A Light to All People – Epiphany – Chuck Rush (1/4/15)

A Light to All People, Inclusive Spirituality
Epiphany, 2014
Isa. 60:1-5; Mt. 2:1-12

In the movie Apollo 13, the astronaut Jim Lovell is asked if he was ever afraid flying. He tells a story of the most unnerving night of his flying career. He had been on a combat mission and couldn’t find his aircraft carrier upon return. It was a very dark night and the aircraft carrier couldn’t turn on its lights because they were in combat conditions. Neither could he use his radio navigational equipment because they were on total silence to avoid detection.
In a last ditch effort, he flipped on the light in the cockpit to see if he could calculate his position and the light shorted out, causing all the lights to go out, even on the panel. Low level dread morphing anxiety into panic.
Just then he saw it. In the darkness, there was a luminescent glow. It was the glow of sea plankton that is generated by the wake of a ship as it passes through. All he had to do was follow the glowing sea of plankton, like a highway to the ship. He said, you don’t know what will transpire to lead you home. If the map light had not shorted out, I never would have seen the glowing wake.”
I like that story just now because it seems to me that we need to fly by a new and different light than we have in the past, a light we might not have seen had an emergency not switched off our usual ways of thinking.
If we are ever to establish something like détente or peace, we are going to have to do a good deal more than just root out Al Qaeda militarily. We are going to have to mature in the contest of ideas. I’ve said before that we would be enormously helped if we had something like a Reformation in Islam and I still believe that is the fundamental issue. But it also seems to me that all three faiths: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam could stand a reforming spirit. What do I mean?
All three faiths share something fundamentally in common. All three of them were born in situations of persecution and oppression. The Jews were enslaved in Egypt and liberated by God in the Exodus. Christians were persecuted by the Romans and struggled as a minor sect of Judaism for the first couple hundred years. The followers of Mohammed were persecuted by a variety of people, religious and otherwise around Medina and Mecca when Mohammed first began sharing his vision in the middle of the 7th century.
All three faiths also share a similar response to this persecution, a spiritual approach to the world that has given direction to their adherents ever since. Persecution inspired both their inclusive and their exclusive approaches to the world and the inclusive impulse must structure the exclusive approach in every religion if we are to move beyond the present impasse.
Judaism has this wonderful refrain in the Torah that says, “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt.” And from that memory follows some of their noblest and most humane traditions. They are called to be merciful to those that work for them, to remember to give them a day of rest and not oppress them- particularly if they are slaves, particularly if they are not Jews. In the Torah, the Israelites are called to leave a portion of the grain they would harvest in the field for the poor to come and eat because they were once hungry themselves, they were once forced to glean in the same manner. The Israelites are called to treat strangers in their midst with the same sense of justice and fairness that they would treat each other. Remember, the principle goes… and act with humanity rather than unjust power. It is a noble tradition. It is an inclusive tradition.
The inclusive approach appeals to that part of us spiritually that wants to live out of our compassion, that wants to stretch beyond the normal duties, toward a wider vision of embodying what is good for goodness sake. It encourages us to make the world more humane, more tolerant, more understanding. It promotes even-handed justice which makes for peace.
But there is also an exclusivist response that is actually more often repeated in the Torah. It is the call to purity. “You shall have no other gods before me.” And from that, we get repeated calls to “come ye out from among them and be separate.” For “a holy and chosen race” are you. From this principle in the Torah, the Israelites are warned against intermarriage with the pagans in the Promised Land. The Israelites are warned against assimilating their customs. They are warned against syncretizing their religion with the pagans that live around them. We are repeatedly reminded that Yahweh is a jealous God that will tolerate no compromise or evil in his presence.
And we even have a couple stories to illustrate that point, the most infamous being Aaron who molds a golden calf into an idol when Moses is away, a common religious practice of some of Israel’s neighbors. Whereupon, the people that worship this Golden calf are swallowed up by the earth. Not surprisingly, in this tradition, we have many stories of the encounter with the people in the Promised Land that are conflictual, leading to battle, sometimes tragic violence. That violence is never entirely condoned but it is justified with reference to purity. The Israelites thought they were cleansing the land of the unrighteous and the unholy to keep a pure worship of God alive for their children’s children to practice.
The exclusive approach appeals to our desire for order, structure, and control. The exclusive approach defines the parameters of our duties. It appeals to those who like boundaries, who want to systematize our theology and spiritual world view. The exclusive approach appeals to those who are concerned about integrity, ritual, liturgy.
Left to itself the exclusivist approach is open to some inherently dangerous tendencies which it has manifested more than once in religious history. It opens the door to a religious justification of vengeance. It sets us up for competition rather than dialogue in the wider circle of religions. It encourages judgmentalism rather than good judgment.
Without this approach, in some form, we would have no religious text, no religious worship, no clergy, no structure. But, that is why it must be corralled by the inclusivist approach, which keeps it supple, humane, understanding, and dialogical.
Similarly, in Christianity, you have these two different approaches. In the gospel accounts, Jesus teaches us that God loves every person and that we are to treat each person as our neighbor, attending to their needs if they are hurt, thereby showing what love is all about, what God is all about. When Jesus sends the disciples out on a mission, he tells them, “every house you enter, say ‘peace be with you.’” Jesus reached out to all people, a scandal at the time- lepers, women, even prostitutes, Romans, even tax collectors in order to show us that God intends for every single on of us to live in one family of God- compromised and virtuous.
He taught us that even if your enemy asks you to carry something for him one mile, carry it two, because it is better to absorb unjust violence than to perpetuate it. That is the pronounced inclusivist approach that you find in Jesus’ teaching, which, I believe, is why Jesus remains such a compelling figure spiritually 2000 years later, even to people who are not religious.
But there is another tradition in Christianity, the exclusivist approach, that is also to be found in the New Testament. Indeed it near caricatured form in the Apocalyptic tradition found in Revelation. Here the tiny righteous remnant is encouraged to hold out with integrity because God is coming back and when God comes back, the mighty whore of Babylon, who now rules this dark age, will be consumed with the wrath of the divine sword. Judgment will be meted out and some will be cast into the lake of never ending fire. You don’t hear a lot about this at Christ Church, I understand. But the point of this tradition is to emphasize moral and spiritual purity at all costs, the courage of endurance.
We know that these books were written to a church that was actively being persecuted, indeed killed for their beliefs. In that setting, it is understandable that you would appeal to keeping the purity of the faith, rather than compromise, that you would remind people of the future reward of righteousness or integrity that God will honor. So stand fast, like Jesus, who also endured unjust trial and execution.
Unfortunately, they do it by appealing to God’s power, in this case a power that will eradicate our enemies thoroughly and completely. It also calls upon the judgement of God, presuming that God’s ultimate intention in the universe is to one day morally and spiritually clarify our world and eradicate evil once and for all. I would point out that this tradition is understandable, indeed necessary in some sense, because there really have been radically evil people and governments that have sought to destroy all that is good.
However, it is unfortunate that it has managed to claim such a predominant place in Christian history because when it is combined with power, it has so often led to needless persecution and inhumanity in the name of Christ. Examples are literally legion, from the Crusades to the preaching of Savanarola to the Counter-Reformation to the witch trials in Europe and the Colonies.
This understanding, by the way, was in the back of Jerry Falwell’s mind when he was on Pat Robertson’s show, and said that the reason that God allowed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center was because God had withdrawn his supernatural protection of our country due to a host of evils including but not limited to- gay activists, feminists, the ACLU, pro-choice advocates, and other vile liberals. I got a note from an aquaintance that I have worked with in the past on Church/State issues, who is a lawyer for the ACLU, attached to Reverend Falwell’s idiotic remarks was a note that said, “I didn’t have any idea we mattered that much to God.”
Islam, as far as I can tell, is more singularly commited to purity than it is to the inclusive approach. The word Islam, after all, means ‘surrender, and it conceives of the spiritual life as fundamentally about the surrender of our will to the will of Allah. Purity is the cardinal virtue. Nevertheless, in the Qur’an, Jews and Christians have a recognized place. They are called people of the book. Again, remembering their oppression and rejection when they were first spreading the faith of Islam as minorities, one Muslim sage put it like this. “Islam began as a stranger and it will revert to being a stranger just as it began. So give glad tidings to the strangers (in your midst).” The Qur’an makes a place for Christians and Jews, recognizing that they are all the spiritual children of Abraham. Herein lie the seeds of a mutual dialogue. Herein lie the seeds of an inclusive approach.
And there are other strands in the Qur’an to encourage an inclusive approach. The Qur’an says “show forgiveness, enjoy kindness, and stay away from the ignorant” and to “stand firmly for justice, as witnesses to God even as against yourself or your parents or you kin, and whether it be against rich or poor.” That is an inclusive view of justice.
I just wish the inclusive approach were far more pronounced and buttressed by wider tradition than it is.
For there is a much more pronounced call to purity such as the following. “And whoever contends with and contradicts the Messenger (that is Mohammed) after guidance has been clearly conveyed to him and chooses a path other than that of the Faithful believers, we shall leave him in the path that he has chosen and land him in Hell, what an evil refuge!” (Surah al Nisaa 4:115) These passages do not encourage dialogue among educated parties, because after all, if you have studied the Koran and concluded, ‘I think I’ll stick with my Christian tradition thank you’, there is some real sense in which you are morally culpable and require Allah’s rejection and the rejection of sincere Muslims.
Or this passage, which is oft quoted by the followers of Wahabism (from Saudi Arabia). The messenger, as Mohammed is called, said ‘A group from my Ummah (the entire body of Muslims) will always be aided with victory as they continue to persevere on the Truth; they will not be harmed by those who abandon them or oppose them.” And this, “This Ummah (nation) will split into seventy three parties, all of which will go to Hell- except for one party: the one which will follow the same path as what I and my companions are following today”.
This passage is often quoted these days by Muslims that want to make the point that the way of true Islam is narrow. Furthermore, they say, the only real way to get to religious purity is to adhere as closely as possible to the original spiritual vision that Mohammed had. This, of course, is always the cry of the Orthodox and the fundamentalist. We want to go back, back to a purer, simpler time, back to when gays were in the closet and women were in the kitchen, back, back to the supposed pure original values of yesteryear …
But the challenge of our time is is not so much to go back as to move forward. We need a spiritual disposition for this age, not the replication of some earlier, supposedly purer age.
And the Wahib movement in Islam that has been the spiritual impetus behind this latest round of terrorist attacks raises this notion of return to the spiritual austerity of the original vision of Islam to a new height. It was the justification behind the Taliban arresting the Christian missionaries that were in their country doing hunger relief because in this vision after 1300 years of exposure to Islamic teaching, there should be no real reason for anyone to embrace Christianity anymore. Likewise, in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, where the Wahib movement is central, there is no serious religious toleration of Judaism or Christianity. You can still be arrested for owning a bible.
Not surprisingly, our government has been reluctant to talk about the religious dimension of the present impasse but it is there nevertheless. Militant Islam fundamentally is a central part of the problem. It is a problem if when we hear exclusivist rhetoric from the mouths of Mullah’s proclaiming the United States as ‘Satanic’ or when they declare ‘Death to all Jews’. That is a huge social and spiritual problem.
And it is a huge problem when we hear Orthodox settlers on the West Bank claiming that all of Palestine was meant only for the Jews and that they are divinely mandated to continue building settlements with little or no spiritual foundation for compromising with their neighbors.
And it is a huge problem when we hear fundamentalist preachers in our own country analyzing the world through the matrix of the United States being a Christian nation, subject to God’s reward or punishment based on how pure we maintain a Christian world-view and practice.
In every case the exclusivist approach is being allowed to so dominate our spiritual interpretation of events around us that the inclusive approach is corralled, qualified, tamed and trumped. Our impulse for control is winning out over our impulse for humanity. Our fear of the promulgation of evil outweighs our desire for the triumph of the Good. The desire for integrity through duty trumps our desire for understanding and tolerance. It is a contest that becomes a conflict, not a competition that creates quality.
Which leads me to conclude, what if? What if, the inclusivist approach structured and qualified the exclusivist approach? What if we judged the profundity of religions by the character that they produced rather than being concerned about who has the true scriptures? What if we judged the quality of religion by the leavening influence it has on society- particularly for the poor and dispossessed- rather than being concerned about who is the true prophet of the Almighty? What if we engaged in some friendly competition as to who could produce the most harmonious community rather than bicker about who has the real path to salvation? What if we prided ourselves not on the blind zeal of our faithful adherents but upon the broad humane vision for all of our believers?
This year the Pope make a simple plea like this in his Christmas homily and I thought ‘this is going to become the theme in our next era. At the moment, it is probably no more bright and guiding than that sea of plankton that led Jim Lovell back to his aircraft carrier. It is just a couple of candles lit in a large, dark Basilica.
But one thing is increasingly clear. The exclusivist approach is not going to work in our global village of many faiths and religions. After too many suicide bombings… After too many terrorist attacks… After too many wanton civil wars, eventually… Eventually, people will weary of the awful social consequences of the exclusivist approach to religion and will begin to demand the inclusive values of faith fundamentally. Let us pray that it is sooner rather than later. Amen.

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Sermons & Presentations

Once, when Jesus was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord if you choose, you can make me clean.” Immediately the leprosy left him. And he ordered him to tell no one. “Go,” he said, “and show yourself to the priest, and as Moses commanded, make an offering for your cleansing as a testimony to them.” But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places to pray.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book, An Altar in the World, tells a story about a time when she was guest preaching at an Episcopal church in the south. She arrives early to check out the sanctuary & get settled in. She immediately noticed that behind the altar there was a striking mural of the resurrected Jesus, stepping out of the tomb. After greeting a member of the altar guild, a manicured and proper southern lady, Barbara walks up behind the altar to get a closer look at the mural. She says that Jesus looked “as limber as a ballet dancer with his arms raised in blessing…except for the white cloth swaddling his waist, Jesus was naked. His skin was the color of a pink rose. His limbs were flooded with light.”
Barbara felt protective over Jesus with so much skin showing, he is all exposed in such a public place. She recognized the beauty in this painting that in Jesus' moment of transcendence, he remained human, he came back wearing skin. But then she also quickly noticed that something was missing, the wounds in his hands and feet were apparent – though not grotesque. His arms were thin but strong, but then staring at his underarms, she noticed - that Jesus had no body hair! “Beautiful, isn't it?” asked the woman who was polishing the silver. “It surely is that,” Barbara said, “ but did you ever notice that he has no body hair? He has the underarms of a six-year-old and his chest is a smooth as a peach.” And the woman shrank in awkwardness. “Uh, no, um, wow…” she said.

This may or may not have sent me on a Google hunt to find a picture of a hairy Jesus, but alas, in the collective Christian imagination, Jesus is really into hygiene. Seriously though in a majority of these portraits, Jesus skin is silky and “rosey” and white and “hair free.”

And this perfectly manicured Jesus is problematic especially when I imagine Jesus in our gospel reading today. First of all - let's get something straight up front, Jesus was not fair-skinned, which is another sermon for another day. Second of all Jesus most certainly did not have access to spa treatments, sunscreen, or a personal trainer. I mean seriously though it looks like he baths in milk and does mint julep masks every day! And yes, Jesus was crucified, but he looked damn good doing it! The reality is that Jesus was a poor drifter teacher who trudged around in dirt and grim and touched lepers. And who knows, Jesus may have even been uglier or fatter or shorter or grey-haired or balding than our perfect-bodied Jesus! Why would that be such a scandal?

It would be a scandal - because we are generally uncomfortable with our own bodies – we decided to manicure Jesus' body and make it perfect to make us feel a little more at ease about the imperfections and struggles in our own bodies.

So Jesus' messy body – with smelly feet and bad breath and hunger and pain and a couple grey hairs – one day in his travels encounters a man who's body is covered in leprosy. And the man's frail and weak body covered with open wounds throws himself on the dirt ground at Jesus' feet in desperation. And Jesus heals him and restores him to his community. And I need Jesus to have a messy, real body in this scene. Because imagining the rosy pink flesh that is unblemished and perfect touching the broken body of the leper with open wounds just doesn't do it for me. “Rosey-skinned”

And perfect bodied Jesus doesn't fit in this story for two reasons:

1) Jesus' body certainly stands in contrast to our leper friend. The leper's flesh is rotting and open to infection, while Jesus' skin is shiny and new. If Jesus' body in our cultural imagination is perfect, unblemished, without warts or bad breath or hangnails, then we can hold his body at a bit of a distance. And the reverse is also true, Jesus can hold our bodies at a bit of a distance – and he would hold the body of a man with leprosy at a distance.

2) Leprosy is contagious, physically and socially – by touching this man, Jesus risks, pain, brokenness, loss of feeling, loss of limb, being socially ostracized. So when Jesus' body touches this leper – he risks being contaminated with this curse – this social and physical death. He puts his body on the line. And to top it off Jesus risks his own religious authority – if he contracts leprosy, everyone will think that it is his fault- that he deserves this suffering because he has sinned.

And so rosey-skinned-unblemished-no-body-hair-Jesus just doesn't do it for me in this scene. He is too ethereal, too perfect to risk touching a leper. The rosey-skinned Jesus has a special body and he can stand apart from us – he doesn't really get what it's like to be human. The Jesus with body hair, he is on our team, he is vulnerable, he touches lepers. He has skin in the game. He is moved with pity to touch a man who is untouchable.

But here is where the rubber hits the road, (START SLIDESHOW) just like the portrait of Jesus' perfect body we idealize the perfect human body now more than ever, and our relationships with our bodies are so complicated and loaded that we often cope by ignoring our bodies until they scream at us for attention.

Think about the struggles that land in our bodies: Struggles in our sex lives, with body image, with our relationship to food, our ability to balance rest and work, our relationship with other people's bodies, bodies that don't fit quite so easily into nice categories. We have an insidious cultural habit of demeaning and objectifying bodies in order to sell perfume. And don't get me wrong the Christian church has been the worst, trying to control our sexuality, and creating negative images of our bodies to suppress and oppress certain people with shame.

All of these complications and struggles divorce us from our bodies. Like the leper our bodies are fraught with illness – we are the most addicted, overweight, prescribed adult cohort in human history. These sacred vessels created in God's image are at risk of being subsumed by the quest for the “perfect body.” This dichotomy between our own body and the perfect body - divorce us from our bodies – suppress the beauty that we already are for some ideal or we ignore our bodies because they are loaded with shame

So here's the deal – This leper story is a story about isolation. This man is divorced from his own body, and kicked out of his religious, social and familial support system to battle this disease alone. And to top it off he is isolated from God, in their cultural context, this disease is proof that he has sinned before God and is therefore paying penance for his sins in suffering. So this man is left utterly isolated.

Jesus' miracle here is that he restores this man to his own body. When you have leprosy you lose sensation – you lose your connection to your nerves, which can eventually cause loss of limb. And so when Jesus heals him – he now is restored to his own body. This man is also restored unto his community, and they can now begin tending to the wounds of his soul from the pain of social isolation.

Like the leper we need Jesus to restore us to our own bodies and to restore us to authentic communities that can help us heal.

Why are people cast out in our society because of their bodies? Maybe they are too fat, too thin, too old or too young. Maybe they happen to love the “wrong body.” People are isolated because they are differently-abled, or their bodies carry the weight of illness or chronic struggles. We carry shame around in our bodies, not just eating disorders and a distorted idea of what “healthy” bodies look like but the general feeling that we are unaware of our bodies and our connection to God through them.

When we affirm Jesus' imperfect skin, we also need to affirm our own sacred skin. How does our culture try to divorce us from our own bodies? How do we lose touch with the sacred goodness of each unique body that is created in God's image, with one uniform and oppressive definition of “healthy” and “beautiful?”

Here me now when I say, “you are a person of beauty and worth, created in God's image.” How does that mantra change us? How can we develop rituals to remind ourselves of the sacred connection of our bodies and souls and minds? What does cherishing and affirming your body look like for you? Is it a yoga practice or a sport? A good bath, a long walk? Is it a nap or a morning routine?

Jesus says, “This is my body – broken for you”

Jesus body was broken

Our bodies are broken

And yet we celebrate them today as a place of sacredness – that God calls “GOOD.”

A beautiful miraculous gift – these things that we walk around in

These bodies that heal and breathe and walk and sing and dance

These bodies are our spiritual homes

May we gather in communion today with this mantra

“I am a person of beauty and worth – created in God's image”

And may that mantra heal us and draw us into communion with God and each other.