Monday, February 13, 2012

Sermon - "Loving the Body Electric"

Loving the Body Electric
We talk about love a lot in church. The whole month of February we are focusing on love as our worship theme. I make it a point to say “I love you” at the end of every service. It’s a core piece of UU faith and belief. Today I want to focus on the love that we don’t talk about as much in church. I want to talk about the love that we experience and celebrate with our bodies.
Last Sunday I visited St. Mary’s Episcopal Church here in town, to give a short talk on Unitarian Universalism. And someone there asked a very astute question. She wondering how, culturally, Unitarian Universalism grew out of Puritanism. How did we go from being the hallmark of all things stuffy, to being the free-wheeling bunch that we are today? And I explained to her that, while Unitarians are quite free in their thought, we are not always so free in our actions. We tend to live very intentional lives. We hold ourselves to a high ethical standard. It is sometimes a different standard from American majority, but nevertheless, we can be quite demanding about the way we live our lives and the way we understand ourselves.
We tend to be very free in our thought but not always so free in our body. That’s what I’m hoping to break through a bit of today. Freedom of thought is the foundation of Unitarian theology. We see that today in the theological diversity that makes up our congregations. But from the very roots of Unitarian theology, it was critical reasoning that separated us from the rest, particularly here in America.
Unitarians broke from Protestants of the 19th century in large part because we insisted on using reason to interpret the Bible. Yes, 19th Century Unitarians were deeply invested in the Bible. But as a relatively new idea of Biblical criticism came out of Europe, these Liberal Christians fully embraced it. They were eager to use all that knowledge and reason available to interpret the core of their faith.
The other piece of theology that set these early Unitarians apart was their rejection of original sin. They realized that we have a tremendous gift of reason and capacity for moral growth. Every person has potential to move toward more perfect living. We are not perfect, but neither are we inherently sinful. We are simply full of potential, and if we put to use our conscience and reason, we can develop into better and better people.
A belief in reason and human potential is the foundation of our faith. So much so that today, the one piece of our Seven Principles that just about everyone can recite, is that We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. It’s a message we have taken to heart and live out in our daily lives. We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person. But sometimes I wonder if we also believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every body, especially our own. Everything I believe and know to be true tells me that we should.

We know that human intellect is a tremendous gift and should be used for the betterment of our world. We have amazing brains. We also have magnificent bodies. We are called not just to use our minds, but to use our whole selves in living life to its fullest. We are called to use our bodies, our wonderful senses to learn about our world. Not from books or lectures, but to learn what the world has to teach us in the way of senses. Filling our sights with the visual beauty that abounds is an inherently good thing. With world-class art galleries just a stone’s through away, and vistas of the Pacific Ocean or deserts in our back yard, it behooves us to stop and look. To feed our souls with the beauty that abounds, the beauty that we absorb through our body.
But not just visual beauty, our lives can be, should be awash in all sorts of rich experience. The titillating flavors of world cuisine, the ineffable emotional journey of music in our ears, the touch of a lover’s embrace, fine linen, of tree bark. Perhaps more than any one of these sensations it is the variety that stirs our soul in the world of beauty and wonder. An ever-present world ready and waiting to feed our souls if we but open our eyes, our ears, our hands. We come to experience the wonder of creation through our bodies. And in return we express ourselves in physical form.
These mounds of flesh and bone are the primary tool we have, to express what is stirring in our souls. That may take for form of creating an artistic expression, or singing a song. For most of us though, it takes the simple form of being with another person and sharing our thoughts in words. We share ourselves with one another through our bodies. We connect with one another, we love one another through our physical beings, whether that means a hug, a conversation, cooking a meal, making love, or marching for justice. We are able to connect to the world around us and we share our love because each of us was granted the gift of flesh and bone. It’s a gift worth celebrating. It’s a gift worth worship.

The person who celebrates the beauty of the physical world in a way that stirs my soul the most in Walt Whitman. I wanted to share with you some of the ways that he speaks about bodies in his poem, “I Sing the Body Electric,” from Leaves of Grass. It’s an amazing poem. Honestly portions of it would make me blush to read from a pulpit, but I encourage you to take a gander at the entire thing if you get a chance. It’s a great pre-Valentines Day read. He writes:
The love of the body of man or woman balks account, the body itself
balks account,
That of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect.

The expression of the face balks account,

But the expression of a well-made man appears not only in his face,
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of
his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist
and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more,
You linger to see his back, and the back of his neck and shoulder-side.

Whitman is just getting warmed up with that little passage. But what I found striking in this, and why I wanted to be sure to share it was the idea that the body of man or woman balks account. It is a daring claim for a poet, and I suppose for a preacher, to say that one’s subject balks account. But it is true, the human body is far beyond description in the unending nuances of beauty and expression. Try as we may, in words visual art, the power of vitality held in each living person far exceeds any attempt to duplicate or describe it.
Two of the best-known attempts of that exercise are on the cover of today’s order of service. Michael Angelo’s “David” and the “Venus de Milo,” the most famous of all Greco-Roman sculpture. I have never seen these pieces of art in person. However I have heard that they are simply astounding. Still, in all the beauty they express, I contend that they fail to capture the visceral essence of a living human forum. As Whitman put it, “the body balks account.” It is a singular phenomenon beyond reproduction or adequate description. It is magnificent.

Whitman talks at length about the beauty of different types of bodies, men, women, children and the old. He writes so beautifully about each type, but he also speaks of the power of being in the company of others. He says,

I have perceiv'd that to be with those I like is enough,
To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,
To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing flesh is enough,
To pass among them or touch any one, or rest my arm ever so lightly round
his or her neck for a moment, what is this then?
I do not ask any more delight, I
swim in it as in a sea.
There is something in staying close to men and women and looking on them,
and in the contact and odor of them, that pleases the soul well,
All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.

From a minister’s perspective, this description of being in the company of others is simply perfect. It “pleases the soul well.” I love that!
There is a unique sense of satisfaction that comes through connection with other bodies. The physical presence, the touch is something irreplaceable. Just like the beauty of the physical form balks account, the physical experience of encountering human flesh, is utterly unique in its power. Whether that be a first kiss of timid lovers, the decades old embrace of spouses, or the caring human touch offered to a soul in a hospital bed. It is satisfying; it is enough. Being with the right person is more than art or food or adventure; eing in the right company is enough.
As creatures, we are designed in certain ways to thrive. One of those ways that we are designed is as social animals. We are meant to be together, to live together in proximity. However, more and more we find that people live individual lives. We connect through technology, which is a wonderful gift, but it is NOT THE SAME. You can see through computer screens, you can hear through telephones, but you cannot smell or touch another human being. You cannot be with them.
We are social beings. We need one another and there is tremendous power in that presence. That is a part of why we hold hands here every Sunday. I know that not everyone likes it. For some people it is cheesy, it smacks of singing Kumbaya. But for far more people, it is simply uncomfortable. I understand that it is uncomfortable to physically touch a person you don’t know well. I know it’s particularly uncomfortable for men.
Holding hands is uncomfortable because it is powerful. In fact I think there are few things more powerful in our lives than the touch of another human being. From a lover or friend or a healer. If you are one of those people for whom holding hands is uncomfortable, I want you to know that I get that. But I also want to challenge you to think about what makes it uncomfortable for you. And, remember that while it may be difficult for you, for someone else in this room, it is a deeply nurturing, even healing moment.
I don’t know how Whitman felt about holding hands, but he clearly celebrated being in the physical company of other people. But this next passage is where he get’s really explicitly theological. Whitman talks about the body and the soul being one. He writes:

O my body! I dare not desert the likes of you in other men and women,
nor the likes of the parts of you,
I believe the likes of you are to stand or fall with the likes of the
soul, (and that they are the soul,)
I believe the likes of you shall stand or fall with my poems, and
that they are my poems,
Man's, woman's, child, youth's, wife's, husband's, mother's,
father's, young man's, young woman's poems,
Head, neck, hair, ears, drop and tympan of the ears,
Eyes, eye-fringes, iris of the eye, eyebrows, and the waking or
sleeping of the lids,
Mouth, tongue, lips, teeth, roof of the mouth, jaws, and the

The continual changes of the flex of the mouth, and around the eyes,
The skin, the sunburnt shade, freckles, hair,
The curious sympathy one feels when feeling with the hand the naked
meat of the body,
The circling rivers the breath, and breathing it in and out,
The beauty of the waist, and thence of the hips, and thence downward
toward the knees,
The thin red jellies within you or within me, the bones and the
marrow in the bones,
The exquisite realization of health;
O I say these are not the parts and poems of the body only, but of
the soul,
O I say now these are the soul!

As Valentines Day approaches, let us to skip over the plastic hearts and grocery-store advertising. Skip over the giddiness or possible resentment that this holiday brings. And let this be an invitation to be at home in your body. Celebrate your magnificent soul of flesh and bone. This Valentines Day, celebrate the gift of a sensual body. Do something for yourself. Whether it is a nice meal, a massage, even wearing your most comfortable, favorite piece of clothing, or feasting your eyes on an image that stirs your soul. Do something your body enjoys, because it deserves some attention.
This Valentines Day, let us celebrate with a shared belief, and experience of the inherent worth and dignity of every body, including our own.

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