Saturday, December 5, 2009

Be Prepared!

Be Prepared!
Luke 3:1-6
Second Sunday of Advent
6 December 2009

If I were to do a survey of which songs have been stuck in your heads lately, I bet we would notice a lot of commonalities among us. A handful of you would say, “Jingle Bell Rock.” Several of you more nostalgic types would probably offer, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” while Elvis fans would chime in with “Blue Christmas.” Those of you who don’t mind the cold have probably been happily humming, “Let it snow! Let is snow! Let it snow!” And I’m guessing a large segment of you, against your will, have been looping, “Feliz Navidad!”

‘Tis the season for inescapable piped-in popular holiday music.

You may notice that in the church we resist singing Christmas songs for as long as possible. Whereas out there, this is called the Christmas season, in here it is called Advent. In here, Christmas doesn’t get started until December 25, and then it lasts for 12 days, long past when the stores have taken down their Christmas decorations (which, of course, they put up sometime around Halloween). For Christians, Advent is a season of its own, and its music is not so much festive as it is plaintive. It is laced with longing. It sings of darkness, bleakness, yearning: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. To sing towards the One we hope will come, is to acknowledge we do not yet have what we need. Advent hymns remind us that before we can sing Joy to the World, we have to be honest about what the world currently looks like.

I have had an unusual song stuck in my own head for the past several days. It is not a Christmas carol, it’s not in our hymnal and it’s not played at the mall. It comes from my favorite Disney movie, “The Lion King.” You may remember the sinister character of Scar, bitter brother of King Mufasa. Scar envies his brother’s position, and believes that he himself would be a superior ruler. He will never have that chance, though, now that Mufasa has a son, Simba.

It is Scar’s menacing song that has been blaring in my brain these last few days. “So prepare for a chance of a lifetime, Be prepared for sensational news. A shining new era is tiptoeing nearer.” Throughout the song he warns the listening hyenas, “Be prepared!”

Of course, what he is singing about, as the villain, is his coming reign of destruction, when he will have his brother murdered and his nephew discredited, and he himself will take the throne. He is warning his minions to be prepared – everything as they know it will be overturned. He is telling them to prepare for a death, so that then they can prepare for a new kind of world. Even though Scar’s intentions are malevolent, I can’t help but feel something familiar in the urgent warning tone of his words when he sings, “Be prepared!”

This morning, a lone figure stands in the desert, shouting the same thing. He is no villain, and his motives are not mean – but his words are a warning. We cannot avoid him. There is no way to the manger without first passing John the Baptist.

Every Advent, he shows up. We eat party food and Christmas candy; he eats locusts and honey. We dress in red and green; he wraps himself in camel hair. We want to glimpse the baby in the manger; he forces us to fix our eyes first on our own barren hearts and twisted lives. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” His is not the voice of a villain, but his message is still scary. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for every one who has a conscience.”

When John the Baptizer says “prepare,” what he means is “repent.” Is there any word we resist as much as that one? This man comes into your life and demands that you repent - how do you respond to that? Do you, in fact, repent? Does it make you want to change your life? Or defend yourself? We associate the word with street corner preachers who announce that everyone is going to hell. Turn or burn! Repent, or die! And all that makes us want to do is shake our heads and walk away.

People did not walk away from John. They were drawn towards him. Crowds flocked to him. What he was announcing was not street corner judgment, but world-changing, life-altering news. What is will be no more. What shall be is on its way. “Every valley shall be filled, every mountain shall be brought down, the crooked shall be made straight, the rough places will be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The world is about to turn! It will turn towards beauty, redemption, transformation. John is calling the people to turn, too. Turn from their old ways, leave behind their old lives, and prepare for the Promised One.

If we are going to walk away from the call to repent, then we are also willing to walk away from the promise. If we are honest, we know this is true: there are things in our lives that we need to turn from. You don’t have to call it “sin” if that word is what’s holding you back. Truth be told, not everything we need to let go of is a sin. But now is the time to be honest, to take stock, to get real, and to turn. Turn away from toxic attitudes and behaviors. Quit trying to make your old ways work. Consider how habit is ruling you, instead of intention. Think about how you speak to the people you love. Think about the messages you let play in your own head. Look at all of it – how you think, how you speak, how you act, how you treat people, what you cling to, what you think you have to have. Examine it all. And then make a choice. Turn away from the things you know you need to leave behind. Now is the time! This is the way.

This is what it means to prepare the way of the Lord. This is what it means to repent – to turn from what was to the promise of what shall be. We don’t know what it will look like – the salvation that God brings. We cannot predict or control what lives transformed will become. All we can do is our part, to make a way, to clear a path, to prepare.

It is difficult – maybe more difficult in this season than in others – to make room for the kind of self-reflection that repentance requires. We are so busy preparing our lists and our menus and our homes that there is no time or energy left for preparing our hearts. We cannot let this be. We have to resist the tyranny of busyness in whatever small ways we can. We cannot let busyness have the final word over what happens in our hearts.

Etty Hillesum was a young Dutch Jewish woman who composed a series of journals before being sent to Auschwitz, where she was put to death. In one of those journals, Etty wrote, “…sometimes the most important thing in a whole day is the rest we take between two deep breaths, or the turning inwards in prayer for five short minutes.”[i] Can you open the door of your heart this much? A little bit each day, a little bit of self-examination, and repentance, and prayer, might be enough to prepare. A little bit of turning away from what no longer works in your life, and turning towards the God who brings new life. Those few moments could be the most important thing you do in a day. Those few moments could change the rest of your actions and attitudes that day. In other words, those few moments each day could change your life.

It is not just your life and mine that need to be changed. The promise John’s call represents is the transformation of the whole world. All the ugliness and evil, all the hatred and pain, the violence and lies – all of it will one day be redeemed. God will break into the world with deliverance and healing, with salvation. And all flesh will see it together. No more division or exclusion. No more blindness to what is real, which is Love.

John’s call is so fierce, and his promise is so true. The world will turn. It will turn on a cradle, it will turn on a cross. The question for us, for Advent is, will it turn in our hearts too?

[i] The Advent Door. Jan Richardson.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Reign of Truth

The Reign of Truth
John 18:33-37
Christ the King Sunday
22 November 2009

Happy Christ the King Sunday!That doesn’t have a great ring to it, does it?

Okay. How about this:

Happy Reign of Christ Sunday!

No? What about: Happy last Sunday of the Christian year?

None of these sounds quite right. We are not all that accustomed to celebrating this Sunday as any kind of special day. We are getting ourselves ready for Thanksgiving, and then Advent, and then, finally, Christmas. It is just much easier to simply say, “Happy Holidays.”

But this morning is, in the context of the Christian calendar, a pretty big deal. Our Christian year ends now, and next week we circle back around to the beginning, with the first Sunday of Advent. This last Sunday is a sort of zenith – the whole Christian year moves towards this day, a reminder that Christ’s lordship over the whole world draws us forward; his reign is the goal of human history, the fulfillment of our hopes and of our purpose.[i]

It’s possible that all of that sounds largely irrelevant to your life. Lordship? Kingship? Christ’s reign? We have more immediate, more pressing, and more mundane things to worry about these days, don’t we? Not to the mention that, as Americans, we rejected the whole notion of a king a couple of centuries ago. The word “king” sounds archaic. It is all out of keeping with how we see our reality. We prefer our autonomy. We prefer our democracy. We do not intend to submit to some authority other than our own selves.

We are like the woman in Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail. When King Arthur introduces himself to her as her king, she responds, “I didn’t know we had a king… I thought we were an autonomous collective.” Then a man explains to King Arthur how the people in their collective take turns being the executive officer, and how that officer’s decisions have to be ratified by a majority in special bi-weekly meetings. It sounds quite like a Baptist church!

But King Arthur pronounces again, “I am your king!” To which the woman responds, “Well I didn’t vote for you!”

We didn’t vote for one either, did we? We do not want a king. We do not think we need a king. We don’t want anyone telling us what to do. We want to build our own lives, and we want to protect whatever power we’ve got.

Jesus is a threat to all that. He has always been a threat. The religious leaders of his day were well aware of the threat he posed, and they intended to do something about it. In their desperation, they colluded with their oppressors, the Romans. Pontius Pilate was, by historical accounts, a harsh, mean-spirited ruler who scorned his subjects. But when power is threatened, unlikely alliances are born. So the Jewish leaders, and the Roman who ruled them, cooperated in the squashing what they both thought was a subversion of their authority. And though he never intended to become the king they thought he was trying to be, they were right about this – he was a threat.

In today’s Gospel story, we are brought into the headquarters of political power. The religious leaders themselves did not enter those headquarters, so as not to be ritually defiled. They were the ones who made sure he was arrested and tried, but they did not want their own hands to get dirty in the process. And isn’t this often the way we use power against others? – cleanly, invisibly, at a distance.

Pilate now stands alone with Jesus, in the inner sanctuary of political power. “Are you the King of the Jews?” he asks. Here is where religion and politics come together in the trial of Jesus. The Romans knew that the Jewish messianic hopes posed a threat to their governance of Judea. If Jesus is claiming a throne among Jews, then he could be planning a rebellion against Roman rule. Pilate’s question is about sedition, it’s about insurrection. There is fear of revolution when he asks his question: “Are you the King of the Jews?”

Jesus answers the question with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Can Pilate act out of his own inner authority, or only as a politician, responding to the whims of public opinion? Jesus’ question shows who is really on trial here, and who is really the judge.

“I am not a Jew, am I?” Pilate responds, dripping with contempt for the people he governs. And yet this trial will show that he is just like the people he disdains, rejecting and resisting the real revolution that Jesus means to bring. Pilate pushes further, asking Jesus, “What have you done?”

“My kingdom is not from this world,” Jesus replies. But Pilate does not grasp that Jesus does not operate from the same framework that he does. Pilate does not understand that Jesus isn’t trying to seize a throne or claim political power. Pilate cannot think beyond traditional power structures or conventional understanding. “So you are a king?” he demands.

You say that I am a king,” Jesus replies. And this is the way it has always been, isn’t it? No matter who a person really is, we try to put them into our own categories of understanding. No matter who Jesus really was, or really is, we try to fit him into our own little understandings. He is so much more than out little categories and conventions, but we insist. Insist on making him smaller. Insist on fitting him to what we can understand, and manage. Insist on shackling him to our own perceptions of power, of religion, of ourselves, and of the world.

This is not what he came for. He did not come to fit into what we think we know. He did not come to prop up our power or our perceptions or our religion or even our understanding of God. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world,” he says, “to testify to the truth.”

He came to show us the truth of God’s heart and God’s being. In him, God was present, unveiled, undistorted.[ii] God’s love for us, God’s longing for us, God’s unfailing mercy towards us – these things have always been true. There is more, too. There are depths of mystery that we cannot begin to comprehend. Words are not high enough, not deep enough, not big enough to contain God’s truth. That truth had to be poured into a life. “I am the truth,” Jesus once said. It is not our doctrines about him that are the truth, He is the truth.

The truth in that life smashed traditional concepts of religion and power. It subverted understandings and institutions. It compelled individuals to lay aside their own plans and follow. And it finally bore its highest witness by laying itself down for others. That truth was lifted up on a cross, snuffed out and sealed in a tomb. But even death could not swallow up the truth. It burst forth.

We still struggle to make sense of that. We mostly fail. Our minds and our words, our doctrines and our understandings, are simply not big enough to hold all that truth, in all its mystery and complexity and vastness and beauty.

The only thing that can hold ultimate truth is another life – yours, mine. God’s truth came to us not as a proposition, but as a person. We respond to it, then, personally. We reach for it not with intellectual understanding, but by living it, by trying to put our trust in it, in him. By abiding in him. We let His being become our being, too. We let him in.

To proclaim Christ as King is to acknowledge that the Truth reigns, in our world and in our own lives. It is to say that whatever the political machinations, whatever the cultural whims and societal trends and economic fluctuations, whatever power seems to prevail at the moment, Christ, who is the Truth, will ultimately subvert anything that does not move towards peace, mercy, liberation, embrace, compassion. To say that Christ is King, to say that Jesus is the Truth, is to say that, in the end, God’s ways of love and mercy and goodness will prevail. To say that Christ is King is to say that we want the Truth of God’s love to have final say over everything in our own lives too. Where there is hatred in our world or in our hearts, love will win. Where there is chaos or fear or conflict – in our world or in our hearts - peace will prevail. Where there is despair, or cynicism, or grief – hope will have the last word. Where there is bondage, there will be liberation. Where there is greed, generosity will emerge. Where there is pain, compassion will blossom. Jesus came to testify to a reality beyond what we see. When we say that Christ is King, what we mean is that in the end, that reality will take hold. And in the meantime, we will participate in that reality, even when it does not look so real.

He stands now as he did then, in the inner sanctuary of our power, our lives, saying still: “Here is what I came for: to testify to the truth.” Every day we have a choice. Will we live as if that truth is what is real?

He came to testify to the truth, and now we must decide. The radical truth he came to show us was only love and grace. It shames all our powers – political, economic, military, intellectual, religious, moral. It subverts our conventions, questions our claims, threatens our status quo, challenges our autonomy and our self-centeredness. It awakens hope. It inaugurates a new reality. It makes possible what seemed impossible. All it asks is that we give ourselves to it, give ourselves to the truth of God’s self-giving love. Can we listen to such a voice as his? Belong to his truth? Live our lives by its absurd calculations of love?

He is the one asking the questions now. Our living is our answer.

[i] Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World from Vatican II, cited in A. Adam, The Liturgical Year [New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1981], 179, noted in Preaching Through the Christian Year: Year B [Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press, 1993], 474.

[ii] Paul Tillich. The New Being.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Harvest of Kindness

The Harvest of Kindness

The Book of Ruth

23rd Sunday After Pentecost

8 November 2009

In the late 1940s, a group of missionaries working with the Tuareg people of the Sahara Desert began to translate the Bible into the tribal language of the nomads there. The first book they chose to translate was the Book of Ruth – partly because their best contacts were with women and this is a story about women and about the things that women care about. But they also did it because the story is direct, and beautiful, and engaging. It is little, but it is luminous.

In this story, there are no wars. There are no miracles. No plagues, no healings, no prophets and no kings. There is hardly even any mention of God. It is a story of three ordinary people, trying to survive what life deals them.

The story begins with a series of cruel ironies. Bethlehem, whose name means “House of Bread,” has been struck by famine. A family from the tribe of Ephrathite, which means “Fruitfulness,” escapes the famine by moving to Moab. Moab was a nation birthed out of the incestuous liason between Lot and one of his daughters; it was a symbol of evil to the Israelites, but the family is desperate, so they go to a reviled place to try to survive. But one by one the men in the family die, leaving no children. The family from the tribe called “Fruitfulness” has left no “fruit” behind. [In place of bread, famine. In place of fruitfulness, no fruit. In place of life, death after death after death. ]

What is left is three grieving widows, one old, two young, no men to care for them now, no children to provide hope for the future. This is how our story begins – in bleakness.

All that is left for Naomi, the mother-in-law, to do, is to return to her homecountry of Bethlehem, where the famine has ended. There is no reason for the two young widows, her daughters-in-law, to return with her. In fact, there is good reason for them not to go with her. The Israelites despise the Moabites; how would these hated foreigners find husbands in Bethlehem?

So Naomi urges the young women back to their own mothers. In the first spoken words in the story, Naomi says, “Go back each of you to your mother’s house, and may the Lord deal as kindly with you, as you have dealt with me….”

The word here, “kindly,” is a pale rendering of the actual Hebrew word, which is hesed. Hesed is “considered an essential part of the nature of God, and is frequently used to describe God’s acts of unmerited grace and mercy.”[i] Elsewhere in the Bible, hesed is translated as “lovingkindness” or as “steadfast love.” It is kindness, yes, but it is a stubborn kindness. It is dogged. It persists. It is loyal. It always goes beyond – beyond what is expected, and beyond what is deserved, and beyond what is required.

Possibly the most well-known usage of the word hesed is in Psalm 136, which could be called the Jewish equivalent of Christianity’s “Amazing Grace.”[ii] For 26 verses one line is repeated over and over: “God’s steadfast love endures forever.” “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever!” “Give thanks to the God of gods; God’s steadfast love endures forever!” On and on it goes, like an ocean of amazing grace, each line a new wave washing over us, “God’s steadfast love endures forever!” “God’s hesed endures forever.” It is the love that will not let go.

This is the love which Naomi extols. But when she uses the word hesed, she is referring not to God, but to her daughters-in-law. In fact, what she is saying is that she hopes God will show as much lovingkindness as the two young widows have. “Go back each of you to your mother’s house, and may the Lord show you the same hesed as you have shown me.”

The young women resist, but Naomi insists. Orpah obeys, kissing her mother-in-law good-bye and heading home. Orpah does what is expected; Ruth goes beyond. That is what hesed always does. Naomi admonishes her to return to her own gods, but Ruth refuses, and she explains why in one of the most beautiful passages in all of Scripture:

Do not press me to leave you

Or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

Where you lodge, I will lodge;

Your people shall be my people;

And your God my God.

Where you die, I will die –

There will I be buried.

May the LORD do thus and so to me,

And more as well,

If even death parts me from you!

In Hebrew, the central part of this pledge is simply, “Your people, my people; your God, my God.” With the nouns put together like that without verbs, the claim that Ruth is making is actually present tense and not future – in the face of Naomi’s insistence that Ruth return to her own people and her own gods, Ruth protests, “Your people are my people, your God is my God, so where you go, I go.”

We sometimes use this powerful passage in wedding ceremonies, and rightfully so. This is marriage language, just as it is a marriage image when the writer tells us that Ruth clung to Naomi. The word “cling” is used elsewhere in Scripture about the marriage relationship (Jer. 2:24, 1 Kings 11:2), and also about Israel’s ideal relationship with God (Joshua 22:5).[iii] Ruth is not just joining herself to her mother-in-law, she has married herself to God.

Three times Naomi says, “turn back.” Each time Ruth has said, “no.” There will be a turning in this story, but it won’t be a turning away from – it will be a turning towards love, and kindness, and redemption, and ultimately towards hope. Ruth is stubborn in her kindness – hesed always is. It is the original “tough love.” It hangs on.

Naomi has no more words for Ruth. Maybe she is mad that she is now traveling back home with the added burden of a foreign daughter-in-law. Maybe she is quietly grateful. Maybe she is simply made mute by grief. Indeed, the next time she speaks it is to tell the hometown women that she is bitter because God has brought her back empty. Nevermind that God has brought her back with a woman who loves her with the same sort of hesed of God. But sometimes the bitterness of grief makes it hard for us to see reality for what it is. Ruth’s kindness lets Naomi’s grief be what it must be. Their story reminds us to be patient with the grieving.

It’s easy to forget that Ruth is also mourning. Yet in her grief, she somehow finds the strength to take initiative. It is harvest time in Bethlehem, and Ruth is ready to work, knowing that it is up to her to scratch out a living for herself and for Naomi. The biblical law stated that whatever barley fell to the ground in harvest was to stay there for the poor to come and gather.

So Ruth goes to glean among the ears of grain. The story goes on, “As it happened…” which in Hebrew literally means, “Her happening happened,” another way of saying, “as luck would have it.” As luck would have it, Ruth comes to the part of the field belonging to Boaz, a relative of Naomi. Is it really luck? Or is it the beginning of the harvest of God’s lovingkindness? [The Jewish writer Elie Wiesel has said that the story of Ruth is told to remind us that there are no coincidences.]

At any rate, Boaz “happens” to notice Ruth. He asks others about her and is told of her relentless kindness towards Naomi. Boaz tells his workers to leave plenty behind for her, and then he goes to Ruth and tells her to help herself to his fields. Ruth falls on the ground in front of him and asks, “Why are you being so good to me, a foreigner?” And he tells her it is because of her kindness to Naomi.

This is the harvest of hesed. This is what persistent, radical kindness can yield. Though life has dealt as harshly with Ruth as it has with Naomi, Ruth keeps responding with kindness, and more kindness. That kind of kindness can be contagious. It hasn’t yet softened Naomi’s bitterness, but it has caught hold of Boaz, and he responds with kindness of his own. [Ruth has sown only kindness; now she begins to reap kindness as well.]

Ruth comes home to tell Naomi the news of her day, and shows her the harvested grain; suddenly, Naomi is transformed. She pronounces a blessing, “Blessed be Boaz by the Lord, whose hesed has not forsaken the living or the dead!” Naomi’s grief has started to break. Ruth’s kindness to Naomi brings kindness from Boaz. Boaz’s kindness to Ruth brings Naomi out of bitterness and into blessing. This is the harvest of hesed.

And now Naomi gets to work planting seeds of kindness herself. Naomi reveals to Ruth that Boaz is actually a relative. There is an old Israelite marriage law that said a widowed woman without children could be married to a kinsman of her deceased husband to give her children in her first husband’s name. Such a man was called a “kinsman-redeemer.” Like a wiley old matchmaker, Naomi hatches a plan, hoping to encourage a romance between the young widow and the older man. She tells Ruth, “Boaz will be at the threshing floor tonight. Wash yourself, put on your best perfume, and get on down there. When he lies down after eating and drinking, uncover him and lie down with him. He’ll tell you what to do next!”

This time, Ruth does what Naomi tells her to. She creeps in and crawls under the covers. At midnight, he rolls over, and there lies a woman. Surprise! Did you know that there were such racy stories in the Bible? It’s true. Lots of interpreters have tried to make this story sound virtuous and above reproach. But regardless of whatever else did or did not happen that night on the threshing floor, an unmarried woman creeping into the room of a sleeping man and lying down with him? That’s pretty scandalous. Let’s don’t sanitize it – this is sometimes how kindness has to act – it has to be audacious. It has to do things that might make some people uncomfortable. It doesn’t worry as much about reputation as about doing lovingkindness. Ruth is willing to do what is needed to secure a future and a hope for her mother-in-law and for herself.

And so: a proposal. Ruth asks Boaz to marry her. This girl has more than hesed. She has chutzpah! Boaz accepts her proposal, telling her that her kindness in wanting to marry him is even better than the kindness she showed Naomi.

And so they marry. And they have a son. And the women of Bethlehem say, “A son is born to Naomi.” She has been redeemed from her emptiness and her bitterness. New life has been created, and it started first with kindness that would not let go. The boy born to Ruth is named Obed. He will later become the father of Jesse, who will become the father of David, who will become the king of Israel. And so bitter broken Naomi becomes the great-great-grandmother of King David. And his great-grandmother is Ruth, the foreigner. And both women are great-great-grandmothers many times over of another child born in Bethlehem, Jesus the Christ, who will also be called Redeemer, and will embody the hesed of God for all the world.

Again and again in this story, the kindness of God is made flesh by the kindness of humans, and it changes everything. It’s a story like I promised – no wars, no miracles, no prophets, no kings, just the stubborn, courageous kindness of a (foreign) woman. Her bold kindness was a seed that God planted to bear the fruit that would change the world.

Henry James once said, “There are three things that are important in human life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.”

And Jack Kerouac said it like this: “Life is life, and kind is kind.”[iv] Which is to say, life will do what it will to us. Sometimes it will nearly crush us with what it lays on us. Sometimes we will feel powerless to change our circumstances. But no matter what, we will always have a choice. We can always choose to be kind.

And kindness is no little thing. To be simply, fiercely, courageously kind, no matter what happens – there is power in that. Your kindness – your choice to be kind - can change how a day goes. It can change how a life goes. And when God is unleashed by it, it can change the whole world.

[i] Kathleen A. Robertson Farmer. “The Book of Ruth: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections.” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume II. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988). 904.

[ii] I first read this about Psalm 118, which also includes the line “God’s steadfast love endures forever”, but only a handful of times (compared to in all 26 verses as in Psalm 136), in a paper by John Ballenger entitled Harvesting the Extraordinary. July 2000. He gave credit to the comparison to H. Stephen Shoemake, Godstories: New Narratives from Sacred Texts. (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1998). 104.

[iii] Farmer. 905.

[iv] Jack Kerouac. On the Road. Part 2, Chapter 5.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Question

The Question
Mark 10:46-52
21st Sunday after Pentecost
25 October 2009

Stories about healings inevitably raise difficult questions for modern Christians. What really happened? Are these stories true, or are they just told to make us believe in Jesus’ divinity? Why don’t the types of miraculous healings from the Bible happen anymore? Or do they? And if they do, then what is the relationship between faith and healing? If someone doesn’t get healed, does it mean they didn’t have enough faith? The questions are daunting.

Mark doesn’t try to answer them. He just tells us these stories, and leaves it to us to figure out what to do with them. In many cases in Mark’s Gospel, after Jesus has healed he tells the people not to tell anyone. Is it because these miracles will draw too much attention to Jesus, or will raise too many questions? Who knows? All we know is that Jesus repeatedly heals, and then says, “Don’t tell.” But not this time. Today’s story is the last healing story in this Gospel, and Jesus doesn’t try to keep it quiet this time. He is on his way to Jerusalem now, on his way to the cross, and in a way, this final healing is the inauguration of that journey. There will be no more secrets about who this man is and what he has come for. Eyes will be opened, and the truth will be seen.

Mark shows us with this story. Jericho was a lush city of palm trees and springs, near the Jordan River, and it was surrounded by a wall. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, sat by the road just outside the gate, so he could beg the pity of those on their way into or out of the city. The people inside those walls knew him, saw him every day. They were used to his sad story and his tragic condition. It no longer horrified them. And isn’t this the way it always is? We grow so tired of the need around us. We get so accustomed to seeing people begging that we are no longer horrified at their poverty or their need. We grow numb, or worse, we get annoyed. So Bartimaeus set himself up by the road outside the city walls, where he could appeal to travelers who might still be moved to compassion for an impoverished blind person begging for change.

There he sits, when a large group of people begin to leave the city, walking by him as they go. Bartimaeus hears that one of them is the great healer, Jesus of Nazareth, and he begins to shout. He starts making a racket. No more rattling a little tin cup or hoping someone might hear him calling out, “Please help.” No, this is his big chance, and he lays it all on the line. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” People try to shush him. Even beggars have a protocol. Stay on your knees, look pitiful, say please. Not this guy. Not this time. He will not be shushed. He screams even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!!”

And Jesus stops. He stands still. Silence. And then: “Call him here.”

No more shushing for the blind beggar. An invitation now. The people who had been trying to silence him now call to him, saying, “Take heart! Get up! He is calling you!” Watch him now, as he throws off his cloak, rises up from his place of pity, crosses ground he has never seen, among people he has never seen, outside a city he has never seen,[i] to meet the healer he cannot see.

And it is like this for many of us, is it not? We fumble forward in life without a clear picture of who Jesus really is. Many times – maybe even most of the time? – we cannot even see how he is present in our circumstances. Every Sunday we come to church and hear the stories and say the words and sing the songs and go through the motions. But do we see him? Do we sense that he is a real presence in our lives?

The blind man could not see him, but moved towards him anyway. He threw off his old life like a left-behind cloak, and leapt forward into the unknown. And now a question for him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.

Does it seem an odd question? Do you think that Jesus does not know what this man wants? “Have mercy on me!” the man has shouted as Jesus passed by. The man has begged only coins from all the other travelers through the years. Now he has a choice. He can ask this Jesus for spare change, or he can ask for what he really needs. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks him. The question is not for Jesus’ sake – he surely knows what the man needs. The question is for the blind man, and for us.

It is not the first time he has asked this question. Just a few verses earlier, James and John announce, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And what they ask for is a ludicrous pretension towards greatness. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They ask him this right after he has told them – for the third time – that he is going to be condemned and killed. And here they are, still hoping that following him will mean greatness for them. They ask their selfish and delusional question, and he responds, “You do not know what you are asking.”

They are as blind as Bartimaeus. They clearly do not understand their calling or their destiny. Jesus is headed towards the most brutal kind of suffering and death. There will be two people on his right and on his left - criminals, executed in shame. James and John have no idea what it means to be on Jesus’ right and left hands. Jesus is resolute about his own calling, and destiny, and purpose. James and John fantasize about power, and privilege, and glory. They do not know what they are asking. Like the blind man, they cannot really see Jesus. The difference between them and the blind man is that they do not realize they are blind.

Jesus’ question confronts our most basic desires. “What is it that you want from me?” Do we know what we would answer? His question is not that of a genie, who is going to magically grant wishes. His question is that of a healer, a teacher, a man on his way to the cross. His question calls into question our own sense of purpose and of need. The blind man knew what he needed – “My teacher, let me see again.” Do you know what you need? Is there a healing that you seek? Are you aware of your own blindnesses? Do you want to see clearly? Are you willing to admit your need, and to beg for him to fill it? What is it that you want from Jesus? What are you looking for?

Forgiveness? Healing? New sight? New life? He stands there ready to give any of it, all of it. What is it that you want with him?

As soon as the blind man says, “let me see,” Jesus gives it. “Go; your faith has made you well.” And what is his faith? It is not some certain knowledge, born of seeing. It is not a set of beliefs; it has nothing to do with doctrine. His faith is a seeking. His faith is an asking. His faith is based on knowing that he cannot see and knowing that he cannot give himself that sight. His faith is the yearning that pushes him forward and makes him desperate enough to beg mercy from the One he has heard will heal. Put simply, his faith is hope. [Blind hope. Hope that freely seeks and begs for what he knows he cannot give himself.]

If we knew how poor, and how ill, and how powerless, and how blind we really are – if we knew it, maybe we would come begging and unashamed to Jesus. Maybe we would cry out with everything in us. Maybe we would seek him, even when we cannot see him. [Maybe we would ask something from him even when we cannot quite believe he will answer.]

He stands so ready to give what we need. The blind man only had to ask it, and it was done. His eyes were opened, and the first thing he saw was the face of love. And even though Jesus had told him, “Go, your faith has made you well,” what he did was to follow. Once he could see that face, what else could he do, but to go wherever that man went?

In the end, his story is a miracle story, modified. It is not just a healing, it is a calling. This is what true vision is ultimately for – to see our true purpose and the One who heals and calls us, and to follow him. His way is not the road to glory or success. It will be the road towards sacrifice and sometimes suffering. But it is also the road of truth, grace, giving, and real freedom. We never walk the road alone; he leads the way.

He knows we struggle. He knows we have a hard time following, and a hard time trusting or even hoping. He knows how broken we are, and how blind we can be – to our real selves, to each other, and especially to him and his great giving grace. He is so ready to give so much. He knows we have our questions about him and his way. He stands before us with just one: “What do you want from me?”

[i] John R. Fry. “Blindness.” A Chorus of Witnesses. 142.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Possible Impossible

The Possible Impossible
Mark 10:17-27
19th Sunday after Pentecost
11 October 2009

I was seven years old the first time I encountered the rich young man from this story in the Gospel of Mark. My uncle had dared me to read the whole Bible through, and I had taken the bait. I started with the gospels, and had gotten this far without reading anything that sounded particularly foreign to me. Most of the stories about Jesus were somewhat familiar from Sunday School lessons and Vacation Bible School.

But then one night I got to Matthew 19:24, which is repeated here in Mark 10:25: “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.” I had never heard this preached, taught, or quoted before. It was alarmed. I slammed the Bible shut, jumped out of bed, and ran down the hall to my parents’ room. I shook my mother awake. “Mom,” I whispered. “Jesus says that rich people don’t go to heaven!”

“We’re not rich. Go back to bed,” she replied.

I knew better. I knew that I had everything I needed, and a lot of the stuff I wanted. I had seen children on TV who had flies in their eyes and bellies swollen from hunger. I was pretty sure we were rich. In retrospect, I understand that we were a pretty standard middle class American family. But I think my seven year-old instincts were also right. I knew those words of Jesus were clear and hard and scary. And I knew they were meant for me.

Lots of people have tried to soften the meaning of his words. Many people have taught that there is actually a narrow gate in Jerusalem called “the eye of the needle,” through which a camel could not pass unless all of its baggage was first removed. After dark, when the main gates were shut, if a traveler wanted to enter the city, he would have to use this smaller gate, which he could only do if he removed all his belongings from the camel’s sides and then had the camel enter the gate crawling on its knees.

[Having ridden a camel myself, I find the idea of riding one that is crawling on its knees to be a bit laughable.] But it makes a sweet little story, the point of which, presumably, is that if we can just get rid of the belongings which weigh us down, we can approach God. In other words, there is something we can do, ourselves, to be saved. Just get rid of your stuff.

But Jesus’s claim is more outrageous than that. And his story about the camel through the eye of the needle is meant to be ludicrous hyperbole. He is not telling us about something that is merely hard. He is talking about something which is impossible.

The question at the heart of this story is not about wealth or poverty, about possessions or lack thereof. The question is about eternal life. The rich man wants to know how to get it. The disciples want to know who can have it. And the good news that Jesus offers is this: “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”


This story is essentially one of the healing stories. The rich man runs us to Jesus and kneels, just as countless other in need of healing have done through the Gospel of Mark. His running and kneeling show that his request is both urgent and sincere. But he is the one person in the entire book who rejects the healing offered him.

Within the context of the disciples’ wrangling over greatness, we have a glimpse of someone who does have greatness according to the world’s definitions. He is not a disciple, but not an opponent either. He does not resemble the scribes, Pharisees, or Sadducees, who test Jesus, or the soldiers, who mock him, or the passersby at the crucifixion, who taunt him. He looks like all the other earnest seekers who have come looking for a healing. He looks something like you and me.

Those around him believed that wealth and prosperity were signs of God’s blessing. But even with his wealth and status, the man realizes he lacks something important in his life. He has come to the One who has offered sight to the blind and freedom for the demon-possessed. Yet he cannot take the risk of the impossible life to which Jesus calls him. He cannot accept Jesus’s healing, because he does not yet fully see himself as needing to be healed.

And because he seems to reject Jesus, this has often been seen as a story of condemnation, a condemnation of all of us who may love our things too much – which is almost everyone. Ye Mark says this: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” Matthew and Luke leave this out. But Mark, always spare with words, takes the space to note that Jesus loves this man.

In Mark, whenever Jesus tells someone to “go,” it almost always has to do with healing, and it’s always tailored exactly to what that person needs. To the hemorrhaging woman, he said, “Your faith has made you well. Go in peace and be healed.” To the Gerasene demoniac, he said, “Go home to your friends and tell them what I’ve done.” To the rich man, he also tells how to be healed, “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.”

What is the healing this man needs? What he lacks is that he does not lack. This man is possessed – by his possessions. Jesus is offering to free him of his possession, to cure him of his excess. But the rich man turns his back, grieved.

What about you? Do you love your stuff? Do you have more than you will ever need? Do you sometimes feel burdened by all of it, and yet still find yourself striving for more? If we get rid of it all, will we be closer to God?

What can we do to inherit eternal life?

Jesus’s answer is this: Nothing. For mortals, it’s impossible. But not for God. To say we must give up all our possessions in order to be saved puts the burden on us to save ourselves, and we’re not capable of that. There is nothing we can do. Ever. Neither possessions nor lack of possessions saves us. God does.

Even Jesus realized he could not save himself. He reminded us that those who think they can save themselves will surely lose their lives. But those who recognize the utter futility of self-reliance, who realize that by their own doings salvation really is not possible – those who recognize their need will be saved by the God who makes all things possible.

The problem with having so much stuff is that it keeps us from realizing our need for God. We use our stuff as a buffer against vulnerability. We use to fill the emptiness in our souls. We use it to feel less susceptible to the vagaries of life. It makes us feel safe and happy, and it keeps us from seeing how needy we really are.

The rich man’s secure status kept him asking the wrong question: what can I do to inherit eternal life? This was a man accustomed to being able to make things happen. Whatever he wanted, money could buy. Jesus’ response was the opposite of what he wanted to hear. Jesus told him that there was nothing he – or anyone – could do. Jesus advised him to release his wealth and give it to the poor – to get closer to the fragility of life, to take his own place among those who know they are needy.

There is a parade of people in Mark’s Gospel whom Jesus treats with special care: the poor, the sick, the demon-possessed, the women, the children. What they had in common was that they all knew they were needy; they all knew they did not have the power to take control of their own lives. They all lived close to the fragility of life. Maybe that made them more likely and more able to respond to Christ; it certainly made them more open to his healing power.

In many ways we may need to be more like them – like vulnerable children or like who know they are really sick or like those who know they are in bondage to something beyond their own power. Maybe we need to be like them. We need to recognize our vulnerability and our deep need in order to seek and respond to the One who wants to heal us.


None of this is to say that we have justification to accumulate however much we please and use it however we wish. The witness of Scripture is clear regarding our responsibility to take care of the least among us, to be good stewards of what we have, and to be honest and fair in our business dealings. The rampant consumerism in our culture is at odds with the life to which Jesus calls us. We have to ask ourselves tough questions about how much we need and how much we have, and we have to find a way to live according to the witness of Jesus, allowing his way to govern how much we spend, how much we keep, and how much we give away.

Our wealth and how we use it absolutely matters. But our salvation doesn’t hinge on it. Our salvation hinges on God alone.

Nothing else is the essential thing – not our doctrine, not our denomination, not our determination to live the right kind of life, not our wealth, not our lack of wealth. None of that saves us, none of it fixes us, none of it heals us, none of it puts us right with God. Only God can do that.

A Jewish midrash records: “The Holy One said, open for me a door as big as a needle’s eye and I will open for you a door through which may enter tents and [camels?]” In other words, God only need us to open the door of our hearts just the tiniest crack – the size of the eye of a needle is enough – and God will come pouring in to set up room for an oasis.[i]

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Nothing. Not one thing. There is nothing you can do, nothing I can do, to save ourselves or fix our lives or heal our heats. The only thing we need is to realize our need.

The hardest news Jesus has is the best news we could get – our salvation is impossible. “But not for God; for God all things are possible.”

[i] - Biblical Hebrew and its New Testament Application: Hebrew idioms buried in overly literal Greek. “The camel and the eye of the needle.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Most Practical Word

The Most Practical Word

James 5:13-20

17th Sunday After Pentecost

27 September 2009

We have spent the last four weeks preaching from the Letter of James, an epistle that speaks in the strongest and most basic terms about how to live the Christian life, about how faith must express itself through how we live. You are familiar with some of the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament – the Book of Job, the book of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the book of Psalms, the Song of Songs. Wisdom Literature concerns itself with morality, ethics, the practical wisdom of right behavior. These writings attempt to offer insight into human nature, and into the nature of reality, so that hearers and readers might live more responsibly, more ethically, and more faithfully. The book of James is a kind of Wisdom Literature.

I have always loved the letter of James; it is so practical and so radical, laying out in undeniable and concrete terms what it means to live a faithful Christian life. Out of 108 verses in the whole book, 59 of them are moral imperatives. Martin Luther famously disliked this book, believing that it contradicted the Apostle Paul’s central teaching that a person is justified not through works but by grace through faith. But James does not contradict Paul; he is simply aiming to hold up what it means for the grace that saves us to find actual expression in our daily lives. James writes in very direct, very bare terms. There is no wriggling out of what he means. And what he means is for us to live what we say we believe.

James writes exclusively towards an intentional community gathered by a shared faith in Jesus Christ. His is not a book to be read alone, in the privacy of one’s home, as if he meant to teach us about a private faith and a personal morality. Like the rest of the New Testament writers, he does not believe that the Christian life is to be lived in isolation. James is meant to be read here, together, as a church, as a community that intends to work out our faith together and to live in radical contrast to the values of competition, acquisition, and envy.

We started a month ago, with his injunction to listen first and then to act. From there we moved into his teaching about how we treat each other, including how we do not judge or show favoritism, but instead show love consistently. After listening, and action, and love, we then considered speech, how our words are also actions and the importance of using them wisely and well. And then last week, we looked at the destructive nature of envy, and the power of recognizing we have enough.

And so we come today to the end of his short letter. He has written so far against so many behaviors. Don’t be like this. Don’t speak like that. Don’t treat people like this. Now his words turn in a more positive direction. How might we become a community that lives in the reality of friendship with God and with each other? How will that friendship shape how we speak and how we act toward one another? Fundamentally, how will we learn to trust each other, and be trustworthy? It is this sense of purposeful trust that has the power to transform us from just a loose collection of individuals trying to make our own way, into a solid community of believers working out our faith in action together.

Again, James focuses on speech, and the relationship between speech and action. Let your “yes” be “yes,” and let your “no,” be “no,” he writes. Truthful, simple speech lays the foundation for truthful right action. Both truthful speech and truthful action lay the foundation for trust within the community. Say what you mean. Do what you say.

This does not seem like particularly radical instruction, or even particularly Christian instruction. Who wouldn’t agree with the wisdom of consistency and truth in speech and action? But what he writes next, in the passage I read a few moments ago, is what distinguishes him from other moral philosophers.

“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them…. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.” (5:13-16)

We often think of prayer as the opposite of action. You can sit around praying and fretting about something, or you can get out and do something about it. At most, we tend to see prayer as a precursor to action, not as action itself. It certainly doesn’t strike us as the most practical response to any given situation.

But here is James, the most pragmatic of Christian thinkers, offering prayer as the first response. Are any of you suffering? Pray! Are any cheerful? Pray! Are any sick? Pray! I believe he would answer the same to any given situation. Are any depressed? Pray! Are any angry? Pray! Are any out of work? Pray! Are any confused? Trying to make a decision? Dealing with disappointment? Celebrating good news? Pray! Pray! Pray!

In a way, this is his most practical word. He writes consistently of the importance of true and trustworthy speech. He writes of the need to be slow to speak, and when you do speak, to be careful with how you use your words, and to mean what you say. He writes of the need for your actions to match your words. Here, he strips language back to its most fundamental – the words we speak not to one another, but to God. And with one another, to God. And on behalf of one another, to God. Prayer is primal speech. It is primal action.

Prayer is an expression of the truth. Speaking the truth first to God helps keep us honest. If we are suffering, we say that. We do not pretend otherwise. If we are cheerful, we take note, we pay attention, we celebrate by singing our praise to God. Whatever you are dealing with, James says, be honest. Pray.

There is nothing we go through that we cannot speak directly with God about. There is nothing we deal with that God does not care about. There is nothing we face that God will not face with us. No human emotion is foreign to God. We can be brutally honest. We can whisper our most desperate hopes. We can cry our pain. We can sing our joy. We can beg for what we want. We can shout our anger, ugly as it feels. We can bring it. And we can bring it all.

In the movie The Apostle, Robert DuVall plays a Pentecostal preacher named Sonny, who has just discovered his wife is having an affair. Sonny is a temperamental man who flies into a terrifying and violent rage that has life-changing consequences. But in the midst of that, he does not hide anything from God. In one of the movie’s greatest scenes, he paces the floor in his mother’s attic, muttering his prayers. He gets louder and louder until he throws his hands up in the air and he is shouting at the top of his voice, “If you won’t give me back my wife, give me peace. Give me peace! I’ve always called you Jesus and you’ve always called me Sonny.”

This is a man, who, even in the midst of anguish, knows he can trust his truth to the God who knows him so well, and calls him by name. A neighbor calls to complain and Sonny’s mother answers. She explains, “Sometimes he talks to the Lord. Sometimes he yells at the Lord.”

Do we believe in such a relationship? Do we know that we have, or can have, that kind of real relationship with God? Do we know how to tell our truth?

“Is any among you suffering? They should pray. Is any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them.”

And of course none of this is meant solely for the individual, but for the community. Ultimately, we don’t only pray alone in our attics – whether it’s shouting, crying, or celebrating. We pray together. We pray for each other. We pray with each other. We pray in solidarity with one another.

And that is part of what makes this teaching from James so practical and so radical. This is fundamentally what makes us something other than a social club or an activist organization or a charity. We are people who pray. We are people who pray together. Those prayers put us in solidarity with one another, and remind us that we are one people, belonging to one God, a God who has a relationship with us. Those prayers also keep us honest. And they should keep us attentive. They should keep us faithful to God and to each other.

Week after week, we come together on Sunday mornings and we pray for Elizabeth Lee, and Bill Kerr, and Bonnie Jensen, and Marge Shannon, and a host of others who suffer. And we pray for our Vespers ministry. And we pray for our sister church in Nicaragua. And these prayers are not just words, they are actions – they act to pull us together in solidarity with those in our midst who suffer, and in solidarity with those beyond our walls who need our care. Our prayers act to bind our hearts with each other’s, and with God’s. And these prayers should bleed out into our daily lives, acting to prompt even more attention and action. Prayer is not just saying words, it is uniting our intentions with God’s intention. That’s what shapes a life. That’s what shapes our life together.

Are you a person of prayer? Are we people of prayer? Maybe you don’t feel like you’re very “good” at prayer. Maybe you struggle to find the time. Maybe you don’t feel it’s worth the time. Maybe you struggle to believe that it means anything, or does anything, or changes anything. Say that to God. It’s as good a starting place as any. If you want to be more faithful, if you want this church to be more faithful, more vital, more vibrant, then the most practical thing to do is to say our prayers, and to say them together, and to keep on saying them.

In about ninety seconds, I’m going to sit down, and we’re going to have a moment of silent reflection, as we do every Sunday. This isn’t just a pause in the action. It isn’t a moment for finding our offering money or checking the time. This is a moment of quiet solidarity as we sit together before a God who listens. This is time for prayer, together. Just because it’s done in silence, doesn’t mean it isn’t real, or that it isn’t done as a part of community. Silent prayer can still be shared prayer. You don’t have to know any fancy words. You don’t have to say the right things. Just say what is true. Like: “Thank you.” Or, “I hope.” Or, “I need.” Or, “Hallelujah.”

We just keep doing this, apart and together, speaking our truth, holding up our hearts, holding up each other, uniting our voices, uniting our intentions to God’s, and allowing our prayers to take hold of our lives and our church and every action that flows out of them.

Now. Let us pray.