It Starts in Grace: Advent 3 – Chuck Rush 12/13/15

It Starts in Grace: Advent 3, 12/13/2015

Isa. 12:2-6; Lk 1:39-56

 

Our text this morning is one of the more beautiful passages in the bible. And it is very clever, though you would not really know this 2000 years after it was written. These first 3 chapters are a literary prologue. We know very little about the birth of Jesus.

In the oldest gospel, Mark, Jesus just shows up preaching in Jerusalem and he already has celebrity status. Likewise the Gospel of John, we just get a symbolic hymn as an introit, ‘The Word dwelt among us full of grace and truth’ but no mention of the birth.

Only the Gospel of Luke has the Angels coming to visit Elizabeth to for tell her about the birth of John the Baptist and the Angels come to visit Mary to tell her about the birth of Jesus. As you probably know, we don’t have a lot of Angels visiting people in the Old Testament. There are a few, but not many.

But what you probably don’t know is that Romans were pretty big on Angels and Romans were even bigger on the idea that our fate has been pre-ordained by the gods and that our job as humans is to figure out what our destiny really is and follow it.

They actually believed that and they spent quite a bit of time, energy and money going to the priests to get them to read the entrails of animals or interpret the movement of the stars- our astrological signs that predict you will meet a tall dark man this week come from the Romans. They tried to figure out their destiny to determine who to marry, when was the right time to have a child, when is the right time to start a new enterprise, can I trust my business partner and the like.

More than that, it was a fairly common literary device that Romans used to introduce a story. In our case, that story would be the “Aeneid” by Virgil, the story of the founding of Rome. The Aeneid is a long, involved story that every Roman boy had to learn in college, pretty much like we all study our constitutional history. And the “Aeneid” contained some elevated poetry, sophisticated language, so that they taught it in Latin class as well. They knew it like we know the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the opening paragraph of the “Declaration of Independence”.

Every Roman kid would know that at the very beginning of the “Aeneid”, they roll back the scrolls of fate, and the scrolls of fate predict that one day, the Roman people will be a great people, numerous beyond the counting of it, and that one day, a long, long time from now there will be a peace that will be established, the Pax Romana, and that Pax Romana will last for a thousand years. So decree the scrolls of fate.

And if you are living right around the time that Luke was writing, amazingly, there was a Pax Roman, an incredible century of peace that should go on, let me get this straight, for about another 900 years. Wow, aren’t we blessed to be Romans?

Romans lacked subtlety and Vergil was no exception. He didn’t just leave it there. Julius Caesar had commissioned him to write the “Aeneid” about 100 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. Vergil was grateful for the work, like most writers are. So he depicts these Angels opening these scrolls of fate way, way back in like 300 years ago. And he has these Angels predict that at some point in the future (say about 300 years) that “Out of the house of Julii” will come the birth of this great, great leader whose power and wisdom is beyond anything that even Rome has ever known. And he will be born in a simple, rustic manner in the country side of Italy, where his family comes from.

It is the birth of the most noble of the noble, a man in touch with his simple Roman roots, who understands the common man and is rooted in his family values, his national values.  He is depicted with this way because already by the time Jesus is born, Romans who lived in the City of Rome were overly sophisticated, cynical, and corrupt. Not that different from the way we think as New Yorkers and they had this sentimental notion that they could return to the simplicity of the country, the simplicity of Rome before it became a huge international Empire, we could find our way again. So, Vergil predicts that Julius Caesar will be just that kind of leader. He comes from the one of the oldest Aristocratic families of Rome, but he is grounded.

Vergil lays out the theme for this Epic poem right up front. It all leads forward towards explaining how Rome got to be such a fantastic empire and how they got this magnificent leader Julius Caesar. It explains how Romans became so powerful, so rich, the greatest Empire in human history. Wow…

As I said, Romans lacked subtlety…

So the author of Luke, knowing all this- because the Aeneid is about 100 years old when he writes- pens this other story about the birth of the Messiah, the polar opposite of the Emperor, and he inverts all of the themes that power, wealth and fame are the marks of success and God’s blessing. It is very clever.

The Angels in Luke don’t come to the most powerful family in Rome to find the ‘anointed one’. These Angels come to a peasant girl. This peasant girl isn’t on retreat at the family compound out in the country, overlooking the vast vineyards and olive tree orchards, surrounded by a cast of servants that you might see on Downton Abbey. She will actually be on the road here shortly, having to sign up to pay a tax that the hated Roman Empire imposed on all of the people at the edge of the Empire, the cursed tax that they imposed on all of the powerless people for the privilege of having Roman soldiers stationed all across their land.

She won’t be surrounded by a host of servants, with buckets of warm water and arms full of clean sheets, in the quiet of the night when she gives birth. She will be in the cold and stink of the barn because ‘there was no room for them at the inn’.

But this Angel doesn’t just tell her that her son will start a reign of peace that will last 1000 years. This Angel tells her, “Of his kingdom there will be no end”. That is a lot bigger kingdom, even than Rome, the biggest ever known. It is really inconceivable.

In fact, the Angel says, “Name the boy Jesus” which means “salvation” for this child will bring “salvation”, not just for the rich and powerful Romans who benefited from the Pax Romana, but for everyone on the globe, poor and rich, powerless and the connected.

The Angel says, he shall be called “the Son of God”. We don’t get the irony or the humor in that declaration 2000 years later. But when Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus, started minting coins that said “Caesar Augustus” (Biggest Caesar ever) and underneath is picture he included the tag line “Son of God”. Every Roman kid would instantly recognize this tag line like we would recognize the line on our money that “In God we trust”.

Caesar Augustus, who followed Julius Caesar as the Emperor of Rome, had an ego that made Donald Trump look genuinely modest. Caesar Augustus was outdone by Tiberius who was outdone by Caligula, who was outdone by Claudius who was outdone still by Nero after him- and then the Empire starts coming literally unhinged with the likes of Nero, where naked ego displaced even a semblance of rectitude and propriety.

All of this has been lost on us modern readers I’m afraid and I wouldn’t bore you with it, except… except that it makes the reading of our story so much more touching and humane when you reflect on the themes that are developed here. Luke is giving us the point of his story too, what the teaching and the spiritual way of Jesus will be about. It is full of touching humanity and that is the actual point.

Unlike rolling back the scrolls of fate, inscrutable perhaps, but unwavering. The Angel comes to Mary, tells her she will have a child by saying, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” And we are told that Mary, ‘wondered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be’. Good news, bad news? And even at the end of this passage, after the baby is born and the chorus of Angels leave and the wise men leave, Luke says “Mary pondered these things in her heart and pondered on what they might mean (Lk. 2:19).

It wasn’t all that clear. She isn’t a powerful man from an aristocratic Roman family, she is an ordinary peasant girl, faithful, honest, trying to figure out her life and open. Because maybe that is what God really wants from us. Maybe the real meaning of faith is that we don’t have all the answers, (we don’t have a fate) we just have to be willing to be open to figuring out what our ambiguous lives with their ambiguous messages really mean.

And this Angel comes to visit a simple peasant girl because maybe the message of God’s love is not just for the powerful, the successful, the educated and well-connected, but it is a message for everyone, even to the utter ends of the world. In the Roman world, Bethlehem was right on the edge of the end of civilization. Far, far from the city of Rome… Beyond that the sands of the desert and the unknown continent of Africa…

The Angel tells her that her son will be the “Son of God” but this Son of God will teach us that we are all “children of God”. When he is baptized the heavens will open up and God will say, “you are my beloved Child in whom I am well pleased” and maybe that is because Jesus taught all of us that “You, you, you, are God’s beloved Child in whom God is well pleased.”

You are blessed. You are loveable. You have been loved into being by those that came before you. You have been loved into being by God. God loves you. You are worthy of respect. You a work in progress and with those around you love one another into realizing the potential that you have by blessing those around you with your love so that they can realize what they can become. It starts with a gift. It is all about gifting those around you.

The Angel blesses this Mother and Child. And in the story, there is no room in the inn, the baby is born in a cold barn, and when 3 Wisemen (Astrologers that predicted your fate for you) show up, Herod sends the Roman army to kill every baby in the area. Mary and Jesus barely escape and they become refugees in Egypt, a literary depiction of the fate of Jesus that he will die the death of tens of thousands of slaves and insurgents. Blessed.

That is because the message of Jesus is that God sees our pain, God identifies with our suffering. And so, his whole life, Jesus opened himself to the suffering of others, brought healing where he could. Jesus taught us that when we identify with others in their suffering and we join our spirit with them, those are divine moments. That is the most spiritual, noble thing we can do. It doesn’t always heal but we can redeem tragedy.

And we know that in our lived lives. This week, I was having an ordinary conversation with another man my age, asking him about the next couple weeks. He was leaving town. “Where are you going?” I asked. Way led to way and he haltingly explained that he was going to be with his children and his grandchildren. They were taking a trip through the “Make a Wish” foundation because his 3 year old granddaughter has a terminal illness and will die soon.

It is so painful, he just had to turn and look at the floor. And just hearing it is so threatening that I just had to look at the floor and collect myself. How do we get through these things? To be the shoulder that someone turns to when tragic sorrow makes them mute is divine. We can’t always heal but the love we share can be redemptive. And you, even you, can be that person, quite in spite of yourself. You are a child of God. You are blessed. Through the ups, through the down, in times of plenty and when all you have is just yourself, be a blessing. God is with you. 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.

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