Surprising, Transforming Initiative – Chuck Rush(10/16/16)

Surprising, Transforming Initiative

Romans 12:19-21 and Matthew 5:38-45

October 16, 2016


Earlier this week, David Brooks[i] did a bit of psychoanalyzing by suggesting that Donald “Trump continues to display the symptoms of narcissistic alexithymia, the inability to understand or describe the emotions of the self. Unable to know themselves” writes Brooks, “sufferers are unable to understand, relate or attach to others.”

“To prove their own existence, they hunger for endless attention from outside. Lacking internal measures of their own worth, they rely on external but insecure criteria like wealth, beauty, fame and other people’s submission.”

I have no idea about whether this applies to the New York real estate mogul or not but I’ve seen this condition up close and personal. Brook’s points out that people like this are bad at friendship, worse at love and affection. They can only imitate the intimacy that they see in other people but they can’t really do it themselves, so their marriages fail.

They mostly deploy anger and aggression. They are given to demeaning others. But they can be very competitive. Indeed, what surprised me was just how successful the two men I knew that really had the full-blown manifestation. One was a doctor, one was an entrepreneur.

What struck me at the time is how both of them had climbed the ladder of success. While it was true that they built organizations that were tyrannical, most everyone around them put up with it because they were all paid more than very well. And most of their presenting symptoms could be socially channeled in constructive ways. They were fighters, aggressive, bold, willing to step out and do something larger than life. It really struck me that in the limited context of their jobs and because of the limited expectations of our work environments, you can have this disorder and continue up the ladder of success. And there are quite a few jobs that it seems to help if you can channel anger into aggression.

But it doesn’t work at home. At home, they are very lonely people, even if they are surrounded by an extended cast of other people that they are acquainted with through the success of their work. You can’t buy other people’s love. You have to open yourself to other people.

And it isn’t until you get to that really intimate moment that you see the full manifestation of this disorder. Typically, their spouse threatens to leave them. That is followed by inordinate gifting, inordinate indulgence. It works, but it doesn’t work. And their spouse says to them, “I want to love you but you won’t let me…. I’m leaving because I need something more than you can give me.” It is a very sad impasse. But their limits are exposed.

It is sad because we all want to love and be loved. People who are like this have this spiritually hollowness to them. The two people that I knew desperately wished they had this capacity that they didn’t have. Without it, the fame, the wealth, the so-called “good life” they led didn’t have the spiritual meaning they knew other people had. They were in a perpetual state where they were frustrated and the intimacy that they wanted most was elusive. It was horrible to see.

When I saw it up close and personal, it helped underscore the fullness of God’s intention for us to live out of our love, our grace and gratitude. The Spiritual life is about touching other people. It is about empathy, compassion, understanding, and healing people of the negative things they were born into. What is really real for us spiritually is making a difference in the lives of other people. What gives us the deepest satisfaction is when other people are grateful for us. Usually in an unguarded moment, a friend, a spouse, perhaps a child and they tell you that you really helped them at a critical time. And for just a second, you wade into the pool of meaning. You are glad to be alive and grateful.

My ethics professor, Glen Stassen, used to say that we have the capacity to make surprising, transforming initiatives spiritually. We can make a difference and change the situation. He thought Jesus was one of those creative people who is able to ‘turn the other cheek’, not something you would expect and in the nt change the situation completely. And so we can.

Angela Paton [ii]runs Camp Diva in Richmond, Virginia. It is an organization that promotes girls and their fathers, recognizing how important fathers become for young girls and how much positive influence that young girls have on their fathers.

When she asked the girls what they wanted from their father’s, they had many answers but they wanted to have a dance and they did. All these 9 year old girls dressed up and all their Dad’s put on coat and tie and they danced and had a meal together. It was a huge hit in Richmond and lots of people wanted to get in on it.

A couple years ago, one of the girls in her group was very sad. After they prompted her a bit, she told the other girls that her Dad could go to the dance because her Dad was in jail. Angela had this marvelously creative response in that awkward moment, she let the girls solve their problem.

One of the girls said, “Why don’t they let him out for a day?” Everyone explained how jail doesn’t work like that.

And file this under “A Child shall lead them”. One of the girls says, “Why don’t we take the dance to the jail?” Of course, all the other girls said, “what are you crazy, they won’t let a bunch of little girls into a jail.”

So Angela said, ‘you never know until you ask’.

And she wrote a letter to the Sherriff asking if they could have a dance in the jail. And she had all the girls sign the letter with their 9 year old hand writing.

The Sherriff got the letter and called Angela up right away. He said to her, “one thing I know is that our prisoners are much less likely to come back to prison if they are connected to their children. Anything I can do to promote a healthy relationship between these men and their kids, I will do.”

And there was born the dance inside the jail. I’m sure there was a lot of planning that had to be done and a lot of difficult things that had to be worked out. But Angela’s group got permission to put up some crepe paper in the gym of the jail, punch bowl, DJ. She got a caterer to bring in a meal.

16 inmates traded in their orange jump suits (the girls called them sponge bob suits) and the guards gave them shirts and ties. I think they had 18 daughters that were able to come and they all came to the gym, dressed in their nicest dresses.

And they danced. Simple enough. As it turns out, also possibly profound. I never thought about the fact that prisoners don’t get any physical contact with their families or loved ones or what impact that has on them. But I suspect that it is more than you would presume.

Angela said it was the simple things. Being able to fix their daughter a plate of food, pulling her chair out for her, extending their hand and asking their daughter’s for a dance. She said, even the guards got a little welled up watching the normality of it all. We are humans. We need normal touch.

And Angela did another creative thing. She gave them all flip cams, so they could record each other and create this memory that they could play in the future, the Dad’s and the daughters, when they would miss each other. So they all sat and laughed with each other and made these little videos together.

Angela said she will never forget one young girl who held the camera up and asked her father, “Daddy, when you look at me, what do you see?” Such a simple question. Such a profound question as Angela knows all too well. Because when it comes time for girls to date and pick a mate, they are profoundly guided for good and ill by the way that their father reflected back for them an image of who they are and what they deserve.

They laughed, they danced, they hugged and said ‘goodbye’. The Sherriff pulled the men together after they left in a circle, to process what they were going through and help them make that transition back to being a prisoner again.

The guys all sat together thinking their thoughts staring at the floor. One of them finally said, “This is what we are missing because we made bad decisions…”

I just wonder if that dance didn’t get through in a way that nothing else really could? I wonder if those daughters didn’t help heal their fathers in a way that no one else really could?

But that was creative, surprising, transforming… humane. How insightful of Angela Patton to promote fathers and daughters and strengthen that relationship. How surprising the influence they have on healing their fathers and keeping them on the higher path. How transforming the simple use of touch to remind us of what is spiritually real in our lives and bring out the humane side of prisoners. We are all in need of redemption, redemption that keeps us humane.

It is my prayer that we will stop looking at prisoners simply as people that deserve punishment and start seeing them people that will return to civil society soon enough, people that are worth redeeming.

More broadly, our world is crying out right now for leaders with transformative vision like that of Angela Patton and the Sherriff of the city of Richmond. We hope for people that will think outside the box, break through the grid lock, and transcend the partisanship.

And I pray for you too. May the Spirit of God fall fresh on you. In the midst of anxiety may you be filled with creativity and figure out what transformative initiative you can do to change the calculus of the situation around you.

Open yourself to the Holy Spirit of God and be guided in a new way. Drive back the cynicism with what is good. Keep yourself real and in touch with what is meaningful. May God bless you and may God preserve what is humane in your soul. Amen.



[i] “Trump’s Sad, Lonely Life, New York Times, Tuesday, October 11, 2016, p. A23.
[ii] I heard Angela’s TED talk coming home from Washington. Any misrepresentation of her work is simply due to my memory. You can simply hear her speak for herself at


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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.