Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What Cloaks Do You Need to Throw Off?

Proper 25, Year B, 2012, All Saints’

                You probably don’t know this about me but in 1994 I suffered a career ending football injury while playing for the San Francisco 49ers pee-wee football team.  I remember that fall quite well.  I remember thinking practice was a waste of time.  My idea of fun had nothing to do with doing drills over and over again.  But I loved game day.  I loved the feeling of actually getting to do what I had prepared to do all week.  I loved seeing all the fans cheering on the sidelines.    
But one fall afternoon, I went after a loose ball and during the scramble I broke my elbow.  After that, I didn’t like game day that much either so I decided to retire/quit.  Even then, I remember practice being more painful than a broken elbow.    
                Over the last several weeks in Mark’s Gospel Jesus has been holding practice for his disciples.  Jesus has been coaching them up on what it means to be a follower of Christ.  He has been teaching them that in God’s kingdom greatness is achieved when one lays down their life for another, greatness is found through selfless service to others.
It doesn’t seem like the disciples like practice either because they keep on wanting to talk about the big game.  They can’t wait to run through the Jerusalem tunnel to the sound of thousands of screaming fans.  The disciples can hardly contain themselves and are anxious to see Jesus sack the Roman authorities.    (bear with me; I’ve been known to take a metaphor too far). 
                Jesus tries to warn his followers that the big game won’t be quite like what they envision.  He knows that the disciples will never execute his game plan unless they see everything at game speed, unless they see the ministry of Christ lived out through his death and resurrection, unless they see that with God all things really are possible and that means with God victory over suffering and death is even possible.
                On the way to the big game, Jesus and his disciples are stopped by a blind man named Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus shouts, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  However, the disciples try to hush the man and tell him to keep quiet.  In the disciples’ defense, on the first day of discipleship camp Jesus tells Peter not to tell anyone that he is the Messiah.  So when the disciples hear Bartimaeus yelling, “Jesus, Son of David! (Son of David is the equivalent of saying Messiah), they tell him to be quiet too.
                Jesus doesn’t rebuke this blind man, this outsider, in the same way he rebukes Peter several chapters ago for saying Messiah.  Instead Jesus stands still and says, “Call him here.”  It is interesting to note how differently Jesus treats his disciples, the insiders, over and against new believers, the outsiders.  It seems that Jesus is reminding the disciples again of how dangerous it is to put stumbling blocks in the way of new believers. 
                Jesus doesn’t care that this man’s theology is off.  Jesus doesn’t care that this man doesn’t fully understand that for Jesus, Messiah also means suffering servant.  Bartimaeus comes before Jesus like a little child, completely helpless and vulnerable in front of everybody.  Jesus cares because Bartimaeus trusts that only God can heal him. 
                After Bartimaeus is brought to Jesus, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”  This is the same question that Jesus asked James and John last week.  However, Bartimaeus gives a different type of answer.  While James and John’s answer seeks personal ambition (they want to sit at Jesus left and right hand in glory), Bartimaeus’ answer seeks healing.  He just wants to see again.  Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.”  Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. 
                At first glance, it appears that Jesus is taking a break from teaching about discipleship.  It seems that Jesus is back to doing what he is best known for—his deeds of power and miracles.  However, Jesus is teaching his disciples a lesson at the same time.  This healing is meant to teach his followers the connection between healing and discipleship.
It is as if Jesus is telling the disciples that in order to truly follow him they must be healed from their own spiritual blindness, from their inability to see the needs of others.  The disciples are blind to what it means to be true followers.  Jesus teaches them that discipleship has nothing to do with climbing the company ladder.  Discipleship isn’t the magic ticket for eternal life.  Discipleship isn’t about personal gain.  In order to be a disciple, one must be healed from their inability to see past one’s own desires and find peace in God’s way through Christ, a way of humility and service.  I was reminded of this great Gospel paradox on Monday by an unsuspecting person.  
On Monday night, I was stopped in the hallway by Rosemary, one of our overnight BHN guests.   Birmingham Hospitality Network (BHN) is supported by a network of churches in the community that supports families who are homeless and need help getting back on their feet.  All Saints’ is blessed to be a part of such a wonderful ministry and it is a blessing to see so many in the congregation who are passionate about this good work. 
Rosemary stopped me and said, “I need to ask you something, it is important.  She then asked me for my business card.”  At this point I started getting a little nervous.  What would she possibly ask me for?  I wasn’t sure there was much I could do.  I didn’t want to disappoint her.  I had already disappointed enough people that day.   
                I said, “What can I do?”  She replied, “I want you to pray for me.”  I let out a little sigh of relief and said, “Absolutely, I’ll keep you in my prayers Rosemary.”  I asked her about her prayer life and she went on to tell me all the things that have been in her prayers lately.  She said she was grateful for All Saints’ and  for BHN and for all the wonderful people who have loved her and supported her during this difficult time. 
She also talked about another prayer that had been on her mind, and quite frankly I was surprised at what she said next.  I expected her to say something like, “I also pray that God will give me a nice home and a good job.”  But Rosemary said something else, something that revealed a lot about her faith.  She said that she had prayed for a long time for God to give her a ministry where she can love people in the same way that she has been loved.  I thought, “Wow! What a wonderful prayer!” 
I am reminded of a passage from Matthew’s Gospel that says, “Do not worry saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’...indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”  Rosemary concluded by saying, “My prayer has been answered.  God gave me BHN.  God healed me.  After I go through the program, I am going to serve.” 
Rosemary’s prayer had nothing to do with asking God for special treatment or personal gain or recognition.  Instead her prayer was a prayer of thanksgiving; for all that she does have, for BHN, for people who love her and support her, and for God’s goodness.  Her prayer also echoed the St. Francis prayer, “grant that I may not so much seek to be loved as to love.”  Rosemary found what she needed through a prayer that was more concerned with the needs of others.
If we want to take discipleship seriously, we need to be healed from our blindness.  We must be healed from the illusion that being a Christian is the path to personal gain and recognition.  Perhaps, more importantly to those of you sitting in the pews this morning, Jesus is calling us to see that healing comes from God alone and not from the things of this world.  Better jobs, bigger houses, and sorry to say it, caffeine will not heal us; only Christ can truly heal and only Christ can show us a life of true peace.  The passage for this morning states that Bartimaeus knows the truth that healing comes from Christ alone.
When Bartimaeus sees Jesus, he throws off his cloak.  He throws off the one thing in this world that provided him with comfort and security.  He throws off his cloak and trusts that Jesus will give him something much better, something more permanent.  He has faith that Jesus is the only one who can save him from his blindness.  After he is healed, Bartimaeus does not go back to get his cloak.  Instead he immediately follows Jesus on the way.
Bartimaeus exhibits the type of faith that Jesus hopes for his followers.  A faith that says, “I need to be healed from my blindness, my inability to see the needs of others, so that I can truly follow the way of the cross, the way of humility and service.”  In your own prayers concerning discipleship, I invite you to ask, “What do I need Jesus to do for me?”  “What kind of blindness do I need to be healed from?” “What cloaks do I need to throw off so that I can put my whole trust in the way of God?”  Amen.   

Monday, October 22, 2012

Prayer, Why Bother?

For the second time in as many weeks Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you?"  This time a blind man named Bartimaeus is the one on the receiving end of the question.  Bartimaeus' reply, "let me see again" comes in sharp contrast to James and John's reply, "We want to sit one at your right hand and one at your left in glory." (Mark 10:35-52)

One would have to imagine that Jesus already knows the answer to his own question since he is, well, the Son of God .  In this particular case, Bartimaeus' need is obvious to all who are gathered.  He is a blind man and wants his sight restored.

The natural question that begs to be asked says, "If Jesus knows what is needed, then why even ask?"  I approached prayer this way for many years.  For quite some time, my prayer life was idle because this kind of questioning left me thinking, why pray if God already knows what I need?  Eventually, I realized that this approach had me turning to God for a transaction instead of relationship (some might say I saw God as a vending machine).  In other words, I forgot that at the core of prayer is an opportunity to grow closer to God; and as we say in church sometimes, prayer keeps my heart and mind in the knowledge and love of God.

As with any earthly relationship, a part of growing closer to God means naming the things I need (or think I need).  When I name these things out loud to others or before God, I admit that I need help and support.  I like to think that I am taking my baptism promises seriously (I will, with God's help).

In a way, I am also admitting that I am blind to what I really need.  Like the blind mind, I need Jesus to restore my sight.  By naming the things I think I need, Jesus can help me see what I really need.  Jesus tells James and John that they do not know what they are asking and shows them what they really need, a Savoir.  In other words, James and John are blind to what it really means to sit in glory with Christ.  To sit in glory with Christ means following the will of God.  In order to follow the will of God, we must lay down our misplaced illusions of greatness and follow the one who is slave and servant of all.

I believe these two passages give us tools for prayer.  On one hand, I do believe Jesus is telling us to ask for what we want no matter how silly it sounds (i want to win the game, etc.).  However, we should be ready to hear Jesus say, "I am not sure you know what you are asking."  In addition, our prayer might end by saying, "restore my sight, help me to see that your ways are better than my ways.  restore my sight, help me to know you better and see that your way is none other than the way of life and peace."

It has been said that prayer doesn't necessarily change God but it changes us.  Prayer changes us because it calls us to recognize that we are all blind and that we all need Jesus to restore our sight.  Prayer keeps our eyes open to see where it is Jesus is calling us.  Prayer keeps us in the knowledge and love of God. 

This is the good news.  Jesus is calling us to see new hope and new possibilities for life because of his Father in heaven.  Our prayers to God give us the opportunity to see that Jesus makes all things new and that Jesus will help us see even though we are blind.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Good Heretic (Good Samaritan)

The story of the Good Samaritan is possibly one of the most popular stories in the New Testament.  This is also a story that is popular outside of Christian circles.  I believe this is providential because the story itself is meant to break the boundaries that exist between groups of people in society including religious boundaries.

I am currently invested in this story because it will be the source of conversation for the young adult group on Thursday night.  I believe this story is especially important for priests to remember but not for the most obvious reason.  To refresh your memory, a priest is one of the main antagonists in the story as he ignores the man on the side of the road who is left for dead.  After this week's reading of the story, I think the more important lesson for me goes beyond the moral sense (do good to those who need help).

While this story might not fit the classic model of a parable, I approach the story like a parable.  In other words, I use the same interpretive questions that I would use for a parable study.  Who is asking the question?  What is the question at hand?  Who are the characters?  What is the scene? props?  After I answer all these questions, I get a sense of the overall point.  Once I understand the overall point, I can then start to apply the parable to my daily life.

The overall tension in this story is not simply apathy vs. commitment or even between selfishness and selflessness (these are both teachings to be taken seriously here).  Based on the question at hand, the tension speaks more to the connection between knowing God's law and doing God's law.  For the lawyer, the assumption was that studying the law was more important than practicing the law.

In addition to being somewhat of a racial slur, the word Samaritan conjured up images of what it means to be a heretic.  The Samaritan probably didn't know much about the law.  The laws about touching an unclean person or a dead person didn't seem to bother him.  The possibility that he could be falling into a trap set by bandits didn't seem to bother him either.  He simply saw someone who was in need and responded to that need to the best of his ability.

As a priest, I find myself in a teaching role often.  I get really excited about teaching and want those who come to church to understand scripture and theology.  I strive to teach theology within the frame work of scripture and the creeds, the mystery of the Eucharist, and through faithful prayer and conversation.

While I think this is critical work for priests in the church, I also recognize that sometimes I get in my own way or really Jesus' way.  Sometimes I lose sight of what is really more important.  Can't I trust that God's work is just as likely to happen, maybe even more likely to happen, through the work of heretics?  Speaking of heretics, I am probably just as guilty if not more guilty than anyone.

At the end of the day I wonder, who is God calling me to be more like?  The lawyer who who can argue religious points backwards and frontwards or the heretic who helps someone in need?

While I don't think for a minute God is calling me to stop studying and teaching sound theology, I do hear Him gently saying, "loosen up a little bit, trust that I am drawing all things to myself through Christ, keep studying and teaching but don't let that get in the way of the Gospel truth."

The Gospel truth is that God's kingdom has come on earth through Jesus.  In God's Kingdom, the most important work is service and right relationship with others no matter what the cost, even if that means letting go of a theology that I am sure is right.    


Monday, October 8, 2012

Preparing for the Kingdom

This morning during our Men's Bible Study I found myself asking, "Just what does Jesus think he is doing?".  The passage that we dealt with is one of the more well known passages (Mark 10:17-31) and is the story of the rich man who asks, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

In a nutshell, Jesus seems to imply that this man is asking the wrong question.  This is the wrong question because the question is a self-centered one.  However, Jesus does answer his question honestly and clearly.  I believe that Jesus gives a straightforward answer because the rich man comes before Jesus with a straightforward question unlike the Pharisees who questioned Jesus to test him in the passage before.

After the rich man confirms that he has followed all the commandments, Jesus tells the rich man that he lacks one thing and says, "go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."  The passage says that the man went away grieving.  So we are left not really knowing what the man did.

Over the course of the passage, Jesus is saying that there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life.  He goes as far as saying that no one has the power to save themselves but adds that anything is possible with God.  All of this seems to suggest that only God is in charge of our salvation.

Again, I ask, "what does Jesus think he is doing?"  I hear Jesus inviting me to ask another question.  While I don't think it is necessarily the right question, I do find it helpful for me to think about in terms of discipleship.

What must I do to prepare for the Kingdom of God?

Jesus makes it clear that preparing for the Kingdom of God isn't just about following the commandments.  Jesus adds that preparing for the Kingdom means that we have to give up all those things that prevent us from following him.  For most of us, those things that prevent us from following Jesus are material possessions.

We learn elsewhere in scripture that God gives us everything we need in his Kingdom.  In God's Kingdom, we are completely free to rely on God for what we need.  Jesus is breaking into this world with this new kingdom and that means the source of life is completely dependent on God.      

I believe Jesus is doing a couple of things here.  First of all, he is showing us that his Kingdom is available now if we give up the illusion that we are in control of life and follow Christ who is the way to life.  He also warns us that because his Kingdom is not of this world then we might experience persecution because we will inevitably go against the grain.

Secondly, Jesus is teaching us how to live in the age to come.  He is preparing us for what is to come in the fullness of time when it is obvious that Jesus Christ is King and Ruler of all.  He is preparing us for what is to come in the fullness of time when it is obvious that greatness has nothing to do with wealth and power and has everything to do with unconditional service to others.

Like someone said this morning, we can't think of this passage as a road map to heaven.  Instead, this passage gives us a glimpse of what it means to live in God's Kingdom today and forever. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Just be nice

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday causes a lot of problems especially problems with interpretation and application (Mark 10:2-16).  Is this passage about the grounds under which one may divorce?  Is this passage about Jesus' interpretation of the divorce law according to Moses?  Does this passage really say that all those who divorce and remarry commit adultery?  Is this passage about the goods of marriage?  Is this passage about Jesus elevating the social status of women and children?  These are certainly all logical questions given the text.

During this morning's Bible study we were grinding it out as they say.  I don't know if it was the rain or the passage but it seemed as if every word of reflection was laborious.  Then someone said something completely off topic, the skies parted, and we came to a better understanding of what the text is teaching us about Jesus and his kingdom.

In short someone recalled a Bible study where the message of the day basically said, "just be nice."  Being nice will get you far in life.  Being nice is certainly a standard that many of us strive for.  There is a lot right about being nice.  However, I am not sure being nice will open our eyes to the kingdom of God.

In our society, being nice justifies a lot and covers a multitude of sins. A message that says "just be nice" is a type of moral code or unspoken law of society.  The Pharisees are also referring to a law made by society.  In short, one might say that this divorce law was created to justify their actions .

This divorce law was the best humanity could do given the circumstances.  According to God's law, no one who is brought together in marriage can separate.  So divorce is kind of like the warning sticker on the side of a bottle of Drano.  The maker of the product never intended for someone to drink the stuff but someone did so there is a sticker.  In a similar way, being nice is the best we can do given the circumstances. 

However, I do not believe Jesus is interested in us just settling for the justification of our actions through another law.  Jesus isn't interested in justifying divorce.  He is obviously interested in naming the goods of marriage.  He is interested in elevating women in society.  However, I think he is most interested in teaching us how to receive the kingdom of God.  Jesus is interested in justification by grace. 

Receiving the kingdom of God is not based on our strict following of a moral code.  We do not receive the kingdom of God because we have somehow justified our actions through human law.  Jesus said that such laws are created out of hardness of heart.

We receive the kingdom of God if we receive it in the same way a child would receive it.  In the passage for today, some scholars suggest that the children Jesus received were one year old.  That means these children were helpless and were completely reliant on their parents.  That means receiving the kingdom of God is based on complete trust in the one who creates us.  That means receiving the kingdom is based on recognizing life as a gift.  That means receiving the kingdom is based on God's unmerited favor towards us.

In order to receive the kingdom, we cannot find our identity in the justifications of actions.  We must find our identity in Christ, in the one who justifies the whole world through his life, death, and resurrection, through his life of grace.