Bearing Witness in Love – Chuck Rush (11/23/14)

Bearing Witness in Love
Deuteronomy 5:16; Romans 12:9-13
I heard the famous psychiatrist Bessel Van Der Kolk interviewed recently. He has devoted years to studying trauma and its impact on the human psyche. He was telling a story about his very early years in the work, when he was just starting out, at a VA hospital in the United States, just after the end of the Vietnam War.
The doctor had a Vietnam Vet that came to him and told him that he couldn’t sleep. When the Doctor asked why, the Vet said he was waking up from nightmares. He would re-live certain very tragic battles that they had engaged in Vietnam and he would see again all of the guys from his unit, very few of whom actually returned to the United States.
The doctor sort of sprang to life because he had just been doing research on nightmares. He told the Vet about some of the advances that they had made. He told him that he had some medicine to prescribe that would help him sleep deeper and probably not wake up during the night and he gave the soldier some specific meditation techniques to use in order to deflect the impact of the nightmares on him. With confidence, he sent the soldier on his way.
The soldier comes back in two weeks for a follow up visit and the doctor wants the soldier to fill out a chart on his sleeping for the past couple weeks to trace their diminishing power. And the soldier says to him, “Doctor I didn’t take the sleeping medication and I’m not going to take it.”
The young physician looks confused and said, “But this medication works. I guarantee it.”
“I’m sure it does” said the soldier “but I’m not going to take it. “The soldier said to him, “I realized that I need to have my nightmares.”
“Why do you need nightmares?” the physician asked.
“I need to become a living memorial to the guys that I left behind in Vietnam. I’m afraid that if the nightmares stop, I’ll lose my connection to those guys.”
Dr. Van Der Kolk said, “that’s when I realized what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to study this amazing capacity that we humans have to transform our lives into a living testimonial- a living memorial- that we can develop and keep this connection to something that is no more.”
I think in every family, there are certain seasons of the year, certain events in your family life when you become more aware of the influence of the past that have shaped you. Negatively or positively doesn’t matter so much as the general awareness that it is your path, your life, your story.
I bring this up right now because for many of us, will have a moment of reflection like that in the next week, returning to see our family perhaps near where we grew up.
These moments percolate indirectly, almost inadvertently. It is seeing a tree from your childhood that is now so huge. It is being the butt of a family joke you never found all that funny. It is finding yourself making a dish just like your grandmother and your mother made it for these occasions.
Of course growing up is more complicated than just remembering the good things. A close friend of mine once told me, “Most of the gifts that my father gave me were precisely those things I needed to transcend in myself growing up in order to be really worthy of love.” But you get to a point, where you can look back in gratitude at a fairly wide swath of the good and the not so good because these are exactly the waters you swam in to become the person you are today, for better and worse.
Our ancestors in Scotland used to invoke the image of an unbroken circle during certain times of the year. They would make a pilgrimage to these sites that had a standing circle of stones and they would gather in a circle, holding hands. Outside the stones there was a ditch that probably symbolized the boundary between this world and the other world. On the outside of the circle, they built these burial mounds, crypts. And like a year after your loved ones died in the family, you would put their bones in these family crypts. They would all process into the circle on one bridge and then out of the circle on another bridge.
We know that they thought that our deceased ancestors had the power to either bless us or curse us from beyond the grave. I know the first time that I stood at the circle of stones at Brodegar in the far north of Scotland, I couldn’t help but think of the pathos of that insight because, of course, our families very much have the power to bless us or curse us. We certainly feel blessed or cursed, sometimes both at once.
St. Paul’s sage advice to the Romans was this. Invoke the spiritual power of your positive energy. Work these things on through to the point that you can appropriate your mentors from the past, even if they were compromised and not all that helpful, so that you can bless the rising generation and get this better. He says, ‘outdo one another in showing honor.’
The good and the bad were all part of how you became you. What is it that you stand for that is important? What are the values that you have today, because of your past, that are noble? What do you want to leave with the rising generation that will guide them where they need to go?
Create new traditions that you can use to teach them, ground them that they might be wiser for having been under your care. The truth is that our families are always evolving. We have people dying and people being born. We have people getting married and people getting divorced. The cast of characters is always changing.
As you know, traditions can die with the generation. Sometimes during the holidays, you can experience a moment of really deep sadness, remembering a relative, a spouse perhaps, that did this lovely little tradition that only they could do.
One of the guys that lived above me freshman year, Jay, died a few years ago from a brain tumor. His roommates from college look after his boys who are now in college themselves. One of them was sharing a joke with a son. Turns out the kid has exactly his father’s laugh- a very distinctive laugh like no one else. The kid is laughing, my friend is laughing. Then my friend from college is crying because that laugh unlocked a portal with a long hall that led back to freshman year at Wake Forest… and a connection that is gone. For just a moment, you wish like hell you could go back.
But we can’t go back. They wouldn’t want you to go back either. So St. Paul says, ‘Outdo one another in showing honor.’ Create new traditions that reflect what your people gave to you, what you’ve learned in growing and becoming, and make something that will be a blessing for the next generation.
I hope for you the creativity to create rituals of kindness. We know that our children are tempted in this generation to become inordinately self-absorbed. Technology and gadgets help keep them diverted and entertained. And we have this wider commercial culture this time of year that gets them focused on ‘what am I going to get’. Black Friday creeped into Thanksgiving evening a couple years ago. I see this year that Macy’s is celebrating “Spectacular Saturday” in two days. Can ‘Super Sunday’ be far behind.
We want to counter the crass commercialization of our season. I hope you can build into your preparations for the holidays, some ritual that gives your children and grandchildren the ability to do something kind for other members of your family, perhaps something kind for a neighbor. Maybe they can help you bake something to give away to others, so they feel the sense of accomplishment and have the joy of making others happy.
I hope you can build in traditions of compassion and love, like going together to drop off Turkeys for the homeless or serving at a soup kitchen at some point between now and Christmas.
I hope you can build in tradition of love, like guiding them to give a personalized gift to someone else, whether it is a sibling, a cousin or a neighbor, that shows that they really understand this person and are going out of their way to do something nice.
It is not just about getting, but about giving…. We have to demonstrate that for them and then structure it so they can do it themselves.
Because the spiritual profundity of the holiday season is developing gratitude for what came before us, particularly remembering the deep love that we’ve been given to know, to draw upon that so that we might become more generous of spirit in all aspects of our lives, and to let that guide us.
And for those of us who have been privileged to know a deep love in the past that is no longer present, a special prayer for you as you grieve and celebrate at the same time. I think of Bernie Glassman and his wife Jishu.
For most of their life, they lived in metropolitan New York where they met. She followed his life early in their marriage, living where his career took them, but his wife long wanted to live in the Sangre de Cristo mountains outside of Santa Fe, and to establish a spiritual community, to find a more holistic way of living than mid-town Manhattan offered.
After many, many years, it finally opened up and they moved. They bought an old house, which need lots of work, but it was, as he says, "a perfect refuge".
Bernie writes, "We arrived on Monday and moved into our house on Tuesday. The following Sunday, as we were hanging pictures on the wall, Jishu (his wife) complained of chest pains. She was hurried to the hospital, where the doctors verified that she had suffered a major heart attack. For the next four days she seemed to get stronger and better. But on Thursday night Jishu suffered a second heart attack, and she left this form of existence on Friday night, the first day of spring, four days shy of her fifty-seventh birthday.
People ask me how I'm doing. It takes a while for me to reply, for it's hard to answer them in word. Finally, I tell them I'm bearing witness.
But how do you feel, they ask me.
I'm raw, I tell them."
Do you feel sad?"
I shake my head. Raw doesn't feel good or bad. Raw is the smell of the lilacs by the back door, not six feet away from the relics on the mantel. Raw is listening to Mahler's Fourth Symphony or the songs of Sweet Honey in the Rock. Raw is reading the hundreds of letters that come in, watching television alone at night.
I live in a house chosen by my wife, reflecting her tastes and wishes. My own choice would be a studio in New York City's Bowery, not a house in a canyon overlooking a river. Those were the things Jishu wanted and Jishu is gone. So I live in her house- I call it Casa Jishu- and do the things she would have loved. I greet the dawn coming over the mountains, watch the hummingbirds, prune the lilac bushes. Each time I think of the smile on her face had she been here to do these things. Instead I do them, bearing witness to her presence and her absence.
How am I doing?"
I'm bearing witness. And the state of bearing witness is the state of love."
It is a funny thing that when we are young, we are so intent on finding out who we are, establishing our own identity. And if we are lucky enough in the middle of our life to have profound love, whether with a spouse or good friends, we open ourselves intimately. After a few years, we find that we have become quite different people than we ever would have imagined that we would have become because we have loved and been loved. It is not the only way to live, but as Paul says, it is the more excellent way. Profound love is about being open to being changed by another; it is about letting yourself become the support that makes other people grow and flourish; it is about bringing out the higher spiritual capacities that we are meant to manifest.
This holiday may you draw upon your cloud of witnesses from the unbroken circle. May you remember the love you have been shown. May you become generous of spirit with those around you. May you outdo others around you in showing honor to those that have reflected love your way. 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.