The Authentic Word — Charles Rush (1/5/14)

The front page of the Times carried a story on the first day of the New Year about a systemic cheating scandal at the University of North Carolina and their football players. It was one of those articles that make you roll your eyes, a new year perhaps but the same old, same old. No surprise that the football team drops the college SAT average a couple hundred points. In a second, I was transported back to college freshman year, end of the first semester. We had a final in Spanish, all of us were struggling, and we agreed to study together. Carmen Delgado, our defensive tackle, shows up in my dorm, my roommate pulls out his three ring binder. I say to Carmen, “what you got”. I've got some notes here and he reaches into his back pocket, pulls out like 4 sheets of paper with some scrawl on it… My roommate's glasses fell to the bottom of his nose. That was the last semester that Carmen attended Wake Forest.
The Dean at UNC was asked to comment on the fact that the faculty had violated some basic standards in order to help the lineman stay eligible to play. He said, ‘We operate on trust that our faculty members are fulfilling their duties and living up to the standard that we set for our community.”

And that is really the moral and spiritual principle that we try to teach at the University. We want kids to operate by an honor code, a code that they internalize. We want them to produce their own work because spiritually speaking we want people to find their own authentic voice. It is a lifetime achievement, finding your own voice. But no one else can do that for you. And you can steal other's work and pass it off as your own for a short amount of time but in the real test of living your life, you have to live what you are supposed to do, not anyone else's. And that is a deeper spiritual truth.

We Christians repeat it every year about now. We say about Jesus, ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth'. This is the real deal. This is the light that shines in the darkness and because of that, we each need to embody the light that grace and truth might find grow in us.

The movie ‘The Words' is about a young writer who can't quite seem to break through and get his work published. He isn't that good yet and he is frustrated about that. His girlfriend and he go to Paris and she buys him a writer's valise at a flea market. It is almost an antique. He gets home and discovers that inside is a hand written manuscript, probably 50 years old.

It tells the story of a young American GI in Paris right after the end of WW2, who falls in love with a French woman, a beautiful romance, and tragedy that befalls them. This young writer is captivated by the manuscript and reads the whole thing. Then he decides that he will type it our verbatim, hoping that typing great words will help him think great thoughts.

His girlfriend finds the story on his lap top. Thinking it is his, she tells him that she has read it, that just reading it makes her realize that he is more interesting and wonderful than she knew, that she found the man inside the man when she read the piece, and she throws her arms around him in a moment of rapturous romantic expression.

He freezes, tries to explain, but to no avail. Way leads to way and he decides that he really wants her to love him, for others to love him, so he finishes the manuscript, gets it to the editor, gets it to the publisher, who reads it in a single sitting, it is so gripping. They publish the book and it becomes a huge, huge success.

One morning, the young writer is sitting in Central Park. An old man has followed him to the bench where he is sitting. And the old man starts to tell the young writer a story. The story is about a young American GI in Paris right after the war, who meets a French woman. They fall deeply in love and then a tragedy drives them apart. The young man is desperate to get her back, to tell her how he feels, so he writes a novel about their life and he finishes it. He gives it to this young woman in a writer's valise on her trip to her mother's house in the French countryside. She leaves the valise on the train. It is never heard from again. The young woman never gets to read the manuscript, never gets to hear how much he loved her, they never get together again.

Years and years go by and then the young man becomes an old man, walks into a bookstore and sees a book for sale by the very same title of the work that he wrote, opens the first page and begins to read again the words he wrote with so much passion decades and decades ago. It takes him right back to that time of so much love, so much pain, so much loss.

The young writer has been trying to politely excuse himself from this old man's story and now he is frozen stiff. He is frozen, not just because he is about to get caught. It is actually much bigger than even that. Even before that moment, he had been traveling about the country, reading selections from the book and answering questions. He'd been receiving the adulation of ordinary people everywhere he went. And the more adulation he received, the more anxiety he developed.

After a point, the anxiety bloomed into a full blown sense of inadequacy. People would ask him, how he could imagine such a poignant scene? How can you write so vividly about the pain of that loss? How can you make yourself so vulnerable, open and honest?

It wasn't just that he wasn't as gifted a writer. It was that he hadn't lived as fully in his life. He wasn't reading from his script, he was reading the script of someone else's life. He suddenly realized that he had completely missed the point, that his fans around the country were in love with someone else that he was pretending to be, that his girlfriend was sleeping with a man who was spiritually not the man that she thought she was in love with. He was white with the genuine fear that he had missed the point of his own life that he was a fake. And no amount of money to the real author and no amount of explaining this situation to his girlfriend would actually make it right. No this was way, way beyond that. The Truth with a capital T had reduced him to a Failure with a capital F.

It is a tough moment. But you reach these places in your life where you need to be honest, and genuine romantic love is one of those places. There comes this moment, when it is no longer simply about how clever you are making conversation, it is not just about how beautiful and sexy you are, it is not about how successful and interesting your life might be. It is about being real.

There comes this moment when you need to be loved just for who you are, warts, quirkiness, zany odd stuff that you got from your family. You just deeply, deeply want to be real with this other person.

And Bob's piece gets at that moment so wonderfully, whether you are 17 or 70. It is a jump, a wonderful and frightening leap. You know how nutty you are, all your foibles, so that you know someone in their right mind couldn't possibly find you good enough. But there you are giving it your best shot with all of the game that you have. This comes from the heart, this needs to be real.

The deepest spiritual challenge of our lives is simply for us to become real, with ourselves, with each other, with God. You have to be spiritually courageous enough to learn to read from the script of your life. You have to find your voice and become who you are meant to become.

Richard Rohr says that if you zoom out on your life, your quest is to increasingly develop ‘unitive consciousness'. You want to speak with one authentic voice that is your own. All throughout our lives, we realize our inconsistencies. We find ourselves playing a part because it is expedient, it serves a short term goal. We pretend to be what we are not because we think that is what we need to do to get ahead in our careers. It is what we think our Mother would want us to do. It is the way that someone else would do it that is more talented than us, more successful than us.

We know it isn't working. I remember talking to one of my fraternity brothers right after we graduated and he told a few of us that he was gay. Great athlete, always had great looking dates that we couldn't get to date us, so we were teasing him, ‘you mean Cheryl Robinson wouldn't do it for you?' He got a winsome smile on his face and turned to me and said, “I wanted to be straight, I really did”. But you can't be who you are not, even if you spend years trying.

Sometimes you wake up and you realize, I just can't do this anymore. I have to try to find me. I've been bullshitting myself and I just can't do that anymore. Why do I raise this right now? There is something about the holidays, about seeing people from your deep past that make you realize just how much you've changed. There is something about a new year coming that makes us really stop for a moment and think to ourselves, usually driving down the road late at night coming home with the kids asleep in the back of the car, ‘am I becoming who I need to become or am I just faking it reading the script from someone else's life, like it is my own.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. And the Word became flesh that you might find grace and truth in your life. You can become real too. Is your life coming together? Have you found your voice?

I hope that you follow that inner anxiety about your own duplicity and complacency until you find the courage to genuinely move in a new direction. I hope you stumble upon something genuine in yourself, something real. I hope you find the life, for that life is the light of us mortals. And that light can shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it. Write the script of your life, a beautiful script that feels just right for you to live. And may the gift of the new year bless you with hope, truth and grace. 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.