Monday, May 5, 2014

The Body Tells the Story
(How Peter Shows Us the Heart of the Church)

Homily at St. Francis House, May 4, 2014. Here are the appointed lessons.



[Make a series of faces: frowns, smiles, etc.] 

Experts tell us somewhere between 60 and 90% of communication is nonverbal. Unspoken, which is to say, embodied. The percentage range is wide not because the absolute value is unknown, but because it varies day by day. Moment to moment. In each person. Gestures. Expressions. Posture. 

The bulk of communication being nonverbal means our bodies are constantly making suggestions to the hearer for how our words should be heard. Interpreted. The eye roll becomes an indication that the speaker might, for example, mean the opposite of the thing she speaks. Two wearied shoulders and eyes ringed with circles might name a fatigue of which the speaker himself hasn’t yet become aware. A parent’s subtle but undeniable smile and the tears welling up under her eyes, at a grown child’s unexpected return, again betrays any attempt on the part of the parent to downplay with words the significance of the moment.

Because somewhere between 60 to 90% of communication is nonverbal. Unspoken, which is to say, embodied. The percentage range is wide, because it varies day by day. Moment to moment. In each person. Gestures. Expressions. Posture.

Posture, revealing our histories and the stories we carry. Conveying, in an instant, the victories and defeats of a given day. Forwarding to the listener information like self-confidence, insecurities, and humility. I am always stopped short, when I see it, by the distinctive posture of humility. The one who stands always ready to serve. The kindness in the eyes of the one whose face speaks love without condition. Indeed, whose face suggests she will listen with neither judgment nor defensiveness, which is to say she will not be threatened by my judgments. Such a one communicates assurance of both her need for and the sufficiency of God’s great love for her. Humility, as distinct from humiliation, because humility is grounded but never defeated, and humility makes its boast of another, of God’s certain love for her and the others she encounters. Humility is not without love.

Can such an assurance be embodied? Conveyed without words in a person? As a matter of presence? By gestures, expressions, posture?

When Peter, “standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the multitude,” I wonder what nonverbal stories his body told the people. Could they see his past as he spoke? This is the one, say other gospels, who walked on water with Christ. The first one, say all the gospels, to call Jesus the Messiah of God. The one, says John’s gospel, who cut off the ear of the high priest’s slave in the garden and then, moments later, denied he knew Jesus. So I wonder what posture and gestures went along with the words when he said, "Let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” 
That last part - “whom you crucified” - sounds so pointed. So harsh. Not untrue, but could be construed as untoward or blame. I wonder if it wasn’t in these words, though, that Peter’s countenance felt an unexpected resonance with the multitude. On the one hand, words of accusation; on the other, words that marked the people’s kinship with Peter: Peter, after all, denying that he knew his Lord at the time of trial and crucifixion. Did Peter see, from his own experience - both as denier and as one restored, forgiven, and healed by Christ - the guilt, the plight, of the people as the beginning of God’s hope for them? 
Or did Peter’s shoulders drop later, when he heard the helplessness of the people’s words, “Brothers, what should we do?” Was it then that he felt the resonance, catching in their cry the same helplessness that had beset his own spirit as the cock crowed? Did his face change in that moment? His fists unclench? When Peter said, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven,” did his hands begin to shake, did his lip begin to quiver? Was he able to see the multitude at all any more for the growing tears in his eyes and the forgiveness of the risen Christ for him in that moment, active upon his heart? “You will receive the Holy Spirit,” he says. And he knows, because he has. And now he’s not accusing - there’s been a shift - and he’s speaking with the love of a parent for children. “For the promise is for you,” he says, “for your children, and for all who are far away…” No condemnation now, no trace, only assurance that for exactly these Christ came. For “everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him,” Peter says. This last part - everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him - did he say it strongly, boldly, each word with strength? Or did he fade a bit at the end, a tremble to a whisper, because the truth he had come to preach that day was so embodied in his soul?
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI once said that Jesus built his Church on Peter, so that the Church - not the building, but God’s People - would never forget her need for forgiveness, and also the love and mercy that has found us in Christ. So Peter is called “the Rock,” not because of his own reliability, says Benedict, but because of God’s. If Peter is the head of the Church, then God can come to anyone. So the disciples in Luke’s gospel cry out, “The Lord has risen indeed, and he has appeared to Simon!” It’s as if appearing to Simon is as equally amazing as the resurrection itself. But resurrection finds us in our brokenness. Loves us in our weakness. Heals us by our need for God. For the Church “is founded upon forgiveness.” And if we are like Peter, we will, like him, never find ourselves proclaiming a salvation for others that has not first known us in our weakness, in our need for forgiveness, and we will proclaim our need for forgiveness in our bodies. Verbally, yes, but nonverbally, too. In our bodies. You know, where the other 60 to 90% of communication happens. As the prayer book puts it, not only with our lips, but in our lives.
I wonder what it looks like to to speak salvation with one’s body - in a hospital? A software development company? A research lab? A class room? A library? The Sett? And there you were, in the Sett, this past Tuesday, prevailing on the generosity of others for the very poor. Those with no place to lay their heads. There you were. Not only with our lips; in our lives.
Experts tell us somewhere between 60 and 90% of communication is nonverbal. Unspoken, which is to say, embodied. The percentage range is wide not because the absolute value is unknown, but because it varies day by day. Moment to moment. In each person. Gestures. Expressions. Posture. Pray to always tell it with your body. Pray to always tell it with your body - pray to tell the old, sweet story, of Jesus and his love.

Amen.

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