Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 19th of Seventh Month, 2020
Speaker: Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm
Scripture: Mark 15:42-47
I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies lately…
My body, all of our bodies, our physical selves. Individual bodies. By the millions. And collectively, the body of Christ. Christ’s body.
There’s so much to be thankful for, in and through our bodies: they are often wondrous sources of delight and feeling, strength and empowerment, beauty and birthing. Most of us see, hear, touch, taste, and smell: our body sense marvelous and offensive, elusive and sometimes surprising, elements around us. Each of our bodies is marvelously receptive to the worlds we inhabit and the journeys we venture – both the outer worlds and inner ones. For each of us sense things in both similar and dissimilar ways.
But if you’re like me, on most days you take your body for granted. We assume that they’ll be there for us when we need to get out of bed in the morning, when we need to move on down the road. Often we sorely neglect or ignore them, sometimes at our peril. But we count on our bodies, trusting that they will be there for us when we need them – as if there is a “they” and “them,” an otherness to our very selves - our whole selves, body and soul.
But I confess that I’m also thinking about bodies because of what’s been happening lately. Between COVID-19 and race-related violence, our bodies have taken a beating. Cramped and aching, fearful and ailing. Battered and slain. Our bodies are vulnerable to viruses like COVID-19 and to the overwhelming force that we exact on one another. Sometimes abused and broken – as in the race-related violence that continues among us, that we witness in our country and world. Our bodies are sometimes taken advantage of.
Taken together, the body of humanity is suffering terribly. Many of us who’ve denied this – especially those who’ve been cushioned by comfortable homes and work-provided healthcare – are being forced to recognize the bodily harm being inflicted regularly around us. Some people are still holding out, denying the onslaught. But as a whole, we can feel, can sense, that something’s not right with our society and with our bodies. We would need a whole other sermon to talk about the collective body of society, its manifest illness, and the collective body of the church, the “body of Christ” as Paul calls those of us who follow Jesus’ way with our bodies. But this day, I’m wondering about each of our individual bodies – and those of our neighbors.
I’m wondering: where do we find hope for the recovery and healing of our bodies?
* A recent NYT article described the ways that stress has been manifested in our bodies during COVID-19. It’s titled: “The Pandemic Is Stressing Your Body in New Ways” (4 June 2020). According to osteopathic psychiatrist Dr. Katherine Pannel, “while traumatic events can have serious physical effects on your body, so can ever-present stressors. ‘When we start feeling stressed or feeling anxiety, it sends off chemicals and hormones in our bodies.’” . . . Blood rushes to our vital organs and so we often feel tingling in our extremities. Stress also effects our guts: changes in diet and exercise can result in nausea, cramps, diarrhea, or constipation. And that incessant hand-washing that we’re supposed to be doing dozens of times a day? According to Dr. Ronda Farah from the Univ. of MN Med. School, it can lead to flare-ups of conditions like eczema and psoriasis, acne, and rashes. Especially the skin under the rings on our fingers that might not dry out as fully as it should. Exercise, meditation, and/or therapy can be tremendously helpful – for those who are able or can access these.
Yes, I’ve been thinking about our bodies lately.
So I chose this text following Jesus’ passion narrative. The story of Joseph of Arimathea caring for Jesus’ body. Strange timing since anyone who is familiar with the liturgical calendar knows that we’re well past Easter, even Pentecost, and solidly in the midst of what some churches call “Ordinary Time” – that prolonged period between Pentecost and Advent when the worship paraments are green (signifying a sustained season of growth in our faith) and the Scripture readings focus on Jesus’ teachings and biblical narratives about the ongoing life of faith… It’s a time to move on and grow, the church says: to live into the fullness of faith that we’re called to enjoy and enact.
But all that’s been seriously disrupted lately. The liturgical calendar has been thrown off whack as surely as my daily planner and the monthly schedule of events I had laid out for the rest of this year. So, hang it all: let’s look at the body for a change. Yours. Mine. Jesus’.
Joseph of Arimathea did. He had an eye on Jesus’ body. All of the Gospels attest to the attention he gave Jesus’ body, how he cared for the body of Jesus, retrieving it from Pilate, covering it with linen, laying it in a tomb, and securing it with stone. There’s little doubt of the historical veracity of this event: all four Gospels are remarkably similar in their accounts of Joseph, and given that it throws Jesus’ closest followers into an unfavorable light (since the male disciples have all fled, leaving Jesus hanging on the cross to be ravaged by wild dogs or tossed into a public grave), it’s likely that the early church retained this episode despite the neglect of Jesus’ disciples because it felt the importance of this moment when Joseph of Arimathea did what no one else would do.
Mark’s version of the story is characteristically dramatic: his passion account as a whole is not as gory as John’s version but Mark is nevertheless graphic. He’s written of how Jesus was tried twice (by religious and political authorities), publicly humiliated, mocked with a make-shift cloak and crown of thorns, spat upon, stripped, led through the streets to Golgotha, offered sour wine, nailed to a cross, derided, abandoned by everyone save a few faithful women who watched in horror and heard him cry out and breathe his last breath a few hours later.
It was a Friday and Jews needed to prepare for the Sabbath before sundown. So not long after his torturous death, Mark speaks of Joseph asking Pilate for the BODY of Jesus. It is an act of courage because it was dangerous, even seditious to align oneself or in any way show sympathy for those accused of usurping royal rule. Joseph may have been an esteemed member of the Jewish Council, the Sanhedrin perhaps, but that is of no matter to Pilate. Pilate is concerned with those who threaten the state; those who hold sway over the hearts and minds of people, who may rise up to challenge and change the long-established order of things. It’s his job to ensure that such potential threats are publicly humiliated, locked up, silenced, wiped out, murdered.
In fact, that’s what Pilate cares about most of all: that Jesus is dead. He needs the centurion who oversaw and executed the death penalty to go back to the cross and confirm that Jesus is really dead – not a comatose body that may be nursed back to health by soft-hearted family members, the women, or other sympathetic, trouble-making followers. 3X the word “dead” arises in this brief passage: when Pilate wondered if Jesus was dead, when he asked the centurion to check and confirm that he’d been dead for some time (because it was not uncommon for crucified persons to hang on for a day or even two days, lingering in suffocating agony until at last their lungs collapsed and they CANNOT BREATHE), and finally when the centurion reports that Jesus was indeed dead. Then in v. 45 we hear that Pilate granted the CORPSE to Joseph. No doubt about it: Jesus was dead. Really dead. Something less than a man, he’s now a corpse. And Joseph can have him, for all Pilate cares. Because the powers that be believe that the show’s over: there will be no encore, no additional act. No reason to hope for anything beyond death. That’s all that the powers of death know: death. The powers of death always believe in their own self-importance in large part because they cannot imagine anything better than themselves. They always believe that everything begins and ends with what they say and do. So Pilate lets Joseph have Jesus’ corpse.
Now, why does Joseph want the body of Jesus?
Scholars and believers through the years have speculated as to his
It could have been an act of simple piety: Joseph was perhaps a man of religious conviction and commitment who took it upon himself to fulfill what is commanded in Deut. 21:22f which says, “When someone is convicted of a crime punishable by death and is executed, and you hang him on a tree, his corpse must not remain all night upon the tree; you shall bury him on that same day, for anyone hung on a tree is under a curse. You must not defile the land that the Lord your God is giving you for possession.” Jewish custom demanded speedy disposal of a corpse and since no relatives stepped forward, it could be that Joseph was simply willing to fulfill that directive.
Some people think that Joseph was a secret follower of Jesus… Matthew’s Gospel describes him as a disciple. And also a rich man. According to Luke, Joseph was a member of the Council who hadn’t agree to the Council’s plan – in other words, he may have been a sympathizer. Perhaps he felt guilty for what they’d done and his part in it. According to John, Joseph was a secret disciple of Jesus who was afraid of the Jews knowing this. But if he were really aligned with Jesus and afraid of what his co-religionists thought of him, it doesn’t make sense that Joseph would have risked being identified with Jesus by publicly claiming his body, purchasing a linen burial cloth, and securing a tomb for him. [Ched Meyers?]
*We do know that, according to Mark and Luke, Joseph was “waiting expectantly for the Kingdom of God.” I can’t help but to wonder if those who yearn for the fullness of God’s realm among us; those who wait not passively but expectantly, ready to act when moved to do so; those who, like Joseph, recognize the inherent dignity owed to every human body, who are willing to step forward courageously on behalf of others’ bodies; those who actually give of their material goods.. I can’t help but to wonder if there are people today who are aware of the bodies around us – not only our own bodies but those of others, those who are also aching and longing for more than what the powers and principalities have to offer us.
Many of us know that something isn’t right;
that the widening gap between haves and have nots;
the brutal and unjust oppression of some by others;
in fact, those of us who sense and see that the whole “set up” is rigged for some and against others;
we who hope for something more, something other than what’s dividing our
spirits and draining our reserves;
we who feel this deep in our bodies and recognize the bodies of others who are suffering and murdered among us…
I wonder if by stress or virus, by White America’s late awakening to our original sin of racism… I wonder if our own bodies are beginning to feel the horrors of what we’re a part of. We know it in our bones.
The journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book, Between the World and Me writes a letter to his then 15 year old son – the first line of which reads, “Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body.”1 It seemed that the host “wanted to know why Coates felt that White America’s progress. . . was built on looting and violence.”(5f) After describing how the concept of racism is something that White Americans have developed, asserting that it is grounded somehow in the natural order of things, Coates goes on to say to his son: “As for now, it must be said that the process of washing the disparate tribes white, the elevation of the belief in being white, was not achieved through wine tastings and ice creams socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land; through the flaying of backs; the chaining of limbs; the strangling of dissidents; the destruction of families; the rape of mothers; the sale of children; and various other acts meant, first and foremost, to deny you and me the right to secure and govern our own bodies.” (8)
When Joseph saw – even from a distance – the cruel result of the Council’s ruling, did his gut churn and his skin break out in a rash? Did he feel something deep in his bones calling to the bones of the man they’d hung on a tree, knowing that there really was no good reason to have lynched him? Did his body start talking to him, telling him things his conscious mind had not previously allowed?
*Surely I’m not the only one who sees a connection between Eric Gardner and George Floyd calling out, “I CAN’T BREATHE” and the way that so many people with COVID-19 struggle to catch their breath as the virus makes its ways to our lungs, necessitating ventilators, because WE CAN’T BREATHE? And the way the entire earth itself has been seizing and moaning and heaving its way along, suffocating from the carbon dioxide polluting the vast network of life that nourishes and sustains us all?
I need to catch my own breath. To look and listen again. To wait expectantly for the Kingdom of God. With trust and a willingness to act and stand up when needed. To care for my body and the bodies of others. I need God.
A dear colleague and friend of my, Johan Cilliers, is a homiletician (a professor of preaching) from South Africa. The descendent of White Dutch Huguenots, he served to dismantle apartheid policies through his work in the church and academy. And he is also an artist, serving through his painting…
In 2010, Johan painted what he titled, “This very Body” and I share it now with you, with his permission…
Johan used his “own body to form an imprint on a coarse cloth, which seems to be nailed down to the rest of the canvass by a multitude of nails” (which, if you look closely, can be seen around the edges of the imprint).2 The nails also “form the classic word INRI (Latin: Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, meaning Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews), seen above the head of the figure. The coarse cloth is reminiscent of the cloth in which Jesus was buried, and the meaning of the nails is obvious. The figure is stretched out as if on a cross with fragments or subtle forms of crosses in the background. With these features [Johan] depicts something of the reality of the death of the Crucified – of the fact that he was not a disembodied spirit, but a body, a real body, just as we all have (rather: are) bodies.” He goes on to interpret this painting in a recent publication by saying: “In a body, the suffering of humans, and the suffering of God, dovetail… In times of suffering, this is our comfort: God’s promises do not go way, do not leave us behind as lonesome bodies. God’s promises can be trusted because it has a body. God embodies what God promises.”(82)
There are signs of life and resurrection in this painting, also: “the same nails that pin down the cloth cannot prevent it from being opened up to reveal the body inside; the nails also form a sun on the left side of the painting – as the symbol of life and righteousness, triumphing over the reality of these nails.”(82) Johan writes: “The body, emerging from the cloth, formed and recreated against a background of fragmentation and darkness of chaos, is a type of prolepsis of resurrection… The artwork underlines the fact that life is not possible without the body, even and especially in its resurrected state.”(83)
There is a keen relationship between the body/bodies we inhabit and God inhabiting our world… and there’s a vital relationship between our individual bodies and the corporate body of life we share in the church (as the body of Christ) and the world (as a social body). And there’s a God – a living, BREATHING, loving Lord Jesus – who inspires us, breathes into us the promises of newness of life… Who keeps loving us forward… Who knows how to care for our bodies. As indeed for our very souls.
“In moving steadfastly toward the cross, Jesus proves that divine power manifests itself in the will to fulfill the law of charity toward all people, despite the costliness of self-giving. From the perspective of his entire life and ministry, Jesus does not resign himself to the power and principalities of this world, but is determined [with his very body] to show the way of God’s love by sharing in human suffering, confronting evil, and transforming human transgression.”3
God cares for our bodies – and so must we. For all of our bodies. This is our hope: that it is not we alone who care for our bodies and those of our neighbors. God cares for all our bodies, breathes life into our bodies. And promises us, at the cost of Jesus’ own body, that newness of life – the very kingdom we love and long for – is among us.
Now, I wonder what these words, stories, and images have stirred in you as you consider your body and those of others: after a moments of silent reflection, be free to share our questions, concerns, and hopes – and perhaps what your faith in Jesus Christ means to you in this time when our bodies are sorely tested. At the conclusion of your sharing, Robin will lead us in our closing hymn, which will displayed on the screen so that you can sing along.
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1 Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (NY: Spiegel & Grau), 2015.
2 Johan Cilliers, Grace upon Grace: Reflections on the Meaning of Life (South Africa: African Sun Media, 2020), 81ff.
3 Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm, Preaching the Gospel of Mark: Proclaiming the Power of God (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press), 2008, 254f.