of world at time can break us if we do not maintain balance and restore wholeness.I think that balance demands that the intensity of it is mediated in your personal experience. So sensitivity, communication, and proportionate, symmetrical response to changes in balance is key which brings me to the body and the breath.
I do not know what this balance, this homeostatis looks like in each other our lives and envirements. Being a living and growing whole, it is bound to change. It does not mean low or high but the movement cycle from low to high: instead both are a temple. We are moving beyond either/or to a larger conversation of the whole. This may mean being engaged and active in the world more, or it may mean quieting down. This may mean our saying no to attachment to coffee or our phones, or it may mean that we must become curious and open, it may mean that we must stand-up for ourselves, it may mean that we need to sit down and listen.
But it all depends on our courage to claim our individual existence and lift-up whatever is rejected in ourselves and our world. I know in my life growth is a painful process, but I also know that the belief that we are both unique to our bodies, and something more expansive, that we are all interconnected, liberates us: we are able to find ourselves in the whole and this whole can heal itself, can create new color and meaning from tragedy, this wholeness is not alone: we have Each other.. In my call to worship and prayer, I wrote: “something is breaking.” Maybe it is not a breaking, but a peeling process, maybe unfolding, maybe all three…If Colossians provided a Christ-centered, cosmic explanation, The Upanishads fill-out with indispensable insight into the bodily practices and views that lead to realization. And it begins with the breath, with life, from within. Or else we will be like the bird tied to a string who flits about and finally settles on the breath.