Awestruck – Caroline Dean 1/31/16

Awestruck:  1/31/16 (1/24/16)

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together in the square before the Water Gate.  They told Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel.  So, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding.  This was on the first day of the seventh month.  He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law.

And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, and when he opened it, all the people stood up.  Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands.  Then they bowed their heads and worshiped God with their faces to the ground.

The Levites helped the people to understand the law, they interpreted the reading so that the people could understand.  And Nehemiah, the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.”  For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.  Then Ezra said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy God; and do not be grieved for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Let us pray: “God of Love, give us a sense of awe this day as we gather and as we share our sacred stories.  Teach us to be present here and now.  Show us the beauty of this moment.  May the words of our mouths and the meditations of all of our hearts be transformative and inspiring we pray, in Jesus’ name, Amen.”

I have a confession.  Sometimes I, Rev. Caroline Dean, think that the Bible is boring.  And at my worst, I have moments when I fear that the Bible, not only boring, it in indeed possibly irrelevant.  Sometimes I fear that the foundational stories in our Christian faith are too far away, that their relevance has faded over time.  And if we are all honest, even the most prolific biblical scholars of our day would have to agree that sitting through half a day of a Torah reading marathon would be torturous.  Sure there may be a few times when our ears might perk up, like when we imagine the rows upon row of animals on Noah’s Ark, or Abraham & Sara gazing up at the heavens remembering God’s promise, that they will have as many children as these stars one day.  But, the irony here is that this very Bible reading marathon, that is quite possibly the most boring scenario for our modern spiritual imagination and fragile attention span, this is exactly the scene that captivates the imaginations of the people gathered that day!  They listen and learn. They bow and stand.  They raise their hands and they weep.  They go out in joy to celebrate their sacred story.  Our reaction to this text is “how boring,” when in fact, for the original audience it was transformative and awe-inspiring.

Can you remember the last time that your jaw dropped to the floor in classic cartoon character style?  Even if it was a really long time ago?  Perhaps it was in a moment that literally changed your life, holding your baby for the first time, meeting your partner, or finding a new soul mate or a friend when you needed one most?  Perhaps, at times, you even find yourself in awe in ordinary everyday moments, like a sunset on a winter evening, a good book, a sleeping baby or miracle of all miracles, a hand written note in the mail?  And so the big question is, how do we cultivate the kind of spiritual life that is attuned to moments of awe?

But before we dive in, it would probably be helpful to explore some of the backstory here to understand why this is such a powerful moment for the people of Israel.  Once upon a time the Jewish ancestors were humming right along.  They had their kings and their sacred city, Jerusalem, all dolled up with a Temple and a fortified wall to keep them safe!  And then suddenly, the political climate shifted and the Babylonian empire rose to power.  In 605 BCE, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and started a series of deportations relocating the people of Judah to Babylon.  This began the period known as the Babylonian exile.  For the next 60 years the people of Israel would have to redefine their faith & therefore their identity which was so intricately bound to their land and worship in the temple.  And then, once again, the "powers that be” suddenly shifted.  After the fall of Babylon the Persian king Cyrus, who was in power, allowed the exiled Jews to return to their land in Judah.  However, some of their number had assimilated into the Babylonian community and they did not return with their kindred to their homeland.  And to make things worse, when the people returned, they found their sacred city, their home, in ruin.  And so this homecoming was a bit of a rude awakening.  The leadership of the Jewish people including folks like Nehemiah and Ezra began rebuilding Jerusalem.  They started with the construction of a wall (which is a logical first step after your city has been ransacked and your people oppressed for half a century).  After this rebuilding process the people gathered at the Water Gate and asked to hear the Torah, their sacred scriptures.  And during this Torah reading, the Jewish people have a re-awakening experience.  Some scholars suggest that they have lost their faith and their sense of their identity during the time of exile (which would be understandable!).  Other biblical traditions even place the blame on the people of Israel for their own exile.  Ancient scribes suggest that before the exile, the people are a bit too comfortable.  They are disobedient, and they forget their relationship with God and the promises they have made to God.

But for this text, I prefer to have a more compassionate reading.  After all, the people of Israel have not had it easy, they have been through exile and the destruction of their home.   They grieve the loss of friends and family who decided to stay behind.  They have lost their faith, their identity and to top it off, they face an uncertain future.  What if others decide to leave the city?  What if they cannot sustain their way of life?  What if they are attacked again?  What if their future is untenable?

And so as the people gather you can almost sense a palpable atmosphere of anxiety.  And yet there are some among them who also hope for a new chapter, a new way to connect with God.  This is why it makes a lot sense that when Ezra begins reading the Torah, the sacred stories of their ancestors, they stand in respect, bow in awe and shout “Amen.”  They re-connect with their roots, by remembering the stories of God’s promises, God’s presence & God’s call in their lives.  They weep, in regret and in release.  And their leaders beckon the people to go out in celebration, to stop weeping, for this day is set apart as holy.

And here comes the portion of the sermon when I am supposed to relate their setting to our own.  And here is when my fears arrive that this story is in fact irrelevant, at least for our context.  First, of all there are the usual barriers of language, culture, time period – which are present any time we read ancient texts.  Secondly, we are not traditionally known as a “Bible-loving community” and so it can be a bit hard to relate to a people who are inspired and given hope by connecting with their holy scriptures.  Then we have the whole building a wall metaphor, which, in their defense, is an attempt for a marginalized community to survive the next takeover and perhaps even a metaphor for their need to re-define themselves after experiencing such fragmentation and loss.  But in our church we talk about inclusivity and openness, not building walls.  Lastly, we read about an almost Pentecostal expression of worship that we can perhaps sometimes relate to, but we are mostly skeptical and at least uncomfortable, when we imagine people raising their hands and shouting “Amen!” in worship.

And yet, isn’t there something about this story that resonates despite these barriers?  Like the people of Israel, we live in a time of rapid change and uncertain projected futures.  Think about the challenges of our time, Climate Change, political polarization rooted in fear, economic and racial systemic injustice, war, refugee crises and the list goes on.  We can also relate to the experience of fragmentation that this story portrays.  In our modern moment we often yearn for communal connection.  We are learning to relate with each other through technology in meaningful ways, and that learning curve steep.  Furthermore the tribe of the church, much like the Israelites, is also in a period of reorientation.  The mainline protestant church must re-form our practice & our identity if we are to serve with the next generation and make change in our rapidly transforming world.  Lastly, don’t we still seek moments of awe just as much as this ancient tribe struggling to reclaim their identity?  Aren’t we often too busy, too numb to connect with God in our daily lives?  We can be so anxious about the future or bound up in past regret that we miss the awe-filled moments of transformation happening right now!

Upon deeper reflection perhaps we are in need of some of the wisdom rooted in this story.  Don’t we, like the Israelites, need the kind of spiritual community that has our back in thick and thin, in exile and times of rebuilding?  Don’t we need to participate in the kind of community that is sacrificial, loyal and loving?  A community that is in the business of showing God’s love?  Don’t we need the kind of community that shares our tears and our celebrations?  In our individualistic Western age the only spiritual response to the challenges of our time is to work in and through gathered communities.  Like the Israelites rebuilding their home together, we have to take a hard look at the work before us and the only way that we can face the challenges of our times is to connect with a community bigger than ourselves, and to connect with a God bigger than ourselves.  And if bowing, shouting and lifting our hands is not our expression of worship, then what rituals do we share to mark the moments of transformation in our community?  What are the moments that make our spiritual lives visible and tangible?

Lastly we need diversity in our gathered community for spiritual growth.  Polish-Born Sociologist Zygmunt Baumann, writes about the importance of gathered community in our technological age.  He writes,

“The difference between a community and a (social) network is that you belong to a community, but a network belongs to you. You feel in control. You can add friends if you wish, you can delete them if you wish….People feel a little better as a result, because loneliness, abandonment, is the great fear in our individualist age. But…people fail to learn the real social skills, which you need when you go out in the street, in the workplace, where you find lots of (different) people who you need to enter into sensible interaction with. Pope Francis, who is a great man, gave his first interview after being elected to Eugenio Scalfari, an Italian journalist who is also a self-proclaimed atheist. It was a sign: real dialogue isn’t about talking to people who believe the same things as you. Social media don’t teach us to dialogue because it is so easy to avoid (our differences)… But most people use social media…not to open their horizons wider, but… to cut for themselves a comfort zone where the only sounds they hear are the echoes of their own voice.”

So this story reminds us of the power of diversity in our gathered communities.  Secondly, when I read this story I am compelled by the wisdom that we need sacred stories to help orient us and help remind us who we are.  Yes, a Bible reading marathon would be terribly boring, but how can we reimagine and re-interpret our scriptures to inspire and grow us even in our modern moment?  And if reading these stories aloud for half a day isn’t our celebration of scripture then what is?  How do we make these stories that comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable come alive for our moment?  When I think about the parts of the Bible that I find terribly boring, I also remember some of my best Divinity School professors or even current favorite preachers who can take an obscure and utterly boring text and make it come alive.  And I am reminded that perhaps the piece of the storytelling that is most compelling is actually the interpretation of the story.  What do these stories mean to you?  What metaphors teach us wisdom for our daily life even 2,500 years later?  Where do you locate yourself in the story?  What pieces in the story are unbelievable?  What pieces in the story make you stand in awe?

Lastly, when I imagine this scene at the Water Gate I am reminded that I need more moments of awe in my life.  The priests tell the gathered people, “This is the day that the Lord has made!  Do not weep for your losses or past regret and do not fear the next exile, live in this holy day and celebrate now!”  A dear friend recently shared a poem with me by the Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa it reads, “The startling reality of things

Is my discovery every single day

Everything is what it is,

And it's hard to explain to anyone how much this delights me  . . . . . . .

Occasionally I hear the wind blow,

And I find that just hearing the wind blow

makes it worth having been born”

We yearn for moment of awe, even simple moments like hearing the wind in the trees. We want to feel connected to each other, to ourselves, and to God.  We yearn for something to wake us up from the mundane stress and anxiety in our lives.  We yearn for the kind of experience that they have that day at the Water Gate.  And perhaps the magic question is how?  How does one create awe in their life?  How can we control or manipulate such mysterious things?  I am of the strong opinion that you cannot create a transcendent moment – but you can cultivate a life of spiritual practices that helps us be attuned to transcendence in our everyday life.  Perhaps you meditate, or find God’s peace in the natural world, perhaps music lifts your heart, perhaps children or an exceptional meal open you to the divine.  Perhaps you feel God’s presence in a journaling, yoga or a prayer practice.

This Lenten season (which is amazingly right around the corner) let us reflect on how we attune ourselves to the present moment.  Perhaps we can re-commitment to a community or with the stories of our faith.  Maybe you can try something new!  Ask a neighbor or a friend if they are taking on a practice this Lenten season.

So go now in peace, celebrating the power of this beloved community.  Go out remembering that our identities are rooted in our sacred stories, stories that calls us beloved, stories that also challenges us to make sacrifice & make change in our world.  Go out with an open heart ready to find God in the ordinary moments of this day.  So that perhaps one day we might all like the poet “find that just hearing the wind blow makes it worth having been born.”  Amen.

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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.