Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Way to See: Sermon on Mark 10:46-52

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Sometimes I think I don’t give Mark enough credit. Don’t misunderstand me. I love the gospel of Mark… at times, I think it’s my favorite gospel (that’s usually when I am reading it…). I love its leanness. I love its political edge. I love its lack of a resurrection appearance, only the strange instruction that Jesus is already in Galilee, so we had better get ourselves there. I love the fragments of Aramaic, Jesus’ native tongue. Talitha cum. Eloi, eloi, lema sabachtani. I love its earliness: the gospel feels so close to the earthly life of Jesus, it's almost like being a detective on the trail before it's gone cold, as if the vague scent of nard is still in the room.

I love the so-called messianic secret, how Jesus keeps saying, “Shhhh. Don’t tell anyone who I really am.” There is a Leonardo da Vinci painting of John the Baptist, an unusual one, in that he is neither portrayed as already decapitated, nor looking like a wild man in animal skins. In this portrait he looks well, robust, and—really odd for John—he looks cheerful
. He is shown pointing his right finger over his left shoulder as if to say, Not me, him. And to me, that's Jesus in the gospel of Mark. People keep wanting to label him, pin him down, box him up, and he keeps pointing his finger over his shoulder at God, and insisting, Not me, Him.

Now, having said all that, still, sometimes I think I don’t give Mark enough credit. I don’t tend to think he’s being subtly or slyly theological. But he is. I don’t think he has an overarching agenda, except for clean, clear reporting of Jesus’ comings and goings. But he has. Take today’s gospel story, the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Now, any one of us who has heard a certain hymn knows, right out front, that any time someone in the gospel goes from being blind to seeing, in a sense, they also go from being lost to being found. They are coming to faith. The gospels have numerous stories about those who are “blind” to the truth presented in the person of Jesus, and these are usually people who should know perfectly well that Jesus speaks God’s truth… people such as the scribes and Pharisees, who spend every waking moment studying or debating the Torah, or even the disciples, who spend every waking moment at Jesus’ side. These are people who should know. But, typically, they are blind to what is right there in front of them. They cannot see Jesus for who he really is. They don’t get it.

Then, along come unlikely people… really unlikely people… but after a while we realize they are the usual suspects. Sinners. Tax collectors. Women from whom seven demons have been cast out. Heck, women generally! And children. Let’s not forget them. Non-Jews. Syrophoenicians. Samaritans. These folks come along, and despite their lack of the right lineage, or the right education, or the right social status… they can see. They do not suffer from the kind of blindness that afflicts those who should know better. Blind beggars, sitting by the side of the road can see perfectly well who and what Jesus is. These unlikely characters see. They know. They get it.

So, it’s tempting to right away assign symbolic relevance to the story of the healing of Bartimaeus. The blind beggar sitting by the side of the road represents those who are most likely to be able to see the truth about Jesus: the marginalized, the nobodies. We’ve spoken of them before. Beautiful. A perfect story.

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

But lets not be too hasty. Let’s give the story its due. Let’s look at it in context, and not simply as a wonderful little story about coming to faith (though it is still that). This story comes at the end of a section of the gospel known as the “discipleship” section. Beginning with chapter 8, verse 22, we have story after story of Jesus trying to explain to anyone who will listen exactly what it means to follow him on his way. In fact, the section begins with the healing of another blind man… a healing that is unusual in that it takes Jesus two tries to accomplish it. Between the two blind men, we have story after story of the “blindness” of the religious leaders, or the “blindness” of the disciples, who, no matter how many times Jesus spells it out for them, continue to confuse following Jesus with opportunities for power, and status, and getting some kind of prize.

Following Jesus is not about power or status or getting some kind of prize.

If we look at the whole discipleship section of the gospel of Mark, there are several things we can say following Jesus is about. First of all, it is about the business of healing and being healed, and there is a correct order to those. Following Jesus is about recognizing in ourselves the wounds and emptiness and deep need that cannot be filled by ordinary measures, that will not respond to our usual ways of making ourselves feel better, from the cookie to the drink to the impulse buy to the wrong relationship. Following Jesus is about both recognizing our deep need, and identifying the one who can offer real healing. It is about not being too proud to ask for that healing, not being too stubborn to accept it, not being so foolish as to think some other matter takes precedence over it. And then it is about turning around and being in the business of offering that same healing to others, daring to imagine that we, even we can participate in spreading it around. It is daunting.

Second of all, following Jesus is about recognizing the deficits in our own faith systems. This is where nearly everyone in the gospel—all those folks who should know better—this is where everyone stumbles, where we all stumble. Everyone thinks they have it figured out. Everyone thinks they have nothing to learn. Everyone except one man—remember him?—his child is possessed with some terrible demon, and he desperately wants the child healed, and he knows it is all riding on his ability to trust Jesus. He cries out this cry of agony, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” And that terrible admission turns out to be precisely the credo Jesus wants from him, wants from all of us. I believe! Help my unbelief! It is humbling.

Third of all, following Jesus means understanding his intentions and the direction he is taking, his way of doing things. It means not blanching when we hear him say something like, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” It means a complete reversal of all we thought we understood about power and glory. Power is in weakness. Glory is in humiliation. It is confusing.

And so the discipleship section of the gospel of Mark comes to a dramatic culmination with this healing of yet another blind man. So much blindness, metaphorically speaking. And please understand, I do not want to minimize the real effects of literal, physical blindness on someone in Jesus’ time. We say “Bartimaeus the blind beggar,” as if there were any other option for a blind man in the ancient near east. To be blind was to reside on that last rung on the bottom of the social ladder, to be unable to work, to be utterly dependent on others for your very life. Nor do I want to presume such devastating consequences for those who are visually impaired in our day and age. Blindness today is not the same as blindness in Jesus’ day. Thank God, and science, and modern educational theory, and the Americans with Disabilities Act.

And yet, for Jesus’ day, the image of blindness was a powerful one with a specific meaning and set of consequences. Blindness equaled destitution. And so we find Bartimaeus, whose name can be translated, “son of Timaeus,” sitting by the side of the road…which can also be translated “the Way.” The Way is also what the very earliest Christians called their faith. We call it Christianity. They called it “the Way.” We find the son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, at the side of the Way. When he is made aware that the very large crowd passing before him is made up of Jesus and his entourage, he begins to cry out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” And the people around him attempt to hush him up, to shut him down, but that only makes the son of Timaeus call out to the son of David with all the more fervor. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Who was this son of Timaeus? He must be significant, because of all the healings in the gospel of Mark, this is the only one in which the person is named. “Timaeus” is the title of a dialogue written by Plato. It happens to be one of the most famous plays to be performed in the ancient, Greek-speaking world—the world Jesus inhabited.

In Timaeus, Plato says that all of us are blind, and only the enlightened philosopher can see. The philosopher is the one who can see [that] this world is fallen, and imperfect… It is what the philosopher truly sees which inspires [her] understanding of the truth.[i]

The son of Timaeus is sitting by the side of the Way, and Jesus and his entourage go by, and he calls out with all his might. And when Jesus says, let him come to me, he not only rises, he not only goes forward, he throws off his cloak. He throws off what is probably his only possession. Remember the wise and wealthy but ultimately sad young man who could not leave it all behind to follow Jesus… and see the contrast. See the joy with which Bartimaeus shrugs off his cloak, and his old life, and his old lack of vision. See how the only thing he asks of Jesus is to be able to see again. See how he knows he is in need of healing. See how he addresses Jesus as “my teacher,” showing us that he knows he does not know everything. See how he is willing to follow Jesus on the Way to the cross.

Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

The way to see is to know that we are wounded, and empty and in deep need of healing in all our brokenness. The way to see is to know that we don’t know, that our pre-conceived systems of faith and belief need to be re-fashioned, reformed, even. The way to see is to see the Way: the path Jesus follows. The hard path that is not about power or status or getting some kind of prize, but about service and giving and giving up the things we long to cling to.

Sometimes I don’t think I give Jesus enough credit, we don’t give him enough credit. We think we must approach him fully formed, and fail to realize it is for us to let him re-form us. We think we must be pretty or perfect or perfectly strong, and we don’t trust him with our brokenness, our need for healing. We think we need to know absolutely everything about him, or have our fully-fleshed out faith in place, intact, and we don’t trust him to teach us what we need to know. We think we can pull him along with us on whatever track we’re going, and don’t trust him to lead us on his path. But he wants us. Just as we are, without one plea. Blind beggars every one of us. Beautiful and broken, as we were created. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Rev. James Murray, after Tom Long, Midrash lectionary discussion list, October 23, 2003.

Monday, October 19, 2009

God's Hands: A Sermon on Job 38:1-18

A subtly stewardship-ish sermon... perhaps too subtle?

"K." was baptized yesterday.


We’ve walked in to a bit of a lecture here… a scolding, really. We are hearing the voice of God as an ancient writer conceived it, and God is speaking to Job. At the beginning of the book that bears his name, Job is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” And Job has all the accoutrements that go along with faithfulness and uprightness in the thinking of the Ancient Near East: he is happy and he is prosperous. In Job’s world virtue equals success. He has flocks and herds and lots of property. He has ten children who actually love to spend time together, and host one another for wonderful family dinners. But all that is about to change. When a member of God’s heavenly court—a kind of devil’s advocate figure—asks permission to test Job, God says, sure. Go ahead. Test him. Let’s see what Job is really made of.

In the twinkling of an eye, Job has lost everything. By the sudden actions of enemy armies and fire from heaven and violent winds, everything he had is gone. Property, gone. Flocks and herds, gone. Even his ten children, gone. And Job spends the next thirty or so chapters of the book that bears his name trying to figure out what on earth has happened, and defending his moral character to “friends” who are sure he must have done something to deserve all this calamity. Throughout those chapters Job questions God. Job asks that classic question: why do bad things happen to good people? Why did these bad things happen to me? Why did I lose nearly everything I hold dear—property, flocks, herds, even my children? Why? Job asks God to explain.

Job is not the only one who wants answers to these kinds of questions. When the worst happens, it seems a part of our human nature to ask why. We would like to know why bad things happen to good people, why the cancer strikes or the job is lost or the company has to close its doors. We would like to know why homes burn to the ground or are flooded beyond repair, or why someone comes to feel that their only option is to commit an act of violence. We, too, would like God to explain.

The passage we have read this morning is a small part of God’s response, though I don’t think we can call it an explanation in any sense. Rather than explaining the problem of suffering, God directs Job’s attention elsewhere. The works of my hands, God says. Look at all my hands have done. Look around you at the wonders of creation. Who did you think did all this?

…who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? ~ Job 38:8-11

God speaks of the earth as if it were a tiny child—a newborn baby—and as God does, divine love and care for that earth become apparent. Despite the occurrence of calamity, God seems to be saying, do not doubt that I love the earth and all its creatures with the tenderness of a parent for its newborn baby.

See what wonders the hands of God have performed! In the ancient language of our faith, God’s hands laid the foundations of the earth while the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy. Or, as we might say in 2009, God tipped over the first cosmic domino that led to the Big Bang, and carefully watched over the debris that was flung from our medium sized star as it whirled itself into planets. Creation. However you look at it, in whatever terms you describe it, God is responsible for it. The mind and heart and will and hands of God fashioned everything that is. God says to Job, Look at the wonders my hands have done!

This response of God—this non-explanation—silences Job’s questioning. But we are still left with the problem of evil—the problem of bad things happening to good people. This problem is not resolved in Job, though some later author gets cold feet and tacks on a happy ending to satisfy those who insist that goodness must equal happiness. The heart of the book of Job points our attention away from suffering and towards evidence of God’s goodness, evil and suffering notwithstanding. Yes, life is hard—but look at the stars. Yes, you have lost much, maybe even everything—but look at the sea. I don’t know that it is a satisfactory answer for most of us.

God’s motives and methods remain a mystery to us, unknowable, unfathomable. But there is something we can know: we can know the works of God’s hands. We can know God as the one who commanded the morning to dawn and who has walked in the recesses of the deep. We can know God as the one who taught the trees to turn themselves into pillars of fire, and who created the infinitely beautiful patterns of snowflakes.

We can know the works of God’s hands. We can warm ourselves on a chilly autumn night with the bounty from the garden and the orchard… the savory winter squash, the glorious crisp apples. We can know the works of God’s hands. We can peer into the face of K., and see the beauty God has created, the miracle that is life, and the gifts that result from human love. We can know the works of God’s hands. We can look around us in this beautiful sanctuary and see people whom God has called together into community, we who have been joined in the body of Christ. We can know the works of God’s hands.

And then perhaps our response to the problem of evil and suffering in the world can be shifted. Perhaps instead of asking, “Why did this happen?” we can respond by asking “How can we help?” or “What can we do?” I heard not too long ago that one unforeseen result of the recession we seem to be emerging from was unprecedented numbers of volunteers, people showing up at non-profit agencies to offer their help. People who had lost their jobs have been reaching out to others who are struggling in record numbers.

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body

Some attribute that prayer to the medieval mystic Teresa of Avila, and some attribute it to the 20th century mystic, Teresa of Calcutta. And others tell this story:

There is a church in the UK that was damaged by the Blitzkrieg, and a group of German students went to restore the church [after the war was over]. The hands on the statue of Jesus were blown off, and instead of fixing it, the German students posted "Jesus has no hands but our hands."[ii]

Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Ours are the eyes with which God looks out and sees the suffering of the world, and seeks to alleviate it. Ours are the eyes that see the loneliness of the homebound neighbor, and make a decision to stop in to bring some flowers from the sanctuary. Ours are the feet that will walk to do good, seeking to eradicate hunger in our area by participating in this afternoon’s C.H.O.W. walk. Ours are the hands with which we will dig into hearts and pockets and calendars in order to do the work of God’s church. Ours is the body from which no one is rejected, of which every member is valued for his or her unique contribution. God has no body now on earth but ours. No hands but ours. God depends on our hands to continue the work of creation and nurturing God has begun.

Now. What shall we do with these hands of ours? These miracles of design and creation in their own right? Scripture and our own experience of the world remind us of the ever-creative, ever-caring hands of God at work. Look at what God’s hands have done! What shall we do with our hands? Thanks be to God! Amen.

[i] Teresa of Avila? Or Teresa of Calcutta?
[ii] Evangelical Lutheran Church in America website.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Welcome Table: Sermon on Mark 8:1-10

We are receiving new members here at St. Sociable Church today, and since this will be their first time as members of a Calvin-descended church, I thought it might be fun to share just a bit of Calvitrivia, a perhaps little known fact about our history.

Many of you know that John Calvin is considered the father of our denomination. He was without a doubt one of the greatest thinkers and theologians of the Reformation. Calvin has gotten a bad rap in the modern era, a reputation as being a kind of harsh, repressive curmudgeon. I am here, first of all, to stand up for the Calvin I know and love. The man was a poet, and his poet’s heart was filled with a fervent love of Christ and the church. Listen to these words, his meditation and teaching on the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, which we are going to celebrate today:

We shall benefit very much from the Sacrament if this thought is engraved and impressed upon our minds: that none of the brethren can be injured, despised, rejected, abused, or in any way offended by us, without at the same time, injuring, despising, and abusing Christ by the wrongs we do; that we cannot disagree with our brethren without at the same time disagreeing with Christ; that we cannot love Christ without loving him in the brethren; that we ought to take the same care of our brethren’s bodies as we take of our own; for they are members of our body; and that, as no part of our body is touched by any feeling of pain which is not spread among all the rest, so we ought not to allow a brother to be affected by any evil, without being touched with compassion for him. Accordingly, Augustine with good reason frequently calls this Sacrament “the bond of love.”[i]

How beautiful, and how perfect. These are the tangible effects we can hope for in our sharing of the Lord’s Supper: it is an expression of our deep communion with one another and with Christ, our deepest expression of the love we hold for one another and for God. Calvin has stated it so perfectly. And yet, followers of John Calvin instituted a practice that was, at the very least, startling in light of the paragraph I’ve just read to you. This was the practice of Communion Tokens.

There was a concern, in an earlier day, with “irregularities” in the Lord’s Supper, and by that I do not believe they meant the use of pita bread and tortillas. Rather, they were concerned that no one who was unworthy should receive the sacrament. And so a practice arose, by which the elders of the local church would visit all the members prior to their annual celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The purpose of the visit was to ensure that the members had been accurately instructed in the faith, and that they were leading lives worthy of their calling of the Lord. In this country, the use of communion tokens was common in Cavin-Descent Churches, especially those of Scots heritage, well into the 19th century. (I don’t know for certain, but I imagine the tokens were used at St. Sociable at some point.)

This practice doesn’t exactly describe what I like to think of as “the Welcome Table.” Jesus told us, again and again, by word and by action, that God invites us to a banquet, and all are welcome. Calvin wrote so eloquently of how the Lord’s Supper should bind the community together, of the ways in which it should remind us so strongly that we are all members of the Body of Christ. It’s odd that his followers should have been such strong proponents of “fencing” the table. And, of course, use of the tokens ended eventually. Churches changed their thinking about who to welcome to the table and how to welcome them. I suspect stories like our passage from Mark’s gospel had something to do with that.

It’s déjà vu all over again! Yes, this is the same basic story we treated at length during the summer, as the lectionary served it up to us no fewer than six times. The story of the feeding of the multitudes is retold no fewer than six times in the New Testament… twice in Mark’s gospel alone. It is an event that is surely at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. It tells us volumes about how Jesus looked at and listened to and responded to people.

Jesus had compassion for the people. That means, Jesus looked at people and saw their need. Jesus listened to people and heard their pain. Jesus taught people and noticed their hunger. Jesus put his hands on people and responded to their injuries and illness. All these things are happening right here, as Jesus is in the presence of a large crowd of people who are in need, in pain. Jesus is seeking to feed people who are hungry, and heal people who are ill. Nowhere in this story—or in any gospel story—does Jesus look for a token, or check someone’s credentials before deciding to feed them. The only “credential” anyone must present is their rumbling stomach, their desire to take in what Jesus is serving. Jesus’ feeding them does not depend on their worthiness; it depends on his compassion.

As the years have gone by our church has relaxed many of its restrictions on who may receive the Lord’s Supper. We no longer require tokens testifying to people’s “worthiness.” We no longer require communicants’ classes, or that people be a certain age. We now regard the Lord’s Supper just as we regard Baptism: it is not our Sacrament, but God’s. God’s grace is more powerful than our understanding or lack of understanding. God’s grace is real and effective. God’s grace works best when we simply get out of the way, and let it flow into the world.

In the end, it is not our table. It is Christ’s. And Christ, by his example, shows us a grace that is all too willing to be spent lavishly on the unworthy, which, of course, includes all of us. Christ, by his example, sets a table that has room at it for you and for me and for all God’s children wherever they might be. Canada. Mexico. Peru. Indonesia. Afghanistan. China. Christ gives us a sacrament that can be beautifully summed up as “a bond of love,” and demonstrates that that bond extends beyond our expectations. Christ reminds us that when our sister in Ethiopia has no bread, we should feel her hunger. Christ reminds us that when our friend in OurTown has no home, we should feel the harshness of the elements on his skin. Christ reminds us that when our brother in Laramie is beaten, we should feel his pain.

It is not our table. It is the table of Jesus Christ, which is here in this place and in every corner of the world. It is not our table. But we are welcomed to it. We are received with open arms. It is not our table, but it is surely our responsibility to extend the welcome. Thanks be to God.

[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960) ed. John T. McNeill, Translated and Indexed by Ford Lewis Battles, [VI, xvii, 38], 1415.