Real Interracial Community – Chuck Rush (9/25/16)

Real Inter-racial Community

Micah 4:2-4; Acts 2:1-13

I take you back to October 3, 1995.  What were you doing that day? It was a Tuesday if that helps. Not really? You were watching TV, even if you were at the office. Still can’t remember. In Los Angeles, Judge Lance Ito asked the foreman of the jury if they had reached a verdict. He asked O.J. Simpson to stand. And the foreman of the jury said, “Not guilty”.

What came next was simply incredulous. TV crews filmed the live reactions of blacks and whites across the country. Almost all of the white audiences were in stunned disbelief. Almost all of the black audiences were jumping up and down in celebration. And the TV people, like Wolf Blitzer, were caught completely off guard.

Do you remember your reaction? Do you remember who you were with? I was walking across the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers University that day, one of the most diverse campuses in the country. We prided ourselves on our diversity and multi-culturalism and every one of the faculty people that I ran into that day had no idea what to say. They could not believe how differently we were looking at the same trial.

It was very sobering. Here we were a full thirty years past the Civil Rights movement, a generation and a half past the Civil Rights movement. We had been steadily dismantling the structures of segregation, more avenues were open to blacks in jobs, in college… It felt like the world was moving in the right direction and that good will was generally developing between the races. But this verdict made you realize just how differently we view the world. At that moment, it felt really different.

It was a deflating moment, probably in a good way. You realized that despite how far we’ve come, despite many good programs and many good intentions, we still have a long way to go. More than that, I distinctly remember wishing that I wished I had an intimate group of friends from different ethnic backgrounds that I could have over for an honest and open discussion about why we see the world differently.

This year has been a little like that, has it not? We’ve had so many of these police shootings. They are such a travesty, such an unnecessary use of force.

They contrast so vividly with my experience of being pulled over by the police that is hard to believe we are living in the same country. Beyond the tragedy and the justice issues, it is again one of those moments when we really have different reactions to these events.

All of us have been disturbed and horrified by what we see, but there is an immediacy and a breadth about it for African-Americans who have been living with the anxiety and distrust and fear of the police for many, many generations that most of the rest of us Europeans and Asians and Hispanics just don’t have in our background. These videos have been re-traumatizing for them. They tap into a collective subconscious place in their soul that has stored up the bitterness of slavery, the second class injustices of Jim Crow segregation.

All of these hurts, all of these spiritually negative things that have mangled the souls of Black Americans, deformed their extended families from all of the introjected anger, frustration, low self-esteem, limited opportunities. You’ve seen its negative effects in your Uncles, cousins in the past.

And now this? You can’t help but wonder how much things have really changed. You can’t help but wonder how other people really view you when the police are so afraid that they deploy violence as quickly as they do.

Watching these young men demonstrating on the TV this week, acting out. They don’t feel loved. They don’t feel accepted and respected. It is painful to watch.

There is a lot of tension right now along racial lines. And none of us really want that. We recognize that we really need to have a basic respect for the police, for the rule of law that only comes when we broadly believe that we are all treated equally. We recognize that “trust” is degrading right now and we need to do something to turn the situation around or we will be living in anarchy.

The thing is that we are uniquely positioned to do something substantive and long term in the church, even here at Christ Church. We can create genuine interracial community. We can actually be the change we want to see in the world around us.

We all want this. We want to live like this. We want to raise our children like this. We are all deeply committed to becoming multi-cultural, so much so that you are already willing to put yourself out there. You could be at an all Black church, an all Asian church, an all Hispanic Church, an all European church- but you are not. You got up today, and made time to be with people that are not like you. I have a deep respect for you for putting yourself out there. And I know it is not easy or comfortable.

I remember reading Dr. King’s “Letter from a Birmingham City Jail” for the first time in my twenties. He wrote that letter in the early 60’s and he noted that Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week. When I was a child in the Deep South, it was certainly true.

And as I read that for the first time in the early 80’s, I thought to myself, “that is still true”. And I reflected on that a great deal for my first decade in ministry because I would visit so many different churches that I had to work with here in New Jersey. And I came to realize that the reason that church is so segregated isn’t exactly racial provincialism, it is not just that we just want to be around our own tribe, although that is a dimension of it surely.

It is that religion is an intimately cultural expression. We are moved by certain kinds of music, by a certain style of preaching, by certain rituals of prayer. They reinforce certain kinds of values that guided our parents and their parents and their parents.

Some of you have had that eerie experience of traveling back to the place where your people came from, sometimes 400 years ago. But you get there and it is uncanny how you find their humor funny, you love their music, you find their folkways endearing. You haven’t lived like that a day of your life because you’ve grown up in metropolitan New York but you have this resonance. It is like you are tapping into your collective subconscious.

We are subconsciously drawn towards cultural spiritual expression like that too. I understand that.

But there is also a place for breaking out and making something new for our generation, something that we need for us, for our families because we live in a new world.

Jesus taught us that God will pour out God’s spirit upon us and in those days, “your young men will dream dreams, your young women will see visions” as the prophet Joel puts it. Just after Jesus was crucified, Jews across the Roman Empire had returned to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of Pentecost. People were literally gathered from 50 nations, each speaking a different language.

The disciples were all gathered together in a time of prayer. And the room was filled with the Spirit of God. It sounded like a swirling wind. And the disciples were saying their prayers of thanksgiving to God when suddenly people in all these different nationalities could hear their language being spoken. They could miraculously understand the message of God’s love for the whole world. For that moment, in that miraculous moment, they all came together in unity. They were as disparate and different as they could be but they had understanding and harmony with each other.

Don’t you want a miracle like that today? I know I do. We know that the divisions that separate us are toxic. They are killing us. And we know what a beautiful thing it is to realize how much we fundamentally have in common spiritually. It is beautiful to celebrate our differences within this spiritual commonality.

Jesus taught us that we are all the children of God, that we all have a place at the table.

I love the beginning of the Bible because we all come from one family. We’ve gotten separated into different tribes and nations that contest one against another. But, originally, we all come from one family spiritually.

And you know that today, with the advent of DNA genome sequencing, we are discovering that this symbolic story that is told in the Bible has more accuracy than we knew. All of us gathered in this room, despite our different races, all can trace our lineage back to a primordial Eve, so to speak, that lived about 100,000 years ago.

Perhaps you saw the article in the paper this week that we were recently able to trace the DNA of enough different races around the world that we can say that all of Europeans, the Asians, Native Americans- everyone on all the other continents came out of one migration that began between 80,000 and 50,000 years ago.

And race is so fluid as that video we saw earlier reminds us. I saw a picture in National Geographic that was taken of slaves emancipated just before the end of the Civil War. It was 30 freed slaves. I looked at that photo and thought to myself, they are so African. We hardly see anyone like that today because almost all African-Americans have some European ancestry.

And isn’t that the beautiful thing about living in New York today, to see the infinite and beautiful variety of the children born to interracial families. My niece is Chinese-American; Irish-Japanese; Jamacian-Puerto Rican.

As that wonderful little video reminds us, none of us is all one anything. We are an incredible, wonderful mix… As my grandfather used to say, “Son you are the product of 20,000 generations of genetic wheeling and dealing”…

It will change your perspective too. I went out for a drink with one of my first friends to plunk down the money in 2000 and have his DNA sampled. This Irish-Italian guy was a little stunned to discover that he was 2% from North Central Africa. I explained to him that probably everyone whose ancestors go back to Rome that would be true.

And sometimes that simple discover can lead to a spiritual transformation. I read an article this week in the Jerusalem Post about Csanad Szegedi, aged 33. He is from Hungary. He thought he was 100% Hungarian. He joined the Jobbik party in Hungary. They are a nationalist party. Hungary for Hungarians. They don those black uniforms that not so subtly look just like something a Nazi would wear. He worked his way up the party ranks, ran for office, became an MP. Spouted the party line, the fascist line… Until… he found out that his grandparents on one side were Jewish. His grandmother went to Auschwitz and his grandfather went to another of the labor camps.

He had one of those moments in early adulthood when he said, “I am the enemy. I am them”. Suddenly all that racial prejudice, all that nationalist machismo, sounded so stupid and vain.

You know what he did? He did what you would do. He went out and started reading about Judaism. He wanted to know who he was? He wanted to know where he came from? He changed. His self-perception changed and so will his life.

It’s an emotional thing. I love the woman in the video we watched this morning. She is Kurdish and resents Turks because of the genocide that happened at the beginning of the century. There is a guy in the room that is Turkish and resents Kurds because of what the Kurds continue to do to press for their independence today. And they find out, lo behold, they are related to one another.

Not so easy to objectify the enemy anymore…. No, we are all mutts gathered here.

And here is the thing. We can be healed by love. What if we could wave a wand, or spit in a tube and have it proved to us, that we are all related. We are distant cousins. Paesan!

And that is what the Holy Spirit intends for us. Probably Christianity’s salient contribution to religion is that St. Paul really believed that we could become a spiritual family of families. Even though we come from many nations, even though we come from different socio-economic backgrounds, from different educational worlds, he thought we could become a spiritual surrogate family, a spiritual foster-adopt family held together by the dynamic force of love when we unleash that in our midst.

He thought we could heal one another, that we could empower one another, that we could give one another a confidence that our birth families just never could quite do.

It is a bold vision, an idealistic vision. But I will tell you that I think this is exactly what God wants us to do. And it has still not been tried all that often. We can try this now, here. We can try to become a genuine interracial community. We can forge friendships across racial lines and raise our children so they have close friends from different races than they are (predominantly).

We can create a place for dialogue. We can foster understanding. We can open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and become changed. I want us to make this the theme for this year. We know to start with some dialogue around race. We are living through a difficult patch right now. Beyond that, we need your prayers on what we can do to get to know each other better. What can we do to foster some deeper friendships? What can we do to celebrate our diversity? It is the source of our strength.

I actually believe that if we pray about this together, our “young and old men will dream dreams, our young and old women will see visions”. We just need to ask ourselves, “How can we take this to the next level?” We don’t have to solve all of the wider problems of race in the world, but how can we here take our relationships to the next level?

I saw a video piece recently. One of our college kids was asking people questions about Christ Church. She puts the camera on one of our children and says to her something like “What is Christ Church?” Without missing a beat this child looked up at the camera and said, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. So touching to see her say that so confidently. Let’s make that come true. 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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