A Work in Progress – Chuck Rush (7/16/17)

A Work in Progress
July 16, 2017
Luke 15

We call this the parable of the Prodigal Son but it should probably be called the Patient father. Jesus teaches us what God is like. God is like a poor woman that finds a coin that she values a great deal and is filled with joy over its return. God is like a shepherd that finds a lost lamb and is joyful over its return. God is very different from us because God is like an endlessly patient father who longs for us to come to our senses and return home, filled with joy that we are beginning to become healed.
We are not that way in our actual families. Imagine your own father for just a moment. Imagine you went to him and asked him for your inheritance during college? It would not have gone well.
But from the get go, God gives us humans near total freedom for our lives whether we deserve it or not, whether we can handle it productively or not. Some of us take our original freedom and become Albert Einstein, helping humanity enormously. Others of us waste half our lives, and barely get the point of our lives at all. Others of us still manage to inflict a tremendous amount of harm in all too brief time on earth like these jihadists that we have had to listen to for over a decade now. For good and bad, od keeps giving us near total freedom to live our lives as we choose.
God gives us that kind of unconditional acceptance. That is not what we get in most of our actual families. Mostly what we get is Mother’s with unconditional anxiety about what we are doing or not doing, unconditional worry, nearly unconditional fretting and a decent helping of guilt- which is a little different unconditional acceptance.
Jesus teaches us that God is not primarily embarrassed about us when we develop awkwardly. God is not primarily ashamed about us when fail ourselves and screw things up. God is not primarily afraid of us when we are filled with anger and hate. God is primarily love towards us, hoping for us healing and growth.
And we are invited by Jesus to become god-like in releasing that deeper, profounder, transcendent love in our lives to heal other people.
I love that line about the prodigal son in the far country that says, “And when he came to his senses”, “When he awoke to himself”, spark jumps the gap and he finally gets it.
I heard one of the guys in AA talking about his life. He was a Vet in Iraq, came home wounded. In the course of his treatment, he was taking pain medication, and kept taking pain medication after the physical pain was in remission, probably because it was a way of treating the soul wounds of war trauma. But who knows? He certainly couldn’t tell you. But over a period of time, he traded very expensive pain meds for heroin, turning himself into a complex mess, rewiring his brain in the process, which is very hard to undo and unwire as we know. He knows he is a total mess but he can’t/won’t do anything about it.
One day, he is moving some stuff, and he comes upon a picture of himself taken in Iraq. The picture was taken at the end of the day and he was out of his gear in a T shirt. He was in great shape and he had that expression on his face like he could conquer the world. Rugged handsome look. He looked at that picture and he went over and found a mirror and looked at what he was now. The picture, the mirror. The picture, the mirror.
And he thought to himself. “I’ve lost my honor. I have to find the part of me that is the guy in this picture again.” We all have that picture of ourselves somewhere in the closets of our lives, packed away some place. It is who we are when we are integrated, our higher selves. You need to find that picture too and put it up somewhere to remember.
And wouldn’t it be great if we also had a second picture that we could put on the other side of the mirror, a picture of who we are supposed to become in this chapter of our life? What would you look like if you lived excellence and love and fulfillment in this immediate context? Who is it that you need to become as you evolve towards wholeness?
God doesn’t look at us primarily as Mr. Bigshot, our vain ambitions. God doesn’t look at us for our sexy, our power, our elite status. God sees us as a work in progress. God wants us to become stronger, more substantive people.
Someone asked the Veteran how it was that he got off drugs and turned his life around again. He had an interesting answer. There was the re-hab and a long period where he was hollow at the core, where you can’t feel much of anything because the drugs have so overstimulated the pleasure generating parts of the brain that when you turn off the drugs, you feel nothing which is very frightening. And he reported pretty what you hear about these serious cases- that frightening feeling like you have no soul, no center.
And he had to build that back, and he really, really wanted to do it. It scared him, the feeling of nothing at his core. This is what was interesting. He was raised Catholic and I think some of the sound teaching he got as a child came back to him in his time of need. He said, he realized that he wasn’t going to get his soul back by focusing on himself. He just knew he had to help other people.
He started calling the other guys in his unit, see what they were up to. What he found out is that a large percentage of them were struggling. They came back from the war damaged, not that they exactly knew that they were damaged, or could tell you what that meant exactly. So he started reaching out listening to them, encouraging them, he’d travel quite some distance to be there for them. He said, ‘they had my back, now I have theirs’.
You know what happened? He started to recover his honor. You want to be honorable? Do honorable things. Reinhold Niebuhr once said that Jesus taught us that our own fulfillment is a by-product of fulfilling others. It is a good observation. You need to be healed? Start healing others. You need to become stronger? Strengthen those around you. That is the way God’s love works in our lives. Like so many of us, this veteran sort of stumbled into his actual calling for the next chapter of his life, becoming a wounded healer, helping other people to see themselves as a work in progress. We can change. We can become better. Healing, we can be healed.
I am amused watching these ads on TV for Viagra or Cialis to treat erectile dysfunction. It is not surprising because these ads are pitched to men exactly my age.
What is amusing is the depiction they have of guys my age relating to their spouses. They have these depictions of couples together playing with each other, couples frolicking in the park, couples taking photos of each other and making goofy faces, couples just sharing a moment hugging and watching the stars, couples being there for each other with these endearing, loving smiles.
I’m thinking to myself, ‘you know if men my age were that emotionally responsive to their mates, I don’t think we’d be needing medicine so much.
I suspect that if you could actually videotape our real lives in our real homes, a good part of the challenges of our romantic lives at mid-life is that we’ve stopped paying that kind of caring attention, we’re inconsistent at being emotionally resonant and responsive. I’m willing to bet that if we could actually survey the country, we’d find that the medical challenges are actually dwarfed by the spiritual ones. What we all really need is to improve our emotional/spiritual attunement with lots of small acts of caring.
John Gotman, the marriage therapist, calls these ‘sliding door’ moments, moments that you wish you could do over and get them right the second time. He gives an endearing example in his own life. He says, “I was getting ready for bed, putting a mystery novel I hadn’t had time to finish by my bedside. When I went into the bathroom, I saw my wife’s face reflected in the bathroom mirror. She was brushing her hair and looked sad. She hadn’t seen me yet. In one version of the sliding-door moment, I could have slowly backed out of the bathroom, gotten into bed, and picked up my book. In that universe, later my wife would have joined me and I might have turned to her to initiate romance. She, still feeling sad, probably would have pulled away from me because she wasn’t in a romantic mood… [But lets rewind and do that sliding door moment over again]… poised at the bathroom entrance. This time, however, I actually did enter the bathroom. I took the brush from my wife’s hand and began brushing her hair. That was a different universe. She closed her eyes and leaned back into me and I said, ‘what’s wrong baby?’ We talked about her sadness, which was about her 92 year old mother’s deteriorating mental alertness with Alzheimer’s disease. Later we both got into bed and I did initiate romance” and got a much more engaging response.
I suspect that our problem is actually that we need to get much better at sharing spiritual and emotional intimacy. Psychologists call this being attuned to each other. If we are good at spiritual and emotional intimacy, we are going to have better physical relationships as well. But there is no medical shortcut that takes the place of caring, compassion, and attunement. We need to be freed to care for our loved ones more like God cares for us.
Jesus teaches us that God gets us. God knows us, virtues and vices, warts and all. God accepts us, even as God wants us to grow and become. Jesus taught us that we should accept ourselves, quite in spite of ourselves, as a work in progress. God wants to free each and every one of us to become wounded healers, developing attunement to develop support for those around us, the divine love that we can and do show each other when we let our honorable side come to the fore. For just a moment, we can act like God and show a divine and healing compassion for those we love.
I hope that you can become loving for the people around you, not asking the minimum of what I can do, but ask yourself the divine question- what is it that they really need. I hope you can become responsive, caring to those people around you that are your project.
And may you grow to trust others, manifesting lived faith in the small moments that you turn towards those you love. And may you, one small act at a time, grow into a character of substance. Amen.

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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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