Accidental Saints – Chuck Rush (11/1/15)

Accidental Saints

Finding God in All the Wrong People: All Saints Day, 2015

Exodus 1; Mt. 26:6-13


In Graham Greene’s novel The Power and the Glory, the action moves between children being told of a time of martyrdom in Mexico and the actual events that took place. The children are told a story about a priest that emulated Christ along predictable lines of Catholic piety. He was arrested for his faith, taken before an unjust tribunal where he refused to renounce his allegiance to Christ, was dragged before a firing squad, and died in a courageous pose of Catholic piety, testifying to reality of G-d even in his death.

The actual story was quite different. It seems that the real priest was deathly afraid of being caught by the Communists and was in hiding throughout the country- side, traveling from small village to small village, under cover of night. He was running away as best as he could.

Furthermore, he did not feel adequate to be a priest. He drank heavily. There was an incident with a woman in his past that haunted his Catholic conscience. He was ashamed of himself and had censured himself from the priesthood. The only problem was that the people would not let him go. Every small village he went to, the people would somehow recognize him as a priest. Almost spontaneously, they would refer to him as Father, despite the fact that he would deny the title.

When he would arrive at a small village, the whole area would be mobilized. Somehow, communion wine would appear. Somehow, bread to be consecrated would accompany the wine. Against his will, the people would assemble in clandestine fashion, and force the priest to say the Mass, quite in spite of himself. They brought their children to be baptized, their sick to be anointed. The priest complied out of a sense of compassion for the people that overrode his own sense of inadequacy.

At the end of the book, he is indeed martyred. He dies with the same fear and uncertainty that any ordinary man would experience, the same sense of ambiguity about his own life, the same sense of isolation and abandonment that comes from dying before an executioners squad. In the juxtaposition between the stylized persona of spiritual martyrdom that comes from Catholic tradition and the human portrait of compromised compassion, it is clear that humanity has a much more moving authenticity to it in all of its vulnerability.

He is a saint, but an accidental saint. But how like the bible to find God in all the wrong people. We don’t actually have many characters in the bible that are pure, unadulterated, simply holy. Tradition has lifted up that dimension of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was a virgin. She submits to God when she says ‘behold, I am a handmaiden of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.’ Undefiled, uncorrupted, pure in heart. What a refreshing contrast say, to my children, your children, all the teens in our country. But she is the exception to the rule, and the truth is we just don’t know much about her and we’ve filled in the blanks with virtue.

The biblical saints are quite ordinary, compromised people that accidentally get caught up in the conspiracy of goodness that God does in the world. They do the right thing in spite of themselves, they exude virtue anyway.

Like Shiprah and Puah, two ordinary women, midwives when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. The Pharaoh is worried that there are too many slaves per free man in Egypt and he fears a revolution, so he decides to kill the baby boys and issues an edict to all of the mid-wives to let Israelite baby boys die as soon as they are born.

These two ordinary women get this edict, we don’t know what they thought or said, but it was apparently something like ‘to hell with that edict; we are not about to kill our own children’. These two women engage in the first recorded instance of ‘non-violent resistance’. We are not following that law because we follow a higher law. They refuse to comply.

This makes the Pharaoh livid. And he sends for them to ream them out. Like some of our over-confident Presidential candidates who are promising that they will ride into Washington, negotiate like a hard-driving New York business man and presto, change the huge bureaucracy of the government, the Pharaoh calls these women on the oriental carpet and reads them the riot act.

Whereupon they respond, “Yes, your eminence, oh most powerful masculine man, and we would veritably say ‘how high’ when you scream ‘jump’, but Oh sagacious suzerain over all the land that can be seen, our slave sisters go from contractions to transition to birth before we can even get there, so all we can do it attend to the mother and child, unless you want us to tear the child from its mothers arms and start a revolution you can’t control.”

They lie. It may be a righteous lie. But it is a lie. They are crafty, they have to make a cunning decision in an ambiguous moral area, and they aren’t particularly holy people, just ordinary women in a tough place with other people’s lives at stake. Make no mistake, they are remembered as saints.

Or Rahab in Judges 1. The Israelites have been liberated from Egypt. Moses leads them across the Sinai desert for years, wandering towards the Promised Land. They get to the edge of the Promised Land and suddenly all of the men become boys again, afraid. They start talking about how big the people are that live in the Promised Land, how difficult it will be to live there. The decide to send out a scouting party to do a little reconnaissance.

Here is where the story gets colorful. The recon party goes undercover and ends up in a small town on the edge of the Promised Land. And somehow, probably they got lost, probably some people took advantage of their naiveté, but somehow, these nice Jewish boys end up during their recon mission at the Whore House. Imagine that?

Wish we had a video or a photo of that night. I’m guessing that you wouldn’t find a saint anywhere in the vicinity… Guys selling hash, sure. Guys taking bets on the World Series, sure. Guys willing to find you an UZI if you need one, sure. Guys selling girls. Probably no Yoga meditation room in the whole neighborhood, just my guess.

The recon unit is lost, hungry, afraid, possibly open to a little entertainment- after all we could die tomorrow. And actually, the place is packed with men that would gladly cut them up if they knew who they were. And Rahab, the prostitute, has mercy on them. She hides them.

“Right this way, boys, I happen to know a tunnel.” She saves their lives. She gives them the intel that they need. She gets them to promise that they will spare her family if they later attack. Nothing is recorded about any entertainment for the evening. This is the official record and nothing was mentioned in the Secret Services logs about the unofficial entertainment for the evening their either. It never is, no.

And Rahab is remembered as a saint. Morally compromised? Perhaps. Morally ambiguous situation? Without question. But, she welcomes the stranger. She does what she can to help with the limited resources that she has. And she accomplished good. She got caught up in the conspiracy of God’s goodness in the world and in a gesture of touching humanity makes a difficult decision to do the right thing in a situation where there are really no unambiguous options and no unambiguous players.

That is our life. We are both sinner and saint at the same time. The miracle is that we actually can be saints, quite in spite of ourselves. A friend of mine remembers working at a group home for special needs kids in the South when she was a junior in high school in the 70’s, only this was before we called them special needs kids, before we had much of any program at all for them.

The place was a mix of full time staff that were high school educated and volunteers and part-time students that were all on the college track. They found each other amusing and odd.

One of the full-time aides that worked there, Francis,  was always reading these Harlequin romance novels that were so racy that she had to put a brown paper cover over the outside of the novel. Occasionally the volunteers would pick up one of these novels and read selective passages to the other volunteers just to entertain each other with lurid passages of soft porn.

Francis kept a loaded gun under the front seat of her car, a crow bar on the back seat floor and had a no nonsense approach with her patients,  out of the old school wat of parenting that was big on following the rules and big on love at the same time.

The volunteers and staff would sit on the back porch, smoking Winston’s and Kool’s, regaling the younger volunteers with titillating details of tryst’s and liasons, who was going on behind who’s back, how complicated nefarious unions that almost unraveled because of unanticipated twists and turns. It made the dull days of the summer a good deal more interesting at least for a while.

That summer Billy Paul was on the radio singing his huge hit song “Me, me, me and Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, Mrs. Jones, we got a thing going on…We both know that it’s wrong/ but it is much to strong to let it go…”

Every time that song would go on, this one woman on staff would just stop what she was doing and sing along, completely rapt for a moment by the memory of some sweet moment of illicit love.

She wasn’t an attractive woman, oh but she could move on the dance floor and even the patients would stop and just watch her glide with love potion #9. It was something to behold, against the backdrop of these patients who had severe mental and physical disabilities.

One of the young men that she was responsible for was particularly challenging for the whole staff. He had very limited rational capacity and a number of physical handicaps as well. He had only limited communication, no speech at all, wore a protective helmet and diapers at 13. It took enormous patience to connect with him to understand his needs. So he spent a lot of his time in frustration, crying or raging inarticulately setting everyone on edge. No one could really connect with this young man effectively- not the nurses that occasionally visited, not the doctor that came even less frequently, not the professional social worker that ran the place. The only one who could actually reach this man and soothe him, occasionally was this attendant, Francis.

Days turned into weeks that summer and this young man’s family never really came to visit him at all. Who knows why that was, why the family was the way that they were, but they show up late in the summer are there for a brief, brief time and the head Administrator asked the family about their plan for the young man during a 10 day vacation time in August that the group home used to make repairs and do a top to bottom cleaning of the facility.

Apparently, a year earlier, when they had taken the boy for a few days, he refused to eat the whole time, lost too much weight, until he was reunited with Francis and then he was fine again.

They didn’t have any plan which greatly annoyed the Administrator because they knew about it. The exchange was tense and the parents made it kind of bluntly clear that they couldn’t/wouldn’t care for this young man outside of a controlled setting.

Days went by. They never called and changed their mind. No one was quite sure what was going to happen. As the vacation time drew nearer, the Administrator was grousing about the irresponsible parents with just a few days left to make a plan and Francis spoke up, matter of fact like and said, “Oh I’ll take him with me.”

“But you are going on vacation”.

“Yeah, but he’ll go with me. He understands me.” As she spoke, the young man was resting his head on her shoulder, non-anxious, secure for a while.

My friend looked at me and said, “Don’t you wonder what that vacation was like? Kool cigarettes, Jim Beam whiskey, sneaking off for a quick rendezvous with Mr. Jones, and a grown young man that has to be toileted. But she made him feel loved, safe, cared for in a way that he could understand.

“And his parents just let her take him off like that?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah”… Different era, even though it is not that long ago.

Something about the image of this attendant with that young man, racy novels, Billy Paul on the radio, Kools whiskey, and Mr. Jones… There is something about that image that strikes me as Holy… God at work in all the wrong people.

And you know what? Lose some of the eccentricities.



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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.