The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, October 28, 2012

No blind followers!

Pentecost 22, Proper 25B
Mark 10:46-52

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Whenever I hear the story of “Blind Bartimaeus” my mind always drifts back to Mrs. Reisinger.

When I was in the first and second grades, my family and I lived in Mansfield, Louisiana - a small town of only about 5,000 people just south of Shreveport, Louisiana.  Though we were only there for two years, we made many memories and built many relationships that persist even these nearly-30 years later.

Mrs. Reisinger was our next-door neighbor.  She was 98 years old and lived alone in her magnificent old Southern mansion on the main street of town.  I was always the kind of child who related easily with people of different generations, and Mrs. Reisinger and I became quick friends.

Very often, in the afternoons after school, I would walk next-door to Mrs. Reisinger’s house for a visit.  She would offer me fresh baked teacakes that she always seemed to have just made, served warm with cold lemonade.  We would spend hours talking about nothing in particular.  Knowing me, I’m sure I provided her with whatever updates and insights my 7-year-old mind had come up with.  But the highlights of our visits for me were always her stories.  In her almost a century of life, she had seen more than my young mind could imagine.

And though she was blind by the time I knew her, she had an ability to help me to see what she could only see in her mind’s eye.

My relationship with Mrs. Reisinger taught me many things.  She awakened in me a curiosity for history – and particularly the real stories and feelings of the people who lived that history – a curiosity that still continues to shape who I am and how I see the world.  She was a vigilant participant in the “village” that it took to raise this child – teaching me manners and courtesy through our interactions.  And as I look back on our somewhat unlikely relationship, I recognize that she helped to teach me that there was value in both eyesight and insight.  Though Mrs. Reisinger had lost one, the other remained as sharp as ever.

This is one of the lessons of the story of “Blind Bartimaeus”.

In the biblical world, it was common for people to see physical infirmity as a punishment for human sin.  Throughout the stories of the healing miracles of Jesus, we see again and again that Jesus didn’t see things that way.  One of my favorite gospel songs says it like this: “The justice of God saw what I had done, but Mercy saw me through the Son – not what I was, but what I could be, that’s how Jesus saw me.”

Bartimaeus may have been without eyesight, but he was not without insight.  He could see Christ in a way that others couldn’t and he had faith sufficient to want to follow him.  Jesus could see past Bartimaeus’ infirmity, and could see all that he did have to offer.

Jesus says, “Go.  Your faith has made you well.”  And Mark tells us that Bartimaeus immediately regained his sight and followed Jesus on his way.

Despite what you may hear from many Christian leaders and organizations today, it’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t looking for “blind followers”.  He never lifted that up as an ideal.

Today, many of our brothers and sisters in Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed churches are marking “Reformation Sunday” - celebrating the significance of much of the church shifting it’s focus from unquestioningly following the often-questionable path of an elite magisterium, and beginning to give the people of the church the responsibility of and the opportunity to follow Christ for themselves.

Like Bartimaeus, those of us who are the spiritual inheritors of the Christian Reformation of 500 years ago follow Christ with our eyes wide open.  Jesus wasn’t one to hold secrets.  He wanted his followers to know full-well all that they had in store.  He wanted them to know what they were getting into and he wants us to follow with all of the gifts of insight and perception that God has given us.

Jesus is not looking for “blind followers” even if churches sometimes are.

This, which we see in the story of Bartimaeus, can be seen throughout the Gospels.  Jesus is clear with those whom he encounters just what they’re getting into when they choose to follow Jesus.  It’s clear to us just what we’re getting into when we choose to follow Christ.

We’ve seen it over and over again in the past few weeks:

Jesus’ command to the rich man who wants to enter the kingdom of heaven: sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and follow me.  It’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.  You’re going to have to radically shift the way you interact with the world in order to follow me.

When James and John were lobbying for prominence and greatness because of their association with Jesus, Jesus laid the cards on the table: can you drink from the cup from which I drink and be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?  It won’t be easy.  And even then you may not get what you desire.  But your desires are too small.

We also heard: “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… Whoever wants to be first among you must be last of all and servant of all.”  The truest leaders are servants of “the least of these”.  The world is turned upside down again and again through the influence of Christ.

The work of following Christ is hard.  It may put you in harm’s way – as countless Christians martyrs can attest.  It may cost you earthly pleasures.

So don’t just follow blindly.  It’s much too important.

Following Christ is important.  So much so that it requires every drop of insight and faith that we can muster.  It requires disciplines of servanthood and leadership, because the lures of this life are great.

Mrs. Reisinger died a few years after we moved away from Mansfield.  Though most of the stories that she told me have faded with the passing years, the insight that she helped to pass on to me continues to live.

She was a living Bartimaeus: a Christian whose insight surpassed her eyesight.

And that’s what the call of Christ looks like in the story of Bartimaeus.  We are charged with seeing Christ not just with our human eyes, but also with and through the eyes of our soul.  We are called to see not just the one-time leader of a people and of a faith, but to seek out the truth that lies behind it all.  Our objective is not just to study the history of the Christian movement, but to immerse ourselves in the depths of the relationships that it once did and continues to inspire.  It’s not so much about honoring our past, as it is a sign of hope for the present.

All of this requires insight - seeing the way “Blind Bartimaeus” taught us.  Amen.

(reworked from an earlier version originally published in 2009 here)

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Push button faith

Is it?
Pentecost 21, Proper 24 B

In the name of God: our Creator, the Word of Life, and the Wisdom of All.  Amen.

Well, I hope y’all were listening closely this morning.  This gospel is one of those passages that you won’t be hearing very often in this church.  And even though an almost exact copy of this lesson appears in Matthew’s gospel and an abbreviated version appears in Luke’s gospel, the church, in its wisdom, has seen it fit to share this story with us only once in our three year cycle of readings.  Sure, you could hear it every year if you attended a celebration of the Feast of St. James the Apostle – but let’s be honest, how many of us go out of our way to celebrate that festal day each year?  [Don’t worry, I won’t ask for a show of hands.]

Whenever we encounter these rare texts, a part of me can’t help but wonder why we seem to be avoiding certain stories.  Are we hiding from something?  Obviously the gospel writers and those early church leaders who assembled our canon of scripture must have felt that the story was important enough that it should be included in some fashion in three of the four gospel accounts that found their way into our final collection.  But why don’t we follow their lead and incorporate this lesson more fully into our spiritual practices of reading and reflecting?

I’ll admit that there is something a bit unsettling about this text for me, and I could see how it might be equally unsettling for the leaders of the church.  It seems very natural for us to seek attention and favor from those whom we love and respect just the way James and John did.  A little nepotism never really hurt anyone, did it?

Honestly, who among us would not be pleased if we learned that a coworker, who just happens to be a good friend, was promoted to a position of authority over us?  The frustrations of the workday would likely be eased if the boss regularly had dinner with you and your family, or joined you for Happy Hour every Friday.

In the political realm, it’s a common practice for our elected officials to thank their most devout supporters by offering some sort of favor associated with the power of their office.  In my home state of Louisiana we’ve developed a system of political kickbacks and favors into a “good ole boy” network that seems almost artful in its design.

And even in the church we can occasionally find ourselves guilty of these kinds of problems.  Whenever the church is in the process of choosing new leadership - whether it be at national or diocesan levels - I have occasionally heard people supporting this candidate or that for no other reason than because they have a “close” relationship with so-and-so.  The subtext seems to be something like, “This bishop will make my job easier because we had sushi together last week.”  You can almost imagine backroom conversations where someone says, “Gee Rev. Joey, I think you’d make a great bishop and I’m gonna tell all my friends about you….  Don’t you think I’d be a good Canon in your diocese??”

So perhaps it’s just a little easier for the church if we turn a blind eye to those stories that make us look a little too much like those powerful religious leaders in the Temple that Jesus is always fussing about.

And it’s not just in the world, and certainly not just in the church that people hope to earn the favor of the powerful.  Even, on a deeper level, in our own lives, we often find ourselves seeking a kind of God who will step in to carry out the plans that we’ve already made.  We often do this with the best of intentions.  When our loved ones are dying and we plead for just a little more time.  When we feel genuinely called to some work or relationship or transition in our lives and we pray that God will make the people who make decisions about our futures recognize those things which seem so obvious to us.  Even when we don’t come to God with a clear path in mind, there can seem to be, in the core of our existence, a proclivity among us to wish for a God who will just automatically fix whatever bothers us.  We’ve all done it.  You see those familiar red and blue flashing lights in your rearview mirror and say, “Oh God, I hope he’s not coming for me.”  You’re being grilled by a boss or a client for some mistake you’ve made and you quickly pray that God will somehow give you an answer to solve the problem.  And even in those deeper moments of woe: when our hearts are unsettled because of instability in our relationships, when we feel lonely or alone, when we share the sufferings of those whom we love; we often pray that God will just push some button in heaven and make everything okay.

I think most of us know, at least intellectually, that God doesn’t tend to work that way.  But it can be very tempting to fall into that kind of wishful thinking.

“[Jesus], we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

But before we judge James and John (or even ourselves) too harshly, let’s think about this.  I mean really, didn’t Jesus bring this on himself?  During his ministry he was always running around doing pretty big favors for people.  If he wasn’t helping blind people to see he was helping disabled people to walk.  Once, when he was at a wedding and they ran out of wine, he just took some water and made some more.  Remember the story of Jesus healing that twelve year old girl whom everyone thought was dead: Jesus only allowed a few people to witness this, and among those few were James and John.  They had seen him do some pretty amazing things for other people who really had no significant qualifications beyond proximity and faith.  They had both proximity and faith; so shouldn’t they get a little kickback like the others?  They weren’t asking for anything too big – just positions as second in command to this Messiah whom they thought would be the ruler of the world.  Is that really so much to ask between friends?  [It puts a whole new spin on that whole “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” theology, doesn’t it?]

But James and John missed a couple of important points.

First of all, they failed to recognize that Jesus had at least ten other friends who might be put out by their desire to move to the top of the ladder.  Mark says, “When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.”

But moreover, in their desire for a higher place than the rest, James and John had subverted the real ministry of God moving among us – the deeper ministry of drawing us - all of humanity - into a closer relationship with God.  If Jesus had merely granted their wish like a genie in a lamp, the presumed hierarchical division between God and humanity would have been made more severe, not less.

If we listen to the ways that God is calling us into deeper unity with Godself, we will recognize that the truest understanding of communion with God is best expressed through the ways that we live into communion with each other, our partners in creation.

This is a hard lesson to hear.  We all want to be the best and most favored.  But Jesus tells us time and time again, that our understandings of greatness are skewed.  We become great when we allow ourselves to be called into service.  We live into our relationship with God most fully when we live into our relationships with each other.

To me, that’s one of the central functions of the church.  Our acts of worship are of central importance; but building this community and living into these relationships make us truly and fully worshipful.  They give us a clearer glimpse of God - clearer than any of us, as individuals, could possibly achieve on our own.

Our best expressions of love for God are in those most genuine, often even painful expressions of love for each other.  The central feature of our relationship with God is less about who is in and who is out, and more a recognition that in God, through Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit all are in – none more and none less than any other.  Even me.  Even you.  Even those troublesome bosses and clients and coworkers.  All are in.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

We don't consume salvation

Pentecost 20, Proper 23B
Mark 10:17-31

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

No matter how many times I say it - and moreover, no matter how many times the stories of the Bible say it - one thing about the Christian experience seems to remain surprising for a lot of people (or at least we tend to act as if it’s surprising).  That is, quite simply, that it’s not easy to be a Christian.  It never was, and really, it never was supposed to be.

But somewhere in our history, we seemed to have forgotten the call to sacrifice.  Somewhere along the way, Christianity became another of the many products that we consume, rather than a way of living in response to the amazing grace of God.

There are certainly signs to suggest that in the past sixty years, or so, this consumerist approach to Christianity moved from mere tendency to widespread epidemic; but the truth is, the tendency has always been there.  We need only look to the story of the “rich, young ruler” to see the seed of that dysfunction at work even in the earliest days of our faith.

The three synoptic gospels refer to the man in the story we hear today as either “the rich man”, “the young man”, or “the ruler”, but tradition has conflated them into “the rich, young ruler”.  But whoever he was, the essence of the story remains the same: a generally pious man, who follows the law, comes to Jesus for assurance of his place in heaven.  “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Giving the stock answer, Jesus tells him about the commandments.

Perhaps feeling a wave of relief that he’d been right all along, the man says, “Oh I’ve been doing that forever!”

And then the Gospel says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

Mark tells us that on hearing this, the man was shocked and went away grieving.  He had done so much, and still it was not yet enough to earn God’s favor.

These words and this story are still as shocking for us today as they were to that rich, young ruler.  Is God really so insatiable that even the good and pious people among us aren’t doing enough?  Are we all meant to live in poverty?

The logical side of my mind begins to fall into some circular sequence of events: God seems to have this preference for the poor.  So to gain God’s favor, the rich must become poor.  But if God’s wishes were followed, then the poor, whom God had favored, would no longer be poor.  The rich who gave away their possessions would be poor.  So does God’s favor shift?  Then the now rich, who had been poor, to gain God’s favor, must give away their possessions to the now poor, who had been rich.  If we follow the teachings of Jesus, it seems that the cycle of falling in and out of God’s favor could go on and on and on!  It doesn’t seem like a very efficient strategy for the salvation of God’s people.

Upon closer examination, this story doesn’t seem to hold up as either a call to generosity or a parable of economic justice.  It just doesn’t make much sense if you interpret it solely in that way.

The answer seems to come a little later.  The disciples, who had been watching this whole exchange, are understandably perplexed.  They talk it over with each other and with Jesus, who explains to them how incredible difficult it is for people to do all that is necessary to “enter the kingdom of God” - or to earn God’s favor.

Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Finally the disciples get to the right question: “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus answers, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

That’s Jesus’ answer to the rich, young ruler.  He had asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  But he was asking the wrong question.  It couldn’t be answered with a sound bite or a bumper sticker.  The answer was to follow Jesus and to learn to ask better questions.  The answer is that there is nothing that we can do as individuals to earn God’s favor.  God’s favor comes from grace - not as the reciprocal end of some divine transaction.

We don’t consume salvation - we bask in it.  And we live our lives in such a way that we share the truth of it.

There’s a part of me that grieves this interpretation of this story.  The truth is, we could all use another call to economic justice, and we could all stand to be a bit more generous.  There is soul-wrenching poverty all around us, and as the hands and feet of Christ in the world we are called to ease it.  There is an epidemic of enslaving excess in all of our lives and we would all be stronger and healthier people if we would surrender some of it.

That’s what it means to live our lives in such a way that shares the truth of salvation.

But doing so won’t earn us God’s favor.  There’s nothing we can do to earn God’s favor.

That’s just not the way it works.

We don’t live generously and answer the needs of the world to earn God’s grace, but in grateful response to God’s grace.

The rich, young ruler did everything right, but it wasn’t enough.  And it never would be enough.  There’s always something more that God is asking of us.  There’s always something more that we can give.

It’s not easy to be a Christian.  It doesn’t fit in a simple list of rules, or in a sound bite, or on a bumper sticker.  “W.W.J.D.?” - “What would Jesus do?” - is easy to ask, but harder to answer.

But, through the grace of God and through the generosity of the Holy Spirit we keep finding new questions the longer we follow Christ.  And that’s the answer.  Amen.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Running into a brick wall

Pentecost 15, Proper 18B

In the name of God: who sets the course, who strengthens us for the journey, and who loves us when we fall.  Amen.

There are basically two ways that a preacher can go on a Sunday like today.  We can either run, full-speed into a brick wall, or we can look for a way around.  One of the things you’re likely to learn about me and my approach to the priesthood pretty early on, is that when there’s a brick wall standing in my way, I have this nasty habit of picking up speed.

The brick wall today is divorce. 

It’s a touchy subject.  It’s riddled with pastoral landmines.  On one hand, Jesus seems to be pretty clearly opposed to it.  To deny that would be a slap in the face of everyone (and I hope it is everyone…) who takes the scriptures and the teachings of Jesus seriously.  On the other hand, divorce is a reality in very many people’s lives.  Sometimes relationships die - for whatever reason, and as a result of either partner’s (and often neither partner’s) fault.  And in the face of death it is our Christian duty to seek out resurrection.  Not to lay blame and not to cast judgment, but to look for new life.

So that’s the brick wall.

It seems like our only options are to either ignore Jesus or to ignore the realities of our common lives.

For those who can’t face the brick wall, Jesus and the compilers of the lectionary offered a little way to try to side-step the obstacle: “Let the little children come to me…”

That’s a lot easier.  I’d bet that a lot of preachers today have decided to focus on that.  It’s one of those soft and squishy passages of scripture that make us feel all warm and cozy.

No sense beating our heads against a brick wall…

But the uncomfortable truth is, you called a priest who doesn’t mind running into a brick wall now and then.  Not only do I not mind, but I think it’s part of our job as Christians - to tackle the difficult questions that life throws at us, and to seek out meaning in the difficult experiences that we face.

So, rather than looking for some easier way out, today we talk about divorce.

It might be helpful to begin by seeing what the church teaches on the subject.

For about 40 years now, The Episcopal Church has been on record recognizing the painful reality of divorce, hoping for it to be avoided, but also recognizing the need for pastoral care for those who must endure it.

The canons of the church are actually quite sensitive here.  It says, “When marital unity is imperiled by dissension, it shall be the duty, if possible, of either or both parties, before taking legal action, to lay the matter before a Member of the Clergy; it shall be the duty of such Member of the Clergy to act first to protect and promote the physical and emotional safety of those involved and only then, if it be possible, to labor that the parties may be reconciled.”  (Canon I.18)

Perhaps that just sounds logical to you - I certainly think it does.  But beyond simply being logical, it’s a fairly revolutionary statement.  Our church acknowledges the reality that marriages do sometimes end, but we urge that when a couple enters that path that they do so cautiously, with the advice and guidance of the clergy - just as they presumably entered into the covenant - and always with an eye to the physical and emotional safety of everyone involved.

If you read between the lines there, you hear something like: we don’t want divorce.  We know that ending a marriage is a serious and difficult step.  But if you do it, try to do it thoughtfully, and carefully, and without hurting anyone, if it’s at all possible.

It’s pretty close to the message that I hear coming from Jesus.

It may be hard to hear on the first reading, but if you think about it in the context of that time and that place, Jesus’ words were pretty revolutionary, too.

The Pharisees were trying to trick Jesus.  They asked him his opinion on divorce, because no matter where he fell on either answer that they could imagine, he’d be standing in opposition to scripture.

But Jesus answered like an Anglican - a kind of both/and approach.  He acknowledged the provision for divorce from Moses, but also acknowledged that it’s not the ideal.  But in his answer - he also turned the world a little more on its head.

Here’s where you have to be able to read between the lines a little…

In the first century, marriage was a contract between two men - the father of the bride and his future son-in-law.  While, in the best of circumstances, women may have had some unofficial say in the matter, the real decisions and logistics of the transaction were left to the men.  The same was true of the dissolution of marriages.  Men could, under the Mosaic provision, issue a certificate of divorce to their wives.  Full stop.  That was as far as the rights would extend.

But Jesus subtly put forward a new world order.  He raised the possibility of women divorcing their husbands.

That could almost have gone unnoticed, but it stands out a little brighter in the context of the next few words - the story of Jesus commanding the disciples to “let the little children come to me.”

You see, the disciples were doing exactly what one would have expected.  People were bringing their children for Jesus to touch them - to bless them - but the disciples were trying to keep them away.  After all, a man as powerful and as important as Jesus shouldn’t be troubled by these unimportant little children.

They were doing exactly what their social order should have expected them to be doing.

But Jesus stops them.  He recognizes the benefit of children - their innocence and their joy.  And he makes space for them in a society that tended to believe that they should have been kept apart.

In this context, the story is less about divorce or even children.  It’s not even so much about the Pharisees attempts at trickery.  The real meat of the Jesus experience is revolution - finding space for those that society has cast away.  In his culture, women and children were no more than property.  They certainly were not reflections of the divine nature.  They couldn’t have been worthy of their own free will and their own share of God’s benefits.

But Jesus said that they were.

In the midst of painful realities and divisive social structures, Jesus saw opportunities for unity and relationship and dignity.

He ran full-speed into the brick walls of his cultural reality and broke through to reveal not just answers to the questions that were troubling the philosophers, but new ways of seeing and celebrating the world and it’s people.

The truth is, divorce is a sad and painful thing.  And I think our church is in line with the teaching of Jesus in saying that it should be avoided to the degree that it can be, but that the principle concern is for the health and well-being of the people - not just the preservation of the institution.

The institution will be fine.  Don’t worry about it.  Our real concern - as a church, and as Christians, and simply as people - is for the well-being of other people.  Particularly for those people that society most thinks are “other”.  That’s what Jesus really came out in favor of in today’s gospel.

It’s not really about divorce.  It’s not even about children.  It’s about subtly making space in our understandings of the Kingdom of God for all of those who really are already a part of it - without all of those unimportant limitations that we still sometimes try to impose.  There’s always room for more.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.