Healing from Our Broken Places – Chuck Rush (2/8/15)

Healing from our Broken Places
Phil 2:4-11; Gal. 5:1, 13-15

Jesmond Ward grew up with her four siblings in Delilse, Mississippi, down where the Delta meets the coast in the deeper part of the Deep South. She grew up on the black side of Dixie. It is true that a great deal has changed in Mississippi over the past thirty years, but from the land of Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, she’s written a piece that explores the question of why, by the time that she was 25, were four boys that she knew- including a brother and a cousin- all dead.
They all died separately and in quite various ways - but in their own intricate way – it became a way for her to review her childhood community. Thinking in the broader sub-conscious trends that form the cultural ethos they all lived in, she says, ‘We tried to outpace the thing that chased us, that said: you are nothing. We tried to ignore it, but sometimes we caught ourselves repeating what history said, mumbling along, brainwashed: I am nothing. We drank too much, smoked too much, we were abusive to ourselves, to each other. We were bewildered. There is a great darkness bearing down on our lives, and no one acknowledges it.”
As it turns out, this propensity for thinking that we are ‘not enough’ encompasses a much larger of our personal reflection on the meaning of our lives than you would imagine. Jesmond is describing the indirect after-effects of racism as it was (and is) in the Deep South. Substitute, addiction in our families- drugs and alcohol. Substitute, homelessness or economic precariousness. Substitute- dysfunctional family members. Substitute genetic patterns for depression and other medical maladies.
Even though, we may have left our childhood world far behind and even though we may have actually been fortunate to achieve much personal accomplishment. Even though, we have since known substantive love in our lives that is a lot more healthy, this ‘not enough’ mentality occupies the personal reflections of a much bigger proportion of the population than I would have imagined.
We mostly just carry around this inferiority complex by ourselves, especially if we have something that we think we really need to hide like the fact that our family has been homeless or my mother is a heroin addict. But, the literature suggests that the preponderance of us actually carry around some secret that we try to hide about ourselves, whether we should or not. We are worried, more that we wish we were, that we just aren’t good enough to be accepted, well liked or loved.
Even if it lies dormant for years, usually it surfaces again during the transition of the generations. Several years ago, we had a woman in town that was nearing the end of her life. The family had asked me to get involved because her 5 children were trying to decide just how much to do for her as her health was failing and she was transitioning to hospice care.
Like a lot of these situations, her medical situation was ambiguous and 1 or 2 kids wanted to pursue an aggressive line of treatment, two of the kids did not. There was a lot of back and forth, much of it amicable. But, there was also a lot of competitive humor in the Irish tradition of sarcasm. I’m sure they watched ‘All in the Family’ back in the 70’s and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the father in the family had been an Archie Bunker type.
All of them were in their 60’s when their mother was dying, but I remember at one point, one of the daughters had a suggestion for the group, something none of them had considered before. The oldest two in the family dismissed her out of hand, really because she was the fourth child in the family and they had never cared much about the fourth child’s opinion about anything when they were little and they still couldn’t figure out why they needed to pay her any attention now.
It was somewhat remarkable the way that they could jump back in time several decades to recall old scores, like ‘you don’t think I care? I care more than you did when you left our dog Checkers in the station wagon in the hot sun, nearly killed the dog from heat exhaustion while you and your girlfriend Courtney were making out at Stone Harbor.’
I’m thinking, the legal statue of limitations runs out after 7 years, but in families 7 decades seems like just a week ago. At any rate, hopefully we’ve changed from the person we were when we were in high school.
But that is not the point. If we have some time on our hands and we are together during the changing of the generations, we all do some processing of then and now, some sifting. And sometimes, some of these scores really still haven’t been settled and brothers and sisters will continue on settling them.
Over the weeks that their Mother lingered on, I had a chance to talk to four of the five kids, listen to them really process the passing of their parents and what their family had meant to each of them. They were probably a pretty typical family that goes through a process like this. One of the kids, a therapist, wanted to process more of their generation, dealing with all of the vices as well as the virtues. Three of the kids wanted to talk about it somewhat but selectively. One of them just wanted the family to gather, take a family portrait with everyone smiling, (i.e. remember the good things) and then just go home our separate ways.
They sort of represent all of the different voices in the choir inside our souls as we process the changing of the generation. In some ways we want to process the good and the bad and strategize about how we are going to avoid some of the things that we want to overcome and in other parts we just want to have this idealized sentiment that we can return to in the future when we need to recall the image of home.
I left an email message for my brother this summer, as our family is going through this, my father has died, my mother in the end stages of Alzheimer’s. It read, “I had one of those days when I came to grips with one of the gifts that I received from the previous generation, that thing in myself that I need to overcome in order to be lovable.” I titled it ‘The gift that keeps on giving’.
My brother wrote back, “Remember Alan”. My brother had taken me to an AA meeting on Capitol Hill. His is a very interesting AA meeting because it has Congressman, politicos of all types and the street guys from Washington.
“I’m Alan and I’m an alcoholic”… he began. And then he told this incredible story of success, risky behavior when his drinking started to get out of hand that made your stomach tighten, and the progressive dissolution of his friendships that ended with him driving home (dead drunk) one night when it was snowing in our nation’s capital. He gets to his home in MacLean, Virginia, drives down his driveway, can’t quite see where the driveway ends and the yard begins, ends up driving over the shrubbery into the front living room of his house through the magnificent picture window. He gets out of his car, now inside his home, decides he’ll deal with this in the morning, finds a piece of the couch and falls asleep.
He awakens in the morning, cops outside because apparently he’d been playing bumper cars on the way home to his house and had hit half a dozen things down his street. The cops get him up to talk and just then he notices his wife carrying out the last box of the things she had been hauling out for a couple hours now. She tells him she has filed for divorce and leaves.
I’m like, “Wow, you can’t make this up.” Then Alan said, “You know people often ask me, don’t you wish you hadn’t been born an alcoholic? When you look at how much damage it has done in your life. Don’t you wish you hadn’t lost your big job and your fantastic career arc? Don’t you wish you hadn’t lost your wife and your family? Don’t you wish you could just go back and live your life over without all of litter that alcohol caused you?”
“I tell them, I’m glad I was born an alcoholic. I’m grateful to be alive at all. I’ve learned a humility about living now. I have to say that really, I’m glad I’m an alcoholic. Truly sorry for the damage that I’ve done to my family and many of my friends, truly sorry for the irresponsible behavior I inflicted on all the people that worked for me.
“But, I’ve come to know so much about myself. I’ve grown so much and discovered what real faith is and what my purpose is on this earth. Since, I’ve been in recovery, I’ve learned how to be honest with myself and how to actually be available to love other people. I’m so grateful for the person that I’ve become through healing that it is hard for me to say what I would be like if I hadn’t gone through so much change in my life.
“I’m Catholic, and what I learned from Jesus is that he accepted the world as it is, not the way that He wanted it to be. He just accepted the world as it is. And he started to heal what he could right around him. And that is what I think my life is about now. I’m born broken. My family was born broken. Our society came to me broken before I was old enough to know it. My job is to offer some healing around the broken places.
I don’t have to be perfect anymore. I don’t have to be Mr. Big in order to be acceptable to myself. Once I was able to accept God’s acceptance of me, I found a new freedom and a new project. I am simply called to heal what I can in myself and what I can in the world around me. And this is enough”.
Alan, from MacLean, got it pretty close on what we should take away from Jesus. And the freedom that is speaks of, the almost giddy joy and release from the burdens of carrying around this great persona that he used to prop up, that is the beginning of the quest for authenticity in your life.
Most of us suffer from a kind of personal tyranny trying to become an image, a persona that someone else gave to us. Our culture holds up an image of success. Our well meaning parents, often compensating for their own inadequacies and insecurities, project onto us these hopes and dreams that they tell us we need to fulfill in order to be on the path of success. And we are perfectly capable of convincing ourselves that if we could just attain this status, if we could position ourselves in this social arena, we will be cool. It makes us restless and anxious, hyper-critical of ourselves.
Spiritually, it is inauthentic because we are trying to live as someone else. Jesus tells you that you are a child of God. You are acceptable just like you are. You don’t need to try to be somebody that you are not. You don’t have to live someone else’s blueprint for acceptable cool.
It takes us years of trying to be someone we are not, years of frustration around that and this strange dissatisfaction even when we are successful, because it is not us, really. And then one day, sometimes because we hit bottom like Alan from MacLean, or maybe because people around us really love us and give us the confidence to be who we are.
I hope for you that when the season of your life is right, you too will accept God’s acceptance of you. I hope that you will discover that freedom that comes from simply being honest about where you come from and what your life vector is about, the possibilities and also the broken places. I hope that you can find people to share yourself with, people that will support you for who you are and help you discover how and what you need to heal in your actual life, in the limited time we have left on what has been a really great adventure so far.
It is a vulnerable path to be sure, but it leads towards the door to authenticity and the deeper fulfillment that we might know in this life, not a perfect path, just the way of redemption. Peace be with you. Amen.

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Sermons & Presentations

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.