Living our Blessedness – Chuck Rush (11/30/14)

Advent 1: Living Your Blessedness
Isa. 11:1-4; Luke 1:26-33; 47-53

In order to get some context for what we should emphasize in this birth narrative, it would be helpful to know about another one. Jesus was born right at that period of time when the Roman Republic was becoming eclipsed by the Roman Emperor, military rulers that concentrated power in their hands. It was also a period that extended the range of Rome through military conquest, so they controlled the economic infrastructure of the Mediteranean, the biggest empire in history.
Caesar Augustus was one of the first of a long line of generals to become Emperor. He had been named to rule by his great uncle, Julius Caesar, who named him as his heir. So, he was appointed to be general at a young age. Rome won several huge military campaigns. They taxed the whole region and enforced it with harsh military reprisals, from which we get the military expression that we still use today, ‘scorch and burn’. If your region didn’t pay its annual tribute, the Roman military was loosed to burn it all to the ground and to conquest women as they would.
So there was order in the Empire, prosperity skyrocketed in the Capital City. Caesar Augustus built many new buildings. He declared the Pax Romana and led the Roman Empire for almost 41 years. The Rich were getting mad richer and the expense accounts were full.
Not surprisingly, Augustus decided that Rome needed a founding myth, a story about how the most powerful Empire in the world came to be. He commissioned the poet Vergil, who wrote this myth in a work we still have called ‘The Aenenid’.
The Greeks had a founding myth in the Iliad. It tells about the heroic battles so long ago, no one can ever remember, but that is how the city-states in Greece came to be. So Vergil starts his story with one of the soldier from those epic battles recorded in the Iliad that everyone had heard since they were kids. You may recall his memorable opening line in the Aeneid, “I sing to you of Arms and Men”, a tale of the incredible sacrifice that was made in battle so that we might enjoy the prosperity of the vast Roman empire.
And in the early part of the book, one of the gods rolls back the scrolls of fate, such a Roman idea, that the gods can predict for us the future, even though we can’t see it ourselves. Opening these scrolls of fate allow all of us to see the destiny of the great Roman people.
Only the Ancients thought very differently than we do today. Today, we tend to tell stories, particularly in America, about rugged individuals that overcome difficult odds and create some very important entrepreneurial advance that made them rich and helped the rest of society become better.
Back then, the world was structured by ruling families or ruling tribes. And people would ask themselves, ‘why is it that some families are of such noble birth that they seem destined to rule over the rest of us? What is it that makes them so special?’ They tended to see these families as simply better or more blessed by the gods.
So Vergil asks the question, how is it that the gods were so good to us as to give us a clan, the noble family of Julius, that our empire would become so great that there is none other like it ever, and we are the most prosperous people on earth?
Back then, it would have been more like the way the British defer to the Queen and the house of Windsor, but it would kind of be like President George Bush Jr. (W) asking our poet laurete to write an epic poem about how the world got so lucky that his father was born (George H. W. Bush) had been born because that man gave birth to a son that would become the best that our world has to offer right here in a humble guy, just born to lead the free world, hand picked for this precise time by gods, because that is the best the gods can do.
Like our prosperous times, this one also lacked modesty. And Vergil has to go down in history as one of the greatest ass kissers of all time. But then again, this Caesar took the name ‘Augustus’ which means something like ‘divine like’, ‘one we should stand in awe of’, etc. And this Caesar also had coins minted with his face and the line on the bottom, ‘Son of God’.
Vergil has these gods, speaking a 1000 years ago, predicting (from a thousand years ago) that one day this great ruler will be born and he will impose the Pax Romana and the reputation of the Roman people will be enshrined in eternity.
“From this noble stock there will be born a Caesar whose bounds will only be at the end of the oceans themselves, the ends of the world, whose fame shall be as far reaching as the stars in the heavens. He shall be called Julius, a name passed down from the great clan of the Julii (the great Julius family clan). In time to come, have no fear, you will receive him from the skies (partly divine), laden with the spoils of the East. [Roman Generals had a huge parade when they came home with all the stuff they captured in front of them]. He too will be called upon in prayer. Then the years of bitterness will be over…
And the gods say this, “The walls he builds will be the walls of the god Mars and he shall give his own name to his people, the Romans. Upon them, I will impose no limits of time or place. I give them an Empire that shall know no end.”
We call it the Eternal City today. Gripping read. This was written by Virgil about 20 years before Jesus was born, about 90 years before the Gospel of Luke was written. Sometimes it helps to have a little feel for what the average Roman would think about when he picks up this other story.
This story is not about nobility of birth, or worldly power, or celebrity fame, or military conquest. It starts off not with the wealthiest family in the empire, retiring to their country estates to remember their roots, but with a peasant couple, we don’t know their name.
The region that they are from no one has ever heard of really because it is on the very edge of the empire. And beyond that is the great desert to the East.
They are coming, not even as Roman citizens, but as the locals subject to Roman tax. They have no home, no room reservations. They spend the night in the barn.
The angel comes not to the patriarch of the most vaunted family in the Empire to bestow upon them the divine right of political rule. The angel comes to an ordinary girl, with no last name, so we have no idea who she is, where she is from, and there is no indication that she possesses any particular virtues at all.
And the angel says, “Hail, O favored one, for God is with you. Do not be afraid for God has found favor with you.”
The very first word of the Christmas story comes to those of us that are lost in the shadows, on the edge of history. It comes to those who have no home, who are anxious, precarious. This season if you carrying a special burden, an illness that is not being cured, a relationship that is coming apart awkwardly, an anxiety from being financially overwhelmed… defeated, your self-esteem pummeled. The very first word from God in the Christmas season comes to you. “Hail, O favored one, for God is with you. Do not be afraid, for God has found favor with you.” You matter. God cares. You are loved by God.
If you have are asking yourself the question ‘how’- how am I going to get through this? If you are asking yourself at the end of this year the question ‘why’- why is it that so much misfortune has piled itself upon me at one time, all of these critically things in my life going wrong and wronger that you are starting to feel so alone, even in the midst of your family, that you have this internal dialogue in your head that won’t shut off that keeps asking ‘what is going on with me?’
The answer from God in the Christmas story is ‘the Holy Spirit will rest upon you.’ “Peace be with you.” “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” You matter. The heart of the universe is not driven by the Spirit of Arms and Men of power. The heart of the universe is driven by the Spirit of Love.
God is not interested in our feats of strength and power, God hopes for the salvation of all of us through the expression of love. You are blessed. And on our better days, we are reminded that being of service to those in need blesses us as well.
It is something God has taught me in spite of myself usually. When my daughter Annie was about 6 or 8, we were walking through Central Park on our way to the Met. Suddenly I could find her and I had that moment of panic, searching this way and that. I’m running back in the direction that we’d just come from and I spot her underneath an underpass, squatting with the homeless guys that were living under there- back when we used to let people live on the streets.
I grab her and start in with the speech on staying close to me and not talking to strangers and she says, “Dad, these are our people. These are Christ Church guys. They have our blankets.” Sure enough, I look down and they are all covering themselves with blankets that said “Church World Service”. We’d been giving them out through Bridges.
I had one of those embarrassing moments when I realized that for the past half hour, I’d been guilty of walking as an upper middle class white guy. It is related to driving while black. It is a default mode that I can slip into, particularly in the big metropolis of New York, when I’m just focused on getting to my destination, pretty much oblivious to lots of things around me because they are not part of my mission at the moment.
Annie introduced me to my people, who, as it turns out, were not statistics, not stereotypes, not an anonymous backdrop. They were ordinary guys, with lives, families, hopes and dashed dreams, trying to find a place. And just like any of us that were flattered that a little blonde headed girl with a bright, bouncy smile had stopped to say ‘hello’ to them.
Isaiah has that lovely passage we read at this time of year, “And a child shall lead them…” It is one of those insights from the Christmas story that we’ve all been reminded of in the past week, we all want to be part of one people. We want to belong and be accepted and respected. We want compassion to lead us, so that we see each other as those that God has drawn close to and blessed, quite in spite of themselves. They are God’s people and so they are our people.
And may you be so led this season. May the Divine disturbance awaken you to those around you that God has deemed blessed. May God so move you that you can find a way to be gracious even to the most difficult members of your extended family that are just harder than average to love. May salvation find a way to be born in the midst of your packed and too busy life.
And may you who are broken, find the divine healing in this season of acceptance and grace. Amen.

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Sermons & Presentations

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.