Christmas Cantata – Mark Miller; Peace in the Eye of the Storm – Chuck Rush 12/20/15

Peace in the Eye of the Storm

Lk. 2:8-15

My favorite passage of Scripture. It means “God makes his face to shine upon you”. God draws near to you. God wants the very best for you. You are beloved. And you may be feeling sick right now, full of grief, lonely, worried about your job, scared that you don’t have enough to make ends meet, disappointed in your family or your spouse. God loves you and beams out love to you this season.

Soon, we will witness a miracle of sorts, as we collectively change gears. There is a mad rush here for the next couple days as people scramble to find a last minute gift, work extra hard to get everything done, rush to stock up on food for the holiday. And then sometime on Christmas Eve, our great metropolis will start to really shut down. Every single business will start to close. All of us will find a home and gather to be with each other.

I light a fire just after midnight, wrap a present or two,  pour myself a couple fingers of Scotch that a friend gives me and look at the tree with Kate. And it keeps getting quieter, more peaceful, quieter and more peaceful…

Someone told me that they signed up to serve breakfast on Christmas morning at Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen on the West Side of Manhattan. Her kids were grown and moved away, her husband had died. So she saw this as a window to do something creative on Christmas Day. Only she didn’t realize that the trains don’t run, so she drove into New York on Christmas morning at dawn. It was snowing that year. She was the only car on the Lincoln Tunnel. The snow was coming down hard. She gets to Broadway, there is not a single car driving in either direction. She parks and starts walking up the middle of Broadway with her arms up in the air. It was completely quiet for a moment. She said, “It was like a miracle”. Peace in the City that Never Sleeps.

We know that it is only a moment, like being at the eye of the storm. We were at the beach one year when a hurricane hit. The winds kept picking up speed- 60, 80, 100 miles an hour. Stuff was being torn off the sides of buildings flying down the road. Everyone was under cover, then under deep cover. Water was blowing into the house from the tiniest cracks and the sand felt like bb’s hitting you. Even small objects like hunk of wood became lethal weapons flying that hard. All you could do was batton down and hope for the best.

Then it all came to a sudden stop, an eerie stillness. The sun even came out and shined a bit. People started emerging from their forced shelter. They came to say ‘hello’ to their neighbors, to check on each other and compare notes about the danger. Kids were spontaneously just dancing around with each other like a party was trying to break out. And for about 15 minutes this kind of supernatural calm settled on us, with smiles, relaxed hugs, smiles and mirth. It was the eye of the storm.

Christmas is a lot like that. Collectively, the storm pace of events swirling around us come to a halt, a short respite. The gun violence, the threats of terrorist attack, the over-hyped rhetoric of presidential politics, the machismo of a Russian dictator, Scandal ridden hedge fund managers being arrested, Iranian chaos making Ayatollahs- all these threats to our world, some very serious, some just seriously annoying- all of what collectively makes up the swirling maelstrom of our wider social background… It just comes to a stop.

And for a moment, we rest. For a moment, we just relate to each other as family, as friends. We share the morning. We eat, we go back to bed. We remember the child like perspective of mystery, wonder, and expectation. We are simply present with each other. Everyone gets a gift. And for a bit, we are fulfilled. We take care of each other. We bless each other.

The howling winds will return shortly, we know that. But for a moment, l hope that you will be in peace with your people. For a moment, I hope you will engage your expansive self, the one that gifts others, that hosts others, that makes room and includes those that need someone to reach out to them. I hope you can release yourself from the things that drag you down and you can recover your higher self.

And remember, it is all a gift. Our lives are not long and we really are grateful to be alive. We are grateful for those that have loved us. We are grateful for even the quirky, odd, eccentric people in our extended family. Even with nutty Uncle Jim, it is all good really.

God draws near to you. God blesses you like God blessed us all with the birth of the Christ child. Words alone will not do. May you be filled with song, the deeper joy of song, quite in spite of the maelstrom of the world and all of the tangled problems that will be there to solve when the winds return. Maestro, cue the Angels please…

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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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