Character Shaping Community — Charles Rush (3/30/14)

“God will send you the Holy Spirit in my name, and in the Spirit you will be taught all things, bringing to memory all that I have taught you. My peace I leave with you, so let not your hearts be troubled.”

Just when I was starting to write my dissertation on totalitarianism and freedom, one of my professors suggested that I watch Leni Riefenstahl's documentaries for the Nazi party covering the Rally at Nuremberg in 1934. It is just very sobering to watch hundreds of thousands of people from the most sophisticated heart of Europe marching in military fashion, wave after wave by torch light, to listen to listen to the madman Hitler. Here we are in the land of the best Universities of the world and they begin the evening with a bonfire of Jewish books.
What was equally astonishing was how good they were on deploying effective techniques. The Nazi's chose night rallies because they knew that at night people were more likely to allow their emotions to hold sway over their intellect. They know how to structure the group so that they could maximize crowd influence over the individual. They figured out that focusing a single spotlight on Hitler when he was speaking would allow the individual to meld into the anonymous mass that was formed around them. They knew how to expose teenagers in just the right way that they would become the vanguard of the movement.

Years later we would validate the utility of these techniques at American Universities but in 1934, the Nazi's were just damn good guessers. If you ever wondered how it was that the most learned heart of Europe came to follow the bigoted ravings of a fanatical lunatic, the answer in no small part, is the effectiveness with which the Nazi's were able to organize and indoctrinate the masses.

It is true that the weed of fascism only grows on certain social soils, like pine cones that only release their seeds after fire has scorched over the landscape. But the Nazi's were able galvanize the frustrations and discontents of a defeated nation so that people willingly handed over their individuality to join a mass movement of history with truly frightening consequences.

You probably know that the psychology department at Yale became quite interested in studying this phenomenon. In the 60's Professor Stanley Millgram ran s series of experiments. He had ordinary people sit in a room with a lab instructor wearing a white coat and glasses, the symbol of scientific authority.

The volunteers were told they were administering a test to a person in another room that they couldn't see but only hear. If the person in the other room answered the test question correctly, they were instructed to tell them ‘good job'. But if they answered the question incorrectly, they were instructed to shock the people they could not see. With each wrong answer, they were instructed to increase the voltage.

After a short amount of time, they would hear the people being shocked scream, then really scream. Meanwhile the lab instructor would say something like ‘Don't worry about it.' And encourage them to deliver a shock with more voltage.

An alarming percentage of people continued to shock people even though they could hear them screaming loudly, simply because an authority figure in a white coat told them that it was permissible. What we learned is that all humans are much more amenable to suggestion by their peers than we realized. We are not simply autonomous rational individuals in the way that John Locke or Thomas Jefferson presumed. And our actual actions are far more influenced by our surroundings than we generally admit.

This is true for small actions as well as ones writ large. Professor John Bargh at Yale did a simple experiment early on where he introduced volunteers to a research assistant. The assistant would ask the volunteers to hold a cup of coffee while the assistant would write something down. Other volunteers were handed a glass of ice water. Sure enough, when they surveyed the two groups afterwards, the ones that held a hot drink in their hand rated their encounter with the research assistant warmer than the people that held the ice water in their hand.

We are much easier to manipulate on the subconscious level than you might imagine. So the marketing professor Brian Wansink at Cornell University has designed a series of external cues that influence us subconsciously. He has shown that we will eat more or less food depending on the lighting, your company, the portion sizes that are served, and the way that the food is arranged on the plate. Researchers refer to it as being primed, using external cues to get you to consume more.

And here is what is interesting, people universally will rationalize their actions after the fact and find some other reason to justify why they ate more than usual. The point of these studies is to show that we are largely controlled by our wider environment, far more than we realize. We respond to these subconscious cues that trigger in us predictable responses. Later on, we tend to rationalize our actions to make us think that we are more autonomous and in control of our decision making process than we really are. [i]

The French philosopher Montaigne was more right that he knew when he said that “Most of my actions are done by example, not by choice.” Shortly we will all be paying much more attention to the environments that we create for ourselves because we now know that they stimulate behaviors and form us considerably.

And it is one thing when you are talking about simple marketing techniques, but something similar is also true for the moral and spiritual climate that we set. We have done a number of studies that have shown that if you tolerate a climate of incivility- say where you interrupt one another or belittle each other- that you get an increase in incivility. Likewise, we've been able to contrast people's behavior after they've been primed by hearing workplace stories of sabotage of fellow employees versus hearing stories where people go to extraordinary circumstances to help another person out. Not surprisingly, people who are surrounded by altruistic swing thoughts respond to a set of problems that are posed very differently and much more constructively than people that are primed with revenge scenarios.

Most of us are aware intuitively that catty environments we have to work, or the background ethos of gossip and cynicism, undermine the constructive cohesiveness of the group.

We've also can demonstrate the truth of the converse. In Holland, researchers interviewed people in a room and exposed them to the smell of cleaning products. Afterwards, they were all invited to have lunch. Following lunch, a markedly increased percentage of them picked up after themselves and cleaned up.

But here's what we haven't really done yet, not nearly enough of. We haven't really tried to create a positive and productive culture that fosters abundant living. Jesus has this beguiling reflection on what God hopes for us in the church. “God will send you the Holy Spirit in my name, and in the Spirit you will be taught all things, bringing to memory all that I have taught you. My peace I leave with you, so let not your hearts be troubled.”

The beloved community that follows after Jesus will be so infused that we live through each other, learning and growing in all things, in a way that produces peace. What a positive vision of harmony- and remembering Jesus teaching- a life together that practices inclusiveness the way that Jesus accepted women, lepers, compromised tax collectors and the marginal like prostitute;

a life that extends compassion like the men that cut a hole in a roof and brought their sick friend to be healed by Jesus;

a life that begins with gratitude, like when he taught us to be as the Lilies of the field that reflect grace and beauty;

a life that incorporates understanding and forgiveness like when Jesus spoke nearly his last words, reflecting on those that betrayed him, the Masses that called for his execution, the religious and political authorities that did him in, and he said ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.'

It is a life that inspires each other, reminding each of us that we are children of God, no matter how much we may doubt ourselves, no matter how much the world conspires around us to make us feel ‘less than' or ‘not enough', that our calling is to live out of our freedom.

It is a life lived out of love that understands service unto others as our central calling in life and lifts up those courageous enough to lay down their lives for one another.

It is a life filled with meaning and purpose substantive enough we have something we are willing to die for if need be and we hope it won't be needed.

This is the direction of a community that will come to know all Truth. What an inspiring vision and I suspect that most of us are gathered here today because we still want to be part of that someway, somehow, difficult as it is in our world.

And I'm sorry that we don't get much direction about practical matters like how many parsonages should the church own or what is the right ratio of property to debt or what should the configuration of the staff be.

I am surmising that the Holy Spirit is saying to us, “you will figure it out.” But don't forget that the point is that you become this community infused with the Spirit. This is your lifeblood and your life long quest. So whatever problems you encounter and whatever good fortune happens to bless you, live out of this center. Or as St. Paul once put it, ‘be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds'. Keep open to the transformative power of God in your life to develop harmony, understanding and good will. For this is the spiritual point of our lives.

I'm glad that we share our lives together in this common hope for our community. It helps enormously to counter the petty negativity that swirls around us at work, in the partisan political world, in our school board meetings, the list is long. And may the positive swing thoughts from our worship life begin to permeate our families, healing and transforming how we relate to each other so that we become more grace filled and gracious. And may our families permeate our wider community, releasing the positive force of the Holy Spirit in all the lives we touch.

We can be a blessing to each other and that is our hope. It is why we gather each week as many of us making it as we can, to be uplifted and reminded of where we are heading. This week, I dropped something off at my daughter's house right as she was putting my grandchildren to sleep. There was a lot of whining and mewling that attends the bewitching hour after dinner, homework as we move towards bed.

So she asked me if I would sing to the 2 year old and put her to sleep.

I walked in the room and she was crying in her crib, so I picked her up and started to rock her. And I was thinking that this is my time. I was remembering my grandmother holding me when I was little and how much she blessed me. I just had one of those moments when I realized that I can bless the next generation and wouldn't it be wonderful if I could incorporate the positive direction in life in that process. But what would that look like? And what should I do right now?

And I remembered a song that we sing at Christ Church, a really good swing thought, given to me by the community. And I started to sing,

God who began a good work in you,

God who began a good work in you…

Will be faithful to complete it

Oh so faithful to complete it.

Faithful to complete, faithful to complete it in you.

God's peace I leave with you. Do not let your hearts be troubled. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.. Amen.

[i] The ideas all come from chapter 13 of Daniel Akst's book We Have Met the Enemy. See p. 167 for his summary judgment. His book does a nice job of summarizing the literature and making it accessible.

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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.