December 21, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Luke 1:26-38

Signs Right Here

You might have seen the new movie called Theory of Everything. It was released last month, and it tells the love story of Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane. Now I have not yet seen this movie, myself. But I’ve been fascinated reading interviews with the actor Eddie Redmayne as he describes the process of learning to portray Stephen Hawking, the ground breaking astrophysicist and a person living with ALS.

Currently, Hawking uses a wheel chair and speaks by moving his eyes to direct a voice activated computer. But Redmayne isn’t just playing the Stephen Hawking of now. He has to portray how Hawking’s body has changed over the years as he has gotten older and the disease has progressed. As if this weren’t a big enough challenge, the movie was not filmed in chronological order. So from one day to the next, Redmayne had to keep track of which muscles could move and which had become paralyzed.

What he did was this. In the months before filming, Redmayne pored over video footage of Hawking. He worked with a choreographer for several hours a day to learn how to do every day things like walk, move his head, and pick up a pen.[1] He wanted Hawking’s body language to become second nature, so he could focus on the script and the story and not have to think through every eyebrow raise or chin tilt.

Redmayne also visited an ALS clinic every few weeks to meet with people who are living with motor neuron diseases at various stages. He listened to these people describe what it’s like emotionally when your body begins to lose ability so much more quickly than your mind.[2]

Indeed, we human people are not just our bodies. We’re not just bones and blood, cells and DNA. We’re also our creativity, our brilliant thinking, our messy compassion. And yet, Redmayne’s work reminds me that our bodies are how we come to know each other. You can learn facts about a person from books or wikipedia, but to really get to know someone, we need our bodies. That’s how we can say to each other,“Sure, I’ll go with you. Then maybe I’ll understand.”

I invite us all to take a minute and remember what it is to be in our bodies. Maybe stretch out your feet, or notice that you can’t. Take a full deep breath, if you can. (breathe) You could pull your shoulders down, or unlock your waist. Let us soften the muscles around our eyes.

I know it is so easy for us to feel animosity toward our bodies. We push them to get up earlier than they want to and run faster, to get back to work before recovering all the way after surgery. We make them carry shame from putting on weight or getting old. We fight them when we don’t like how they look or how they move.

And yet, believe it or don’t, these bodies of ours are created and honored by God. We were knitted together in our mother’s womb, says the Psalm. Over and over again, all through our lives, we keep being fearfully and wonderfully made.

Our bodies bear the glory of God. They are designed to fight to keep us alive even in terrible conditions. When you’re starving, your body shuts down organs strategically to try to prolong your life. From many injuries and ailments, our bodies can heal on their own. Some of our bodies can swing through the air on a trapeze or flip a skateboard on a half pipe. Our bodies invite comfort and pleasure. They teach us the truth of all creation: See it is very good and loved indeed.

Like our names and our choices, our bodies identify who we are as unique individuals: The color of our skin and how that feels in this world. To feel too short or too tall all the time. To be missing an arm or several toes. To finally feel the release of pain after suffering for thirteen years. All of the ways we stutter, and sweat, and sting. Nobody knows how it feels to be me in this body. Nobody knows how it feels to be you.

In our scripture today, this particularity is poignant. Of course, we get the gist of what’s going on. An angel tells a poor teenager that she’s pregnant with the Messiah. We have heaven invading humanity. Except it’s not just that. Our story today is about the angel Gabriel, who comes to this girl Mary, who is engaged to Joseph from the house of David. Her baby’s name is Jesus.

I’m pretty sure all of divinity and all of humanity are swirling around each other in this cosmic encounter. But right now, in our story, we hear an awkward and fumbling exchange as Gabriel and Mary grapple to understand each other.

To begin with, Gabriel makes an embarrassing and frightening entrance. “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you!”

“Um, okay? Who are you and why are you talking to me?” Let’s try this again.

This time Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, you will name him Jesus.”

“What?!  What did you say to me?!” is what I’m pretty sure Mary is thinking. This would have been a good moment for Gabriel to pause and check whether she heard him. But no, he keeps right on going like maybe if he keeps talking, that will help.

“He will be great; he will be called the Son of the Most High and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end…”  Oh Gabriel. Go ahead and list all the credentials of Jesus. You know that Mary hasn’t heard anything past you telling her she’s pregnant.

Finally she speaks up, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

Maybe this next part is loving and beautiful or maybe it is terrible and violating. As Gabriel explains, what happens is the Holy Spirit will come upon you. The power of the Most High will overshadow you. Your baby will be holy. He will be called Son of God!” Gabriel is still trying to impress her with how important her baby is! “Look, even Elizabeth is pregnant. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

I think what happens next is that Mary takes a long look at this floundering angel standing before her, trying to get her to sign off on becoming the mother of the Messiah. She speaks from empathy, because after all, she is also a bearer of God’s word in this moment. She says to Gabriel, “Here I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Now it is not clear whether Mary had much choice in this matter. We know what she agreed to in the story, but we don’t know what she wanted. We don’t know how she was feeling on this afternoon. Was she overjoyed with this opportunity, or positively terrified? Once Gabriel left in such a hurry, did she go throw up? We don’t know.

If there’s one thing our bodies teach us, it’s our own limitations. We do not know how it feels to live in another person’s skin or carry another person’s pain. Nobody knows how it feels to be me in this body. Nobody knows how it feels to be you. I remember meeting a mother who’s son was in the hospital after surviving a car accident that left him badly burned all over his body. She said to me, I just can’t imagine what he is going through. I’ve been sick before. I know what it’s like to have the flu. But I have never been burned like this.[3] Exactly.

If there’s one thing our bodies teach us, it’s that we do not understand each other’s pain.

But if there’s another thing our bodies teach, it’s that we want to understand.

We need to understand. It might seem like our bodies make us discreet human units of self-sufficiency, but actually our bodies make possible our empathy.[4] Our bodies are how we come to sit down next to each other, how we show up and go with one another.

If you have ever had to go someplace you didn’t want to go, or if you have had to go through something terrifying, it makes a big difference if you must go by yourself or if someone you trust can go with you. Even if there’s not much they can do to help. Even if you still have to drive and they have to sit in the waiting room the whole time. It is important to have somebody go with you. Not just in spirit, not just sending warm thoughts, although warm thoughts are great. Actually getting up, putting on our shoes and leaving the house to go with you, this is the work of embodied accompaniment. And this is holy.

Sure I’ll go with you, that I may understand.

This is why Eddie Redmayne went week after week to sit with the people at the ALS clinic.

This is why Mary says, “Here I am… Let it be with me according to your word.”

Sure I’ll go with you, that I may understand.

When we say this to each other, when we say this to those who are most vulnerable, we say this to God. When we care for the bodies of homeless teenagers who’ve been put out on the street like trash, when we care for the bodies of very old people caught in the crevice between life and death, when we care for every little baby born into trouble, please know, we are caring for God.

There is good news: We don’t have to keep our gaze fixed on the sky. See the signs of God right here! God becomes human. The Son of the Most High gets born to this certain teenager, born unto earth. Because God says to all the people, God says to us, “Sure I’ll go with you, that I may understand.” Immanuel God goes with us. Amen.



[3] I’m paraphrasing what she said to the best of my recollection.

[4] For a marvelous discussion on this theme, see the chapter “Wearing Skin” in the book Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith by Barbara Brown Taylor.

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