For All God’s Children – Chuck Rush (2/22/15)

For All God’s Children
Amos Galatians 3:26
“For in Christ Jesus you are all the children of God through faith”

Something I’d like each of you to try tonight, tomorrow night. For one of your kids, your grandchildren, a niece or nephew, a kid that lives around the corner that you know well. I want you to hold your hands on their face, look right in their eyes, and tell them, “You are a child of God”. I want you to write down what happens and shoot me a note about it.
I read a piece from a leading expert on child development that said that grandparents don’t need to give big gifts. [Good news for me since I don’t have any big gifts to give]The most important gift that they can give the ones they love is the deep knowledge that they are known. That you get them. You understand what makes them tick. You can help them grow. Isn’t that what Jesus wanted us to learn? We have that power, not just as grandparents, as people that can release this deeper power of love.
And that is what we do on our better days. We care for those in our charge, those around us. The Spirit, following after Jesus, invites us and cajoles us to extend that sense of care farther than we would normally imagine it. And, as we do, the world becomes more just and oriented towards peace.
I was thinking about that lately, reading several books on our persistent blighted neighborhoods and the schools in those neighborhoods that have been trying analyze how we can turn our failing schools around. That first generation of charter schools was led by a bunch of idealistic Ivy leaguers which turned out to be quite providential because, when they got in over their head, they called in their Professors to do some studies to analyze the symptoms that they were seeing- by the way, a good use of federal funding.
Long story short, the academics have been able to look at the multiple stresses that kids in these neighborhoods live with and these stressors comes on a bunch of different levels. And what they could document is that if kids operate routinely under too much stress, the part of our brain that engages in rational reflection, long-term planning, and delayed gratification is not able to operate effectively. Your brains attention is absorbed in dealing with the stress.
So when we started comparing the inner city test scores with kids in the suburbs (back in the sixties), no one was particularly surprised that suburban kids did better. It confirmed what we presumed namely that a combination of genes and virtues favored the suburban kids. [Social psychologists call that ‘Confirmation Bias’] But when this gap persisted another couple decades, we dug a little deeper. No one had really thought about the obvious, that maybe the biggest difference in objective test scores is actually stress.
Precarious economic situations from chronic unemployment and chronic underemployment, introjected anger in drug abuse throughout different members of the extended family and the neighbors too, single parent families with parents overwhelmed and not able to be a consistent source of stability and nurture, living around persistent threats of violence where you think you are going to die or someone you know really well does die.
Turns out when you have two or more factors off a list of 12 or so sources of stress, we can measure that you can’t focus consistently, it is harder to pay attention, harder to regulate your anger and negative emotions, harder to perform rational tests, etc..
What if the biggest issue separating our urban kids from our suburban kid is actually stress? We hadn’t thought about that-- unless of course, you talked to any teacher in any failing school district in any city in our country.
One of these charter school educators had boys that were getting into fights, multiple fights over time, and they wanted to study and see if they isolate a couple of common denominators that they could work on. When they actually sat the boys down and asked them what was going on, what they found was a boiling subterranean rage at not having a father and that rage got tapped with nearly each and every encounter with an authority figure or with some kind of structure being imposed upon them.
Oh, yeah, right! Why didn’t we think of that? Yale confirmed what every coach at every Catholic High School in metropolitan New York could have told them.
When I asked Father Ed at St. Benedict’s in Newark why sports were so stressed at their school. He said, “Are you kidding? This is where the character lessons are learned. This is where the positive mentoring fills that gap of no fathers or negative male role models.”
And we know that is hard to turn around that kind of anger in boys, even when you have a lot of love… But you can. One thing our researchers discovered is that most of the detrimental stressors that surround our kids in the ghetto can be substantively diminished with the stability and love of one parent and/or the stability and love shown by someone else in the family, or by outside mentors.
I know that. Many of you know that. You’ve adopted kids. You’ve had foster children. You’ve blended your family with a spouse that had a difficult or dysfunctional relationship in the past.
It got me to remembering with gratitude when we our foster-children were little. The oldest, Gio, had a lot of anger and he had trouble controlling his anger. I got a call from one of the teachers at Franklin school about a fight on the playground.
Good thing because it gave us a chance to have a sit down with the teacher and the Principal with my wife who is a teacher too. We told them, “look, we don’t know a whole lot about our kids but they lived in an abandoned bus in Elizabeth before they came to us. They’d been evicted several times prior to that. Their parents were actually married but they were heroin addicts and we have reason to believe that they were neglected, as in practically abandoned. And these are the symptoms we’ve seen. These are the issues that we are working on at home. These are the academic challenges we anticipate.
The teacher and the principal were really wonderful. They made careful notes, brought in some extra resources and went out of their way to try to heal Gio as best they could. And I remember so many of you all too, going out of your way perhaps to invite him over for a play date. Bev York, God bless her, came over a couple days a week to work with him as a retired special ed teacher. Some of you coached him and went the extra mile to help him overcome his past and be models or mentors for him.
And I wish I could tell you today that he is grown and will probably run for the Senate but life is a lot more complicated than that. He is a grown man today, still growing and healing, but he is still hobbled by his past. He has issues that he will struggle with for his whole life, even surrounded by the love of family and an extended family of support, strength and stability.
Love is a powerful healing force. It doesn’t cure everything but it does provide healing and growth every step of the way. It is a beautiful thing and I want to thank you for it. I am very grateful.
But that extra helping hand in love is not what happens if you stay in the hood. Looking back, the research suggests that we as a society probably made a bad situation worse.
Our school systems in the hood are overwhelmed. So if you bring a boy in a fight to the Principal and you include the teacher, they aren’t going to give you their undivided attention about this child’s special needs. Three quarters of their class has a similar story. And they have too many other boys to keep their eye on, who have trouble with anger management, inability to follow rules, inability to focus, difficulty with authority figures.
They don’t often get a church that reaches out to provide some loving support. So too many of the boys drift towards the closest thing that the hood has to offer, affiliation with a gang, mentors that are really just blind older boys leading blind younger boys. For the most part, they are unable to escape the tragic consequences of behaviors and attitudes that are self-destructive with no idea how to break the cycle.
In a few short years these boys become big, as crazy as teenagers anywhere, with less supervision, getting into more trouble. By now- and I’m zooming out here to think about the wider society- we don’t look at them as disadvantaged kids that need to be love. We view them as potential perps that need to be contained. Instead of mentors, we sent in more cops. It is not the way of love, it is about limiting a threat.
And they have made arrests. I don’t know if you saw the article in the Atlantic Monthly about a year ago but some reporter decided to track all of the prisoners in New York City by their home address. Something like 35% of all the men in jail in our fair city come from like 5 zip codes.
You may not know this but New Jersey is the 9th in the country for most segregated school systems. [That study measures black school districts that have less than 10% white students. We have a lot of predominately white school districts with a few percentage points of black and Hispanic kids. But the predominately black school districts have actually become more concentrated with fewer and fewer whites]. I have to say that surprised me but not really because our segregation is pretty hard and fast economic- and that overlaps racially strongly.
For that same reason, the most segregated school system in our country, as it turns out? New York City. Straight economic segregation but in our fair city economic segregation has strong racial correlations.
So when we decided to get tough on crime (in the 70’s and 80’s) and we focused on our highest crime neighborhoods… And when we decided to get tough on drugs in particular, and we focused on our highest crime neighborhoods- what we did, without really thinking about it, was add a whole other layer of stress on families and children that were the most stressed in our region.
We didn’t mean that! We just wanted to get tough on drugs. But drug users are embedded in families. And one of the main reasons that we didn’t really think about this or pay attention to the human costs, was that we don’t go to those neighborhoods and don’t know anyone who is from there. Out of sight, out of mind. I’ve lived in New York’s suburbs pretty much since I was 15 and I had to look up a couple of those 5 zip codes where the 35% of our prisoners live. I’ve never been there.
We have to do better than this. We have to extend the same sense of care we would have for our own children, the same care we would show to the kids from our neighborhood, we have to extend that to the kids that are caught suffering more stress than children should have to know, even in the zip codes we don’t visit.
These children are not beyond the pale. There are ways we can support our families that are weak. We know that mentors and stable school environments supplement families and are demonstrably positive. These charter schools have discovered quite a few things that work. I’m quite sure that this whole area will be the focus of some solid research in the next decade or two and a number of creative solutions will present themselves.
Dr. King used to say that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice. And our challenge for Civil Rights in this era is for all of our children to genuinely feel that we are part of the community. Our challenge is for all of our children to feel included and understood. We don’t have to tolerate crime but we need to move beyond treating our blighted neighborhoods primarily as incubators for perps.
They are fractured families with over-stressed kids. The answer is not more Cops. The answer is more healing love and we know this in our own families.
So tonight, I want you to find one child and I want you to hold their wonderful little face in your hands. I want you to look them in the eye and tell them ‘you are a child of God’. And as you do, as you see that face beam with acceptance, imagine that same beam in all the different beautiful ethnic smiles that God has created on our planet. And say a prayer that all of them will feel the blessing that you would give them. God loves you. You are a child of God. 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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