Lies, Honesty, Love – Chuck Rush (5/21/17)

Lies, Honesty, Love
May 21, 2017
Gen. 3:1-12; Mt. 5:8

g ago, there lived a King who was particularly fond of gardening. Everything he touched bloomed. In particular, he was very fond of flowers and all through out the palace ground, there were hundreds of beautiful flowers over acres of garden.
The King was aging and needed to pick a successor for him. But how to decide who should succeed him? After much reflection on the subject, he decided to let his flowers help him in his effort.
He sent out a decree to all of the children in the land, and invited them to the palace, with their parents.
Now there was a young girl named Serena who heard the proclamation and she was very excited about seeing the palace first hand. She begged her parents to go and they did. When they got there the whole palace was completely crowded, it seemed as though everyone in the realm had come to hear the King.
The trumpets blew, the King entered, the crowd fell silent. The King began walking around the crowd, putting something in the hands of all the children. It was a box and inside the box was a seed. The King said, "It has come time for me to begin grooming someone to take my place on the throne and rule over our realm. I have decided to make a contest for all of you. Whoever can grow the most beautiful flower in six months, I will train to follow after me. I will see you all back here in exactly six months." And with that he left.
Serena got her box and her seed. As soon as she got home, she got out a pot, filled it with the richest soil, put the seed in, watered it every day, and every day prayed for it to grow.
A couple months go by and nothing happened. She changed the soil, put the seed in a bigger pot with richer soil and watered it every day. A couple months go by. Nothing. Now she is panicked.
But the day comes for them to return to the palace and her pot has nothing in it at all. Now she was confused. She didn’t want to go to the palace but the King ordered all of them to return and she didn’t want to disobey his command.
To make matters worse, when she starts out for the palace, she sees a group of girls from her village and they all show off their beautiful flowers. Now she feels terrible about herself and frustrated that nothing will break her way.
Getting to the palace, the place is teeming with pots and beautiful flowers. She just shrugs and pulls back to the wall. The King enters and admires one beautiful flower after another, complementing the children on their gardening skills and their fine work. Finally the King draws near to Serena, looks over to see her pot empty, and parts the children so that he can come over to speak to her.
Serena cringes with dread and looks at the ground. "My child" says the King, "why did you bring me an empty pot?"
"Your Majesty" said Serena, "I planted the seed you gave me and I watered it every day, but it didn't sprout. I put it in a better pot with better soil, but still it didn't sprout. This is the best I could do".
With this, the King smiled a broad smile. He took Serena by the hand, leading her through the crowd. She was confused and mortified with embarrassment. The King turned to the crowd and said, "I have found my successor- the person worthy of ruling our realm."
Serena stammered, "but I have no flower". "Yes I know" said the King. "The seeds I gave everyone last year had all been roasted. It was not possible for any of them to grow. Where all these flowers have come from I do not know. But you Serena, have the more beautiful flower within you. It is the courage and honesty to appear before me with the truth. And that is precisely the quality that we need in a real leader."
It is important for genuine leadership because the more we invest authority and power in our leaders, the more they have to operate “in good faith”. When they do that produces trust, the basis from which we can develop consensus. Alas, so often in politics, we live through seasons like we are living through at the moment, where that trust is broken, reputations are tarnished, suspicion predominates, consensus proves ever more elusive, and the common good suffers.
Most of us have a point in our careers when we realize that reputation is all that we have and when that starts to shred, you can’t ever get it back.
I like that story for a lot of reasons, not least of which it faithfully renders the biblical understanding of why we humans have such a hard time being honest with ourselves and with others: left to ourselves, we have a deep seated fear that if we stand with what we have we might stand alone; and we combine that with a deep seated anxiety that we are not good enough and we don't measure up; and we combine that with a sense of shame that we might do something wrong in public and be called out for it; and we combine that with a motivation that is driven by rewards and privileges rather than intrinsic spiritual value.
When the bible speaks about our penchant for dishonesty, they use primordial saga, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel… That is because there is something that manifests itself in our children before we are even able to educate them about right and wrong, there is something duplicitous about our human nature that skirts responsibility and makes ourselves look better from the earliest age.
In the bible Cain kills Abel out of jealousy that God will like Abel's gift more than Cain's. God sees Cain and says to him, "where is your brother?" Of course, Cain’s brother is now dead, so Cain just throws it back at God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" He doesn't lie, but he doesn't tell the truth either. He changes the subject (a tactic that has become so familiar of late that it has become tiring).
There is something primordial in our nature that deflects attention from ourselves to protect ourselves. There is something primordial in our nature that tries to shape the situation so that we put ourselves in a less damaging light, so that everyone becomes implicated and we don't stand out. Honesty does not come naturally because we are relatively sure that we won't measure up. That is true for us as children before they ever learn right from wrong, shame or virtue.
As young people, we are just as vulnerable because we are rarely any more secure. We need an edge to do better than others on tests. We need a break in the rules to get the goal that puts us over the top. We need some cosmopolitan enhancement to be attractive enough to woo the opposite sex to think we are beautiful. We are anxious that we are not competitive, we are not good enough… You get the picture
And then we enter the marketplace with even more pressure to make enough to float and the marketplace is routinely guided by a 'kill first' ethos and our young workers are just trying to fit in and show that they are part of the team. They are anxious and vulnerable, protective of their weakness, and open to suggestion about just what constitutes legal deception versus outright fraud.
2300 years ago the philosopher Diogenes walked through the cities of Corinth and Athens with a lamp burning in the middle of the day to guide him. When the good citizens of these Greek cities asked him why he needed a lamp in broad daylight, he replied that he was looking for a single honest man. He too lived in a spiritually dark time in mid-day in the principal cities of commerce and Politics in Ancient Greece.
The last 400 years of the Roman Empire developed duplicity to something of an art of sorcery. Romans would regularly greet their partners with fawning praise, all the while consulting diviners to invoke a curse upon them, looking for ways to do them in.
I call to mind one famous scene, Julius Caesar, who was greeted with enthusiastic praise by his Senators in the last week of his life. As he was headed to the Senate one day, a group of conspirators walked with him and suddenly stabbed him to death, all of them actually taking a turn to drive the knife in his chest so that none could later deny responsibility and betray the others. His famous line, looking to a long time friend, his parting words, "Et tu Brute". And you too??
No, our wider cultural ethos in politics and commerce has never been conducive to the development of honesty and so we live much of our lives in contradiction with what we know to be our highest calling.
Yet honesty is actually critical for our spiritual development. Unfortunately, most everyone here knows all too well how difficult it is to develop spiritually in a dishonest world, with duplicitous people.
Spiritually speaking, growth happens when you can be genuinely honest. Frankly, we need a place where we can be honest and be around people who are honest with us. We need to know where we really stand and who we really are.
Of all the graces that we have in this life, an honest relationship in love is unquestionably one of the most important when we have it. People that will tell us what it is that we do well, people that will encourage us. People that will not let us fall into our triangulating behaviors, people who have the authority and our trust to not only tell us what our issues are but help us work through them too.
That is what we savor about this life isn’t it? One of my first days at the ER, we had a simple man brought in from a terrible crash. His wife was walking beside him. He obviously wasn’t sure he would make it, so he says to her, “I’m so grateful to you for everything, just everything.” I went to see them the next morning and they were holding hands. Love has that kind of fundamental security about it that is so life giving. It is what we are driven to find and the last thing we want to give up.
Isn't that what we really want? Don't we want a group of people that will really know us deeply, in love, not accepting all of our bad habits, but helping us to work through them? Don't we want to be around people that will help us overcome those parts of ourselves that we wish were already healed?
The truth is this, we need to create spiritual places in our lives where we can be honest with ourselves with others. Honesty is part and parcel of being open, being caring and compassionate, becoming vulnerable and intimate. It is how we become humane and loving and it is the only way we develop authentic trust.
I used to do an exercise with our youth groups. We have all the kids kneel in two rows and lock arms. Then we have one person stand up, close their eyes with their backs to the two rows of kneeling people. And they have to fall backwards. It does not come easy.
Some of your children have trust issues, let me tell you. Others are too trusting, almost a bit reckless… but they won't be for long. Soon enough, they will have that sense of trust replaced with wariness and distance. Too much of our world breads that into us.
The spiritual antidote is honest, respectful, supportive trust. When you get that going you don't want to leave it no matter how good another offer might be somewhere else. That has intrinsic worth spiritually and you feel it in a way like nothing else.
Last week I heard the political correspondent from the Wall Street Journal talking about his Washington friends. He said, "they are people that won't outright lie to you… at least not knowingly." We are surrounded by way too many acquaintances and colleagues that are no better than that either.
My hope for you, my prayer for you, is that you can plumb deeper this year, that you can find people that will really let you be you. People that will not only not lie to you but will tell you the truth in love, people that will have authority for you, people that will help you to trust and become real. May the Spirit move in and around you through others. Amen.

I got this story from "Living Values Activities for Young Adults" ed. By Diane Tillman (Deerfield: Health Communications, 2000), pp. 371-371. The story has many variations and is and old European fairy tale. You can also visit the website I've abbreviated the story to fit in a sermon frame work and altered the moral slightly to fit the point of the sermon more tightly.
These two examples were brought to mind by Bill Bennett' "The Book of Virtues" (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), pp. 600-601. Bennett does a nice job of collecting poems and legends on Honesty. He also conjoined Diogenes and Jeremiah, oft cited but important.

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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.