The Long Road Home – Chuck Rush 4/3/16

The Long Road Home

Isaiah 35:1-7a; Lk. 24:1-12

 

You are probably familiar with pictures of Death Valley (Shot of Death Valley) in California. The temperatures can reach 125 during the summer and almost nothing can actually grow there, it is so inhospitable. Apparently, conditions come together every decade or so with the wind and the rain changing course. And when that happens the wild flower seeds that wait patiently for these conditions to come together suddenly bloom (radiant picture of Death Valley)

I’m always taken with plants that grow in the most unlikely places. (roll the video) Even with water and fertilizer, I sometimes haven’t been able to get grass to grow. Which is all the more frustrating when you see weeds growing right through your parking lot tar.

So many people have been like that in history. They had to thrive in adverse conditions. And I think that one of the primary messages we get from the risen Christ addresses this problem. It reminds us that with the Spirit in our lives, sometimes remarkable things can happen to us. Sometimes we can thrive in adverse conditions. Sometimes we can inspire each other to rise beyond ourselves and step out doing something new and bold.

You know when Dr. King wrote about the beginning of the Bus boycotts in Montgomery, Alabama, the leaders of the movement were worried more than anything about failure. There had been a couple attempts at a boycott in the past but they had never worked because they could never get the whole black community to participate in them, let alone get the white community to join them.

But no sooner had they declared that they were going to boycott the buses, than they started doubting that they could actually do it. So they were very anxious. Nothing like this had ever really been done yet and they didn’t want to look like fools and maybe even risk getting attacked physically after it didn’t work.

And they had a real problem on their hand. Back in ye olden days of Jim Crow, at least in the deep, South, very few African-Americans had cars. Because the deep, South was completely segregated, almost all of the African-American community lived outside the city limits in shanty towns. The buses would take them 5 miles to downtown. In Montgomery, again because of Jim Crow laws, there were only a couple of taxi services that were owned by African-Americans.

There was a very real issue of the distance but there was more than that. Again, Montgomery being the in Jim Crow South, a big percentage of the black community were employed as domestics. These domestic workers were rightly worried about losing their jobs if the white community came out against the boycott in a unified way and they had every reason to believe that they would.

Finally, in the days before the internet, the South was so poor that very, very few black people had phones at home. So how would they even get the word to everyone and how could they make a compelling case? These young civil rights leaders were right to be nervous. The odds of success here were long.

But sometimes in these moments where history is made, it seems like God has other plans. The bible has a saying, “They meant it for evil, but God used it for good.” Sometimes no matter how much you try to hold back change, you can’t hold it back any longer and this was one of those times.

The young civil rights leaders decided that the best thing they could do was mimeograph off some leaflets at the church, distribute them around as best they could and hope. How many of us here can even remember a mimeograph machine? You hand cranked this round drum. They ran off 7000 I believe and this is what they said, “Don’t ride the bus to work, to town, to school, or any place Monday, December 5th. Another Negro woman has been arrested and put in jail because she refused to give up her bus seat. If you work, take a cab, share a ride, or walk. Come to a mass meeting Monday night at 7 p.m. at the Holt Street Baptist Church for further instruction.”

People started handing them out but they were sure they couldn’t get the word out to everyone. It was too diffuse, so they got a little help from the Spirit, as we would say, in retrospect.

One African-American woman got a leaflet, took it to work at the house where she did the cleaning and cooking, and the leaflet accidentally gets in the hands of the white woman that she worked for. Her white employer is alarmed and she immediately calls the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser (the local newspaper) to tell him what ‘they’ are up to.

I can hear her now. This brings back the racist South I grew up in. She could have been my Aunt. She reads the leaflet word for word and the editor writes it down. He sits right down at the typewriter and does a story on the Negro community and the bus boycott and they print the leaflet right in the front middle panel, above the fold…. where everybody can see it. In an instant, the leaders of the boycott had their communication challenge solved for them for free.

Now everybody was talking about it. White people were asking black people about it, showing them the article in the paper. Suddenly, it was pretty hard not to know about it. And the perception started to permeate the town that ‘all the blacks were doing this’ which became something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

If you start to think that everyone in your community is expecting you to do something, guess what, you start thinking of more reasons why you shouldn’t let everyone around you down. If they are all depending on you, guess what, you might just might find some moral backbone and rise to your higher self.

What followed was something of a miracle as disparate groups of people coalesced into one community of protest. The taxi companies agreed almost match the bus fares and people with cars volunteered to drive all day and night. But with so little way to directly communicate, no one knew for sure what the actual protest would look like.

As you might imagine, there was a lot of worry at those committee meetings that organized the protest. The leaders actually thought that if they could get 40% of Montgomery to boycott the buses that would be a great victory but they weren’t sure what to expect.

Dr. King was up before dawn the morning of the protest. The parsonage that he lived in was right on one of the main bus lines. It would be a good test of what the day would look like because the first bus was usually filled with African-American workers on the morning commute. He was drinking coffee at the breakfast table with his wife when the first bus pulled up and stopped right in front of his house. Not a single person on the bus. He was stunned.

Twenty minutes later the second bus pulls up. Not a single person on it. Now there was a flurry of calls with ‘what do we do now?’ Dr. King had to drive all over town to make sure the buses were empty everywhere. And what he saw were people everywhere walking in quiet nobility, hundreds and thousands of people expressing their dignity and humanity, rising to their higher selves, transcending the ‘nobodiness’ of Jim Crow with the ‘sombodiness’ of a new self-image for a new era.

In the late afternoon, he stopped his car next to an aging grandmother who was walking home, the first of many miles. And he said to her ‘hope on in Grandmother, you don’t need to walk anymore.’ She waved him on and said, “I’m not tired. I’m not walking for me.  I’m walking for my children and my grandchildren.’[i] All of these people inspiring each other, in this unspoken, subconscious way, to give voice to their higher selves. It was a powerful day.

And that night, when Dr. King had to address all of them, now that a movement of sorts had started, he could only close by making a prediction based on what he had witnessed that day. He ended by saying, “If you will protest courageously, and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written in future generations, the historians will have to pause and say, ‘There lived a great people- a black people, who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.’ This is our challenge and our overwhelming responsibility.”

Looking back, you can see how the group shaped each of them and encouraged them to rise to their higher selves. Looking back, you can see how that protest could only have been so successful precisely because they rose to their higher selves and collectively it shaped the American conscience for the good.

And what a beautiful thing, when you get a little help from the Spirit to get the word out. More and more people rise above their narrow interests and want to do the right thing, and a movement for goodness is born.

Let’s live out of our higher selves. Collectively, we have a tremendous power to shape who and what we will become, for good and for ill. And that shaping takes place right down the generations too.

The disciples were dejected and forlorn, sorry for themselves. The Risen Christ inspires them and they recognize him in the breaking of the bread and drinking the wine together. And what does the Spirit inspire them to do? Rise to their higher selves. It sends them back to their people, inspiring one another to embrace their higher selves and not be afraid to change, to step out, start something new.

“For, lo, I shall be with you” says the Spirit, “even unto the close of the age.” Amen.

 

[i] You can find King’s recollections in “Strides Towards Freedom: The Story of Montgomery”

 

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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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