Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
Ninth Sunday After Pentecost
July 13, 2008
I’m grateful to Kathryn Scribner, the Confirmand who suggested today’s sermon title, “Ballet Class” – but I’m guessing you might be wondering what ballet could possibly have to do with this text from Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Paul is wrestling here with the eternal battle between flesh and Spirit – a favorite subject of the great philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome – and if you’ve ever attended a ballet class, then you can testify that if you want to learn more about how very hard it is to master your flesh with the power of Spirit, then you could ask for no better teacher than ballet class.
If you’ve never studied ballet, then just think back to the last time you tried to master a sport that requires as much precision and grace as ballet. There are many – golf, baseball, basketball, even football. Some NFL coaches I hear send their players to ballet class to increase their agility. But what a killer ballet we witnessed at the men’s tennis finals at Wimbledon last Sunday! After nearly 5 hours of running, leaping, diving, and twisting, it ended with the Spanish champion flat on his back and the Swiss runner-up looking like it would take weeks to recharge his body. If that match proved anything, it showed us all, beyond ANY doubt, that Spirit has the power to triumph over flesh. The difference between professionals and amateurs, I think, comes down to the difference between those who’ve been able to master their flesh and those who cannot.
Like many girls of my generation, since we weren’t allowed to play in Little League, my first experience of trying to master my body was in ballet class – Miss Apple’s tap and ballet class, which met in her home studio. I remember the excitement I had when I went to the store and got my first black leotard and pink tights. I remember watching my mother sew a little strip of elastic onto my tiny pink slippers so that they would have a strap to hold them on my feet. I couldn’t wait for the first class, because I’d seen The Nutcracker, and I was ready to twirl and leap and generally dazzle my first audience in my debut as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Ah… it was such a dream…
The first day, Miss Apple took one look at our class of fresh-faced little 1st graders and literally sized us up. She informed me that I did not have a ballet body. I learned that I had chunky ankles and knees, flat feet, and one hip with no turn-out – which I now know is because of a birth defect, but back then I spent hours trying to stretch it the right way. I was a perfect size 6 as a 6-year-old, but she told me I was too fat. I have no idea why none of us thought to tell our mothers how mean she was to us, but you get the picture. No amount of mind over matter could help my spirit conquer my awkward flesh, and so after two grueling years of ballet class, I dropped out – and took up piano.
Now, admittedly, there’s a lot that went wrong back then – the 1960s were not particularly good for women’s body images, what with women like Twiggy as role models. But let’s face it, the bending and shaping of feminine beauty has a long, ugly history. I grew up in the bedroom next door to my 1883-vintage grandmother Lela, who began every day by squeezing herself into her corset. And she was very proud of her dainty, size 2 ½ feet. She never would have been able to find ladies’ high heels to fit her if the Chinese had not broken and bound their little girls’ feet into a pleasing lotus shape. It was from San Francisco’s Chinatown that my grandmother mail-ordered her shoes.
The world’s long and brutal history of misogynistic practices is rooted in the kind of dualistic thinking that we find in Romans. But Paul probably unintentionally perpetuates it – it’s just the way things were in his world. Both women and men have been at war with the female body for generations, as they have been with the grandmother of all grandmothers, the one we know as “Mother Nature.” Both women and the earth have been treated as matter to be subdued and tamed and literally whipped into shape for centuries. So to understand the truth of this passage better we need to review some rather strange facts of life of the Mediterranean world in Paul’s day.
Women were associated so strongly with the flesh and men so exclusively with the spirit that classical philosophers spent hours arguing about whether or not women (like dogs) even had souls. If you’ve ever wondered why there are so many statues of naked men from those days – when the women are usually draped in graceful tunics of marble – then you should know that the nude female form back then was considered unattractive, because of its association with earthly matter and the mortality of flesh. Sarx, the Greek word for flesh, even sounds ugly – it’s where we get our word “sarcophagus,” a limestone box that was thought to expedite the decomposition of flesh of the corpses placed in it. Plato and others taught that the material world (and all of womankind) was base and inferior, which is why in that culture male homosexuality was so celebrated and why Paul was so opposed to it. Jews did not share their pagan belief that spiritual and intellectual transcendence could come through the superior union of two males. The Jews believed that BOTH male and female were created by God and infused with the Spirit of divinity.
But here’s my point. This passage is loaded with dualism – “sinful flesh” versus “the Spirit,” “things of the flesh” versus “things of the Spirit,” and “the law of the Spirit* of life in Christ Jesus” versus “the law of sin and of death.” Paul couldn’t be clearer about where he stands on spirit versus matter. He writes, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace,” in Romans 8:6. As an educated Roman citizen, Paul knew his letter’s audience of Roman Christians and almost-converts were likely to understand this kind of thinking. He knew the triumph of spirit over flesh would appeal to those familiar with Hellenistic philosophy. But it’s a mistake to assume his words mean we should hate our own flesh, or practice self-denial in order to seek spiritual status – as many Christian hermits and ascetics have been tempted to do through the ages.
When Paul writes, in Romans 8:8, that “those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” he does not mean we are to mortify our own flesh and fight with sheer willpower to subdue it. Paul had tried that, as a Pharisee, but he knew it didn’t work. Paul found Jesus was the only answer. If the incarnation – carne is Latin for “flesh” – if the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Spirit made Flesh, teaches us anything, it is that flesh is radiant with spiritual life. Jesus is the one who sanctifies the “Spirit of God” that dwells within us. He not only bestows upon us the Holy Spirit, he calls the Holy Spirit out of us – and through God’s grace, we are invited to live in Christ as Christ lives in us. Paul proclaimed this Good News with confidence, from his own experience being set free from the law and his sinful nature by “amazing grace.” He knew that the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead could raise us too! Classical ballet, like all great dance, shows us “resurrection” – it transports us who watch it to a spiritual world where bodies defy gravity, where matter transcends both time and space and becomes something full of God’s glory.
I finally got to experience the real joy of dance when I got to seminary, at Pacific School of Religion – which has an outstanding worship and the arts program, especially in sacred dance. My first dance class there was called “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made,” which is from a line of Psalm 139 (v. 14) – “I praise you, O Lord, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” It’s the text for next Sunday’s sermon by our guest preacher, and it provided profound healing for many of us – women especially – who were wounded by past experiences where we had learned that our bodies had a lot wrong with them – or at least that they were nothing special, certainly nothing at all holy, or sacred.
We had in that class a whole range of human forms – from a little Midwestern nun to a middle-aged Vietnamese priest. There was my friend Jürgen, who wore glasses and was a skinny scholar from Germany, and my friend Beth, who was the pale and plump daughter of missionaries sent from Minnesota to Zimbabwe. She was a great African dancer. That’s also where I got to know my good friend Joanne, an African-American Methodist from Nebraska who shared my background in drama and music. Joanne is what Mma Rmotswe, the heroine of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, would call a “traditionally built” lady. Her body is as beautiful as her singing voice, and there is about 300 pounds of it. And this is important only because she was able to truly show us what dance can teach about God’s embodied grace.
Joanne is an excellent dancer, but like me she had a few emotional scars from her years of training and auditioning for musical theatre. In that world people don’t mind at all telling you they like you all right for a part but your body is a few sizes too fat or too short or just plain too ugly. So Joanne held back sometimes in class – and never more so than the day when our teacher was looking for someone to be lifted by the class and carried above our heads as a part of the dance. When he asked a volunteer, no one even glanced at Joanne, because we didn’t want to appear to be sizing her up for that lift. But Michael, our teacher, had other ideas. He said, “Joanne, why don’t you go first?” But the little nun stuck up her hand – to be nice, I’m sure, as she weighed all of about 90 pounds. “I’ll do it,” she said. “I know,” said Michael, “but I think Joanne should go first – she has more to teach us about faith.” Joanne laughed out loud and said, “Faith in God, Michael? I know the Lord can lift me up, but I don’t know about your scrawny little class.” (Actually, I think the word she actually used rhymes with "class," but it's not really appropriate to say in church!)
He answered with this line from Romans 8 (v. 9), “But you are not in the flesh, Joanne; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” And he added, “The Spirit of God can do what flesh cannot do. Do you believe that?” And without a word, she closed her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest – she knew that acting exercise –the trust fall backwards into the arms of the rest of the company. But she had never done it before. Michael lined us all up, with some of the stronger men in key positions, and to our terrified faces, he said, “With human beings this is impossible, but not with God; all things are possible with God. Do not set your minds on the flesh, but set your minds on the Spirit.” And we lifted, and she rose, and in complete silence we carried her in procession around the room. Tears were pouring out of her eyes, but she didn’t open them even once. It was a prayer.
Paul knew from first-hand experience that mind over matter is exhausting, grueling, terrible, and ultimately impossible. The Church of Jesus Christ – which is His risen body here on this dusty and broken earth – His Church, OUR little church, has the power to lift us up and far beyond the prison of mere flesh. All are welcome in this sacred ballet class for the soul – for Jesus taught us that the Spirit loves the Body and has come to live here with us.
Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.
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