Living Gratitude – Chuck Rush (11/16/14)

Living Gratitude
Psalm 100:1-5; Colossians 3:15,17 (translation mine)
Let the peace of God indwell your hearts. Cultivate a fuller life, living out of your gratitude. And in all that you do and say, give thanks to God through Christ.

Gratitude begins with wonder at the fact that we are here, that we are alive in creative connection with one another. We are part of the pulse of the universe.
Our heart beats are such a wonderful opening to gratitude. Think back to when you were young and you were cuddling on your boyfriends chest, listening to his breathing and the beat of his heart and you just knew you were falling in love.
Remember that day, after a life threatening encounter, when you hugged a close friend, only this time you really hugged them, like you were holding onto something precious about life itself, your senses all heightened, the colors of the world more vivid than usual, breathing in the wonderful aroma of life around you.
My best Christmas present ever was one of those moments. I flew to Hawaii Christmas Day to join my family to visit my son who was stationed there after returning from Afghanistan. It is the longest Christmas Day, flying 11 hours west but you get there and it is still Christmas.
That night my daughter woke me around 3 in the morning. Our first grandchild, still an infant, couldn’t sleep. Could I take her for an hour? I was never one my wife would go to for these requests but I said ‘sure’. I got out of bed, slipped into my sandals, took the crying precious and walked her across the street in the still of the night, watching the marvelous stars through the palm trees, and headed down to Sunset beach.
I walked her down to the top of the high tide line and let the roaring pulse of the surf muffle her anxious cries. I was holding her next to my chest, heart beat to heart beat, bundled tight, just listening to the rhythms of the roaring surf, bouncing her up and down. After a while she stopped crying and I slowly lowered myself down and laid on the beach, watching the constellations in this night sky that we never get to see in New York, taking in the mystery that really is our life, grateful that I’d lived to see this day, just blessed. I fell asleep, with her on my chest.
At the first rays of dawn, the briefest shower woke us both. I sat up and held her face to face. She looked at me like ‘who are you?’ I said, “I’m your grandfather. Welcome.” Mystery. Wonder. The blessed Goodness of being alive. What Christmas is actually all about.
We connect with that pulse because there is literally a pulse that runs through the whole fabric of the universe. It is creatively alive. You may recall from Physics class in college that Professor Edwin Hubble at the University of Chicago, looked through our newly developed telescopes and figured out that the galaxies of the universe were actually rushing apart from one another, the consequence of the Big Bang.
That is one force. And the other is gravity which pulls planets and stars together in orbit. So if you could view the universe in real time from a sufficient vantage point, it is actually pulsing. [My hands are moving out and pulsing back in]. And it does this on the macro level, reflecting what is happening on a micro level with sub-atomic particles. Our universe is literally pulsing, from small to large to largest. It is the divine vibration that courses through all existence and we resonate with that. Our universe is creatively alive, unfolding before us in rhythm.
And you feel it in the birth of a child, in connecting to others in love, in the emergence of creativity… in the sacred transition from life to death. We are filled with gratitude and wonder as the divine life force courses through us.
And the other gratitude inspiring dimension of our existence is the awareness that our universe is unfolding creatively towards increasingly complex communities. If you could zoom out in time enough, you would see on a macro level what we observe every year on a micro level with the change of nature in the seasons. The seed grows into the plant, shedding it’s leaves into dormancy to produce more seeds in the next season.
If we could zoom out in time, for even the breadth of our lives are but a blink in the larger scale of the history of the universe, we could see this evolutionary unfolding, the emergence of new, more complex species.
I just wish that more ordinary people could have the experience that I’ve had listening to physicists talk about this emergent unfolding and the wonder and mystery that they have in reference to it. Professor Alan Guth at MIT and Professor Alexei Starobinsky from Russia both compiled the math about the origin of the universe and they showed that our universe actually expanded at the exact rate it had to in order to give birth to life in this precise balance between the forces of expansion and the forces of gravity. If the universe had expanded just a bit more quickly, it would have blown apart and if it had expanded more slowly, it would have collapsed on itself. But what we see around us, in the glow of the stars in the evening, is the unfolding of the universe at just the right speed to produce life.
We are witnessing an intrinsic, emerging, unfolding life force, giving birth to new, more complex forms of life in every generation. The celebrated Physics professor from Princeton, Freeman Dyson, was once reflecting on the mystery of this delicate balance in the forces of the universe said: “The more I examine the universe and study the details of its architecture the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known that we were coming.”
Professor Dyson can do on a universal scale what the rest of us can only experience on a personal level. Out of the thousands of people that surround you, out of the hundreds that you’ve met, out of the dozens that you dated. One day you are falling in love and you realize, just like Jerry McGuire, that you got so lucky to find the one person, so unexpected, that really completes you. And you can’t help but well up with emotion, it was like God had picked her out from before the foundations of the universe. You can’t believe how lucky you are, no how blessed you are. For a moment, you are just awash in gratitude, the fundamental goodness of your life.
Gratitude is the fundamental disposition of spirituality. It is the ground from which we awaken to the deeper way of being in the world.
St. Paul has this wonderful phrase in our scripture today. If you read it in your Bible, I think it is says ‘Be grateful’. But that doesn’t really capture the Greek which is a more sophisticated language than English. It means, ‘cultivate a life of gratitude’. As the English might say, “let gratitude infuse your whole being, like tea steeping in hot water”. “Let gratitude permeate your whole being each and every day.”
I saw Warren Zevon interviewed the week before he died and David Letterman asked him if a dying man had any advice for the living. Warren said, “Enjoy every bite of the sandwich”. Be present in your gratitude. At the end, we are overwhelmed with gratitude.
The real challenge is the daily one of releasing it in our lives. It is so easy to allow ourselves to become a reflection of the negativity that surrounds us in the great metropolis. The cranky conductor, the gossip hounds at work, the people that you work with who raise being an ass to something of a virtue, the idiotic rules in the government or union code, the short tempers of stressed commuters all around you. It brings out the callous, rude, and inconsiderate in all of us.
Bring that home, and it undermines your marriage, your family, your friendship. I saw an interview with John Gottman, the leading expert on marriage in the country. He’s recently described two groups of people from his research: Masters and Disasters.
The Disasters crash their marriage in just a few years. You want a sure fire way to drive people away from you? Gottman can tell you from observing 25,000 couples over 25 years. Criticize your partner; show contempt for your partner; be hostile to your partner; withdraw into your independent life. You are on the road to getting them to walk out the door in a few short years.
I love when he describes the Masters of Marriage and they are few. Half of all marriages fail and we estimate that after 20 years of marriage, only 30% of those that are married say that they are really happy in their marriage. What is it that they are doing?
They live like St. Paul suggested, in gratitude. Gottman says “There’s a habit of mind that the masters have which is this: they are scanning the social environment for things they can appreciate and say that you for. They are building this culture of respect and appreciation very purposefully. Disasters are scanning the social environment for partners mistakes…” One is looking for what is right in their spouse and praising it, expressing respect and appreciation, the other is looking for what is wrong and grousing about it. Or worse yet, expressing contempt as in: “What is wrong with you” or “Your always late, just like your mother.” [Two lines to avoid at all costs, ‘You always’ and ‘You never’]. Contempt is the biggest factor that tears couples apart.
And second is giving your partner the cold shoulder. It makes them feel rejected, worthless, invisible, not valued, not loved.
No, the masters exhibit kindness towards their spouses. They actively think of nice things they can do. They celebrate their spouses achievements and genuinely share in their joy. They are intentional about telling their spouses what they mean to them. They are thoughtful.
The funny thing about living out of your gratitude in kindness towards others, it is self-reinforcing. The more that you do it, the more others around you do it. It becomes a closed loop mechanism, a kind of spiral in the room generating love and gratitude in others that comes back to bless you.
St. Paul would say that you release the Spirit of God and it blesses everyone whose lives it touches. There is something divine about genuinely being loved, about genuinely loving other people around you. It is the most profound way of being that we humans are given to know in this life.
I hope for you that you will tap in to your gratitude and live out of it. I hope that you will live a life of giving. We will all be better for it.
I hope that you will give of yourself to your spiritual community too. We need it and we need it to come from your heart, being generous with your money and yourself, simply because your generosity follows your gratitude. We need you to care about your spiritual community and to care for your spiritual community.
I hope for you the privilege of being infused with gratitude because you have drunk from the wonder that permeates our life around us. May you resonate with the divine pulse and reverberate through the lives you touch. May you live in blessing. Amen.
Live this week grateful that it might be your last week.

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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.