Becoming Blessed – Chuck Rush (10/11/15)

Becoming Blessed

Psalm 1; Mt. 5:1-9


I was back on campus last week with New Testament scholars. And we read this text in a way that got my attention. And it matters because this is the Sermon on the Mount… It is important. So I am going to do a bit of a bible study, the way it is done by our professors.[i]

If you read the section just before this, it says that Jesus was traveling around Galilee with an increasingly large, rag tag following of all types of people. It says, “they brought him people with every disease and infirmity” from all over Syria… and he healed them. And great crowds followed him.

It is a little bit of everybody, all manner of people with nowhere else to turn but for a miracle, and if you’ve ever been to one of these healing pilgrimage places, you know how touching it is to read the prayers of mother’s for their children, prayers for diseases that we had no cure for, prayers for people that are desperate. You realize how many people over so many generations have had that humane need.

And then it says Jesus went up on the mountain. It is symbolic. Moses had a rag tag following of all the freed slaves from Egypt. And he too ascended the mountain to receive the 10 commandments and form a people out of these runaway slaves.

Now Jesus ascends the mountain to give us a new covenant, a new 10 commandments of sorts. “You have heard it said of old, but I say to you.”

So what follows is pivotal, a summary of Jesus teaching, the point of the message. And it isn’t entirely what you would expect. You get a pretty good indication right in the first half of this text. Jesus says ‘Blessed are the poor in Spirit’, ‘Blessed are those who mourn’, “Blessed are the meek”, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice’.

Right off the bat, this is pointed. Jesus uses this phrase ‘blessed’. It means to be fulfilled, to be content, like what you feel after a good meal.

But then you have this list of things that aren’t contenting, “Poor in Spirit” Today, we would say ‘despairing’, it is when you have reached your wits end. We see that look a lot these days in our papers. Those refugees, fleeing Syria… Or piled on a boat leaving Libya for Spain, desperate. Despair.

Those who mourn. Needs no translation.

“The Meek”… It means ‘those who have been made docile’. You mostly use that word to describe a colt that has been broken so you can ride it. I wonder if it wasn’t being used here more like the resignation of a slave that realizes that their life will be the same and they have no real choice but to just accept it.

I’m never going to be able to get out of this situation. Not a good place to be.

Blessed are those that ‘hunger and thirst for justice.’ You would be forgiven for thinking that these are the Che Guevera’s of the world, the Dorothy Days, social reformers and the like. But that is not actually what the word means. It means, ‘victims’. The people who long and thirst for justice because the guy that killed their spouse is still on the loose. It is probably most of the 245,000 that have been killed in the Civil War in Syria and the Assad regime is still in power and no one really even stopped to help them bury their dead. It just ain’t right.

God bless you, all of you who are despairing, who mourn, who have been broken by the world around you, who are victims. God blesses you.

That is a big step forward in spiritual thinking. Because almost all Jews when they heard that line “Blessed is the man” would think of Psalm 1. We put it number 1 because it kind of summarizes the rest.

And it says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor standing the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on this he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in due season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers.”

How nice. Sounds just like my grandmother because it was my grandmother. Stay away from bad influences; keep yourself focused on God. Stay out of trouble, stick to the straight and narrow; and you will be just fine.

It is good advice. But what it doesn’t tell you is that you can keep to the straight and narrow, so to speak, but you can still have awful things happen to you because you were at the wrong place at the wrong time like the children who are hit by gunfire from gangs in their neighborhood. It may be good to immerse yourself in the wisdom of Holy scripture, but it doesn’t exempt you from the serious travails of life.

So Jesus says something like. ‘You who are despairing, who are grief stricken, who are victims, who are broken by life, you are in. God’s compassion wants to heal you up. Good news, help is on the way. God is going to find you and bless you.

How is that going to happen? Well Jesus doesn’t say exactly. What he does in the second half is list out the positive ways that you are in. It suggests that the people in need of blessing in the first half will be ministered to by people that are in the second half.

He says, ‘Blessed are those that are merciful, for they will obtain mercy. Blessed are those are pure in heart. We would say, those with integrity, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall see God.’

Mercy (compassion, empathy for the plight of what the suffering are going through).

Pure in heart (people who do the right thing for the right reasons)

Peace makers (stability, reconciliation, who make your life a refuge). And the Hebrew word ‘Shalom’ is pretty broad here. It means to ‘make things whole’; to make our relationships right- healed, strong, and just.  These are the people, that in the broadest sense, create the conditions for human flourishing.

So we are all in this together, a big throng of humanity, all looking for a word from Jesus (a communication from God). And the blessing happens when those who embody mercy, integrity and reconciliation reach out and become the healing presence of God for the despairing, the grieving, the broken, the victims.

If you skip on down a bit to verse 14, Jesus says, you know that when we are blessing each other by sharing what it is that we have to offer that can be healing and restorative with those in need right around us, then ‘we let our light shine’. We let God’s light shine.

A wonderful verse, “Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and give glory to God.” How about that?

It is about us serving each other. Name your need. In some seasons it seems like they come in clumps. God wants to heal and empower you.

And the rest of us, quite a bunch of us here, what is it that you can do to promote human flourishing in and through the community that is all around you? What can you do to make us better? Where are you going to reach out in mercy, do the right thing, and make the world a better place around you. That is your divine calling. This is what we are here for.

This is the new commandment, as the Gospel of John puts it, ‘that you love one another’, that you create the conditions for love to thrive.

If you are hurting, outcast, marginalized God’s hands are on you with comfort, inspiration, and concrete material help. How will you know that? Because if you are strong, God’s hands are on you guiding you to help provide comfort, inspiration, and concrete material help. And when these two sets of hands touch, we make the Divine connection. A new Spirit emerges between us, a Holy Spirit.

That is our message. This I believe.

People often ask the question about the relationship of faith and science as though they are two different ways of looking at the world. Either a Creator or Darwinism.

But there is this profound place where spirituality and science work together in the creation of the conditions of human flourishing, in blessing our world and making it a better place to live. It is an under told story because it is not controversial news in the media.

I couldn’t help but think about that this week, when I woke up to hear the news that Bill Campbell won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research that led to the medicine Ivermectin that cures river blindness.

I only know the broadest outlines of the story and perhaps Bill might say something about it when he comes to speak here on November 15th, but the company decided to give that drug away. There is no philanthropy in Big Pharma, let’s be clear about that. Everyone knows how the system works to bring drugs to market and price them as a result.

But Merck calculated that they couldn’t make a return on their drug, long story short, they decided to give that drug away to people most in need of it, predominantly in the poorest regions of Africa. It did enormous help in saving lives and improving the quality of life of people who were the most vulnerable, most marginal, and could least afford it.

It just so happens we had Merck executives from Christ Church during the period just before Merck made the decision to give that drug away, including the Chief Executive, Toni Knoppers, who died a few years ago. We will never know how that came about, but I couldn’t help but wonder how all of them might have fostered a cultural climate that encouraged the leadership to think outside the box, so that a few short years later when the conditions presented themselves, the leaders in the company were empowered to do the right thing. Who can say how it all came together, the role spiritual imagination played, the role that good science played, the role of shrewd capitalist calculation came to play.

In the end, real good was done in the world, people’s lives were made materially better. Everyone associated with that chain of decisions could walk away feeling that they had done something significant in their lives.

In our real lives, this is one of those places where our spiritual vision of compassion and help throws a spotlight on the same place as our scientific vision of solving a problem. They work in synchronicity and the world is better and people are healed. Faith and science work together, mutually illuminating an area of concern and fixing it.

I suspect that this is duplicated in the real world far more often than we know. This summer another acclaimed scientist from Christ Church died, Jim Flannagan. He was one of the many incredible scientists that were at Bell Labs in the 60’s and 70’s when it produced such an incredible array of important inventions, particularly around sound technology.

At his funeral they had a famous article that Jim wrote in the 70’s. In that article, he describes what the world will be like in a few decades when we don’t have to actually type into computers but we can talk to them. And our computers will talk back to us.

It is a little awe inspiring to read. This article was from the late 70’s. So… Before the first PC was on the market, he described how you will ask Siri for directions and Siri will say, “Let’s get started”… in that chipper voice that comes from someone who never makes mistakes… Siri dial Mom dial Mom… and Siri dials Mom.

Of course, I’m sad to say, that he is also the inventor of the technology that have us the world of the automated phone response… You know the one that says, “You have reached the New York Times, please Press one for someone who could care less about you stupid little problem and we’ll put you on hold for an hour or give you a lot of options that will keep you in our inane loop for the next twenty minutes”. Maddening and it is still maddening.

But, knowing Jim and knowing the way that he looked at the world. His vision of solving a problem and his spiritual vision of making the world a better place found an intersection of mutual illumination with a problem that needed solving. Real good was done in the world, especially for those patients that lost their ability to speak. The solution to those problems eventually led to the technology that produced a mechanical way for them to communicate again.

The moral is simple and profound. You want to be significant. You worry about being a wall flower in the by standers society of your own life. God wants you to live with significance. Pray that the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, would fill your imagination and direct your life. Embody compassionate mercy, strengthening comfort, and bless your people that they might flourish. Let your light shine. You can be the light for others. Be the light. Amen.

[i] I heard a lecture by Shane Berg, New Testament Professor at Princeton Seminary. The ideas for the bible study are his. I believe that his insights on the structure of the Sermon on the Mount are novel. Certainly when I heard the exposition of the text in divinity school, we rather presumed that the first three “blessed” references were positive, If only you could locate them. But the exposition was never very satisfying, just not convincing as an interpretation of the text.

This interpretation has real possibilities. At any rate, I hadn’t considered it before I heard Shane’s lecture.

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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.