Thursday, October 25, 2012

October 28, Proper 25, Blind Bartimaeus

Jeremiah 31:7-9, Psalm 126, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52 

The story is the last healing story in Mark’s gospel. It happens just before Palm Sunday. It happens in Jericho, deep in the Jordan valley, the last stop before the steep road up to Jerusalem, a 15 mile climb into the mountains. The road is full of pilgrims going up to celebrate the Passover. The road is being watched by the Roman soldiers of the garrison in Jericho. The Roman soldiers would keep their eyes on someone called the Son of David, potentially the leader of an uprising.

Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. Well, of course many sternly ordered him to be quiet, "Hey, keep still!" but he cried out even more loudly, Son of David, have mercy on me. What kind of mercy was Bartimaeus looking for? An extra special handout? That’s why he always sat there at the city gate, so the pilgrims could do a good deed of charity on their way to worship.

Bartimaeus will not go up himself. As a blind man, he is not allowed inside the temple. And by his name, we surmise his father was a Greek. He is unkosher and unclean. He has reason to be worried about his fate if this Son of David sets up a new Kingdom of God with stricter standards of holiness and perfection. Son of David, please be merciful to an outcast like myself.

Jesus calls for him. Jesus is no longer hiding his identity. When the crowd sees this they let go of their circumspection. "He’s calling you." He jumps up. He leaves his cloak behind. That’s huge. Have you ever tried to separate a homeless man from his coat? His cloak is his security, it’s all he has for warmth and it’s where the pilgrims throw their alms. He’s risking all he has. Right off that’s an act of faith in the Messiah, even if it’s faith as desperation.

Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?" A simple question, but a challenge to the beggar’s professional habit of guarding the truth about himself. What a beggar asks for is what he thinks he can get, not what he really wants. So Bartimaeus will use his beggar’s skill to estimate what the Son of David can offer, but he must reject his beggar’s habit of guarding the truth about himself. It’s a great step in faith to confess the deepest truth about yourself. "All right, my rabbi, let me actually ask for it. To see again."

What do you want Jesus to do for you, you who have come to church today? Right now? Or tomorrow morning, when you sit alone, and if you pray? If Jesus does live on somewhere somehow and engages in the world and in your life with love and power, what answer would you give, what do you want Jesus to do for you?

What do you want the president to do for you? What should he offer you, an ordinary citizen? Isn’t that how the two campaigns are pitched — you’re being asked to vote on the basis of what you want the president to do for you. It’s a great disappointment to me that both of these campaigns are appealing to us as consumers, not as citizens. Maybe that’s to be expected, considering how thoroughly consumerist our culture is. The great gifts we enjoy of freedom and democracy we exercise chiefly in consumption. What do I want? What do we want? Goods and services? What I want Jesus to do for us as Americans is for his law and his gospel to teach us how to be citizens instead of consumers, with a vision of liberty and justice and the common good.

What do you want Jesus to do for you? Is it enough that he allows you to see again? Of course there are many things you want from him. Forgiveness of your sins, blessing on your life, healing of your body or your soul, the things you pray about, the answers to your prayers. But today we are invited to ask him just to see again. Some sight, some vision of what is ahead, some clear sight of reality before us. Glasses from Jesus, contact lenses from Jesus.

If Jesus corrects our vision and clears our sight, then what can we see? The Kingdom of God. Hidden in plain sight, on earth, as it is in heaven. The world, the world unblurred, the world in terms of God. We see other people but we see them as God sees them. We get glimpses of God, quick and comprehensive glimpses of the whole combination of God and other people and the world and the Kingdom of God within the world.

Last week I was asked a very good question. "Why do we have to have Jesus? Why not just God? I believe in God, I like it there’s a God, but we do we have to have Jesus?" This question always deserves an answer, even if we’ve answered it before, because it’s always worth asking again and again. So then, which god? Any god, a general god, a least-common-denominator god, the god of the Enlightenment, the god of the Deists, the god of "God bless America," or the god of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick, "inscrutable, featureless, indifferent." Which god, whose god? The Muslim and the Hindu visions of god are mutually exclusive. If not Jesus, then what god?

If Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the Son of David, then the God he shows us is the God of the Jews, the God of Israel. Which means that this God is the self-defining God, and not the god of the philosophers or the Enlightenment or the Deists or of Captain Ahab, but the God who enters into history with love, and takes on all the suffering of love. He shows us more, that this very God is in him, in a special way, uniquely so, and fully so, and he showed us this, unexpectedly and paradoxically, in his death and resurrection. If it the crucified Jesus of Nazareth did rise from the dead on the third day, that holds a vision of God, and how God loves the world, and how God relates to the Gentiles, how God relates to power — political power, but also the power of guilt and sin and death and evil in the world, how God addresses all those things and addresses us as human beings who are in the middle of those things, the way God loves the world, the contours of God’s love, and the kind of love that God requires of us.

So it’s true that you don’t need Jesus in order to have a god, some god, somebody’s kind of god, but if you go with Jesus he becomes the living telescope through whom you see the vision of this God. In the way he interacts with people, how he talks to them, the way he dies, and how he lives beyond his resurrection, you can see the character of God, the habits of God, of a specific God, but a God for all the world.

Jesus does not show us the details of the future, neither the course of your own life nor the outcome of the economic policies of whomever we elect next month, he doesn’t show you the future course of your own life. What he shows you is the attitude of God to all these things, which you have to trust in, you have to trust the commitment of God to the world and to its future and in God’s commitment to your own future. What saves you for your living in this uncertain world, for being an active citizen of the Kingdom of God instead of just a consumer of your life, is not your knowing the future, for you to control it and be safe, and get your way, what saves you is your faith in the character of the God who is demonstrated in Jesus.

It’s the human condition that our choices and actions lead to unintended consequences which are irreversible and which bind us. Our sins and shortcomings keep rising against us, and we feel trapped by the past and by our flaws and our failures and our weaknesses. And we cannot see any hope for transformation in our futures. But this great High Priest has made single and eternal and permanent and irreversible atonement for all our sins, and the bondage of your past is broken open, the wheel of karma is reversed, he has for all time cancelled the claims of vengeance and payment and retribution. See the world as he does. See yourself as he does. Cast your cloak behind you, like Bartimaeus, rise up and follow Jesus into the future which you do not have to see, as long as you have faith in the God who fills this future with God’s love.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October 14, Proper 23: How Hard It Will Be

Amos 5:6-7, 10-15, Hebrews 4:12-16, Mark 10:17-31

This sermon I preached without a manuscript. So I cannot post it here as usual. But it was recorded, and that recording is available at this website: Live Sermon Recordings at Old First

You'll find the sermon for October 14, as well as the spoken version (always different from the manuscript version) of the sermon for October 21.

Friday, October 19, 2012

October 21, Proper 24, Perfecting Perfection

Isaiah 53:4-12, Psalm 91:9-16, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45

The Greek word for baptism, in verse 38, is the same as the word for bathing, for taking a bath, and in the Roman Empire, bathing was usually done socially. Not by the lower classes, who didn’t take baths, and not by most Jews and Arabs, who considered it shameful to be naked, but by Romans, and by strivers affecting Roman ways, like King Herod and the other local tyrants of the Roman world. And so to be invited into the king’s bath, and at the banquet afterward to drink the wine from his cup, was the proof that you were a person of privilege and power.

The gospel lesson takes place just before Palm Sunday on the road up to Jerusalem. For three years the disciples have followed Jesus, so they’re invested in his messianic destiny and they want to share his power. The inner circle was Peter, James, and John, and Peter had blown and was rebuked by Jesus, so James and John see their chance. The other ten find out and are angry, not because they wouldn’t do the same, but because the two have cut ahead in line. Jesus is not angry. He doesn’t rebuke them for desiring to be powerful. He only says, "As long as you take what comes with it." Be careful what you ask for!

Can you really take my bath with me? Can you be washed over by the waves of suffering? Can you be overwhelmed by the floods of injustice? Can you be sprayed on by fire hoses and rained on by rubber bullets? Can you lose your job when the guy above you was unfair? Can you be passed over because of discrimination? Can you fail in your dream because they denied you the chance? Can you not get what you need because they’re giving it to someone else? Can you fail to advance your career because you’re caring for your kids? Can you miss the dance because you’re caring for your parents? Can you drop out of school because you’ve got to pay the bills? Can you watch the suffering of someone you love? Can you lose your child, or watch him die, or watch her dissolve in drugs? Can you be tried and tested and tempted with despair? Can you wade right into this water and be overwhelmed, lose your footing, lose your breath, and maybe even drown? I will not spare you this suffering, if you are with me.

That the suffering of Jesus is what taught him obedience is the message from the epistle to the Hebrews. Jesus learned obedience through suffering. This is not the usual stained-glass picture of Jesus, perfectly serene, unflappable, like a Buddha, avoiding desire to avoid the suffering. He was rather a man of passions and desires, who entered the water of suffering and thereby learned obedience. He perfected his obedience by staying with the suffering he did not deserve, but entered into anyway. It is a subtle message here, that by keeping obedient through suffering, he who was sinless perfected his perfection.

I am drawn to the image of Jesus praying with loud cries and tears. It’s not the familiar view of Jesus kneeling at the rock, calm and composed, with folded hands, and his long hair nice and neat. The epistle gives a different picture, less attractive, more troubling, with Jesus groaning and shouting and writhing on the ground, sweating bullets, calling out to the Father who is able to save him from death, but will not. The message is that the prayers of Jesus have room in them for fear and frustration, and even anger is allowed in them. We can hardly imagine a Jesus with anger and anxiety and fear and frustration who still is perfect.

His perfection is not static but dynamic. His obedience is not an avoidance of doing wrong, but an obedience of relationship, an obedience of tenacious engagement with God, wrestling with God, not backing off, not backing down, not stifling himself, but staying with God, despite the conspiracy against him for following God’s call on him. His remarkable righteousness was to stay faithful to the God who was able to save him from death but did not. He stayed faithful to the powerful God who did not use that power on his behalf. Though he was a Son, his Father did not rescue him. When God abandoned him he did not abandon God. He was at least as righteous as God. He perfected perfection beyond the original divine perfection.

If Jesus is the medium of God, and if the medium is the message, then this message of Jesus is a message about God, and what God is like. The very God of very God. We Christians may not imagine some static perfect God up there, but a God whose perfections are the perfections of active love, a God who drinks from our dirty cups and gets in our dirty water. How can a good and loving God allow the suffering of the world? It’s the classic question, for which we do not have a final answer. But the question is adjusted by what you mean when you say God within the question. The question is different when God has gone down deeper than us into the suffering that we complain about. The answer to the question is not an explanation or a proof, but a relationship, and a calling, and a challenge. The answer of God is that if you really do care about the suffering of the world, then can you join God down there under it, not liking it, but loving it.

Allow me to switch the focus now, and get more practical, and talk about the message for our congregation of Old First. The sanctuary ceiling disaster is a kind of suffering for our church. It has challenged us. I’m very proud of you, because I’ve been asking a lot of you of late, and you are stepping up. You are daring to take on new responsibilities and you are willing to make some sacrifices for what you believe in. But in order to be productive we need some power. To have some success and fulfillment you need to exercise your talents and your gifts, and you need some power and some recognition and even some status among us. Jesus does not deny us that. We are going to need some leaders here, some officers, some elders and deacons, some chairpersons, and we want our leaders to be strong leaders, with visions and ideas, and we want to empower them.

This sanctuary ceiling disaster can be a blessing for our church. I’m not suggesting that God caused it, nor that we should have asked for it, but this crisis can better for us than comfortable complacency. This time of trial and testing can call us to new obedience and new patterns of love for each other and new investment in each other. If all we do is fix the ceiling, we’re wasting an opportunity. We’d only be taking a shower, instead of getting in the bath. We’ve got to get down deep into our situation, and sit in it and soak in it. Here we are. What can it all mean? What new leadership, what new mission, what new outreach, what new daring, what new risk, what new furniture, what new levels of spirituality? Let’s not gulp this down, let’s sip it slowly to bring out every flavor we can taste in it. How much could we dare to renovate? How much money could we dare to raise? A congregation that lives by its faith should never waste a crisis to its faith.

So if you are stepping up to be a leader now, we want you to lead, and we will support you. If you have a vision, we will try to see what you can see. Take us with you, be strong, and also be strong in love, for Jesus said that everyone who is great must be a slave of all. Your leadership is for the sake of love, for loving the last one in line. You will have to explain it again and again, you will have to suffer us, our slowness to see and our weakness in action. This can be a kind of suffering for leaders. But really we have all the time we need. The only real crisis we’re facing is not the ceiling but the challenge to the practice of mutual love among us and to our obedience in relationships. The cup we drink is the cup of love. It’s a pledge and foretaste of that feast of love of which we shall partake when his kingdom has fully come. We can do this, because God has already done it. We can love each other, because God has first loved us.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Octover 7, Proper 22, Between the Angels and the Animals

 Genesis 2:18-24, Psalm 8, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12, Mark 10:2-16

So that’s why we bless little children in our church. It’s a gospel thing. We do it on behalf of the Lord Jesus himself. When I bless your child I’m channeling the blessing of Our Lord.

Why are little children special to the Lord? Why does he make them examples for us? Well, first off, I don’t think it’s coincidental that, in the Greek original, all of Jesus’ words for children are in the neuter gender, neither masculine or feminine. You get this in other languages too, that their sexuality is undeveloped yet. There is something in this about the Kingdom of God, that our sexuality as individuals is not the most important thing about us, and that behind our gender is our more essential unity as human beings. You certainly see that in the Genesis story, how sexuality is relative, not absolute. Jesus draws the point out later in a debate with the Sadducees, in saying that in the Resurrection there will be no giving or taking in marriage, and that we will be single, like the angels of heaven. Which anticipates our freedom from the sociology of sex.

Which means that your marriage is temporary, it’s not eternal; it’s for this life, not for the life of the world to come. The Mormons get this wrong, with their doctrine of celestial marriage. Mr and Mrs Romney expect to be married forever and ever and ever, while Mr and Mrs Obama are only married till death do them part. (I’m just saying!) So while marriage is a wonderful gift and mystery of God, it is not absolute, it’s relative. It’s for our lives here in between, in between this creation and the new creation, for existing in between the angels and the animals.

No wonder the Lord Jesus did not get married. You know that his not being married will have kept him from being perfect among the Jews. But consider that he knew on that he was born to die, which would be unfair to any wife and children he might have. More than that, he was the Adam of the future, the Adam of the new creation, and in that new creation, to be single is not to be alone. How this will be remains a mystery, for then what about the remaining sexual characteristics of our resurrected bodies? We don’t know. The difficulty of this mystery led to later speculations, like that fourth century Coptic papyrus recently in the news, that Jesus must have been married. The Orthodox went the other way, to underplay his sexuality and his full humanity. The challenge is to aim down the middle, in between the sacredness of marriage on one side and its relativity on the other, the challenge is to live between the angels and the animals.

This gospel takes us right down the interlocking boundary of comfort and of pain. It’s a comfort that Jesus blesses the children. And yet his words about divorce have been painful to many people. O Jesus please don’t make it any harder, the breakdown of a marriage is pain enough. The shame in losing what you promised, the guilt you feel when you are judged. Even a good marriage has its painful spots, and it’s even more painful to have to divorce, and then Our Lord is calling me an adulterer if I find love the second time around? Is it really sinful to remarry?

I can’t make it nice what Jesus said, and, dare I say it, I wish he hadn’t said it like that. Never once in my counseling of struggling couples did I say that if they didn’t stay married, neither of them could marry again or else be an adulterer. Yes, Roman Catholics believe that, but it just doesn’t jive with the rest of the Gospel. Think of Jesus and the woman at the well. She’d been married five times and now was living with her lover. Jesus challenges her but neither condemns nor tells her to break up with him. Jesus actually calls the guy her husband, and tells her to come back with him.

The painful thing that Jesus says here was actually for some protection of the wife. He said it in the context of women having no rights in marriage. The choice of her husband was not for her, but her father, and the choice for a divorce was not for her, but for her husband, no matter what she wanted in the matter. He needed only to write out a bill of divorcement and tell her to get out. And then who would take her in? There was no alimony then, and she could not contest the property because women did not own property. How could she support herself? Sell herself? Find some other guy to take her in as a concubine or at best a second wife? Did you see the NPR special Half the Sky the other night? That’s the context we are talking about.

Jesus is making a judgment on the rights of husbands, that the legal permission they got from Moses, in Deuteronomy, was only a concession to what they were doing already. But the prior teaching of Moses, from Genesis, is that a woman is equal to a man, and not his property. So who are you to treat your marriage like a contract under your control? It is a gift of God and a mystery of God which you owe to God. You have to love your wife as much as you love yourself.

Jesus was single but he had a higher view of marriage than the Pharisees. They saw marriage as absolute and cheap. He saw it as relative and precious. So it would be just as wrong for us to make an absolute of either divorce or adultery. Both of them are just as relative, or even more relative than marriage is. Just last Sunday Jesus told us that to cut off your hand if it leads you to sin. If your marriage becomes unloving or hateful or abusive, you may have to cut it off. You may be scarred for life, but you are not unforgivable or barred from trying it again. There is no death which Jesus cannot bring again to life, no pain which Jesus cannot comfort. We can’t avoid the pain in what Jesus says, but he does not say it as his new heavy law against remarriage.

The issue is hard-heartedness. That’s what binds these two stories together, as the stories always interplay in Mark. The hardness of the righteous Pharisees, the hardness of the disciples who push the children away. That hardness is a defense against the pain of living in between, in between the hope and the reality, the future and the present, the angels and the animals, all the losses and the pains that come with having bodies and affections, all the incompleteness, which the angels do not know. The hardness can also come from trying to be righteous, from being strong and steadfast in obedience, from avoidance of the weakness and the pain. That hardness of heart can come from good intentions and better purposes, from trying to achieve the Kingdom of God. But we cannot achieve it, we should not even try, we can not build it or advance it or extend it, we can only receive it, like little children, and to be so totally receptive of the Kingdom of God is the second reason, the main reason, why Jesus tells us to be like little children.

To be so receptive and so open and so defenseless and soft-hearted is so very risky when you consider our position between the animals and angels and our consequent predicament of bodily pain and spiritual suffering. But God has taken this very risk as well, as we are reminded in our second reading, the epistle to the Hebrews. In the person of Jesus, God took human flesh, lower than the angels, and all the risk and pain and suffering. In the person of Jesus, God became a single, lonely, abused and abandoned human being, betrayed and denied though he was innocent as a little child. He did this to atone for us, but also to lead us and encourage us, that we ourselves can make our way right down that middle way between the pain and the comfort, between the suffering and the glory, and the losing and the love.

His personal history is the pledge that you can make your way through it with him, and with the rest of us who follow him as well, and that he is with us as we go that way, it is precisely where he meets us, there, right in the middle of it all, which is what you would do yourself, because you know what love is. And you know what love is because he first loved us. That is the air you breathe as you go this way, the air that is the love of God for you.

Copyright © 2012, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.