My colleagues and I were sitting in a circle in the comfortable lounge area of the building. We were talking about our favorite holiday traditions from each of our cultural and religious backgrounds.
Inevitably the conversation turned to food. It didn’t take long for the fat shaming and diet culture that’s so ingrained in each of us to kick in. “The sweet potato pie is worth those extra miles on the treadmill!” “I’m going to have to give up carbs in January.” The list went on. We are a group of professionals trained in caring for others, and still so many of us failed to see the harm that our words might do.
I work as a chaplain to more than 1,000 high school students at a prestigious independent secondary school. They are brilliant, funny, wonderful, compassionate, extraordinary. They are also deeply concerned with body image in all of the ways our culture has taught them to be.
They are so critical of themselves and others, and we often fail to teach them instead to be critical of the systems of power and oppression that have instilled these messages. I shudder to think what they might have heard in our musings.
When we read the Bible it is hard to know what to think. Paul writes in his letter to the church in Corinth: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?” (1 Corinthians 6:19). I can’t recall how many times I have heard this passage used as a weapon to reinforce the notion that thinness = holiness, godliness, the ideal to which a “good Christian” (particularly Christian women) should be striving. As if there is only one kind of “Christian” body.
The topic of the body generally makes us uncomfortable. We don’t like to talk about it. The only socially acceptable ways we sometimes know how are when we are talking about how to diet and will our bodies to take up less space. And yet we follow a God who incarnated into human form in all of its complicated, messy, authentic, vulnerable glory. It’s easy to forget it. It’s easy to make light of it. We might rather avoid it. But Jesus’ body, its death, its resurrection is the heart of the very heart of everything.
When we tackle a text on the body as preachers, we can be certain that we have folks of all shapes and sizes in our congregations. Real bodies in the pews. We can also be sure that we have those bodies who have been told they are too loud, too much, too black, too brown, too fat, too queer, too transgender, and on and on. We can be certain that we have those actively struggling with and recovering from eating disorders in our midst. What will we say to the people in those bodies? What will we say to those who are afraid of their own and others incarnations in the world?
It is crucial that we as preachers make it clear that our bodies are not something to be feared or managed away through depriving our body of the nutrients it needs to survive. We cannot avoid the topic of bodies in our preaching, because after all our preaching impacts real people and the real bodies they live in. Instead we must do so responsibly and with care. We must acknowledge the harm the church has historically done in talking about our bodies and offer a different narrative.
Here are some of the scriptures I love to explore incarnation:
- 1 Corinthians 12:12-31 (Epiphany 3C) — We are many members, but one body. This is a reminder that not only are each of us a part of the body of Christ, but necessary for the body to be whole. This is a particularly good text that many know to break down the ways we exile some from the body of Christ at our own peril, because of their bodies.
- Galatians 3:23-29 (Ordinary 12C) — We are reminded that God breaks old binary ideas of how our bodies define us and brings forth a new vision where every body is part of the body of Christ.
- Psalm 139:13-16 (Ordinary 23C) — Reclamation of ourselves and our bodies as beloved, holy, and created by the same God who breathed life into heaven and earth. We are reflections and creations of the Divine.
- John 4:1-41 (Lent 3A) — Jesus reveals himself to a barren Samaritan woman at the well, who was rejected for her body. This is a wonderful text for exploring how God values bodies society deems wrong, broken, or otherwise disposable.
- John 11:38-44 (Lent 5A) — The Resurrection of Lazarus, whose body was decayed and seemingly beyond repair, now brought back to life to feast with the Lord.
In this regular Working Preacher column, “Preaching + ____,” writers incorporate lived experience into preaching upcoming lectionary texts.