The Intentional Life — Charles Rush (3/16/14)

For Freedom Christ set us free. Do not submit yourself again to the yoke of slavery. For the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy peace, patience kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. God did not give us a spirit of timidity but one of love, power, and self-control.

This week, I was reading articles about violence in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza, Egypt, Afghanistan, Crimea, Libya, Venezuela, Turkey, Yemen, Somalia, Mali… So many places where there is outright civil war or protracted social anarchy because these regions actually possess very little civil society. It brought to mind Edmund Burke, writing at the beginning of the French Revolution, on the excess revenge violence that swept across that country. Said Burke, “Men (and women) are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites.” This will shortly be the challenge of our neighbors near and far as more and more of us simply must live in freedom, even though they are poorly prepared for it.
The bible teaches us that God created us for freedom as spiritual beings. St. Paul taught us that the meaning of Christ's death is that we would find our freedom and live out of it. When God is present in our lives and we are full of God's Spirit we live in joy, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control. The Spirit of God fills us with love, power, and self-control.

You may be interested to know that in the Roman Empire, the opposite of self-control is demonic possession. Romans believed that you could put a hex on your enemies and they spent quite a bit of time putting the curses on one another. And when you were cursed you were under the power of a demon. Daimonia actually means ‘to be controlled by another'.

So when you read the gospels, you may notice that in the Gospel of Mark, which was written to Romans by a Roman, some of the stories about Jesus healing people are told a little differently, so that Jesus casts out demons. That is what Romans would expect that Jesus would free us from demons because those were their religious beliefs before Christianity.

Today we think about these things quite differently, but the issue of freedom and self-control is perhaps bigger than it was when Jesus was alive. And we know very well what the difference between driving and being driven, being in control or out of control, particularly those of us who have struggled with addictions to alcohol and drugs. You know when these things take you over, a fine line to describe, but you know when your life feels like it is being driven by your habits.

This will surely grow as a challenge for all of us since our marketers are getting so much better at creating cravings in all of us to eat more than we thought we needed and they are getting much more clever at predicting what we will likely buy based on what we've previously bought. “People who liked this book, also bought…” We are going to have to be much more intentional about the way that we live and not simply go with the flow.

One study at Duke University suggested that up to 40% of our daily activity is actually controlled by habitual actions. 40% of the day. Wake up, go to the bathroom, put toothpaste on brush, brush teeth, turn on shower, test water temperature… Even quite a range of rather complex functions like starting the car and backing out of the driveway- all on autopilot.

Here is the thing about our habitual life. It is more critical than we realize to our higher functioning. We've done a number of studies, for example, that correlate our habits to indirect outcomes. We know that families that regularly eat dinner together also regularly have children with more pronounced emotional control, better confidence in themselves, with better ability to do their homework and they make better grades. It is not like one habit causes the other outcomes but they strongly correlate.

Likewise, making your bed every morning correlates strongly with productivity, sticking to a budget and a feeling of well-being.

My favorite is that attending church correlates strongly with better marriages and a better sex life. Please get the word out. I don't know what we are doing, but it is helpful.

We aren't quite sure why good habits in one area correlate with positive outcomes in other areas but it suggests that better understanding of our habits should be crucial and paying more attention to developing good habits is more important that we knew.

This is what Christians have been doing during Lent for 2000 years, breaking bad habits and replacing them with better habits. God gave us the Church that we might be an inspiration for each other, a support as we try to find our place and bring out the best in each of us that we might become. What a powerful thing that can be.

Perhaps you read about the Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who won so many medals swimming for the United States. I was interested to learn that his mother actually encouraged him to swim when he was young as a way for him to get rid of some of his excess energy. His swim coach actually knew him as a child and could see greatness in him.

But the greatness was complicated by the fact that Michael was full of a lot of nervous energy, like so many young boys. And he had some background stresses in his life that he wasn't very good at dealing with, like his parents divorcing. His coach convinced his mother to walk Michael through a series of meditation exercises at night, a routine to get him to shed some of this stress and help him to focus mentally. That dealt with the negative piece.

And the positive piece? His coach got him to envision a perfect race. He got him to envision getting off the blocks, hitting the water, seeing each stroke on the first lap, the turn off the wall, each and every detail. Every day he got Michael to see the perfect race. Every night he got him to play the tape of the perfect race before he went to bed. And just before his races, his coach got him to go through a routine, putting on his suit, what he would eat, putting on his headphones with loud energizing music just when he was at the pool waiting for the race to begin, envisioning the perfect race over and over in his mind. And then boom, it was race time.

What a powerful thing that focus turned out to be. It allowed Michael Phelps to break through and break records and realize his potential. [i] On our best days, that is what we do for each other in the Church, we are an inspiration for each other, a focus so that our nobler side rises rather than our slothful side, each of us realizing our deeper potential. We come together, building in good habits in our life, habits of prayer, habits of worship and gratitude that we are here, even with all of our problems, habits of hearing a noble thought for the week that reminds of what is important in our life and encourages us to think about where we are headed, habits of singing together in adoration, sometimes in great sadness, accessing a deeper emotional part of our being that words alone can't quite plumb.

In Lent, we may focus on breaking a simple bad habit to strengthen our character and will remembering that God wants us to embody our higher self. And we surround ourselves with good friends who can encourage us to embody our higher selves. St. Paul taught us that this is what God intended for the church, for us to lift one another up in prayer, sharing our lives, a communion of healing that would amplify the love we have known and transcend the limitations deficits they have inflicted. We help give each other a vision.

There is a wonderful segment in the movie Field of Dreams where Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones go looking for Archie Graham. Archie Graham was a real life minor league baseball player for Charlotte in the old North Carolina baseball league. He got called up to the New York Gians on June 29th, 1905. He got to play one inning as an outfielder but he never actually got to bat in the major leagues.

Archie Graham lived out the res of his lie as a doctor in a small town in the Midwest. In the world of sports writers, his life is considered a tragey of sorts- to get all the way to Ebbets field and not be able to bat. So Kevin Costner and James Earl Jones expect to find a guy that is wistful, perhaps bitter. They finally locate him and he is elderly without much longer to live.

They ask him, looking back on his life, ‘wasn't it a tragedy that you only got to play the game for 5 minutes?' He smiles remember the day when he was twenty, reflecting back on the sixty something years that he lived after that and he says, “Son, if I'd only gotten to e a doctor for 5 minutes, now that would have been a tragedy.”

Like all kids, he had the hopes and dreams of hitting it big, but at some point it started to dawn on him what his actual ‘vocation' was, that word literally means ‘his calling'- not just his job, but a sense of calling. Baseball was a love, but he was starting to see what he was becoming, the shape of what he should be about in his one odd and beautiful life. Looking back, he could say that he was meant to become a doctor, a husband, a grandfather, a community leader in a small town. The outlines of becoming started taking shape.

On our better days, that is what we do for each other, help each other to let the calling of our lives start to take shape.

What is it that is impeding you from excellence in your calling to become who you are meant to become? What is it that you need to grow? Patience? Anger? Reconciliation? Confidence? Daring?

We are told that Jesus retreated to the wilderness for 40 days of fasting and prayer. Scripture writes the story as though Jesus had a sense of what he needed to do and in the 40 days he honed the spiritual fitness that it would take to fulfill a difficult calling.

I don't think you needed to be the Son of God to know that Roman authorities were capable of torturing you unto death. No more than Dr. King had a pretty good idea that he might just get shot to death standing for Civil Rights. And I suspect that you don't need penetrating psychological insight to identify what is keeping you from realizing your potential.

What can you do to bring that one thing to mind, front and center, for the next few weeks leading up to Easter? What can you devise that will help you strengthen your character?

And may you reap the blessing of developing spiritual discipline in one place. And may your family become richer for it. And may all of us grow deeper as a community because of you. Carpe Diem. Amen.

[i] Thank to Charles Duhigg, the Power of Habit, p. 111

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Sermons & Presentations

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.