Eternally Transcendent Love – Chuck Rush (4/16/17)

Easter 2017
Eternally Transcendent Love

Mark 16:1-8

The Easter story is that tragically, perhaps inadvertently, unwittingly, we killed God’s messenger. But God is not so easily rebuffed. Torture cannot stop God. Even death does not stop God. And the resurrection is God coming after us in love transcending death. What kind of love is that? Literally beyond our imagination, which is why this story is told beyond our imagining.
The most we can know of divine love is the best of what we know of human love, the kind that reaches maturity, the profoundest love that we have for each other, when we live our lives as gift. Like Amy Rosenthal, who wrote a piece this winter for the New York Times.
She had a great marriage to her husband of 26 years. They raised three wonderful children. One day she is seeing a doctor about and attack of appendicitis, when he does some tests and discovers that her cancer of the uterus is advanced. In a short amount of time, she started to die. A writer, she decided to publish one last piece titled “You May Want to Marry My Husband”. She was old enough to have never been on or Tinder. So she wrote a kind of personal reference from experience of having lived with him for 9,490 days.
She describes how she fell in love with him on their first date and thought to herself that she would marry this man. It took him a year to ask. And then she turned to his attributes.
“He is a sharp dresser. Our young adult sons, Justin and Miles, often borrow his clothes. Those who know him… know that he has a flair for fabulous socks. He enjoys keeping in shape.
“On the subject of food- man, can he cook? After a long day, there is no sweeter joy than seeing him walk in the door, plop a grocery bag down on the counter, and woo me with olives and some yummy cheese he has procured before he gets to work on the evening’s meal..
Jason loves listening to live music; it’s our favorite thing to do together. I should also add that your 19-year-old daughter, Paris, would rather go to a concert with him than anyone else…
He’s an absolutely wonderful father… compassionate and he can flip a pancake.
And he paints…
“If you’re looking for a dreamy, let’s go-for it travel companion, Jason is your man. He has an affinity for tiny things: taster spoons, little jars, a mini-sculpture of a couple sitting on a bench, which he presented to me as a reminder of how our family began.
Here is the kind of man Jason is: He showed up at our first pregnancy ultrasound with flowers. This is a man, who, because he is always up early, surprises me every Sunday morning by making some kind of oddball smiley face out of items near the coffee pot: a spoon, a mug, a banana.
[Okay, this is a bit of high bar fellas] “This is a man who emerges from the minimart and says, “Give me your palm.” And, voila, a colorful gumball appears (He knows I love all the flavors but white)
Wait. Did I mention that he is incredibly handsome? I’m going to miss looking at that face of his.
If it sound like our relationship was a fairy tale, it’s not too far off, except for all the regular stuff that comes from two and a half decades of playing house together. And the part about me getting cancer. Blech.
“I want more time with Jason. I want more time with my children. I want more time sipping martinis at the Green Mill Jazz Club on Thursday nights. But that is not going to happen. I probably only have a few days left being a person on this planet.
“I am wrapping this up on Valentine’s Day, and the most genuine gift I can hope for is that the right person read this, finds Jason, and another love story begins.
“I’ll leave this intentional empty space below as a way of giving you two the fresh start you deserve.”
Beautiful piece. If you are a man like Jason reading that, you don’t know why you deserve to be loved the way she loves him, but when you are it is all grace and gratitude.
Love, when it reaches its fullest potential has that quality of blessing to it. It so wants what is best for the other person that you can let them go, in a poignant, non-possessive way. That love transcends death. It doesn’t abrogate it. We all still die. But love transcends death in a most poignant way.
And God loves you so much more. You really can’t imagine it.
The Easter message is that you, too, can bloom with God’s love. You, too, can bless. At the more profound moments of our lives, we can come full circle from blessed to blessing.
In the endearing new show, ‘This is Us’, one of the protagonists, Randall, is adopted. His adoptive father went out of his way to soothe Randall when he was a kid, encourage him, tell him how talented he was. He was an awesome father.
Randall had panic attacks, anxiety attacks, maybe because he was adopted, maybe because he was just pre-disposed to panic attacks. Who knows?
When Randall had these panic attacks as a kid, his adoptive father would always step right in, hold his face in his hand, hold him right up face to face, and walk him through a relaxation process. He would say to him, “Breathe, just breathe” (inhaling and exhaling slowly). And he would keep doing it until the panic passed. It was a primordial blessing that stuck.
Randall gets older and goes to college. His adoptive father dies.
He grows up, gets a big job, makes partner, raises his family. Way leads to way, one day things come together and he has the chance to meet his birth father. He wondered what the story was, why his parents gave him up for adoption? What were they like? He wants to know.
His birth father comes back into his life. It is awkward but they share some stories. He introduces his birth father to his children. Grandfather and granddaughters make a super connection that makes it better when Randall has the more difficult questions to raise with his father.
But he raises the hard questions and his birth father is remarkably open to them. His birth father expected that Randall would ask these difficult questions. His birth father wants to process these questions. As it turns out, doesn’t have a lot of time. His birth father has a form of cancer that has low odds of survival and he has chosen not to treat the cancer. He has limited time.
Way leads to way, and Randall’s birth father asks him to make a road trip back to Memphis where his people are from. Randall finds out he has this large clan of extended relatives and now he wants to go meet them. His wife thinks this is a great idea, so off the two of them go on a road trip to find his roots.
They get to Memphis. Randall’s birth father was a musician. He played in the Blues Clubs on Beale Street that B.B. King made famous. They go back and visit some of his birth Father’s old haunts. They run into extended cousins, other cousins… They go to one of those family barbecue’s where there are dozens of Randall’s distant relatives and he gets that incredible sense of family and place and food that makes the deep South so wonderful.
Randall’s birth father feels bad, so Randall gives him the key to the hotel to lay down. A couple hours later, Randall gets back to the room and his birth Father looks weak, wan, ashen. His birth father tells him that he thinks he might be dying. Randall says to his birth father, “How are you feeling right now?” His birth father says, “I’m scared”.
These two men don’t know each other well. They don’t have emotional intimacy, so they don’t have the physical intimacy of touch or hug. They are developing it in the moment. The boy who was adopted so long ago has only recently allowed his birth father into his life.
Like all of us, Randall is unprepared for the suddenness of the moment and his birth father is so vulnerable, so frail. And then it comes out of him, the Spirit moves. The blessing that he received as a child from his adoptive father comes back to him in full circle.
He takes his birth father’s face in his hands and he tells him, “It’s going to be okay…. Just breath… Just breathe.” He passes on the blessing that he knows. It is the most spiritually powerful thing we can release.
In the resurrection, God took the suffering and death that Jesus went through in dying on the Cross and transformed it through redemptive compassion into a transcendent hope filled expression of love for all of us.
God, most certainly shine through the detritus of your life, the brokenness, the tragedy, the disappointments…God can take your pain and with the Spirit, can make you too into a conduit of love and blessing to those around you who need it most, when they need it most, in a way that they can actually receive. You, even you, have an awesome power to bless and soothe your people.
My brothers and sisters, the healing hope of the Easter season upon you. You are loved more than you know and you are a blessing of love to those around you more than you can imagine. Release the divine love and may eternity shine in and through you. Amen.

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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.