Believing as Beloving – Julie Yarborough 4/26/15

1 John 3:16-24

Psalm 25:1-2, 5-6
April 26, 2015

Believing as Be-loving
The Apostle’s Creed is a litany recited in many Protestant and Catholic churches, that begins “I believe in the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…” Does it sound familiar? The whole text is found on page 14 in our hymnal if you’re not familiar with it and want to read it.
(It’s also found here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apostles'_Creed )
How many of you grew up going to a church in which you recited the Apostle’s Creed or the Nicene Creed? How many of you recited that creed while having serious doubts about some of the things you were espousing? That’s not surprising! As scholar Luke Timothy Johnson says, “There is something in the creed to offend virtually every contemporary sensibility.” And if the words of the creed are not controversial, he goes on to say, you’re not paying attention to the lines that you’re reciting!
This controversy can be a good thing, forming a starting place for theological thought and discussion, a place that “stands in creative tension and living conversation with the other elements of Christian identity and tradition.” The word “creed” comes from the latin credo, which means “I believe.” Struggling with saying the parts of the creed that we don’t believe can help us to think about what it is we do believe and hold to be true. This cognitive dissonance can help us formulate our faith into words, naming that which we hold to be of utmost truth and importance. As we grow and mature, our own personal creed may grow and mature as well.

[1] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, Image Doubleday, 2003, p. 7.

[2] Johnson, The Creed: What Christians Believe and Why it Matters, p. 5.

In her memoir, Still, Lauren Winner recounts the story of her friend
Julian. When Julian was just twelve years old and preparing to be
confirmed, she told her father – the pastor of the church – she wasn’t
sure she could go through with it. She wasn’t sure she believed everything
she was supposed to believe, at least not enough to make a promise
before God and her congregation to believe these things forever.

Her father told her, “What you promise when you are confirmed is
not that you will believe this forever. What you promise when you
are confirmed is that this is the story you will wrestle with forever.”

We don’t recite the Apostle’s Creed at Christ Church, although it’s not uncommon to do so in a UCC church – it’s even printed in the UCC book of worship. Christ Church is affiliated with the United Church of Christ and the American Baptist Churches and I imagine our reluctance to use a creed comes from our Baptist heritage. Growing up at Glendale Baptist Church, in Nashville, TN, I never said any creed. I always heard that we Baptists were “anti-creedal,” presumably because we were leery of creeds being used as a litmus test to determine who was really Christian, and who was not.
Baptists have a long history of being persecuted as heretics for their beliefs. As a matter of fact, my great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Sallie Craig, was the sister of the Rev. Lewis Craig. Lewis Craig was a Baptist preacher in Virginia in the late 18th century, who was thrown into jail numerous times for preaching without proper authorization from the Anglican Church. In 1781, fed up with not being able to practice religion freely, he led his family and about 600 pilgrims known as “The Traveling Church,” on foot across the mountains into Kentucky to be able to worship God as they pleased.

[3] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, Nelson Books, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2015, p. 194.

One of the basic tenets of Baptist identity is the principle of soul freedom, defined as “the historic Baptist affirmation of the inalienable right and responsibility of every person to deal with God without the imposition of any creed, the interference of clergy or the intervention of civil government.” Baptists are fiercely independent people, and the idea of a creed recited by many people – even members of the same congregation - espousing to believe the same things in the same way, is an anathema. But the idea of each person having her own creed is not such a bad one. It’s a good exercise to think about what you do believe, what you do hold to be of utmost truth. It’s important to have a set of beliefs that you claim as your own. And yet, at the same time, it’s not enough to simply know what you believe.
Frederick Buechner makes a distinction between believing in God and believing God:
Believing in God is an intellectual position. It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud’s method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.
Believing God is something else again. It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It doesn’t leave you cold like believing the world is round. It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.

[4] Walter B. Shurden, The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms, Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 1993, p. 23.

We believe in God when for some reason or another we choose to do so. We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice but to do otherwise.

In The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg tells a story about meeting a woman on a plane who told him that she was more interested in Buddhism and Sufism than Christianity, because Christianity was focused on believing, but the other religions were more about following a path. Borg understood what she meant, even though he silently disagreed with part of what she was saying. For many Christians and non-Christians alike, faith has been defined by a set of doctrines or creeds outlining what we believe to be true. And yet Jesus spoke many times of faith as following a path or way. That metaphor is also used throughout the Old Testament – we heard it in the first scripture reading today: “Make me to know your ways, O Lord; teach me your paths.” The idea of the spiritual life as a path is also a part of the symbolism understood when walking a labyrinth, like the one in our atrium, which differs from a maze in that there are no dead ends.

“It has become cliché to talk about faith as a journey,” writes Rachel Held Evans,
… and yet the metaphor holds. Scripture doesn’t speak of people
who found God. Scripture speaks of people who walked with God.
This is a keep-moving, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, who-knows-
what’s-next deal, and you never exactly arrive. I don’t know if the
path’s all drawn out ahead of time, or if it corkscrews with each step
like in Alice’s Wonderland, or if, as some like to say, we make the
road by walking, but I believe the journey is more labyrinth than maze.

 

[5] Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary, HarperCollins, 1993, p. 22.

[6] Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, HarperSanFrancisco, 2003, “Faith the Way of the Heart,” p. 25.

[7] Psalm 25:4

No step in faith is wasted, not by a God who makes all things new.
Faith is so much more than belief. There are, in fact, four different word for faith in the history of Christianity, with four distinct meanings. The first is Assensus, a Latin term linked to the English word assent, and it comes closest to the idea of faith as an intellectual pursuit or “matter of the head.” This notion of faith as belief is a very widespread understanding of faith in the Western world, but it’s a relatively recent idea, having its roots in the Protestant reformation, when Protestants distinguished themselves from other Protestants and from Catholics by writing doctrines about what they believed. Many dictionaries define “belief” as “having an opinion or conviction,” implying that it goes against what reasonable people know. Belief is contrasted with knowledge, and it’s opposite is doubt or disbelief. There are problems with this understanding of faith: if we believe that God wants this kind of faith from us, then having doubts or disbelief is thought to be sinful. More importantly, as Marcus Borg writes, when faith is located in the head, “You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”

 

[8] Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving and Finding the Church, p. 180.

[9] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 28.

[10] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 29-31.

Borg argues that true faith is more a matter of the heart, and offers three other meanings for the word that are all closely related: The first is Fiducia, meaning radical trust in God - like floating on water, this kind of faith requires a letting go and sinking into God’s love, a trusting in the buoyancy of God. Fidelitas is linked to the English word fidelity, and means faithfulness, or being committed to a deeper relationship with God, trusting that God is also in relationship with us. Visio, the third type of faith, is connected to the word Vision. It is faith as a way of seeing the whole, a way of viewing reality as gracious and generous. This way of seeing reality leads to a radical trust, that as in the words of Julian of Norwich, made famous by T. S. Eliot, “All shall be well and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Visio is not a naive view of life - it doesn’t shy away from the realities of evil, disaster, sorrow, death and grief - but it understands that these things do not have the last word.
Understanding faith as a way of the heart, encompassing Fiducia, Fidelitas and Visio, allows us to live our lives and to face the mystery of death in a whole new way. As Borg writes, “In this life, a radical centering in God leads us to a deepening trust that transforms the way we see and live our lives… And in our deaths, dying means trusting in the buoyancy of God, that the one who has carried us in this life is the one into whom we die.”

[11] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 31.

[12] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, pp. 32-35

[13] Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 37.

Marcus Borg died of cancer last year, but before his death he was a prominent and popular lecturer around the country, and one of the questions he received the most was, “What do we do with the creeds?” He explained that credo doesn’t mean belief as in the modern understanding of “I assent to”, but rather, “I give my heart to,” similar to fiducia or fidelitas. And if we understand credo in this way, the creeds then become a litany of to whom we are entrusting our hearts. If we understand belief to mean faithfulness, allegiance, loyalty, commitment and trust, then believing means beloving. Faith is the way that we live our lives out of love, not just adhering to a set of beliefs.
Faith is about beloving God and all that God beloves. Faith is a way of the heart, a way of living out of love for God and all of God’s creation. Jesus said that all of the commandments could be summed up like this: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind, and to love your neighbor as yourself.”
“My dear children, let’s not just talk about love, let’s practice real love. This is the only way we’ll know that we’re living truly, living in God’s reality… As we keep [Christ’s] commands, we live deeply and surely in him, and he lives in us. And this is how we experience his deep and abiding presence in us: by the Spirit he gave us.”
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.

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