Of Enemies and Worthy Opponents – Chuck Rush (11/13/16)

Of Enemies and Worthy Opponents

Acts 2:42-47; Lk. 24:28-35

November 13, 2016

 

The rancor of this election season got me to re-read the opening of George Orwell’s “1984”. The novel envisions a dystopian future when Big Brother, the government, corrals us all into a movie theater every day to reinforce the three slogans of the ruling party, “War is Peace; Freedom is slavery; Ignorance is strength.” Every day people file into a huge movie theater to participate in two minutes of hate, which typically begins by showing the figure head of the opposition party. Orwell writes,

“Before the Hate had proceeded for thirty seconds, uncontrollable exclamations of rage were breaking out from half the people in the room. The self-satisfied sheep-like face on the screen... He was an object of hatred more constant than [than enemies from abroad]…

“In its second minute the Hate rose to a frenzy. People were leaping up and down in their places and shouting at the tops of their voices in an effort to drown the maddening bleating voice that came from the screen. The little sandy-haired woman had turned bright pink, and her mouth was opening and shutting like that of a landed fish. [One man’s] heavy face was flushed. He was sitting very straight in his chair, his powerful chest swelling and quivering as though he were standing up to the assault of a wave. The dark-haired girl behind [him] had begun crying out ‘Swine! Swine! Swine!’ and suddenly she picked up a heavy Newspeak dictionary and flung it at the screen. It struck [the screen] and bounced off; the voice continued inexorably. In a lucid moment Winston found that he was shouting with the others and kicking his heel violently against the rung of his chair. The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretense was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledge-hammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one's will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp…”

Great writing. This election wasn’t quite that bad but most everyone I know feels like they need a bath.

Last week, the liberal Frank Bruni of the NY Times, the conservative Frank Luntz of Fox news and the moderate David Brooks all wrote pieces that agreed on one thing. We unleashed disgust in this election in ways that are dangerous and fractious for our body politic.

I saw another piece in the Atlantic Monthly on the way that social media has isolated us into cocoons where we are surrounded by people that think more or less like we do, so that we find ourselves ginning up our snarky remarks about our opponents. It is almost like they have a moral problem if they disagree with us.

The motto on our money says E plurbus unum, “Out of many, One” These days we have more plurbus than unum. And the question is, how will we put ourselves back together again?

We Christians beckon this question more than others because we are called to reconciliation. Jesus was someone that put people together around a table and ate with them. It is a powerful symbol in the Middle East of putting back together what is broken.

You know when Yasir Arafat and Yitzak Rabin were negotiating a peace at Oslo, they were depicted at a table together. And one of the people setting the shot for the newspapers added a bowl of fruit between them, thinking it would look pretty. But the Israeli’s and the Palestinians explained that they couldn’t have that in the photo because it would communicate to everyone in the Middle East that they had brokered a peace deal and they hadn’t. You would never together with your enemies. It is just not done.

So Jesus ate with religious leaders and invited lepers also to dine. Jesus ate with tax collectors and also invited zealots (the Jewish revolutionaries of his day). Jesus ate with wealthy women and also invited prostitutes. There is a way to be people of reconciliation in every era and it takes gutsy courage in each generation.

In the year, 2000, we got to see it up close at Christ Church because our Congressman, Bob Franks, decided to run for the United States Senate and he was a member of our church.

He ran against Jon Corzine, the head of Goldman Sachs, who was also a member of our church.

Two Summit guys.

I was walking across the atrium when my secretary called out to me, “Chuck I have the Republicans on the phone. They want to know if you can say an opening prayer for Bob Franks when he kicks off his campaign?”

The next day, I’m walking across the atrium when my secretary called out to me, “Chuck I have the Democrats on the phone. They want to know if you can say an opening prayer for Jon Corzine when he kicks off his campaign?”

And then she said, “So what are you going to pray?”

I told her “Peace be with you (looking right)… and also with you (looking left).

Of course, I said the prayers at both and their campaign managers both gave me bumper stickers for my truck.

What to do? I put the Bob Franks for Senate sticker on my truck just right of center… And I added the Jon Corzine for Senate sticker on the far left part of my bumper.

The Newark Star Ledger love the photo and the story became a cute news item. We had reporters calling from the local paper and the Wall Street Journal asking, “Reverend, is there tension at coffee hour?”

“Only when we just have decaf” I assured them.

Two big men in one little church. It was a great story. And the real story is important for us to remember because it might just point the way forward for us.

There comes a moment in every campaign when the political advisors track a way forward to go low. You get rumors that they want you to run with. They get some sleeze that they want you to attack with.

I will never know the real answer. But Bob and then Jon both told their campaign advisors that they weren’t doing that. I like to think that they were both shaped by what they pick up at Christ Church and that they both decided to take the higher way. Every once in a while I’ll run into their campaign people and I’ll remember that they took the higher way, stayed focused on the issues. And their campaign people will look almost nostalgic about the past and say, “No I haven’t seen that since then.”

It was a very tight race, much closer than expected. And like politicians across the land, they both came to church the Sunday before the election. Bob sat just right of center with his family. Jon sat on the far left with his family. The State police were here. The press corps was here.

At the end of the service we came to the Eucharist.  And we invited everyone to come to the table of reconciliation. I’m standing there looking out at Bob and his family, looking at Jon and his family. All gathered around this table. And it struck me, looking at so many other people gathered around the table that day. We compete against each other all week in the market place, lawyers adjudicating cases against other law firms, banker competing head to head with other bankers. It is tough fighting too.

And on the 7th day, we stand shoulder to shoulder, as forgiven frail humans in need of redemption. We still have our differences. But for a moment, they are transcended by our common human need for God’s love and acceptance. We seek communion as children of God, our most basic posture before God.

The race was tight, very tight, but late on Tuesday night Bob made a gracious and inspiring concession speech. Jon became our Senator.

The two remained respectful towards each other. Years go by, Jon becomes Governor and he needs Republican support for the budget. Bob is a senior Republican leader, so Governor Corzine re[i]aches out to Bob to see if Bob would be willing to work out a deal and network other Republicans to come on board. Bob says ‘yes’ and they started to work.

A bit of time goes by again. Bob has some pain in his stomach but he is a tough guy, a noble Viking. It won’t go away so he goes to the doctor. Bad news but he isn’t sure how bad the news is, so he doesn’t want to go public with it.

He calls Jon, who meets him at the diner and Bob tells the Governor him he has cancer. I walk in right as Jon is about to leave because Bob wanted the Rev. to pray for him on the QT. And that is the other table of reconciliation.

We may have differences that separate us into competing parties. But when you get a life threatening diagnosis, the three of us just stand there as family men, vulnerable that life is fleeting, concerned about our families that need us, feeling one another’s anxiety and worry. Our shared humanity transcends the very real differences that separate us.

Bob went to Sloane Kettering for a procedure. It was a nightmare. The doctors opened him up and the cancer was far worse than anyone imagined. They closed him up, tried a couple of different treatment regimens. Bob went from a robust guy with that huge winning grin that everyone remembers and a handshake that could crush your hand to being so sick he could hardly sit up… in just a few weeks.

His friends from childhood came. Most of the Republican leadership of New Jersey crammed into his hospital room to offer their support.

I came over to pray for him one day and Fran and his friends told me that the doctors wanted to try a “Hail Mary” therapy but he was so weak that they wanted him in his best spirits, so the plan was to surround him with his closest people and get him as strong as he could. To inspire him to rise to his fighting self.

I called Jon, which I almost never did when he was Governor because he was so busy. But his staff put me through. He was in Chicago for a meeting. I told him that Bob was gravely ill and that I was going to pray for him the next morning with his friends, that we needed people to surround him to rise to his fighting best.

Jon said, “I’ll cancel my appearance, get the red-eye home and I’ll see you at the hospital at 7:30 in the morning.” Next morning, we meet in the lobby as Sloane Kettering. I explained the situation in more detail and we went up to his room.

A few of his friends were there, Fran was there. It was Good Friday. He had slept very poorly, restless, anxious, weak- very weak. All of us surround his bed. Bob opens his eyes, sees all of us and the politician sprang to life. He had that huge winning smile on his face, only he was so weak he couldn’t really talk.

He shook hands with each of his friends, that powerful grip, making you feel like the most important person in the world. Each person said something brief. Jon said to him, “We need you to fight buddy. You are a fighter. Nobody knows that like me.” Bob nodded his head.

In that moment, we were all holding hands around that other table of reconciliation, the table where we lift one another up as mere mortal humans, aware of how frail and fleeting our lives are, spreading the life force in love.

And we prayed, Democrats and Republicans, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”

At those moments, what separates us in our contests in life is so transcended by what binds us together as frail men that they seem almost petty…

I’m sorry we couldn’t save Bob. There are limits to modern medicine, even at the best hospitals in the world. He and Jon weren’t perfect men but they were honorable men- by which I mean simply that they returned to the higher way… They made mistakes, but when they did turned their vision back to the higher path that we are called to pursue.

I recall their too brief friendship here because it is important for us to remember the difference between enemies and worthy opponents. We get into some tough scrapes with both enemies and worthy opponents, but worthy opponents deserve our respect, they earn our respect. Ultimately, we are on the same team as Americans.

And that is what we need to come back to after this bruising season of personal attack. Regardless of what others might do, we need to show each other a basic respect. We are all citizens of one republic and we need a mutual healing.

We love to compete. But what makes competition so fulfilling is that we are forced to coordinate the members of our team to outperform the other team. We only do that when we cooperate with each other, when we coordinate. When we create community. And the other team is not the enemy. They are just worthy opponents. The real gift of competition is not simply winning. It is the community we create to make that happen.

When I was young, I used to love to watch the political debate between William F. Buckley and Dan Pat Moynihan. Both New Yorkers, Buckley the most articulate conservative of his generation, from Yale. Senator Moynihan, the professor of social policy and the great liberal from Harvard. For an hour, they shot zingers at each other with incredible command of the material. Winsome, witty, sharp… And after it was over, you knew they would share a scotch. They respected one another as worthy opponents.

E plurbus… but also unum. Will you join me at the table as we pray together for reconciliation and stand together shoulder to shoulder in our human vulnerability, calling on our higher selves to rise to the occasion of our time? No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here…

 

Amen.

 

[i] Frank Bruni’s piece was in the NYT Week in Review on Sunday, November 6, 2016. Brooks and Luntz both posted columns on election day in the New York Times, Tuesday, November 8, 2016 on the op-ed page.

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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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