That We May Be One – Chuck Rush (2/1/15)

That We May Be One
Isaiah 40: 21-31; I Corinthians 12:13

“For we are baptized in one Spirit- Jew and Greek. Slave and free, that we may be one in Christ Jesus”

Joke about division and chaos…

We Americans pride ourselves on our rugged individualism. But we are also the inventers of Big Data that measures us in our group think. Today we have a national holiday to celebrate just that as we watch the Superbowl together, while the best marketers in the world create clever ads designed to get us to propel a trend, develop buzz and enhance their brand.
Indeed, we humans have advanced capabilities in reading other people and figuring out how to fit in. Most every teenager in the history of the world has had a parent, exasperated over the power of peer pressure, say to them, “if your friends were all about to jump off a cliff, would you follow them?” It turns out the answer to that question is “probably so” according to our social scientists.
We are not simple minded lemmings following hormones or instinct. We are actually complex creatures with the most sophisticated social organization of any living beings on earth.
Other higher mammals also have an incredible social life. I saw a post this week about a guy that died in South Africa. He had devoted a big part of his life to rescuing elephants and working with them. When he died, the family did something to let the elephants on the range around him, know and see that he had died. What happened next was eye-opening to people who don’t know how similar we are to elephants.
The elephants communicated with each other- and they can communicate across great distance. And two separate groups, led by the matriarch (Elephants have female leaders of their tribes), each came to the home where the man lived, from a long distance away, and lined up one by one. The man’s family came out and the elephants each stopped in front of the family and moved on. They were paying their respects to a grieving family at the time of their loss, pretty much just like we do. Emotionally, all of us higher mammals have quite a similar makeup.
Humans are just more complex and sophisticated. We have a part of our brain that is singularly devoted to recording what others around us are thinking, doing, and saying. And this information is not simply stored so that we can recognize the significance of what they are doing. It also kicks in a process of “mirroring” where we reflect back what they are doing. We emulate what they are doing. We figure out how to respond or synchronize our lives around what they are doing. We adapt, shape ourselves, and become different people based on what they are doing. It is a very complex process.
And it can make a huge difference in how we actually turn out too. Researchers at the University of Gronigen in Holland showed what our cops have observed right here in our metropolitan area. Your social milieu affects you, probably more than you realize, and in ways that are subtle.
They were in a neighborhood that had a sign up that said, “No bicycles allowed” posted on a chain link fence. Then they had a guy pull up his bike, get out a chain and chain it to the fence, right under the sign that said, “No bicycles”. What effect do you think this had on people? Right, other people started breaking rules, but not just the bicycle rule. What they noticed is that people were also much more likely to take an illegal shortcut leaving the area. Once people saw that you could break the law with impunity, they broke lots of other laws. What they were actually doing is letting their impulse selves take over, rather than the rational, considerate part of themselves that looks at the whole group, not just themselves.
It is what Mayor Guliani observed in our neighborhoods with chronic crime. If you turn the other eye to low level crimes, what you get is a pervasive impunity towards laws more broadly, an indifference towards the legal system that is actually toxic in ways that are far more important than simple graffiti or litter. We are highly conditioned by the social world around us and trends are also contagious.
So when we looked, for example, at effective strategies in developing an ethic of conservation, we tried a number of different approaches, appealing to our moral sense of duty, looking out for your children in the future, rational calculation. But the one thing that actually worked? It was a routine reminder of what other people in your neighborhood were doing. That had the biggest effect on actually changing behavior by far.
And the same is true negatively. When we went back and looked at the rising incidence of cheating among our high school and college students, the number one factor that affected their behavior, one way or the other, was the perception that their peers were cheating. If kids thought that cheating was pervasive, they were far more likely to cheat themselves. And here is what was interesting, if they thought their good friends were cheating, that was the most influential impact on their behavior.
What we’ve been able to see on our MRI screens is pretty much what our mothers have been telling us all along. We don’t mirror other people indiscriminately. The people that are closest to us, the people that we think are most like us, have a far bigger influence on us than anyone else. Pick your friends carefully. What tribe you belong to is critical for your development.
We know that. And we already sense that this is becoming more important in our lives. We are simply going to become more intentional about the groups we belong to in the future, particularly when we start to realize just how much ‘group think’ impacts us in ways that we could be unconscious of, were we not already aware.
I thought it was significant this year that all of the TV stations airing the President’s State of the Union address had a social register below his image. It was a simple poll that they took. The President would make a point about withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. Right below his image, they had an immediate graphic, “68% of people watching agree with this statement”. I had just been reading an article about the use of these real time statistics. In it, the authors explained that we are substantially affected by statistics like that. We tend to let the statistics themselves influence us and we tend to gravitate towards the norm. So if we ‘strongly disagree’ with the President’s statement, we still tend to disagree less when we see that most people agree with him.
We are going to see this become bigger and bigger in our social lives, as creating trends and motivating people by creating a buzz becomes more and more sophisticated in the next decade.
St. Paul knew these things about human nature as well. He knew that we need to belong fundamentally enough, that who we surround ourselves with has important, determinative influence on us. He knew that the church had this incredible power to influence us positively or negatively. And he kept reminding Church leaders in every letter that he wrote to remember the positive power that we have and make sure that we stick to it.
For we are baptized into one Spirit, regardless of where we come from, Republican and Democrat, women and men, Eastern and Western, heterosexual and gay, richer and poorer, educated and not educated, powerful and pedestrian, married and single, old and young… There are many different parts, many different types, but we are all called to become one. Like a beautiful tapestry that takes many different colors and weaves them into a rich pattern, St. Paul reminded us that we are all drawn into the oneness of God’s love. Whatever else we might do, we need each other to pull for us, to pray for us, to hope for us into a fuller way of being. Because God’s love heals. It inspires. It transforms.
Douglas Bloch was dealing with low grade depression. A recovering addict, he had a mini-relapse, and found himself lying in bed without any plan or structure for the day, realizing he was vulnerable to making bad decisions, depressed about how drugs were more powerful than his will, defeated and frankly trying to figure out a good reason to actually get out of bed.
He gets a call. Someone in his recovery group and his recovery group is his spiritual tribe. She suggests a 10 mile bike ride in an hour. She called him, I’m intuitively guessing, because when we are spiritually connected, we feel a ‘disturbance in the force’ as Yoda put it.
He says something like, “Great you called. I was just laying here, trying to figure out why I should get up.” On the other end of the phone, she knows that she is hearing his depression talking. No doubt, she has heard it before. She knows that the only actual thing she can offer to mitigate it is exercise and the company of someone supporting him.
She says, “I don’t know if you are up for it but I was thinking we’d make a loop up to Rocky Butte”. It was a more difficult climb, a longer route that would mean he had to work a little bit harder and that if he worked a little harder, his body would release those positive endorphins that could actually change his mood. At least they would get him out of this dangerous trough of stasis that he was in just lying in bed. “I’ll meet you in an hour.”
They start cycling. It is Sunday morning and he half way through the ride, he has to pee. Just so happens there is a church up ahead and they are meeting for worship. He sees this sign out front that says, “Are you connected? Get connected! Come inside for connection.”
They had greeters at the front door just like we do and a nice elderly couple greeted them and showed them the way to the bathroom. He turns to them and says, “You know, there is a lot of truth in your sign. I work in mental health and I see it all the time.” The man says back to him, “You know, my wife and I find that when we are helping other people with their problems, our problems don’t seem so overwhelming.”
When we are isolated and overly independent, we can find ourselves actually imprisoned by our own self, captive by the internal dialogue of our personal disappointments and frustrations that are depressing.
He gets back on his bike. His partner in recovery has tricked him into riding further up and up and up. He has this thought in his head, about getting out of himself, and his body is literally shifting his mood. He gets to the top, behind his friend, drenched in sweat. The vista is beautiful. The air is mountain chilled. He feels upbeat, uplifted, the wonder of the world around him in the beauty of nature, the wonder of the world inside him in the connection he has with his recovery partner and the nice couple from the church. That is the tangible face of love on a Sunday morning.
The cardiologist Dean Ornish, once said about the power of love, ““I am not aware of any other factor in medicine – not diet, not smoking, not exercise, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery – that has a greater impact on our quality of life or incidence of illness.” Our love heals other people. And in healing other people, we heal ourselves.
He says, “Community. Connection. Fellowship. Wherever we find healing we find these, and wherever we find these we find healing. There was no cure for alcoholism until two drunks, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith discovered one night in Akron, Ohio that they could do together what neither could do alone – keep each other sober. What started out as fellowship between two people has become the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Each day, tens of millions of people gather together in AA and other 12-steps communities to mutually support each others’ healing.”
Outside, we are many different things: lawyers, real estate agents, teachers, financial consultants, students, some of us mistakenly even New England Patriots fans… Many walks of life, many tribes of identity.
Inside here, we meet as ‘wounded healers’, as ‘forgiven sinners’. Though varied, through the Spirit of God’s love that we know in the Christ and with each other, we can become prayerfully transformed as one.
Are you connected?
Get connected!
Come join us for connection…

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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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