Dispatch from Jerusalem – Chuck Rush (2/11/18)

Dispatch from Jerusalem
February 11, 2018
Psalm 121 and John 17:17-23 (Common English Version)

You walk up and up to Jerusalem. It is on the top of a small mountain, 3500 feet on one side and 5000 feet on the other side. And the Temple Mount is on the highest point in the city.
3000 years ago, Solomon built a Temple there because it was already a pilgrimage site for longer than anyone could remember. There is a rock there where Abraham nearly sacrificed Isaac. And over that rock, they built the first Temple. The first Temple was destroyed 500 years later, then rebuilt just before Jesus was born, then destroyed again by the Romans.
Today, what remains is the Western Wall of the foundations of that Temple Mount. And on top of it, the Muslims have built a Mosque. And just on the other side of the Mosque is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that has altars on one end at the place where Jesus was crucified and the Tomb where he was resurrected on the other end.
And every day, thousands… and on certain days tens of thousands of people walk up to the same area to pray. And they bring the concerns of their hearts. They bring people that can’t be healed. They bring situations of conflict and frustration that can’t seem to be resolved. They bring their disappointments and their griefs. They bring their distant hopes for integrity in their nation and peace across our world.
All three faiths believe that Jerusalem is one of the thin places where we are close to God. It is a place from our lips to God’s ear. And there is something plaintive and humane about the sound of all these people turning towards God, making their hearts known, seeking God’s blessing, usually praying for people who have asked them to pray for them and are thousands of miles away. So many people opening themselves to God, connecting with people they love. It is moving how inner connected the world can become.
An Orthodox Rabbi once told me a story of Jewish lore about a man that had a son who went out into the world to find himself. And the son traveled far, far away to the East in India where he tried this religion and that religion, leaving his roots far behind. He tries opium, becomes poorer and poorer.
And he never communicates with his family. Each month his mother and father become more worried about him, more anxious about what happened to him, and guilty that they hadn’t been good parents. Finally, the father decides to make a trip to Jerusalem to ask God to redeem his son.
He gets to the Western Wall, and writes a prayer to God that says, “God, I will do anything, anything, anything you ask if you will send my son Avi back to me and his mother because we are afraid and we want him to know that we love him.” He folds up the prayer and wedges it in the crack between the stones along with the millions of other pieces of paper that are wedged in the cracks between the stones.
His son, meanwhile is getting sicker and sicker and finally realizes that he has to come home and on his way back from the far East he passes by Jerusalem and he decides to go to the Wailing Wall. He gets there and he is surprised. He is aimless and despairing, dissipated and he thinks his life is worthless, without meaning. At the same time, he remembers that he is a Jew. And he hears all of the prayers that he heard as a child from people all around him. And he touches his hands to the Wall and he remembers his grandparents who had endured such suffering in their life. And he can imagine them. Suddenly he is filled with emotion as he is making a connection through his people and their suffering to the great Transcendent Force that courses through the Universe. And he feels this compassion welling in his heart that has been empty for so long he thought soul might have been dead.
And he sees all of these tiny pieces of paper wedged in the cracks, some of them so old. And he can’t help himself, he runs his hands over those pieces of paper with their prayers on them and a few of them fall out of the cracks on the ground, so he picks them up to put them back in the cracks. And with the last one, he can’t help himself, he just wants to read what they wrote. And he slowly opens it and it says “God I will do anything, anything, anything you ask if you will send my son Avi back to me and his mother because we are afraid and we want him to know that we love him.”
We are connected. Our whole world is but six degrees of separation from one end to the other. And we possess this transcendent capacity, through the spiritual profundity of love, to connect in mysterious, seemingly miraculous ways. Such is the positive power of faith to heal each other. Such is the power of faith to bless and bestow meaning and purpose. Such is the power of faith to redeem and help us all, however lost or hopeless we might seem at the moment, to find our way back to our authentic home.
The burgeoning question of our day is how the religious people in all major faiths will find a way to express inclusive understanding and facilitate cooperation so that we might develop an interfaith ethos of acceptance and social harmony that encourages reconciliation and the peaceful resolution of violence and conflict.
I leave aside Hinduism and Buddhism at the moment, just to lift up the three religious traditions of Abraham, the “people of the Book” as Muslims call us: Judaism, Christianity and Islam since they constitute over half of the world’s population.
Out of one original vision of God, where Abraham concluded that God was primarily a God of mercy, compassion and blessing, we have three different religions. All three of them believe that we are ultimately called to unity like our passage suggests this morning, ‘that we may be One.’
The vision of God and the vision of a Holy Spiritual life are remarkably similar in all three faiths.
In Judaism, God brings the people of Israel out of slavery to freedom. God hears their cries and is merciful towards them, compassionate, ‘slow to anger’ in the words of Deuteronomy and ‘steadfast in love towards us’. God gives us a moral way of living in the world, a covenant, that is embodied in the 10 Commandments. The Jews kept these in the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies inner sanctum of the Temple.
Orthodox Jews actually count 613 commandments that God has given us as a guide for how to live a life with integrity and spiritual purpose.
Jesus also teaches us that God is fundamentally loving compassion and that we should ‘do unto others as we would have others do unto us’, a spiritual maxim that summarizes the Ten Commandments.
Like Judaism, Christianity is a social faith. It is about community, so it lifts up the importance of forgiveness and reconciliation in the pursuit of a social life and family life of harmony and peace. Jesus models for us the way of humility that looks to fulfilling others first, reflecting God’s love for the world, as the way to access the higher reasons for which we live.
And Islam refers to God as “Allah the compassionate and Allah the merciful”. Muslims greet you by saying ‘Salaam Alaikum” which means “Peace be with you”. And you respond “Wa Alaikum Salaam” which means “and Unto you Peace”. It is the same thing we Christians say in church every week. They too, believe that way of humility, opens our ego to being transformed towards our higher selves, so the faith is referred to as “Islam” which means ‘submission’ as in submission to the way of God.
And they pray five times a day, prostrating themselves on the ground to remember that they are not the center of their world, but that God is. And they too are required to give to the poor and the destitute to reflect the compassion and love of Allah in the world.
But we are not One, and religion is used far more as a source of continued division than a resource for inclusivity, especially by the Orthodox in every faith tradition.
It is largely because they spend way, way too much energy on defending the authority of the messenger rather than the intrinsic authority of the message that they brought. It ends up creating an inside and outside- we follow the true prophet and you don’t. It creates and maintains the faithful versus the heretics, the true believers versus the infidels, the righteous remnant versus the corrupt sinful world.
For Orthodox Jews it is Moses or keeping Kosher that identifies the religiously genuine. So they say that if we could keep all of the commandments of Moses for just one day, the Messiah would come and we would all be redeemed.
In our Gospel of John, the verses I did not read at the end of our passages says ‘that we might believe in Jesus’. In John, over and over, Jesus is the Way the Truth and the life and no one goes to the Father except through him. It is not enough just to point to the message, you have to see the authority of the messenger as well, the Son of God. Jesus is not only depicted as sinless in the Orthodox Christian faith, his Mother Mary is depicted as sinless as well, all to show that Jesus is so close to God that Jesus veritably is God.
And in Islam, Mohammed didn’t just have insights about Allah. Every single word that was revealed to him that makes up the Koran are the very Words of God. And although, Moses and Jesus were mighty prophets, all of their teaching has been superseded, so that Mohammed is the Final Prophet.
Instead of three becoming One, what we live is the One message of God living in three different forms of division, each pointing the finger at the others, with conflicting truth claims about which messenger is authentically authoritative.
Ironically, the bigger picture of God who is love, compassion, justice, peace and unifying, is remarkably similar and the broader moral vision overlaps a whole lot.
We in the West ask Palestinians and Israeli’s why they can’t make the peace. Then you visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher where Jesus was crucified and resurrected. It is just about the oldest Church in existence. The floor was laid in 350, when Rome made Christianity no longer illegal but the religion of the Empire.
So we don’t really have any churches before 350 because Christians were persecuted and killed. This is almost the first church built.
There are 6 Orthodox monasteries attached to it and they have each been there from very early on: The Greek Orthodox, The Armenian Apostolic, The Roman Catholic, The Syriac Orthodox, the Coptic (Egyptian) Orthodox, and the Ethiopian Orthodox.
And no changes can be made to the Church without the express agreement of each of them. But it turns out that they can’t agree on much of anything, so nothing ever changes. The casual visitor will notice that above the entrance to the church, on a balcony on the second floor, there sits a cedar ladder. (show slide)
And we can’t get all 6 groups of Orthodox Monks to agree to move it. No one knows exactly how long that ladder has been up there but it appears in an engraving from 1839 and a painting from 1753. 265 years is a long time to hold a grudge.
But then you are dealing with 6 different groups of men that all think they have the Ortho (right) doxy (way to believe, way to worship). And if they are right, everyone else is wrong.
If you believe that your tradition possesses not simply truth with a small ‘t’, but ‘The Truth’ with a capital T, then the word “compromise” is synonymous with moral decadence.
And these Orthodox Monks all share a commitment to follow in the way of Jesus. That is 265 years and nothing moving. You can’t make this up.
Orthodox Jewish sects are fighting with each other with the same ferocious intensity over whether they should recognize the State of Israel and a host of splinter issues to long to list.
And of course, Shia and Sunni Muslims are at war with each other in Syria, in Yemen, in Iraq, in Lebanon, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan- with people dying literally every day.
In every case, religion is a force of division rather than unity, it adds to the intensity of hatred and the sense of grievance fed revenge.
And the irony is that both sides in all of the conflicts that I just mentioned all agree that the higher way to live, the spiritual, the divine way to live is through reconciliation, compassion, mercy, forgiveness and love. They believe, fundamentally, that we should treat one another as we would want to be treated.
We know we need to love, but we have to be right… just a little bit more. Control, consistency, perfection and the need to be definitively, unquestionably right has triumphed for far, far too long.
And it will be transcended. It must be transcended because our world is becoming so inner connected and so interdependent that religion simply must be the force to lead us towards an inclusive quest for truth with a small “t” in a way that celebrates our diverse cultural and spiritual traditions.
The coming world is growing evermore multi-cultural and multi-faith. The spirituality of our time can no longer operate in a parochial shtetl’s, little walled communities that are insular and inwardly focused.
We have to be able to transcend the parts of our faith traditions that build walls of fear rather than bridges of understanding. We have to find our common human bond in taking our petitions up to God is more important binding us together than our separate revelations as to how our distinctive religious traditions developed.
And we must do this not because it is the right thing to do, although it is. We must do it not because we will all be more fulfilled, although we will. We must do it because our world is now too small for anything but love, understanding and reconciliation.
And the genuine spiritual leaders in the next generation simply must be willing to step beyond their traditional origins and create a new spiritual ethos for our time, one based on the shared values that we each separately hope for our children: empathy, understanding, forgiveness, compassion, reconciliation, harmony and peace.
Unfortunately, it is most likely to be born out of our shared pain, out of the mutual recognition that trauma and violence and grief deform the human spirit beyond any righteous justification for vengeance. We cannot live that way. We cannot see our children’s children suffer like that.
“I want them all to be one” said Jesus “just as we are one”. “I am one with them and you are one with me… that we may all become completely one.” That is the goal. That is the point. Amen.

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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.