Peace in Anxious Times – Chuck Rush (10/23/16)

Peace in Anxious Times

John 20:19-22; Mark 4:35-41

October 23, 2016


You may be secretly hoping for someone with supernatural powers to calm the storm around you. This week The Washington Post had a lengthy article on the anxiety that this particular election is having on the country.[i] And the anxiety is bi-partisan.

59% of Registered Republicans said that this election is causing them some stress or a lot of stress. And 55% of registered Democrats said this election is causing them some stress or a lot of stress. The article noted that overall 52% of the country reports elevated stress levels which I also found interesting.

The overall rate is a tad lower than the Republicans and a tad lower than the Democrats, most probably because the few people that aren’t paying any attention to the election at all are few that aren’t affected by it.

If you are stressing right now, you are not alone.

The article in the Post said that the American Psychological Association has put out a list of ways to deal with the stress, sensing that it was broad enough that it has become a public health issue.

The suggestions are sensible enough. Don’t overexpose yourself to the 24 hour news cycle. Almost all of us here are not only well-informed, our problem is that we read so much, we know too much. Particularly given that most of our media today is partisan driven, turn it off. You already know how you are voting. It is a spiritual challenge in our technological era, you have to limit the negativity that you take in. You need a sabbatical from the partisan fray.

Secondly, they suggest, avoid discussions that are likely to escalate. Everyone of us has an Uncle Bob or a sister Lisa that you know you are just going to provoke when you bring up some foible of the candidate they support. While it may be fun to ignite their inner “Yosimite Sam”, it is going nowhere productively, so just keep it to yourself for the next couple weeks.

Third, keep a balanced perspective. We have folks on both sides of the aisle predicting catastrophe if the other side wins. But as our psychologists point out, life will go on, and go on pretty well regardless of who wins.

But, I want to just give a shout out to their fourth idea, because it is the most spiritual in its dimension. Live out of your passion and love.

There is a lot that we can’t control in this world and it causes us anxiety. The Psychologists paid some attention to the worry that we have about the future, which is a particularly inefficient use of our anxiety because it is so elusive and beyond our control.

Spiritually, we have to learn to live with anxiety. St. Paul used to pray for a “Peace that passes all understanding”, that is the peace that comes over us in the midst of the battle, when we least expect it. Other people just can’t understand how we can have that peace, but we can.

Paul was remembering the profound example of Jesus who faced public humiliation, then torture, then injustice, then loneliness on the cross, and he died a cruel, ugly death. Throughout the increasingly agonizing ordeal, he found a resource from within, he found a God portal. And he was able to tap into that and maintain his integrity as he stood before Pilate. He was able to maintain his compassion as he hung on the cross with two criminals and offer God’s forgiveness to them as they faced their imminent death. He was able to maintain his composed humanity so that as he breathed his last breath, one of the Roman soldiers said of him in the Gospel of Mark, “Surely, he is the Son of God”.

In our passage this morning, Jesus is depicted as someone who could miraculously, supernaturally alter the physical swarm stirring around him simply by saying to the sea, “Peace! Be Still!” and the raging storm around him suddenly becomes calm.

The Gospel of Mark is written to Romans by a Roman and Roman religion authenticated spiritual truth by miracles. So Jesus is often depicted as a miracle worker. And when the Roman historians wrote about him they invariably said, “He did many miracles”. That means he was the real deal. He was spiritually authentic.

In all likelihood he really did heal people. But this story is also an ellipsis. Jesus has an inner spiritual calm, which everyone saw in him when he was unjustly tried, tortured and executed. And that inner calm is so profound that it can change the world around him. The outer miracle points back to his inner spiritual reservoir, this deeper pool of peace in the midst of anxious times.

But we really can manifest that spiritual power and you know that we do. You’ve seen it. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus says to the disciples, in his parting soliloquy “Peace be with you. As God has sent me, so send I you…”

Jesus has passed through death, the great dread filled passage in the ancient world, and he has peace where ordinary mortals are fearfully anxious. He has peace. And he tells all of us that we can have that same peace in those anxious moments in our lives. We can pass that Spirit to each other.

And you know this is true because you have seen it in love. And you know that we need it because you know that one day you will be subject to loss and limitation. One day you will die. Jesus showed us how to die because we will all have to face that one day, much as we avoid trying to think about it most of the days of our lives. But as we get to the second half of life, it becomes harder to avoid because we see so many people around us suffer and die.

The miraculous faith that you see in these situations is moving not because it is supernatural. It is moving because love has a power to change us and heal us for the better. Love changes things. In it’s purest expressions there is nothing quite so warm and humane is there?

[Roll the video on Omoletto “What is Love?” about a man in Australia that takes care of his wife who has Alzheimer’s]

The real cure for anxious times is to invest yourself in helping someone else. And not just doing anything but investing what you are doing with love.

Because if you are lucky enough to commit your life in love to something bigger than yourself, through other people, you will find an inner peace even if things are falling apart around you. Make no mistake Bill’s love for his wife Glad is extraordinary, heroic. She has declined to the point that they have minimal emotional interaction- if you’ve been through this, you know how Alzheimer’s robs you of your loved ones personality slowly but surely. He is living with daily with loss and frustration.

But, through love, this is what he wants to do. He has chosen the deeper love that Jesus came to tell us about. And, the greater miracle to me, is not the supernatural kind. It is the transformation that comes when we release love. Love changes the situation. In this case, it is very material. She has care, compassion. It is better, healing- not a cure- but it is healing.

And that is the great hope, the miracle of love unleashed in our world, the miracle of just compassion unleashed in our world. It makes a material difference.

This week, in the midst of the cynicism and partisanship of an ugly campaign, I had to dial up the past again to see if I really remember things or whether I put a sheen on the past. I watched a few videos’ of Bobby Kennedy.

I’m sure that something came over Bobby Kennedy after his brother was assassinated. His older brother, the brother he looked up to. Bobby had a spiritual conversion, although he never talked about it, so it is my own observation from afar.

But he gave speech after speech about great ideals, about what our country could be, about how young people could make a difference. It was like he had drawn so close to the forces of cynicism and despair when his brother was killed, that he doubled down on idealism in the short time he had left on earth. He was aspirational, hope filled for the future.

He gave a speech in South Africa to Black college students thirty years before Apartheid came to an end. And in that speech he spoke of a future where black and white would live together in freedom. He encouraged them to make it a moral movement, not a movement of violence, because non-violent resistance is the better way, the higher way, the way that will actually lead towards a new day that whites would also embrace.

So many young black leaders were in the audience that day, college students. And I wonder how important it was for them to hear compassion for their cause from a white Senator from the U.S. and how influenced they were by the fact that a white man was describing a way for peaceful transition. Just for them to know that they had been heard, that Americans care and we’ve been through it too.

Bobby Kennedy made a material difference in our land, cut short when he was tragically assassinated. And I’m not making it up. PBS did a documentary film on his life. At the very end, they show a train going across our country. Bobby Kennedy was killed in California. Before he was laid to rest in Washington, they put the casket on a train and that train went slowly through towns all across our country. Someone filmed it from the train.

What you saw over and over and over. That train went through little towns. And those towns had hundreds and hundreds of people that came to pay their respects. But what was so moving to see was how integrated the crowds were. White families and black families. Men removing their hats.

I was like “wow”. It was such a reminder that Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy and so many other leaders of the civil rights movement at that time. We really were moving our country in a better direction. It was a high water mark moment for real integration in our country. It can be done. We can live a higher way, in answer to a higher calling.

And so can you. You will not abrogate evil things from happening around you. Violence will happen, misfortune will visit you. But the higher cause you commit yourself to, the higher way that you live your life, will transform you. And you will know intrinsic worth. You will experience a deeper meaning. And you just might stumble on an authentic you.

Peace and blessing and meaning rest upon you. Amen.



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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.