The Unbroken Circle – Chuck Rush 11/22/15

The Unbroken Circle

Hebrews 11:5-8, 13; 12:1-2; 2nd Timothy 1:5-6

 

“The Strange Life of Timothy Green” is a rather poignant reflection on a couple that discovers they cannot have children. After the tests are completed and the doctor gives them the bad news, they return home in silence, each moving about the house in numb isolation.

They are in the early stages of drowning their sorrows with wine, when the husband asks his wife if they could imagine what their child would be like for just one night. He immediately says, ‘our child would have a great sense of humor’ and he writes that down on a pad of paper. His wife says, ‘our child would be a musician’ and the husband writes that down on another piece of paper.

Then they start getting carried away with their hopes and dreams, the way that couples do, and one of them says, “our child will score the winning shot”. The other one says, “our child will help save the environment.” On and on this goes until they are worn out.

The husband takes this stack of hopes and dreams that they have collected and puts them in a used cigar box. It is a big wad of papers. They stuff the box shut and walk out back to the garden where they both love to work. It is a big, luscious garden. The husband starts digging a hole in the middle of the night. Both of them are pretty weepy and they take this box full of their hopes and dreams, wetted by the tears of love that they both have for the family they long to start, and they bury it in the garden, cover it over with dirt. They stand there together, somewhat dazed, and hug each other in the night before they go to bed.

In the middle of the night, while the whole region is in the middle of a drought, a miraculous rain falls right on their property, drenching their garden in rain, soaking the garden in rain, until it is a mud slick. Out of the ground, comes this child Timothy. The parents, as you might imagine, are bowled over with that kind of surprise that we read about in the Bible. They not only can’t believe that a miracle has happened, they just can’t believe that such good fortune has happened to them. They have that slack jawed amazement that they have been so blessed as they slowly try to figure out what this means and how they should respond.

What is so moving is that this is the evolution that all parents go through. Perhaps we don’t actually write down our hopes and dreams, perhaps we don’t actually speak our hopes and dreams to each other, but at some point you both become bowled over with grace and surprise that something so good is happening to you, something so much bigger than just the two of you, something so filled with hope that you feel like a miracle is unfolding before your very eyes. You invest your hopes and dreams in the next generation.

And someone has already done that for you. I bet you have one of those pictures of your mother looking at you or your parents and grandparents looking at you as a baby, and they have that expression of deep joy. Before you were even old enough to sense it, the chances are good that a group of people were beaming their hopes and dreams upon you, being gracious to you that you might live.

And during your life there have been those people that have inspired you, that have filled your dreams with new hopes and promise.

I couldn’t help but think about that reading the sad post on Facebook by Antoine Leiris whose wife was killed last week in Paris. Antoine, who is left to raise his 17 month old child by himself, wrote an open post to the ISIS killers, “I will not give you the gift of hate” that you so desire. It is very unfortunate that this kind of maturity is becoming the hard lesson of our era but I couldn’t help but think about the deeper gift that he will model for his child, responding to the dashed dreams that violent tragedy visited upon him.

The last time I was in Jerusalem (in 2007) I sat in a room with 30 other people listening to an Israeli man and a young Palestinian woman tell their stories of tragedy and loss.

Aaron is a few years older than me. He had a son in the Israeli Defense force when they invaded Lebanon to stop rockets coming from Hezbollah. He is fit man, a typical ‘Sabra’ as they call them in Israel- Jews who are native to the region, who are tough on the outside and soft on the inside like a ‘cactus’. He looked like one of Norman Mailer’s cousins and no doubt won most of the bar fights he got into as a young man.

At late middle age, the lines in his face were worn by grief and he almost slumped his shoulders with the weight of the spiritual load he carried.

Aaron is married to liberal activist. She had actually been part of a group of Israeli mother’s that had protested the decision of the Israeli Defense Force to invade Lebanon.

Their son had been a model student, athletic, musical, gifted in Math. He was doing his ordinary service in the Israeli Defense Forces and was in the reserves when his unit was called up for the invasion.

He was a dutiful son and wrote his mother every week of active deployment. She wrote him about 3 letters back for every one he wrote, including clippings from the paper covering her groups protest. They had these clever little medals made that symbolized peace that they gave to supporters. She sent him one and asked him to wear it several times.

As you know, you can’t actually wear protest symbols in uniform. You can’t wear anything extra in uniform and these protest symbols weren’t real popular among the officers in the IDF, but her son put it on anyway. He endured some serious needling from his Commanding Officer but his CO let him wear it anyway, recognizing that this kid was just a good son.

The last day of his deployment, volunteers were conscripted from his unit to engage in an ordinary patrol. The kid is chosen at random. He could have asked not to serve and he would have been allowed not to serve but soldiers in the IDF don’t do that and neither did he.

They are on deployment. A sniper fires towards the group, probably off target but it hits the kid and he dies on the spot.

Aaron gets a frantic call from his wife in Haifa that the IDF is coming to their apartment. He gets home and no amount of consolation will quell her anxiety and distress. The doorbell rings, Aaron opens the door to the IDF officers, and his wife falls to the floor in convulsions of grief before they ever open their mouths.

She wants to see her son. She insists on seeing her son. They take her to the morgue and hand her a box with the clothes that he was wearing and inside the box is his bloody uniform with the medal that she gave him spattered in his own blood. She is just devastated.

Aaron can’t describe what came next, but he didn’t have to. You know that his wife just got into bed, stricken by overwhelming grief. Days led to weeks led to months- like one long nightmare.

Eventually Aaron gets to a day where he realizes that he has to willfully change the channel or this grief will drown the two of them. He finds this group of parents, half of them Israeli, half of them Palestinian, that share their stories of loss with each other.

Sitting next to him, a young Palestinian woman named Aisheh tells us about her brother Mahmoud. Bright, outgoing, an athlete from Nablus. She describes in bitter detail what it is like living in an occupied zone which is pretty much what several cities on the West Bank feel like for the past decade.

Business goes on as usual during the day but by dusk, Palestinians gather their children inside and they stay inside all night. That is because almost every night a group of Israeli soldiers crash into the streets with warrants, looking for Palestinian boys that have been involved in some incident from throwing rocks to (these days) stabbings and subterfuge of the occupation.

She describes what it is like to live in this all of the time, the helicopters overhead, the bright lights, soldiers that wreck your whole house and just leave, boys being wakened in the middle of the night, dragged off for unspecified detention and interrogation that sometimes lasts months.

She describes just how much she learned to hate Israeli’s as a child, as a woman, as a Palestinian. And how much she loved her older brother. He looked out for her, walked her to school, took care of her.

One day he is at home after school. There is a scene in the streets. The IDF are hassling some kids, accusing them of doing something. Her brother goes outside to see what is going on. He is wearing a red shirt. An Israeli sniper fires a round. Aisheh wonders if that red shirt wasn’t just easy to spot and focus on in the crowd. Who knows? The bullet pierces his heart and eventually he dies.

Aisheh is devastated. She can’t eat. She becomes more and more embittered towards Israeli’s. Again, this goes on for weeks that turn into months.

One day, she opens the door of the house where she lives with her other 5 brothers and sisters and an Orthodox Israeli man is standing there. He says he would understand if she shut the door in his face but he tells her about a group of people that get together to share the stories of their loss with the enemy. He tells her that the world is filled with unresolved grief and that this group wants to use the spiritual energy that comes from bitterness and disappointment to develop understanding and a way forward towards reconciliation. He leaves his card.

A few months goes by and they contact her again and she decides to come. At this point, Aaron was sitting there with his arms crossed, tough old Norman Mailer type, and he touches her on the arm and says “You were brave”.

He looks at her with such tenderness, such compassion, like she might be his niece. She smiles at him briefly and continues. It is a simple exchange, but a profound moment. It is what reconciliation looks like as a work in progress. They have been through this before. But there is something about each of them naming their pain, each of them receiving one another’s pain. Our world is indeed filled with unresolved grief. And you know that the only way we will get beyond the impasse of conflict, retribution and revenge is if we are human and humane enough to hear and receive each other’s grief and sorrow.

I’ve been to Israel three times, each a spiritual pilgrimage in search of something. You walk on two thousand year old cobblestones into candle lit churches with hundreds of other pilgrims gripping rosary beads, praying fervently in every tongue spoken on earth, past the merchant selling wooden crucifixes and postcards of Mary. You are not sure what you are really looking for but somehow you expect that you are going to find it. And on this trip, I got what I have been needing the most, a humane look at the mature face of reconciliation. We are not going to become instant ‘best bud’s’ with our enemies. We are not going to erase our differences. But we can transcend our normal estrangement through our mutual ability to share loss and receive comfort. We can be healed.

I felt like God had arranged my meeting with Aaron and Aieshah. They showed me where I was headed in the second half of my life, through loss towards reconciliation, beyond cynicism and bitterness towards a higher way, the spiritual path that Jesus taught us about. Sometimes I wished I’d had more direction like that from my own family but I didn’t get it. But I’m grateful that God has given me these examples that point me in the direction towards the genuine way to fulfillment, taking our frustrations, our losses and making of them a new spiritual fabric, made of a strength that you didn’t know that you had.

Who is it that has lifted your sights so that you could see where you are headed next? Who has inspired your better self and summoned the better character in you to emerge? These are the real heroes in our world. It is for these that we are most genuinely grateful. This Advent season, we are going to hang stars in our sanctuary to remember the lights that guide us and to beckon what we are capable of being.

I hope you can name them with your people over this Thanksgiving weekend. More than that, I hope you can summon your better self as you gather with your people and that you can set a more mature tone for the next generation to follow. I hope you can be aware of passing the blessing forward. You honor your guiding lights that way. Peace be with you as you go. 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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