Real Wisdom – Julie Yarborough 5/22/16

James 3:13-17                                                                       Rev. Julie Yarborough

Romans 5:1-5                                                                                    Christ Church

 

Real Wisdom

 

Who is the wisest person you can think of? What makes them wise?  (I invite you to take a few moments to discuss this with your neighbor)

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Caroline often begins her sermons with a confession; and this morning, I have one of my own: I turned 50 recently, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be entering this phase of my life.

 

I have to say that turning 40 was much harder than entering my fifties. A few weeks before my 40th birthday, I spoke with a single friend who was celebrating her 40th birthday by climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. I had young children at the time and was feeling frazzled and like my life was not really my own. Our travel plans that year consisted of a trip to Disney World.

 

For me, turning 40 was much harder than turning 50. Entering my 50’s feels like a time of new possibility and growth, a time for gaining wisdom.

 

So, I’ve been asking myself, “What does it mean to be wise?”

 

Our first scripture reading from the book of James gives us some clues about wisdom: Being wise is as much about actions as it is about knowledge. Wisdom is about how we live out our lives in the world. Saying that you’re wise doesn’t make it so – in fact, if you brag about your wisdom, or twist the truth in order to sound wise, it’s the furthest thing from wisdom.  Real wisdom “begins with a holy life,” is spiritually grounded, and is characterized by gentleness, humility, kindness and love.

 

The passage from Romans also gives us some clues.  “…Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us…”

 

Paul is not saying that we should seek out suffering in our lives in order to be more holy; only that in order to gain wisdom, we must go through some form of suffering - and all of us will suffer at some point in our lives, but not all of us will grow wiser. The outcome depends on whether or not we allow our suffering to change us.  The type of suffering I’m talking about might be the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a health crisis, a divorce or a near-death experience. It could be some form of abuse or humiliation. It could be forced upon us or we could bring it on ourselves. Whatever the cause of the suffering, if we allow it to become an opportunity for spiritual growth, we will be opened to a deeper form of living.

 

Father Richard Rohr speaks and writes often about the two halves of life.  In the first half of life, we are busily (and necessarily) building up our identities by working to achieve success, climbing to the top in our personal and professional lives. But these outer concerns will not serve us well as we grow older.  The challenges, mistakes, suffering and tragedies that we encounter in our lives are necessary forms of suffering that shock us out of our comfort zones into a more life-giving way of being.[1] The heartbreaks, failures and disappointments of life are necessary for the spiritual journey of transformation into what Rohr calls the “second half of life.”

 

The two halves of life may be better described as the two “tasks” of life.  They are not meant in a strictly chronological way. “Some young people, especially those who have learned from early suffering, are already there, [in the second half of life] and some older folks are still quite childish.”[2]

 

The second half of life, then, doesn’t depend on chronological age, but on how much we allow our suffering to be transformed through a spiritual journey of awakening to the true self.

 

This idea is not unique to Richard Rohr. Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, also wrote about the notion of self-examination as a spiritual journey, which enables us to grow closer to the heart of God; and many other renowned thinkers and writers in our time talk about self-reflection and vulnerability as integral to living a deeper, more meaningful life.  Brené Brown is one example, and Krista Tippett is another.

 

A journalist with National Public Radio (and, I might add, a former classmate of mine from Yale Divinity School) Krista Tippett’s syndicated program and podcast, On Being, airs on WNYC every Sunday morning.  Tippett interviews people from all walks of life – scientists, religious leaders and scholars from many faith traditions, poets, and activists. She asks questions and engages in conversation about what it means to be human, living together in this world with all of the challenges and struggles we face, and how to do that with wonder and grace.  Recently, she was interviewed on her own show by Pico Iyer, an author and essayist, about her new book, “Becoming Wise.”

 

[You can find that show on-line here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/krista-tippett-an-inquiry-into-the-mystery-and-art-of-living/8644]

 

Since her book was published, a lot of people have been asking her to define wisdom, and she responds in this way: “One core aspect of wisdom, when you experience it in another human being, is that there is an integrity, a connection, between inner life and outer presence in the world.”

 

Her description echoes the passage from James that we hear earlier this morning: “It’s the way you live, not the way you talk that counts.”

 

Pico Iyer commented that when you focus attention on the inner life, your outer life will also thrive; but it doesn’t work the other way around – if you focus your attentions on building up your outer life (what Rohr would call the “first half of life”) your inner life will be puny.  For a balanced life, we must focus on the inner landscape.

 

Later in the interview, Tippett talked about the role that suffering plays in wisdom, “So there is this great puzzle about life that things go wrong…. But then there is also this paradox that, ‘We are so often made by what would break us.’ And I think this is where our spiritual traditions, where spiritual life is so redemptive and necessary because this is the place in life that honors the fact that there’s darkness but also says ‘and you can find meaning right there….’ To come back to what wisdom is, as I’ve seen it: it’s people who walk through whatever darkness, whatever hardship, whatever imperfection and unexpected catastrophes … who walk through those and integrate them into wholeness on the other side. That you’re whole and healed, not fixed, not in spite of those things, but because of how you have let them be part of you.”

 

To gain wisdom, we must experience suffering and allow ourselves to be healed by allowing that suffering to become part of who we are, not by denying it or anesthetizing ourselves to the pain, but by living through it and coming out on the other side.

 

When people who have lived through difficult times, and have integrated those experiences tell their stories, others can benefit from knowing that they are not alone and gain knowledge about how to maneuver through the darkness and suffering that will inevitably come their way.

 

Lin Manuel Miranda (the writer and lead actor in the Broadway hit, Hamilton) spoke at U Penn’s commencement ceremony last week, and he shared a story about a time of suffering in his own life that became a time for transformation.

 

(Video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4  story is from 6:03 – 7:45)

 

“I am 20 years old, finishing my sophomore year at Wesleyan, and my girlfriend of four and a half years is home from her semester abroad. I cannot wait to see her again—she is my first love. I dread seeing her again—I’ve grown into my life without her. In her absence, with time and angst to spare, I have developed the first draft of my first full-length musical, an 80-minute one-act called In The Heights. I have also developed a blinding pain in my right shoulder, which I can’t seem to stop cracking. My girlfriend comes home. I am so happy to see her, even as my shoulder worsens. My mother takes me to a back specialist, ranked in New York Magazine, so you know he’s good.

 

He examines me, looks me dead in the eyes, and says, “There’s nothing wrong with your back. There will be if you keep cracking it, but what you have a nervous tic. Is there anything in your life that is causing you stress?” I burst into tears, in his office. He looks at me for a long time, as I’m crying, and get this… - he tells me the story of Giuseppe Verdi. A 19th century Italian composer of some note, who, in the space of a few short years, lost his wife and two young children to disease. He tells me that Verdi’s greatest works—Rigoletto, La Traviata—came not before, but after this season of Job, the darkest moments of his life. He looks me in the eyes and tells me, “You’re trying to avoid going through pain, or causing pain. I’m here to tell you that you’ll have to survive it if you want to be any kind of artist.”[3]

 

Miranda said that he broke up with his girlfriend that night and spent that summer going through therapy.

 

The sufferings of our life, when combined with introspection and an examination of our inner lives, lead to spiritual growth, artistic expression and wisdom.

 

We have to do our interior work in order for suffering to lead to wisdom. Listening to ourselves and for the voice of God within us is a necessary step. Sitting in silence, listening, meditating, praying, even going through therapy – all are ways to help us integrate our experiences of suffering and help us transform them into wisdom that can be lived out in the world. Having knowledge without doing our inner work may be informative, but it is not transformative. And, as Richard Rohr often says, “If we don’t transform our suffering, we will transmit it.”

 

Let me say that again: “If we don’t transform our suffering, we will transmit it.”

 

So doing our interior work can help lead to wisdom, but NOT doing our interior work can lead to harm, and the result will be more suffering in the world.

 

We often associate wisdom with age, because those who are older have lived longer and been through so much more - but just because someone is older it doesn’t mean that they are wise.  “We live in a world with many elderly, but very few elders,” observes Richard Rohr.[4]

 

At Christ Church, our “Aging and Sage-ing” group meets from time to time to explore what it means to grow wiser as we age. Leigh Rosoff (one of our own wise women!) started the group about 5 years ago and this is the way she describes it:  “The real essence of the group has been to wake up to the possibilities of this end part of our lives.  There’s kind of a myth that one diminishes, but that is really untrue. And there is a deep natural calling to the interior, to our heart space, in order to awaken to a higher consciousness and see the connectedness of everything…. It is indeed a time of wisdom, wholeness, love, joy, which balances the natural things that will be happening because there is this diminishment.”

 

As we grow older we experience even more loss, rejection and humiliation. More of our friends are dying, our health declines, we are no longer able to do everything that we used to be able to do. Staying open to the spiritual possibilities for transformation becomes even more important, and sharing our experiences with others allows us to find purpose and meaning, while also passing on wisdom that we have gained throughout our lives – not by passing on advice, but by telling our stories, by witnessing in the world, by “eldering.”

 

Mary Fraser explains: “Eldering invites another to take a look for oneself, to live the examined life, to consider the possibilities of seeing and listening with the heart as much as the head, and to understand the potential of one’s own life for transformative experience and service. Eldering is a way of carrying oneself in the world that shows the scars and the mystery of healing. Eldering makes visible the weathering of love, how it softens and strengthens at the same time. Eldering is the skin of faith over time.”[5] (emphasis mine)

 

We who are growing older have an opportunity to be elders. The world is in need of wise ones, who have suffered and allowed their suffering to lead to spiritual growth, who then share their wisdom with others through the telling of stories. We need to “show our scars and the mystery of healing.”  We are called to open up to our heart spaces; to be vulnerable and open to the leading of the Spirit; to be open to Mystery, and yet grounded in reality; to transform our suffering, and be people of wisdom and hope, for hope does not disappoint.  Amen.

 

Closing Benediction

O God who goes before: Give us wisdom enough to live this week in places of communion with you. Give us courage enough to follow you into the difficult places we’d rather avoid. Give us love enough to bear patiently with the hurts and struggles of our friends. Give us peace enough to accept and nurture our own selves. Amen.

Found on http://pilgrimwr.unitingchurch.org.au/?p=256

[1] Rohr, Richard, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011)
[2] Rohr, Richard, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011) p. xvi
[3] https://heatst.com/entertainment/full-transcript-lin-manuel-mirandas-commencent-speech-at-upenn/

 

Video at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ewHcsFlolz4  (story from 6:03 – 7:45)
[4]Richard Rohr, daily meditation sent from The Center for Action and Contemplation, November 6, 2014 http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Richard-Rohr-s-Meditation--Eldering.html?soid=1103098668616&aid=mkNEWPgh32c
[5] “Eldering as Invitation,” by Mary L. Fraser, in Weavings: A Journal of the Christian Life, Volume XXXI, Number 3, May/Jun/Jul 2016, p.6.

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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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