Today I want to invite us to think about our bodies and buildings, especially our corporeal, or physical bodies and our church buildings. And I want us to think about change. Most of all I want to invite us to think about how Christ’s radical work of resurrection on the cross not only makes change possible, but claims us and this whole physical world, including our personal bodies and buildings, for the purpose of change.
Now…the Church has not always been so good in our approach to human bodies. We haven’t always been so good with our buildings, either, but we’ll get to that in a moment. The scriptures were codified and written down during periods in history when people such as the ancient Greeks and Romans and Jewish peoples had radically different notions about how bodies work, and therefore these fantastic treasures we call scripture have murky and mucky human handprints all over them with regards to perspectives on human bodies. Places where scripture makes it sound like the body is all bad, and we should hope and aspire to spiritual purity untainted by the body.
Which is part of what makes today’s gospel reading so remarkable. Mary isn’t there alongside Jesus asking him how to purify her spirit, or to ask him how his spirit can be so pure. Mary is there alongside Jesus anointing his body. Lavishing love through anointing Jesus’ feet – her Teacher’s feet – with costly and precious oils made from the extract of plants. This act prefigures the preparation of Jesus’ body that will take place according to Jewish custom before his body would be laid in the tomb. Jesus’ body which will then so completely rise from the dead that – we’ll hear about it a couple of weeks into the Easter season – that Jesus will be eating fish with this same body. Totally resurrected. And because Jesus’ body will be and has been resurrected, our bodies will also be resurrected.
So, the body is not bad, but a blessed gift seen as precious and worthwhile enough in the eyes of God that Jesus’ resurrection extends to the body as well as the spirit and the heart and mind. It is we who sometimes need to throw off the limitations of the worldviews of the people in the hands of whom scripture emerged so as to see, as Martin Luther wrote, the eternal meaning that rises to the surface and transcends time and circumstance. The truth is that God not only does not hate the human body, but loved us so much – including our bodies – that God sent Jesus to become incarnate in a human body. God could do anything, but chose to become human with flesh and bone, kidneys and lungs. A human with bodily functions like burps and farts. Oh, don’t be shocked, the pastor can talk about such things – we certainly all have these bodily functions – or we’re in trouble!
Yet what is shocking - and sad - is all of the pain caused by people hating bodies – their own and other people’s. Like my friend Mara, who starved herself to fit the model of what a thin gymnast should look like and in the process weakened her heart and died at 18 years old. Like the people passing laws around our country to prevent transgender persons from living life with dignity in bodies that reflect their self-understanding. This is shocking, and terribly sad and wrong.
We hear in Genesis that God made humans in God’s image, and this portion of Genesis that sounds like an epic poem chooses to describe God with a plural designation - “in our own image God created them.” In other words, the fullness of God can’t be seen unless we see and embrace all of humanity in all of our diverse and wonderful variations. We should be anointing each other with oil in an act of blessing of each other’s bodies, not telling each other what body shape or gender identity we need to conform to.
And while it might seem like a crazy leap to some, the same is true for the buildings entrusted to us. Just as our physical bodies are a gift from God intended to reflect and praise God, so, too, are the physical buildings we construct to give God praise. Have you ever entered a physical space – on zoom or in person (I love the way museums and some churches began offering virtual tours during this pandemic); have you ever entered this or another space and suddenly been drawn up short by the presence of God? Or found yourself suddenly wanting to be quiet and listen? Or jump for joy and dance? Or maybe just look around and discover the “skin” of the building? The shape of the windows or the outline of the doors. The stained glass or the smell of ancient or modern art.
In her book, “Remove the Pews,” the Reverend Dr. Donna Schaper talks about loving and adoring God through our buildings. Contrary to the movement that has been afoot for some decades, where congregations neglect their buildings terribly or are encouraged to consider sell their buildings, Pastor Schaper says we should embrace God’s buildings for the wondrous devotional opportunities that they are. For the wonderful opportunities God can provide through them for meeting the world with a new life story.
And that new life story, that love and devotion to Jesus, should cause us to lavish love on our own buildings. And sometimes it might lead us to change our buildings - adapt them, expand them, take out the pews. This is what happened for Judson Memorial when they took out their pews in 1969 in order to welcome a modern dance troupe. I think we caught a glimpse of the power of “pews taken out” here at Redeemer when the chairs were removed several times a year over a two-year period in order to welcome the healing work of a Trauma informed yoga class that met during the week. Or when, many years ago, the sanctuary at the other end of the building that is now The Community Room was taken apart every week so as to welcome the pre-K and nursery school that met during the week for children of migrant workers - an effort that grew successful enough that they now have their own building on route 32 north in New Paltz. Imagine how it could feel to be moving chairs again and again to make all sorts of wonderful events happen and causes and people supported.
And sure, sometimes this lavishing of love on Jesus and on Jesus’ buildings might even lead to a congregation selling the building because they love praising Jesus in the building too much to let it die a slow death. Instead, they might decide, let there be a new life – perhaps another congregation that is on the rise purchasing the space, or an opportunity for the secular world to inhabit sacred space and perhaps thereby bring about subtle or radical change when someone comes through the doors who never would have come through the doors of a church.
Let our buildings be like anointing Jesus’ feet. Lavishing love on our Savior, we gather for worship and we weed and we mulch. We send regular donations and we carry out capital campaigns and we refurbish and we fix up. Sometimes we even say good bye. At best we also practice saying good bye even when we do not leave or sell the building. Perhaps especially then, when we stay in buildings for many, many years, we need to be continually saying good bye to anything that says “no” to praising Christ. And “yes” to all that will be a part of anointing Christ’s feet, Christ who is the source of our new life story. Why say no when Christ makes it possible to say yes? Why say “no” when Christ’s very nature is resurrection and change, not resurrection back to the way things were, but resurrection to a new life that is better than we could ever imagine.
Even as God helped the Israelites who had been cast out of their houses and land by the Babylonians; even as God helped the Israelites to journey home again, so we, too, are given the road upon which to journey home. And the vehicle in which to travel. For Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet was indeed a prefiguring of his death. And because Jesus willingly died on the cross and then rose from the dead, this story does not have to end with sin and brokenness that tears people down. This story can end with congregations experiencing renewal as they meet the world around us with the new life story. This story can end with us as people learning the worth of buildings, and how to build a sense of worth for our physical body and beings as well as that of everyone around us, no exceptions. In these and other ways we can praise God.
“Thus says the Lord…I am about to do a new thing.’ Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” (Isaiah 43:19)
Let’s lean in with God’s help and be a part of the new thing Christ is doing. The change that comes with resurrection work. Let’s be a part of building sanctuary in the wilderness and providing rivers in the sometimes deserts of this world. Amen.