Divine Forgiveness – Chuck Rush (10/19/14)

Divine Forgiveness
Mt. 6 and John 20

In the “Deer Hunter” Robert DeNiro returns from serving in the special forces in Vietnam after being drafted right out of high school. Small steel town in central Pennsylvania, three boys go off to war together. One is tortured so bad during his capture that he is in a wheel chair the rest of his life. The other becomes a heroin addict and kills himself. All of them had been immersed in the trauma of being surrounded by sustained violence and death.
The special forces soldier comes home, full of this rage and sorrow. And suddenly, even his home feels alien. It is not just that he couldn’t share his war experiences with the guys back home, it is complicated by the country being divided over the war so that people just didn’t talk about it at all.
He goes hunting with his high school guys, like they’ve done since they were kids, only his friends just want to get drunk in nature and fire off their guns at nothing, pretty much like they were still in high school.
But the ex-special forces soldier is too filled with anxiety. He awakens at dawn and hikes up through the peaks of the Allegheny mountains. He is tracking a deer, inside full of all this pain from war, discord just welling up inside of him, so many hurts and wounds that are connected to each other. He sees this huge buck a few hundred yards away on the next ridge.
He gets it in view. It moves. He gets it in view again. Again it moves. The veteran is agile and fit scampering across the ridge lines. He is in position again. The buck makes an iconic move. It stops and looks back over its shoulder right into the scope, so that they almost meet eye to eye. It is almost like the buck presents itself as a sacrifice. It is a moment hunters dream about.
But the soldier doesn’t shoot. He points his gun upward toward the heavens. He fires the round into the heavens. It is a moment of truce, a moment of détente.
The way of anxiety, the way of anger, of hatred and violence, of destruction and death. It is not working anymore. Suddenly he just wants to let it go. In a moment where the hunter meets the hunted, he broke through to release the past.
There comes this time in our lives, as the writer of Ecclesiastes puts it, a season to fix what has been broken, a season to sew what has been torn, a time to make things right again. It is a season of forgiveness.
It is said that the Bible has the most realistic depiction of humans because it presumes that we break things, that we hurt and betray each other, that we make substantial mistakes. Jesus calls us to be people of reconciliation.
It was the center piece of what he taught us in the sermon on the mount, teaching us to pray, “Oh God, forgive us as we forgive other people”. Just before he died, he turned to the thief who asked for forgiveness, “your sins are forgiven you.” And he was reported to have prayed to God “Father forgive my executioners, for they know not what they do.” And his parting words to the disciples after the resurrection, “if you forgive the sins of others, they are forgiven.” Don’t be afraid to use it…
The spiritual way is the way of reconciliation, not that it is particularly easy. But it is surprising, how long it can actually be before we get it in our guts isn’t it?
I think of a brother and brother-in-law. A friend sent the brother-in-law an email of congratulations that their company had been sold, only to get a call back right away asking where they had read that news. Long story short, the brother-in-law was still a part owner in the company, despite having left it a decade ago, and the brother had sold the company like he owned it outright. What followed was a court case that dragged on… Years of distance, with family reunions disintegrating to the point that even the cousins didn’t actually cross paths, for over a decade.
This path is taken often. It is as if we think that by stoking our bitterness, by renewing our justification for distance, we are actively hurting the other person somehow. Like our psychic power can focus some voodoo. But at some point, sometimes only after years of this, two thing happen, almost at the same time.
You realize that you haven’t really made the person that hurt you all that miserable. However, you are still chained to this event that now seems like a long time ago, and that you haven’t really resolved anything constructively this way- your hurt is still hurt and you are still aggrieved- so that it is like you are tethered to this person and to this past. All of a sudden you just want to be free of it. You want it resolved.
For the brother-in-law, it was the death of his wife. It was all very awkward at the memorial service because their families had been distant. But at one point, they were across the room and their eyes met for a moment. It was almost a glance really but in that moment, they were two men who loved their wives, sharing the pain of losing a spouse.
Shortly after that, one of them went to see the other and offer his forgiveness for the past. He realized that he needed to let go of it.
As another man wrote of the same experience. “We didn’t skip off into the sunset together. In fact, years later I saw him again and he said something to me that felt hurtful and critical, and for a moment I wondered if the forgiveness had worn off. Instead, I learned that I had an expectation that my forgiveness would magically turn him into a nice guy, a different guy, a better guy. And with this expectation I was making myself a victim to him all over again. The magic didn’t happen to him. The magic happened to me. I felt lighter. The world seemed a more hopeful place… I learned that I was only responsible [for my future and me]. I wasted years of my life reliving the victimization… Forgiveness didn’t save him or let him off the hook. It saved me.”
And this is truer on the other side of the equation, when you need to seek forgiveness. The truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, actually declared a day of Reconciliation as part of their program of bringing together the Victimizers of Apartheid and the Victims.
Bishop Desmond Tutu tells the story of a young man named Stefaans Coetzee. In 1996, when he was 17, “Stefaans and a trio of members of the white supremacist AWB planted a series of bombs in a shopping center in Worcester, South Africa. Their target was a venue frequented by the black population of the city. Their goal was to exact the maximum death toll. Only one of the bombs exploded, but it injured 67 people and left 4 dead. 3 of them were children. Shortly after the incident, Coetzee expressed his disappointment at the low death toll.”
But he changed over time, when he was in prison. Interestingly, his mentor in the way of forgiveness turned out to be Eugene de Kock, nicknamed “Prime Evil”- wonderful chap I’m sure. But through the changes that they went through together, Eugene told Stefans this “Unless you seek forgiveness from those you have harmed, you will find that you are bound inside two prisons- the one you are physically in and the one you have around your heart. It is never too late to repair the harm that you have caused. Then, even though you are behind bars, you will still be free. No one can lock away your ability to change. No one can lock away your goodness or your humanity.”
Stephans could hear this word from Prime Evil,” so on Reconciliation Day in 2011 Stefaans read a letter to a gathering of the survivors… expressing his remorse and asking for forgiveness.”
It is interesting that what Bishop Tutu learned during this bold and creative project to bring together Victims and Abusers from Apartheid, is how important it was for the relatives of those who died to be able to ask questions about what happened to their loved one. He learned how important it is for the Victimizers to be open to answering the detailed questions that people have that they hurt. That process leads us into this vulnerable space because the person that has wronged you has to be in touch with their faults, and deceits and cover ups to make it happen.
And it is also a vulnerable spot for those that have been harmed. The more that they hear, the more they can put the tragedy in a context and humanize everyone involved, even having some empathy for the person that inflicted this horrible wrong.
This is the point of contact, our vulnerable humanity, in the midst of tragedy and loss. And not everybody was willing or able to forgive Stephaans for his terror, to be sure. But for those that did, Stefaans describes being forgiven as “a grace… that resulted in freedom beyond understanding.”
This is why Jesus taught us that the real spiritual path is the way of humility. It lies in admitting that we make mistakes. Our personal spiritual growth only happens when we allow ourselves to be open, honest, and real with each other.
It only happens when we can share out of our common humanity, knowing that out of our hurt, we hurt those around us. That is why Jesus taught us that we are not only ‘Children of God’ but we are all also ‘redeemed sinners’ or ‘broken healers’. But this is the way of what is spiritually real.
We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, to make this our aim to return to. We will have seasons of anger, hate, and violence. We will know terror and tragedy. Accidents will change the future for good.
So reconciliation needs to be built into the warp and woof of our life together, the divine way that allows us to process the hurts of the past and use them constructively to grow. So it isn’t a one time thing, but an on-going evolution towards healing. As Bishop Tutu, says he has learned, ‘God does not waste his children’s pain.’
We keep jumping forward and backward, processing these things again and again, whether we want to or not, they just keep coming at us. So I hope for you the strength of vulnerable humanity with those you are closest to, including those that have hurt you so. And I hope for you the courage to be humble as you live, for our life on this earth is short and you have so much life and love within you. I hope for you the space to be really real and to keep on the path of growth. God is not done with you yet. 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.