Bodies of Humiliation

This was preached on Feb 21st at Grace North Church in Berkeley, California. Grace North is United Church of Christ Congregation. The text this sermon refers to is Philippians 3:21.

I’m going to talk about bodies tonight, and I’m going to talk about the ways that our bodies are used to humiliate us. I’ll start with mine.

I’m trans, and my body does not conform to the stories that our culture tells about bodies. I’m told that my parts are wrong. Or, if the parts aren’t wrong, my brain is. According to this story, if I’m fortunate and careful, I can change those parts so that my body will match what society expects of a body. There’s a required time frame of therapy I have to go through, where I have to prove that I’m just the right amount of mentally ill before I can be given control over my body.

And then, once I gain control over my body and follow a certain set of steps, then I can be celebrated for how well I match society’s expectations.

That’s one of the many trans stories about this process- but you could also tell stories of struggle about size(1), or mental health or illness, or ability or disability, or race- we’re in a society that loves to talk about all the ways our bodies need to be fixed.

And that’s a society that produces a lot of humiliation- because we hear those messages, and we breathe them, and they become a part of us- I am made of flesh, and spirit, and thousands of stories. As are you.

So it has taken a ton of work for me to see my body as something to be loved unconditionally. But I’ve gotten there, in no small part to my faith, and I believe that I stand surrounded by God’s love, no matter the messages I hear or the way other people respond to my body.

But then Paul comes along, and says this:

He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

And the first time I heard that, I bristled.

Because this is my body, that I fought hard to love and claim and care for, and I’ll be damned if you tell me it has to be changed for it to be glorious. I may struggle with it sometimes, I may even choose to change it myself, but I’m completely done with other people- even St. Paul- telling me how or when that should happen.

And I know, in my bones, that God does not want my body to be used as a tool for my humiliation, even if it works that way, from time to time, because of the society I live in.

Because Jesus had a body, which means he knows what it is to struggle with one. And he spent his ministry hanging out with people who were humiliated by society, and he refused to play along. He shared his life with sex workers and the mentally ill, people who were disabled, poor – – people who were gender variant.

He stood with those who knew what it was to be shamed by society, and he modeled a society built on love, without any space for humiliation or shame. And then he was killed by the Roman Empire in the most humiliating form of execution that they had.

Crucifixion was so humiliating that family members didn’t go watch their loved ones die. They would stop speaking the names of the person who was crucified, and communities would be ripped apart from the shame of such a death. By using this tool, Rome could crush movements of resistance, and humiliate people even after their death.

But here’s the astonishing part, no matter how you tell the story- in the case of Jesus, it didn’t work. This tool of humiliation was supposed to remove his name from the mouths of his followers – but here we are. The church – this church- was founded on refusing to play along with tools of humiliation.

So again, Paul’s words-

He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.

The body of Jesus’ glory was revealed when his friends refused to let the empire’s tactics of dehumanization win.

By telling the story of his life and death, by saying his name, by honoring the power that was in his body, his soul, and his connection to community- he still lives with us today.

And that’s a power that still lives with us today- we can still refuse to deny people their dignity, their souls, their connections to community. We can refuse to play along with a society that tells us we are not worthy.

Because the body of our humiliation isn’t something that is inherent in our bodies or our spirits- it’s something we create in our societies, and then absorb into ourselves, and push onto others.

But our God is a god of love, and our god doesn’t call us to be humiliated-  Not by our gender, or our love, not by our sex work, or our race, not by our addictions, or our disabilities, or the ways we communicate and move through this life. Our humiliation has never been something God asks of us.

What Paul promises us is that this humiliation will be transformed into glory by the power of God- and the power of God is love.

Through the realization of God’s love, I’m able to rest in grace, a peace which passes all understanding. I rest in a love that tells me that I am whole- and by whole, I mean that there is no part of me that needs to be changed for me to be worthy of that all-encompassing love. It is simply and profoundly already there, and I am blessed to rest within it.

 

And that’s a very personal and powerful truth for me- but we are one body, which means that if I refuse to be complicit in my own humiliation, I also have to refuse to be complicit in yours.

 

We are extensions of Christ, moving through this world. And as extensions of Christ, we are asked to love one another with the same fierce love that Jesus has for us- to be the power of God at work in the world.

When we put this power into practice, it looks like opening our communities to immigrants who are fleeing their home countries. It looks like marching in the streets to remember the trans women of color who were murdered, and working to make churches accessible to those with disabilities. It looks like allowing ourselves to be fully seen by our communities, and loved by them, even though there are parts of ourselves we struggle with. It looks like this- and so much more.

In all of this work, we are recognizing that we are all deserving of all-encompassing love- and we are recognizing that we are responsible for looking out for and taking care of each other- even the people whose lives break “too many rules”.

It will take a lot of work to build the Kingdom of God, but we do that every time we gather in community and love one another without condition or humiliation. Our church was founded by doing that work, and our faith supports us in this process.  

Let us pray

God, we are all searching for communities that tell us we are wholly loved. Help us to build those communities with each other, so that together, we may glimpse the Kingdom of God.

Amen.

 

(1) : I learned after preaching this that the phrase “struggle with size” is one that a lot of fat activists dislike, because it places emphasis on losing weight, rather than weight discrimination. Next time, I will find a way to be more clear that these are struggles with/because of how the dominant US culture perceives our bodies.

 

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