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Caring for the Body

Updated: Nov 3, 2021

Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 19th of Seventh Month, 2020

Speaker: Dawn Ottoni Wilhelm

Scripture: Mark 15:42-47

Good morning!

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?