Blindsided – Caroline Dean 4/17/16

Blindsided: April 17th 2016

Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean

Acts 9:1-9:

Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.  Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.  Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Acts 9 10-20:

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias.  The Lord called to him, in a vision, “Ananias.”  He answered, “Here I am Lord.”  The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the house of Judas, look for a man named Saul.  At this moment Saul is praying, and he has seen in a vision, that a man named Ananias will come in and will lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”  But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many, about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind up all who invoke your name.”

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings, and before the people of Israel.”

So Ananias went and entered the house.  He laid hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me, so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.  Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

 

Blindsided Prayer: (based on Acts 9:1-20)

God of Love,

Show up

When we need you most

When our hearts are hard

Our heads our held too high

When our feet are heading for trouble

When we are blocked from each other

Oh God, keep showing up

And help us to see You

Help us to orient ourselves around your love

Help us to see how love and justice

Are not filled with division, fear, or hatred

Help us to see how love & justice are always filled

With grace, humility & courage

Open our hearts to your blindsiding Spirit, this day we pray,

Amen.

 

“What does it mean to be blindsided?”  I emailed Tim Freeman, Christ Church member, college football athlete, and football coach – to get his perspective and according to Tim,

When you are “’blindsided” in football, “you do not see a hit coming.”  He continues, “As a Quarterback, you prepare your mind & body.  You work hard in the offseason, you study film, you recognize the defense, and you give all of your effort every single play.  You drop back into the pocket, prepare to throw, and then (BAM) you wake up on the ground with a 300 pound lineman on your back wondering what your name is and what day it is.  That hit from nowhere can physically and mentally break you.  It can cause you to blame others and perform poorly going forward.  Mike Tyson had a saying that I think about many times, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”’ (pause)

Sometimes we are blindsided by the goodness of life.  We are bowled over by love, a second chance, or a new opportunity.  We are given exactly what we need, in exactly the right moment, when we least expect it.  We are healed or freed from the burden that has weighed us down for too long.  According to Anne Lamott, a progressive Christian author, an appropriate prayerful response in these moments is:  “WOW!”  And eventually, when we step back and really let these moments sink in, “Thank you, thank you God.”

Other times we are blindsided by the brokenness of our human condition and our wider world.  We are laid low by the loss of a loved one, by cancer, or the loss of a job.  We experience an “anti-miracle” - we are in exact wrong place, at the exact wrong time.  We also suffer under the weight of systems and social constructs that perpetuate so much inequality and suffering for the marginalized and for all of us, we are divided from each other.  And again according to Anne Lamott, it is an appropriate response in these moments to cry out to God, and to each other, with a simple prayer, “HELP!”

Either way, when we are blindsided, we gain a new perspective, we see our communities, our own self, and even God in a new way.  New things are brought into our line of vision which were on the periphery before.  Some details come into sharper focus, and others, that used to seem important before, they fade away.  (PAUSE)

And today we remember the origin story of Paul or should I say Saul (who for better or worse, second to Jesus is probably the most influential person in the Christian tradition).  Almost 1/3 of New Testament books are attributed to the tradition of the Apostle Paul.  We mostly know “Saul” as “Paul” because he used his Roman Name in the second half of life on his mission to the wider Greco-Roman Gentile community.  But for today, Paul is still rooted in his Hebrew tradition and so he is “Saul.”

So, Saul and a few friends are walking down the road to Damascus.  I imagine that Saul is one of those people who are very certain about directions.  Saul’s friends turn to him, looking for his leadership.  In their bags they carry papers from the high priests.  These papers give them authority execute the honorable task at hand - to drive out the followers of Jesus, to place fear their hearts and to imprison the stubborn among, to make examples of them.  Saul sees a great threat to the way of life he loves dearly.  He will protect his faith – and indeed protect his God.  Surely this is a good and righteous task.

And let’s just say on the Road to Damascus that day that Saul is blindsided.  Saul and his crew are hyper focused on their mission.  Nothing will get in Saul’s way, he has done his prep work & the way forward is clear.  And then (BAM!) the “defensive end of the Holy Spirit” knocks Saul to his knees, a great light envelopes him, blinds him, and a voice cries out, “Saul why do you persecute me?”

I love this question.  It is vulnerable.  God could cry out, threatening Saul, matching Saul’s own posture.  God could be angry (rightfully so) for all of the suffering that Saul has caused!  Instead God is vulnerable.  God identifies with the persecuted ones.  God appeals to the love that God has for Saul.  And God appeals to Saul’s love for God.  Saul’s love is misdirected, distorted, and God is somehow able to see goodness in Saul and reorient Saul towards it.  This is what God does, God is in the business, of seeing the good in of us, and drawing it out, even when we it’s distorted.  Even when we are blind to the good in ourselves and in each other.

Saul, who is utterly confused, says “Who are you?!” The voice answers, “I am Jesus, go into town and wait for what to do next.”  And so Saul, the fearless leader, is now blinded.  He must be led into the city by his friends.  He waits, in darkness, blinded for three days.  He fasts from food and water.  And he prays.

The man of action has to wait.  Saul who was sure of himself, is now blind and utterly dependent.  The man who was full of rightness and zeal is now emptied out.  Saul, the one riding high on the power of the authority given him, is now laid low.  And in the end this persecutor of the faith becomes one of its greatest ambassadors, indeed one of the reasons that we are sitting here today.

If I am very honest, I do not want to identify with Saul.  But perhaps the ones who we want to disassociate with most, are the ones, who have the most to teach us.  It is a terrible thought that I could mask my own stubbornness, yes even my own moments of hatred and judgment, with God’s seal of approval and thereby do harm in the world in God’s name.  This kind of rigid, us versus them, righteousness surely cannot be reflective of a posture that I would hold!

But after deeper reflection, I wonder, don’t we all do this?  Don’t we all draw a line between us v. them?  Don’t we all think some days that we would be God’s great gift to those who are wrong, in order to convert them to the true way?  Don’t we all at times, hold onto these perceived “righteous tasks” with white-knuckles, like it somehow earns us favor in God’s eyes?  And then – thank God - all of the sudden - we have a moment of miraculous clarity and humility, when we realize that maybe we are accidentally promoting wrongness with our stubborn perceived rightness!?  Maybe we were opposing the divine goodness that we thought we were trying to protect?!  Maybe the people who we thought belonged with “them” over there actually belong with “us?”   There are certainly times when our anger, our fear, or our need to be right causes great suffering.

Secondly, I do not want to identify with Saul’s state of broken humility.  He has to start over.  I hate those times.  I much prefer to be marching down the road with my buddies, with a clear call, a clear path, and a righteous mission.  Sitting in the dark, hungry, confused, with no clue about what will happen next – that is a vulnerable place – and nobody chooses that seat.  And yet, for how many of us has that been our greatest hour of transformation, even our greatest hour of salvation – when we are saved from our own limited sight, when we are saved from ourselves.

And one of the interesting things about Saul is that his origin story is bound up with others – as all of our stories are.  Ananias, a follower of Jesus, has heard that Saul of Tarsus is on the way and that news isn’t good.  Saul has been known to storm into followers’ homes and take them off to prison.  Some of the followers of Jesus are surely tempted to hide or leave the movement all together.  And now God has called Ananias to be the agent of healing for this man, – to pray for Saul and bring him into the fold.

For me it is easier to sympathize with Ananias.  I imagine that Ananias and his loved ones are bracing for the persecution that is on the way.  Huddled together, they wait for God’s direction.  And then one night Ananias gets a vision from God.   God’s plan is for Ananias to march up to Saul and essentially turn himself in!?!  I can resonate with Ananias’ question, “Wait a second God, this guy Saul, he is bad news!  He has done evil things to our people!”  Surely, this is a bad strategy?!  God again tells Ananias to find Saul, to pray for him, and heal his blindness.  For God’s plan is to use Saul as an instrument to bring the Good News of Jesus to the Gentiles, to the whole world.

In this moment, Ananias is also blindsided!  His idea of “us v. them” “friend v. enemy” is also disrupted.  He has been preparing to defend his people, bracing for persecution.  And God gives him the mission to approach Saul, and to heal him, this one who has done so much evil in God’s name!  Ananias’ new vision calls him to risk his life in order to forgive and baptize his enemy, to call Saul his “brother.”  Blindsided moments draw out the good in us.  They draw us closer to God, closer to each other.  These moments help us to see the good in each other, even in our enemy, and even in the most broken parts of ourselves.

And so when you get blindsided – PAY ATTENTION!  – Sit in the dark and listen – Don’t resist or flee– Because hidden in the dark are the moments of divine transformation – new life – hope – freedom – and healing.  In these blindsided moments we discover that the people we thought belonged to someone else are indeed our kin.  In these moments we are softened to reconcile with the one who has caused us great suffering.  In these moments we are softened to be reconciled with God.

Because God still leans over us and says gently, “beloved, why do you persecute me?”

And we might say to each other today, “Wait, how do we persecute you God?”  “We are certainly not imprisoning or stoning anyone!”  And God whispers back to us, “Did you see me hungry and feed me?  Did you see me naked and clothe me?  Did you see me in prison and visit me? Or did you stand by and ignore the suffering of the marginalized, the least of these?   Have you ignored me?”

Sometimes I am blindsided by how ignorant I am of the suffering of others.  And it is painful when that suffering comes into full view.  Consider the suffering of a person of color driving down the road, in a new community, who has to question if their presence is a perceived threat – I have never had negotiate this kind of question.  How often do I ignore the suffering of the LGBTQ community, especially the transgender community in states like North Carolina where some are afraid when they have to use the bathroom, I have never bear this kind of fear.  Or how many days am I sensitive the suffering of the extreme poor in Nicaragua OR to suffering of those who do not have enough food to feed their kids right here in our own community?  Sometimes it is much easier to walk down the road with our heads held high, in comfort, and yes in, ignorance.  And yet in our blindness we are less whole, we are divided from each other, and we are less connected to God.

In closing, the truth is that those moments of being blindsided by the by the brokenness of humanity, and by the goodness of life are so often woven together.  We can be blindsided by cancer & hope, chemotherapy & grace all at the same time.  And so when we numb ourselves to our own suffering or the suffering of each other, we can numb ourselves to the grace & love that is woven into our pain.

I emailed another Christ Church member this week to get her perspective on what it was like to be blindsided by cancer.  Amanda Block is a Christ Church member, advocate for the underserved, especially the homeless community, & breast cancer survivor, Amanda writes,

“When my cancer was diagnosed it was a shock. I was rushed for a mammogram and then rushed for an ultrasound and then biopsies, and appointments and tests to ascertain the type of the cancer and then chemotherapy.  I had no time to react beyond handling immediate needs and caring for my daughter who was four at the time.

And yet.  The Sunday before my biopsies, at church we sang, "God Who Began a Good Work In You Will Be Careful to Complete It.”  I sang it silently to myself through all my tests and scans. It held me together.

When the nurses would give me a heavy sedative before the chemo I responded as if it were truth serum. I asked everyone and anyone, “What am I to do with this?  What good can I make of it?”

I prayed. I waited. I got very sick.  Stuck in bed, I wondered what I was to do. And then with each passing day after chemo I'd get stronger and feel better.

On the off weeks I resumed my normal life. On one of those off weeks my family and I went to the beach. The waves shifted the sand and revealed a dazzling array of stones and shells. My cancer was like the waves:  it took off all the layers that held everything but my true essence. The grace, gratitude, and joy I prayed for every night for years had been revealed to me. It was there all along.

It was that discovery that reoriented me more than the cancer.  Bad things happen. We fight with the tools available to us. It turns out the tools I expected to acquire, G-d had instilled in me all along.

I went on to have a successful finish to my chemo with a "complete response". My reconstruction surgery revealed no evidence of disease.  The doctors tell me it's not over, it will never be over.  And so I put that grace to use, living without fear of my future as best I can, while being grateful and enjoying the good.” (pause)

And so beloved go now.  Pay attention to the moments when the “Defensive End of the Holy Spirit” blindsides you with goodness and even when life blindsides you with suffering or with the suffering of others.  Because these moments are bound together in their sacredness.  In those moments God whispers to us, “let go, go this new way, trust me, even in the midst of your fear?”  Because Amanda is right, God’s grace, has always, and will always be there.  And paradoxically, sometimes we see God’s grace more clearly when we are blinded, waiting in the dark.

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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