Sock it to me, God

The Readings for the 23rd Sunday, Tempus per Annum (A)

Jeremiah 20:7-9
Romans 12:1-2
Matthew 16:21-27

JMJ

AYEAR AGO I weighed 300 lbs. This was a symbolic weight for me as sometime in the 1980s, in my mid20s, I had said to someone, “If I ever get to 300 pounds you can shoot me.” At the time I had gone from wearing 34″ pants to wearing 36″ pants and this was entirely a joke, but we say things that get stuck on auto-replay sometimes. Stepping off my scale in August of 2019 I was more than depressed. Truth be told, it was an old-style spring-loaded scale that had to be manually calibrated and I probably weighed more. But let’s be thankful I didn’t think of that then. I was disgusted enough. Nevermind the fact that I could not put my arms down fully at my side or comfortably clasp them in front. The vision I presented to myself in the mirror or in pictures horrified me. This was not who I wanted to be. One day standing in the shower I asked God, “Please give me a new relationship with my body.” That was it. I didn’t want to break up with my body, but I didn’t want to go on like this. I knew my food choices were not the best. I knew my other health choices were, equally, not the best. Knowing this of course made it worse, and making it worse made me fatter in the long run. More than knowing, I needed doing and doing the right things.

A year later and 70 lbs lighter, I’m still working out the implications of this new relationship. All I knew was I didn’t want to be where I was: I wasn’t sure (I’m still not sure) where the journey will end up. My food choices have changed as have my exercise choices. My blood pressure is lower. My blood sugar is healthy. My pants are smaller. We shall see.

In 2002 I entered the Orthodox Church. All I knew was I couldn’t go on with God the way things were. The only thing that horrified me was being theologically out of step with the historic Christian faith. I could see it right over there, as it were. I was afloat, getting further and further away. One day I asked for a new relationship with God. I wasn’t sure where the journey would take me. 18 years later I’m still not sure.

The NABRE says Jeremiah was “duped.” That doesn’t seem quite right to me. The Hebrew word is “open” and “spacious” but in a metaphoric sense. In another passage, the same word is used of a wife enticing her husband. Meaning no scandal the word has implications of sexual availability.

The Greek text in the LXX renders it “deceived” and that comes closer. St Jerome’s Latin Vulgate uses the word “seduced.” Seduxisti me Domine et seductus sum. That’s pretty dead-on if you ask me. God uses beauty and truth to get us to buy into his vision the same way that go-go dancers get us to buy cocktails or ad agencies get us to buy new cars. But God is actual beauty and truth – the real thing itself. When we get close enough, the “sock it to me” moment is a revelation of blinding love, not a cheap trick. He’s reality itself: Truth wrapped in goodness, inside beauty.

Unlike my dietary journey, however, I did not go in with my eyes closed or with any sense of disgust. One Sunday, sitting in the back of Holy Trinity Orthodox Cathedral watching Father Victor pass back and forth through the Holy Doors in preparation for Liturgy, I stroked my beard and wondered to myself, What in tarnation am I doing here? I knew then – before I started – that whole swathes of my life were out of step with God. Yet I also knew he was “enticing” me forward into that beauty and I’d have to change.

“God, you were like a dancing girl seducing me… and I let myself be seduced. You were too beautiful.”

I knew going in that if I were to be serious about this God and our relationship, I was going to have to give him my physical life as well as my theological life, my heart as well as my brain, my libido as well as my ego. While there are many that depart from it, the Christian teaching is quite clear about what sex is for, how and when it is to be experienced, and to what ends. I walked in with my eyes wide open, knowing that. 18 years later I’m still learning what it means to live that knowing on a daily basis.

Paul’s letter to the Romans asks us to make of our bodies a “living sacrifice” which he calls a type of worship. Almost all English translations call this our “spiritual worship” but the Greek calls it our “logical worship” where “logical” means “in imitation of the Logos.” Our bodies are offered as living sacrifices exactly as Jesus offered his body, which is on the Cross. Our flesh is crucified or, as one Byzantine prayer has it, “Nail my flesh to the fear of thee.” This is the meaning of “take up your cross” in the Gospel. Not “carry it” so much as “be nailed to it. Offer your bodies as the Logos did his.” We, however, will not die – only live more. Elsewhere St Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ and yet I live, not I but Christ who liveth in me.” We offer ourselves, our souls, and bodies to be nailed to the wood of the Cross and the resurrected Christ lives in and through us, continuing his work in the world.

Paul says don’t be conformed to the world of this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind. You’re thinking about this all wrong, he says. If you’re open to this logical worship, your mind will be changed: you’ll eventually think different. You will know “what is the will of God” which he describes as “good, pleasing, and perfect.” That “perfect” is the Greek word τέλειος teleios meaning ordered to the right end. In God’s plan, everything is ordered to its perfect end. We don’t get to choose things just because they’re fun or what we feel like doing: everything including us, too, must be ordered to its perfect end. If we lose our life for his sake – meaning if we give up what we only imagine to be life, including our self-definitions, petty desires, and our departures from his plan – then we will have the more-abundant life that he offers us. We will reach teleios. It’s neither instant nor easy. Death never is. But after death resurrection is very easy indeed.

You seduced me… but I totally let myself be seduced. To get more of the beauty you offered me I needed to give myself wholly to you. Partake of the love you were dancing I needed to give myself wholly to the music you called.

There are those for whom weight loss will not be a good analogy: weight can be a matter of medical issues, for example. But for me, it was a matter of choice – a choice that I was unwilling to make until about a year ago. At 300 lbs I was not using food or my body to its properly ordered end. This required a new relationship with my body and a new relationship with God. Going from 300 pounds down to 180 – which is my goal although I am not there yet – requires an act of God’s grace, as well as an act of will in concert with that grace. It requires a renewal of my mind which is ongoing.

Everything else about the Christian faith is exactly the same: an ongoing choice we need to make. We can choose to stop thinking with bodily desires, fleshly cravings, and worldly thoughts and, instead, choose to offer logical worship, thinking in concerted harmony with God rather than demanding he do so with us.

When we move in time to the tune that God is piping, the whole dance becomes a reflection of his beauty which is, in truth, our only beauty as well.

Author: Huw Richardson

A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He has worked in tech (mostly) since 1999 and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.