Sunday, October 28, 2012

Blind? Who, Me?

This is based on a sermon I gave in 2009.

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 striking 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 the positions of highest prominence and authority in the coming Kingdom. They wanted to be the drum majors, they wanted the corner offices, 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.

Bartimaeus hadn’t seen anything, of course. He spent his days right where he was that day, begging on the side of the road, wrapped in the one thing in this world he owned, a cloak, relying on the kindness of strangers to reach out of the black sea that surrounded him and give him food, or a little money, so that for that one day, he wouldn’t starve to death.

But one thing about sitting on the side of a busy road is that you get to hear a lot of stories. So maybe it isn’t accurate to say that Bartimaeus hadn’t seen the miracles. Maybe, when he heard about the feeding of the five thousand, he could see the barley loaves and taste the fish. When the conversations turned to healing – a leper cleansed, the dead raised, maybe he could see the look of wonder on the face of the one made whole… and when he heard that Jesus even made blind eyes see, maybe his heart burned within him, a strange, new sensation – the feeling of hope.

Funny how people who had witnessed some or all of the miracles still disagreed about who Jesus was! Tragic that the Pharisees and the Temple elite had seen those same miracles and responded, not by praising God, but by plotting to kill Jesus! Bartimaeus had seen none of this, but made up his mind about who Jesus was and is based solely on what he had heard, yet there was no doubt in his mind that Jesus was the Promised One of God.

So when he heard the crowd go by that day, and when someone told him what all the fuss was about, 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 only for the Messiah, the Savior of Israel! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many in the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus up, not because he was interrupting, but because not only was the title “Son of David” accurate, it was a proclamation 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 had no dreams of power, no hidden agenda. 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 that Bartimaeus was asking for the one thing they themselves needed!

For all they had seen, for all they had heard, James and John and the others couldn’t see what was really at stake. Perhaps they followed Jesus out of a great faith, but that faith was polluted by dreams of empire, by a desire to have what was in it for them. They were blinded by ambition.

James and John had asked for the places of highest honor in the coming Kingdom, the right and left hand seats next to the Throne of David. They should have said, “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.”

But, you see, unlike Bartimaeus, the disciples didn’t know that they were blind.

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, blinded to the truth by his great wealth, disabled by all that he possessed.

He didn’t know that he was blind.

Bartimaeus knew he was blind, and was willing to give up everything he owned to get – not what he wanted – but what he needed, from the Son of God.

As Jesus watched the rich man depart, and spoke about the eye of the needle, Peter was quick to point out all that they had left behind. But I wonder: had they really, at that point in the Gospels, left anything behind? Sure, they didn’t have anything with them, but the fishing boats, the families, their livelihoods were still there, waiting on them. We know this, 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. It wasn’t until after Pentecost that they gave up the safety of boats and nets for the Gospel.

Bartimaeus had no land, no wealth, and no sight. He owned just one thing, his beggar's cloak. Some scholars think that, in that day, the beggars’ cloaks were actually their “tool of the trade.” They spread out their cloak for passersby to throw money onto, and at the end of the day, whatever was in it was what he had to survive on. His cloak protected him from the weather. His cloak was his sleeping bag.

And Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by and he threw off his livelihood, his protection, his one source of income and comfort. He just walked away. Bartimaeus knew he was blind, and simply wanted to see again. And notice something: when Jesus said, “Go,” and Bartimaeus was healed, there’s no mention that he went back for his cloak. Instead, he joyfully followed Jesus as he continued his journey toward Jerusalem.

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.

And here is the lesson for us: 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 is Reformation Sunday, when Protestants remember Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg. Perhaps he didn’t realize it at the time, but in that act of protest, in his desire to call local church leaders to account for abdicating their responsibility to the Good News in favor of a desire for wealth and power, Martin Luther was throwing off his cloak – the security of the established church – in favor of following Jesus down the road to Jerusalem and all that it meant.

When we throw in our lot with the risen Christ, we may not fully understand all that it means to do so. We may well be less like Bartimaeus and more like the disciples, who though they followed imperfectly and with wildly inaccurate expectations, followed nonetheless, and through following grew into God’s will, day by day.

The motto of Reformed Theology is “reformata et semper reformanda” – “Reformed and ever reforming.” The beauty of Christ's call and our opportunity to respond, the good news of our individual and corporate faith journey is that it 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, to grow day by day into God’s will and the now-and-coming Kingdom of God.

Jesus asks of us, as he asked of James and John and of Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Will we respond with pleas for position, for security, like James and John? Will we seek things to “do” in order to earn God's favor, like the rich man? Or, in whatever context applies for us in that place and time, will we throw off our cloaks, acknowledge our blindness, and simply want to see again?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Not There Yet...

I owe a deep debt of gratitude to my Twitter friends, Barb Vaughan, Jimmy DeSpain, Allison, Carlamatic, and Paul DeBaufer for helping me talk this sermon out.I also received extensive help from Rolf Jacobson on "Working Preacher," Kathryn Matthews Huey, and (I am certain) many others.

Mark 10:35-45
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I don’t know what it is about these disciples. We pick up this morning’s Gospel reading immediately after Jesus has, for the third time, spoken openly and in detail about his arrest, trial, death, and resurrection. No beating around the bush, no metaphor, no big words that would be over the disciples’ heads. The road that Jesus is on leads to Jerusalem, leads to the Garden of Gethsemane, leads to arrest, to beatings, to the scourge, and to the cross.

Yet every time Jesus speaks of this to the disciples, they react in ways that boggle the mind. The first time, Peter pulls Jesus to the side and starts to try and correct his thinking, because Messiahs don’t die, and ends up getting himself called “Satan.” The second time, the disciples immediately started arguing amongst themselves about who was the greatest.

And this time? Well, here’s what happens, reading the three verses prior to our Lectionary Gospel passage: They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. ‘We are going up to Jerusalem,’ he said, ‘and the Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.’”

That’s the kind of clarity that, even if, by some wild stretch of the imagination, the disciples hadn’t understood before, even they could not miss!

Now, I cannot with honesty say how I would react to that kind of statement. It’s far too easy, on this side of the resurrection, to claim that I would respond with sad reverence, thanking Jesus for sacrificing himself for me and for the world, and expressing hope in the Resurrection.

I don’t know… but I hope I wouldn’t act like James and John did!
I am pretty sure you are familiar with “calling shotgun.” When you’re going to be a passenger in a car carrying other people, if you want to ride in the front passenger seat, and you’re a kid, you have to call “shotgun,” right?

That’s how James and John responded – they tried to call shotgun.

And you could almost – almost respect them if they’d had some tact about them. You know, structure a persuasive argument, detailing their plan to assist Jesus, maybe have a PowerPoint presentation about how their co-kingship would give Jesus the tools he would need to effectively preside over his coming Kingdom.

Nope. “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” James and John, come on! Are you five, for cryin’ out loud?

Now, I’ve heard some scholars say that the way they approach Jesus was a proper formula in that day and culture for asking for a gift, and perhaps that’s so… but doesn’t it sound awful, especially in the context of Jesus just having talked about his brutal execution at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities?

Maybe they don’t get it, sure. But that seems unlikely, given the facts. I mean, I may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I think if you tell me something three times in a row, I might get a clue eventually.

Maybe the disciples hear it, but maybe they are like untested soldiers, ignoring the horror of battle in light of the glory they’ll attain in victory. Perhaps the disciples hear it, but, in their anxiety, they’re seeking reassurance and security. If they know that, on the other side of it all they’ll be taken care of, they can face whatever terror is coming their way.

Maybe it’s gross ambition… maybe it’s fear… and maybe, just maybe, it’s deep faith.

Maybe they are so certain of Jesus’ final victory that they immediately sign up to go with him. After all, James and John were there with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They’ve seen him calm the storm. They witnessed Jesus walking on the water. They tasted the bread and fishes when he fed the five thousand. They’ve witnessed blind eyes given sight, they’ve seen lepers cleansed, they’ve gasped in shock when the dead were raised. If anyone could be completely convinced of the outcome of all that is about to occur, it would be these guys.

Whatever the case, as Jesus points out to them, they really have no idea what they’re asking for. Jesus tries to clear it up, speaking about the cup he must drink and the baptism he must undergo, but they really have no clue what they are saying.

And neither do the other ten. They get into an argument, not because James and John were being utterly crass and insensitive, but because they called shotgun first!

Their minds are locked into the structures and systems of human power. We get a clue of this in last week’s reading, when Peter compares all the disciples have forsaken to the rich man’s unwillingness or inability to give up his fortune to follow Jesus. Peter was asking, in effect, “so what’s in it for me?”

If Jesus is indeed Messiah, if he will indeed reign in an everlasting Kingdom, then to be in his shadow surely guarantees power for those closes to him, right?

After all, we know how these things work. The people with the most power sit closest to the CEO at the conference table. The people with the most power have the corner offices, and the closer your office is to the boss’ office, well, the more influence and authority you have.

Things like love and grace are limitless, abundant, infinitely available. They are meant to be shared, and shared lavishly, egregiously, wildly.

In contrast, power and authority, in our world, are sharply limited, nonrenewable resources. There’s only so much to go around. For one person to have more power automatically means another person has less, after all, and authority only has context when it is exercised over another. In our world, power only works as a force against another.

God has a different view. Jesus’ power, his glory, his authority are not predicated on the subjugation of another. God’s power exists not because the powerless know their place, and are kept there by fear or by coercion or by accident of birth, but simply because God is.

Thus God never has to worry about losing power, or relinquishing authority, never has to fight another to gain more power or keep what God has.

God is.

Thus in the Kingdom of God, the power structures and trappings of authority have no context. They are not simply unimportant, they are irrelevant. As followers of Jesus Christ, as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, among the things we are set free from is the need for power, the necessity of security, and the importance of being important.

When, after repeatedly trying to get James and John to see what they are asking, Jesus says, “but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared,” I wonder if it is coincidence that, when he is crucified, Jesus has – at his left and right hands – two condemned criminals?

“…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

It is a sad truth that, through the years, these words have been used by people in authority in the church against others. Slaves were kept in slavery, women were kept in subjugation, and those in abusive relationships were shamed into staying there.

In other words, instead of being set free from the lust for power, many even in the church still cling to the need for title, authority, honor and recognition.

What if we understood these words as instruction not for those who are without power, but for the people who have authority, and those seeking authority? What if the “least of these” – not the people with the titles, not those with the greatest income or the most education, not the most famous – really were the greatest? What if we really acted on the words of Jesus?

We are God’s sheep – not the sheep of any religious or political leader. “In life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.”

But can I be honest? It seems to me the height of irony to stand here, in the pulpit with its implication of authority, and talk about having freedom from the need for power.

It may be dangerous for me to suggest giving up security, because I cannot know what that word means for others.

And let’s don’t even start on the importance of being important. I’ve said it before: the most dangerous place on Earth is between me and an audience.

I want to make sure I say this correctly, so please bear with me: Christianity has its context in community. We are the Body of Christ, after all. That being said, the idea of abdicating our security, giving up everything to follow Jesus, I don’t see these as minimum standards. This is not where we start from.

While I am absolutely certain that there are people who, through experience or a particular giftedness, are able to exemplify the words of Jesus, to be servants and slaves of all – Mother Teresa comes to mind, or people like Deitrich Bonhoeffer and Oscar Romero and others who literally gave their lives for their faith in Christ – for most of us, we are not there yet.

Try as they might, the disciples won’t understand who Jesus is until after he rises from the dead. That is the event that will finally pull the curtain all of the way back so that Jesus' followers will finally understand that he is a servant king – the kind of king that God had always wanted Israel's kings to be. 

But even then they – and we – see, as the Apostle Paul says, only in part, as in a mirror dimly. Peter was far from perfect, even after Pentecost. He stumbled, made mistakes, was corrected, and grew. Paul himself had his struggles and shortcomings, his “thorn in the flesh.”

The choice before us is to look at Jesus’ words and, like the rich man in our reading last week, walk away, convinced that what he demands is impossible, or to acknowledge that we are all on a faith journey. Though we meet one another as wounded healers at different points on the path, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we travel this road, learning along the way what it means to serve Christ, what it means to serve one another, what it means to serve the forgotten, the least, the marginalized and despised, growing in the process ever closer to our loving Creator, who in Jesus Christ gave all he had for us, getting closer every day to the place where we shall see Jesus face to face.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

One More Dollar...

Thanks to the work of "Preaching Peace" and "Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary" in helping bring clarity to this week's sermon.

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. He had all the stuff he could ever want, and in a culture which equated wealth with God’s favor, it was obvious to everyone that God really liked this guy, that the Almighty was blessing him above others.

This guy knew the rules. He followed the teaching of the Pharisees, he played the game the way it should be played...

Well, that really might not be a fair way to put it. After all, he believed in God, and believed he was doing the right things for the right reasons. And yet… it started deep down in his spirit, this emptiness, and it grew every day – the cold realization that in spite of all his strict observance of the law, in spite of his comfort and wealth, something was missing. Something big.

A man I once worked for had a saying: “The answers are easy. It’s the questions that are hard.” His point was that the key to finding solutions to problems was in asking the right questions.

I don’t know how true that saying is, but I know that for the man in our account today, knowing the right question isn’t hard at all.  It’s the biggest question of all, really: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus gave him a list: “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.”

In my imagination, the man’s reply, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth,” isn’t a statement of pride, but of desperation. “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I got that, Jesus. Come on, I know there’s more!”

And the Scriptures tell us that Jesus looked at him and loved him. Did you know that this is the only place in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is said to have loved someone? And the word there in the Greek is “agapeo,” which means for Christians an unconditional, complete, all-encompassing love.

So what Jesus says to him, the challenge, if you will, is said out of love. “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; no, the man knows that the Lord is right... and that he cannot.

As he walks away, Jesus says something that shocks and troubles his disciples: “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. The easy thing to do is to lessen the impact of the statement, qualify it to be less of a burden.

It is, after all, a dangerous thing to say that if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away.

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.

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 must stand as it is.

It must be easier for literal, camel-sized camel to go through the literal, eye-of-a-needle sized needle eye than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

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. We can join in the familiar cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement, that we are the ninety-nine percent, and demands that the one-percenters give all they have to the poor…

But did you know – as residents of a developed nation, as far as our income and life expectancy and freedom and affluence are concerned, you and I are the one percent, and everyone else, all over the planet, are the ninety-nine percent? What happens to those demands then, I wonder?

And anyway, is that really all there is to it? Just getting rid of stuff?

Well, first let’s get one thing off the table: there is nothing we can do to merit God’s favor, nothing we can do to earn eternal life. The man who falls on his knees before Jesus in our reading today is approaching the whole matter from the wrong direction – what must I do, he asks. I think that’s why Jesus reacted to being called “good teacher” in the first place, by the way: to make the point that, apart from God, no one is good, no one can be good.

That being said, I think that what Jesus is challenging the man to do is profound for us in our day and age and location on the globe.

After all, what is money? Colored paper and shiny coins, and nothing more – though more and more these days money isn’t even that, it’s a collection of numbers on a bank or credit union’s computer hard drive.

Yet this paper or metal or binary code represents value – the value we place on the portion of our lives we spend earning the money. Further, it represents security – the more of it we possess, the greater the likelihood that we won’t starve or go naked or be homeless. Moreover, it represents the idea of self-sufficiency: if we have enough, we won’t have to work or worry or depend on anyone or anything else, ever.

Yet history proves that, even when someone arguably reaches a place of self-sufficiency, the drive, the desperation for more never stops! At the height of his wealth, a reporter asked John D. Rockefeller, “How much money is enough?” Rockefeller answered, “One more dollar than I have.”

This man who knelt before Jesus was, like us, looking for security: security in this life, and assurance of eternal security in the Kingdom of God. What Jesus told him to do was to let go of self-sufficiency – divest himself of any hope of ever being able to depend on himself for anything – in favor of finding his sufficiency, security, and salvation in God.

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. Jesus calls us to give up more than just our possessions, just our desire for wealth and security, just our desire for one dollar more than we have. Jesus calls us to give up our selves. Jesus calls us to follow him.

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. if anything at all is in the way of full and unfettered devotion to the Creator, it must be thrown away. This is something we must confront on a daily basis, through prayer and study, daily meeting the place where the camel-sized camel of our lives reaches the eye-of-the-needle sized hole that leads to the Kingdom of God. And when we reach the eye of the needle, and that camel won’t go through, and we at last agree with Jesus that with mortals, this is impossible, there is a wonderful promise awaiting us.

No, we can’t do it – be good enough or earn enough or do enough things to merit God’s favor. We can’t build a bridge long enough or a ladder high enough to reach the Kingdom of God. For us, it is impossible.

But it is not hopeless. We do not have to walk away, consumed with grief. We are not alone.

We have within us the Holy Spirit, through which God works to bring us into that glorious, now-and-coming Kingdom, by which God brings that camel through the needle’s eye and into eternal life.

This is the Good News: “For God, all things are possible.”

Alleluia, amen.

Sunday, October 7, 2012


I am indebted to the writings of Scott Shauf, The Rev. Dr. Delmer Chilton, and to my dear friends Terry Ramone Smith and Kirk Jeffery for guidance in writing the sermon.

The sermon doesn't really end, I'm afraid. It made the most sense to simply segue to the Words of Institution.

Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere, "What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet." Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.
It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters, saying, "I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you."

This is the Word of the Lord.

When I was young, I attended a large Presbyterian church, and one Sunday, as a way (I think) of illustrating blindness, I was blindfolded and led by a couple of youth leaders around this church.

Now, this was a long time ago, so I don’t recall much of the context or conversation, but I remember the youth leaders asking me to guess where I was at different points. I honestly had no idea; even today I have no internal compass and the world’s worst sense of direction, so the moment the blindfold was on I was completely lost, completely dependent on the hands leading me around the building – up stairs and through rooms and around corners, it seemed we walked for miles… and when at long last they took the blindfold off, I was standing on a rooftop patio, the buildings of downtown soaring above me, the sky bluer than I had ever seen it, traffic noises echoing through the air… and while the journey to the rooftop patio had seemed endless, my stroll back to the Sunday school room was short and sweet.

This is the mental image I get when I read the first couple of verses of our Lectionary today. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”

Here’s what I am getting at: There was nothing at all functionally wrong with the old ways. The lines of communication were open; humankind communicated with our Creator through worship and prayer and sacrifice, and God communicated with humankind through prophets. For all of humankind’s mistakes, all the fits and starts and getting off track and crashing and burning, it is important to note that the comparison that the writer of this letter to the Hebrews is making is not between bad and good.

One of the mistakes I have made in the past is to view Jesus’ life, death and resurrection as a kind of cosmic “Plan B:” God saw that the whole system of laws and sacrifices wasn’t working, and decided to send Jesus to be one big final sacrifice instead. You know: God’s team is losing, and none of the plays are working, so God calls Jesus off the bench to go in and make his play to win the game (maybe it would have been a “Hail Mary” pass?)…

No, we aren’t looking at a bad system versus a good system. The comparison here is between the merely good, and the magnificent.

When I was blindfolded and led around through the corridors of the church, the youth leaders who guided me, one on each arm, took their task very seriously, never letting me stumble or strike a doorframe, never letting me wander off on my own. The system was good, it worked. But it is also true that there was a better way for me to get around that church: removing the blindfold, that barrier that kept me from seeing, and using my own eyes to guide me!

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, the prophets who God speaks through go to great lengths to make sure that God’s message is faithfully conveyed – they take their job very seriously, often leaving their homes and livelihoods, journeying great distances, risking – and very often suffering – death at the hands of those God has called them to minister to.

There was a better way, though… and it was not a “Plan B,” it was not a desperation move on the part of the Almighty, it was the will of God from before the Earth was created in the first place.

Now, I want to be careful here and make it clear that I in no way believe that God lacked anything in God’s comprehension of, compassion for, and dealings with humankind. God didn’t really need to experience what it is like to be a human being in order to love and relate to human beings.

God did not need to experience potty training, or being weaned, or learning to walk and talk and read, or learning table manners, or learning to dress for God’s self. God did not need to feel the love of a parent, or the grief of loss, or sweat on God’s brow or hunger in God’s stomach or anything else. God did not need to endure the pain of rejection or the searing cut of the lash or the agony of the nails or the slow suffocation of the cross. God did not need to die, or to rise again.

We needed God to experience that. We needed God to feel that. We needed God to endure that. We needed God to die, and to rise again. We needed God, through Jesus Christ, to go through the kind of death that is separation from God, and to come out on the other side, having utterly conquered it on our behalf.

And let me assure you of something: with all of that accomplished, with Christ risen and seated at the right hand of God, with death conquered, the Holy Spirit fallen, and the Kingdom of God at hand, and if God has truly put all things under the subjection of Christ, as we read in this morning’s passage from the book of Hebrews, it’s OK to ask, “if all that is true, why are things still so messed up?”

“As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,” we read… the plural is misleading there, since most English translations of this Scripture see the quotation from Psalm 8, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them? You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor, subjecting all things under their feet…” as referring not to humans as a whole, but to Christ specifically – singular rather than plural.

And it’s true, we don’t see everything in subjection to Christ, do we? Because if God is in control, why do children starve? If God is in control, why do storms come and wipe out entire cities? If God is in control, why do people get sick and die? Recession, war, drugs, mental illness, crime, corporate greed, political corruption, the list is almost endless…

As we look around the world for God, God is often difficult to see, difficult to pin down. And sometimes, just when we think we have the holy in our hands, it slips away as we realize we were mistaken. All too often it feels like we are groping around, still blindfolded, not sure of where we are or which direction to take.

I said last week, in looking at the absence of God’s name in the book of Esther, that God is in fact never absent. God was present long ago, speaking through the prophets, and though God may not always be easy to see in the here-and-now, God is never absent today, either.

“….we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .” This is the promise that in Jesus all we hope for and all we need is present, in the here and now, and all the time.

In the community of faith we see Jesus in the midst of a world where God is often heard to find.  We hear Christ’s voice in the readings and hymns and songs and liturgies and sermons. We see our Lord’s face in the faces around us; we see and feel and receive Christ in the meal, in the bread and wine, the body and blood of Jesus; we feel the divine touch in the touch of another’s hand at the passing of the bread and the cup. “We do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus . . .”

And through the community of faith, and in the holy act of taking the bread and the cup, we are given the support and sustenance we need to go out into the world, and to help those around us, near and far, to see and hear and feel and receive Jesus as well.

We are not alone, you and I. This is World Communion Sunday. This Sunday is always a particular joy for me, because World Communion Sunday was my first time sharing the Lord’s Supper with all of you, and I always feel like I am celebrating an anniversary of sorts. More than that, though, this day serves to remind all of us that we, as the Body of Christ in the world, are connected to one another. Though our ancillary doctrines may differ, though we approach the elements from differing theological standpoints, in breaking the bread and in taking the cup we affirm that, whether in lofty cathedrals or in storefront, inner city churches, whether in modern megachurches or mud huts, as this bread is one loaf and this juice is one cup, we are one body, the Body of Christ.

And on the night he was betrayed, our Lord Jesus took bread…