Tuesday, October 30, 2012

With Jesus, on the Way, from blindness to sight

Proper 25 B
October 28, 2012
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
Mark 10:46-52

Seeing is believing. What you see is what you get. It’s all in the eye of the beholder.

Today, Jesus restores sight to a blind beggar. What is going on here? What does Jesus want us to see?

Two weeks ago it was the rich young man. Last week it was James and John. Today a beggar by the side of the road. In these three stories, who is the true disciple? Which one was truly blind, and which saw what was truly going on?

All during the Epiphany season -- you may or may not remember as far back as last winter -- we read stories of Jesus healing and teaching. Traveling through Galilee, he proclaimed that God’s rule was now here. Everything he did was to show that what people thought of as “the norm” was not the way it truly was. Isolated, poor, an outcast in society? Jesus showed that you were at the center of God’s care. Sick in body, mind or spirit? Your nature was restored to wholeness with God’s justice. Even the dead were brought back to life. And this was not just for a few people – it’s like “Save the Rain” in Onondaga County: everyone benefits, whether you would have lived next to that sewage treatment plant that didn’t have to be built or where you just benefited from better control over your water rate. In these stories from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus was not acting as a prototype for Robin Hood, robbing from the rich, the secure, the privileged and the happy to give to the poor; right and wrong were not merely re-ordered: Jesus revealed the true order of the world as God created it to be, just as “save the rain” falls on the just and the unjust. It’s all right there, if you could only see it.

All of this terrific healing stuff Jesus did throughout Galilee has caught the attention of people with power and privilege who just don’t want things to change. Throughout the Gospel, we read rumblings of discontent from people who benefit from keeping things the way they are. Over and over Jesus tells the disciples this is not going to be easy; this is the Way of justice and wholeness and healing, yes; but it is also the Way which leads to suffering, and even death. It’s like what St. Paul will later write, the whole creation is groaning – as God’s order is revealed the old order is cracking, breaking, resisting with all its might.

The disciples don’t want to see this. The rich young man, devout as he is, doesn’t want to see this. James and John, who just want some of the privileges of the new age, certainly don’t want to see this. Riches, privilege and power are not Jesus’ to grant, but those closest to Jesus just don’t seem to want to see it that way at all. Jesus is on the Way to Jerusalem. Jericho is the last stop before the entry into Jerusalem, riding on the donkey, the beginning of the Passion, the Way of the Cross. Who will go with Jesus on this way? Who is the true disciple?

Bartimaeus sits by the side of the road, blind, with his beggar’s cloak as a sign of his station in life. He, like the other people Jesus has healed, is not only poor and disabled, but a social outcast – someone who can never better himself or pull himself up by his bootstraps. The whole system of who has money and land and family and status and health and a future will never let him have any of those things. Unlike the rich young man, he does not ask about eternal life. Indeed, in his eagerness to approach Jesus, he leaves behind his cloak, his one possession of any value. Unlike James and John, he does not seek out “top posts in the new administration,” but asks only for mercy, for sight. And what is Bartimaeus’ response to receiving sight? To follow Jesus on the Way as the true disciple, the one who really sees what is going on.

But the other side, those – even those friends of Jesus – who resist the demands of discipleship? What of them? What are the costs of not seeing? Of not being able to part with possessions? Of not taking that risk to follow Jesus? Of not leaping up off the side of the road joyful but turning away sad? What is unbelief but despair, despair that nothing will ever really change, despair that paralyzes us and locks us into what is and keeps us from seeing what could be, what God wants to be.

But really: the Gospel of Mark is not about them, way back there in history. The Gospel is about us: do we see what is going on? After all, the characters in the Gospel of Mark do not know the ending of the story. They do not know that through the suffering, through the passion, through the death on the cross that something else happens. In fact, we are more like Bartimaeus: once we were blind but now we see, and we see that following Jesus on the Way, to the other side of the cross, through all the disappointments and losses and griefs and sorrows, through trials and errors, through sickness and health, through leaking roofs and crumbling foundations: on the other side of the cross is life abundant. It’s like being able to swim once again in a clean and clear Onondaga Lake – impossible, but within reach. Do we see it yet? It’s just coming into focus …

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Serving the ones whom God loves

Proper 24 B; October 21, 2012
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm  104:1-9, 25
Mark 10:35-45

Everybody wants to get ahead.

Every politician in this election season reminds us: times are tough, here, and certainly around the world. Do you remember, years ago, when the “Great Recession” began, how people would talk about how this economic downturn would make us all more friendly, more frugal, more compassionate? I don’t think it has quite turned out that way. The old demon greed seems more active than ever, even in a time when there is less to go around. Maybe it’s the dark side of human nature, when we fight for crumbs, steal from our neighbors, who might be even poorer than we are. We begrudge the least advantage someone else gets; “sharing” and “generosity” seem concepts long ago forgotten. This dark side can be seen in all kinds of people, whether you live in a homeless shelter or are receiving (still) big bonuses from your job on Wall Street.

This dark side was even seen in the disciples, James and John. Who can blame them? They just want to get ahead. They just want a little job security into the future. They just want to know that they’ll get theirs. Sounds like the American dream. Sounds like they work for – dare I say it? – Bain Capital. Who can blame them for trying? Especially in today’s economic climate, where no one feels there is enough to go around, and that I will get nothing if I don’t hustle.

Astounding to think, isn’t it, that thousands of years ago, in a society made of up peasant farmers and fishermen, we’d see the same jockeying for position that we see in today’s corporate raiders – or in our own lives?

You’d think James and John would know better. After all, they have Jesus right there with them: God IS one of us, walking around right there with them. Have they not been listening? You can hear some of Jesus’ exasperation in his response to them. Have you not been paying attention, he seems to say? Following me is not a path to upward mobility and privilege. In the eyes of the world, it is downward mobility – it is a life of service, of self-giving.

But whom do we serve when we follow Jesus? Service is not servility. Jesus does not expect us to be doormats for the rich, or that our “downward mobility” helps somebody else get more.

When we follow Jesus, we serve God, and the ones whom God loves: we serve the ones whom no one else serves, or cares about, or loves. We serve the world God has made, to make it greener, safer, cleaner – we serve the world by working to restore it to the beauty God intended when God created it.

This sounds beautiful, but it is hard stuff. That old demon greed, and “get-ahead,” and “me first,” and “this is mine you can’t have it” and “I want more” – well, those are powerful forces. God can seem far, far away from the pressures of life, and our fears of not having enough loom large.

Our first reading is from the Book of Job, the story of the upstanding, wealthy man who lost it all. His friends, even his wife said, you are so miserable; curse God and die; be done with all this. Job refused to curse God, and for much of the book seems to suffer in despair: why is God doing this to me?

Then comes this famous passage where God answers Job. In short, what are all of your miserable complaints against the mighty creative power of God? We can read this and be kind of confused; what kind of an answer is this to Job’s questions about why his life became so miserable?

But wait. Don’t go down that path. To think that way is to miss the point that God is here. God answers Job, comes to Job, speaks to Job. Job is part of that creation that God so lovingly describes. God is in Job’s face.

How often, in our misery, do we not recognize when God is in OUR faces? James and John, miserable and worried and greedy, could not even see God in their beloved teacher, friend and constant companion, Jesus.
Job, James, John: there is more to life than your little problems. There is more to you than what money you have, or don’t have. You are part of the fabric of the universe, created, loved and sustained by God. You are loved by God. You will have enough. And the part you play, in this great adventure God has launched with the creation of the world, is the part of service to all those whom God loves.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Loosening our grip on all that stuff

Proper 23-B
October 14, 2012
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22
Mark 10:17-31

“No one is good but God alone”? God is good? Ask Job. The excerpt we are reading today finds Job in the middle of his God-induced misery, having been harassed by friends, as well as his wife, to curse God and die, or to find in his own behavior a cause for this terrible treatment. As one wise biblical teacher puts it, Job “is still laboring under the old delusion that God is reasonable.” “Oh, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him … I would learn what he would answer me.” Job is suffering. Job is the archetype of suffering, suffering without the relief or assurance of God’s love.

The rich man who kneels at the feet of Jesus is also suffering. He is worried that, although he lives a good life, as he defines it, it is not enough. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he plaintively asks the one he calls “good teacher.” Jesus gives him some answers, but they are no more welcome to his ears than God’s silence is to Job. In fact, Jesus’ words may as well be silence, for they are not what the rich man wants to hear.

Jesus takes “good behavior” a few steps beyond the “10 commandments.” To that list Jesus adds, “Do not defraud.” This word for “defraud” in Greek means cheating a worker you’ve hired out of the wages due to him, or it means refusing to return goods or money someone has entrusted to you for safekeeping. And then Jesus throws in the kicker: “Sell what you have, and give the money to the poor.” You can see Jesus using this man’s seemingly purely spiritual and religious question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and turning it into an indictment of all wealthy people. They have obtained their money through fraudulent means; they have cheated those whose labor created their wealth, they have not returned that which was entrusted to them. Jesus demands restitution. “Go. Get up,” he says – a phrase otherwise used by Jesus when he heals someone. “Get up and be healed of your sickness of accumulation, of using wealth as an end and not a means. “Sell that which you have. Give it too the poor. Follow me.” And this is the first and only time in the Gospels when Jesus says to someone, “Follow me,” and he does not do it. The rich man refuses to be a disciple.

The disciples are really shocked; this is too hard, they say. No one can do this, rightly recognizing that these harsh statements of Jesus do not apply only to the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” crowd. They apply all of us, for all of us can find something we would rather keep than follow Jesus. “How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” These two stories – that of the suffering Job and the suffering rich man – hit us at the heart of our anxieties, our fears that we will not have enough – that one day God’s favor will withdraw from us like the tide going out and we will be left high and dry.

There is no doubt about it: to live in America in the 21st century is to live in a world with too much stuff – and having all that stuff contributes to that anxiety about being left high and dry. There are people in this world who can detach from all that stuff, who can rid themselves of things in order to concentrate on, to use the shorthand phrase, “eternal life.” Twenty-seven-thousand of us went to see one such saintly person this week: the Dalai Lama was in town. But even there we were hardly possession-less. All the tickets cost something – mine were very generously given to me! – and even the Dalai Lama himself joked that at home he had 21 caps with various university logos emblazoned on them, and that he might just sell them for a little fast cash.

It is possible to rid ourselves of everything and devote ourselves, as Jesus suggests, to the poor. It is possible, but not likely. We are embedded in this world, in relationships and families and commitments. What would it mean, then, to have these possessions, but know that they do not have us?

Note that the Gospel text says that Jesus loved this rich man, even if he could not see beyond his possessions to understand what it meant to love Jesus. What does it mean to live with all these possessions knowing that Jesus loves us anyway? Knowing that all our possessions are not the sum-total of our lives? Knowing that we have all these possessions not just in service to ourselves, but in service to the world, and to the people, Jesus loves? To know and to do this is impossible, as Jesus says; but then he goes on: “With God, all things are possible.”

We do have a common example of this in human life. In marriage, the two people vow to honor each other, “with all that I am and all that I have.” The two people throw themselves into this relationship with abandon – indeed, abandoning all their personal hold on their possessions in service to, and in honor of, this new thing, this new beloved, this new relationship. Knowing that in the best of marriages this, too, is an impossibility does not make it any less likely that people will get married. Maybe it’s the love that kind of makes us crazy enough to let go of our grip on what we as individuals have in order to be part of this new thing. No, sometimes it does not work, but the fact that we are only human doesn’t make us stop trying.

It is like that with following Jesus. Crazy love: just because it is impossible does not mean we don’t want to. Loosening the grip on our possessions means we can see the world in the different way – things are no longer ours to hoard but the blessings God gives all of us to enjoy.

The last, the least, the littlest and the lost lead the way

Proper 22 B
October 7, 2012
Job 1:1, 2:1-10; Ps. 26
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-1-12
Mark 10:2-16

No doubt about it: we are suffering through an extraordinarily contentious political season. Perhaps the Gospel of Mark is just the right gospel for us this year, because in these latter chapters in Mark’s story of Jesus’ life, Jesus is engaged in some pretty contentious debates of his own. The religious establishment tries at every turn to “get him” – to win the debate, to find that “gotcha” quote, to get him to stumble and fall, to expose him to his adoring followers as a fraud. If Jesus is a fraud, they figure, then that establishment can dismiss him as just another religious nut.

I found the presidential debate last week almost mind-numbingly dull. Trillions here, trillions there – I know the issues at hand are critical for this nation and the world, the numbers and policies do count, but aren’t we all desperate for some word that connects with the heart of the matter? If we read that debate in a Biblical context – with the values the Gospel of Mark would place on it, it would be like this story about Jesus’ opponents trying to trip him up with his opinions about the legal status of divorce. The questions being raised are about the technicalities, all the stuff up there: how do I bend this law without breaking it so I can get my way? Jesus, however, gets to the heart of the matter, to the difficult stuff. He talks not about divorce but about marriage – and makes all of us, even thousands of years later, very uncomfortable. He reminds us of the ideal God sets for human community, reminds us that marriage is a blessing of intimacy and commitment between two persons – and he reminds us that as soon as God set that ideal, humans betrayed it. God really wants our hearts. Jesus reminds us. God also knows that our bodies are not always able to follow through.

If you read these two chapters of Mark – chapters 9 & 10 – you will notice a narrative flow. Our passage today deals with marriage and divorce. A few weeks ago the disciples were arguing over who would be the greatest, and Jesus in the same way took the discussion away from the superficial argument “up here” and brought it down to the heart: he used a child, a little one, one of the “anawim,” as an example of true discipleship. Notice again and again in these chapters that Jesus names the little ones – the children, the poor, the sick, the outcast – as his true followers, the ones who get to the heart of Jesus’ message. The least will lead the way into the kingdom of heaven, and what they have to teach us, the privileged ones, is that for us to lead, we, too must get to the heart of it all – we, too, must be servants of all – that that is what following Jesus means.

It is probably nearly impossible for any of us, with a lifetime of choices and setbacks and mistakes and commitments, to receive the kingdom of God as a little child. But time and again, even when he is angry or indignant, Jesus reaches out and gives us another opportunity. The way is always open for us to enter the kingdom of God. The barriers, Jesus points out to us, over and over again, are all ours. If it is all about the technicalities, if it is all up here, if you are only out for the gotcha moment, the loophole, the fix, then you are missing out on what these little ones know and see and feel in their hearts. But then, if you take their example, you can see the way ahead.

Walter Brueggeman, the biblical scholar I often consult on difficult passages like today’s Gospel, reminds us that what holds the long, whole narrative of scripture together is that it insists “that the world is not without God, not without the holy gift of life rooted in love.”[i] God is not our fair-weather friend, the guest at our wedding but not the shoulder we cry on when the marriage relationship ends in acrimony and despair. God is not just our companion on the sunny side of the street. God’s blessings are not commercial transactions that we parcel out and consume. God’s blessings come to us in the fullness of life – in the easy times and in the hard ones, and always at the heart of it all. We receive all those blessings, and, like our hearts, we break them, and share them, and, with the openness of a child, we know there will always be enough to go around.

[i] From Struggling with Scripture by Walter Brueggemann, William C. Placher and Brian K. Blount (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), quoted by Kathryn Matthews Huey, Sermon Seeds, http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/october-7-2012.html

God works with the people at hand

Proper 21 B
September 30, 2012
Esther 7:1-10, 9:20-22; Psalm 124
James 5:13-20
Mark 9:38-50

Many years ago we lived next door to a Hasidic Jewish synagogue. I learned valuable things from my good friend the rabbi there. I learned that as a police chaplain he was deeply committed to diversity training as a way to embody respect for every person’s religious background. I learned that some Jews believe in reincarnation. And I learned that on the feast of Purim, you are supposed to get so drunk that you cannot tell your friends from your enemies.

Our first reading today is the joyous conclusion of the story of how Esther courageously – and cleverly – saved her people from destruction – the incident that results in the riotous festival of Purim. People dress in costume, and whenever the name of the wicked Haman is read, they boo and hiss and have a riotous, and kind of drunken, good time. Purim is supposedly the only festival that will be celebrated even after the Messiah comes.

Our lessons today are about courageous people. Esther and the unnamed man who cast out demons in Jesus’ name have been blessed by God, but they have to live with the cost of that grace, that knowledge of God and what God would have them do.

Esther, a Jewish woman who has kept her background a secret from her husband, the king, risks her life to save the lives of her people, who are about to be killed by order of an unjust vassal of the king. Esther could lose all: her life, the lives of her people. She has to reveal that she is Jewish. She must now place all her confidence in God, the God who inspired this mission, because she doesn’t know how the king will react. The king, her husband, may very well be her enemy, but her courage lies in the risk she takes to embrace this enemy, to appeal to his justice and righteousness – or else this would become just one more tale of holocaust for the Jews. But Esther’s heroism wins the day. The king is persuaded, the wicked Haman is killed and the Jews are saved.

In the Gospel, a seeming interloper challenges the exclusive rights of the disciples (as they perceive them) to do good works in Jesus’ name. This unnamed exorcist has taken a risk, and the disciples have come down hard on him. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and delivers a lecture on just how much the grace of God may cost them. It could cost them a hand, an eye, a foot. It could cost them their lives. Whatever it costs, to follow Jesus is to take a great risk, and the ones who take that risk – who cast out demons, or fight the evil one, or care for those who do – are the salty heroes of the Jesus story.

“Salted with fire” – Jesus uses a complicated metaphor which would have been full of several meanings for his hearers. To sow a field with salt means to destroy its fertility. Likewise, remember Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt for disobeying God and looking back on the destruction of Sodom. To “salt with fire” is to really, really, really kill something – to kill it so much it never has any shred of hope of returning to life. That’s the destination for those who don’t take the risks Jesus demands for following him.

But then Jesus uses the metaphor of salt a different way. “Salt is good,” he says, but if it’s not salty enough, then what good is it?? If you don’t have an edge, if you don’t take a risk, if you don’t understand the cost of grace, then what good are you? Be a little salty, Jesus says, and be at peace.

Blessings come in curious ways in these lessons today. They remind us, if we didn’t already know it, that God’s ways are not our ways, that God does not just wave a magic wand and everyone lives happily ever after. They remind us that God is in a relationship with us, that God is in this business of life with us. We get the sense from these two readings that God improvises – that God works with the people at hand: Esther was right where she was supposed to be, to save God’s people from destruction. The unnamed exorcist turned out to be doing God’s work, whether the disciples thought so or not.

Salty, and unexpected, things like these turned out to be blessings from God. We’ve been thinking a lot about the blessings we have in this community of faith – unabashed blessings, like music and art, like this beautiful space, like family and friends, like the opportunity to serve and to give and to share; hard-won blessings, like the thoughtful and prayerful leadership core of this congregation, people who week after week, year after year, do what needs to be done to sustain our common life; peculiar blessings, like taking our unwieldy and maybe a little outdated financial accounting system and turning it into something that can help us tell the story of the many ways God has blessed us as a community and as individuals.

As we approach stewardship time, each of us will be asked to make a financial commitment to the mission of God as it is lived out in this congregation. As we do so, let us make it in the context of our blessings, paying special attention to the unexpected and peculiar ones, and the remarkable things God seems to be asking us to do.