“Don’t Eat Dead Squirrels” Confirmation Sunday – Caroline Dean (5/7/17)

Confirmation Sunday May 7th 2017
Rev. Caroline Lawson Dean
“Don’t Eat Dead Squirrels”

A Reading Leviticus Chapter 19 verses 2 & 18:
God said tell the whole congregation of Israel, “Be Holy, because I, the Lord your God am Holy. Love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord, your God.”
Let us pray: God of Love, Holy God, we ask for your Spirit to be near on this sacred day. Help us to discover “ordinary holiness” in our lives & help us to order our lives around those moments that you might make us more whole, we pray, Amen.
I have a riddle for us: “What do 150 ham sandwiches in brown bagged lunches, 65 students wearing glow in the dark face paint, four bonfires & a pair of dead squirrels all have in common?” Anybody have a guess? 150 ham sandwiches, 65 students in face paint, four bonfires and a pair of dead squirrels? Anybody? Well there are actually two correct answers to this riddle: The first is that all of these activities were a part of our confirmation curriculum this year. Secondly, these are all strictly prohibited in the book of Leviticus.
Leviticus Chapter 11, says do not eat or handle dead squirrels – (more specifically don’t eat animals that walk on all fours on their paws). Chapter 11 goes on to prohibit the preparation or distribution of pork on ham sandwiches on Bridges Runs. Leviticus 6, says to keep the sacred bonfire burning on the altar at all times, to help mediate the presence of God – which we definitely didn’t do on the Bonfire Nights, or on our Retreats. Leviticus also prohibits marking your body with Tattoos (or *modern interpretation* glow in the dark paint). So the moral of the riddle is that according to Leviticus we have utterly failed in our confirmation curriculum this year – that is with the exception of the rule about not eating the dead squirrels – we did well in that arena. I should note, if you haven’t heard the story of the dead squirrels, ask a confirmand or a person in the Nazarali/Smeltz family during coffee hour, it’s a great story.
How about an easier question: “What is a belief or conviction that helps you order your life?” Each year we ask this question of our confirmation class. But this year it has particular resonance, because we are focusing on an oft forgotten Biblical book of Leviticus. I should also give a disclaimer here that every time we had a discussion on the Bible in our confirmation class, we somehow ended up discussing some obscure & perhaps offensive text from Leviticus, “A hand would go up and say, ‘what about this part of the Bible?” And so this, Will Srere, is my final answer to the question “What is the deal with the weirdest books in the Bible, particularly Leviticus?”
Let’s imagine about 1,500 years ago that a group of detailed (if not OCD) Israelite priests get together. And they posed the question: “What are the beliefs, the convictions that help us order our lives?” This was particularly resonant for them because they had spent about 70 years in exile in Babylon. The Holiness Codes of Leviticus were written shortly after they returned to their holy land. After exile the people of Israel had to reorient themselves. They were seeking a new system, to organize how they might reach out to God and how God reaches out to them. And they took this project very seriously, with detailed instructions from what they ate, to whom they dated, to what they wore, how they worshipped & finally how they treated each other.
One commentator compared these Codes to a document that might come out of the CDC – the Centers for Disease Control or the Food & Drug Administration. These priests provided laws of sanitation & hygiene according to the knowledge of their day. So yes, many of these codes and restrictions are not very relevant for today. And yet, there are some fascinating & compelling arguments for keeping Leviticus around.
First of all, let’s unpack our baggage with the concept of Holiness. God comes to the people and says “Be Holy as I am Holy.” And just to be upfront I will admit my own immediate reaction to God’s call for us to be “holy.” First of all “holiness,” yes even for a professional, feels unattainable. Someone telling me to be “holy” feels like a way to control me, my body, or my relationships. It feels like God is far off & there is a complicated system to get enough brownie points in order to hang out with God. Holiness Codes make me feel stressed out about where I fall on the “holiness meter.” In the days when I misunderstood these codes, they also make me afraid to hang out with certain folks who weren’t on the same path to holiness that I was on – what if they messed up my trajectory somehow?!
But what if this is a superficial & gross misunderstanding of God’s call for us to be “holy”? What if “holiness” is more about “wholeness?” Not about self-righteousness or moral purity – but about grace-filled action that makes us more whole? And what if there are imperfect folks who are “holy” because they bring others into more wholeness, more dignity? What if the priests were right, that “holiness” is woven into our everyday mundane life? What if there are messy moments in life that are actually sacred, like being with a person who is dying or drawing near to one who has been discarded by our wider society?
About twice a month I go to the Newark Juvenile Center – basically a prison for kids some of whom are around your age. When I go to Newark, I visit with a student in their mentoring program, named Kevin. It can be awkward to meet with Kevin. It can feel vulnerable to walk into a prison, but the word that I would actually use capture our time together is “holy.” We visit, we play checkers, we learn about each other. I learn about the challenges of what life looks like for Kevin on the inside and we brainstorm ways together to make meaning out of our 2 hours a month together. This month we decided to read a book and I challenged Kevin to make a friend – because with the social dynamics of jail – Kevin prefers to keep to himself.
From the outside looking in one might think, “Wow these mentors are making a difference!” But the truth is, there is something important, something that makes me more whole when I visit with Kevin in the prison. We talk about how to pray, and school, we talk about food, and how he passes the time. It is mostly mundane but when I leave, I feel like something holy is happening. Not because I’m a “do-gooder,” but because he is a person of worth & intelligence & humor – and it is an honor – it makes me more whole - to know and to visit with Kevin.
One mantra that I always find myself coming back to, is: “Be Curious Not Judgmental.” This is particularly helpful mantra in prison ministry, on our trips to Nicaragua and on RISE trips. Sometimes when we bump up against something that feels uncomfortable or new, we jump to judgment – the spiritual challenge is to remain curious, recognizing that this is a different culture, we may not have all of the information or understand all of the nuances.
This is also true when we read some of the ancient texts in the Bible. Of course we are free to critique the ways that interpretations of the Bible may perpetuate suffering or oppression. But what would it look like to remain curious about a book like Leviticus? What do we discover when we refrain from judging these kinds of texts as outdated or backwards?
One amazing finding is that this text is actually one of the first places that we get our modern day mantra, “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is the text that Jesus comes back to when he is asked about the most important parts of the law.
Another fascinating finding is that in other ancient law codes it was “generally assumed that all free citizens…would look out for their own interests, and it was primarily up to the gods and judges to look out for the interests of others.” (Feasting on the Word, Year A Volume 4). This means that for the Israelite community, this instruction to take care of the vulnerable, was a unique contribution. It was a revolutionary idea then, as it is in so many of our communities now a days. You see when we approach a new culture, whether we are in Newark, Nicaragua or reading an ancient text, we can say “Man we do things more efficiently or better than they do!” Or we could ask: “What wisdom do they have that can make us and our community more whole?” Certainly to this day we still need the reminder to “Love God & Love Our Neighbor.” And certainly we can learn a lot about how to better take care of the vulnerable in our communities.
And so just like the post-exilic Israelites, Middle School can be a time of identity shifting, grappling with questions like “who am I?” Or constant social restructuring, asking over and over again “where do I belong?” We can obsess over “who likes whom” & the pressure to discover our passions. Lacrosse, or Basketball or Drama, or Academics? All the while nagged by the question, “Are we good enough to get into the best college?”
What if we could come up with a system that would help us navigate some of these challenging questions? A system that might make us more whole?
So here is a Middle School Manifesto of Holiness
Better yet, a Middle School Manifesto of Wholeness (loosely based on Leviticus Chapter 19):
First of all, God says “Be Whole as I am whole.” When you love your neighbor, it is not a warm fuzzy emotion, it is an action, in fact at times it is uncomfortable. Leave extra abundance in your life as you go. If you have a talent, money, material possession, time, or creativity, use it to help others. You never know when you might be on the receiving end, embracing a gift from another.
Tell the truth. This may seem simple or obvious. But let’s be honest, most of our lives aren’t exactly 100% real. We spend a lot of time on social media portraying our best selves, we don’t post about the messy parts or the worst days.
Find people in your life with whom you can be your true self. Help us build a church where people can be real. Where people know they are loved and cherished by God and their community, no matter who they are, or where they are on life’s journey.
When negotiating social systems it can be tempting to push others to secure our own spot in the social order. But the most “whole” communities stand up for each other. People put themselves at risk, to protect strangers and those in need.
*Lastly when you are stuck in the midst of Middle School chaos, just remember your own personal beliefs from your Communal Faith Statement:
If you are struggling to find meaning, remember, everything happens for a reason.
Stand up for people who are less fortunate, less resourced than you have been.
You can always get better if you try.
Do what is kind & right, then you will have no regrets.
Go with your heart when you’re faced with a tough situation.
Love your neighbor.
And remember that God guides your life, God is always with you.
Lastly, I’d add a bit of Levitical wisdom, “Don’t eat the dead squirrel.”

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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.