Giving ‘Til it Heals – Chuck Rush (1/22/17)

Giving til it Heals

1 Kings 10:1-7; Philippians 2:1-5


Last Wednesday Thomas Friedman reminded us of the conflictual world we have created for ourselves for the foreseeable future. It is more bitter and partisan than ever, despite the many earnest calls for us to bridge this ugly divide.

It was cute, quoting tweets from President-Elect Trump and what Friedman wishes Mr. Trump had tweeted. Like his response to Meryl Streep, calling her “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.” Bitter, small.

Instead, Friedman wonders what would it have been like if Trump had tweeted. “Meryl Streep, greatest actress ever, ever, ever. Stuff happens in campaigns Meryl. Even I have regrets. But watch, I’ll make you proud of my presidency.”

Yes, we could have aspirational leadership but that is not what we elected. We elected something much closer to a wrecking ball with a mandate to upend the pre-existing order. We will write headlines about conflict, dislocation, pushing, shoving, fracas, winners, losers, roil.

And, then, there will be real crises in the wider world. It seems like they were every two or three months last year, probably that many next year.

Our spiritual challenge is to figure out how to take all of that negative energy around us and live our lives positively, intentionally, productively…

The Queen of Sheba, in our first reading this morning, came to see Solomon because he had a reputation throughout the civilized world (at that time) for having a cool head and integrity in a region that was perpetually at war. “How do you do that?” She wanted to know. Everything I’ve heard about you is true. “How do you do it”?

St. Paul, wrote to his church in Philippi, “We live in a world of conflict and fighting”. They were having a fight at the church. And St. Paul knew about fighting. He had been wrongly arrested. He was in prison and the Romans actually killed him right after he finished writing this letter because they didn’t know that he was a Roman citizen. He was fighting for his life and he lost… unjustly.

And he tells them, ‘there is conflict all around us but find a way to develop harmony in the midst of it. Express peace. Live with integrity. Cooperate, love in the midst of it. Be a sanctuary.

Kate asked me to watch the new TV Show “This is Us”. Could be a great show. The episode I happened to pick had a couple giving birth to triplets, like so many pregnancies today. The mother goes into distress in labor and they have to do a C-Section.

The doctor comes out of surgery and tells the Dad, “you are the father of two beautiful children, a boy and a girl. But we lost one of them, a boy”. The father smiles at him confused, in shock. The doctor repeats himself again.

The father’s smile just caves in a deep despair that is just overwhelming. The Doctor says, “Can I sit with you.” And the father leans back against the wall, primordially fear-filled and worried. After a long silence, the Doctor says, “I lost my wife of 45 years a few months ago… but it was nothing compared to losing my son when he was a child. You know, not a day goes by, literally, that I haven’t thought about him since.

“I don’t have any wisdom for you but if you can take the sourest thing that life throws at you and you can make something of it resembling lemonade, then my son, you will walk out of this hospital with three children today.”

Of course, the father is just numb that day. But plot line develops because what the couple did eventually is adopt a child. Turns out it was a black child but it could have been anybody- “The Other”. And they raised that child in a different family.

That is the challenge of our lives. They won’t go smoothly all the time. We have terrorist attacks. We have outbreaks of illness. We have earthquakes. War.

Life changing tragedies, sometimes of such deep grief that we don’t want to go on. Some despair can just evaporate our well-being, our security.

Unfair, arbitrary… It can become embittering if you just dwell on it. Even years later, when you relive those emotions. It is amazing how visceral and immediate and deeply powerful spewing up from the subterranean parts of your psyche. Whew… you just know they have to be managed.

And there is no great secret for getting on through. We have to find a project that becomes the pattern through which we take all of that negative energy and weave some productive, humane tapestry with it. And within that you find your calling as a healer. And through that, you become healed. You come to live in redemption.

The meaning of our lives gets meted out in how and where we invest our energy. Who are the people that you are developing? How are you investing your life?

The Ponca tribes, the Native-Americans that lived in Nebraska and Oklahoma have traditions around funerals that honor the ways that we invest ourselves in this life. When someone dies, as in almost all cultures, the tribe gathers around the family and pitches in to bring food and provide companionship as they grieve the lost one in their family.

But then, one year after the death, the family has another gathering. This time, the family gives back to the community. They have them all over for food and drink.

I read an account of one guy who was invited to attend as a European, who had never seen the tradition before.[i] The family took turns in the beginning making a few tributes to their grandfather. They described how he lived and what he valued, telling a few choice stories with everyone gathered together.

Then they turned and invited all of his fishing buddies to come up. They gave each of them some part of his fishing gear.

They invited up his grandsons and his nephews and his grandnephews with whom he hunted and shared the outdoors with. And to each of them they divided up his guns, his bows and arrows, his knives and his hunting gear.

For his nieces and his granddaughters they gave each of them what he still had of jewelry and beads from his wife and his mother.

And then they made some gifts to young couples in the tribe that were struggling to make ends meet like young couples do in every generation. And they gave them all boxes of groceries and things for babies. It symbolized his love for his tribe, his people.

And brought up people from his church, from an environmental group, from a legal group for the tribe. And to each they gave checks to support the causes that he believed in and the values that he had invested himself in for a lifetime.

Finally, they called up a group of men that he used to meet with at the Diner, some European, some Indian. They would meet together for coffee or beer and solve the world’s problems when they got together.

And to each of those guys they gave some personal memento, a pair of moccasins to one, a beer stein to another…

And those items were invariably received in reverence and gratitude. It was like one last time, from beyond the grave, they were receiving the love that they had known from their father, their friend.

That legacy, that life, doesn’t just go into the ground to decay. It gets invested in the next generation in ways that are meaningful so that the spirit of love and blessing fosters itself in the next generation. Through that we grow.

I couldn’t help but think about that yesterday morning at 4:40 a.m. as I watched 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 58 women from Christ Church board a bus and head to Washington, DC to join hundreds and thousands of other women on the mall and millions more around the world.

We are going to have to unplug ourselves from some of the daily media coverage to manage our cynicism and jadedness in this era of reality news coverage. It produces too much anxiety and irritation for us to live our lives productively and positively.

What we need to do more is plug in to what we are investing our lives in, how we are expressing our values. So inspiring for me to see these women standing in that great tradition- we have a long line of loud women at Christ Church. But to see that it is passing itself on to the next generation.

I said a blessing for them, on behalf of their families and their husbands and all of you who were still thankfully in bed. And then I said, “and on behalf of your granddaughters and your great granddaughters yet unborn… you will never hear their applause, but if you could, it would be deafening.”

We live in an era of a lot of roil bubbling up around us politically, socially. It may just be a catalyst for all of us to ask ourselves, ‘what are you investing your time and energy in? What values are you actually going to promote in your short time on this earth? And who are the people that you will invest yourself in that will give flesh to those values? What will you stand for? And who will you stand with?

After we leave this world, that will be what gets invested after us. It is how we will actually impact our family, our friends. It is all that is left, which makes it the most important part of who you really are and what you are about.

I’m glad you are here. Stand with us. Grow your family with these families. Invest your life through these friends and neighbors. And may we kindle some authentic meaning that will transcend the roil that is around us. May you find real love, real compassion, genuine authenticity that is as complex and profound as the diversity of the congregation we create together.

May we come close together here so that we are not swamped by what is out there.

You are vital and you make a difference in your world. Take the negativity, channel it with each other, and may we weave a tapestry of humane healing. Amen.

[i] My thanks to Mark Miller for putting me on to this tradition. I’ve creatively imagined it in this rendition in honor of my friends from the Crow Indian tribe in Montana.

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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.