A sermon by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson
Easter Sunday: April 9th, 2023
St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, MN
Can I confess something to you?
I have never loved my feet. I can recall with great clarity that moment in junior high when a teammate saw my bare and bent toes exclaiming loudly “Oh my God, what’s wrong with your feet!?!” It seems trivial, now, that such a moment of adolescent pettiness could have such a lifelong impact. But, ever since that moment, regardless of how much I’ve grown or matured, I’m still always a little embarrassed, dare I say even ashamed of my feet. When Maundy Thursday rolls around as it does every year, and I know that not only will my feet be on display, that they’ll be held in another’s hands, that they’ll be soothed and washed and patted dry, I start to feel more than a little anxious. So it is that my feet and toes receive more care and attention on Maundy Thursday, than they do any other day in the whole year. I will polish, scrub, buff, and clip them in the foolish belief that I can make it all better with a little TLC.
Truth be told, most of us, even those most lauded for their beauty and physical stature, most of us have something about our bodies that we’ve been told or have told ourselves are not loveable or are not beautiful. Worse still, many of us have endured traumas and deep pain that can only be described as a source of alienation of self from the body. So it is, when we look in the mirror, many of us are prone at first to see what it is that we least like, that which, if given the chance, we’d upgrade or trade in or improve. Others look in that mirror, and shaped by a culture of violence, can only see their body as an object of shame and loathing. Which makes me wonder at times, why did God choose a body, a flesh and blood person, to reveal God’s glory to us? Surely, if Jesus was truly human, his body must have carried within it the same traumas, fragility, crookedness, and weaknesses that our bodies hold. It makes me wonder if Jesus always loved his body, or if it was not always what he wanted it to be? And, this morning, we join with Mary Magdalene in the garden as she is confronted with Jesus’ body, all of it, raised from the dead.
John tells us that Mary was alone when she encountered Jesus, and given the evangelist’s description of the neat pile of grave clothes deposited inside the tomb, we are left to assume that Jesus was completely naked, vulnerable, and exposed. I imagine the whole experience was a little disorienting for both of them. John tells us that Mary Magdalene didn’t recognize him at first. And, later, we will hear that Jesus, resurrected and in the flesh, returned to his disciples with his wounds visible. Were all his imperfections raised with him? When his heart started pumping again, and his eyes fluttered open, and he drew that first breath, did he still have one leg shorter than the other? Was there still a scar on his left cheek from where the family dog bit him as a child? And, when Mary Magdalene looked him in the face, what did she see?
When you look in the mirror, what do you see? This body we are given, this flesh and blood and a heart that pumps, if our faith is to be believed, this body is made in the very image and likeness of God. When you peer into the mirror, is it the face of God you see blinking back at you? Can you see, not past the flaws, not overlooking what we’ve been taught to believe are imperfections, can you behold the whole of yourself, and see the glory of God shining back?
Let’s be honest, the inability to look on ourselves, to peer into the mirror and see the face staring back, the reflection of our bodies, as beautiful and worthy of love as containing the spark of Divine glory, this inability to see ourselves as beloved, is the beginning of shame, of self-loathing, and ultimately the root of so much pain exacted and so much cruelty expended on the bodies of others. When we cannot love ourselves, completely, as we are, in the midst of our difference – when we cannot comprehend our own belovedness and worthiness of love – it is here that we are most prone to lash out, to hurt, to wound, and to perpetuate cycles of violence and injustice on others. Which is not to say that every person who struggles to see themselves as beloved and worthy of care – not every person who is ashamed of their body in part or in whole – will do harm to others as a result. But, it is to say that if we are to heal the wounds caused by violence, injustice, colonialism, and oppression, if we are no longer to perpetuate the cycles of trauma these things cause, we must learn to love our bodies just as they are. Our liberation, our salvation, is bound up in learning to love ourselves, as God loves us – so that we can truly learn to love our neighbors.
The great American writer Toni Morrison in her unmatched novel Beloved, describes a formerly enslaved family haunted by a spirit and the horrific memory of their enslavement as they journey to freedom. In one of my favorite scenes, the family matriarch, Baby Suggs, leads all her people to a clearing in the woods, where she bids the children to laugh, and the women to cry, and the men to dance. And they do, until exhausted, they flop on the grass to hear Baby Suggs preach. “In this here place, we flesh;” she says,
…flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them. Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you!
Baby Suggs knew that the path to liberation had to go through self love. She knew the only way to survive the trauma of slavery and cruelty of white supremacy, was to love the flesh she’d been given. This truth lies behind the profound work in Cole Arthur Riley’s book This Here Flesh: Spirituality, Liberation, and the Stories that Make Us. Reflecting on Baby Suggs’ wisdom, she writes,
Our liberation begins with the irrevocable belief that we are worthy to be liberated, that we are worthy of a life that…honors our whole selves. When you believe [this], or at least someone else does, it becomes more difficult to remain content with the bondage with which you have become so acquainted. You begin to wonder what you were meant for.
And, what we were meant for is a question that lingers over the whole Easter encounter in this morning’s gospel. Mary Magdalene had sprinted to tell the disciples, and no surprise, as a woman, the men had to confirm it for themselves. There is no doubt that Mary Magdalene faced her share of traumas and whether she believed it or not, the world undoubtedly wanted to drive messages of her own unworthiness, her own lesser status, deep into her heart and mind. But, Mary remained, after the other two had left, she lingered, heart broken and in agony, because she loved Jesus and undoubtedly felt a little lost and adrift without him, and she refused to leave without being able to lovingly and tenderly reclaim his body. And, as she encountered the risen Lord, as he saw her and named her, Mary remembered her belovedness, she recalled who and whose she was, that she was meant to proclaim the good news of God’s reconciling and liberating love to the world. And her Easter proclamation, first to the disciples, then to the world, a proclamation as simple as it is profound, that echoes to today – “I have seen the Lord!”
As she saw Jesus’ face and heard her name spoken by him, I wonder if she saw something else too, if she saw her own divine spark reflected back in his loving gaze. And, I wonder if in this moment of resurrection, amidst the disorientation that must have accompanied a body returned to life, if Jesus saw something of his wonderful humanity reflected back in Mary’s tear streaked face.
The truth is that we don’t get free alone, that we cannot fully comprehend who we are and what we were meant for – we cannot fully see ourselves – except as we are reflected back in the gaze of another. If we are created in the image of God, it means that God is known in the multiplicities of humanity, in the diverse and many faces that make up the human family – all races, all genders, all sexualities, and shapes and sizes and abilities. We need each other to be able to see our full humanity, the divine glory that shimmers in each and every one of our living cells and radiates from every shining face. Jesus is raised from the dead, overcoming the powers of sin and death, of oppression and injustice, in the resurrection, and we are raised with him, all of us, in all our varied bodies, different, beautiful, beloved, and restored in him. As we prayed last night at our first Easter celebration,
O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully
restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may
share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our
humanity, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
Note: this sermon is hugely indebted to the work and writings of Cole Arthur Riley and her fabulous book This Here Flesh. You may hear echoes throughout of her thought.