A Pilgrim’s Promise – Chuck Rush 6/5/16

A Pilgrim’s Progress

Dt. 26:1-10; Hebrews 11:8-16

By faith Abraham left the land of his people and traveled to a new land promised to him by God, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, looking forward to a city that would be built by God. And by faith Sarah became pregnant past the age of child-bearing and from here so many descendants came that they number as the stars. None of them saw their promise fulfilled in their lifetime but they lived their lives as pilgrims passing through our world in search of a home that is prepared for them by God.

 

I turn 60 this week. It has taken me a while to get those words out.

A colleague of mine asked me, “If your sixty year old self could talk to your twenty year old self, what would he say?” A great question.

In the movie “Forest Gump”, Forrest and his childhood friend Jenny meet again when they are about 30 back in their hometown in Alabama. They are walking absent-mindedly, reminiscing about the past when they happen upon the home Jenny grew up in. Her father was a share-cropper, the poorest farmers in the poor south, an alcoholic, mean man that abused her physically and sexually as a child.

She turns towards her house, and suddenly her past comes fully back into her present. She remembers not only what happened but how much time she has wasted as a young adult because of the consequences of her abusive childhood. The house is empty now.

She picks up a rock and throws it through the glass window. Then another. Then another, and another and another. She is weeping and screaming in this huge emotional release of some bad stuff from way back there. Forrest stands there watching all this and says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”

We get to these places in our lives when the past opens into the transcendent dimension and we can see the wider pattern of meaning that is the arc of the narrative of the path we have taken. And it comes to us as blessing or curse. This is what it means to live by ‘faith’. And we have no choice about whether we live by faith or not. It is the only way we can live.

I’ve been thinking about these things as I close out the 5th decade of my life. So I’ve circled back to a small group of friends from High School and a small group of friends from College, just because we’ve known each other for so long.

I got my roommate from freshman year and a couple guys that lived above us to go to Scotland to play golf at St. Andrews. We are in the ‘bucket list’ phase of life and I knew they would go if I won the lottery for a tee time at the Old Course. I won the lottery, got a tee time, and I took it as a sign that we should do this.

We had a great trip and we didn’t talk all that much about our lives this time. It is because all of us have a lot of responsibility in our careers and all of us are managing our parents as they become genuinely aged, even as we are still caring for our kids and our grandchildren. At least for men, sometimes it is just fine to be together doing something, enjoying the present.

But on the last day, almost by accident, I was playing a hole and I realized that I’d been here before. And I remembered that 20 years ago, a bunch of guys at Christ Church were together at a fund-raiser for the Y or for the Connection and we won a house for a week in Scotland.

We were going to give it away but I wrote a bunch of them and asked how many would actually go over and play golf for a few days. They all said “yes”. None of us knew each other very well. We were all on the way up in our careers at Salomon Brothers, at Ernst and Young, at ABC News, at Enron, at David Rockwell architects. Dave Pruner, Jamie Akers, Neale Trangucci, Mike Fischer, Terry Baker. Everyone was so busy, some had to come early, some late, but we had three days together. I remember people on their phones all the time- we were in our late 30’s and becoming important, needed at work. We stayed up way too late carrying on like boys and everyone was up at the crack of dawn to play all day, burning the candle at both ends as my grandmother would say, so typical of that phase of our lives.

The last day we had to go in the middle of the round to get our flights, some going west, some going east. So we dropped one last ball and hit them to this green that was down below us. We were way up high, looking over the North Sea, a gorgeous vista. Almost all of us managed to leave the ball on the green miraculously. We had a toast to the next time we would do this. And we left, went our separate ways.

I hadn’t thought about that day again, until I found myself looking back down at the same place 20 years later. We never did get back together to make that trip again. And I was thinking about how life moves on like that and you don’t really realize it when you are young. A couple of them moved. Some got divorced. One had a child die. One had a double lung transplant.

None of us could see any of this when we confidently hit those balls and toasted our good future. That is the way that it is in early mid-life, you don’t know the complications and difficulties that await you and mostly you think you will somehow avoid them, even though you won’t.

I stood there looking out over the North Sea, the brisk wind in my hair, and the portal of time opened for a moment into the transcendent. I was thinking how we can’t hold onto our lives, as precious as they are, and there is so much that we can’t control. We can’t go back, we can only live by faith into the future.

And I remembered when I was a boy in college. And I met Kate. We dated. She was the best date I’d ever had. I was crazy about her. We had a great few months. She was cute, interesting, kind. We had a great time.

The day came when she around graduation time. She was going to go her way and I was going to go mine. Back in the 70’s we didn’t really have great career plans after college. I was going to get a motorcycle, drive across Africa, and try to hire on a boat in Athens and meet other wonderful girls, hopefully in Sicily, Morocco, and Majorca. It wasn’t much of a plan. Today we expect young people to start working on their careers in Kindergarten.

But the closer it came to us actually parting, I started to realize that if I let her go, it will be the biggest mistake of my life. I had no interest in developing a long-term relationship. What young boy does? And I started wrestling with myself internally.

I had no plan to pattern my life on. My parents weren’t able to be a model for me to follow. They were unhappily married, frustrated and resentful. I didn’t want to be that. So I was afraid, not confident. Having no other wise people to guide me, sort of a means of last resort, I decided to pray. And I remembered a line from the Bible that my Grandmother taught me.

[By the way, this is one of the biggest reasons we go to church, to have a verse and some wisdom we can give to the next generation to help them when they get to times like these.]

The bible verse said, “The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave behind your country, your people and your father’s household, and follow me towards an unknown land that I will show you I will make through you many people,

and I will bless you;

your name will outlive you,

and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,

and people from the far ends of the earth

will be blessed through you.”

And I said to God, not that I was particularly religious mind you. I studied philosophy and politics as an undergraduate. Philosophy generally bleeds religion out of people. I just said, “God, I will trust you and try to live by the faith that Abraham lived by and hope this all works out.”

And then in a moment of unguarded optimism, I asked Kate to marry me. And in a moment of utter naiveté, she said ‘yes’. And like most of these moments in your life, even though they are incredibly important times of wrestling and decision making, I forgot about it and went on living my life, working through the immediate ‘to do’ list like finding a job and figuring out where to live.

I forgot about it…Until… I’m standing up on this fairway, looking down at this place I’d been before, remembering back when I was forty. And I remembered that line again, “Leave behind your people and your past and follow me to a place that I will show you in the future and I will make through you more people than you can imagine and I will bless you.”

That line, that way of being guided me and it guided my ancestors. And I was thinking how my ancestors may have literally quite near the place I was standing in Scotland and they may well have decided to start out for a new world (in a land that would be called America) and a new life with that same committed faith, that same hope.

And for just a moment, I was taken by the unbearable lightness of being. I brought to mind my four children, our foster children, our nine going on ten grandchildren, five dogs, cats, so many friends, our congregation, and now so many new in-laws as my children marry and start their families.

And I remembered back to the beginning and I thought, “I really have been blessed by God, even though I had no idea where this was headed, sometimes I was frustrated and going in circles, sometimes I had to make substantive changes in myself that were really hard because I was my own worst enemy. In spite of all that, all of the limitations in myself that I had to overcome, I really was blessed.

Jesus taught the disciples not to be afraid to step out in faith. He said to the man that was lame, ‘take up your mat, stand and walk.’ He said to the blind man, “open your eyes and see”. He said to the woman at the well who was consumed by errors of her past, “go, sin no more, and be free”. His mantra was “do not worry too much about what you will wear, what you will eat”. He sent the disciples into the world and said, “do not worry about what you will say when you are arrested and threatened, for the Holy Spirit will be with you.”

What does it mean to a blind man that he might one day live with sight? By faith, you will find out and it will be okay. What does it mean to a man who is dependent and lame that he might one day actually walk and become self-directed? By faith, you will find out and it will be okay. What does it mean to grow through the mistakes that you have made so that you might mature, grow up, and become reconciled with yourself, foolish as you have been? By faith, you will find out and it will be okay.

I know that some of you came here this morning because you subconsciously wrestling with something uncertain about your future that you need to work through and resolve. And you are hoping that somehow that church will help you with that.

We can’t answer that deeper riddle for you. That is for you to answer for yourself. All of our profoundest spiritual reflections are like that. We can’t hold on to our life, or go back to a safer place, even if we wanted to. Our lives are not like that.

But you can live by faith. Like Abraham, like Jesus none of us can see the future or the incredible challenges that will await us. Each new chapter brings another unkown adventure that will require new and different skills to negotiate it, skills we probably don’t really have yet.

Live by faith. You are a child of God. God loves you. God inspires you and wants the best for you. God wants you to find your authentic voice and live it. And it will be okay.

And every once in a while, may the portal of time open before you into the transcendent dimension. May you see how your life has been really blessed. May you remember how have actually stepped out in faith in the past. May you name the blessings that have accrued to you because of how you have invested yourself. And be grateful.

Your life is precious. And those that have loved you, now and a long, long time ago, are precious. May you stumble into the spiritual plane of grace and live out of that. Through your most difficult days and your seasons of celebration, it will be okay.

 

 

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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.

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