Anointing for Moral Courage – Chuck Rush (3/5/17)

Anointing for Moral Courage


Isaiah 6:1-8; Matthew 26:1-13


We turn to reflect on that part of our lives that is usually beyond our jobs and beyond the things that we plan for. All of us will have seasons when we simply have to respond to some tragedy that is given us. We do not choose these events. It is more like the zeitgeist tracks us down, like when those planes hit the towers, and we simply have to show up and be counted. And it is an important that we can express genuine moral courage, so that we can live with ourselves.

In the 90’s Sarajevo was engulfed in a frightening civil war as Yugoslavia tore itself apart, as Serbs battled Muslims, killing 13,952 during the siege, including 5,434 civilians, right in the heart of Europe. Atrocity led to inhumanity in a spiraling vortex, one day a group of innocent children were killed. With blood stains still on the street and snipers in the burnt out buildings all around, Vedran Smailovic took his cello to the street, and he played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor.

The Lament of humanity in midst of violence that had become wanton and tragic. [Play 2 minutes of Albinoni’s Adagio].

Our text this morning turns to look at the destiny of Jesus. Perhaps it is better called his vocation, his calling. It is the work that all the gospel writers tell us that Jesus came to do. It is a story that leads Jesus ultimately towards death, a story that has an approach/avoidance power to it, in part because we also know that we are destined to die. We slow to the story like so many cars slowing for a wreck on the side of the road, curious and fascinated by death, afraid of it too, and ashamed in a strange way of our curiosity.

And the death of Jesus is more than that. We stand in awe of a man who held to his convictions, unwavering in his righteousness, able to withstand torture and death rather than be compromised. At the same time, he is very threatening in the way that he does not stand up for himself in the midst of a mortal challenge from evil men. We stand in awe of someone who appears to be so internally confident, apparently intimately in touch with himself and with God. At the same time, it is unnerving to think that God would let chaos and evil run so rampant in our midst, that the ‘Anointed One’ would so resemble a victim. And it is precisely through this combination of awe and horror that Matthew tells us that God is working, despite the fact that evil men appear to be succeeding in their manipulation, despite the fact that all around the disciples are weak and faithless. Nevertheless, God’s goodness is accomplished and our sinfulness and weakness are healed.

In Matthew, our story begins with an ominous turn. The chapter opens, ‘when Jesus finished all these sayings’. That means we are finished with the teaching part of Jesus and now we turn to face the mission that Jesus had set before him, the mission of the cross.

As an editor, Matthew lacks subtlety. In case we might have missed the point, he tells it to us again. Of all the gospels, only Matthew has Jesus saying ‘You know that after two days, the Passover is coming and the Son of man will be delivered up to be crucified.’ Jesus himself is telling us what is going to happen.

And if that is not enough, he adds ‘Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.’

This whole section is filled with irony. The people that should recognize the authority of Jesus most, recognize it least. The Chief priests, the elders, the disciples, Judas. They were closest to Jesus and through the story each of them deserts Jesus, each betrays him, each contributes to his ultimate death.


There is the irony that they are celebrating the Passover that remembers the liberation of the Jews from slavery to freedom. In the very midst of this celebration of freedom, the principals who will betray Jesus act in the manner of moral bondage. They use deceit, they are evasive, they lie, they curse, they scheme. And all of this plotting is to kill the very one who points the way toward true freedom.

There is irony at this ceremony of anointing. Anointing was a Jewish institution with many positive associations. Kings were anointed upon their inauguration. Anointing signified divine approval and so priests were anointed when they were ordained. Sometimes children were anointed by their parents as a sign of divine approval on their lives. Anointing of each other was done during times of great joy, when the harvest of grapes yielded a new wine, when victory in battle had taken place. Yet, here the anointing is done with great love, to be sure, but it is unmistakably a prelude of death, a kind of living embalming. None of the disciples who have been following Jesus for the past three years have a clue as to what is about to happen. But this woman, who is not part of the inner circle, prepares him to do the job that needs to be done.

And then we are told, at the end of this act, ‘Truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is preached in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’ In memory of who? We don’t even have her name. We know the name of each and every disciple who will later betray Jesus and fall away faithless. We know the name of the Chief Priest who will manipulate him. We even know the name of the ordinary criminal, Barabas that will be released instead of Jesus at the very end. But this one example of faithfulness, this one woman, remains anonymous.

She took a simple jar of ointment and anointed him with the courage to do what he had to do. What a simple, yet profound thing. Don’t you need the anointing too?

Casey Hawley tells a story about flying on an ordinary routine flight coming back from a business trip. Only this flight began jerking shortly after takeoff. Folks tried to remain blasé. ‘We didn’t remain blasé for long. The pilot soon gave the grave announcement ‘We are having some difficulties,’ he said. ‘At this time, it appears we have no nose-wheel steering. Our indicators show that our hydraulic system has failed. We will be returning to the Orlando airport at this time. Because of the lack of hydraulics, we are not sure our landing gear will lock, so the flight attendants will prepare you for a bumpy landing. Also, if you look out the windows, you will see that we are dumping fuel from the airplane. We want to have as little on board as possible in the event of a rough touchdown.’”

“In other words, we were about to crash. No sight has ever been so sobering as seeing that fuel, hundreds of gallons of it, streaming past my window out of the plane’s tanks. The flight attendants helped people get in to position and comforted those who were already hysterical.”

“As I looked at the faces of my fellow business travelers, I was stunned at the changes I saw in their faces. Many looked visibly frightened now. Even the most stoic looked grim and ashen. There was not one exception. No one faces death without fear, I thought.

“I began searching the crowd for one person who felt the peace and calm that true courage or great faith gives people in these events. I saw no one.

“Then a couple of rows to my left, I heard a still, calm voice, a woman’s voice, speaking in an absolutely normal conversational tone. There was no tremor or tension. It was a lovely, even tone. I had to find the source of this voice.

“All around, people cried. Many wailed and screamed. A few of the men held onto their composure by gripping the arm rests and clenching teeth, but their fear was written all over them.

“In the midst of all the chaos, a mother was talking, just talking to her child. The woman, in her mid-30’s and unremarkable, was staring full into the face of her daughter, who looked to be four years old. The child listened closely, sensing the importance of her mother’s words. The mother’s gaze held the child so fixed and intent that she seemed untouched by the sounds of grief and fear around her.

“I strained to her what this mother was saying to her child. I was compelled to hear. I needed to hear.

“Finally, I leaned over and by some miracle could hear this soft, sure voice with the tone of assurance. Over and over again, the mother said, “I love you so much. Do you know for sure that I love you more than anything?”

“Yes, mommy,” the little girl said.

“And remember, no matter what happens, that I love you always. And that you are a good girl. Sometimes things happen that are not your fault. You are still a good girl and my love will always be with you.”

“Then the mother put her body over her daughter’s, strapped the seat belt over both of them and prepared to crash.

[She had done as much as she could do in that moment to release her daughter from the future bondage that traps survivors in the feelings of guilt and unworthiness.]

“For no earthly reason, our landing gear held and our touchdown was over in seconds.

“The voice I heard that day never wavered, never acknowledged doubt, and maintained an evenness that seemed emotionally and physically impossible. Not one of us hardened business travelers could have spoken without a tremoring voice. I heard the voice of courage, undergirded by love that bore that mother up and lifted her above the chaos around her.” [i]

When the church is working, we are like that. We are anointing one another with love and courage, telling each other that we can do it, giving each other the power to overcome those things which bind us, freeing us to new heights.

May you be blessed with the transcendent power of the Holy Spirit as you face the really difficult challenges that are before you right now. May God lift you up like eagles wings. May you find strength and not be faint. And may you renew those around you that they can keep on and not be weary. God’s anointing upon you this day. Amen.

[i] Canfield, Jack and Mark Hansen, A Third Helping of Chicken Soup (Deerfield Beach: Health Communications, 1996), pp. 323-325.

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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.