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St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church

Vancouver,  B.C.

Diocese of New Westminster

Anglican Church of Canada

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Worship Times

 

Sunday Eucharist

10:30 am

 

Contemplative

Eucharist

Wednesday 7:00 pm

 

Centering Prayer

Thursday 2:00 pm

Sermon

January 14th Epiphany, 2018                                          John Marsh

 

1 Samuel 3:1-10, 11-20; Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; 1 Corinthians 6: 12-20; John 1:43-51

 

 

 

 

 

 

For over twenty years I smoked cigarettes. However, to refer to my smoking as simply an addiction is too clinical, too misleading. Such labelling overlooks, does not even consider, the sheer physicality of the pleasure, a ritualized embodiment of ecstasy no matter how brief or fleeting the experience.

 

So, truth to tell, I loved smoking – the smell of the package; the new horizon of the freshly opened pack; the lighting and first loving inhalation of smoke; the way the cigarette was held by my fingers; the deep satisfaction of the after-dinner smoke – the perfect completion of any meal. When asked why I smoked I offered many reasons but one of my favourites was my tongue in cheek ‘theological’ justification. It went as follows: Paul refers to the body as the temple of the Holy Spirit (today’s epistle) - smoking provides incense for the temple.

 

As is obvious from my description, I am speaking of a deeply ritualized, embodied love, disordered perhaps but love nevertheless. Such experiences are of vital importance if we are to understand the depth and daring, the promise and pathos of the human condition. Furthermore, there is something profoundly religious about all such experience – not just spiritual but religious. To name such as spiritual can be too ethereal, too individualized a word and the experiences of which I speak (and all others like it) are too powerfully relational, too seductive, too transcendent in its offering of glimpses of embodied promise - promises of relief, restoration, happiness and joy.¹ These embodied rituals of human experience are signs of deep yearnings for meaning and connection which is, truth to tell, the matrix of the sacred, that which we name as god.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, such ritualized, embodied experiences, as with more normative ‘religious’ experience, soon develop systems of explanation, consideration and justification; we can rightly call such interpretive ventures ‘theology’ for they are indeed ‘a word about the gods’. This should not be viewed as odd for as Martin Luther said in the Large Catechism, “Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that this is your God.”

 

That we interpret or ‘theologize’ experience should not be judged as suspect; as humans, we will always seek to interpret experience and, to be honest, all experience is, of necessity, interpreted. That this is so suggests, in fact demands, that we neither be wary of interpretation nor fret about differing interpretations but rather plunge into the interpretive fray sensitive to the dynamic emergence of resonances of truth carried by undercurrents of honesty.

 

My language, thus far, has often been purposefully poetic and metaphoric so as to clarify the task – we are to catch the wind, sail the waters and chart the depths as best we can as opposed to building ‘breakwaters of the soul’ which serve to protect the status quo. All such ‘citadels of certainly’ are testaments to rigidity, to the existential state of becoming stuck which, with our fixations operative, can only lead to our becoming unglued. In the simplest of terms, such is neither ‘good theology’ nor appropriate psychology.

 

 

And so, with respect for the physicality of our living - Do we know of any other manner of living? - let us speak of desire and appetite and not simply of addiction.² Appetite or desire need not, is best not, treated as pathology; it is a natural part of our embodiment. Yet, appetites and desires can become disordered and misdirected in ways which are dehumanizing, debilitating, often violently destructive of self and society.³ Such disorder is not due to some ‘demonic’ enemy attacking but is rather a consequence of the uncertainty (creative chaos) inherent and necessary to life and creation. Resistance to, avoidance of, life’s vagaries is the stuff that domination is made of; in other words, embodied desire is not the enemy.

Returning once again to my smoking narrative, that I smelled, coughed up phlegm, did injury to myself and others, simply could not compete with the passionate power of an appetite embodying need. My smoking initially arose in response to the experience of anxiety and in the beginning had the desired effect. As the relationship deepened, new horizons of social connection and identity were opened. To partially illustrate, my father never wanted me to smoke and so my smoking provided an opportunity, not simply for rebellion (not an unusual adolescent behaviour), but also for a form of individuation (I was not my father). While admittedly less than mature, it nonetheless fulfilled, at least partially, a real need and desire. The drive of appetite and desire as an embodied presence and power must be honoured and respected as inherent to our humanity. That desire can, and does, become disordered is without doubt; but disorder is never resolved by ‘demonizing’ desire. It may strike some as counter-intuitive but demonizing drives disorder just as prohibition drives attraction. Embodied desire affirmed and respected is necessary to balance and freedom. It is why ‘just say no’ seldom works; while there may be the need for a ‘no’ there is almost always a ‘yes’ within in need of proclamation.

Why are we speaking of this?

 

Well, come and see!

 

We are speaking of this to grasp the import of today’s lections.

 

Let’s begin with the I Corinthians passage which I’m sure most grabbed our attention. While noticed, I am not sure if we are able to hear it. As soon as we hear the word ‘fornication’ or the phrase ‘joining ourselves to a prostitute’, we are often hopelessly distracted by our own baggage: our repressed fears and desires, our preconceived judgements. This is unfortunate because we need to hear the rather profound message Paul is attempting to communicate about the faith as well as the human condition.

 

As Christians, as persons ‘in Christ, we are called to live a freedom from that which entraps, enslaves, disables or distracts from the potentiality of our creation. Our freedom is not freedom from embodied desire but rather our emancipation from domination and disorder. However, while free, our freedom does not give us license to act as we will without consideration of consequence which is to say, as Paul says elsewhere, ’none of us lives unto [ourselves]’ (see Romans 14:7-8). What we eat, how we live and relate, matters; to put it more colloquially, just because you can (or want to) does not mean that you should. While natural, our embodied appetites, desires and passions can become disordered if we are not sensitive to the relational dynamics of our living.

 

Truth to tell, we are more than solitary, self contained selves with appetites which is why the sacred is always encountered within openness to, respect for otherness, the stranger (divinity’s face?). When we dishonour our embodied passions and appetites by either repression or indulgence the result is the same – we become disordered by domination and domination always destroys.

 

As we widen the interpretive circle, we come to the story of Samuel, a story of call and response within the defended deafness of domination (‘the word of the lord was rare in those days’ I Samuel 3:1). The context of the story is the pervasive effects of domination.  The backdrop of the story is of a disordered culture of privilege: Eli’s sons (priests of a priestly line) are condemned because of their greed, gluttony and lusting after power and Eli is censured because of his unwillingness to intervene.

 

As the promised child of the barren Hannah, Samuel is one other, chosen to hear and act. As the child whose impending birth causes Hannah to rejoice that ‘the bows of the mighty are broken’ and ‘the poor are lifted up’, Samuel comes to see a new identity for self and society, an identity which honours and embodies his mothers’ song. As prophet, Samuel becomes one who challenges the pretentions and the domination of the powerful.

 

It goes without saying that domination exerts control, expects conformity, demands obedience and endeavours to manage change by limiting vision. Its invitation is never, ‘come and see’ but simply, ‘do as you are told’, ‘fall into line’ or ‘do your duty’. Domination relishes bigotries and honours preconceived notions - ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ - because of their static predictability. If, as stated earlier, it is our task ‘to catch the wind, sail the waters and chart the depths’ then anything, however natural, in its loss of flexibility and responsiveness, will diminish, distort or disable perceptions thereby having the potential to become problematic, possibly disastrous.

 

The gospel’s invitation to ‘Come and see’ is a most radical and risky venture – to accept is to risk change, surprise, the shattering shock of uncertainty. This is life re-birthing us in the risk of response (e.g. consider Samuel’s response to God’s call, “speak for your servant is listening” or Nathaniel’s ‘seeing Jesus again for the first time’). It is illustrative that the gospel narrative does not reach its climax with the confessional utterance “Rabbi, you are the Son of God!” but rather with the open ended and inclusive promise of new sight, “You will see the heavens opened and the angels of god ascending and descending upon the Human One”.

 

This image of ascent and descent is an obvious reference to Jacob’s ladder: the dream of a holy place where heaven and earth meet. However, in this vision, the ladder is the ‘human one’. This is a new vision of life ever unfolding in creative energy. The implication is clear: if you have eyes you will see humanity anew – self and others grounded within creation renewing. The ‘son of man’ as the ‘human one’ is not the solitary figure of confessional adoration but an ‘archetype’ of humanity risking becoming fully alive.

 

The ascent and descent of angels upon ‘the human one’ disarmingly proclaims that the locus of the holy is not this special place to the exclusion of others. What matters is a seeing, a recognition – the locus of the holy is within creation, all matter. If we risk the invitation to ‘come and see’, we are offered the opportunity to withdraw our projections of ‘holiness’ from the few - be they persons, places, positions or even preferences or substances - and extend them to that which is otherwise excluded. This is risky but potentially transformative.

 

Paradoxically, in refusing to risk for fear of disorder we become ever more unknowingly disordered.

 

So perhaps we can risk a knowing:

 

“Do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit within you,

which you have from God, and that you are not your own?”

                                                                                                                               (1 Corinthians 6:19)

 

In the face of our embodied nature, is it possible to see ourselves and all others (including creation) as the locus of sacred presence and atonement?

 

Is it possible to accept, open to and celebrate this new awareness of transformative relationality?

 

The psalmist passionately proclaims that ‘we are known’ (yada), so, perhaps it is possible to see ourselves as we are seen by the Holy One?

 

In coming to see, is it possible to know ourselves anew thereby opening new horizons of desire, risking new depths of living?

 

All that matters is seeing and in seeing - knowing.

 

Later in the letter, Paul extends his understanding of ‘embodied holiness’ (‘you are the temple of the spirit’) to include the vision of being ‘in Christ’¹. To proclaim that we are ‘in Christ’ is not to postulate living in some metaphysical wonderland but to commit to the work of living in conscious relationship with one who is all in all.

 

Jesus as ‘the Christ’ is an exemplar of new creation, of a new age balancing transformation in resistance to disordering domination. To live ‘in Christ’ is to honour embodiment as sacred in the embrace of renewed physicality; living ‘in Christ’ is desire dancing with others within the relational matrix of new identity – ‘you are not your own…’ 

 

You are, we are, creation is - the temple of the spirit!

 

So, let’s try to not be less than who we are!

 

A Postscript

 

I joked for many years about my smoking providing incense for the temple. One day I awoke to discover that the joke was on me. After a couple of decades of ‘temple smoke’ I was brought low by a three-month illness which enabled me to see life looming large beyond the temple walls if only I would risk it…

And risk it I did…I stopped smoking…

Now I drink…

 

 

 

 

¹It is for these reasons that all treatments of addictions will fail or be seriously compromised if they do not consider and/or respect this ritualized (embodied) religious dimension, a dimension which is hard wired into our psyche. Such is not, in and of it itself, a sign of disorder although it can become profoundly disordered.

 

² It is not that I wish to dismiss ‘addiction’ as a concept but rather to compliment it by the terms appetite and desire. Addiction by itself too easily reinforces the notion of the ‘demon’ substance, situation or practice which invades, corrupts and overcomes the self. Such understanding uncritically reinforces a ‘disease’ modality which in turn too easily transforms desire and appetite into pathology.

³ The causes of disorder are neither simple nor singular. Disorder is a complex often expressive of the dynamic interplay of socio, political, economic and cultural forces dancing with the psychosomatic narratives of the self. It also needs to be said that to speak of disorder is not to postulate the existence or demand the achievement of a state of ‘perfect order’. The best we can hope or aim for is ‘balance’, of a life lived continually adjusting to movement and ever responsive to what Hildegard of Bingen called ‘viriditas’, the ‘greening power of God’.

The following quote of John Caputo is both illustrative and illuminating: ‘the whole drama of creation follows a simple but bracing law: without the elements, there is no chance in creation; and without chance, there is no risk; and without risk and uncertainty, our conception of existence is an illusion or fantasy.’ See John Caputo, The Weakness of God. see page 74.

To the possible objection that smoking is not a ‘natural’ appetite let me say that every human culture, save one, has made use of one or more various substances as a regular and accepted part of socio-religious cultural dynamics. Such substances have included but are not limited to tobacco, alcohol, and the multiple derivatives of the marijuana, coca and poppy plants. The only culture not to have any such substance is the Inuit not because they are better humans but simply because of geography.

This has resonances with one of my experiences with the practice of confession. I once was asked to hear the confession of young adult. After the confession I had to refuse absolution – what they had ‘confessed’ was not sin but entirely natural sexual feelings. To offer absolution in such circumstance would be to cause further harm to one with an already disordered understanding of sexuality. This person needed to make an affirmation of embodiment not a confession of sin. Of course, this is not to suggest that there are no such things as sexual sins but simply to affirm that being sexual is not one of them.

I would argue that to be ‘in Christ’ is far more than a confessional statement; to be ‘in Christ’ is to knowingly embody a way of life in which we become ever more human thereby glorifying the creator of all.

Apologies to Marcus Borg for playing with the title of his book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time

In Hebrew, yada is the verbal root meaning to know. It has a whole range of meaning from simple recognition to intimate sexual relationship.

¹ The phrase ‘in Christ’ is similar in meaning and intent to the phrases ‘in the spirit’, ‘the body of Christ’, ‘the spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ and ‘the spirit of God dwells in you’. These phrases are frequent throughout Paul’s letters.