Finding God in Unexpected Places: RISE Team Reflections 2015 – Caroline Dean (7/19/15)

Finding God in Unexpected Places: RISE Team Reflections 2015

Reader 1:  Our scripture reading today is from Luke Chapter 14:15-23.  Then Jesus said to those gathered at the leader of the Pharisees house for a meal, “Someone gave a great dinner and invited many.  At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, ‘Come; for everything is ready now!’

Reader 2:  (Caroline) My grandmother on my father’s side of the family is our matriarch, she is a loving, gravitational force in our family.  Her home on the water in south eastern Virginia is the center for our extended family gatherings which have involved a lot of rambunctious and grace-filled shared meals over the years.  One of the things that you learn quickly as a grandchild & dutiful member of our family is that when Mimi calls for dinner – you come.  She has worked hard to provide you a warm meal, and so you gather the troops.  You do not dally.  You do not block the host of relatives from the warm meal that has been carefully prepared.   You promptly find your spot in the circle, bow your head, say grace and then eat up!

Reader 1:  But when the slave went out all of the invited guests began to make excuses…

Reader 2: Uh oh….

Reader 1:  The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my regrets.”  Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my regrets.  Another said, “I have just been married and therefore I cannot come.”

Reader 2: Seriously who RSVPs “yes” to a party that conflicts with their own wedding?

Reader 1:  So the slave returned and reported this to his master.  Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, ‘Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame.’   And the slave said, ‘Sir what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.”  Then the master said to the slave, ‘Go out into the roads outside of town, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.”

Reader 2: Let us pray:

“God of the rambunctious dinner party, this day let us see your beautiful image of communal salvation & wholeness.  May we be fed at your table, surrounded by the stories of the ones who are often left off of our guest lists.  May our hearts be open to your word for us this day, by the power of your Spirit and in the name of your Son we pray – Amen.”

Meryl & Chelsea: First of all thank you Meryl and Chelsea – I asked both of them to elaborate on their group journal entries that they wrote at RISE and they both did such a beautiful job!

So there are many sermons that jump out to me when I imagine Jesus’ dinner party parable.  First, I am struck by the nature and symbolism of the excuses that we all make in our modern world today which result in us missing out on spaces of communal nurturing and spiritual rejuvenation.  The good news is that there are second chances and so one day there is a sermon here on our excuses the divide us and the second chances that pull us back together again.  Secondly, I want to preach about privilege.  Where do we locate ourselves in the great banquet?  Are we in power drawing up guest lists, deciding who is left out in the cold?  Are we the messengers?  The ones who get invited and politely refuse?  Or the last minute dinner guests?  And lastly, I would love to preach a sermon about how Jesus passes the breadbasket around a table full of the powerful religious VIPs of his day.  And in such company, Jesus flips the narrative and suggests that we all throw parties with the “least of these” – the social outcasts - even if the VIPs can’t make it!  But I digress, let’s move on to today’s sermon!

Imagine our cast of characters.  We have Jesus and a few of his disciples.  They are a bit rugged and bedraggled from their travels.  And the religious leadership, the religious VIPs are also gathered at the leader of the Pharisees home for a meal.  On the way to this meal, I imagine Jesus and his followers passing by a blind beggar or a lame person sleeping on the street.  Imagine that Jesus and the entire guest party of religious leaders has to walk by these folks on their way to dinner.  Imagine the familiar scenario, most of the honored guests do not even make eye contact or notice the beggar or the lame person sleeping on a street corner…

Now we find ourselves in a modern parable that is all too familiar.  And here I want to pause, and acknowledge that the challenges of homelessness, addiction, mental health care & poverty cannot be answered in one simple parable.  Even a parable imagined by Jesus himself.    However, in the face of such complexity, my question for us today is “WHY?”  Why do we pass by the folks who live on the street without making eye contact?  Why do we cushion our lives to avoid the exact crowd that Jesus invites us to welcome into our homes and our churches with great banquet feasts?  Why are we often afraid of beggars and people in need?

Again this is a complicated question with many layers, but one of the theories about why our society avoids broke folks and people with developmental and mental challenges, is that we are constantly presented with the lie that our worth is measured by our output, by our productive value, our contribution to our wider world.  And the lie that we believe sometimes is that broke folks, Vietnam vets, & beautiful women with Cerebral Palsy have nothing to give or contribute to our wider world nor to us individually.  And this is the lie that Jesus & experiences like RISE turn upside down.  For Jesus reminds us over and over again, that in fact, there is something sacred, indeed something spiritually unique, about the folks who are the last minute guests at the Great Banquet.

During our last night at RISE we participate in a tradition that we call the “Love Offering.”  Each team brings a tangible gift to bring forward to share with the whole group from their work site.  This tangible offering symbolizes our new perspectives and moments of grace during the week.  One of our students offered up a beautiful bouquet of wild flowers from Vic’s site for our love offering gift.  (SLIDE of wildflowers) And during the time of offering Betsy illustrated her team’s gift beautifully.  She showed the flowers to the larger group explaining that, “often these wild flowers are bypassed when we drive by and it’s so easy to ignore them, and yet when you stop and pause, you recognize their beauty.”   Betsy’s lesson is that there is something spiritual about pausing and listening to the beauty in our world that is so often ignored.

And so I would agree with Betsy that the “least of these” those who we often ignore or we subconsciously (and sometimes consciously!) build our lives to avoid – these are the folks who have spiritual and tangible gifts that we desperately need.  And the litany of those gifts is long.  During RISE we learned great lessons from a Carpenter, a hostess, a comedian/singer song writer, and a kind neighbor offering a jug of juice, a plate of cookies, a devoted mother & grandmother, a new girlfriend, and a kid show loves cherries.

And yet when we fail to pause to look deeper, it would be so easy to miss out and see our RISE friends impartially and with lenses marred with stereotypes and rooted in fear.   It would be so easy to simply see a few Vietnam vets, a guy with a bit of a drinking problem, domestic violence victims, folks who need support & resources for mental health issues, folks who can’t read or write, a woman with cerebral palsy, kids with not enough attention – not enough food, folks with limited resources, nothing left to give…  Those two different litanies tell such different stories.

But when we pause and see the beauty in the wildflowers & when we learn to balance the stories of brokenness and beauty – we learn something life giving from our RISE friends.  The first lesson of RISE that Meryl and Chelsea so beautifully illustrated earlier is that everyone has gifts to share – even when those gifts are unexpected and even we didn’t know that we needed them so badly.

The second lesson of RISE is that everyone has a story, everyone has brokenness, and complicated chapters in their story & yet each person that we became friends with at RISE also has beauty and redemptive possibility in their story.

The Real Humans of New York is a blog of photographs chronicling the inhabitants of New York City and listing a short quote or story about each photo.  It’s a simple concept that has a massive following.  Over 8 million people follow Humans of New York on social media and it has also become a #1 bestselling book.  Here is an example. (Slide of dad and daughter) Here we see a dad and a daughter walking through the city.  And the authors of the blog share this beautiful & honest quote from the dad, “This is tougher than the Marine Corps.”

These simple photographs often catch my attention on social media.  And it makes me wonder WHY is“The Real Humans of New York” such a huge hit?  Why do we love this moment when a stranger opens up about a simple and yet profound piece of their story?

UCC Pastor and author Molly Phinny Baskette shares that, “we are constantly comparing our backstage – our cluttered, messy and real selves – with other people’s front stage – the person that we show to the world, the person who looks like we have our act together, the perfected routine, our social media edited self.”  The beauty and power of the Real Humans of New York is that in a simple format, we get a glimpse of a stranger’s back stage, and we all sigh with a sense of relief – because in the brave confession of a stranger, suddenly our own humanness is affirmed and validated.  We are allowed to have a back stage.  We are allowed to struggle as a parent or a child along with this dad and his daughter!

This is the miracle that Jesus & the RISE experience give us.  Our RISE friends bring their whole selves to the table.  They bring their messy, beautiful, complicated, inspired and courageous stories to the dinner table.  There is little pretense.  And as we soak up their wisdom, we learn to let go of our perfectionism and posturing.  We learn to let our beauty & our brokenness show.

So the first lesson of RISE is that everyone has a gift, everyone invited to the great banquet has something to offer.  And the second lesson of RISE is that we VIPs who are used to being invited to the banquet – we can learn from the last minute arrivals, how to be our real selves – messy, complicated, broken & beautiful.  We learn from our RISE friends to let God’s light shine in our broken places. We learn to lean into our shared humanness, that we all have a beautiful mess back stage – yes we have different journeys – but shoving everything around to keep our front stage perfect all of the time is exhausting and spiritually depleting.  This is what our RISE friends model for us – what is means to be human, and how to reflect God in our shared brokenness.

So lastly, in the past few months, our Summit Interfaith Council sponsored interfaith dialogue small groups of folks from differing religious traditions on Sacred Conversations on Race.  And during one session someone posed the question, “when is the last time that you invited someone into your home of a different race – or when were you last invited in the home of someone of a different race?”  And today, I wanted to expand that question in honor of the Great Banquet and our RISE Friends.  When is the last time that your guest list included folks from a different walk of life, folks from a different socio-economic class, folks who are differently abled, yes folks of a different race, folks who are ignored or oppressed by our wider society?

And I can anticipate your answer because it probably a lot like my own excuse.  If someone posed this question to me, without much thought, I might say something like, “I really don’t know anyone well enough on that guest list to invite them over?  My life just doesn’t intersect deeply with that many marginalized folks in our town!”

And then I might pause and consider many of the personal relationships that I do have with marginalized folks over the years through my work at Christ Church.  Now let me emphasized here and still confess that I believe that we as a church can do more work locally with folks who are left off the guest list.

But in the same breath I do thank God for Bridges Homeless Outreach and Family Promise and RISE and I thank God for our partners in Nicaragua.  These partners offer us the invitation to join the banquet, to build relationships with folks who offer us spiritual gifts and give us wisdom. Folks who teach us about oppressive systems and institutions that we often ignore.  Again, author and pastor Molly Baskette says, the church experience should provide “paint by number” service opportunities.  All we need to do RSVP “yes!” and show up with an open heart.  And yes, sometimes these opportunities may feel uncomfortable – when all of the sudden we are building a ramp that we have no clue how to build or we find ourselves in a park with 40 Spanish speaking street kids.  Despite the learning curve, these opportunities give us spiritual literacy.  And again don’t get me wrong, going on a service trip once a year does not give us a pass on building relationships with marginalized folks in our own community… but these trips equip us with the basics and give us courage to broaden our own guest lists wider and wider…

And so beloved, the meal has been prepared, and you are invited!  The food is hot!  And the guests are arriving!  There is an urgency in our world and in our own spiritual lives for this kind of sustenance!  Trust me – show up and you will see!  If you don’t believe me – just ask our youth.  They get it – they are on board – they will lead us in our adventures in hosting rambunctious dinner parties with social outcasts.

So, today as our closing meditation and prayer will watch a beautiful clip of our friend Jesse and her RISE team as they cheer her on, on their last day together at RISE.  In this clip we see a friend who has offered so many gifts & a friend whose courageous story of beauty and pain has inspired us and molded us in God’s love.  Amen. (The clip of Jessie going up the ramp for the first time in her wheelchair).

 

 

*Molly Phinney Baskette’s “Real Good Church” is a reference for a few quotes in this sermon.

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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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