Communal Altruism – Chuck Rush (10/26/14)

Communal Altruism
Isaiah 41:10, 17, 4; John 14:16-28 (heavily edited)

A word of welcome to our new members today. People send me articles from time to time on the benefits of church and I have good news for you. Church going correlates with a number of virtues. People who regularly attend church are more likely to live longer and be more active for a longer duration of their life; they are more likely to be generous with their giving and also to lead in community organizations; they are more likely to complete tasks and develop vocational stability. They are more likely to have stable, thriving families. And, my favorite they are more likely to have happy sex lives and more active sex lives… It’s the coffee… So congratulations and let me say ‘thanks to everyone in the pew this morning, you are making us look good. We appreciate that.’
The beloved community is important to be part of because it is where you people that are working on becoming better people. They are trying to exercise their honorable selves. They are learning to develop a full life of giving. And if you are open, and you communicate, and you are capable of giving and really being there for other people, you are more than half way home to being a solid romance partner. As it turns out, they are the same qualities that make you a good person all around.
Jesus sent us the Holy Spirit to bind us together so that together we might learn the fuller Truth. We can’t say what that is precisely because it changes with each generation as we develop it in each other.
We are all here to become better people. And your better self is unique to you. We can’t give you a mold, we can only help you to discover your own spiritual voice and express your purpose in these few short years we have on this earth.
I’ve been reading a book on forgiveness. They get to the ‘how to’ portion of the program, they emphasize the uniqueness of that spiritual moment. How do you ask for forgiveness?
The authors have good insights that they have learned from being on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, that brought together the people that Enforced Apartheid with the family members of those that died, so they could resolve the harm that had been done in their country rather than simply degrade into a civil war, like we are witnessing today in Iraq or Syria or Gaza, so many examples of endless retribution and revenge.
They learned how important it is for people seeking forgiveness to become open and transparent and for a little while completely honest with themselves. They learned that the families of people that had simply disappeared needed to know how their loved ones died, what they went through, what the motivations were for those that killed them, how they covered it up and lived with it. They needed to know details to understand what really took place so that they could put it in a context and come to grips with it, as they process their own meaning about how they would deal with it in the future and how it could be healed.
It is interesting that the Truth and Reconciliation commission did not make the perpetrators actually ask for forgiveness. They were worried that people would be insincere or that they would develop a formula in order to get amnesty, so they only required that they tell the story and answer questions from the family members. But almost everyone of the people that told their story and answered questions from the family members, went on to express remorse for what they had done. They almost all went on to ask for forgiveness anyway.
And the authors ask the question, ‘how do you ask for forgiveness?’ What do you say? This is Bishop Desmond Tutu reflecting on that question. He says, “I was truly humbled by the forgiveness I saw so freely granted. I was awed by the gracious words of apology and the profound acts of forgiveness that came out of honest dialogue. There is no script I can write that will express your remorse. You must write your own script directly from your heart and from your conscience. This is the place where the power of forgiving and being forgiven is generated. No one can place remorse in another’s heart. Either you feel it or you don’t. And your victim will know if your remorse is genuine and heartfelt.”
At some point, you have to live your life. You have to become you. A work in progress from the beginning to the very end. And you are always changing. But the spiritual point is that you live out of your authenticity. These are moments when the Spirit of God emboldens us to be real. This is what the Spirit does.
For that reason we are a little light on telling you what to believe. The Church went a little overboard on that in the past. Up through the time I was a child, it would be understandable if you believed that religion was having the right answers to the test. Over and over we repeated
I believe in God the Father, Almighty, maker of heaven and earth
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
Born of the Virgin Mary… [if you grew up in Catholic school like I did or Protestant, you know the rest] Maybe there will be a test? In which case, we’re in trouble at Christ Church.
But what if our actual test is simply the quality of our lives, the profundity of our transformation, who we become? What if that is actually what we manifest, which it must be?
The profundity of the Bible is not in the answers that it give to us. The profundity of the Bible resides in the questions that it poses to us. How are you manifesting love? What is your work for justice? What is the shape of your reconciliation right now? Where do you establish peace in your life?
We can’t answer that for you. You have to write your own script. With your friends, your family, your loved ones. And the church, your spiritual community. In your community; through your work; in your philanthropy… In our wider world… You have to write your own script and we are here to help you.
How are you making a difference? How are you healing what is broken? What is your mission statement for this chapter of your life?
Psychologists have been studying exactly how our character is formed and they are able to document that humans operate interchangeably on two different levels at the same time, as individuals and as part of groups that we belong to. Not surprisingly, they are quite distinct ways of being.
Not surprisingly, we are predominantly shaped by our group thinking, which is what distinguishes us from other primates. As an expert on chimpanzees observed, ‘you would never see two chimpanzees carrying a log together.’ They can’t coordinate like that. But we humans have an advanced ability to communicate and to coordinate with each other that has multiplied our effectiveness and created higher civilization as we know it.
We’ve gone from hunting much more effectively in groups to our most advanced societies that create competitions that synchronize with each other to multiply power and increase efficiency.
Groups are also where most of our emotional life resides which takes up the preponderance of what we find interesting and meaningful.
Groups are where exercise honor, respect, affection, compassion, loyalty, trust. These are the things that bring us the most sustained fulfillment in this life. This is why the spiritual community is actually important. We find our deeper meaning in and through each other, who are trying to bring out the best in each other.
Perhaps the most significant example of why this makes a difference is how our teenagers actually make moral decisions. Professor Jonathan Haidt wanted to know how we actually form moral judgments, so they developed a series of stories at the University of Virginia that they asked undergraduates. Lo, behold, what they found is that the vast majority of kids make intuitive gut judgments that reflect the values they saw embodied in the groups their parents belonged to in their childhood, and only after that did they begin to develop a rationale for why that judgment was the right judgment indeed.
So exposing your children to a Church that teaches that God’s higher values is important. We want to expose them to the value of love that binds us all together, so that diversity of ethnicities becomes a tapestry; we want them to see us living in community as straight families, gay families, single people and blended families, each encouraging one another to find their unique spiritual voice.
And taking our children with us to serve the poor through Family Promise or on a Bridges run or serving breakfast at SHIP is important.
Our teens and our young people will make intuitive moral judgments that they learned from the values that you actually exhibited in your life, mostly through the groups that you belong to. The Church is foundational because this is the place that we model for children how to pray, how to be reverent, how to support one another in times of difficulty and crisis, how to be a blessing to each other- even as we hope that they will be a blessing to the next generation.
The Church is the great experiment that God started so that we might access the deeper sense of meaning and purpose that we are capable of developing. We bring it out in each other. And every once in a while, you find yourself open and free with friends that you trust for a profounder, more intimate and vulnerable relationship. And those are the ones that are most significant to us in our lives. Those are what we remember when life threatening things get us to reflect about our mortality and what we really value in this life.
I hope for you that experience in this next chapter at Christ Church. I hope for you richer friendships and people around you that will inspire you to your better self. It really is divine when it happens.
I hope you find your voice and begin to sing in it with confidence. I hope you allow the Spirit to flow through others into you so that you have the confidence to write your own script. I hope you allow yourself to be transformed so that you can meet the challenges of this next chapter of your life.
Mr. Keating was right in the Dead Poet’s Society. It is a wonder that we are here, that our lives exist, that we are creating our identity. For the powerful play of the world goes on and you may contribute a verse. The powerful play of the world goes on and you may contribute a verse. The powerful play of our lives together goes on and you may contribute a verse?
What will your verse be?




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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.