Transcendent Love-Easter (4/5/15)

Easter, 2015 Transcendent Love
Isa. 43:18-21,25; Mt. 28:1-8; 17

Several years ago, I participated in a year-long discussion with Ministers, Theologians, and Physicist’s on the “The End of the World and the Ends of God”. There is now a book out by that title and it contains many of the lectures by the folks in this group. John Polkinghorne, who teaches Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University, got the discussion going with a review of the evidence for the life-cycle of our galaxy and he was a little despairing.
Life on our planet has limited duration. Our sun has been in existence for about 5 billion years. Our earth itself is about 4.8 billion years old. Physicists predict that the sun will burn hydrogen in its core and stay more or less as it is for another 5 billion years. Once core hydrogen burning ceases-once all the hydrogen in the sun’s core has been burned into helium- the sun will begin to burn the hydrogen in the shell around the core. The core will then contract and rise in temperature, and the hydrogen burning shell will continue to eat outwards. The increased luminosity and inner temperature will cause the outer atmosphere of the sun to expand and cool so that it becomes a red giant.
Here’s where we come in and the news is not good. The red-giant will expand and envelop the inner planets, Mercury and Venus, at least. Eventually it will either envelop or nearly envelop the Earth. Either way the expanding sun will destroy all life on our planet, if not the planet itself. By the way, the red-giant will be 2,000 times more luminous than the present Sun, even though its outer temperature will be cooler. So the extended future looks very good for sunglasses and sun screen. Too bad there won’t be anyone around to buy them. Don’t get too comfortable in the pew this morning, about 4.5 billion years from now, we are going to be looking for new real estate somewhere in the Vega quadrant.
The Physicists posed this serious question to the theologians about the meaning of the life cycle of our solar system. If we are sure that life as we know it on earth comes to an end in 4 or 5 billion years, is there any basis for hope?
The title of my response was “Manana”… We, we have a couple billion years to figure this out.” I love the way that Physicists have this breadth of scale so that millennia are like tomorrow. The rest of us don’t really have the scope of imagination to conceive of something like 1 billion years, let alone do the math to calculate the life expectancy of the sun.
But we do understand that same question of meaning with reference to the scale of our lives- perhaps I should say, the scale of our loves. For our lives are short and the question of meaning presses itself upon us at different points in our lives, growing in importance as we age.
The question of meaning permeates the backdrop of every high school graduation that we attend. The question of meaning is the background context every baptism, of every wedding we bless, of every anniversary celebration that we toast. It comes to us in a moment of reflection during almost every reunion over Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter.
It comes back when our parents die and the generation rolls over and our family is just our brothers and sisters now. It comes back when we marry again and blend a new family. It comes back when we get healed- maybe when we dodge a bullet- and we have a new lease on living.
God’s answer to the question of meaning in the resurrection is that there is a hope in love that transcends life and death. God is fundamentally good and the structure of our universe courses with the pulse of God’s acceptance and love. Our meaning coheres through life and death in divine love.
We blow trumpets in response to that good news, but the message of hope in the resurrection actually comes as something of a whisper, a parabolic glimmer of hope on the horizon. God is in death as God is in life and God is fundamentally good. Leading our lives with love is just intrinsically meaningful. Love adds a transcendent depth of eternity in the midst of time. Spiritually, we intuit that and it is trustworthy.
There is an endearing little film out right now, “The Fault in our Stars” that focuses on a seventeen year old girl who has cancer. She is being treated aggressively but all that her doctors can do to treat this kind of cancer is slow it down. So she won’t live a long life, one way or the other.
Her hospital pairs her up with an 18 year old boy who has already been through the treatment that she is undergoing at the moment, and has returned to being more or less normal.
Not surprisingly, shortly after they meet, boy finds girl charming and cute and their peer to peer mentoring is infused with a lot of flirting and teasing as young people will do with each other.
Way leads to way and the two of them share a common adventure that is sponsored by the “Make a Wish” foundation. This adventure takes them to a romantic spot where boy finds girl even more charming and cute and you can sense all the wonderful romantic energy between them start to really build.
One night they are at dinner and girl acknowledges that this dinner is actually a date and the boy just starts to light up full of promise. They banter back and forth for a while over dessert.
The boy decides wisely to ride the momentum of the moment and he tells her that he thinks he is falling in love with her. She just smiles back at him. Since she is receptive so far, so he decides to throw caution to the wind and make the big speech.
And he tells her that he believes in something. She playfully responds, ‘Why? Maybe there is no point?’
He says, “I won’t accept that. I am in love with you.” She smiles back at him with her eyes again.
“You heard me” he says. She leans over smiling and calls his name.
His speech starts to tumble. “And I know that love is just a shout in the void and that oblivion is inevitable… And that we’re all doomed. And that one day, all of our labors will be returned to dust. And I know that the sun will swallow the only earth we will ever have… And I am in love with you. I am sorry, but I am.”
You have to love the passionate abandon… The whole audience is saying “Go for it kid, you won’t be sorry.” And they do go for it, with the freedom and the heightened passion of a shortened time span, they fill each other with as much love as they are able, lilting in each other’s presence, playful in the present moment, even as they are surrounded by setback and the prospect of death.
At one point, when the end is in sight, she says to him, “You gave me forever within our limited number of days.” And isn’t that what we all say and feel about the people that made our life worth living, the people that we were privileged to love, the people that we let close enough to us,that we know will cause us profound pain when we lose them?
At the heart of things there is a pulse of love that grounds us and transcends us. What makes our lives a privilege to live are the people around us that we have loved and that love us. And when we have to face our own death, this is what we remember, what we savor about our lives. In the film about the Roman General Decimus Meridius, every time he was near death, when he was ill, when he was wounded, when the situation around him looked overwhelming, he would have a recurring vision of the after-life that he hoped for. It kept him going.
In the vision he was walking through the gate that led to his country place. He would feel the grains of wheat as they brushed on his hand, walking through his fields up towards his home. And he would see his wife. She was always young (about 30) and his children were always jumping around her in play. It is most of what we really long for. We are just so grateful for the very best of what we have known about home, we are so grateful to have loved.
That love that fills us with meaning at the heart of things is divine. It is the force that transcends time and space, life and death. God loves you and blesses you in life, at the edge of life, and beyond your life. That force of love precedes us by billions of years and will continue on after us for billions more years. Imaginatively, we can’t really take in the scope and breadth of what that really means for our world, but it is good and that is enough. We live with that hope in faith.
So, it was with the disciples. We don’t know what happened in the resurrection and we won’t know, leaving the fundamental mystery of life and the after-life in tact. That is the way it was from the beginning. Even the disciples, who wrote the gospel accounts, never described it as unambiguous. You always have this note, “Some believed; And some doubted.” Whatever it was, we aren’t really able to take it in. But it was good.
And it didn’t change the limitation of our time on earth. Even the resurrected one doesn’t get to stay around forever. The pathos that Mary felt, watching with her friends, as her son was killed on a cross is no less painful. It just highlights the spiritual truth that the pain we feel at the loss of our loved ones is a price we will gladly pay for the privilege of love.
No, the resurrection is more like a glimpse of hope that ultimately our world is shot through with Divine love. And our response in worship is one of gratitude.
My brothers and sisters, live with passion. Love with abandon. Blossom with hope. Bless your people in the limited time that we have on this earth. And may you be filled this day with the unbearable lightness of being. Amen.


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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.