Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ol' Blind Bartimaeus

There's an old a capella Gospel song that starts with that line. A non-sequitor except that this week's Gospel reading is the account of Bartimaeus.

I even found a way to tie in Reformation Sunday!

I need to give a word of thanks to Rev. Kate Huey and "Weekly Seeds". Not only was the website and her writing a source of inspiration for this sermon, it's an almost inexhaustible resource for Scriptural commentary and daily inspiration. Check 'em out.

One last thing: My friend Khad Young has posted the first "Outlaw Preachers" podcast. Listen to it now, so when it goes viral and people are listening to it across the planet, you can brag about how you were listening to it before it was cool. (You will, of course, be wrong, the "Outlaw Preachers" podcast was never not cool. I will, however, never point that out to you in front of your friends.)

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here."
And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Standing by itself, the Gospel reading today is a really interesting and instructive account of the healing of a blind man. Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, and having heard about the miracles the itinerant Rabbi has performed, won't be quiet until he gets what he needs. He is rewarded, of course, and it's the last time Jesus heals anyone in the Gospel of Mark. There are important lessons here about faith, about persistence, about understanding our own need for restoration and healing in Jesus Christ.

More than that, though, Bartimaeus' stark, unpretentious faith stands in stark contrast to some of the people and situations we've discussed over the past couple of weeks or so.

Look, for example, at what Jesus asked when Bartimaeus jumped up and came to him. In last week's reading, James and John approached Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus' reply to them was, word-for-word, the same question he asked the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John had been with Jesus the whole time, and they understood, in part, who Jesus was – Peter had said it himself, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Most High God.” Yet James and John, for reasons of personal reassurance or ego or whatever, asked for positions of highest prominence and authority in the coming Kingdom. They wanted to be the drum majors, and the other apostles were angry not at the insolence and impropriety of the question, but because James and John asked first!

Bartimaeus wasn't looking for a throne or for recognition or wealth or prominence. The blind man simply wanted to see again.

Now, before this day, as far as we know Bartimaeus had met Jesus a grand total of zero times. He hadn't heard Jesus preaching, had not seen the miracles, hadn't eaten the bread with the 5,000 or watched Lazarus walk out of the tomb. People who had witnessed some or all of these miracles still disagreed about who Jesus was! The Pharisees had seen miracles and responded not by praising God but by plotting to kill Jesus!

Yet this blind man, whose whole world consisted of a patch of curb on a roadside in the outskirts of a violent little town, called out to Jesus with the title reserved for the Messiah, the Savior of Israel! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Small wonder that so many in the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus up, because not only was the title “Son of David” accurate, it was guaranteed to get a person either stoned by the Pharisees for blasphemy or crucified by the Romans for sedition!

But Bartimaeus wasn't looking to overthrow the Romans or discredit the religious leaders. He wasn't looking for free bread or to be entertained by a miracle or two. The blind man simply wanted to see again.

Perhaps in speaking to the blind man in precisely the same words he had said to James and John, Jesus was showing the Apostles what they should have asked. “Jesus, we've heard you talking about going to Jerusalem and being killed by the authorities and rising on the third day and we simply do not see. Our minds are blinded to what you are saying, that's why we're arguing over who is first, we just can't see the truth of what you're saying. Jesus, heal our inner blindness. We simply want to see again.”

Let's back up a little more, to our reading two weeks ago, where the rich young man runs up to Jesus and falls at his feet, desperate to find out what he must do to be saved. He was following the rules, keeping the laws, trying his hardest. Jesus said to him, “"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." Yet this one thing was too much, and the young man left, imprisoned by all that he possessed.

Bartimaeus owned just one thing, his beggar's cloak, and by the time he walked up to Jesus that had been left behind, because the blind man simply wanted to see again. And when Jesus said, “Go,” Bartimaeus instead followed Jesus as he continued his journey toward Jerusalem.

In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, as Jesus watched the rich man depart, the disciples were quick to point out all that they had left behind. Perhaps one difference between the disciples and the rich man is this: when something we own is left behind, there is at least some expectation that it will be there when you come back. When Jim and Carol leave the lake house, they expect it to still be there when they drive up again, right? I don't forfeit ownership of my car when I walk away from it to come into church.

We know that the disciples still had access to the fishing boats and nets they had left behind, because not long after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to them on the shore as they fished. This is in the 21st chapter of the book of John. They had returned to the security of what they knew – fishing. On the shore that morning, Jesus challenged Peter, and by extension the rest of them, to once and for all give up the safety of boats and nets for the Gospel.

And this was the opportunity that Jesus was offering the kneeling rich man: not to leave it all behind, but to destroy it completely, to let it go and to never come back. To have the freedom Bartimaeus enjoyed – the freedom to simply follow, to have no reason to look back over his shoulder.

Whether we're blinded by what we own, like that rich man, blinded by the correctness of what we believe, like the Pharisees, or blinded by our ambitions or need for security, like James and John and the apostles, we are as blind as that beggar on the Jericho Road – until, like Bartimaeus, we respond to Jesus' call.

This Reformation Sunday, when Protestants remember Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, one of the things we are reminded of is the motto, “reformata et semper reformanda” – “Reformed and ever reforming.”

The beauty of the faith journey is that Christ's call and our opportunity to respond isn't a one-time event, but a series of chances to go deeper into relationship, to venture farther into the adventure of faith, to swim deeper into the ocean of grace.

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Will we respond with pleas for position, for security, for things to “do” in order to earn God's favor... or, in whatever context applies for us in that place and time, will we simply want to see again?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Eye of a Needle

Mark 10:17-31

As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" He said to him, "Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth." 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." When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, "Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 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." They were greatly astounded and said to one another, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Peter began to say to him, "Look, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions — and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first."

This is the Word of the Lord.

“I went to find the pot of gold
That's waiting where the rainbow ends.
I searched and searched and searched and searched
And searched and searched and then -
There it was, deep in the grass,
Under an old and twisty bough.
It's mine, it's mine, it's mine at last...
What do I search for now?”

Shel Silverstein’s poem could have been written for the man who runs to Jesus and falls at his feet. This guy knew the rules. He followed the teaching of the Pharisees. He had all the stuff he could ever want, and in the culture of the day it was obvious to everyone that God was blessing him above others.

Yet it started deep down in his spirit, but grew every day – the realization that in spite of all his strict observance of the law, in spite of his comfort and wealth, something was missing. Something big.

I know I’ve talked before about Douglas Adam’s five-book trilogy, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” In one of the stories, scientists build the universe’s largest computer in order to answer the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything. It takes this computer seven and a half million years to come up with the answer, which is… 42. The scientists, or I guess their distant descendants, then have to build an even larger computer to figure out what exactly is ultimate question that answer applies to.

I say all of that as a very poor way to set up what is going on in this man’s life: he knows the ultimate question, not the one “42” answers, but the real one. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

It would be easy to paint this guy as arrogant, wanting just to get his actions rubber-stamped by the Savior. But when he affirms that he’s done all the things Jesus listed, “You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother,” he doesn’t get up to leave, satisfied with his righteousness. He knows there’s more!

And Jesus gives him the ultimate answer to that ultimate question: “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.”

The man gets up and walks away sad… not angry, convinced that Jesus has asked too much, but knowing that the Lord is right. And watching him walk away, 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.”

There is, of course, a strong temptation to water these statements down, to make it easier, more palatable to our 21st-century consumerist minds. To make believe that Jesus is not making the hard demands on the believer that he seems to be making here, where this living word of God cuts us to the core. To lessen the impact of the statement that if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away. By rights, I should get to this part of the sermon, let the tension hang a moment, and give a theological interpretation that makes us all feel better about our faith journey as it is. I should be able to give an explanation like this:

For years I was told that, in the “eye of a needle” statement, Jesus was referring to an actual location familiar to everyone in Judea. You might have heard this too: In Jesus’ day, when travelers reached the walls of Jerusalem after dark, and the main gates were closed, the only way into the city was through a narrow passage called the “Eye of the Needle.” They would have to take the packs off of the camels, and make the camels squat down on their knees and crawl through the gate to get into the city. Then they would follow, dragging the camels’ burdens behind them. It was a dreaded, difficult, time consuming process, almost impossible.

And it’s the “almost” that would make the statement OK, wouldn’t it? It would go from “impossible” to “possible, with the right tools.”

But even though that explanation for Jesus’ words has been around since at least the fifteenth century, and maybe as far back as the ninth century, it is painfully obvious that there is no historical or archeological evidence that the story of the hole in the wall is in any way true. There is no “Eye of the Needle” gate in Jerusalem or anywhere else. The hard statement, the perplexing problem of possessions (that alliteration was completely accidental, by the way) must stand as it is.

So… what do we do with it? How do we address the words of Jesus to the rich man: “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me?”

Surely, we can claim that it doesn’t apply to us. After all, wealth is relative, and we can all point to Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Ted Turner as examples of wealth who could stand to spread some of their billions around.

It’s always easier to point to someone else and decide what they should do, though, isn’t it? Instead, let’s dare to look inward, at ourselves, shall we? I look at my own situation: I work two jobs and still don’t earn anywhere near $40,000 a year, it never seems to be enough for the bills and all the things I want to do and think I need to do, and yet I am in the top 4.33% of the richest people in the world according to the internet site, “Global Rich List.” Even when I was working that temp job last year for ten dollars an hour I was in the top 11.6%!

If I was that man on his knees, and Jesus made the same demand, would I give up my own riches? Could I sell my car, my guitars, give up my cell phone and cable TV? Could I give up lunches at Sonic or my health insurance?

I have to say… maybe.

But is that all there is to it? Just getting rid of stuff? What if Jesus looked down at me with the same love he showed that rich man and said, “One thing you lack, John: give up your political beliefs, your love of Reformed Theology, walk away from that list you’re secretly so proud of, the semi-famous people that follow you on Twitter, and walk away from the pulpit as well. Leave behind your family and friends and everything that defines you, everything you hold dear and rely upon. Follow me.”

I am afraid that I, too, very well might walk away mournfully, just like that rich man.

What Jesus calls us to is a relationship where nothing – nothing! – is more important than following Him. Jesus calls us to the place where the camel meets the eye of the needle, where we can go no further.

That day as the rich man walked away, Jesus’ words astonished his disciples. For people in first-century Palestine, wealth was seen as evidence of God’s favor. If a person so loved by God as to be wealthy could not attain eternal life, what hope is there for anyone?

Today’s reading calls us to serious reflection, challenges us to give up the things dearest to us in order to walk more closely with Jesus. This is something we must confront on a daily basis, through prayer and study. And when we reach the eye of the needle, and agree with Jesus that with mortals, this is impossible, there is a wonderful promise awaiting us. “For God, all things are possible.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

World Communion Sunday

1 Corinthians 11:17-34

In the following directives I have no praise for you, for your meetings do more harm than good. In the first place, I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval. When you come together, it is not the Lord's Supper you eat, for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. Don't you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not!

For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me." In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me." For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.

Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. A man ought to examine himself before he eats of the bread and drinks of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment. When we are judged by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be condemned with the world.

So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for each other. If anyone is hungry, he should eat at home, so that when you meet together it may not result in judgment.
And when I come I will give further directions.

This is the Word of the Lord.

It all started with some motzah and a glass of wine, at a dinner of bitter herbs and sacrificed lamb.

The room was stuffy now with the smoke of lamps and soft, worried conversations murmured around the table.

Jesus reached for a piece of the motzah – this shocked some of the disciples, who knew the blessing of the wine was supposed to come first in the seder meal – and blessed it: “Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, ha-motzi lechen min ha-aretz:

“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the ground.”

Breaking the motzah, he gave it to his disciples, and his words shocked, frightened, confused and revolted them: “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Then he reached for the cup of wine, and blessed it: “Baruch attah Adonai, eloheynu melech ha-olam, boray p'ri ha-gafen:

“Blessed are You, our God, King of the Universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.”

He gave the cup to his disciples, and after they had drunk from it, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many…”

None of his disciples understood yet, but not very many hours would pass until the meaning became all too clear. Little could they know in those dark hours following the crucifixion that the ritual of sharing the bread and the cup would become an act of celebration, a joyous event in the life of the church.

And little could they know that a simple piece of bread and a cup of wine would be the focal point of so much separation between groups of Christians. We have never been able to agree on what, exactly, this act of sharing bread and cup means.

Painting in broad strokes, there are four basic ways that different groups of Christians view this act of sharing which is variously called the Lord’s Supper, Communion, the Eucharist and the Agape meal.

As most theological positions go, they run the gamut, and most center around the interpretation of one phrase: “the Real Presence,” that is, if and how Jesus Christ is present in the elements of the Lord’s Supper.

On one end of the spectrum are the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as some Episcopalians and Anglicans. The belief is that, from the time Jesus first uttered the words of the Institution until today, when the Eucharistic elements, that is, the bread and the cup, are consecrated, they become, quite literally, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is known as the doctrine of transubstantiation. The outward appearance of the bread and the wine are not altered – it still looks and feels and tastes like bread and wine – but what is called the “inner reality” is changed. The person participating in the Eucharist quite literally ingests the real, physical body and blood of Jesus, and more than that, Christ as a whole is present in the elements – body and blood, soul and divinity. Thus the act of taking the elements is a means by which salvation is imparted to the participant. Thus to be barred from communion – excommunicated – is to be barred from salvation, doomed to everlasting punishment.

The idea of transubstantiation may go back as far as the second century, though it wasn’t until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that the word itself came into common use.

During the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century, at least three other theological interpretations of the Lord’s Supper came into use. As you might imagine, each of these doctrines was controversial at the time, not only between Protestants and Catholics, but among the Protestant reformers themselves.

Martin Luther introduced a different interpretation of how the elements of the Eucharist are affected by consecration. In the doctrine of consubstantiation, the physical reality of the elements is unchanged – they are still bread and wine – but the Real Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ are "truly and substantially present in, with and under the forms" of consecrated bread and wine. Those who participate eat and drink both the elements and the true Body and Blood of Christ Himself. This is the theology of the Lutheran Church, of course, as well as the Moravian church and some Episcopal and Anglican churches.

It has to be said, by the way, that neither the doctrine of transubstantiation nor the doctrine of consubstantiation attempt to explain how the elements are physically changed or inhabited, only that these things occur in consecration.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Baptist Church, as well as most related evangelical denominations, who practice Memorialism. Huldrych Zwingli, a contemporary of Martin Luther who led the Reformation in Switzerland, developed this theology of the Lord’s Supper. His view was that the bread and wine are not changed at all when consecrated, that the elements only signify the body and blood of Christ, and are not changed in any way. Zwingli’s argument appears to be that Christ is physically present in heaven at the right hand of the Father, and thus could not be physically present in the Eucharist in either physically altering the inner reality – transubstantiation – nor physically present in, with, and under the forms of otherwise unchanged elements – consubstantiation. Congregations that practice Memorialism, in general, do not hold Communion as sacramental; rather, it is considered to be an act of remembrance of Christ's atonement, and a time of renewal of personal commitment.

The Reformer that Presbyterians talk the most about is, of course, John Calvin. This brings us to how Presbyterians and members of the Reformed tradition view the Lord’s Supper.

I wonder if you’ve noticed that, unlike worship services in other denominations, most Presbyterian worship services include a Call to Worship, but no Invocation? That’s because we believe that whenever Christians are gathered together, Christ is present with that group through the Holy Spirit. It is thus unnecessary to invoke God, or ask that God be present with us. God is here with us this morning, and every time we gather.

When we Presbyterians look at the Lord’s Table, we see what theologians call a Pneumatic Presence. I love the term because I think automatically about drills and tires, but the term comes from the Greek word for “spirit,” “pneumos.” The understanding is that the elements of communion do not change, but that Christ is present in a spiritual sense – present though the Holy Spirit – providing nourishment to those who believe, strengthening us in our faith journey.

Notice also that we Presbyterians always celebrate the sacrament in the context of a congregation or gathering of believers. In 1 Corinthians 10:16 and 17, the Apostle Paul says, “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” Communion only makes sense in the context of community.

In some sense we share this loaf with every believer in every place and time who has ever broken off a piece of motzah, or torn off a bite of bread, or had a wafer laid on their tongue, or selected a square cracker from a passed plate… or who ever will. More immediately we Presbyterians believe that we share this loaf and this cup in common with loaves and cups and wafers and chalices all across the world, not just on World Communion Sunday, but every time the table is set for this most wonderful and mysterious of meals.

And look! The table is set! The meal awaits us. Thanks be to God!

(Move directly into the Invitation and Institution)

Saturday, October 3, 2009

World Communion Sunday

I'm probably not going to have a sermon to post this Sunday. Since it's World Communion Sunday (and because I promised one of the members who is studying this sort of thing at a Christian college) I'm going to take the opportunity to teach about the differing theological views surrounding the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist. I'm very likely going to do this at the Table, which means an outline and notes rather than my customary manuscript.

So, for those of you so inclined to share: what is your take on the Lord's Supper/Communion/Eucharist? Transubstantiation? Consubstantiation? Ordinalism? Something more or less than these? Please take this opportunity to educate a part-time preacher on what the loaf and cup mean to you.