Ordinary Heroes – Chuck Rush (11/26/17)

Ordinary Heros
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Hebrews 12:

A few years ago, NPR had a show entitled “Songs You Just Can’t Hear on the Radio” and today we are going to remember acts of valor you just don’t see on the news anymore. We are in the season of gratitude and we are thankful for the ordinary heros in our lives. Some of us, who are lucky, even have them in our families.
Like Dale Beatty who lost both of his lower legs when a roadside IED blew up the Humvee he was driving in Iraq. He gets home with two prosthetic legs to Statesville North Carolina and a couple of guys in his church decide that they need to build him a home that is accessible for someone with a disability. They pitched the idea to the local builders and the next thing you know people were donating money. Dozens of people got involved in a conspiracy of goodness, the house got built, the people decided to keep the movement going and “Purple Heart Homes” was birthed and to date there have been some 38 modified homes built for soldiers that have returned home with disabilities.
Sometimes to be a hero, you don’t have to start movement to channel the zeitgeist of your time to change the world. You just have to be ready when a good challenge presents itself.
Like Temar Boggs and Chris Garcia, both aged 15. They were at home watching TV when an emergency flash came over the screen that advertised a missing child in their neighborhood. They rain outside, hopped on their bikes, and rode to the corner where the child was last seen. Just a couple blocks over they ran into a car that was driving suspiciously so the teens rode towards it as fast as they could. The door opened and five year old, Jocelyn Rojas was let out of the car as it sped away in the distance.
The two teens accompanied young Joceyln back to her Mother and the police who were still ineffectually searching the area for the child.
Or Keenia Williams, a 22 year old, single mother who was driving with her one year old in Colorado when she saw a tractor trailer in the rear view mirror swerve to avoid two stopped cars in the road causing it to roll side over side. The driver was thrown from the cab and fuel was spilling all around him. Keenia ran straight at the driver and found Michael Finnerty, aged 52, who had climbed away from the fuel before he passed out in pain.
Keenia lifted him under his arms, pulled him to her car, put him in the back seat and covered him with her coat as the truck lit on fire in the distance. The fire department said she surely saved his life.
And we remember the ordinary heroes that modeled the character that we need to do the right thing, whether or not someone is watching because it is the right thing to do. Perhaps you saw the piece this week written by the Managing Editor at the Wall Street Journal, Brett Stephens.
He remembered a time when he was 7 years old and went to visit his father at his office in New York. He is alone in the office with his father’s secretary when he decides to pat her on the bottom. It just so happens she had a ream of paper in her hand and she turned and swatted him, thump, on the head with that ream of paper. Pretty hard.
Hard enough that young Brett went to his father’s office to report this potential child abuse. His Dad listened to the story, explained that this was disrespectful behavior on his part, and marched young Brett into apologize to the secretary.
Brett went on to comment on his reaction to the scores of stories we’ve been hearing lately about sexual harassment and he remembered when his Dad finally had the dreaded talk with him as a young teenager about sex. He was trapped in the car.
But it left a life-long impression on him. His father was short on mechanical details, but long on describing how you hope to find a life partner who is someone you respect and want to become genuinely intimate with.
He spoke to him about how to romance a partner and cultivate a reciprocal giving with each other. In other words, he gave his son a spiritual vision of what we hope our love relationships become.
If you have a vision of the goal you are shooting towards, it is a lot easier to figure out what is right and wrong on the way to getting there. And we all benefit when people integrate their love lives and their sexual selves. What a blessing to have a model like that for the younger generation to follow.
I think of Coach Kieran O’Brien. He had a player that was hurt his Senior year in high school. The young man was a leading scorer on the football team and his injury sidelined him for the rest of the season.
The boy became dejected and decided to quit the team and move on to the next thing in his life. Coach came to see the boy, talked to him about leadership because he had been one of the leaders for the Offense. He explained to him that the team needed him on the sidelines, inspiring the other players, continuing to lead even though he was hurt.
He talked to him about not just winning the game and being the star but winning in life and showing up and being counted and following through even without the lime light.
I heard that story 25 years later from an executive that had recently finished a prolonged re-organization of his business and it was far from clear at the outset that it would be successful or even the right thing to do. But he persevered and he was talking to a group of his peers about how important the lesson of perseverance had been in his lived life, not the one that was reported on in the celebrity pages of the paper.
I think about people that live redemption like Shiela MacCrae who was married and discovered that she couldn’t have children. She married young and her husband responded immaturely. He had an affair with another woman. She got pregnant. He left Shiela for this other woman to raise their child.
How wounding a blow. And all of Shiela’s brothers and sisters were starting their families. It was a tough few years for her fighting off low self-esteem, loneliness and that sense that life might pass her by.
She meets another man, in a more mature phase of her life, and they fall in love, passionately so. There comes this moment when it feels like this relationship might be all in, and she has this secret that she has been carrying around with her for these years.
And before she can even get it out, she starts to cry so her boyfriend pulls over to the side of the road. He is thinking that she might break up with him. And she blurts out, “I can’t have children”. He is wide eyed that this is the news.
And he just blurts back, “Honey we will adopt”. With that he sort of proposed, just after she warned that she wasn’t marriageable. I was at the wedding of one of their four children, each from a different nation. The family photo is a kind of United Nations display of sorts. And you can only speculate about what the next generation afterwards will actually look like.
But it is worth remembering because these people take the very thing that makes others feel like they are cursed and turn it into the source of such fundamental blessing. That we can do and we call those actions divine because it is so like God to transform that which hurts us into the portal of personal and family growth.
We need ordinary heros in our lives. We need others to point us in the direction and remind us of what is possible if we live out of positive grace.

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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.