Blended by Love — Charles Rush (11/24/13)

“Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful out of your insecurity. Love is not arrogant; it isn't rude; Love does not always insist on doing things ‘my way' on ‘my time'. Love is not irritable or put upon or resentful when you do something nice for other people. Love doesn't rejoice when others make mistakes or turn out not to have their facts entirely straight. Love actually rejoices in even small victories when those around you show even a little bit of growth and promise. Love bears all things (especially when our loved ones are sick or dying, so maybe we could bear a little more just now); Love believes in people, even when they are shaky and not actualizing their potential. Love hopes and prays for the best, (especially for the difficult and the dysfunctional).”
As we turn towards a Holiday weekend, two headlines caught my attention, thinking about how our disparate families come together this time of year. The first one was Vice-President Dick Cheney's girls. One of them, Mary, is gay and legally married. Her sister, Liz, is running for the Senate in the very conservative state of Wyoming. As you know, Liz, went on national TV, pronouncing her opposition to same-sex marriage, saying that she and her sister had ‘agreed to disagree'. She might have vetted that a bit more with her sister because her sister's spouse and then her sister went on Facebook and posted material attacking her sister Liz for her retrograde views.

Can't you see the former Vice-President carving the Turkey right now. So glad to have my girls home, even though they can't even ‘Agree' to disagree. How many of us had those dinners just degrade into controlled combat before the pumpkin pie gets served.

My father was something of a political mix. He was half Dick Cheney and half Donald Rumsfeld and my brother was is sort of mid-way between Teddy Kennedy and Che Guevara. In our twenties, before he quit drinking, he was very fond of prodding the old man, who fell for it every single time I have to say. No matter what the topic, it got louder and louder, more and more heated, usually with me in the middle, and each of them goading me ‘you don't agree with him do you?'

I remember one time trying to say something conciliatory like ‘thank you for sharing your position with me' but it came out ‘thank you for shouting your position at me.' If the Redskins were losing that year, which happened a lot, I'd lean over to Kate and whisper, ‘get the kids ready and meet me in the car.' Retreat! We didn't know. We thought all families loved each other like this.

And the other headline was the feature article in the Economist on ‘How Civil Wars end' that interviewed my son's College professor. That is the title of his last seminar in Political Science, “How Civil Wars End”, fitting information for college graduates about to make their way in the wider world at present. The subject was Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan and the many other hot spots around our globe. And they brought up the example of Lebanon in the 80's and 90's. As you know, Lebanon is divided between Christians, Shiite Muslims, and Sunni Muslims. And they tore each other apart for over a decade. By the way, that Civil War came to an end, as most of them come to an end, when outside countries stop funding the fighters. They run out of money pretty quick on their own and simply can't continue the reign of destruction and are forced to the bargaining table.

But you know what else they found in Lebanon that was striking. It turns out that these divisions in Lebanese society are a whole lot more complicated than you might suspect from the outside. Once they started doing the studies on Lebanese families, the anecdotes turned out to be true. It turns out that, yes, the country is seriously divided between Christians, Shiites and Sunni's. But it is also true that almost every single extended family has all three groups as part of their clan. Once the political leaders of the country disempowered the leaders of the militia's, then they had the same problem that we all have, the challenge of getting our own extended families to make the peace with one another.

How do we blend these people together? I think it is a fitting example because it is happening right now all across our world. And it is a very good way to understand most of what you see in the Middle East today.

In 2002, I was on sabbatical in North Africa with my wife, daughter and niece. We had just left Tunis on a taxi towards a resort hotel on the Mediterranean and our driver wanted to stop for tea in a dingy little crossroads village in the desert. We got out of the car and I saw a girl, probably 12 years old, in one of the alley ways. She wasn't in the burka yet, a tween, and she had on a European three quarter sleeved shirt, so I walked up a bit to get a better view. Here were these building, probably a couple centuries old in a society that has hardly changed at all in the past two centuries, with tea samovars essentially unchanged in the past thousand years poured by women with Henna tattoos, designs over a thousand years old as well. Nothing ever changes out here in the desert. I get closer to this girl and you know what it says on her T-shirt? Abercrombie and Fitch.

I thought to myself at the time, this is what these Mullahs are so alarmed about. They are losing the culture war to MTV, the world over. Burka vs. Surfers? Young people the world over are going with the surfers, much cooler.

10 years later, I was probably watching her on TV, now 22, protesting as the whole country of Tunisia had a momentary revolt against the stifling traditionalists in their country. Now they were all taking pictures of the movement with their cell phones, posting them on Facebook for the whole world to see. And just like that, some kid that had been exiled to the solitude of the desert in Africa, was connected to the rest of the world and totally transformed by this connection as well.

We know how much our children have been changed by inner-connective technology, but young people in these traditional societies are being changed even more. Our culture has had 500 years to go through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment. Each of them were gut wrenching changes in the way we viewed the world and the values that we have. These societies are having those changes over 500 years compressed into a single generation, perhaps two. Just imagine what those extended families are going through.

We all know what it is like when part of our families go to college and the others don't, how differently they see the world, how differently they value things, like Archie Bunker and his son-in-law. We know how differently it is when your Aunt has the old traditional religious faith- for most of us here it is Catholic- and the younger people in the family that want to be spiritual but just can't accept the old way of thinking and the old ways of piety from yesteryear. Multiply those frictions by several fold in all those families across the Middle East. The Civil War is not going on between people far away from each other, it is people in every extended clan as well.

The challenge is that we are all blended families now. We all have a very similar challenge of how to get along when we are really different. I wrote an op-ed earlier this summer for the Star Ledger supporting same sex marriage, noting that the religious argument against it was that it would undermine the ‘traditional family'. This is what I said, “In our extended families, there is no such animal as a ‘traditional family'. There are only blended families. I can't think of an extended family that doesn't have a divorce or two that complicates the picture, or a family that doesn't have a couple who have adopted children often from other nations.

Of the families that attend our church, I am hard-pressed to think of one that doesn't have interfaith or intercultural challenges. What binds them all together is their common quest to live in meaningful, loving relationships with one another, hopefully helping each other to thrive and find our place at the table.

Last Sunday at coffee hour, I spoke to an Italian Catholic father who married a woman from the Philippines when they were in medical school. They adopted twin girls from Korea and are raising them as Protestants, largely because we are committed to diversity, with inclusive support and acceptance.

Another father was raised Catholic, married a half Jewish woman, had two children of their own and adopted a third child who is African-American. So their extended family includes Irish, Italian and Eastern European Ashkenazi wings. With their adopted daughter, they also have a black Baptist wing.

So when I talked to two gay fathers, one from the U.S., the other from Europe who have adopted two bi-racial sons, it seemed to me that they have more in common with the other blended families around them than differences. All of them are seeking to ground their children with an identity, a place, a belonging.

All of us want to give the next generation a set of values that can help them find their way and negotiate the moral complexities life will surely throw at them. And all of these children want to be accepted for who they are, with their families helping them to develop a story of how they are uniquely appreciated for who they are.

In my Christian tradition, we are taught that God loves all of us and that we are all children of God, first and foremost. Jesus taught us that the Kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet, where we all have our place at the table.

Perhaps it was easier for us to get sidetracked with the argument for the traditional family back when we lived in County Cork or West Texas and were surrounded by people like us, pretty much from the same ethnic background with the same religious and cultural sensibilities. But we haven't been living like that for quite a long time. And the process of blending has been much more interesting than the quaint segregation of yesteryear, has it not?

No, we need traditional values more than ever to genuinely blend our families with love. We need the traditional value of gratitude for the uniqueness of each person and generosity that reaches out to include people who are different. We will need the traditional values of compassion to meet others where they are, and the love that helps them bloom from within.

We need the traditional value of reconciliation that softens the very real edges of difference to work toward an extended family that we can all call home. We need a vision of peace where we are all normal, blended and a work in progress.”

So this week, when you are on the commute Wednesday, surrounded by the teeming masses in transit to all points out of New York, and your thoughts turn toward the extended family reunion with all of your quirky relatives and in-laws, I do hope you will remember that almost all of them are like that.

I hope that you will have a moment of reflection, a moment of resolve, that you are going to be more of a thermostat setting the emotional and spiritual temperature with those around you and less like a thermometer, simply registering and reflecting back the spiritual and emotional mood of your extended clan. May you radiate God's love to those around you from the center of your being and not simply reflexively respond to oft used triggers that your family fires at you on autopilot. May you be a beacon of grace and acceptance beguiling your people to engage their better sides. And may you creatively figure out a way that everyone around you can find a place at the table that you've been privileged to share with those that you love.

St. Paul was right. “Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful out of your insecurity. Love is not arrogant, it isn't rude; Love does not always insist on doing things ‘my way' on ‘my time'. Love is not irritable or put upon or resentful when you do something nice for other people. Love doesn't rejoice when others make mistakes or turn out not to have their facts entirely straight. Love actually rejoices in even small victories when those around you show even a little bit of growth and promise. Love bears all things (especially when our loved ones are sick or dying, so maybe we could bear a little more just now); Love believes in people, even when they are shaky and not actualizing their potential. Love hopes and prays for the best, (especially for the difficult and the dysfunctional).”

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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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