Sermon preached at First Church of Christ Simsbury on April 29, 2018.
Includes "Body of God Meditation," also available here.
Audio available here.
Scriptures: Psalm 139:11-16 and 1 John 4:7-8, 15b-19
God is love, God is love, God is love. Oh Divine Love, help us to be more like you. Amen.
That, my friends, is the essence of this sermon, and, in my opinion, every sermon you've ever heard or will ever hear. But this sermon doesn't end there, because in order to pray that prayer, to know it in our bones, we need to answer two, small questions: What is love, and who is God?
And that, dear ones, is why preachers everywhere are still preaching, theologians are still theologizing, and congregations are still congregating. Because no matter how much we preach, think, or pray, we will never have the complete answers to those questions. God is everything, is so much more than we can ever understand. And by extension, love, however much we feel it, however much we try to describe it, defies our comprehension as well.
But, because I like a good challenge, I'm going to try anyway.
To do this, I begin at the beginning, and I begin with bodies:
"So God created humankind in God's own image. Male and female, God created them" (Gen 1:27).
This is hands down my favorite verse in the Bible, and I could probably preach about a dozen different sermons on it alone. It tells us that we are made in the image of God, this marvelous being who we cannot understand. We, our bodies, ourselves, are the image of God.
You'll notice I'm dwelling a lot on the word bodies here, despite the fact that that word isn't in this verse, or any of our readings for today. But the word doesn't really need to be there, does it? We are our bodies. The text doesn't say, "God created the idea of humankind," or, "God created human minds." It says, "God created humankind in God's own image." That's an embodied image, my friends. Which means that we are not spirit, body, and mind, three separate pieces. We are our bodies, and they are the image of God.
And this includes people with disabilities.
We, our bodies, are made in the image of God, just as all bodies are. We are like God, and in many senses, God is like us. And so I say to you that I am blind, and God is blind.
Who is God?
God is disabled.
I'll return to what this means later, I promise, but for now, I want to speak more about love.
I think bodies get in the way of love, sometimes. We can all agree, I hope, that as Christians, we are called to love everyone. It's easy to say, but then the bodies, the messy particulars, force us to confront that question: What is love? How do we show our love?
A couple of examples.
One week at a Christian summer camp, I spent the first three days with many helpers and no friends. My fellow campers, you see, had learned that the right, the loving thing to do for a blind person in their midst was to help her get from place to place, make sure she didn't trip or fall. It never occurred to them that what I needed most of all was people to talk to and laugh with. They were perfectly kind and helpful, and I felt no love at all.
Another summer, I was auditioning for the musical theater program at an arts camp. I'd spent years singing and performing in plays—but had absolutely no dance experience. Being both blind and generally uncoordinated, I was pretty nervous about auditioning, but I was confident that if my acting and singing were strong enough, I would get in and could improve my dancing from there. So I sang my song, performed my monolog, worked my way through the audition dance, and left feeling pretty good. The next week, the directors of the program got back to me, and told me that while they loved my voice and my talent, they just didn't think they could teach a blind girl to dance. They offered me a spot in their vocal music program instead. I turned them down, because I just didn't believe they really loved my voice.
And these are nothing compared to the failures of love that other people with disabilities encounter. People have had their choices taken away in the name of love. We have been infantalized, denied opportunities, and had our concerns brushed aside, often by people who say that they love us. I'm not even talking today about the things that people who don't care about us do.
Are we or are we not the image of God? Are we or are we not fearfully and wonderfully made?
Fearfully and wonderfully. Sometimes, in the case of people with disabilities, we tend to focus on the fear part. There's a lot of fear that goes along with disability. The world can be a much scarier place for people with disabilities. For instance, I'm fairly certain that busy street crossings are more frightening for me than for most sighted people.
But that's not the only way that fear and disability intersect, is it? I think for most of us, the fear of becoming disabled, or more disabled, is pretty high up there on the list of things that send chills down our spines. We value our bodies and minds, or we take them for granted, but either way we expect them to generally keep functioning as they are now. Just the idea of disability sets that assumption into a panic.
So we fear disability for ourselves and our loved ones, and that clouds our relationships with people with disabilities. Imagining their experience frightens us, so we try not to. We elevate them to the level of saints for dealing with what we believe we cannot. Or we dive in, trying to conquer our fear, trying to be helpful, but not taking the time to learn how to be. Or, we hang back, knowing how much we don't know, and afraid of messing up. And I say we, because I'm not immune to any of this. I've feared other people with disabilities. I've had to learn how to love them, and myself.
Because that's a big part of all this, friends. We've all heard before that you can't truly love others until you love yourself. In this case, that's true. We can't love people with disabilities until we see the disability, or the possibility of disability, inside ourselves. Whether it's a creaky knee that could be arthritis, or the memory of an eating disorder, or an illness that just won't go away, we all carry in our bodies something that could be, or could have been, a disability, and most of us fear and shun that part of us. What would happen if instead, we remembered that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and focused on the wonder? Wonder at the ways in which our bodies and minds are intricately connected. Wonder at the myriad ways in which we can adapt and respond to any situation. Wonder at all the gifts different bodies and minds can bring.
I know that I will never stop being afraid of things related to my blindness. But I also know that I will never stop being in wonder. Every time I hear something a sighted person does not, I am in wonder. Every time I interpret the quality of a silence, I am in wonder. Every time I read Braille, I am in wonder, and I am grateful for my blindness. This is part of who I am. This is part of the image of God.
"Perfect love casts out fear," writes John, and so it is. When we love our bodies, in all their limitations and abilities, we fear them less, and we fear others less, and we love others, and God, more. Because as John also reminds us, to love each other is to love God. To love the body of God, we must love other bodies, and our own body.
I'm nearly at the end, and yet, we're still at the beginning. We're still at the beginning because the journey of casting out fear and learning to perfect our love is a long one, especially because I'm not just inviting you as individuals to do this work. I am asking this church to do it as a whole. Some of you may know that for the past few months a new committee, the Accessible to All committee, has been meeting. The work of this committee is to find ways to show love and welcome to people of all abilities and disabilities. My hope is that this committee will help all of us to continue casting out our fear as we strive to make First Church a more accessible place. My blessing for all of you is that you remember the ways in which your bodies, exactly as they are, make you who you are; that you may think of all those around you, whose bodies and minds work differently than yours, and recognize their gifts, and how their bodies are part of who they are; and that when you think these thoughts, they cast out fear just a little bit, and replace it with thoughts of justice, joy, compassion, and peace.
Finally, I will return where I began, to the question, who is God? I cannot give you the answer, but I offer up an answer, in the form of a meditation. So I invite you to close your eyes, and imagine the body of God.
Imagine it with all the genders and races and physical descriptions of the world. God is male and female and both and neither and all. God is black and red and olive and tan. God has hair in long braids, slanted eyes, flat nose, big lips, long beard, curvy body, long arms, short legs. God wears flowing dresses, and blue jeans, and saris, and turbans, and tuxedos, and lots and lots of jewelry. God has tatoos of every animal of the world, and a single heart-shaped stud in their right ear.
And God has every ability, and every disability in the world.
God walks, God limps, God rolls, God crawls. God gets where God needs to be, gets to us, however God can.
God's mind works with the speed—and sometimes the randomness—of ADHD. God feels pain with the depths of depression, and joy like an episode of mania. God hears the voices of all people and all living things. God has no one way of solving problems. Sometimes God moves from step to step with the most analytic of minds. Sometimes God makes great intuitive leaps that cannot be explained. Sometimes God gets stuck in a loop because the present, whether good or bad, is the time where God lives.
God paints with their feet and reads with their hands. God can dance by swaying and shuffling, and sing by making noises that are not words, but express emotions that words cannot.
God is too busy reaching out to us to be concerned that they cannot see. God is too busy feeling the rhythms of music in their bones to worry about what it sounds like. God is too busy loving, loving with all God's arrhythmic heart to be anything but grateful for the body they have.
Is it any wonder that we have trouble grasping God, when God's body does not move the way we expect a body to move? Is it any wonder we have trouble understanding God when God speaks with the slurred words of Cerebral Palsy? Is it any wonder that we cannot comprehend God, who bares the chronic pain of the suffering of the world?
How can we come closer to this being beyond our comprehension, this bodymind that meets none of our expectations?
By freeing ourselves of expectations.
By searching for God in the unique bodyminds of our fellow human beings.
By seeking to understand that which challenges us, and confuses us, and frightens us.
By accepting ourselves, and the bodyminds that make us who we are.
When we pray that all of this may be so; when we pray to love all bodies and minds; when we pray to be both broken and whole at once: we are praying, "God is love, God is love, God is love. Oh Divine Love, help us to be more like you. Amen."