Prayer for a New Day – Chuck Rush 1/3/16

Prayer for a New Day

Isa. 58:8-9; Luke 1:76-79

Our text at the very end of the Christmas season speaks of the hope of a new day dawning, ‘through the tender mercy of our God, when the day shall dawn upon us from on high, and give light to those who sit in the darkness… and guide our feet in the way of peace.” What a beautiful and profound spiritual hope.

The New Testament just presumes that we all need to start over, that our lives need to be reclaimed and redeemed. We were born into a world that was broken, families that have problems. And our task is to make the most of what we were given spiritually speaking. We are all in the redemption business with our own lives.

Aristotle said much the same thing, particularly the older that we get. In the first half of our lives, we are all about collecting- money, a home to raise our families, our reputations and our careers, making a mark and making a meaningful contribution to our community.

But every year past the time that your kids are out of the house, he said, we need to also focus on paring down, getting rid of some stuff. He meant that mostly in the physical sense, but it is a good image for our spiritual lives as well. We need to leave some stuff behind that is starting to weigh us down. The new year gets us thinking like this.

A friend sent me a country song by Ashley Monroe on that theme. It is a rather poignant reflection for the new year.  It goes,

 

I was only 13 when daddy died
Mama started drinking and my brother just quit trying
I'm still bouncing back, heaven only knows
How I came out like a rose

Ran off with what's his name when I turned 18
Got me out of North Dakota, but it did not change a thing
I left it in the yard, all covered up with snow
And I came out like a rose

Sitting in this diner with a coffee in my hand
Waiting on a bus to some promise land
I got a one way ticket as far as it goes
And I’ll come out like a rose

 

That is all that God asks for us to do. Jesus taught us that we are all children of God, accepted and beloved. And our job is to pick up the broken pieces of our lives and the lives of people around us and to put them together as best we can and sew them back together with the thread of redemption, healing what is around us.

I read in the New York Times that there was a service in Manhattan on January 1st where you could bring some stuff from the previous year that you’d just like to burn up and be done with to start the new year on a better footing- just get rid of the negative aftertaste of some sour events in your life from 2015. And they had a little ritual bonfire that you could throw your negative stuff into. Some years are just like that aren’t they?

There are some things from last year from the headlines of the news that we would all like to just get rid of: Like…

-Boko Haram killing 2000 people in Nigeria and abducting girls in wanton disregard.

-Isil warriors destroying the ancient ruins of Nimrud and forcing 800,000 Christians to flee for their lives; and 4 million refugees in crisis and unsafe (as the front page article in the Times this morning illustrates).

-Al Shabab killing 148 people at Graissa University in Kenya

-the deaths of Walter Scott, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and many other young black men that set off protests across our country. It is an unacceptable and an embarrassment for all Americans.

-terrorist attacks on Charlie Hebdo, Paris, San Bernadino that have created a national mood of fear and unleashed some ugly nationalist rhetoric.

-Mass shootings in Charleston at a Church service, in Chattanooga at an Army base, at a Community College in Oregon. This American plague of gun violence in mass shooting that is exasperating our national leaders. All of us are ready to be done with it.

There is plenty of dysfunction that we need to be rid of in our wider social world from 2015. Some of it you wish you could just burn up and others of it, you just need to let go.

But for most of us it is personal. I bet you had a moment of reflection during the holiday season when you thought of something in your life that you wish you could just let go.

I ran into a friend of mine over the holidays who sounded rather fatigued. She was reminding me of her family history since her parents divorced about twenty years ago, how her family hadn’t worked well when she was young, how it worked even less well after the divorce.

She was lamenting that her family just couldn’t give her what she needed. They just couldn’t celebrate the many things that she had accomplished in her life. They weren’t a source of confidence or inspiration or uplift.

The dutiful daughter for the last generation, she had been putting a lot of energy into propping her family up. Over the last couple years both of her parents died, her Aunts and Uncles too, the generation came to a close. And through the process of closing out the estate, there was disagreement on what needed to be done, who should get what keepsakes, and things were said between the siblings, feelings were hurt.

Family is family. But she said to me, “I’m letting this generation go. It hasn’t been working for me for a while and biological proximity alone is not enough. I’ll still see them occasionally, but I’m turning my focus towards the rising generation. That is where my energy and my passion will be, where I’ll share my life more fully.

I smiled at her and said, ‘you know, I’ve heard this like three of four times now…’ She said, “I’m letting it go. I’m slowly letting it go.” And isn’t that the way it is with the stuff that is really important in your life? You have to talk it out with your good friends over and over and over, especially the more intimate and the more complicated it is. But at some point you set your face in a direction, often in the New Year, after you’ve come off a holiday season with those you are closest with and you’ve had a chance subconsciously to assess how things are going.

And, at some point after that, you actually make an appointment with the divorce attorney (or whoever it is that sets you in a new direction), difficult and sad as it is, and you get the process going officially. You let go of those things that just aren’t working, that are genuinely weighing you down spiritually.

Sorrow, guilt, disappointment- sure—but you need to let it go and move on. You just can’t stay in that negative cycle, even if you have no idea what comes next. But even with fear about the unknown and anxiety about free falling… you have to let some things go. And you know it in the pit of your stomach.

So this New Year, for those of you who had some negative trends that seem to have come to a head in 2015, we lift up a prayer of courage for you in that ambiguity about what to do, we lift up a prayer for focus when there are so many moving parts, you are searching for a context to bring some clarity.

“Through the tender mercy of our God, may a new day dawn from on high, and give light to you in your darkness… and guide your feet in the way of peace.”

And may you embrace the positive in the future, for we do live in a marvelous era that is actually full of promise as the Editors of the British magazine ‘The Economist’ remind us this time of year. The Editors publish a lengthy review of the state of our world, zooming out to give us context. And this is what they reminded us of this year:

-More people have been rising out of poverty over the past decade than at any time in human history and fewer people died of starvation last year as a percentage of the world population than at any time in human history. It is not acceptable that anyone should starve, but zoom out and the standard of living continues to rise dramatically.

-Violence is down by every standard. We actually have fewer wars (almost historically low levels); we actually have fewer civil wars. It just seems like they are increasing because we cover them worldwide now.

-Almost every country in the world is actually safer than a decade ago, the crime rate is steadily falling across the world, more so in countries that have an established rule of law.

-Medical research is proceeding at an unprecedented rate, dramatically increasing our quality of life. Almost all of us here experience this when we visit the doctor and they tell us, whatever you have, wait if you can, because a better surgery, a better treatment regimin will be developed in 5 years.

-Physicists’ this year probably discovered a new sub atomic particle that may help us make a breakthrough in our fundamental understanding of the structure of the universe, perhaps including a beginning understanding of dark matter that composes a large percentage of our universe (and we haven’t had a clue about it yet)

- And there are social trends that are genuinely encouraging. This year, our country recognized Marriage Equality and so did Ireland, arguably the most Catholic country in Europe. It feels like the momentum has just shifted so that gays and lesbians can be accepted for who they are… finally. When I think about the change for gays and lesbians that has happened over my life time, it is moving to realize how much more humane we have become as a society.

-This year, we had one of the biggest archeological finds in history as we discovered an entire new species of hominid, with over a dozen intact sets of bones (not just a single jawbone). We are understanding our history as a species and who we are in relation to the other animals as never before in human history.

-And locally, let me hasten to add, this year, one of our very own at Christ Church won the Nobel Prize in medicine. Wow!

I was at a lecture earlier this year by one of our academia’s leading dour cynics. After he’d given a lengthy critique of the ills of our world, one of the undergraduates asked him a simple question. “If you could be born at any time in human history when would you choose, Rome, Greece… when?”

Without hesitation he said, “Now”. With our problems, we are still blessed with expectation and promise that is unprecedented.

And, as you probably know, despite all the problems in Metropolitan New York, more people the world over would like to move to New York; more people would like to move to the United States than anywhere else by a long shot. We live in an era of expectation and promise such as few have ever known.

There is a better you that is waiting to emerge and your future is bubbling with promise. The Spirit of God draws nigh to bless you with promise and expectation.

I do hope you can let go of the spiritually negative things in your life that have been an impediment. And keep yourself open. For God is not done with you yet.

Through the tender mercies of our God, may the day dawn upon you from on high. May God give light to you who sit in darkness and have to endure the shadow of death around you. May God guide you in the pathway of peace. 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.

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