Tile: Life in the flesh
Texts: Ezek 34:11-24, Ps 95:1-7, Eph 1:15-23, Matt 25:31-46
Date: Nov 20, 2011
Author: Isaac S. Villegas
“If I said my heart was beating loud / If I said I want your body now / Would you hold it against me / If I said my heart was beating loud / If we could escape the crowd somehow / If I said I want your body now / Would you hold it against me?”[i]
I thought the words of Britney Spears, from her song “Hold It Against Me,” would be a good way to start talking about Communion, which we will celebrate today, since Communion is all about the body of Christ, and Ms. Spears likes to sing about bodies too; and, perhaps, she might help us continue our conversation about God and gender, or maybe not.
In my younger years, I never would have admitted to listening to Britney Spears, or any of the other artists that made it on the billboard charts. I was too cool for that, a music snob. In high school, it was always about finding the good music that no one else was listening to: in those days it was Bright Eyes, and everything else on Saddle Creek Records, and Modest Mouse, but early Modest Mouse, before they started making radio-friendly songs like “Float On.”
But, now, in my maturity, I will admit to you that I listen to the fine musical artistry of Katy Perry and Nicki Minaj, Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, and even Ke$ha, who spells her name with a dollar sign instead of an S — just in case you didn’t know that it’s all about the Benjamins, that people will say anything for money and celebrity.
Usually I can listen to music without having to pay attention to the lyrics. But recently, as I hear these songs over and over on the radio, I’ve been paying attention to what they are actually saying. So, for example, here are a few lines from Katy Perry: “Last Friday night / Yeah, we danced on tabletops / And we took too many shots / Think we kissed but I forgot / Last Friday night / Yeah, we maxed our credit cards / And got kicked out of the bar.”[ii]
Typically, in light of these lyrics, this would be the time for me to bemoan our materialistic culture, our addiction to consumerism, about the way we turn everything, even something as intimate as sexuality, into material to be consumed.
But I want to say something else. I think the problem is that we aren’t materialistic enough; the problem is that we don’t pay enough attention to the material, to the flesh, to the bodies — those that belong to us, and those that do not.
It’s no mistake that Katy Perry sings about forgetting at the same time that she sings about the intimacy of a kiss: “we danced on tabletops, and we took too many shots, think we kissed but I forgot.” But this way of thinking about our lives is not only in Katy Perry’s songs, it’s everywhere — the desire for drunken bashes, for dance parties, for sex, but it’s always sex without intimacy, kissing without remembering. Consuming without wanting to know who or what we are consuming, without thinking about the complexity of intimacy, the holy complications that come with relationships of all kinds — in sum, to imagine a life without our bodies, a life without the flesh, desire without the complications of our humanness. To use the words of Bjork, in a song from her 1995 album, Post: “This is sex without touching.”[iii]
If these songs, which I listen to all the time, are any indication of who we are and what we desire, then I think we are people who want intimacy, we desire closeness, human touch; but, at the same time, we want to keep our distance. We want intimacy, yes, but at a safe distance, without getting involved in someone else’s life, getting caught up in their humanness.
God, it seems, also has a desire for intimacy, a desire for getting close to us. That desire is at the heart of the scriptures we heard tonight. God says, in Ezekiel, “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (Ezek 34:11). Notice the emphatic “myself,” “I myself will search.” God doesn’t send someone else to do the dirty work. It’s God who goes out searching for the sheep.
Throughout the passage, it’s clear that God is the one who draws close to the sheep, who searches and feed them, who cares for them: “I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them” (v. 12), “I…will gather them… I will feed them” (v. 13), “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down” (v. 15), “I will seek the lost, and will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak” (v. 16).
God is involved, constantly involved, in the life of the sheep, in our lives: always seeking after us, finding us, feeding and caring for us. God’s desire is to gather us close, to be with us. We hear of this same desire in our Psalm, Psalm 95: “O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker. We are the people of God’s pasture, the sheep of God’s hand” (Ps 95:6-7). We are people of God’s hand, of God’s touch. God draws closer and closer to us, to our daily lives, as close as the food we eat, the air we breath, as close as the soil of the earth that forms our bodies; for, as the Psalmist says, God’s hands are in the “depths of the earth,” “the heights of the mountains,” the sea and the dry land (vv. 4-5). God is quite the materialist, involved in the earth, forming life, renewing life.
This is the God we come to know as we celebrate Communion: the God who feeds us with bread and drink, formed from the earth, from the sea and dry land, nourishment from the hand of God, the God who sustains all life, the God who holds us — and not only holds us, from the outside, as some kind of external power, but also dwells within us, who permeates us, who is as close to us as the bread and drink we are about to ingest; a God who gets inside of us, flowing through us, giving us life.
I wonder if, as I describe the intimacy with God that Communion represents, and as you look at this loaf and cup up here on the table — I wonder if you are praying to God with the words of Britney Spears: “If I said my heart was beating loud / If we could escape the crowd somehow / If I said I want your body now…” Probably not. If we had a sound system in here, we could play the song while we do Communion. Okay, that’s probably a bad idea too.
An important difference between the body that Britney Spears is talking about and our body of Christ is that, for Ms. Spears, it’s about a body in isolation from the world: “If we could escape the crowd somehow,” she says. However, for us, Communion is all about being drawn further into the world: into the earth that feeds us, and into the hands and faces that reveal God’s love and grace.
For Ms. Spears, the message is about escaping the crowd, withdrawing from all the people, in order to be with the one of own our choosing. But, for us, church is a crowd, a gathering of people, drawn together by God’s love for us, a love that we share with one another as we eat and drink, as we worship, as we make requests of God through prayer, in public, for everyone else to hear.
Christ comes to us in the crowd, in the assembly of people: as we heard in our passage from Ephesians, “the church… is [Christ’s] body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23).
Taking time to celebrate Communion is not only about remembering how God draws close to us, entering into our lives, dwelling within us. Communion is also about the way we are drawn into the body of Christ, how we find ourselves within God’s life, how, in a sense, God consumes us, how Jesus brings us into his body, into God.
As we heard from Ezekiel, God seeks us out and gathers us close. So close, we hear in Ephesians, that we find ourselves within the body of Christ, brought inside of God’s life. As we are drawn into communion with God, we come to find out that we are desired, we are wanted, that God became flesh to be with us, to draw close, and to show how humanity can become a home of the Holy Spirit, home for the power of God, home for the love of God, drawing us further and further into the life of God, drawing us into God with our human hands, with the hands that serve us from the same loaf and cup, women and men, sisters and brothers, God’s presence in the life of the flesh.
Earlier I said that the songs I listen to, the same ones that some of you might listen to, aren’t materialistic enough. They are about desire, but desire without the complications that come with humanness, desire without the complexity that comes with our connections to the world around us. They are songs about forgetfulness, songs that invite us to forget all that comes with life in the flesh.
I think we can fall victim to this same kind of forgetfulness as we gather for church, as we celebrate Communion, as our worship draws us into God’s love. We may come to think that this is all we need, this community, this church, this meal, this worship. But, as we heard in our passage from Matthew’s Gospel, this same Jesus who gathers us together and invites us into his body is also a beckoning presence, a body in prison, a homeless stranger who needs shelter, who needs food and drink and warm clothing, someone who is sick, who needs care and comfort, who needs a human touch. As Jesus says:
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. (Matt 25:35-36)
Communion is an invitation to be drawn into the world around us, the world where God lives, into the life of the flesh, human life as it is broken and wounded, and to find in this life the crucified One: the body of Christ, broken for you; the blood of Christ, shed for you.