Be Grateful for Your Problems – Chuck Rush (8/13/17)

Being Grateful for your Problems
8/13/17
Ps. 33:1, 4-8; Lk. 22:24-8-28; 39-44

One morning, the dour playwright Samuel Beckett was walking with a friend through the streets of Paris on their way for a coffee. It was one of those spectacularly crisp warm mornings of spring that make Paris so magnificent, so Beckett’s friend said, “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” To which Beckett responded, “I wouldn’t go as far as that”.
Alas, joy eluded the brooding existentialist playwright, pensive and reflective on what our lives are all about.
Don’t you wish you had someone that could just explain it to you briefly? Don’t you wish that a couple of times in your life, the self you will become at the end of your life could have spoken to you when you were younger just to answer one or two things that were of particular importance at that critical juncture? I know I could have used that perspective.
You probably know that our recent research reveals that we humans are actually lousy at predicting who we will be and what we will need later in life. 30 year olds almost invariably think that when they are 60, they will be pretty much like they are at 30 only a little richer, a little slower, a little less in shape, probably wiser, hopefully more worldly wise from travel.
We fail to anticipate how much we are going to change, how different our needs will be, how differently we value things as we get closer to the grave. I was amused to read a recent poll that was done of our recent college graduates, wondering how they would compare to my generation.
They asked the ‘ready to be hired’ to name their top three life goals. 80% of them said they planned to make a lot of money. 50% of them also said they want to become famous. There is nothing wrong with wanting to become successful and having the world know about it. But every generation mouths these life goals like they are enough, like if we just become successful everything else will just take care of itself.
These days those lofty aspirations also strike me as speaking to our worst fears, which is probably equally as important. We don’t want to die poor and insignificant. We are anxious that our lives might be for naught, or for not enough to justify them.
At any rate, over the course of thirty years, I’ve listened to quite a few people that have actually lived a full life. I’ve listened to them reflect on what brought them fulfillment in their life. And none of them speak about wealth or fame.
Money only comes up as an issue when it is an anxiety because we have too much of it. Sometimes people worry that they’ve given too much to their children. Ironically, too much money undermines their children’s self-development and growth. And this reflects the research on that subject that has been done over the past couple decades.
It is interesting that money and celebrity are not on the minds of people who have been lucky to live over 8 decades and are able to reflect on it. Fay Vincent, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the subject. What mattered to him most was his intimate relationships, in his case, exemplified in his endearing marriage to his wife, because they have each deeply influenced and changed one another.
Money, as researchers have pointed out, is only a factor if you fall below a certain line, and very few Americans fall below that line. Above that, the differences in creature comforts that we expend so much energy about, bring only insignificant and inconsistent differences in the deeper fulfillment that makes our lives worth living.
Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and prolific author, wrote about his life just a couple of months before he would die at the age of 82, what mattered most to him was the relationships in his life as well. He said, “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being; a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
In processing all the experiences of his life, what he comes back to, what the point of our living is all about, resides in the spiritual realm (and that from an agnostic). He knew he was going to die as many of us in this generation will.
And this is what he says, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.” Gratitude and awe are the fundamental spiritual disposition. It is the wonder that you felt when your children were born. It is how we respond to being loved and accepted. It is the moments of harmony when we resonate with a rising sun and reflect the spiritual goodness of living and being connected in this world. So, St. Paul has a wonderful adage in Colossians 3 where he says, “cultivate a life of gratitude”. The spiritual life leans into the deeper meaning of our lives through the matrix of gratitude.
Professor Robert Waldinger is concluding the most extensive longitudinal study we’ve done on the subject and he says that the research is crystal clear that our relationships are key to our wellbeing.
Harvard studied the graduating classes of 1938-1940 in depth for their entire lives. And they did a parallel study on a group of young men that came from one of the poorest ghettos of Boston at the time. 725 men over 7 decades, only 60 of them are still alive. It is the most comprehensive study of its kind. And they had three major finds.
First, that social connections are good. We humans are hard-wired that way. Family, friends, community are the building blocks for deeper, fulfilling meaning. And the converse is also true, loneliness is toxic for humans. People that are reported that they were more isolated from others than they wanted to be had poorer health, were less happy, and had earlier brain deterioration than others. And this is probably significant because at any given time in our country, 20% report that they are lonely and they don’t want to be.
Secondly, the Harvard study concluded that it is not how many friends you have, it is the quality of relationships that is important. It turns out that conflict is probably worse for us than we presumed it to be. In that study, high conflict marriages that also lacked affection or intimacy were probably worse than being divorced.
This is an area we are just beginning to study in depth and it will probably be significant. But think about how many kids grow up in conflict, in war zones like Syria, just surviving in neighborhoods like Compton, and in the 45% of families that break up all across our country.
In the Harvard study, sustained conflict correlated with health problems and a number of other health problems.
And when they went back to study the men who were happy and healthy at 80. The strongest correlation turned out to be??? How happy and solid their relationships were when they were 50.
The third insight was that they kept their mental acuity longer in old age. Researchers speculate that people who are securely attached are able to retain sharper memories, perhaps because they have more good memories that they can draw upon.
It is people that are important. So Professor Waldinger reminds us that we need to keep making new friends all through our life. In particular, we need to make new friends after we retire, which men notoriously underestimate.
It is a theme that underlies the very end of Jesus life, as he turns towards Jerusalem with his disciples and ultimately has to face his own death. Jesus didn’t get to live a full life. He died too young, in the pursuit of a moral and spiritual cause.
But in the backdrop of his entrance to Jerusalem, his trial and his death, you have the drama of the disciples that also speaks fairly directly to the importance of intimate spiritual relationships in helping us endure difficulty, suffering, and death. It is through those relationships that we have the strength to weather on through, come what may.
As soon as Jesus enters Jerusalem, he brings the 12 disciples together to celebrate the Passover meal. That is what friends do, they break bread together. They share wine. He illustrated that point by washing everyone’s feet. Because love serves one another.
And he told them that such betrayal as they would know, would come from each other. Just like out most painful disappointments come from our spouses when our marriages fail. Our most painful family experiences come from our siblings that hurt us as adults in some way that breaks our trust.
Then Jesus takes them to Gethsemane and asks them to pray with him. Because that is what friends do for each other, they support one another when they are going through very difficult and ambiguous times in their lives, when they don’t exactly know what to do next. And our deep disappointments come from people that we thought we could rely on in our time of need who turn out to just be indifferent. They fall asleep like the disciples. They just don’t show up.
Finally, to make the same point personally, we have the encounter between Jesus and Peter, the zealous disciple who says he will defend Jesus to the end and then he runs off when the Roman soldiers come. His anxieties and his fears get the best of him, slinks into the crowd, slinks into the night, and when people ask him if he knows Jesus he is caught on tape three times saying “I don’t know him; I never knew him. Dammit, I have no idea who you are talking about.”
It is like a man I knew whose wife was dying of cancer. She had these awful treatments to go through. Their relationship had been deteriorating. And in the middle of the treatments he started an affair with another woman and just didn’t show up for his wife in her time of need. So painful, more hurtful than even he intended it to be.
Don’t be like that. Don’t trample your relationships. Don’t abandon them. Don’t ignore them. They are your anchors that give your life zest and the deeper joy. They are where you find the deeper pool of meaning. Those are the memories that will come back to sustain you when the aches and pains of age start to wear you down.
They are the source of the most profound strength that we can have to get us through difficult times. It is simply astonishing how much suffering we can endure for one another when we live out of love.
And what about you? Where will you devote your energies in order to become who you will become? How is your most mature self, beckoning you from the future? Where are you headed.
I want to thank our new members who joined us this week. You have made our prayer life bigger and stronger as we lift one another up in inspiration.
Over the years, I have often been pleasantly surprised that the friendships that people have made at Christ Church persist long after both sets of friends have moved to different parts of the country and gone quite different directions in their life. It is because they have gotten to know each other in that deeper way and it has more significance to us. We not only share our hopes and dreams, our concerns and our worries, we get to a point where we do actively pray for one another. And you know what? We need it.
Last November, we had people in the church think of someone that inspired them, someone that they looked up to. Julie found these stars and we passed them out to everyone and had them write down the name of the person that inspired them. And we hung those stars during Advent. Advent is over. Juan takes down the stars and he hands them to me, wondering what to do with them.
I looked through them, prayerfully really. It was like holding a handful of inspiration and somehow it just didn’t seem right to toss them in the trash. Looking through them, many parents were named, teachers, coaches but I was moved that a goodly number of them were you. You named someone else in the congregation that you look up to. I was like, ‘Wow’. Now you can throw them out Juan…
I hope that you find yourself wonderfully surrounded by the right people. And I hope that you can become the right person for others. I hope that you err in the right direction and choose relationships fundamentally. And I hope your life blooms with love.

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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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