Spiritually Shaped Character – Chuck Rush (6/7/15)

Spiritually Shaped Character
I Corinthians 13:1-9, 13; John 13: 34, 35

This morning Dave and Sam dedicated themselves to raising baby Jane. And we ask for the support of God and the support of the whole community indirectly because it is the character piece of raising the next generation that is so challenging. They will need all of this support and the support of tradition to get this right. But it is deeply fulfilling when you invest yourself together in love like that.
Just before he died, a reporter interviewed Steve Jobs at Apple Computers. This reporter listed out the considerable career achievements that Steve Jobs had- the IMac, the Ipod, the Iphone, on and on it went. Then he asked Jobs to compare his career achievements with the achievement of raising his two children. Jobs said, “My children are 10,000 times more important.” You will find your meaning right where you invest your love in this life. That is how you will spiritually shape our world.
I’ve come to see that the rather profound insight from St. Paul lies in this insight. Paul really hoped that we would start to see the same kind of love and fulfillment that parents know in raising children extend through out the church. He hoped that the church would become a genuine community of trust, healing, and inspiration to each other and that the Spirit of God could extend this in all sorts of ways.
Just now there are a number of books on developing character that confirm what St. Paul suggested that we should do in the church, how we should become a community that spiritually shapes character by forming the next generation in love.
Only these books are being written by Neuroscientists studying how we are hardwired to develop resilience in this life. Character is not optional. It is our default position to develop it. How you develop resilience of character turns out to be remarkably spiritual in orientation, no matter what faith tradition you happen to have been born into.
I will mention only three examples that reflect pretty much what our tradition has been trying to suggest over the past 3000 years.
The first one is that we need to develop a moral code that we can use to guide our daily decisions in life. These moral codes will surely change from generation to generation. But the quest for moral depth of life is integral to our personal development. You may not know this but until we could study the brain in real time, there were a fair number of medical professors that really couldn’t explain our moral quest for purpose and meaning. As far as they were concerned it was peripheral to Darwinian natural selection and optional for the human brain to work.
But it turns out that when we could study the brain in real time, we cannot not be moral as humans. It is true that some people have defective moral development. We can now see how the brains of sociopaths fire differently than normal brains. But we humans are hard-wired for moral purpose.
And I suspect that this is what our Ancestors intuited anecdotally. They just knew this to be true. Biblical Scholars have good reasons to believe that about 1000 b.c., the ancient Israelites actually committed themselves to God and to each other once a year in a ritual that they held between two mountains. Half of the tribe would gather on one side of a mountain side, the other half on the other side. And they would recite the 10 commandments, one side starting with “Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods before me.” Then the other side would respond “You shall not take the name of the Lord God in vain”. The other side would say, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy”. On and on it would go.
They recognized that the spiritual quest was fundamentally oriented around developing a moral compass and a moral guide. And we see that in our readings from the New Testament today. Jesus is often credited spiritually with adding an 11th commandment that has helpfully shaped our moral thinking ever since. Whatever you decide, run it through the filter of love, and it will help.
Help it does. I can’t help but think of the way we let the transcendent perspective of love guide us when we were dealing with gays and lesbians in the church. We inherited a few passages of scripture that reflected the pervasive attitude from the bronze age through the 20th century that homosexuality was a perversion.
But then our scientists figured out that sexual orientation is not chosen, so much as it is regularly recurring at a rate of about 4% of the population. It is not deviant, just a deviation from the statistical norm. Then we started to look at our gay and lesbian neighbors through the spiritual lens of love and we decided to accept gay and lesbian families as needing at least as much support as other families. That was 20 years ago at Christ Church and today 37 states have come to recognize gay marriage in our country. So, 2000 years of repression are rapidly coming to a close and now gay couples are free to share all of the burdens and miseries of the rest of us.
So we can change and the moral challenges that we will face in the future will surely be different, so each generation has to develop their moral capacity in a different context that will produce some variation in values. But the moral challenge cannot be ignored. And it does not happen automatically. Like anything in our lives, you have to exercise it to make it stronger. You have to have discipline.
And we know that it works best when you can imprint it on the next generation. Our children are watching us. One of our parents asked their kids what Christ Church was all about and she said, without even thinking, “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”. Wow. She got that from coming to worship.
And they are imprinting when we take them with us to serve our homeless families at Family Promise. They are imprinting when we take them with us on Bridges runs. Elementary, grounding, but imprinting is very important.
The second thing that our Neuroscientists have observed as critical to our character development is that we have a support system of community. Professor Steven Southwick at Yale says, “very few highly resilient individuals are strong and by themselves… You need support.”
This is becoming a bigger challenge with each generation. We are more connected than ever but we are having to intentionally develop the kind of spiritual community that the Professors say we need. Humans are social creatures more than we realize. We are organically embedded in groups.
The beauty of the Church, when it is functioning like it is supposed to function, is that we are actively praying for each other. We bless each other, we reach out in personal care when people are afflicted with cancer and other life-threatening diseases. We hold each other up.
I loved Herbert Benson’s study of prayer at Harvard medical school. He ran a series of scientific studies that compared people that were prayed for versus people that were not prayed for, right on down to praying for mold to grow in a petri dish versus mold that was not prayed for. His conclusion? We cannot explain the mechanics of prayer but in every case, the things that were prayed for healed faster, grew faster, and were just made better, deeper, more fulfilled.
A lot of what we do is simply bless one another. And we have a spiritual power to do that and make people better. What a privilege to watch it in our families, when you bless the rising generation and you watch them bloom before you. What a privilege to watch it with our spouses and friends, when you can lift them up from their anxiety and self-doubt and give them the confidence to really become themselves and find their inner-creative resources. What a privilege it is to watch in our world, like at St. Benedict’s Preparatory Academy in Newark, where the boys from the hood are put through a highly structured program of love and respect. Over time, the boys become healed.
They start the day with the whole school in the gym in the morning for announcments. They all file in, full of the anger and attitude of living in the hood. And the student leader holds up his hand and one by one, the whole room becomes quiet until there is complete silence in the room. They had a TV crew out recently to cover the school and the cameramen said it was like a miracle to watch this transformation.
And it certainly is. Love is profoundly empowering and healing like that. And it comes through a community of support. We don’t make it on our own. For the big stuff, like raising kids, battling life threatening disease, accessing our higher selves, we need the community support. We need each others prayers.
Finally, we need to reset the baseline. The most compelling research in neuro-science at the moment is on mindfulness. Think of meditation, zen meditation, being simply present to ourselves, our world. It helps us to concentrate and focus, more important than we knew. It turns out that people actually spend almost half of the day (47%) thinking about something other than what they are doing. And that stat came out before texting took off.
One of the primary ways that we can actually make our focus stronger is by meditating. It is intentional. You have to do it every day, for twenty minutes a day, but it is very important in developing the skill of self-regulation. When you are upset or angry, when you have to deal with a very stressful situation, how you return yourself to inner calm is critical. It is a skill that both Monks and Special Op’s forces have advanced abilities in regulating.
What is interesting now is that we can measure the brain in real time and what you see when people meditate, when you focus on nothing except being present in the moment to yourself and to the world, is not simply that you return your heart rates and your brain waves to a baseline. Not surprisingly, the scientists of our era have described our brain waves returning to a baseline as a kind of reset or reboot for the brain.
What we’ve also been able to measure is that the baseline itself transforms over time. Through prayer and meditation you can become calmer, less rattled by stressful storms around you, more resilient at bouncing back from frustration and loss.
You can have more of the sense that you are in control of your life and develop a concentration to follow through on your goals. This part of our character is like a muscle. If you exercise it, it will get stronger.
It is a spiritual power that makes a material difference in how we live our lives. At the end of WWII, no one thought to ask this question of the survivors of the concentration camps. Viktor Frankl estimated that 2/3’s of the people that went through that experience just gave up at some point. They became overwhelmed with despair and simply died.
And another large percentage died from diseases, starvation, and back luck. But some survived. Knowing what we know now about the role that meditation plays in our lives, I am reminded of how many of the reports that I read by survivors that described a process whereby they could detach themselves from what was happening immediately around them. They could take themselves to a space that took them away to a place powerful enough they could go within themselves. All of them that I ever read were spiritual spaces of love and hope- the open field where he first met his girlfriend and images of them when they were falling for each other; family in a place of refuge, a retreat.
In every case it was not just something that inspired them with hope and perseverance, it was someone or a group of people that they were so emotionally connected to that it provided a transcendent power, a supernatural power. This will keep me living, it will get me through… literally almost anything.
It is amazing to me that we can be that for each other. It is amazing to me that we actually have those powers of concentration, if we choose to develop them, that can lift us right through the world around us.
That is what the Church is, that spiritual community of inspiration that points us towards our transcendent spiritual purpose to become people of character that can transform the world and transform ourselves.
I heard Jean Varnier interviewed last week, the founder of L’Arche community. He is being talked about as a saint even while he is still living and that is because his monastic community has established these centers of communal living that have brought together people with severe disabilities with those that that do not have them to establish an alternative community where every one has a place.
So rather than being shut off, lonely, and suffering, these people with severe disabilities bloom. Krista Tippet asked him on NPR what he had learned from people with disabilities that had changed him. And he said it was the power of touch.
Many times the rational capacity is quite diminished in the people that he works and lives with but he said from them he experienced a touch that was neither sexual nor aggressive, but one which was humane and transcendent.
It is love at work, regardless of our capacities, and it keeps us humane, resilient, filled with purpose. That is what St. Paul hoped we would become for each other, a kind of spiritual family of families, healing one another in prayer, blessing one another in touch, feeding one another with the transcendent power of love. My brothers and sisters, I invite you to the table and may the Spirit of God fill you and bless you. May you become stronger in love. And may you inspire someone around you in this season of your life. 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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