Advent 3, 2013 – Love — Charles Rush (12/15/13)

Yesterday, I had my grandson Cy riding with me on the tractor. I say to him, “Cy, I thought this would be a good time to talk about your future”. Cy is a loquacious 4 and change. I say to him, “Cy, when you grow up are you going to Princeton or Harvard?”
“Papa, when I grow up, I'm going to ride Black Beauty.” I love that, don't understand the question, answer a question you do understand. Framing the debate is more than half the battle.

I let the little fella down on. His eight year old sister is skating her first skate on the pond which is beautifully frozen over. He runs across the pond and flying eagle tackles her on her skates. I come over and say, “Cy, I saw you tackle your sister. Can you go tell her that you are sorry.”

He sighs and says, “Okay Papa.” He looks up at me, my Catholic grandson, and says, “Papa, we don't need to tell God about this do we?”

I look back at him and say, “Cy, have I ever shown you the secret fraternity hand shake?” He looks at me, “No”. I shake his hand and get this look like, “Papa, you de man.”

You probably know that Christians originally chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus during the Roman festival of Saturnalia, the mid-winter week long feast of food and alcohol, during the shortest days of the year that looked forward to the beginning of the return of spring. The birth of Jesus was depicted as a kind of star of hope on the horizon, just after the darkest day of the year that beckons forth a new hope next year, a new hope that will grow in the spring and come to full harvest in the future.

We tell this story that God loves us. When the shepherds came in wonder, when the smartest priests who were also the smartest scientists and mathematicians in their day, came in search of a star, they brought their ideas about God. They came looking for “The director of the heavens who holds the key to the fate of each individual life”; they came looking for “the great power that enrages the sea and causes volcanoes.” They came looking for the one behind nature that can give us miraculous cures for our failing health. They came looking for the great Mind behind the complex, inscrutable universe that puzzles us limited humans. What did they find on their esoteric quest? They found the love of a Mother for her infant. Whatever else we thought God must be or has to be, God came to us with the healing, hopeful response that behind the math, behind the physics, behind the complex mystery that befuddles us, there is love.

We won't know everything but in spite of that be trusting because God is love fundamentally. And God wants for us to become what we are to be in our fullness. God is a comfort, a joy, a compassion. God cares about you and what you are going through. God loves you and you and you.

Love is really wonderful. A principal in Newark was telling me about a woman in his school from Guatemala. She cleans houses in Short Hills and has been in our country for about 5 years. She lives in a falling down section of Newark because that is all she can afford. She stood out, in the Principal's mind, because she is always there with her son Luis. She has Luis in crisp clean clothes for school every day. From day one at school, she made Luis introduce himself to the Principal and to his teacher, shake their hands, and say, “Good morning.”

Despite the broken community around her, she was intent on filling that boy with discipline, a sense of respect, a love for learning. Luis was her project and her love for that boy filled him, day in and day out, with the character to rise above his situation and make a better life for himself. He was blooming.

Or the teacher in the wonderful movie Music of the Heart, about a classical musician that began teaching in a school district in Harlem at a school that had never had a music program. She encounters all of the brokenness that poverty brings to a community… no resources, social anarchy, kids with attitudes, children acting out as a full time occupation, ridicule.

Her first students are the marginal kids because music, of course, is not cool to the cool kids in the Hood. But she stays with it, teaching them violin. Over the course of time, she gets to know some of the parents, begins to understand some of the special burdens that are laid upon the poor, makes some changes to accommodate other students. Shortly, she has a parent here and there, stopping her and asking her plaintively, “Will you teach my child?” The class grows, the kids develop the habits, and this new dimension of their personality begins to grow, the part that appreciates beauty. And as they develop talent, they have a newfound sense of self-esteem, self-respect. Cornell West says that the greatest spiritual damage that poverty wreaks upon people caught in the Hood is a culture of lovelessness that makes people unable to love or respect themselves. Day by day, this teacher was reversing that trend. She was giving them a way to develop self-respect, self-esteem, to create and participate in beauty.

One day, she decides that the children need a goal to work towards and she figures out what they need to do to play in Carnegie Hall, just a few dozen blocks south, but a whole world away. All of the kids get pumped. The parents become galvanized. Eventually, all the parents and all the kids have to get organized and raise some money to make this all happen. Community Spirit just blossoms in their midst. That self-respect and self-esteem have some contagious radial consequences. Parents start to care, start to get involved, start to take on some responsibilities and themselves get caught up in this positive energy. Way leads to way, and the next thing you know, the higher reasons for which we were born start to become manifest.

And they get to Carnegie Hall and they sound marvelous. Audience claps, then they stand. And then the parents just break out in fuller more raucous celebration. You see these kids drink in the blessing. The best thing is that they finally get to say to themselves, “I'm really here. I belong here”. It opens up a whole new world.

Love is like that. Love blooms people into their fullness. Love is patient. Love is kind; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on doing things only one way; it is not irritable or resentful. Love rejoices in small signs that things are going right and does not glower over setbacks great or small. Love is capable of bearing a great weight of responsibility. Love believes when there is no evidence around us that belief is warranted. Love is hope filled; it can endure to the end….Faith, hope, and love abide… But the fullest of these is love.

Love expands our sense of compassion, one of the principal themes of the Christmas story. It allows us to love people we don't know well, remembering that God loves all of us. I remember reading an article in the New Yorker more than a decade ago from a reporter that was in Sarajevo when it broke out in ethnic violence.

There was an American who was in the city one day when sniper fire erupted. He saw a young girl get hit and fall to the ground. A man ran into the middle of the road and picked her up. The American had a car, so he jumped in, drove over to the man and said, "Get in. I will take you to the hospital."

They started to head for the hospital. On the way the man holding the girl in the back seat on his lap said, "Hurry mister, she is still alive."

A little while later he said, "hurry mister, she is still breathing." He drove faster.

A few moments later he said, "Hurry, she is still warm."

They got to the hospital, turned the child over to the doctors. The man said, "Hurry please. She is getting cold."

They brought her inside, got her to the medical team and the medical team pronounced her dead. The two men were leaden in distress and they stood together over a sink, washing the blood from their hands. The man who had carried the young girl had tears in his eyes. He said, "I don't know how I am going to tell her father that she is dead."

The American was astonished. He said, "I thought she was your child."

The man looked back at him and said, "Aren't they all."

That is the way God looks at it. They are all God's children. "No one has ever seen God” says I John, “if we love one another, God lives in us, and God's love is perfected in us."

"Those who say, 'I love God,' and are indifferent towards their neighbors, are liars; for those who do not love the neighbor whom they have seen, cannot love the God whom they have not seen."

Love takes us out further in compassion than we imagined we might and it also makes us deeper, sturdier when in our closest relationships.

They give us the confidence and acceptance to find our dreams and live them. The great baseball player Jackie Robinson… His wife Rachel and he had a profound love life together and they raised three children as well.

Jackie Robinson was a terrific athlete and an important role model in American history as the first black baseball player in the major leagues. Jackie Robinson had to endure not only the insults and humiliation that was hurled against him at the time, he was always on stage, always in the public eye. And there were some people that were waiting for him to fall. No matter how much you love the game, that is a lot of spiritual pressure to live under.

And Jackie had the pressure that generation of black leaders had to go through of being the first at this, the first at that. He couldn't just be ordinary. I'm sure he internalized a standard of excellence just knowing that so much was on the line for his people as well as himself.

Rachel gave him the confidence and the courage to endure and become all that he became. He once wrote of her, "Strong, loving, gentle and brave, never afraid to either criticize or comfort." Great relationships are like that. They are a team effort. Jackie might have been the one that had his name on the marquee but when you talk to the Robinson kids it was a team effort. There wasn't Jackie without Rachel.

Mo Vaughn, the first baseman for the Boston Red Sox, wore #42 on his jersey in honor of Jackie Robinson… He once said "Jackie Robinson couldn't have been Jackie Robinson if it wasn't for Rachel Robinson… He wanted to quit. She wouldn't let him." That is what we hope, that we will be an inspiration for each other, a quiet confidence that blooms each other, that makes us sturdier, makes us deep.

Arthur Aron, a psychologist at SUNY has done a simple experiment that shows how important it is to be present with one another. He takes random couples and puts them in pairs. In the experiment, they are asked to do things together, each of them has to give directions so that each of them have to follow one another in turn. In addition, they have to share some important personal information with each other. Finally, he has them stop and look into one another's eyes for a full two minutes. Two minutes is a long time to look at each other. What do you think he finds? He finds that a high percentage of these total strangers report feelings of attraction to one another.[iii] Try it at home, not with a stranger, but with your spouse and let us know. This is not rocket science but we have to be intentional about paying attention to one another. It is like Arnold Schwarzenagger says about body building, "You have to put in the time."

I think that one of the reasons we have this festival of peace is to give you the chance to put in some face time. And it is important to be strong for each other, to make each other sturdy, especially when we are going through hardship and difficulty.

A few years ago, I took one of our Field Education students with me to the hospital. One of our church members was there who was about to be discharged to go home because the doctors couldn't do any more for him. Our student said something to him about how awful it must be and he waved that off with, ‘I've had a great life. When I think of everything I been able to see and do, all the opportunities I've had, don't cry for me…' We chatted about this and that. I closed with a word of prayer. I put one hand on his head, held his hand. We prayed, we said ‘Amen', and this man still had hold of my hand in a pretty tight grip for another minute or so. My Field Ed student was watching the two of us sharing a grip in silence.

We walked out and the student commented on how he held on to my hand. I said, “Yes, it is not easy to let go of the life that you love. What a privilege to be on the supporting end of that grip.”

"Socrates had it wrong; it is not simply the unexamined life but finally the uncommitted life that is not worth living. Decartes too was mistaken; "Cogito Ergo Sum- I think therefore I am? Nonsense, it is not mere rationality. Amo ergo sum- I love therefore I am. Or, as with unconscious eloquence St. Paul wrote, "Now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love."[2] Spread the love.

So as you go, remember that the point of the season is that it leads us to embody and spread the love, to friends, to our funky extended families, to our colleagues, to the strangers that the Good Lord just might place in your way, to the war torn, to the desolate, to those in pain and want. Reach out. Open up. Give. Receive. I close with a prayer from St. Patrick that I found in Ireland.

Christ be with me, Christ within me,

Christ behind me, Christ before me.

Christ beside me, Christ to win me,

Christ to comfort and restore me,

Christ beneath me, Christ above me,

Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,

Christ in hearts of all that love me,

Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. 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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