Operating Instructions – Julie Yarborough (9/3/17)

Romans 12:9-21 Rev. Julie Yarborough
Jeremiah 15:15-21 Christ Church September 3, 2017

“Operating Instructions”

This summer at Christ Church we conducted a series of interviews we called Christ Church Storycorps. We heard from a number of our members about God’s call in their lives and how they responded. Mattie Azurmendi and Leslie Kepner talked about their passion for teaching. Amanda Block shared her vision to deliver fresh healthy produce to those who have trouble accessing it. Bola Lawrence shared her passion of engaging youth in anti-racism work. Tom Loughlin talked about the contributions of engineering to make the world a better place. John Houston shared about his vocation as the owner/director of funeral homes and the sacred practice of offering a service to families who are grieving. Lee Hilton spoke of her passion for sharing her story and creating community by encouraging others to share theirs.

We have so many gifted and talented people at Christ Church who are listening to God’s call in their lives and – in the words of Frederick Buechner – allowing their deep gladness to meet the world’s deep hunger. What a privilege it was to hear the stories of call from seven of our members this summer!

Today, I’d like for us to begin the process of discerning how God might be calling us as a congregation. How might our particular gifts and passions as a community of faith meet the world’s deep hunger? How might we be particularly poised for such a time as this?

In 1951, H. Richard Niebhur wrote a ground-breaking theological book called “Christ and Culture.” Its brilliant analysis of the ways in which Christians relate to the surrounding culture is still a classic today. Niebhur presented 5 different ways that the church relates to the culture, acknowledging that at any given time, the church might fit into more than one category.

1- Christ against Culture, in which Christians try to separate themselves from everything worldly, often living in community set apart from the world (Like the Amish, certain groups of Mennonites, or the cloistered Dominican Nuns who live next door.)

2- Christ of Culture, in which Christians look for ways to be in agreement with cultural norms. One example of this would be evangelicals who claim that the United States is a Christian country and venerate the American Flag as a religious symbol, believing that the culture is an extension of their faith. I would say that another example of this would be Christians that are not critical of culture, and don’t see the need to make any distinctions between their faith and the demands or expectations of the secular world.

3 - Christ Above Culture, in which it is believed that all that is good in our surrounding culture is from God, but that good needs theological interpretation in order to make sense. In this model, secular approaches are acceptable, but a Christian framework is placed upon everything.

4- Christ and Culture in Paradox, in which Christians and Culture are in cooperation, but also in constant tension with one another.

And the last category, which I think is most applicable to us as a congregation:

5- Christ Transforming Culture, in which culture is seen as something to be transformed for the better through human effort, with God’s help.

Niebhur’s thesis, though not perfect, has led generations of Christians to think about the ways in which we interact with the culture in which we live. As Bruce Guenther has pointed out, “the church is always culturally embedded.” How do we distinguish ourselves as followers of Jesus in this world? How do we live in the world but not of the world?

These questions are important for us to grapple with as a community of faith, especially in this day and age. What should our response be to the dominant voices in our culture? How are we as Christ Church being called to live out the Gospel in our community?

Our scriptures today give us some operating instructions. The passage from Romans 12 lays out a long list of guidelines for how Christians should act, both as individuals and as a community. It’s not for the faint of heart, or for the beginning believer – this list requires a real commitment.

Let love be genuine, hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good… Extend hospitality to strangers… Bless those who persecute you… do not repay anyone evil for evil… Do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good….

This is advanced Christianity for mature followers of Jesus, who are ready to go to extra lengths to share God’s love with all – to love not only their neighbors but their enemies.

Following the protests against white supremacy in Berkeley on Sunday afternoon, I heard an amazing story on National Public Radio of someone who took these injunctions to heart. I could tell you the story, but it will be more powerful if you hear it yourself:

http://www.npr.org/2017/08/28/546831794/i-saw-his-humanity-reveal-host-on-protecting-right-wing-protester

(Click on “listen” at the top of the page and play to minute 3:28)

(Pause)

Tony McAleer is one of the founders of Life After Hate, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people leave neo-Nazi and other extremist groups. When one of McAleer’s colleagues was a young man, he was being served at McDonald’s by an elderly African-American woman who saw the swastika tattooed on his hand. She looked at him, and said, “Oh honey, you’re so much better than that.”

That seed germinated for years until the man left white nationalism and dedicated himself to helping others leave.

“The hardest thing in the world is to have compassion for those who have no compassion,” McAleer says, “But those are the people who need it the most.”

For White Supremacists, it often takes this kind of interaction with someone who has been objectified as “the other” for real change to take place. Asked about the mission of Life after Hate, McAleer explains:
“We try to help people reconnect with their humanity”—first their own unresolved pain and sense of being unlovable, then that of others whom they’ve mistreated, whose pre-emptive offer of grace often sets the whole process going.

These examples of transforming culture through Christ’s love may be extreme, but they may give us some ideas about how to engage in the world for such a time as this. How do we respond to the voices of hate that are getting louder? When I was in college, a professor of mine was fond of saying, “Think Globally, Act Locally.” What are the needs – the hungers - in our own community? What gifts and graces and passions do we bring to the table?

As we enter into a new year at Christ Church, we need to pray, reflect, discuss and discern how God is calling us as a congregation to engage with our surrounding culture and transform it. And God knows, there are many opportunities that are presenting themselves right now!

I received a phone call this week from the Rev. Robin Tanner at Beacon Unitarian. It has been one year since they hung a “Black Lives Matter” sign on the front of their building and they are discerning what steps to take next in the struggle against systemic racism. Knowing that we held race dialogue groups here last year, they have invited Christ Church to help them in that discernment. We have been engaged in this work already, but there is so much more that we can do. Perhaps God is calling us to take the next step.

A group of Conservative Evangelical Christians gathered in my hometown of Nashville, TN this week and issued a document known as the “Nashville Statement,” condemning homosexuality and transgendered people, and stating that God intended the institution of marriage to be solely between a man and a woman.

In response, a clergywomen’s group of which I am a member has issued a statement which reads, in part:

Houston is under water, China and Macau recovering from a typhoon, Venezuelans are starving to death, Syria is reduced to rubble, and all the side-eye is on Pyongyang and Washington, D.C. Christians have no shortage of opportunities to speak and act in love, toward the clear Divine goals of community, hope, inclusion, and resurrection.

Instead, the signers of the “Nashville Statement” have chosen
to speak a word of hatred and death to people who already
face increased statistics in that area. This is not Christian.
This is not prophetic. It is patriarchal and white supremacist self-gratification, done because it makes those who do it feel good, but it bears no recognizable fruit. The consequences of this will be borne by those who can least handle another blow.

I don’t know how God is calling us as a congregation to engage in the world around us – that is something that we need to discern together –but I do know that we cannot be silent when the voices of hate and fear are getting stronger. The process of discernment involves praying, discussing and working, with the Spirit’s help, to determine where God is at work in the world, and how we might join in that work.

And, as we just heard, we “have no shortage of opportunities to speak and act in love, toward the clear Divine goals of community, hope, inclusion, and resurrection.”

Speaking out in a prophetic way or acting on behalf of the marginalized is not without risks. Prophets are attacked, maligned, and - in this day and age - trolled.

Jeremiah found himself subject to attack and persecution. He felt betrayed and deceived and he let God know. He even called for God to bring down retribution on his persecutors - That’s hardly an example of overcoming evil with good. Even Jeremiah had difficulty taking the high road! Yet when Jeremiah expresses his anger and frustration, he hears the voice of God telling him to keep uttering those prophetic words, to serve as God’s spokesperson and God will give him strength. He hears God say, “they will fight against you, but they will not prevail over you. For I am with you, to save you and deliver you.”

God does not promise to make our way easy, but God promises to be with us in the struggle.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, where is God calling us to act -
To speak out against the voices of hate and division?
To offer hospitality to strangers?
To see humanity in others, even if they don’t see it in us?

How can we let love be genuine, hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good? How can we “live like the truth is true and go where love has not been found?”

May we discern the answers to these questions together in community, taking the operating instructions in Romans 12 as our guide.

Amen

1. Bruce L. Guenther, http://www.directionjournal.org/34/2/enduring-problem-of-christ-and-culture.html

2. https://sojo.net/magazine/august-2017/confessions-former-white-supremacist

3. https://revgalblogpals.org/2017/08/30/revgalblogpals-renounces-the-nashville-statement/

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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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