Sunday, September 28, 2008

Why I Love This Church

Sermon Pledge Sunday
September 28, 2008

By the end of today’s last service, we will have heard twelve individuals or couples talk about their love of this church. Now it’s my turn.

I was born the 4th of five children; and it just so happens that I was a very beautiful child. I had these long lashes and big blue eyes and apple cheeks and I smiled and cooed a lot; and I grew into a slender boy with freckles and a little button nose and by the time I was in 6th grade just about every girl in the school was sending me love notes and I was on top of the world, the most popular boy in the school.

And then two things happened all at once. First, we moved from the country to the city and I was thrown into a big inner city Junior High School in Minneapolis filled with bullies and thugs; and second, my face exploded with terrible acne.

Now I’m not talking about the average teenaged bloom of zits. As you can see by the scars on my face, I had an extremely serious case; and it lasted well into my late twenties. There were times when the shape of my face was literally distorted by the clusters of enormous pimples. There were days when people would not even look at me.

I went from being a beautiful boy to an ugly boy in about six weeks. In fact, if I had been living in Biblical times, I would have diagnosed as a leper – severe acne was thought to be a form of leprosy; and indeed, at Jefferson Junior High, I was treated as one. Suddenly I was in the same boat with all the other rejects of society – the fat kids, the clumsy kids, the awkward kids, the sensitive kids, the gay kids. I learned what it was like to be one of the despised.

Now, when something like that happens to you, you quickly realize something: that the person you are, inside, is very different from the person that everyone sees. When people pick on you, and avoid you, and avoid even looking at you, you learn very quickly to rely on that inner sense of who you really are, as only you and God can see you.

And this became my little secret – a secret that I had to protect like a fragile egg – that no matter what people said or how people treated me, I was okay.

And I also knew this: that I would have to go through the rest of my life, protecting that secret – and sometimes it was less than a secret – sometimes it was just a hunch, just a vague memory – that I was okay; that I was lovable. There were times when I was so depressed I very seriously thought about killing myself – and the only thing that kept me alive was this secret, this fragile secret, that sometimes even I wasn’t sure could be true.

And then I went to college and I met some Christians. I met people who looked me in the eye, and saw me as I was inside. They talked about love – openly and without embarrassment – and they introduced me to an entire community of people whose mission it was to simply love one another as God loves us – and most especially, to love the outcast; to love the leper.

And I want to tell you something. When all your life you’ve been protecting this little secret that you are worthy of love - and a lot of the time even you don’t quite believe it - and then all of a sudden you meet an entire community of people who know your secret, and love you for who you really are, as a child of God, as a beautiful soul – something very powerful happens at that point. You finally begin to believe that your secret might actually be true.

And then, you see, you’ve finally got something to build on. You can finally begin to believe in yourself. You can finally begin to interact with others as a full human being. It becomes like a golden ladder, sent down to a man trapped in a sewer. When other people, in the name of God, embrace your full humanity, then finally you can believe it; finally, you have dignity; finally, you feel fully human and healed and worthy of love.

That’s what it feels like to have your soul saved.

As I’ve listened to the Witness Talks that people have given these past few weeks, I’ve heard a common theme – and that is Belonging. People speak about how much it means to feel welcomed here; to feel included; to simply be a part of this community.

And what is obvious to me is that this sense of belonging is not exactly the same as the kind of belonging you get from being a member of Rotary. Something else is going on here. And I see it every day. We are not just the body of individuals sharing space and common interests. This is not just a nice feeling that we get during coffee hour, at home with our friends. Somehow, our souls are being saved. Because we are joined in to the Body of Christ.

Christ has no body, now, but ours.

Earlier this week I paid a visit to a woman in a nursing home. She is an intelligent woman, who owned her own business for many years; she’s delightful to talk to, with great stories and sharp opinions – but recently she came down with a mysterious infection and the doctors can’t figure out and so they’ve put her in a nursing home because she’s too sick to go home and they don’t know when, or if, she’ll ever get better.

So now she’s in one of those medical twilight zones that we all have seen so often – when the doctors don’t know what to do with you so they just kind of stop talking to you – and so there she is in the nursing home, and it’s not one of those nice, clean, spacious nursing homes that smell good and have plenty of friendly staff. It’s crowded and not very clean; many of the staff barely speak English and the ones that do are too busy to spend time with her. She is confined to her bed and neither of her two roommates are capable of speech at all. She has no family in the area. So she can literally spend days on end, in discomfort and anxiety and no hope for the future, with no one to talk to.

So I came by. We talked for some time. I listened to her worries about her family. We laughed about the bad food. I taught her a new way to pray. We shared the body of Christ together. I blessed her and told her we'd be sending visitors to look in on her. When I left she was beaming.

She was no longer the leper. She was a blessed child of God. She is a member of the Body of Christ.

This is what we do as the Body of Christ.

You make that happen by paying my salary. We are partners in that ministry. Together we become Christ’s body.

In the paper a few weeks ago was a column by Nicholas Kristoff about a doctor – a woman named Halima Bashir – living in the Sudan working in a hospital when one day 40 girls between the ages of 8 and 13 were brought in, terribly injured by a brutal rampage of gang rape by the Janjeweed. The girls had massive internal injuries, and all she had to treat them was one half of an ibuprofen each. She didn’t even have enough sutures to sew them up.

When a few days later some UN observers came by the hospital asking questions she confirmed what had happened; a few days after that she was arrested and was told "now you will know what it feels like to be raped." And for weeks they tortured her and raped her. Somehow she survived and escaped to Britain. And she started talking to journalists again. When the bbc reporter asked her if she had any regrets for speaking out, she said none whatsoever.

I don't know if Halima Bashir is a Christian. But I know she is Christ’s body in the world. And that when we help people like her to speak the truth, we become Christ’s body. When we send $ to the Diocese, and that money goes to support refugee resettlement and Episcopal Relief and Development, we become Christ’s body in the world.

Last year, the Living Room placed 65 homeless women and children into permanent housing. 65 people -- former lepers -- who now have a chance to build a life for themselves. 65 people who have been told, loud and clear: you matter. You are worth this. We care about you. We see that secret hidden part of you that is worthy of love. And whenever we give money to support these buildings and grounds; whenever we drop off clothes at Heavenly Treasures or volunteer to cook breakfast or bring in toys at Christmas, we become the Body of Christ.

Whenever the choir sings an anthem; whenever our children are welcomed into Sunday School; whenever we build a house in Mexico; whenever we share donuts and coffee with a homeless man; whenever we welcome someone into worship; whenever we stand up for the dignity of every human being, we become the Body of Christ.

For me, this is not some lovely metaphor. We are not metaphorically the Body of Christ. I believe in the Real Presence. I’m a literalist on this matter. It is literally true for me – we are the Body of Christ. In this community, by the actions we take, by the love we share, by the money we give, the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of God, flows through us and becomes real in the world. We save lives. We save souls. We are the Body of Christ.

And that’s why I love this church.


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