Pride and Prejudice – Julie Yarborough (7/3/16)

2 Kings 5:1-14

Galatians 6:1-5

July 3, 2016

 

 

I recently heard a story about a woman who had a layover in an airport. She had some time before her plane departed, so she decided to buy a newspaper and some cookies to eat to help her pass the time.  She sat down at a table, opened the newpaper and began to read.  It was crowded, and a man wearing a suit and tie sat down in the opposite chair. She glanced over at him and continued reading.

A few minutes later, the man opened the package of cookies that was on the table, took one out and began to eat it. “Hmph! She thought. “The nerve of that man, eating my cookies!” But she didn’t want to say anything to him – that would be awkward. She simply took a cookie of her own and sent him a look as if to say, I saw you, but these are my cookies and I’ll be eating them, thank you.”

A few minutes later, to her surprise, the man took another cookie out of the bag and ate it. This made her really indignant. How dare he eat my cookies! Who does he think he is? She grabbed another cookie and ate it while throwing him a really nasty, scathing look. There was only one more cookie in the bag and just as she was reaching for it, the man took the cookie, broke it in half, ate one piece and left the other one for her. That was it! She grabbed the bag with the last half of the cookie, gathered her things together, scowled at the man and left to go to her seat at the gate. About 10 minutes later, she boarded her plane and when she got to her seat, she opened her bag to get out her headphones, and low and behold, there in her bag was the unopened package of cookies she had purchased!

 

Sometimes, our pride can get the most of us and we begin to make up stories in our heads.  Without stopping to think or ask questions, we rush to conclusions and make assumptions. (And you know what they say about the word ASSUME?  When you break down the word you can see that to assume makes an ASS out of U and ME)

 

This is what happens in our story today. Naaman, commander of the army of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, the King. He had beaten the Israelites in battle. He was a mighty warrior, used to giving orders and getting his way.  He was in a position of power and might, and had probably been rewarded richly. He was, after all, in the King’s favor. Life was good, except for one thing: Naaman had leprosy – or some kind of skin disease (in those days, “leprosy” was used as a catch-all term for skin disorders.)

 

One day, a young Israelite girl who had been captured as a slave and served Naaman’s wife, said, “If only your husband could meet up with the Prophet who is in Samaria! He would heal him.” I imagine that Naaman was desperate to be healed. He had probably exhausted all possibilities of healing in his own land – he had the financial resources and the all of the connections necessary to afford the best treatments available, and yet he was still afflicted.  So Naaman mentioned this option to his boss and friend, the king, who encouraged him to go seek out this treatment option and even offered to write a letter on his behalf to the King of Israel.

 

Naaman set off on the journey with his entourage, taking gifts of silver, gold and extra clothing to bestow upon this prophet-healer. He also took the letter from one king to another, presenting Naaman to be healed. Upon presentation of the letter, however, the King of Israel rushed to a conclusion of his own: since this impossible task of healing was not something in his power, he tore his clothing and began to wail, convinced that the King of Aram was trying to start a war.  If the King of Israel had proceeded with this line of thinking, he could’ve inadvertently led his country into war! Fortunately, Elisha heard of the King’s worries and told him to send Naaman to him to be healed.

 

When Naaman arrived at Elisha’s place, a messenger came out with instructions. Naaman was stunned that the prophet didn’t come out to meet him personally, important man that he was.  And on top of that, the prophet told him to go and bathe in the River Jordan. In his mind, he could’ve saved himself the trip and bathed in one of the rivers that was closer to home and cleaner!

 

Naaman’s pride and entitlement almost kept him from the one thing he desired the most. The story he told himself was that he should receive special treatment. “Who does this prophet think he is, not even coming out to greet me in person?” His prejudice almost caused him to miss out on the cure for his leprosy. He came very close to missing the healing and wholeness that he wanted more than anything.

 

What are the stories we tell ourselves that keep us from encountering healing and wholeness?

 

Pride may be an obstacle – we may tell ourselves that we are superior to others and don’t need help from anyone, or that we deserve special treatment – but for many of us, the stories we tell ourselves have less to do with pride, and more to do with shame and inadequacy.

 

In her bestselling book, Rising Strong, Brene Brown tells a story about going on vacation with her family to Lake Travis in the beautiful Texas Hill Country. Early one morning, before the rest of the family was awake, she and her husband, Steve, decided to take a swim across the cove. Competitive swimmers, they had met 25 years earlier when they were both lifeguards and swim coaches. They set off from the shore, and when they got about half-way, they stopped to check for boat traffic on the lake.

As they were treading water, their eyes met, and inspired by the beauty of the day, and her love for her husband, Brene was overwhelmed with gratitude and eager to connect. “I’m so glad we decided to do this together. It’s beautiful out here.” Expecting Steve to respond with an equally gushing response, she was surprised when he gave her a non-committal half-smile and said “Yeah, water’s good,” then started swimming away from her.

 

Didn’t he hear me? She wondered. Maybe my unexpected touchy-feely-ness took him off guard and he was so overwhelmed with love that he was rendered speechless? Whatever the case, she was embarrassed and ashamed.

 

When they reached the shore, Brene decided to try again. Steve, who had arrived before her was ready to push off and head back. She wasn’t used to putting herself out there, but she had to try again. After all, she had just written a book on vulnerability and daring! So she flashed a smile and tried again: “This is so great. I love that we’re doing this. I feel so close to you.”

 

“Yep, good swim.” He responded and pushed off to swim back.

 

Brene was confused and angry. She didn’t know whether to feel humiliated or hostile.

 

Fueled by anxiety, she swam back to the dock, beating Steve by a few strokes.

When he joined her, she plucked a technique from her research and said:

"I feel like you're blowing me off, and the story that I'm making up is either that you looked over at me while I was swimming and thought 'Man, she's getting old. She can't even swim freestyle anymore.' Or you saw me and thought, 'She sure as hell doesn't rock a Speedo like she did twenty-five years ago.' "

 

It turns out that Steve hadn’t heard a word that she’d said because he’d been fighting off a panic attack during the entire swim. The night before, he'd had a nightmare that he had taken their kids on a raft in the cove when a speedboat roared toward them. In the dream, he pulled the kids underwater and waited for the boat to pass over, but he could tell that his son was out of breath, that he would drown if they stayed under any longer.  In the middle of the lake, the nightmare was feeling very realistic. All that Steve could think about was getting back across the cove.[1]

 

Brene had been making up a story in her head that tapped into her shame and feelings of being unlovable. Steve was tapping into his fears of inadequacy about being able to protect his family.

 

The most powerful stories may be the ones we tell ourselves, says Brené Brown. But beware—they're usually fiction.

 

Our fears of inadequacy and shame cause us to tell ourselves stories about human relationships, but they also cause us to tell ourselves stories about our relationships with God.

 

I don’t deserve God’s love.

 

I’m not good enough - if you only knew the things I’ve done in my life….

 

God will only love me if I…

 

I’m not lovable.

 

These tapes that we play in our heads are often there from childhood – from painful lessons taught by our parents or shame-based religious institutions, and they are difficult to reprogram.  Brene Brown writes that in her research, those who had experienced shame around religion, “believed that the sources of shame arose from the earthly, man-made, human-interpreted rules or regulations and the social/community expectations of religion rather than their personal relationships with God or the divine.” She writes, “Our faith narratives must be protected and we must remember that no person is ordained to judge our divinity or to write the story of our spiritual worthiness.”[2]

 

The story of Naaman is one of many in the Bible where God’s healing grace is bestowed upon an outsider. Naaman was not an Israelite, one of the Chosen. In fact, he was an enemy! He didn’t do anything to deserve healing, and he couldn’t buy his way to a cure. In fact, After Naaman was healed, he returned to Elisha, grateful and professing his belief in the God of Israel. He tried to offer payment to Elisha, but the payment was refused. God’s grace and love are free and undeserved. There is nothing that we can do earn them and there is nothing we can do that is so horrible that God will withhold them from us.

 

God’s providence is complex – it doesn’t often match our expectations. We need to be open to surprise.

 

In Zen Buddhism, there is a concept known as “Beginner’s Mind.”  Beginner’s mind is cultivating the attitude of not knowing, even when you approach something that seems very familiar; of seeing everything as if for the first time; allowing ourselves to be surprised by the ordinary. “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s there are few,” writes Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki.

 

Brother David Stendl-Rast writes, “To recognize that everything is surprising is the first step toward recognizing that everything is a gift. The wisdom that begins with surprise is the wisdom of a grateful heart.”[3]

 

“We can cultivate our intellect’s taste for surprise. And whatever causes us to look with amazement opens ‘the eyes of our eyes.’ We begin to see everything as a gift.”[4]

 

 

How do we train ourselves to be open to surprise? How do we cultivate beginner’s mind?

 

It takes an effort to reprogram ourselves so that we stop jumping to conclusions. We must be conscious, brave and vulnerable to make changes in the way that we see ourselves, and the stories that we make up about our worthiness and the intentions of others.

 

We can can begin to do this is by setting aside our pride and our prejudices and practicing gratitude and generosity of spirit – by assuming that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have to work with. When we start with that presumption, we open ourselves up to the possibility that we may not know everything; we may not have all of the answers; our assumptions might be wrong!

 

When we let go of the stories we tell ourselves that diminish our inherent worthiness, we are able to live into a new story of wholeness and healing - the Gospel story - that honors and celebrates who we are: beloved children of God.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Brene Brown, Rising Strong, (New York:Random House,) 2015, pp.15-20.
[2] Rising Strong, p. 83.
[3] Brother David Stendl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer, (New York: Paulist Press) 1984, p. 215
[4] Brother David Stendl-Rast, p. 22.

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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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