That We May All Be One – Chuck Rush (6/21/15)

That We May Be One

Reflections on Charleston and Race

John 17:20-23

 

Perhaps you saw the cartoon in the New Yorker this week. It had a bunch of people standing around at a cocktail party and a guy pretty much like any of us, says, “Actually, I live in New Jersey but… I identify as New York.” (Raise my hand)

That was pretty good. I’m not sure what to say about a woman that is reportedly of German, Swedish, and Czech heritage that identifies as black. But it got me to thinking about the way that we Christians are literally from every different nation on this earth and yet we all identify as a “Child of God”.

That is actually one of our more profound spiritual idea that we are all children of God. But what we mean by that is really quite different. We mean that God accepts us all universally and also quite personally for who we are. I had a wonderful insight on that in a mildly awkward moment many years ago.

I was in San Francisco for a conference and it was Sunday, so I went to Glide Memorial Church downtown in San Francisco. This was the end of the era when gays were mostly all in the closet or they gravitated towards places like New York and San Francisco. Glide was one of the only churches that accepted gay people openly in church. And they also had a very active homeless outreach ministry. So when you showed up on Sunday morning, you would see families standing right next to homeless guys in the pew, next to white guys in bow ties like myself, next to a guy in drag.

So the Minister welcomed us all and asked us to turn to the person next to us and say, “Brother, peace be with you.” And we did. Only, I happened to be standing next to a guy that was dressed in a skirt, blouse and stiletto heels. I held out my hand and said, “Peace be with you, my brother… I mean my sister… I mean, what do I mean?” Awkward moment. We didn’t cover this in Divinity school.

He broke out in a wide smile and said, “Honey, I’m a Child of God”. And gave me a big hug. My new best friend. But I thought to myself, “you know, that is right”. We are first a child of God.

And because of that, we can be who we really are. We don’t have to be like other people that we are not to be accepted. God loves us and created us to be who we are meant to become, in all our specificity, in all our uniqueness.

Rabbi Zusha once said that when he gets to the afterlife, God will not ask him, “Why weren’t you more like Moses? Why weren’t you wiser like Solomon? Why weren’t you David?” No.

God will only ask me, “Why weren’t you more like Zusha?” Why didn’t you become who you were supposed to be? There is a radical specificity that God accepts in you that cannot be replaced.

Think about it. That is what we all experience if we are lucky enough to love and be loved. When people die that we love, there is something that is irreplaceable about them. They were warm and humorous in a way that no one else will be. They made us feel secure and joy filled in a way that no one could replace. They were eccentric and ornery in a way that we found endearing even if it was maddening at times. They were beautiful in their own way.

God loves you just for who you are and wants you to claim yourself in acceptance and become confident to be yourself. God wants you to be authentic and at peace. There isn’t another you. And you have a mission and a calling that makes your life the spiritual adventure that only you can really lead. So be free to become you and find your mission in this short time we have on earth to fulfill and express what you uniquely bring to contribute to human happiness in your community, in your era, with your family.

And there is also this universal part of identifying ourselves as Children of God, things that are true for all of us and they are some of the noblest thoughts in our tradition.

Because we believe that God accepts all of us. We are all God’s lost sheep. Jesus says that God is like a good shepherd that is willing to leave the 99 and come after this one last one because they are important enough to warrant God’s extraordinary compassion. God comes after you and you and you in acceptance and with love.

Jesus taught us that God is like a guy that throws a wedding feast and invites not just the people you would expect to be invited but God sends the servants out to the highways and the byways and beckons them to come in, to find their place at the table, in the joy of the beloved community, eating and drinking with good friends. You have a place at the table.

You have worth. You are worthy of respect and dignity. Treat yourself with dignity and respect. Treat other people with dignity and respect.

“We hold these truths to be self evident” wrote Jefferson, in the most elevated passage of political writing we have yet produced, that all of us are endowed with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (or fulfillment as we would say today).

This is the universal part of recognizing ourselves and others as children of God. It is noblest part of our spiritual community and our social order as well.

That is why acts of terrorism are so pernicious, so negative, so evil. They violate the trust that binds us together in community. They sow doubt, suspicion and anxiety. They stir up hate, anger, enmity, vengeance. Powerful negative energy that destroys.

When things like this happen, I have to imagine that most every African-American person in our country silently wonders to themselves, “Can I really trust white people?” Like the woman wrote in the Op-Ed in the NYT on Friday (June 19th), “Can we really be safe?”

You might find yourself, wondering when you have those anxious thoughts, “Do they really accept us on a par? Will we ever really be peers, equals, just like everyone else?”

Terrorism is very effective. Because the weird thing about our anxieties is that they keep coming back to haunt us, even when we wish they wouldn’t. Even when we know rationally that the people around us are normal, peaceful, accepting. You still think these thoughts.

We are just wired to stay on edge, to be defensive.

And yet, we want to trust people. We want to love. We want to be in real community. The Gospel of John kind of sums up the whole message of Jesus in our passage today. “I pray… that you might all be one, even as I and the Father are one… I in them and Thou in me that they may become perfectly one… that others might know that Your love is in me and my love is in them”.

We have within our reach the simple and profound spiritual antidote to the negative energy that is released in wanton violence and terror. It is the power of blessing.

That is why weddings are so wonderful. All of your family, all of your friends, all the people that you care about gather from near from far, some of them from very far away, for no other reason than to bless you and ask God’s blessing on your life. “May you be long on this earth. May you prosper and find fulfillment. May you know the blessing of your children’s children. May God show you the way and go with you on your journey together.” We love you.

That is what is so profound about baptisms, when all of us pledge to help this young family to grow deeper, guided by our community and what we have learned in the past two thousand years about what is important in our lives, that this child might find real character, acceptance and love, that they might become responsible contributors in the future, that we might all be made better, more profound for being together in this short time we have on this earth.

It is what makes prayer so valued in our times off illness and threat. Right now I have a friend from High School that is being treated for cancer. She grew up Jewish, agnostic and she put this out there on Facebook that she was going for treatments, serious, difficult treatments.

So I wrote her a note. I know she is agnostic and Jewish but I told her that I would be praying for her and my church would be praying for her. She wrote me back, the New York theater sophisticate, and she said, “I am an inter-faith, any denominational receiver of prayers at this time. And thank you very much.”

I love Herbert Benson, the Professor at Harvard Medical School that did the research on prayer, comparing people prayed for versus people that weren’t prayed for. Multiple studies, all kinds of variation, and Benson concludes, “We may not know the mechanical how of prayer, but the fact is that prayer works.” People get better, faster. People that don’t get healed, have a better experience of their illness. Emotionally, spiritually, we are just better.

We need a blessing. We need the light poured into us. We need the positive power of the Spirit to surround us. We need love that builds trust and acceptance. This is the positive spiritual energy that we have as our resource. Think about what power you have at your hand.

I have hardly any memories from High School but I remember the one blessing from my football coach. We were watching the reruns of our game just a few clips and one of them was me intercepting a pass and running it back for a touchdown. Coach ran it, ran it in reverse, ran it again and he said, “Chuck you run like a gazelle”. I still remember that blessing. We were a little short on blessings back then.

Let’s not be short on blessing each other anymore. I want to close this service with a moment of blessing. I’m going to ask us to all gather in a great big circle. And we are going to hold hands in community together. I want you to turn to your right and put your hand on the person to your right. If you can reach their head, lay a hand really lightly on their head. If you can’t reach that high, lay a hand on their shoulder.

And for 20 seconds I want you to beam out God’s love for them, God’s blessing on them. I want you to invoke healing for them.

Now turn to the people on your left. Lay a hand on them.

Now hold hands together and lift them up together while I close us in a benediction.

May God our source hold you in strength, through your season of difficulty

May God our sustainer fill you with love and compassion in a world of need.

May God our future bloom you to become radiant, vibrant, passionate for life.

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 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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