In the movie Dumplin’ the protagonist, played by Danielle Mcdonald, is a high school student who struggles because she doesn’t have what society considers a perfect body. Her mother, played by Jennifer Anniston, is a former beauty queen known for organizing a local beauty pageant. Dumplin’ has lived her whole life under her mother’s beauty queen shadow. In the end the daughter exacts the perfect revenge upon her mother by entering the beauty pageant, together with her misfit friends. Her mother is mortified, saying her daughter shouldn’t expect any special treatment. The movie, which is a drama-comedy, results in Dumplin’, her friends, and ultimately the mother as well, learning more about themselves, their relationships. And there is also plenty of Dolly Parton music. The movie pulls off a tender story about teenage body image issues, the pressures of family and society, all the while telling a heart-warming story that doesn’t feel forced or contrived. The movie is streaming on Netflix and I encourage you to check it out.
Loving Our Bodies
We don’t often talk about loving our bodies in church. Historically we’ve been taught, especially women, to guard our bodies for purity, to refrain from sin, to see the body as a source of corruption. And yet the gospels revolve around the incarnation of Jesus, especially the Gospel of Luke from which today’s gospel reading comes. Luke also empowers women through the stories and voices of Mary and Elizabeth in the way few Biblical texts do. It’s in today’s reading from Luke 13 we hear the story about Jesus liberating a woman who was overcome by a spirit to stand up and walk. She was crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over, unable to walk. What is Jesus’ response? It’s one of compassion. It’s one of empathy. Jesus calls over the woman, lays hands on her, and tells her she is “set free.” Immediately the woman stands up and walks, free of her ailment.
Traditionally we interpret this exchange between Jesus and the woman in terms of physical health. We think about illness, osteoporosis, and other significant illnesses in need of healing. These are right and good interpretations. Let us consider other spirits which besiege bodies as well. Think about the structural spirits that possess our children, especially girls, telling them their bodies need to look a certain way in order to be loved, in order to valued. We think about people undergoing any number of responses that future generations might look at as medieval. The various contortions we put our bodies through in order to pass, in order to be deemed desirable.
Jesus as Liberator
Consider Jesus’ response. He interrupts his teaching in the synagogue in order to tell the woman she has been liberated of this spirit besieging her. He lays hands on her and she is healed. This is an act of grace. Jesus sees suffering and his presence relieves it through word and touch. Jesus’ word sets free and he lays on hands.
So often when we hear about deformities of any kind, people do not want to touch bodies. There is fear to offer an embrace to value a body that is different as good. To be sure we need to talk about consent as well. This gospel story does not give us license to lay hands on the bodies of others without their consent. You can’t give someone a hug or put your arm around them without asking someone if they would appreciate a hug. Women know this reality too well about men touching women without asking. This too is something we need to talk about in church. That it’s unacceptable to touch children, women, men, without first receiving consent.
Response of religious leaders
Let us consider the response of the religious leaders in the gospel reading. They become indignant that Jesus is healing on the sabbath, upsetting the status quo. Instead of observing the sabbath he is delivering this woman from suffering. As modern audiences we often find these objections confusing. But note the response from religious leaders then isn’t so different from what we hear today. People are offended by Jesus’ actions but they can’t come out and say it’s wrong to relieve the suffering from this woman. Instead the criticism is concealed by refocusing on Jesus as a rule breaker. They come at Jesus sideways, subtly criticizing the way in which he does the healing. Why does Jesus need to exclaim the woman’s liberation out loud for all to hear? Why the laying on of hands? Why this transgressing of boundaries on the sabbath?
Today we can imagine Jesus’ criticism as a kind of tone policing. If we talk about empowering children and women to love their bodies, all well and good. Yes, God wants us all to love our bodies, but like Jesus’ exclamation, why say it so loudly? Why announce it for the whole world to hear? Does it really need to be in the sermon and on the church sign? [The church sign says, “God wants you to love your body.”]
And yet people who are relieved of a heavy burden deserve to have their liberation named aloud. They deserve to experience the laying on of hands, even if it feels like too much for others. People who have historically been oppressed, whose voices have not been heard, who are told their bodies are too much or not enough, it’s time for rejoicing, time for liberation, time for joy.
This is one of the big takeaways of our gospel reading, just as Jesus rejoices in liberating others, so do we. We don’t have to hide our faith and exultation under a bushel. We don’t have to speak in hushed tones about bodies that don’t fit into clothes they’re expected to fit into.
I think about the singer Lizzo who has become a sensation because she is just that good. She is plus-sized and rather than apologize for her body she owns it. She say things like “If I can love being me, then you can love being you.” There is no pledge to be different, but rather she delivers a message of grace that no slender pop diva can ever deliver. Lizzo doesn’t fit the mold of a traditional pop diva and yet she is one. She is amazing and she delivers grace and liberation through music and words of empowerment.
And there are the religious leaders who will look down upon Lizzo. They will say she doesn’t deserve her podium. She doesn’t deserve to be a teacher because she is too loud, she is too big, she is just too much. [Note: Lizzo uses coarse language so if you go home and look up her music, you’ve been warned. Her music transcends coarse language, so keep an open mind.]
Who are we in the story?
Who are we in this story? There’s some bad news and there’s some good news going on here. I am going to start with the bad news. And that at times we are the religious folks in this story. As church we are the ones historically who have policed women’s bodies. We’ve told them that they are both too much and too little. At times we are the ones who were more upset about respecting norms, about being polite, than we are about setting people free. At times we are the ones body-shaming others. We are complaining about bodies that are disabled, too fat, don’t conform to beauty norms we’ve adopted to guilt people into buying clothes and cosmetics in order that their bodies count too.
I think about women I’ve known who have been beset by spirits that tell them their bodies aren’t right and they develop eating disorders or depression.
But there’s also good news. Twofold good news in fact. First the good news is we don’t have to be like this. We don’t have to be Puritans about bodies. We can let that go and adopt healthier approaches to valuing the incarnation. That too is part of loving Jesus is loving our own bodies that God gave us.
The other good news is we are also the woman besieged by a spirit who Jesus comes to set free. This is the good news of the gospel that Jesus cares for us enough to grant us grace. What are the ways in which you may have been told that your body is not good enough? That it doesn’t measure up? Even when we are not told these messages directly, they’re in the air we breathe, in the culture that constantly tells us that we should expect more of ourselves. That we should strive for a sense of perfection.
We don’t need Weight Watchers to be loved by God or to love our bodies. But saying these words one time isn’t going to make all those spirits go away. We know these spirits haunt us. We might feel good today, but tomorrow they return in a dream. And that’s why we need to repeat these messages both in the church and seeking professional help when needed. This is why we keep proclaiming the gospel every Sunday. It’s why we read and re-read gospel readings because we need to keep hearing the gospel interpreted for us today and again tomorrow.
And yet we trust that God’s love for us is enough. We trust that we can support one another as the body of Christ, to build a church based upon acceptance, rather than one based upon misguided body norms and Puritanism.
Trust that Jesus is offering you grace today. Some call it the best kept secret of the Lutheran church. We often struggle with communicating our theology. One thing we can say is that Lutheran theology is loving our bodies. It’s loving the incarnation. It’s loving that we are enough for God. And that’s a big deal because people are more likely to hear the message of grace from reality TV than they are from the church. Because Jesus taught us words of liberation we can say today: you’re already a diamond. You are already beautiful. You sparkle. You shine. We need to hear these words of liberation. We want to be affirmed in who we are.
When we receive grace to love our bodies, then we also are set free to share this message with others as well. If we receive God’s grace, we are better equipped as disciples to lift up others as the Boyd of Christ as well. In the final scene of Dumplin’, well I guess I shouldn’t give away any spoilers. In any case mother and daughter come closer together and there is a new understanding between them. Somewhere along the way in how the beauty pageant plays out, there is a tenderness that comes through. In the end there is grace. I invite us all to consider what such a grace would look like for us as church, what it would look like for you. What is one thing you can do to love your body this week?
Receive Jesus’ grace, the same one who came in a body, liberating us, loving us. Amen.