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Sermon Manuscript: A Story of Embodiment
Speaker: Sarah Werner
Good morning. It’s nice to be with you all this morning, near and far. It’s also nice to preach to actual humans instead of to the emptiness of my computer screen.
This passage from 1 Kings is one of my favorites in the Bible because it’s one of the relatively few times that God is depicted as walking on the earth. God doesn’t make very many in-person appearances outside of Genesis and Exodus. After the Israelites are done wandering in the wilderness it seems like God isn’t as visibly present to humans. But here is Elijah, having fled to the wilderness after killing the prophets of a rival god, Baal, and Jezebel is hunting for him. He asks God to kill him because he’s as good as dead. But the Word of the Lord tells him to eat and drink, feed his body. The Word of the Lord is used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the embodied aspect of God that interacts with humans, like an intermediary angel. After he eats and drinks, he travels forty days to Mt. Horeb, further into the wilderness of the Sinai Desert, where he takes refuge in a cave. The word of the Lord comes to him again and tells him that God is about to pass by on the mountainside. Horeb is God’s holy mountain, the place where Moses received the ten commandments, the other name for Mt. Sinai. There is a great wind, an earthquake, and a fire. But it is only after these, with the sound of sheer silence, that Elijah recognizes the presence of God and comes out. I love this because for the writer of Kings, God is present in stillness, in silence, in the middle of the wilderness on the holy mountain. This extended episode is about loyalty to YHVH and not to any other gods. It is defining who God is and is not. And in this passage God is a being who appears, who shows up on earth at crucial moments, not an invisible immaterial essence.
I’ve been reading a book called The Embodied God by Brittany Wilson about the portrayal of God in Luke and Acts and how, contrary to our modern sensibilities, God was portrayed in anthropomorphic terms throughout the Bible, not as an invisible deity. God appears and speaks to people in the real world. Maybe that’s so hard to digest because we live in such a secularized, scientific society. If something isn’t observable, repeatable, it cannot exist. We like to think of God as being invisible and immaterial not only because that is the Platonic mindset we have inherited, but also because God doesn’t seem to be appearing to many of us in our everyday lives, and if God is, we probably don’t want to tell anyone because hearing voices or seeing things is a sign of mental illness, not divine inspiration in our society.
Wilson talks about how in the New Testament God was seen as manifested in creation. The earth in a concrete sense is God’s body and God reveals Godself in natural elements like fire, burning bushes, and doves descending from heaven. And what does this have to do with my own embodiment? My body, like all bodies, is imperfect. I spend a lot of time checking in with my body on a daily basis, where it feels strong, where it feels weak, where it hurts.
My body is how I connect to God tangibly. We’re often much more comfortable talking about experiencing God on an intellectual level, perceiving holiness with our minds, understanding things about God theologically.
And so it’s easy to lose the felt bodily sense of holiness, of what is feels like to walk on sacred ground, what it tastes like to experience sacredness in eating a peach warm from the tree or cold water fresh from a spring. Wilson’s argument is all much more academic than this, but she is trying to pull us out of our so-engrained Platonic mindset of mind-body dualism to realize and remember that in the New Testament and Hebrew Bible there was no such division. People experienced God with their whole bodies, their entire beings, often in particular sacred places like the Mountain of God.
A place where I have felt the presence of God most strongly, in the sense of experiencing God with my whole body in a sacred landscape, is at camp. I want to first tell you though what I mean by the presence of God, which for me is an overwhelming sense of being both at home in my body and at home in the world, like being in some sort of cosmic flow. It isn’t a disembodied voice speaking to me or a vision. It’s much more visceral than that, an inner knowing that I am exactly where I belong. I am at once immensely powerful and a single tiny speck in a vast universe. And I felt that for the first time in my life almost 20 years ago at camp. My second summer as a counselor at Gilmont, a Presbyterian camp in East Texas, was epic. I had grown up going to Gilmont at least four times a year for different activities and all I wanted to do when I turned 18 was work as a camp counselor at my favorite place on earth. My first summer was harder than I thought it would be. I had just graduated from high school, and I didn’t yet know who I was. I definitely didn’t feel like an adult. But by my second summer, I was starting to have the self-assurance and joy that I associated with gaining a greater foothold in life. I had been at college for a year in another part of the country. I had come out as gay to my friends and family, and discovered I was strong on my own and feeling at home in my new adopted community.
Every morning that summer I got up at sunrise before anyone else. I walked to the staff building to get a fresh Texas peach from my stash, acquired at a roadside stand near town every weekend. I would eat the juicy, sweet fruit sitting on the dry grassy slope outside, watching the sun rise over the trees, and then break out into a run when I had finished. I didn’t run very far, down the dirt road into the woods to the tent sites, but it felt far to me, who had never been in a race or even timed myself. I would do push-ups and sit-ups on the same picnic table where I ate with my family as a child, pine trees towering over my head and bright red dirt on the soles of my shoes. Some mornings I would even climb to the top of the hill, Gilmont’s own holy mountain, and look out onto the valley below. I would be still and have a moment of joyful excitement that this was my life, that I was strong, alive, and happy.
After my exercise I would go back to my cabin to wake the kids for early morning swimming. I would jump in the water, washing off all the sweat and dirt, feeling alive and accomplished. The song ‘Diving In’ by Steven Curtis Chapman reminds me of the visceral feeling of being immersed in love and grace while I was working at Gilmont that second summer, and the more tangible feeling of jumping into the swimming pool in the mornings before breakfast after my solitary morning runs through the woods. I sang that song in my head as I felt cleansed by the cold water, immersed in the simple joy of being alive. I was living in community with my fellow counselors and a revolving assortment of campers. We enjoyed the daily shared rituals of mealtimes and evening worship on the hill at sunset. I played guitar with friends and had meaningful conversations about faith and life, and we got through our ordinary struggles together. It was a place where I belonged, where I was valued for being myself. When I hear the word ‘embodied’, these are the memories that come to mind first. I felt fully comfortable in my body for the first time in my life. Red clay dirt between my toes and strong muscles on my tall frame.
And for sure camp isn’t the only place I have felt this way. As I’ve gotten older and more comfortable with my life, I find myself enjoying my embodiment more often and in more places. Sitting outside drinking coffee on a quiet summer morning, or gazing at a camp fire deep in the woods, or singing together with the congregation on Sunday mornings.
Maybe the more important question is why is experiencing the presence of God so important? Why does embodiment matter? The answer is that these experiences give us strength to do the difficult work of life in an imperfect and sometimes broken world. When I have experienced the presence of God, like at camp, I have had an overwhelming sense of peace and of hope that this is the true nature of the world, a place where we all belong and where we are all loved. When building heaven on earth, we have to have glimpses of heaven to make it worth it.
And the body is the vehicle for this experience. Meditation, walking, gardening, camping. These all involve our bodies. When I still my mind and become fully present in my body during meditation, I can hear that sound of sheer silence. It is always available to us because God is always present with us. For Elijah it takes listening through an earthquake and wind and fire before he realizes this. God is that still silent space between each breath. And this encounter gives him the strength to return to his community and continue his work as a prophet even though he faces the threat of death.
The best thing about this is that you don’t have to physically travel anywhere to experience the presence of God, because God is everywhere. You don’t have to trek across the world to a desert or a holy mountain. Meditation, or contemplative prayer, is something I do every day that helps me remember my embodiment and in rare moments allows me to be in the presence of God.
So I would like to offer a few tangible steps for remembering your own embodiment. Each morning when you wake up, on in the evening when you are getting ready for bed, take five slow deep breaths and scan your body. Where are you holding tension? Where are you holding joy? What feels strong? What feels weak? What do you need to pay attention to today? Pain is a great teacher. It reminds us of our limits, of what we need to protect, or give time to heal. Walking on my own two feet, my legs adorned with carbon fiber, makes me feel strong, like a superhero. But sometimes my body has too much pain or my muscles are too weak and I have to roll instead. Which is ok; it’s the ebb and flow of the tide of my life. All of us have an ebb and flow, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker. And God is with us in all of this, surrounding us, as close as the air we breathe, our breath, in and out, in and out. We are sustained by all of what is around us, whether we are sitting on the mountain of God or standing waiting for the bus, or pulling weeds in the garden. God is there with us in each breath, inviting us to feel at home on the earth.