In the Midst of the Storm – Julie Yarborough (6/28/15)

Mark 4:35-41                                                                         Rev. Julie Yarborough

Isaiah 43:1-3a                                                                        Christ Church, Summit, NJ

June 28, 2015

 

In the Midst of the Storm

Wow! What a week this has been! We have much to celebrate with our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters this weekend with the historic Supreme Court decision on Friday to allow for marriage equality in all fifty states!  Our children don’t realize the historic implications of that decision. One of my friends was trying to explain it to her 8 year old on Friday, and she realized that her daughter had no

context for why this is different.

"Wait, that used to be illegal?" asked the little girl.

"Well, yes in some states," answered her mom. (They live in Connecticut)

"But like a long, long time ago, right?" asked the daughter

"More like this morning," her mom said.

"Wow."

Wow indeed.

 

With all of the rainbow flags flying, the rainbow lights appearing on buildings and landmarks across the country, and the rainbow profile pictures on Facebook, I am reminded of the passage from Song of Songs that says: “For now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come.”[1] This weekend is a time for celebrating!

 

And yet… there is still much work to be done to ensure equality for all of our LGBTQ brothers and sisters.  And there other storms, still raging, that need our attention as well.

 

Our story today begins with Jesus and the disciples getting in to a boat after a long day of teaching the crowds beside the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus suggests that they leave the crowds to go to the other side.  Maybe the disciples think that they’re going for a little peace and quiet after a long day, and what a treat it will be to have Jesus all to themselves again! But they’re in for a surprise, aren’t they? First of all, Jesus is exhausted and he goes to take a nap. Then, when they reach the middle of the sea, away from the safety of land, a huge storm blows up and threatens to swamp their boat. Then, when they get to the other side, they will have to confront evil personified, as they come face to face with the Gerasene Demoniac, a big, strong, scary wild man, possessed by demons, and living in a cemetery.  Following Jesus is not an easy thing to do.  It takes courage, faith and a willingness to speak up against injustice and evil.

 

Last week, horrified and heart-broken over the news from Charleston and not knowing what to say, I was listening to some of my black friends reflect about the massacre– which, incidentally, was perpetrated by a white supremacist whose middle name is “Storm” - and it became clear to me that I needed to find some words to speak about the storm of racism in this country that is impacting all of us.  Like many of you who are white, I hesitate to offer words of wisdom on race, lest I put my foot in my mouth and make a fool of myself, or worse, inflict unintentional harm on my black brothers and sisters for speaking about something of which I know very little first-hand.

 

Talking about the dynamics of race can be uncomfortable and painful for white people, especially when we confront our own inner biases and racist thoughts; but that discomfort pales in comparison to the pain that our black neighbors and friends live with each and every day.

 

“Do you not care that we are perishing?” the disciples ask of Jesus.  This same question is being asked by many in the black community to those of us who are white.[2]  We are in the midst of a storm in this country, and it has been raging for a very long time. What will it take to wake us up to the fact that it’s pouring outside and our boat is in danger of capsizing?

 

Jordan Davis, shot at a gas station for playing loud music; Yvette Smith, shot when answering her front door after a report of domestic violence; Trayvon Martin, killed by a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante for wearing a hoodie; Eric Garner, held in a choke-hold for selling cigarettes; Walter Scott, shot in the back after a traffic stop; Freddie Gray, dead in police custody after being refused medical care; and most recently, “The Emanuel Nine.” Clementa Pinkney, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, Ethel Lance, Susie Jackson, Depayne Middleton Doctor, Daniel Simmons, Cynthia Hurd and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton were gunned down by a white supremacist in the midst of a Bible study. These are not isolated incidents. Although these men and women were not killed by the same perpetrator, their deaths are all connected by the same racial bias and hatred that underlies our culture.  And this week, several black churches have been burned to the ground by arsonists.

 

Racism is inherent in the social structures that make up the society in which we live, and oftentimes, these structures are invisible, especially to the untrained eye.  As Charles Blow mentioned in his op-ed in the NY Times this week,  “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”[3]

 

Exploring the dynamics of racism means acknowledging that those of us who are white benefit from a systemic structure that gives us inherent privileges.

When we begin to unpack what that might mean for us as a culture, and as individuals, we get in touch with some painful stuff.

 

I’m reminded of a poem by Audre Lorde, called “Contact Lenses.”

 

Lacking what they want to see

makes my eyes hungry

And eyes can feel

Only pain.

 

Once I lived behind thick walls

of glass

and my eyes belonged

to a different ethic

timidly rubbing the edges

of whatever turned them on.

Seeing usually

was a matter of what was

in front of my eyes

matching what was

behind my brain.

Now my eyes have become

a part of me exposed

quick risky and open

to all the same dangers.

 

I see much

better now

And my eyes hurt.[4]

 

Examining racism in our country (and in ourselves) is undoubtedly an uncomfortable process.  When we don’t experience discrimination on a daily basis, it’s easier and less painful to ignore it, or acknowledge it and move on. That’s a luxury. That’s what is known as “white privilege.”

 

As Julia Blount has written, “If you are not listening, not exposing yourself to unfamiliar perspectives, not watching videos, not engaging in conversation, then you are perpetuating white privilege and white supremacy. It is exactly your ability to not hear, to ignore the situation, that is a mark of your privilege. People of color cannot turn away. Race affects our lives every day. We must consider it all the time, not just when it is convenient.”[5]

 

For those of us who live white privileged lives, it’s easy to build gates and put up walls – whether they’re metaphorical or literal - to keep ourselves protected from that which we do not wish to see.  We have the choice of wearing blinders and looking only at what is in front of our eyes, matching what is behind our brains.

 

And yet, Jesus calls us out of our comfort zones. Jesus calls us to go where the hurting is, and to see what needs to be changed.  When we are followers of Jesus, we don’t just look at the painful stuff and then close our eyes.  We hurt, too. We weep with those who are weeping and stand in solidarity with them. We see where the hurting is, and go there, even if we don’t know what to say or do, simply to be present as witnesses, and as bearers of God’s love.  And when we do find our voices, we need to speak up against injustice wherever and whenever we see it. Jesus calls us to get over our fear, to have faith, and to find the courage to speak peace – and justice - to the storm.

 

This spring, more than 100 people in Summit and the wider community, including many Christ Church members, gathered in small dialogue circles to discuss racism and its implications in our lives, and to talk about the consequences of racial disparity throughout our nation. The Summit Interfaith Council carefully assigned people to the groups to ensure racial and gender diversity. Some participants shared first-hand experiences of discrimination, others shared opinions of what they had seen and heard in the news each week.  Some were surprised and challenged by the notion of white privilege. All were affected by what they heard and experienced in the groups.  It was an important exercise in the life of our community, and it will most likely be continued in the fall. I urge all of you to consider being a part of one of these groups when they start up again.

 

Perhaps the most important aspect of being a part of this dialogue group was listening to the stories of discrimination and heartbreak encountered by people in the room with darker skin – the difficulties of finding housing in predominately white neighborhoods, the random traffic stops, being overlooked for accomplishments, watching black children suffer indignities and not being able to protect them.  All were things that I had heard before, but the stories were made all the more powerful and poignant, coming from people whom I know personally.

 

As (Christ Church member) Bola Lawrence said of the endeavor, “If nothing else, we can gain allies through our personal stories. It’s one thing to intellectualize an experience but until you personalize it you cannot become emotionally invested.  My hope is that through these dialogues we come to an understanding on a personal basis just how evil and deeply entrenched racism is and that that galvanizes us to do something. I want my kids to grow up in a country where relations are much improved from what they are today.”[6]

 

This week, the General Synod of the United Church of Christ, our denomination’s national biennial gathering, is meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. Representatives and delegates from UCC churches all over the country are gathered to worship, reconnect, celebrate, do mission work together, conduct business and pass resolutions.  In other words, they’re doing the work of the church!  Rev. Caroline Dean, Frank Bolden and Jeanette Brown are there representing Christ Church, and Frank is presenting a resolution on “Dismantling the New Jim Crow,” on behalf of the Central Atlantic Conference, which is comprised of NJ, DE, MD, VA, and Washington, DC.  This resolution is based on the ground-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, about the racial disparities in our drug laws and our criminal justice system.  If you haven’t read it, I commend it to you. There is much work to be done to change the structures of racism, and reading this book is a good place to start gaining knowledge about what we are up against.

 

The storm of institutional racism is real in this country, and it’s been pouring for a long time. The boat that we are in is in danger of capsizing, and our sisters and brothers are perishing.  Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

We must face our fears, rely on our faith, and find the courage to speak up. For if we say and do nothing, this storm will continue on its destructive path. Let us not be afraid to speak peace to this storm, let us not be afraid to speak justice to this storm. Let us not be afraid to speak about and to confront the evil of racism, and to find ways to dismantle the institutional structures that allow it to exist.

 

“Do not fear,” God says, “for I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, and you are mine.  When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire, you will not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

[1] Song of Songs 2:11-12a, NRSV.
[2] Thanks to The Rev. Emily Scott and her wonderful essay, “Preaching While White,” who suggested this take on today’s scripture. http://sitandeat.typepad.com/blog/2015/06/preaching-while-white-this-sundays-lectionary-and-emanuel-ame.html
[3]Definition from the Aspen Institute, as mentioned by Charles Blow in the New York Times on June 25, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/25/opinion/charles-blow-confederate-flags-and-institutional-racism.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur
[4] Audre Lorde, “Contact Lenses,” The Black Unicorn, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978), p. 94.
[5] Julia Blount, http://www.salon.com/2015/04/29/dear_white_facebook_friends_i_need_you_to_respect_what_black_america_is_feeling_right_now/
[6] Lisa Glover, “Dialogue Circles on Race: Learning to Live Together in a Better Way,” published in Fountain Baptist Church newsletter, spring 2015, forwarded to me in a personal email with permission to share widely.

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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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