What Are You Living For? – Chuck Rush (3/29/15)

Palm Sunday
Mt. 26:1-13
Mt. 27:35-46

Jesus was supposed to be King Arthur and he was supposed to be on his way to Camelot. I suppose people then, like people now- despite being jaded and worldly wise- are oddly open to the fantastic hope that the boy can pull the sword out of the stone, find the magical powers and gifts for authentic leadership, and finally throw off the evil overlords that have oppressed our people for centuries… Someone who will lift us out of the misery of wretched poverty, and open the dawn on a new day. We are half hoping, as we stand along the crowded boulevard, to get a glimpse of a knight in shining armor that we can cheer on to victory on our behalf.
I’ve seen it twice in feint relief. When John F. Kennedy was inaugurated president and he rode in an open-air limousine down Constitution Avenue in a tux and tails. At one point he stood and tipped his hat to the crowd. In a very odd way, we were actually hoping, though no one ever said it, that he would be Arthur, that somehow a new day would dawn in our lifetime, and that we would be in the presence of something that was bigger than life.
Then again, when Prince Charles married Lady Diana, and they were presented just outside Westminster Cathedral, bedecked and surrounded by all the costumes of royalty, riding in a horse drawn carriage through the streets of London. We were oddly hoping, though no one ever said it, that she would be Cinderella, and that a new graciousness would infuse the Royal Court, and we would be in the presence of something bigger than life.
People wanted that of Jesus. They wanted a hero like Ben Hur. They wanted the Moses of Cecil B. DeMille’s wide screen version of Exodus, replete with nature defying miracles, direct and unambiguous communication with the Almighty. They wanted someone who could lead them out from under the boot of the Roman legion and usher in a new day where every man could sit under the shade of his own fig tree and there would be taxes no more.
All of you last minute filers can understand this hope just now.
The people had hoped for a great coronation but that is not what we get. We do not have Bishops in Miters, in the finest vestments, filling the room with their censors, blessing the Anointed One in a packed Cathedral of hushed awe. Instead it is an ordinary woman. Luke says she was a sinner. John suggests that she may have been a prostitute. She anoints Jesus on the head and on his feet. It is a strange coronation… and from what the disciples would remember later, it would also be an anointing for death and burial. We hoped for a way out. Jesus instead leads on the way through.
It was not the coronation we wanted. Neither do we get the Royal Ball in celebration of the anointed one. We do not get the great ice sculpted centerpiece, the rows of violins playing gently, the ladies in long evening gloves, the choice wine from Bordeaux, the sumptuous veal cordon bleu, the Belgian chocolates top it all off.
No, Jesus takes his motley collection of disciples for a simple meal of bread and wine. There are no after dinner toasts, no call to dancing. There is no round table. There are no knights pledging loyalty by placing their swords in a circle. There is no wise counsel or hearty laughter. Jesus gives them a simple prediction that one of his closest confidants will be the person to hand him over to the Roman authorities.
Jesus does not ride home in the limousine, elated from the wine and the conversation. He does not have the driver stop and look out over the reflecting pond at the glorious evening lights. From his last supper, he retreats to Gethsemane to pray. Gethsemane means “the place of the oil press” and that is figuratively what he does in that place. His soul gets pressed into its concentrated essence. He prays, “Lord, let this cup pass from me”. He prays very hard, so hard that Luke says, he “sweated blood.” It may have been a profound night but it is not a night you would ever look forward to living through.
You can still go to this place where Jesus prayed. There are still olive trees there. Some of the local people will tell you that some of the trees were there in biblical times. I do not know if that is true but olive trees do indeed live a very long time and have an ancient look to them. It is right outside the city walls. To this day, it is a quiet place of refuge.
Michael Knowles is right. He says that we all have our Gethsemane’s. “It is not our Galilee, the place where we learn and grow, the place of preparation to which we may one day return in triumph. It is not our Golgotha, the place of ending and death. Gethsemane is somewhere in between. For Jesus, for his followers, for you and me, Gethsemane is that place in your life where you finally know that death, inescapable death, is on its way.” It has many faces.
For some of us, it is our passion, our whole way of life. I saw a documentary of a family of farmers in the Midwest that were struggling to keep their farm alive. Third generation farmers on this same piece of land. It wasn’t just what they loved what they did, it was simply who they were. For a variety of reasons they were on the edge of bankruptcy.
Night after night, the Mother of the farm family would return to her desk after the kids were in bed. She was punching a calculator. She did the math. She frowned at the paper. She did the math again. She would go talk to some people. The next night she would come back and do the math again. At one point, it is late at night, she pushes her coffee back, holds her business plan in front of her. Her husband crosses the room and stops. She looks at him. He looks at her. They shared a Gethsemane moment in silence.
“Gethsemane is that place where you know the end is coming, where death and failure and darkness lie in wait for you, and you wish, so much like Jesus, that there were some other way. You know you’re there when you can’t tell the difference between numb and empty. You know you’re there when you find yourself, like Jesus, face down on the ground.”
Gethsemane is a place where your soul gets pressed and our essence is distilled. It is a time for spiritual inventory. In the face of impending death, our perspective changes. Suddenly, some of our shallow attachments dissipate, our petty concerns fade away. Suddenly, we are frightfully aware of how much time we have wasted, how much idle diversion we let pass for living. Suddenly, we want to be profoundly connected to our loved ones. Sometimes we can amaze ourselves at the degree to which we have taken these relationships for granted, lo these many years. Now they have a felt gravity of importance.
And we find ourselves giving voice to the wider, deeper questions of meaning. In the short time we had on this earth, what is it that you will leave behind that is really significant? Was your life really worth living? And what were the things that made it so? What was it that you were really proud to have done?
It is not a bad idea for us to spend some time in reflection on these questions during Holy Week, when the end is not upon us. I was reminded of this reading a letter to the editor in the New York Times in reaction to an article describing the changing work ethic on Wall Street, how more and more young people are bucking the tradition that traded total immersion, total commitment in exchange for big money and big perq’s. More and more people are starting to ask for a more balanced life. One woman wrote to observe that time is an irredeemable commodity and the one thing most threatening in the working culture of financial services are people who will not be bought.
She makes an important point. We don’t get a do over.
Whatever your commitments- and many of us are deeply committed in time and energy to something specific-… whatever that commitment is, make sure you believe in it and that it reflects you. Every time you have a pensive moment and you think to yourself, “this phase will all be over in a few years and then I will be able to really do what I want to do, then I will be able to really start living.” Every time you think that make a spiritual note about it. You are on risky spiritual ground. Be careful. Time is irredeemable. And when you get to your own Gethsemane, those spiritual trades will all come due.
And I’m not talking about some angry God calling your life into judgment. I’m talking about coming to grips with yourself, your conscience, and your soul. It is the big questions that you pose to yourself, “what made your life worth living?”
No, in Jesus, we do not get King Arthur. No one comes to save the day for Jesus. We do not get Camelot or triumph. Instead, in the events of Holy Week, Jesus turns to face his own death. No band of Angels come to rescue him. Instead, he is left alone with his thoughts and his fears. He prays.
He comes face to face with the question of his own integrity, his own spiritual purpose. No one can really do that for him. No one can do it for you either. At the end of the day, it is our spiritual integrity and spiritual purpose that will see us on through. Possessions will fade. Position will fade. Even our friends and loved ones will fade away. In the end, spiritual integrity and authentic purpose are the only things we take to the grave.
Robert Mansfield was a white man, the headmaster of a white school in South Africa in the 50’s. In an era when such a thing was not done, he took his athletic teams to play cricket and hockey against the black schools until the department of education forbade him to do it anymore. So he resigned in protest.
Shortly thereafter, Emmanuel Nene, a leader in the black community came to meet him. When they were face to face, Mr. Nene said “I’ve come to see a man who resigns his job because he doesn’t wish to obey and order that will prevent children from playing with one another.”
Mr. Mansfied responded, “I resigned because I think it is time to go out and fight everything that separates one people from another people. Do I look like a knight in shining armor?”
“Yes, you look like a knight in shining armor, but you are going to get wounded. Do you know that?”
“I expect that may happen.” Said Mr. Mansfield.
“Well you expect correctly. People don’t like what you are doing, but I am thinking of joining with you in the battle.”
“You’re going to wear the shining armor, too?”
“Yes, and I’m going to get wounded, too. Not only by the government, but also by my own people as well.”
“Aren’t you worried about the wounds?” asked Mr. Mansfield.
“I don’t worry about the wounds” said Mr. Nene. “When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will says to me, ‘Show me your wounds?’ and if I say, ‘I haven’t any,’ he will say, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’ I’m haunted by that question.” 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.