Integrity & Betrayal – Chuck Rush (7/26/15)

Integrity and Hypocrisy

Luke 22:39-51; Luke 22:54-62


Perhaps you’ve heard, “This American Life” some Saturday on National Public Radio and the host Ira Glass, covering some off beat story that you can’t stop listening to, even though you are sitting in the parking lot at Home Depot. At the very beginning of the show Ira would say something like this. “The Gospel story:

Act 1- a baby is born in the midst of a people under occupation; circumstances mysterious but very hopeful that ordinary people can be real players too; the world is a gift full of goodness and possibility;

Act 2- the baby is a man now; teaches important spiritual lessons about life

Act 3- The stuff of our adult lives. Challenges. Betrayal. Resolve. Why are we like this? We don’t know. We just are.”

My wife had a childhood friend who had another sister and another brother, all of them pretty successful in life. They raise their families, one of them divorces and remarries, sort of. It is not clear if they actually filed the paperwork. They move away from each other and develop lives of their own. For a variety of reasons, they stop doing vacations together, but they keep communication going via the internet.

Mom and Dad become older and one of them needs some nursing support, so the entire family agrees that the best thing to do is sell the house and have Mom and Dad move into an assisted living facility. Everyone helps with the move, they get the house sold, and the three kids decide that the middle child, the brother should probably manage the money since middle brother has the business training from the University up east and has had the career in finance. He’s been in and out of work, it is true, but so are a lot of people in that field that are in and out of work- and he has a pretty whopping abode which suggests that the down times have been amply offset by the up times.

Things go along for several years when suddenly the healthy parent dies, pretty much out of the blue. So the older sister Sheila goes immediately to be with the other parent and begin to think through the funeral and what comes next.

She is only there for a couple of days and she is going through the mail, a box of other mail, trying to make sure that they have all those papers you need at the time of death. She’s looking through the mail, including financial statements from the bank and the investment brokers that her brother has been using to manage their parents money. Long story short, it becomes patently obvious that her brother has been making rather generous withdrawals on their parents account. In a few short years, he has pocketed half of the estate, tens of thousands at a time on a fairly regular schedule.

It turns out that his under-employment the past few years was more like un-employment. She found herself re-playing phone conversations in her mind with him in the past few years. Was it cocaine again at mid-life after a couple decades straight?  How could it come to this for someone so able when they were young? What is going on?

And what do you do with it? Do you tell your aging, feeble parent? Do you and your sister make him pay it back, sell his house, possibly the only actual asset he has? Do you do the ‘tough love’ routine and call the cops and let the chips fall where they will? Or, in the mean-time, maybe you just call Kate who will ask Chuck?

There is just the sheer incredulity of it all? What was he thinking? Did he think he would pay it back? Was he that desperate that he would steal from Mom and Dad? Do I really actually know him at all? How is it going to go at the funeral? Do you talk to him ever again? Is he a pathetic loser or in real need of basic help that you didn’t notice?

As the African proverb puts it, “You can out-distance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside of you.” It is a complicated thing but Solzhenitsyn was right, when he said, “The line separating good and evil passes …right through every human heart.”

People always ask that question, “How could you?” How could you betray the people you love? Your family? The Bernie Madoff question…

What is up with Peter? He’s been with Jesus for three years. He is part of the team. He is on the inside. He’s been absorbing the spiritual message. He’s been brought along. And in the moment of conflict, when the Romans are about to arrest Jesus, he not only takes off, he deserts the movement.

“I don’t know him” Peter will later say.

“Dammit, I don’t know him.”

“I said I don’t know him.”

I guess he doesn’t know him???

Peter was afraid. Let’s be clear about one thing, you would be too. I would be too. The Roman army was fearful and they did not care if you screamed all night.

But what do you do with people that collapse like that? Tough call isn’t it? Because we do collapse from time to time. We sure do.

I had a couple that wanted to add a phrase to their vows. They’d had both been married before, so I was curious about this request. They had both grown through their failures and they had learned some things for the second go at it. So they included the usual. “I Michael take you Abbey to be my wife to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health”… And then they added this line, “when I am proud of you, when I am ashamed of you”, to love and to cherish, as long as we both shall live.”

I thought to myself, gutsy and realistic because you may well find yourself ashamed and disappointed with your spouse. In fact, you probably will.

Someone asked me a thoughtful question a few years ago, ‘what have you learned about marriages that succeed that you probably wouldn’t have expected? What is it that surprised you?’

I could have answered a few things but what I actually said was ‘how important it is that your spouse respects you, as you grow along together.’ You don’t have to be perfect but it really helps if your character is converging as you approach and transcend middle age. If your spouse’s respect for you starts eroding around that time instead, then the other symptoms of distress that you identify pale in comparison. I’m not totally surprised but I’d never thought about it until I listened to enough people describe the great unraveling- and the underlying issue of respect comes up more often than I would have imagined.

No we don’t want that. We want to partner with people that will point us towards our higher Angel. We want to be converging, growing, becoming somewhat more whole. We are all works in progress and the truth is that our life is all about soul formation. It is about becoming substantive. And our life with God, make no mistake, has that dimension of God telling us, “I take you for my child when I am proud of you, when I am ashamed of you.” But how much better our lives go when we have a spouse, when we have good friends, when we have siblings- that keeps us grounded like that, when they keep us on the higher path, the profounder path, the way that leads towards integrity…

That is why we make those big vows in marriage. It is not just because your love is so special that- kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss- that I just can’t believe it. Of course, your romance is wonderful. And it is also true that your project will succeed only after both of you have had many personal, hurtful failures, and mutually you turn again towards reconciliation and growth. It is also true that some of these will be the biggest personal challenges of your life  because most of our troubling demons only get expressed under stress in our most intimate relationships. But that is who we are, not the airbrushed image we can fairly easily control in our vocations or at parties. We do fail. We hurt. We have to deal with that and make it right.

And for all those difficult challenges, we can look to Jesus. In our passage, Jesus knows that he is in the deep weeds, there was no mistake about that. Jesus knew that he would be arrested in all likelihood. He knew what that probably meant, the Romans were just crystal clear like that. They nailed their dissidents to crosses and hung them outside the city gates, so that every week, you could have a visceral reminder of the price of ‘free speech’ in the Roman Empire. You didn’t need clairvoyant powers to see the likely future here.

Jesus will pray, “Not my will, but thine.” I know what I would like to do. I know what I need to do, what I have to do. This is not just about me, it is about something bigger than that. I have to commit myself to the higher way, to God’s way, the way of integrity, the more difficult path but, ultimately, the only path that is actually really real.

Atticus Finch put it like this in “To Kill a Mockingbird” “Before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself.  The one thing that doesn't abide by majority rule is a person's conscience.” Sometimes you have something big enough to address that you have to have the deeper resolve to face it.

We start developing resolve early in life, praying before a big exam, praying for your nerves, to focus on the game when the stands are full of fans and that nervous energy is overwhelming you. These challenges may just be games, but…

I see it occasionally at weddings. With some regularity, I’m standing around with the groom and, shortly before the beginning of the service, I can tell that he is suddenly thinking, “what am I doing?” And he needs a word of prayer because he knows he is over his head.

Parents have that moment, sometimes walking around the hospital or driving home, after the birth of a child. What a great blessing and you make a vow, a commitment. You know that to get this project right, it will take more than you actually have at the moment you know you need divine help to make it materialize on time. You call up the deeper well of resolve.

And I can tell you from my brief experience in politics that when you step into a big job like being a Congressman, a Senator, a Governor even the guys with big egos and self-confidence have a moment with as much sincerity as they muster in them that says, “Would you pray for me because this is much bigger than I realize and I know that…”

Of course, authentic leaders in every field think like that, live like that. You have to tap into a deeper commitment and resolve. You know that you are responsible for a broader vision.  Not just my will….

And most of us here will have something that comes at us during our life, some moral challenge that is difficult, some social movement that catches us up and in a short amount of time, without the luxury of complete information, we have to act. You don’t have to look for your cause. In the world that we live in, the cause will find you.

Think of the citizens of Egypt, Tunisia and now every single country in the Middle East. Before that the Sudan, Rwanda, Bosnia, Tibet, Burma, The Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Russia. And this is just the past 20 years.

These social movements come to you with a very personal moral question. Most of us remember our lives recalling the way that we responded to these moral issues. We know that they force us to actualize our character, we have to take a stand for the fundamental things that we believe in, and our families are watching, the younger generation is watching, our friends are watching. We don’t want to compromise here. We don’t want to screw this up.

In the case of Jesus, as is often the case in extreme situations, we know that taking a stand is going to come at the price of being attacked, of having to endure injustice, perhaps violence and inhumanity, almost always ridicule and character assassination by some opponent. But sometimes you just have to do it. You have to pray the prayer of Admiral Chester Nimitz, “God grant me the courage not to give up what I think is right even though I think it is hopeless.” As my grandfather used to say to me, “Son the time is always right to do the right thing.”

You have to call on that deeper resolve. In our story, it is said that Jesus prayed so hard, he sweated drops of blood. What a metaphor but sometimes we get to these moments and we know that there is no real way out, except to go through them, possibly even unto death but we can face all manner of hardship and pain if we are filled with moral/spiritual purpose. It is one of the highest expressions of the human spirit. It is transcendent. In our time, on our watch, we want that integrity and authenticity in our lives.

We are a curious mixture of the sublime and the petty, the profound and the compromised. Why are we like this? We don’t know. We just are. We are capable of heroic self-sacrificial acts of moral purpose. We can be fearful, weak, and in the middle of the night, under threat, just decide to cover our ass and be done with it.

And this is where our relationship with God is not like our relationship with our best friend or our spouse. With your spouse, with your best friends, with your brother, it is possible that you can do something so ruinous to the relationship, so hurtful and filled with betrayal that you lose the relationship. Your spouse leaves you. Your brother doesn’t call you anymore. They can’t get by this, not this time, not anymore. It is over.

But, for better and worse, God won’t let you go. Your life is all about soul formation, character formation. Even after your worst mishap, even after your family has unraveled and your marriage has unraveled. Even if you move across the country and start a new life, your life is still about soul formation. We have to live with ourselves, in our triumphs and with all our failures too and, hopefully beat a new path towards redemption.

When we were just young, after one of our first fights, Kate said that she was sorry, I said that I was sorry and both of us were just standing there, still in college at the time. She said to me, “What are we going to do now?”

I looked down at the ground and said, “We are going to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and figure out a way to go on.” She laughed. I laughed. The fight wasn’t serious.

We still say it to each other, mostly for a smile. But by now, sometimes thinking of real hardships endured by our friends or real tragedies that have beset our families, it is said with some poignancy. And I genuinely hope that neither of us has to say it with a literal application needed. But I know, and you know, that we all probably will. So we read this story together about challenges, betrayal, resolve- the stuff of our adult lives.

And we remember the point: that our lives are all about soul formation through our friends, our families, our spouses, our community, our world. Wherefore, as the writer of Hebrews puts it, “seeing as how we are surrounded by this great cloud of models we can learn from, let us also gather up every vice and failure that have beset us, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who had integrity of purpose to face even the cross, and endure the ridicule of the crowd, and through such trial to become honored by God and sit at God’s right hand.” Amen.

May the redeeming love of God bless you and keep you

May the healing love of God shine upon you

May the courageous love of God grant you peace!

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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.