God’s Newness and Personal Transformation – Chuck Rush (10/15/17)

God’s Newness and Personal Transformation
October 15, 2017
Revelation 21; Acts

Apart from their extraordinary contribution to human happiness, what do the following have in common: Erasmus, Leonardo de Vinci, Michaelangelo, Christopher Marlowe, King James I of England, Sir Francis Bacon, Thomas Gray, Frederick the Great of Germany, Margaret Fuller, Tchaikovsky, Nijinsky, Proust, A.E. Houseman, T.E. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Edith Hamilton, W.H. Auden, Willa Cather, Tennessee Williams, and the tennis star Martina Navratilova. They are all gays and lesbians.
That was the opening to a sermon that I preached in 1995, when I told the congregation that two gay men had asked me to perform their wedding, something not yet legal in New Jersey. But I brought it to the congregation because the future beckoned us forward to make a statement on where we stood vis-à-vis gay families.
We spent a year in study and dialogue on the subject with the bible in one hand and the scientific literature in the other hand. I remember a book study on Chandler Burr’s comprehensive review of sexual orientation that was so much more complex than any of us had any idea, how our sexual orientation is formed and why it appears to exist on a scale that runs between ‘exclusively heterosexual’ to ‘exclusively homosexual, how homosexual behavior is not so much ‘deviant behavior’ as most of us were taught as children, but merely a ‘deviation from the norm’, comprising a predictable 4% of the population.
And we looked at the Bible, this story in particular, because this little story turns out to have a huge hermeneutical tool that we need to use to interpret the bible on any moral or social subject. The Old Testament indeed has a couple of passages that say something like “If a man lies with another man as though he were a woman, it is an abomination”.
That sounds pretty serious. And certainly, it was delivered that way by fundamentalist preachers in the South that read the Bible literally. Except that word ‘toevah’ or ‘abomination’ is not so serious. It means that you are not kosher, not ritually pure, not Orthodox Jewish.
Eating pork is also an abomination, lobster, shrimp scampi, having sex during menstruation, lots of thing that are all detailed in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. It had the moral effect of saying, “Good Jewish boys don’t do it”, a line I believe that was repeated from the time of Moses all the way up to my Grandmother who told us essentially the same thing.
So, what do you do with these passages from the past that reflect the mores of an earlier era? You let the future guide you as this pivotal little story in Acts makes clear. It was really revolutionary for Christians. Because the biggest question for the first Christians was whether regular Romans had to become Jews in order to become Christians.
After all Jesus was a Jew, all the disciples were Jews. Jesus teaching quickly spread to ordinary Romans who wanted to follow in the way of Jesus, but for the adult me who had never been circumcised, the part of becoming Jewish that required circumcision was met with a big “woah, say what?”
This was the first big debate in the church. It was divisive. Orthodox Jews, in order to be Orthodox, had to eat different food, stay separate from Romans when they ate. It meant that you had Jews over here and Romans over there (say at the church picnic), which is not good for community.
Peter and Paul had many deep discussions about the subject. Peter takes the Orthodox position and Paul takes the inclusion position. It goes back and forth, back and forth, the way these things do.
And Peter has this dream. He has the same dream 3 times. In the Roman world that means it came from God. And in the dream, God collects all the things that are not kosher into one huge blanket and says, “Those things that were formerly not kosher, I declare are now kosher”.
That is an amazing story. We have God saying, all the stuff I prohibited as not kosher in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. That no longer matters. Apparently, God can change God’s mind. And not just a little but a lot.
Perhaps more miraculous than God changing God’s mind, Peter changes his mind too. Peter says, “Truly I perceive that God is not partial towards any nation or any religion, but whoever stands in respectful awe before God and does what is right is acceptable to God.”
Spark jumps the gap for Peter. Jesus taught them to go to ‘every nation’. Jesus taught them that it is not what you put into your mouth but what comes out of your mouth that defiles you. Jesus taught them that treating your neighbor as yourself is more important than whether they are heretical (like Samaritans were), or whether they were women, or whether they were slaves, or lepers or tax collectors. God is inclusive.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus tells the disciples that they don’t possess all of the Truth. He says that the Spirit will come upon them in the future and the Spirit will ‘lead them into all truth.’ We can’t just ask ourselves what did we do yesterday. We have to continually ask ourselves what will become true for the rising generation?
What is coming next?
And the Bible isn’t given to us as a set of eternal spiritual computer code that you just have to parse to unlock the key to how to live. It is an evolving Truth that is dependent on us being led by the Spirit to figure things out in a new era.
So, for us, when we looked at gays and lesbians, we turned to science because we live in a scientific world. And our best science explained that our sexual orientation is a given on a spectrum that we are largely born with. This is the way God made us?
For us as a community, the spiritual question became, how to we live in love and acceptance with LBGTQ world? How do we express compassion and make a place for their families? How do we raise our children to live in a world where, knowing that there are gays, lesbians, bi-sexual, transgendered people, we can show respect and understanding so that all of us can live integrated spiritual lives together?
The miracle for us, like the miracle for Peter, was that we stopped waiting for them to change and we finally figured out that we need to change. This was the Truth that the Spirit led us into.
I couldn’t help but think about that reading the paper this week. You have to dig past the first 5 stories that are all about something nutty from Washington. But then you get to two stories about big change from the past to the future.
The Boy Scouts, one of the most traditional American organizations you can imagine, formerly headed by our Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and now headed by former Secretary of Defense and Head of the CIA, Robert Gates- people that are decidedly not politically correct liberals.
The Boy Scouts decided to accept gay scouts, transgendered scouts, and now are going to make a place for girls in scouting, so that they can earn an Eagle Scout badge.
They started to think through the issue of the world that our children are going to live in soon. They started to ask themselves the question of what they would need to adapt successfully in that world. And they transcended the traditional mores of a simpler, earlier era to make the virtues of scouting available to a new generation in a new world.
I would just like to point out that our very own Emil Rufolo is involved in the national leadership of the Boy Scouts over decades now. Just this month I got a notice from the national Executive Director that Emil was awarded the “God and Country” honor.
Usually, the religious people that get interviewed for these things are standing foursquare against the new changes like the Mormon church. I can’t tell you how proud I am that the leaders from Christ Church are standing with their eyes fixed decidedly on the future, not the past, ready to transcend the boundaries of yesteryear to make our world a more inclusive world.
The second headline, where the future drove us to transcend the past, was a small notice that Malala Mustafa,-the young girl whose school in Pakistan was burned down by the Taliban and she stood up in protest as a Middle School student only to be shot by the Taliban- she enrolled at Oxford University to study politics and economics.
It is the Taliban’s worst nightmare, an educated woman with moral grit. What a huge step forward it will be to educate women, the world over.
My grandmothers were actively discouraged from college in the 20’s. Almost no women went to college and almost none of the top 150 colleges in the United States accepted women until the 60’s.
It remains the case that 2/3rd’s of the illiterate adults in our world are women because they are treated as second class citizens in too many places. And when you have that, you allow an imbalance of power where men lord over their women like Harvey Weinstein and that has been the norm for hundreds and thousands of years.
But the future knows our gender distinctions matter less and less. And after 70 years of admitting women to college in the United States, there are slightly more women enrolled (and who will graduate) than men.
And we know from our outreach efforts in developing nations that when you empower women with education and skills that allow them to develop economic independence, you get much more stable families because women invest more in their children than men.
And when you have stable families, you are much more likely to develop stable democratic societies. So, our outreach partners in Nicaragua at Christ Church are all women’s co-operatives because you get a radial multiplication of your investment.
We want to be the Church of the future. We already have way too many churches and mosques that look to the past. They want to go back to the 7th century to Shariah law, just like our Orthodox churches speak a Greek in their liturgy from the 5th century that no one understands or a Russian from the 7th century that no one understands, allowing you to meditate in these time-honored ways that take you out of this world.
Meanwhile, the most significant challenges to us spiritually come from a future that changes so rapidly our society is in unchartered water. We have never been at this place in our social evolution yet.
Our grandchildren will have the tools in their hands to directly modify our own gene pool. It will allow us to prevent inheritable diseases from ever afflicting our family again. Of course, it will also allow us to make a generation of children that are smarter than the rest of us? More handsome? Better athletes… How are they going to deploy that technical ability? What moral guidelines should we develop for this god like power? Societies technical abilities proceed quickly… what we need is for the church to develop a moral imagination so that we can keep up.
Right now, we are living through another revolution of our consciousness because of our abundant use of social media. When I first started lecturing at Rutgers University in the late 80’s, I noticed that my students lost attention in what was an interesting class, ethics. I realized that they were subconsciously programmed from growing up watching television to have a mental break every 7 minutes. Even National Public Radio says, ‘we’ll be right back after this short break’… and they don’t even have commercials. So, I would tell a joke or a story every 7 minutes and then return to the material. Problem solved by adapting to a new consciousness.
Today people are being interrupted more and more frequently with calls, texts, updates. And we have studies that show we retain less since we are dependent on technology for more and more answers, we can focus less intensely and for shorter periods of time. Our very consciousness is evolving in significant ways that previous generations knew nothing about. How will we change? How should we change? We need a moral imagination to keep pace with our technical prowess. y
The power of God, through what Christian call the Holy Spirit gives us that power to change. And what a profound power it is. I think of F. W. De Klerk when he was the President of South Africa. He had grown up proud to be an Afrikaner, proud of his country’s heritage throwing off colonial rule by the British, establishing a vibrant economy, believing that apartheid was a noble ideal for self-rule- the Zulu’s ruling their own people, the Afrikaners ruling their own people and the other tribes in South African ruling their own people.
But through the 1980’s, he came to see that Apartheid had become unjust, however well-intentioned his grandparents might have been when they founded it in the 1890’s. And it is true that he was helped to see the immorality of his position by a well disciplined protest movement, led by Nelson Mandela. And it is true that the nations of the world put a great deal of pressure on the National party to end apartheid for many years.
But people do not change simply because they are told to change, particularly when that pressure is from the outside. It often makes genuine change actually harder.
De Klerk had a number of meetings with the leaders of the National party. And they asked themselves the question, ‘what is the right thing to do’? It is a question that real leaders ask themselves in difficult situations.
“In the end, I came to the conclusion, and not only me but the other leaders of the National party that apartheid would not work, that it had failed to bring justice and that it had become manifestly unjust. And that from a moral point of view it was indefensible and that it could not be repaired by improving it. So we reached the conclusion… that we must make a 180 degree turn in our thinking… [Several years later], after we had founded the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ with the ANC, I made a profound apology on national TV for the pain and the humiliation and the destitution that apartheid had caused for so many people… The ANC would sometimes like you to believe that I just had to do it, that it was merely a pragmatic decision, but I can assure you that within my party we had a long process of asking ourselves what is the right thing to do, what can bring justice to the people. And that, if I can put it on a scale, was the driving force behind our decision.”
Change can happen. It is rare. It is difficult. That is why we call it divine.
We follow a spiritual leader that taught us, it is the higher way. Jesus showed us how to ask not just ‘why?’ but ‘Why not?’ He taught us to envision a better world, a world infused with God. He called it ‘the Kingdom of God’.
And may you be blessed with the divine spirit to change. May you see the future challenges and inspire new vision with the question, “why not?” May we all come to ask the more beautiful question. Our children and grandchildren are begging for that kind of genuine leadership. 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.