Follow Me, Follow You 2.0 – Caroline Dean (9/27/15)

“Follow Me, Follow You 2.0”   Mark 8:27-38

September 27th 2015

“Walk with me a while,” Jesus says,

“Yes Lord!” the followers say, sliding into familiar formation.

On the way, Peter, lost in thought, anticipates Jesus’ next move,

“After many miles on the road, Peter ponders, we know your way Jesus.”

“We see how you approach lepers instead of recoiling,

How you pause to heal beggars, even if we are rushed,

We witness how you march against flow,

Speaking truth to power, stirring things up quite a bit,

We know how you step into forbidden places,

Meandering with disgraced people, as if they are your own,

We gasp when you walk on water,

Calming rough sea with your gentle steps,

And each step we have been at your side,

Or at least on your heels,

Mirroring your cadence,

Sometimes sinking,

Sometimes swaying in fear,

But by now, we know how to walk with you,

We can do this much.”

Just then Jesus abruptly stops the disciples in their tracks.

“Who do people say that I am?” Jesus asks.

Like students seeking a teacher’s approval, they shout,

“John the Baptist!”  “Elijah!”  “A prophet!”

“But what about you?  Who do you say that I am?”

There is an awkward silence.

Peter turns towards Jesus, gathers his faith, looks him in the eye, and says,

“You are the Messiah.  The one who will save us from oppression!  You will set us free and make our people great again!”

Jesus says, “Shhhhh, now walk this way.”

Peter knew it!  He has figured out Jesus’ path!  He does a subtle fist pump, runs to catch up with the others and tries to suppress his excitement.

Jesus pauses to teach the larger crowd of followers.  Men & women sit at Jesus’ feet.  The rumbling of a heavy gray cloud in the distance silences the crowd.

Jesus begins his teaching, “The Son of Man must suffer - a great suffering.  The Son of Man will be rejected by those in power,” then Jesus pauses and takes a deep breath as if to brace for impact “the Son of Man must be killed and after three days rise again.”  The women and men in the crowd turn to each other in confusion and shock, they murmur, “Who is this Son of Man?”  The disciples are totally confused, “But, wait a minute Jesus can’t be the Son of Man, because Jesus cannot die!?”  “So, is Jesus the Messiah?”

Peter is especially confused and angry.  He knows Jesus, he knows their trajectory, and this can’t be right!  Peter separates from the crowd, pulls Jesus aside and says, “No Lord!  You are the Messiah!  You cannot die!  Or this Son of Man, he cannot be you!”

Jesus looks angry and says, “Get behind me, Peter!  You are missing half of the picture, you are stuck on one perspective, what about the eternal?  What about the big picture?  Bigger than you and bigger than our people?!  What about what lies beyond suffering, beyond death!?”

Jesus turns his back on Peter, resolute, as if he has turned away from temptation.  Jesus faces the disciples and the crowd, and says, “If any person wants to follow in my way, she must deny herself, take up her cross and follow me.  For the one who wants to save his life will lose it and the one who wants to lose his life for my sake, for the sake of this good news, will save it.  For what will it profit her, what will it profit him, to gain the whole world and forfeit your very soul?”  Then is started to rain.

Let us pray: (Silence)

“God of Love, let us hold on to moments of gratitude, to the strength in this community and to your love this day.  Give us courage to let go of the things that separate us from you and from each other, our ambitions, our perfectionisms, our egos.  Open our hearts and minds.  May these words reflect your love and grace, we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen”

Peter thinks he knows.  And the disciples, they gain confidence and tuck some wisdom under their belt and they think they know.  But they have no idea.  The future is unknown and it carries with it so much pain & loss.  In the end, as we know, the future unfolds in the beauty of resurrection and the seeds of hope in the birth of the early church but no one gathered at Jesus’ feet that day could possibly guess this ending.

And so, I feel defensive of the disciples, I mean come on, how are they supposed to put all of these pieces together?  Hindsight is 20/20 but the disciples would have never been able to see Jesus’ death and resurrection around the corner.

So, if you cannot tell already, I want to confess right out of the gate that I struggle with this passage.  In my own journey there have been times when feeling connected to God is directly correlated with owning my story, and my gifts.  And yet at other times, clinging to my “self,” my way, my ego is inversely related to my trust in God.  And so how do we tease out which parts of us we should own and which part we should give away?  Who are the selves that need denying?

And what about folks who have already been denied of their stories, their rights and their own bodies?  What about folks living under the weight of systemic oppression and/or personal struggle?  What about the refugees, families who have left everything behind to have a chance for a future?  Are we really supposed to preach to them the “good news” of “denying self and taking up their cross?”  What about the LGBTQ community who are told to deny their sexuality under the banner of Christianity?  What about women suffering in their own home plagued by domestic violence – “deny yourself?” No way!  What about those who are living with mental illness, addiction or disability?  Even folks going through a divorce or someone recently diagnosed with cancer?  What about parents of color who are afraid for their young sons to walk down the street at night?  What a slap in the face, “Hey! Guess what we talked about in church today?!  Jesus says all you need to do is ‘take up that cross and follow!’”

Of course I imagine that Jesus would find these scenarios offensive.  He certainly doesn’t run around telling the marginalized to “buck up!”  And yet I also wonder is there some truth in this passage for everyone?  Even those who have already been denied of self?  Does this passage only speak to the comfortable, to those who are in power?  Or is there wisdom here for all of us?  Do we all embody the “disempowered self,” the “righteous self” and all kinds of selves in between depending on the day and even the moment?

So if we trust Jesus on this, that there is wisdom here, how can we imagine a healthy spiritual practice of “self-denial?”  Brene’ Brown is an author and professor at the University of Houston.  She writes a lot about vulnerability, shame and resilience in her new book “Rising Strong.”*****In the book, Dr. Brown tells a story about her grandmother, “Me-Ma” who kept a set of five medal dishes underneath the sink. Every once in a while a few “hobos” (as Brene’ calls them) would knock on Me-Ma’s door.  These men would sit on the porch and Me-Ma would serve them on her “special” medal dishes.  The hobos trusted Me-Ma because she knew a neighbor who had returned from the war and became a hobo himself.  Me-Ma had also had a rough life, “she lived through poverty, domestic violence, divorce,” and she was in recovery for alcoholism.  And so she didn’t judge.

Brene’ writes about a story later in life when she visited her grandmother for one of their last visits while Me-Ma still lived in her own home.  Me-Ma was suffering with dementia and Brene’ noticed that she needed a bath.  Brene’ ran a bath and encouraged Me-Ma to come in the bathroom.  Me-Ma “just smiled and raised her hands above her head.”  Brene’ pulled off her shift, kissed her on the forehead and stepped out of the bathroom.  But she could tell that Me-Ma was just standing there.  Brene’ reflects, “I don’t know if I can do this.  I’ve never even seen her without clothes on.  I don’t know how to bathe someone.” But she pauses, “Get yourself together Brene’!  This is Me-Ma.  She has bathed you a thousand times!”

So Brene’ walked into the bathroom and “undressed her grandmother and sat her down in the old pink porcelain tub.  Brene’ lathered her up and rinsed her off.  And when Me-Ma smiled and relaxed, Brene’ held her hand.”  Brown writes that her grandmother’s great strength was both in her ability to give and in her ability to receive.

This is what denying self looks like.  This is Me-Ma denying herself, serving others, so that when the time came she could receive help in her vulnerability with grace.  This is Brene’ denying herself.  Because at the end of the day you cannot have your ego self or your perfectionist tendencies engaged when you bath your grandmother.  Denying your self can be embarrassing, vulnerable, and it can certainly remind you of your own neediness.  But when you bow your spirit in this way, you loosen your grip on things like perfectionism and self-righteousness.  This is the pope pausing to bless a child with cerebral palsy or eat with homeless youth.  This is Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.  Denying yourself is Jesus’ legacy and it is an act of great love, it creates connection, wholeness and healing.

My second struggle with the passage is how Jesus beckons us to “bear our cross.”  Again this doesn’t work with marginalized communities.  And is it just me or is Jesus’ request for us to carry our own instrument of torture & execution a bit extreme?  As if the sufferings of our average lives aren’t enough!  How are we supposed to attract new folks to church if we are all hunkered down, trudging along with our heavy crosses?  Again I totally sympathize with Peter.  I want to pull Jesus aside and say, “What!?  This is a really, bad recruitment strategy!  Jesus, is there a way we can spin this truth in some another direction?”  And even now it is tempting to soften this blow, to make it more palatable.

Parker Palmer, a Quaker writer and activist has a beautiful reflection on depression in his book, “Let Your Life Speak.”** He writes about how he discovered the best way to spiritually grapple with the “cross” of depression in his life.

Palmer uses the metaphor of a “friendly figure” who follows him trying to get his attention.  The figure shouts his name and wants to give him hard, but healing truths about himself.  But Parker is fearful and arrogantly tries to move forward without help continually ignoring the figure.  Parker Palmer it turns out is pretty stubborn.  After a while “Since shouts and taps, stones and sticks had failed…there was only one thing left: to drop the nuclear bomb called depression…not with intent to kill, but as a last-ditch effort to get him to turn and ask the simple question, “What do you want?!”  Parker writes, “When I was finally able to make that turn- and to absorb and act on the self-knowledge available to me-I began to get well.” (page 68)

Parker continues, “The figure calling me all those years was, I believe, what Thomas Merton calls the, ‘true self.’  This is not the ego self, that wants to inflate (or deflate us)…It is the self planted in us by the God who made us in God’s own image - the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be.”

In Mark Chapter 8, Jesus says that we have access to our “true self,” when we take up our cross.  We live in a world that likes to escape on adventures, in our technology, and in numbing consumerism.  We are busy, we fill dead time with our choice of modern amenities and we dodge hard feelings.  And we especially avoid facing our mortality.  And death is one thing you cannot avoid when you talk about the cross.  As hard as we want to dodge this truth, we will all suffer, and we will all face tiny deaths and yes we will also face the big death one day.  Jesus says, face these sufferings in a redemptive way, with raw emotion yes, but also with forgiveness and grace.  Do not escape suffering, do not dodge the way of integrity for comfort, find meaning and wisdom in your suffering, turn around and face it.

I do not mean to romanticize suffering, especially in the light of such loss and tragedy in our own community this week.  Certainly there is no need to seek out extra for there will be enough pain for each of us as an innate part of life.  But there is something key here to the active life of faith.  Jesus reminds us that faith takes courage and sacrifice.  If you think about the things in life that grant us the most meaning, deep friendship, meaningful work, marriage, & parenting – all of these things require of us great sacrifice.  So also this faith that Jesus models requires of us great sacrifice.  And do not despair, through it all we have the church community to help us bear our crosses, and God’s grace to cover us when it gets heavy.  And of course, in all of this imagery of the cross, we also have hope in resurrection.

The last struggle in this passage, that Peter & I share, is a general disdain at not being able to predict, control or manipulate the future.  Does anyone else have that problem?  Like Peter and the disciples, the reality is that we cannot predict the next chapter.  And we as a part of the mainline church tradition are facing especially uncertain days.  We face rapid change in technology, globalization, climate change, and not to mention the pace of our own lives. It feels like we are all hanging on by the seat of our pants!

And in the midst of all of this change, what does the future of our church look like?  What traditions will stick, which ones will evolve?  With change inevitably comes anxiety.  Will some of those evolving traditions mean reimagining some of our favorite church traditions?

Molly Phinney Baskette, author and UCC pastor writes about the 75% rule, “that in a truly vital church, you’re happy with what’s going on about 75% of the time, because you’re giving up the other 25% for someone down the pew who is different from you”***.  You are ceding your power for that person who is moved to tears by that tradition, that song, that ritual, the one that doesn’t not resonate with you.  This can be tough!  And it feels a lot like denying yourself in order to welcome a new neighbor.

In closing, the poet Mary Oliver**** in one of her compilations of poems entitled, “Evidence,” writes, “And what do I risk to tell you this, which is all I know?  Love yourself.  Then forget it.  Then, love the world.”  And with great respect, (because I love Mary Oliver) I would make to one addendum, “Love yourself.  Then forget it.  Then, love the world.  Then start over.”

And so beloved let us own our unique story-love it!  And then give it away.  Then start over.  Face the sufferings & grief of our tumultuous time with courage – don’t dodge them!  And follow Jesus!  Go out in humility, courage and faith!  Sounds like a pretty good church model to me!  Amen.

 

 

*Neutral Pulpit Podcast: “Physical Therapy” illustration:  http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/132-proper-19b-sept-13-2015

**Parker Palmer’s “Let Your Life Speak” page 68-69

***Molly Phinny Baskette “Read Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead and Yours Can Too”

****Mary Oliver, “Evidence”

*****Brene’ Brown “Rising Strong” Pages 176-177

 

 

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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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