Choose Love, Not Fear – Julie Yarborough (5/6/12)

Note: Before starting her sermon, Rev. Yarborough asked Music Director Mark Miller to say a few words about his experiences at the recent United Methodist Church General Conference.

Reflections by Mark A. Miller

Every four years the United Methodist Church gets together to decide its rule book. That's our polity. We have something similar to the US government. We have the bishops who are the Executive who don't get to make the laws. Instead delegates are elected every four years to meet and make up the law book -- the Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church.

For the last four General Conferences I've been elected to that body to represent New Jersey along with 10 other people. Since the year 2000 that I've been going, we've been dealing with a whole host of issues, but the issue that seems to be the most contentious and the one that most divides us is that of human sexuality and specifically homosexuality.

In 1972, forty years ago, the Methodists passed a law in our Discipline that says that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Since 1972 we have added more and more layers onto that. We will not ordain gay people, we will not bless same-sex unions, and so on. So as places like Christ Church in Summit and the UCC have become more accepting and open, places like the Methodist Church have become more reactionary.

At the beginning of this particular General Conference two weeks ago in Florida we had conversations in small groups of delegates – there were 1,000 of us. We met in groups of around ten to talk about these issues. Many of us, the openly gay delegates, and our allies and friends, found a lot of these conversations disturbing. The language used to describe people was… less than Christian, let us say. Unfotunately it seems like in the places where we should be expressing God's love the most in Christian churches, people are sometimes the cruelest.

After speaking with several of my delegate colleagues about this we decided to raise the issue on the floor of the general conference, which hadn't been done before by any openly gay delegates. And so they said “Mark, why don't you go ahead and speak up…” And so I did. I was recognized from the floor and said that this process has been very harmful to some people, and harmful specifically to the people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender brothers and sisters who are elected delegates here at his body, and we would call on all of us to look for a way forward that doesn't harm people, but respects people even through our differences and disagreements. People using language of spiritual violence doesn't help. People came away from conversations where they were compared to animals, or others wanted them to be exorcised of the demon that is in them – all of the language that is causing a lot of violence in our society today, as you know.

My first impulse is never to lash out back and say “we hate you” or “you hate us, so we hate you”. I never have that feeling in my heart. I just feel that we need to show more love, and understand somewhat where the other person is coming from, but try to engage in dialog and continue to show that if we return judgment and hate for judgment and hate, then there's no way forward.

So I appreciate Julie giving me the time to speak this morning. I hope that you will pray for the United Methodist Church and its 10 million members, that we would find ways to meet one-on-one and dialog in a way that asks the hard questions and shows that the right way is love and acceptance, somehow, and not judgment and hate. Thank you.

[Note: You can view a video of Mark's statement on the floor of the UMC General Conference here: http://youtu.be/vKTP7IEBjJk, and you can read an account of the event here: http://www.unyumc.org/news/detail/1118.]

 

In his marvelous book, Tattoos on the Heart” [1], Father Gregory Boyle, or “G” as he is known on the streets of LA, offers stories of his work with gang members. Each page of the book offers glimpses into what G calls, “the No-Matter-Whatness of God.” God's love is so expansive and inclusive that it surrounds us and welcomes us no matter what we have done in our lives or who others say we are. G's ministry is all about communicating the message of God's “No-Matter-Whatness” to those who need to hear it. Gang members are not the only ones who need to hear that message. There are many people in this world who have been told over and over again that they are not worthy of being loved for who they are. They've received messages of negativity and hate most of their lives, and they desperately need to hear of God's grace and love, and be welcomed into Christian community.

In this morning's passage from Acts we heard a story of God's “no-matter-whatness.” Philip was not one of the 12 original disciples of Jesus, but he was in the second wave, chosen by the twelve to serve the early church. We know from scripture that he was an effective evangelist, teacher and healer. He was also an eager servant – as soon as the Holy Spirit told him to go toward the South on the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza, he did so at once. And when prompted to approach the chariot of the Ethiopian Court Official, he didn't just walk over there, he ran to it! When invited to get into the chariot, Philip hopped right up and began to offer instruction about the scripture. While others might have been reluctant or fearful of approaching, Philip, grounded in the Spirit and responding in love, didn't hesitate.

You see, the Ethiopian Court Official was a eunuch. It was common practice in those days for young boys to be castrated before puberty in order to serve in the Queen's court and inner chambers. Although eunuchs served in the court and had opportunities to advance, they were relegated to a lower class in general society. Unable to get married and father children, they were considered sexually immoral. Levitical and Deuteronomic law excluded them from participating fully in the assembly of Israel. The eunuch was an outsider, used to messages of negativity and scorn. And yet, this man had risen quite high in the Ethiopian Queen's court. He was in charge of the Queen's entire treasury. He had a chariot, and was returning from a personal trip to the Temple in Jerusalem (where, incidentally, he would not have been welcome into the inner courtyard with all of the other men).

Perhaps even more surprising, he had access to a scroll of Isaiah which he was reading aloud! In the ages before the printing press, it was rare to be able to read, much less own your own scrolls. Most teachings about scripture were passed down orally. The Court Official was clearly a learned man, yet humble enough to ask for help interpreting the scriptures. He needed someone to guide him – someone who knew not only about the ancient texts, but also about the love of God. He needed someone who was familiar with the exclusive Deuteronomic texts which forbade eunuchs to gather in the assembly, as well as the more hospitable texts of Isaiah, which proclaim that eunuchs who “hold fast to God's covenant” will be welcomed and given “an everlasting name that will not be cut off.” [2]

The scripture the Ethiopian happened to be reading was that of the suffering servant – often seen through the lens of Christianity as referring to Christ, though written much earlier as part of the Hebrew Scriptures. I can imagine that the scripture spoke deeply to this man, who heard a description of himself in the passage as he read the following words:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

“About whom did the prophet write?” The Ethiopian asks. “Could this possibly be written as a message for me?” He implies. And the answer is yes, and it is written for us as well. God is still speaking! In this passage, God is speaking a word to all who know suffering, to all who have experienced humiliation. As Tom Long says, “The biblical word is never merely about 'back then.' It is always a word to us, to this moment, to these circumstances.” [3]

Philip takes this opportunity to explain the scripture and to talk about Jesus, another suffering servant, who was led to the slaughter, shorn and humiliated, and for whom justice was denied. When Philip is finished, the Court Official asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

“Actually,” Philip could have responded, “there are many reasons to prevent you from being baptized.”

The Ethiopian Court Official was a castrated male; he was an outcast; he was a foreigner, from the edge of the known world, so he was geographically cut off from Israel; and he may have been a Gentile. (The text is not clear, and scholars are not in agreement on this point.)

Yet, Philip acts in accordance with the “No-Matter-Whatness” of God. It's as if he hears the Spirit whisper, “Absolutely nothing!” [4] There is nothing to keep you from being baptized! There is nothing to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! You are a child of God. “…Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate [you] from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [5] God's love is all inclusive, no matter what.

In the book of Acts, the community of Christians is growing in surprising and unexpected ways. The disciples and early followers of Jesus first baptized Jews in Judea. They were later led to baptize Jewish followers in Samaria. The baptism of the Ethiopian court official in Acts 8 represents the ever expansive inclusion of people into the Christian community. In Acts 10, Peter baptized Cornelius, the first known Gentile. God's acts of inclusion are ever surprising and unexpected. They continue to be so today!

One of the helpful things I learned in my introductory Bible courses in divinity school was this: when reading scripture, pay attention to how many times a word or phrase or concept appears in the text. The more a word appears, the more important it is. In 1 John 4:7-21, the word LOVE is mentioned 28 times. There can be no doubt that this is a very important concept for us to grasp.

The scriptures tell us that those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. Loving our neighbor and treating others with respect even when we disagree is essential for living a life of faith.

There is so much hate and fear in our world, and much of it is targeted at those we don't understand. You cannot love God if you do not love others - ALL others – queer, straight, judgmental, accepting, friends, enemies. We are called to live a life of love, even in the face of hatred.

Perfect love can cast out fear. We are far from perfect. We need God's love to help us love others; we cannot do it on our own. We must root ourselves in the love of God, by loving others as we love ourselves. Only then will we know the “no-matter-whatness” of God's love, and be able to rise above the fear that lives within each of us, that permeates our society and our world.

Love is an act of courage. We are called to be people of courage, not people of fear. Fear leads to distrust, resentment, suspicion, closed doors, hatred, and violence.

A few years ago, some friends of mine were told, by the pastor of another church, that they would not be able to stand together at their children's baptism because they were gay men.

Just this week, (as Mark has told us) gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons were told, once again, by the United Methodist General Conference that who they are is not compatible with Christian teaching.

And just this week, a Baptist preacher in NC told his parishioners to punch their male children, or break their wrists if they appear effeminate, and many in the congregation shouted “Amen!” as a response.

In all of those cases people were acting from fear, not love. That is why it is so important that we are an Open and Affirming church, and that we proclaim that identity boldly and courageously. That is why we need to continue to draw the circle wide. Gays and lesbians, bisexual and transgendered people are being told that they are not fully human, that they are not welcome at the table, that the circle of God's love doesn't include them. Yet, the scripture says that EVERYONE who loves God is born of God and knows God. No matter what!

We need to be bold in proclaiming to those who have been disenfranchised, “There is nothing that can separate you from the love of God – absolutely nothing. God loves you no matter what.”

No matter who you are, or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here.
[1] Tattoos on the Heart:The Power of Boundless Compassion, Gregory Boyle, Free Press (A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc), New York, 2010

[2] Isaiah 56: 4-5

[3] Tom Long, Pastoral Perspective. From Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 2, edited by David L Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, p. 456

[4] Loc cit. p.458

[5] Romans 8:38-39

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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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