Becoming Self Aware – Chuck Rush (3/8/15)

Becoming Self-Aware
Isa. 57:15,18,19; Mt. 18:1-4

Football commentator and former player Joe Theismann 1996 when a reporter said that he was a quarterback genius. Said Joe, "Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein."
Or Senior basketball player at the University of Pittsburgh: "I'm going to
graduate on time, no matter how long it takes."
Pat Williams, Orlando Magic general manager, on his team's 7-27 record
in 1992: "We can't win at home. We can't win on the road. As general manager, I just can't figure out where else to play."
Steve Spurrier, Florida football coach, informing Gator fans that a fire
at Auburn's football dorm had destroyed 20 books. Said Coach, “But the real tragedy was that 15 of the books hadn't even been colored in yet."
Little wonder that we have the kind of ego problems that we have with professional athletes. These are the same people that we are paying tens of millions of dollars, so that we regularly get stories like that tragedy of a few years ago with Jason Williams, showing off his collection of shot guns after considerable consumption of alcohol and other drugs so that his limo driver was killed. Official cause of death- horseplay. Sounds like my teenagers… because it is my teenagers with 35 million dollars.
You don’t have to look far to see a myriad of examples of nearly unbridled hubris at work in our daily papers.
Vladimir Putin had one of his staunch critics, Boris Nemtsov, murdered in public, right in front of surveillance cameras, had crews wash the street of the blood, right in front of the world press. He met the same fate that 23 other journalists have already met since Putin has come to power in 2000.
Even among respectable leaders from democracies that promote the values of the free society, we still have the back and forth this week between Benjamin Netanyahu charging forward to address the Congress, the Republican House leaders trying to embarrass the Administration around foreign policy, and the President who doesn’t make the time to actually watch the speech. And my, the bloviating by partisan political handlers from the two political parties- James Carville v. Karl Rove. Swagger, bluster, righteous indignation. Or, as those of us on the treadmill at the gym call it, ‘the evening news cycle’.
Humility, as a virtue, has some bad connotations to overcome. Most of us first associate the word with ‘humiliation’, being someone who allows themselves to be degraded rather than stand up for themselves. That may be a fine ethic for Mother Theresa, but what in the world would it have to do with the actual work world that we live in day in and day out?
Or we associate the word with its root meaning, humilis, to be of the earth. We think of something lowly. Jesus taught us that the meek shall inherit the earth. And there may be some romantic sense in which people without possessions or power have an innocence to them that most of us certainly lack. Again, in truth, not many of us are inspired to emulate it.
But in classical thought, humility meant neither humiliation nor earthiness. It was an honest appraisal of ourselves. From Greek thought, there was a tradition that carried a skull with the dictum, Know Thyself. (Nosce te ipsum in Latin; gnothi seauton in Greek) It was an injunction to come to grips with the fact that we are mortal creatures. That means that even the most successful of us can only cushion ourselves slightly from the same reality that will be faced by the poorest. We all have to face the fact that we have just a limited time to make an impact. What kind of legacy will that be?
The beginning of wisdom, said the Greeks, resides in the awareness of our finitude. That didn’t abrogate the quest for success or riches in their mind. Certainly it didn’t abrogate the quest for reputation and fame. But it did give them both a context that should not be ignored. It limited how much they should determine who we are and what we are about, because they too are ephemeral.
Great deeds, heroic efforts in battle, great works of Art, great works of Music and Literature, these are as immortal as we can become, according to the Classic thinkers. In some sense, we stay alive as long as our memory stays alive. That means that Homer, since he is still read widely today, has had quite an impact down the generations, beyond the considerable impact he had across his own generation. Indeed, the impact of Homer’s work was far greater after he died than when he was alive. That was true of Johann Sebastian Bach and so many other authors, sculptors and painters. There is some sense in which their great deeds outlive them.
But, the Greeks were also concerned to understand how things really are, what the world is really like, what our role is in it, and what makes for the excellent life. They were in search of things eternal in the midst of breakdown and change and for that they needed philosophy. The consensus opinion was that riches and worldly success without any philosophical understanding of the world was empty and a waste. As Socrates once said, “The Unexamined life is not worth living.”
And in the realm of morals, in the search for what the meaning of our lives should be about, what makes for the excellent life, they agreed that we had to begin with honesty. That was what humility really described. Humility is an honest appraisal of yourself. It is an accurate knowledge of who you really are, what your gifts really are, what your limitations are really about, what vices hamper you from attaining your potential, what pleasures you overindulge, what characteristics you reflexively exercise to their developed tone.
Who are you really? The humble person can describe themselves honestly.
How rare that happens in the world in which we live. An investment Banker in town, who has worked on Wall Street for twenty something years now, was describing for me the way that reviews go at the end of the year, when the Bank is dividing up the all important bonuses. Here, at that dicey time of year, the wheat is supposed to be separated from chaff, excellence rewarded and sluggishness sent away empty- like that wonderful New Yorker cartoon, that shows a man waiting for his bonus and his boss says, “Smithers, you made me laugh, you made me cry, but you didn’t make me any money.” Ugh!
This investment Banker was telling me that practically every review of every employee he has ever witnessed across two decades begins like this. “Rush, he’s a great guy.” “Thompson, he’s a great guy.” We’re all great guys, some of us with more money, some of us with less, but great guys one and all. We do manners well, we do manipulation well, we do brokering well, but truth be told, we aren’t so great on honesty.
And because of that, some of us can go by for years without having anyone tell us what is really up. This is particularly true if we are successful. We can find ourselves surrounded by sychophants, manipulators, and people who have learned to tell us what we want to hear…
Next thing you know, it is several years since anyone has told you the truth. And one day, usually because of something really stupid that we have done with our spouse or our kids, somebody close to you actually attempts to tell you the truth- at least part of the truth about something you’ve been doing for years that you thought was okay and it is not okay- and a major fall out happens.
It is like a betrayal or something... but it is not a betrayal. It is like an assault… but it is not an assault. It is someone telling you the truth and it comes as a shock because everyone around you has been evading the truth for so long, and you have been evading the truth with yourself… that it is not pleasant.
That is why we need Lent in our lives. We need to take stock from time to time. We need to be honest with ourselves. And it is not just about dealing with our problems. We need to claim our gifts too.
But let me stay on dealing with our problems for just a moment. Because the Church has not done this well in the past. They don’t do it well enough in the present. And I have two observations about that.
The first has to do with actual sin, when we have screwed up. For centuries, the Church said, if you sin, come to Confession, admit it in the anonymous confines of the confessional, do your penance, take the sacrament, you will be okay.
Inadvertently, that fostered a climate of evasion. It unwittingly encouraged us to stop dealing directly with our wrongs in two ways. We stopped feeling the need to admit them to anyone except the Priest. And we stopped making amends for our errors to the people that we wronged. We thought that by going through some religious hoops, that was no longer necessary. The institution of the Church became a false place spiritually. We could come here to be inspired, to participate, but we would never really be honest or open with other people in the Church. And that is spiritually false.
That is one thing I found so disarmingly refreshing about Alcoholics Anonymous. I think it is step number 4 out of the 12. “Take a fearless moral inventory of yourself and #5 admit to one other person the exact nature of your wrongs. And #6 Make a list of people that you have wronged and seek to make amends with each of them.
What a healthy spiritual environment, especially in our culture, for men. There is nothing like a group of 15 men talking honestly about some of the stupid things that they have done- and some of these stories are so fantastic, you can’t make this stuff up.
There is nothing like seeing grown, burly men, making amends. Nothing quite like seeing them hold each other accountable, not letting them get away with their tricks to set themselves up to take another drink. The first time I saw that I realized that so many men are starved for that kind of real interaction, real community, real fraternity.
Someone asked me what I thought about attending that AA group? I didn’t really answer them. The real answer was, I felt like I went to Church- real Church. And I think part of that is that people were free to talk about what was really on their minds.
And the second thing is just that. We have not been good institutionally about creating a climate where people can really be honest about what is on their hearts. Ideally, the Church should be the one place where people can say, “I’m lonely”, “I’m hurting”, “I’m afraid”. Often, we don’t feel any more secure admitting these things in Church than we would at the Club and that is also false.
Probably the Church won’t ever be a whole lot better than the society in which it operates, at least not the Institutional Church. But hopefully, the institutional Church can spawn smaller circles of sharing, smaller groups, where the Spirit can really move. Because honest humility is not only being graced with others who care enough about us to tell us what is wrong with us, it is also being graced with others who will bless us and lift us up. People who will encourage us to live out of our higher selves and develop our potential and not compromise when we really shouldn’t.
The real Church meets when the Spirit really moves and we can be honest and supportive in love. And that kind of honesty is vulnerable without being threatening, intimate without being mushy, transparent with boundaries. It can happen. It does happen.
May you be lucky enough to become surrounded by people that really know you well. May you be blessed to find people that will tell you the truth with grace and supportive love. May you be loved enough to be surrounded by people that will not just let you slide but will impel you toward the higher way. May you know real church. 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.