Lamenting Violent Tragedy – Chuck Rush 11/15/15

Lamenting Violent Tragedy

November 15, 2016

I had hoped to say something about our responding to violence and terror when we weren’t actually going through it. But we can’t seem to go two months without a major event happening. You know we are over-exposed when you can’t actually remember the names of all the places that have been subjected to violent terror (Sharm El Sherk Airliner 243; Beruit 43; also Baghdad 21- just in the past few days). You know you are overexposed when you can predict what people’s responses will be, when you find yourself thinking that you’ve heard this all before, even as you are hearing an interview with a family member whose life has been torn apart because their loved one was arbitrarily killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think it was Hermann Goering who cynically observed that ‘the death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million people is merely a statistic.’ You want to attend to each and every person that suffered but I remember thinking after September 11th, after I don’t know how many funerals, that I heard enough bag pipes for a while… And it keeps on happening.

I wanted to do something in church because our media pundits always jump too quickly to figuring out why this happened and what we can do to prevent it in the future. They pull the same team of ‘experts’ that debate solutions back and forth, never with any satisfactory solution, but that is not really what we need in these moments.

It occurred to me that what we need is to recover something very ancient, the language of lament. There is a whole book in the Bible devoted to but no one reads it anymore. It is called “Lamentations”. It is a collection of the woes of the people of Israel to God over all of the bad things that have happened to them. Pillage, war, being a refugee, losing your family at mid-life, disease that brings death, famine that brings death, slavery. And those were just the ones written by men. Women would have their own list if we had let them write.

A lament is not a solution. You don’t debate lament. Lament just names where we hurt. And in prayer, you utter your lament, as you frame your hope. And out of those hopes, eventually we might move towards the practical issues that deal with all of the knotty problems that practical solutions have to resolve.

Today, I simply invite you to share your laments in the aftermath of this latest tragedy, still just a month from the shooting in Oregon. Sometimes I think it is important that we don’t so much have solutions as we just let the community speak and out of that collective voice, we can have a richer communal sense.

I’m going to start us off with two laments. Yours can be brief, perhaps just a sentence. I’ve thought about mine for a long time and I bet you have too.

My first one is more American and more about the school shootings that are a homegrown phenomenon but we set the tone for the media around the world.

I lament the fact that through our media, we have developed a culture of celebrity without moral shape. People who are famous for simply being famous.  Snooki, Kim Kardashian, the host of celebrities on gossip magazines that you have never heard of and have no idea what they have done. I lament that we have developed this platform, that it has become appealing enough that alienated, estranged young men would choose death and a moment of celebrity over life and the fulfillment of family, friends and genuine community.

And I suppose I hope, despite how impossible it seems from here, that we will actually start to cover people that are media inspiring, so that we’ll broaden who becomes a celebrity and some of them will be people of moral substance.  That somehow the media will move beyond simply ‘shocking us’ to get our attention, move beyond ‘over stimulating us with drama. That is my hope.

Secondly, I lament the rise of “terror chic”. I lament that we romanticized the self-styled revolutionaries, that we gave an audience for the videos of the many “Jihadi John’s” who behead innocent people for being Western, that we publish their manifesto’s and the lunatic ravings of their movement. I lament that we keep hoping to uncover the underlying root causes that they stand for only to discover the banality of nihilism again and again.

And I hope, that our ‘would be terrorists’ will recover life affirming meaning and purpose. I hope that they will finally realize the futility of their method of protest and devote their energies to building something constructive. As fantastic as that sounds, that is what I hope.

And the last one, I can only say in sadness that has a rising anger to it as well. I lament that our attention has been hijacked by their protests. The world is actually a wonderful place and it is getting more wonderful all of the time. But fear changes all of us in an instant. It dulls creativity and stifles imagination. It mitigates compassion and mutes empathy. I resent having to stop and deal with a violent tantrum thrower just because they are wanton.

And my hope is that we can figure out a way in the media to cover the tragedy of these events, understand and empathize with the victims and their loss, without inadvertently letting the terrorists of the world set the agenda and dictate the dialogue. You have to earn that privilege and I hope we will develop the wisdom to keep the sober voices on camera, leading through times of crisis.

What do you lament? And more than just naming what is wrong, what hurts? What do you hope for? What would you like our world to look like?  Ask God to change us?




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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.