Tortoises

Sermon for Chicago Community Mennonite Church 8/17/05

Elegy for Giant Tortoises
by Margaret Atwood

Let others pray for the passenger pigeon
the dodo, the whooping crane, the eskimo:
everyone must specialize

I will confine myself to a meditation
upon the giant tortoises
withering finally on a remote island.

I concentrate in subway stations,
in parks, I can’t quite see them,
they move to the peripheries of my eyes

but on the last day they will be there;
already the event
like a wave travelling shapes vision:

on the road where I stand they will materialize
plodding past me in a straggling line
awkward without water

their small heads pondering
from side to side, their useless armour
sadder than tanks and history,

in their closed gaze ocean and sunlight paralysed
lumbering up the steps, under the archways
toward the square glass altars

where the brittle gods are kept,
the relics of what we have destroyed,
our holy and obsolete symbols.

This is a sermon about tortoises. It is about the particularity of their bodies. What strange animals they are, “awkward without water, small heads pondering from side to side, useless armour sadder than thanks or history.” But even as they move to the peripheries of our eyes we feel, viscerally and palpably, the expectation that they will materialize in front of us, interrupting our expectations, reframing our holy and obsolete symbols.
It is also a sermon about the uneasy relationship we have as modern people to our minds, spirits and bodies. We alternate between brash confidence and strange praise as we realize the possibilities for failure and success in our reason, passion and palpable sensibilities.
I want to deconstruct both the tortoise and modern subject this morning. Passages like Romans 8 are so involved and complex and have been subject to so much historical and doctrinal sediment that they need deconstruction in order become once again strange and palpable to us. We only understand that which we can touch and that which feels strange.
This insistence, that we only understand that which we can touch and that which feels strange seems to bounce right up against Paul’s words in early in Romans 8. Here we are told that we can’t trust flesh; that we need to die to our bodies and live according to the spirit. We’ve taken this message to heart. We believe that our bodies and our mind are distinct; that the mind is in a battle with the body; and that the impulses of our bodies must be shut down if we are to follow Christ.
Now life according to the flesh is death; I’m not trying to convince you otherwise. And I’m not going to engage in any detailed exgesis of sarx; Paul’s word for the flesh. I don’t want to do this for two reasons: it’s summer and you don’t want to listen to it anyways, and our love of words is one of the problems here. We distrust the flesh but we love the word. Especially when we are acting like Protestants or Postmoderns we love the word.
Protestants fell in love with the word during the reformation. The word, in the sole authority of scripture and the ascension of preaching and scholarship supplanted the much more embodied religion of icons, symbols and relics that had developed in mediaeval Catholicism. Mennonites found a middle ground between these two ways of being Christian. We abandoned icons, relics and symbols, but our words have always been supported by the inarticulate groanings of the Holy Spirit which are too deep for words. Our words have always been an afterthought growing out of the things that our bodies have already done. And our words never taste best spoken, our words are sung.
Postmodernity fell in love with the word as it tried to find a way to supplant modern ideals of rationality, progress, elitism, and time. Postmoderns turn to language and argue that language creates our bodies. In our speaking, writing and thinking, in dialogue with others and by ourselves, we inscribe our bodies with meaning and sense.
But the point as Paul gets around to telling us is not about the word. Its about the word made flesh. Words don’t negate our bodies as in protestantism. Words don’t save our bodies as in postmodernity. Words are the way we communicate, but there are strange groanings, too deep for words that are our best conduit to God.
I think what Paul is really after here is not at all an attack on the body. For Paul our bodies are not a shell holding our souls. For Paul our bodies are not the evil part of who we are. For Paul its all about how to follow Christ, how to best ready ourselves for adoption. What this means, I think, is that we shouldn’t live according to human logic but instead that we pattern our bodies according to God’s reign. The future redemption of all creation shows us that the body is not in and of itself evil, just that the body first must be God’s.
Tortoises help us learn this. They can’t trust their bodies according a gravity unmediated by water and buoyancy. They find themselves slow and ponderous, outfitted with a useless armour for a useless war. On land they are sadder than thanks. On land they are sadder than history. On land they are groaning inwardly waiting for the Spirit to intercede for them. Tortoises on land are like humans living apart from God. There is nothing inherent evil about it, but it’s clumsy, useless and sad.
In the water, tortoises are graceful moving quickly and articulately negotiating a world that was made for them. In water they are submerged by exactly that which created them, sustains them and will redeem them. In the water how can tortoises be anything but alive and vibrant? In the water tortoise’s can trust their bodies to be supported.
I know I’ve hit the difficult ideas to think about drum pretty hard this morning. I recognize the irony here. In trying to make palpable the body of Christ, I might have only made it strange. I don’t believe that strangeness is the only way to touch something, I’m just not a very good poet yet.
Meister Eckhart is much better.

IF I WERE ALONE in the desert and feeling afraid,
I would want a child to be with me.
For then my fear would disappear and I would be made strong.
This is what life in itself can do because it is so noble, so full of pleasure and so powerful.

But if I could not have a child with me,
I would like to have at least a living animal at my side to comfort me.

Therefore,
let those who bring about wonderful things in their big, dark books take an animal to help them.

The life within the animal will give strength in turn.
For equality gives strength in all things and at all times.

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