Eucharistic Community — Charles Rush (4/6/14)

 

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peacebut now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side.

From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

True Story: At the State Fair in North Carolina, a strongman show featured a hulking man that cut a lemon in half and crush squeezed it with his bare hands. Then he took the lemon and put it in one of those old fashion presses and he squeezed it down with all his might. He turned to the audience and confidently bragged that he would give anyone in the audience $100 if they could squeeze anymore juice out of that lemon and he tossed the lemon in the trash. Just then an elderly woman with wire rim glasses said ‘wait a minute' and parted her way through the crowd. She reached in the trash, picked up the lemon, turned her back to the audience to get a good grip, turned around, squeezing that lemon and sure enough several drops of juice fell in the glass, to the amazement of the crowd. They all clapped, the strongman reached for his billfold and said, “Ma'am what is the secret to getting that last drop?” She waved him off as she headed back to her seat and said, “Son, I'm the treasurer at the Methodist Church.”
After thirty years as a Minister, I now know that the best test of character for the finance people in the church is watch their reaction while I drive my truck a few miles with the needle below E and the little gas tank light on.

Some people live their lives with a regular change of oil, and extra check to make sure all the fluids are topped off. These people work at Morgan Stanley or if they are in the non-profit world, they are at the Ford Foundation or the Lily Foundation.

In the Church, and this is true almost everywhere, we say that God will provide. That is because we have all been to at least one meeting and sometimes years of them when there was no other visible source of relief on the extended horizon. God will provide but apparently only after a miracle is required.

I feel like I've been apologizing to financial people about this sorry state of affairs most of my adult life. I ran into Ravenel Curry last week, one of New York's leading investors, and he'd been reading about the parsonage sale. He asked me how things were at the church and I said, “Ravenel, the church is good but we are cash poor.” He said, “Chuck, that just means your asset rich”. I said, “Ravenel, I was hoping to have it both ways like you.” Ravenel just smiles…

We are not in financial peril by any stretch of the imagination. Overextended perhaps, but in a quite ordinary way. I'm actually modestly optimistic about the trends in the Church. Last year we had 39 families pledge to the church for the first time. We also had 17 stop, which is about average for us. About 15 families move or move on from church every year, reflective of the fact that we are in a transient part of the world. But to grow by 22 families is good for us and growing is one of the few trends we actually have some control over.

We bought the house next door, 57 New England Ave, in 2001, when we were building the new building. It couldn't have come at a worse time for us, being financially strapped. But, we needed a place to move the offices and we did move the offices over there for two years. And if you can remember back to that era when we all pretty much believed that real estate would continue to rise in our area, that optimism was a factor. Also, the sellers made fairly clear that they were going to sell it to a developer, so we bought it hoping to figure out how to pay for it later.

September 11th changed us. The recession of 2007 delayed fund-raising. The house had structural problems that became clearer. We were hoping that we could develop this one long piece of property and pay for it which would have been great. But like a lot of our businesses, certainly a lot of non-profits and churches, like a lot of our families, we need to amend our plans to adjust to the new realities of an economy that is recovering but not flush with cash that had in the late 90's in our era.

So, today we will have a meeting and vote on the issue. This is what people in the free church tradition do. They decide their own destiny. If we were Roman Catholic, the Archdiocese would decide what to do. In some other Protestant churches, we would involve the Bishop in a much bigger way. But I once heard someone describe Christ Church as an ‘owner/operator' kind of place. And that is a pretty good description. We make our own way, for better and worse.

A lot of times, that can be divisive. There was a bad joke in the South when I was a child. What do you call it when a church has an ugly fight and one part of the church gets so angry that they leave and start their own church? You call it missions. Every town in the south has a 1st Baptist Church and most of them have a 2nd Baptist Church. Not real creative on the naming front, admittedly. But it you ask about ho they came into existence, almost every time it was a fight over something not worth fighting over.

It doesn't have to be that way. Indeed, St. Paul made clear in his view that God called the church into being so that we could actually build one another up, inspire one another, work through our disagreements and become agents of reconciliation. He comes back to this over and over. Be people that reconcile with one another. And from the earliest days, we Christians referred to the altar with the communion elements as the Table of Reconciliation. More than any other thing, this is what we are supposed to be focused on when we gather around it.

And you know and I know that sometimes we have to make decisions that are hard, when the way forward is not clear. About 15 years ago a couple came to me and asked me to bless their union as a gay couple. Now, I don't actually have the authority to make those decisions on my own. I represent the congregation, so we put the question to the congregation.

Fifteen years ago, we were the first congregation in Summit to consider this vote. At the time, gays and lesbians were still more in the closet and some people worried about what might happen if we blessed gay unions. Maybe we'd get the reputation of being the church of ‘what's happening now' that sort of just follows the popular trends without any real spiritual substance. Others of us, of course, wondered how long it would take before we showed some humanity to our children who happen to be gay and lesbian?

We did some education, had speakers in about how we develop our sexual orientation. We had people speak about having gay and lesbian kids, siblings. We did some bible study on the subject. We listened to people's fears. Finally, the Deacons proposed that we bless gay unions, the Executive Board endorsed it, we put it to the congregation.

That was a serious and difficult vote because we asked you to vote your conscience, to reflect your personal values. There were a lot of u, frankly, that would rather have not had to think about it. We don't always want to re-examine our values. But we did.

That day, I preached on reconciliation, knowing that wasn't going to be easy to practice after the vote. We opened the meeting, called for people to speak for and against. We had exactly one person speak for and one person to speak against. We voted. I think the vote was 84%-16% in favor of blessing gay and lesbian unions. We had a few families leave the church. By the way, we had a few families more join the church. People reached out to each other and over the years, we have become reconciled with each other. Of course, fifteen years on, it is not such a big deal now and almost all of our churches would like to be accepting of gays, if they could.

But here is the thing I forget about those votes. Our kids are watching us. That day, I did something I've only done once in my adult life. After the vote, I put my kids in the minivan and I drove home from church as a family. I'm sure I was reflective about the day and the people that voted no and what would come next. I turned the car off and just sat there staring ahead. From the backseat I heard one of my kids say, “Dad, I'll never say you didn't stand for anything.”

It was one of those things I didn't know I needed to hear until he said it. And I would like to thank the church for showing the next generation what the church looks like on its best days. And it has come back to bless us, now as those teenagers are young parents and they are involved in leading our congregation today.

Which means… that they are still watching us.

I remind you of that high moment because the vote that we have today doesn't carry any of the moral or spiritual gravitas that that vote had. We didn't' speak a whole lot on that issue because we don't feel so confident in the moral or spiritual arena and we don't really want to reveal that much about ourselves on discussion of that depth.

But real estate? Almost everyone of us feels ourselves to be an expert on this subject. We've done very well with our real estate investments. Balance sheets? More that half of us have to read balance sheets every week at work, we know about fiscal prudence. And you don't have to have values or convictions on a debate about property, you just need to have an opinion. And we are more than confidence about forming our opinion.

On moral issues, we might be a bit reticent, but on these issues, we have five times the wisdom we need in this room to make a mature decision. And there is no ‘right' vs. ‘wrong' here, just better and worse.

Regardless of which option we pick, we will go on and we will be fine. Fortunately, whatever decision we make today can be reversed in the future when the congregation grows and our revenues are higher.

Indeed, one of the biggest challenges that we face right now, whether we are in the church or in our business life or in our personal life, is being able to project out about what we will really need in a decade. The pace of technological innovation, how we actually connect with each other, and what that means for the development of community has changed so much in the past decade that I would hardly venture a guess as to what we will be like 20 years from now. The most significant technical changes that will shape us socially, will be invented between now and then. We literally cannot see what is coming next.

This is what really is important, particularly in an era where we are shooting the social and technological rapids together. We need each other to discern ‘the signs of the times'. Our spiritual needs are evolving. Fortunately for us in the free church tradition, we are free to evolve as well. We don't have to do things the way that we've done them. No one is going to come tell us that we have to conform to this or conform to that. That is the upside of being a spiritually self-directed community.

The downside is we are on our own. We need each other. When we invoke the Spirit of God in our midst what we are blessing each and every one of us to tell us how the world is changing around us and how we need to be evolving in light of it. The changes are broad enough and profound enough that no one of us is going to be articulate about the new shape of the way we live and what we think that means for raising our children. But together, we will give voice to that. And from there, we will discern where we need to head in the next chapter.

In former times, our ancestors might have felt like they were sailing a ship through fog. But for us, it is more like we are riding a speeding rocket, very thrilling panorama of the universe unfolding before us, but with the anxiety that by the time you see and impending collision, it is likely to be too late. Our social world is just morphing and evolving around us in ways that are mostly beneficent. But it will take all of us together to anticipate what the rising generation will need and what challenges will preoccupy their spiritual lives. This is our communal challenge. For that we need understanding of different points of view, we need empathy and compassion, we need toleration that produces a different kind of spiritual harmony where respect enters the space between difference. From that we need to work towards consensus and integration.

St. Paul described what God wants for us inour broader life together that we are all ambassadors of reconciliation. And when that happens spiritual love- a divine love- is transfused through all of us drawing us together as the ‘beloved community' as John called us. Christians called it ‘koinonia', a communion, a group contribution, a group sympathy with each other, healing not only each other but the community around us. God wants to fill us with that love and point us in the direction of peace.

Our marketplace is built on competition, sometimes the higher kind that leads to innovation, sometimes the lower kind that squeezes the weak because it can.

Our political life is built on partisanship, sometimes the higher kind that leads to popular charismatic movements, sometimes the lower kind that blocks the opposition party and brings the national agenda to a standstill to make a loud statement.

But in our spiritual life, we actually try to transcend the contentious model in favor of co-operation. This is what God wants us to become. We try to transcend ‘us' and ‘them'. We try to transcend discord. We try to practice forgiveness and actually embody reconciliation. Jesus taught us that it is a richer way to live together and it is certainly a more fulfilling way to live at home.

We gather around the Communion Table, to serve each other in blessing. My brothers and sisters, come to the table of grace. 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.

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