Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Dawning of Truth: Mark 10:46-52 - Reformation Sunday

Sunrise over Church Steeple by Alvin Trusty.  Creative Commons image on flickr
46As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then 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.” 52Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (NRSV)
During the lifetime of Martin Luther lived an astronomer and mathematician by the name of Nicolas Copernicus.  While Luther is known for the “radical” ideas he nailed to the Church at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517, Copernicus is known for the “radical” idea that the earth revolved around the sun (and not the other way around.)  His revolutionary ideas didn’t ruffle that many feathers until a pupil by the name of Galileo Galilei put these ideas to print. 

Officially, the Roman Church held that the sun revolved around the earth—and when one of Galileo’s books on the subject was perceived be mocking the pope for believing the contrary, Galileo was branded a heretic and placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. 

It’s laughable to consider how hard people held onto ideas that run contrary to what we call undeniable fact, but Jack Nicholson was right about truth: we can’t handle it…  We don’t like it.  We don’t want to hear it.

Why? Because it defies what we wish was true!

I love the old expression, “my mind us made up—don’t confuse me with facts!” 

Deep in our hearts we possess a truth filter—such that, whenever any bit of information is revealed to us, we receive or reject it.  If we understand it; if it’s beneficial to us; if it’s in line with our previous knowledge and experience; we call it truth.  If we do not understand it; if it threatens us; if it contradicts our knowledge and experience; we reject it. 

In sum, we look within ourselves for truth.  We believe truth is something we can possess.  Yet in so doing, we become blind to truth that comes not from within, but from beyond…

Bartimaeus, on the other hand, has much in common with many persons I know who suffer blindness: even though they cannot see, they are not blind to the world around them.  Bartimaeus is the first person in the Gospel of Mark to recognize Jesus as the Son of David.  Doubtless he had been taught what God had promised in the Scriptures: that the Messiah would be descendant of David.  Therefore, he saw what many would deny about Jesus’ identity.  When Jesus restores his sight, immediately he sees that everything he believed about Jesus was indeed true. 

This is what God does.  God doesn’t keep truth a secret.  God reveals truth—and gives us faith to receive it.  Some of the truths are not so nice—in particular, the truth of our sin.  God’s judgment brings light upon the darkest thoughts and desires of our heart—and brings to light the destruction we visit upon the people and the world God created.  God’s truth reveals our vulnerabilities and imperfections, shattering like glass our pride and self-righteousness. 

But the truth about our sin is met with the truth of God’s grace.  Our sins are forgiven and our guilt is banished from God’s sight.  We are loved and accepted just as we are.  What’s more is that each and every one of us is blessed with spiritual gifts by which God reveals his love to the world.  Each of our lives has a sacred purpose by which God will answer human brokenness and need through our good works.  And, God’s ultimate purpose for our lives and this world is resurrection.  Yet truth does not stop here—because God is not done speaking…
God is not silent as our world is being torn apart by greed, violence, and apathy.  God’s announces mercy and compassion towards the poor, the vulnerable, and the lost.  God’s announces judgment against those who use power and privilege for their own benefit; who turn a blind eye to human suffering; and to those who arrogantly believe they can possess all truth and righteousness.

God is speaking as we struggle beneath the burdens of sickness, grief, and uncertainty about the future.  God is speaking to our church as we exist in a rapidly-changing world, and need God to inspire and equip us for new ways of speaking God’s truth.

God is speaking as the Church itself struggles to understand God’s will as we weigh difficult and controversial questions about our practices and teachings.  God will still be speaking even when we vehemently disagree.

When God speaks, one thing is certain: things change.  People change.  Reformation happens.  New life is born.

No matter how much we learn or how wise we become, we will never know all there is to know; nor will we fully understand the wonders of God’s grace or explain the mysteries of his mercy.  We will be blind to God’s truth if we believe that we can fully possess it.


But if we come before God seeking truth, laying down our crowns with our burdens, failings, and frustrations, God will speak.  God truth will be confirmed as we act and build our lives upon it.  We will be a people and a church, reformed and reborn in the truth of Jesus Christ as Lord.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The American Dream, Redefined: Mark 10:35-45 - Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

White Picket Fence by roujo. Creative commons image on flickr.com

35 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.” 36 And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37 And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38 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?” 39 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; 40 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.”
41 When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42 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. 43 But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (NRSV)
They’re calling it The American Dream.

It’s a $2 billion, 4.8-million-square-foot super-mall under construction just ten miles from New York City in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  In addition to over four hundred retail shops and restaurants, it will also include a themed amusement and water park, an aquarium, and an eighteen-story indoor ski slope. 

It’s slated to open in 2017—but it’s been under construction since 2003.  The entire project was put on hold during the recession, as the developer went into bankruptcy.  (It’s worth pointing out that this project was conceived by the very same firm that built the Pittsburgh Mills mall, and we all know how that’s turned out…)

Not too long ago, a new firm picked up the unfinished project and work has resumed. 

But the big question on everyone’s mind: when it’s built, will people come?

At the symbolic level, its success or failure may indicate whether or not the proverbial American Dream is still alive…

So what is the American Dream, anyway?  Looking at this, we’re a long way off from the ideal of hard work and persistence leading to success and prosperity; and equal opportunity for all… 

But could we, as Christians living in America, dare to seize upon and project a profoundly new vision to our society?

What if we defined the dream in terms of relationships instead of wealth?

In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ disciples James and John had a dream.  Brazenly, ask Jesus to “give them what they want.”  Honor and glory is what they desire: a seat at Jesus’ right and a seat at his left.  They believe they’re worthy—because they say they are willing to drink the cup that Jesus drinks, and be baptized with Jesus’ baptism.  We can’t know for sure, but they’ve probably already forgotten everything Jesus had spoken about his suffering and death.

Either way, Jesus teaches his disciples that what James and John are dreaming of is very much of this world: a world where power and privilege is used to serve the interests of a fortunate few; where status and stuff are the hallmarks of a good life.

Very little has changed in the last two thousand years.  But what is different about our place and time is the individualism: for even while it is good and proper that our culture celebrates hard work, ingenuity, and tenacity, we deny our basic responsibility toward our neighbor.  There’s precious little sympathy—or charity—for persons in need.  We say “God helps those who help themselves,” which is not in the Bible at all.  Human life cannot flourish when it’s every person for themselves.  Human life cannot flourish when power and privilege are exercised for the private good, rather than the public good.  Human life cannot flourish when we fail to recognize our most basic duty to lift up those who fall, for whatever reason…

Jesus says, “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”  No human life can ever be fully self-sufficient.  We all fall down—and when we do, we need more than government-administered safety nets or hand-outs.  We need people—people who serve, like Jesus…

Jesus’ divine power and glory meant nothing to him compared to the people and the world God created in love.  Jesus made himself a slave to a humanity that would reject him and nail him to a cross.  But his death and resurrection set us free from slavery to sin and death.  It’s his service that saves.  His glory is his suffering and humiliation for you and for all.

Salvation is a holy trust that no matter what happens to you or what you do, the arms of Jesus will save you from falling into death. 

In the kingdom of God, true greatness is being the hands that uplift the fallen; the ears that hear the cries of the hurting; the voices that speak for the voiceless; the arms that are open for the rejected.

But this is only part of it…  Humility is recognizing that we need each other.  No one can live in complete independence and self-sufficiency.  But our need for others goes beyond the need for help in times of need.  We need others to grow in our faith.  We need relationships so that the Holy Spirit may shape and form us into the people God desires for us to be.  Sometimes, people who bless us the most will be the people that the rest of the world would dismiss as anything but great… 

In the end, we can’t really experience any real peace if there’s no one there to lift you when you’re fallen.  In the same way, there will be no real joy in life if we’re so wrapped up in our own affairs to see what a gift we can be to others, just by being there for them. 


We taste the new life of God’s kingdom in relationships of mutual belonging.  No matter what happens, Jesus will be there—and we will be there for each other.  This is greatness of life.  With all the blessings we enjoy as Americans, may this be the new American Dream.


References

Hurley, Amanda Kolson. "Will Anyone Come to the American Dream Super Mall?" 9 October 2015. The Atlantic. Article. 13 October 2015.


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Salvation in Nothingness: Mark 10:17-31 - Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

in the window by madabandonhttps.  Creative commons image on flickr
17 As [Jesus] 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?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 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.’ ” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 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.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 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!” 24 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! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 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, 30 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. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (NRSV)

One of my seminary professors wrote a book on the subject of theodicy, which is the question of why people, who are loved by God, endure suffering and pain.

He titled his book Clothed in Nothingness, and appropriately so—because nothing epitomizes the cruelty of sickness quite like the hospital gown…

It’s a loose-fitting, paper thin garment that barely covers you.  I’ve frequently seen patients wearing two of them so that because most are completely open on the backside. 

Yes, it’s a garment designed out of necessity—but for the patient it’s a garment of humiliation and helplessness.  You are clothed in nothingness.

It’s the very same nothingness of the people we encounter time and time again in the Gospels, falling at Jesus’ feet, begging for his mercy in the most awful situations. 

Today’s story is a little bit different.  A man comes to Jesus with a need—and I’m sure he was clothed much more extravagantly than most people Jesus encountered.

He asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  He goes on to declare that he has kept all of God’s commandments since his youth.  For all we know, this could have been true!

In his mind, he has it made, and he has great wealth to boot!  There’s just one more little thing to check of his list…

So imagine the shock when Jesus tells him: “you lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you own, give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come and follow me.”

Treasure in heaven: that one thing he lacks.  He’s not nearly complete.  He’s completely incomplete.  He has nothing.  He is destined for nothingHe is nothing.

To inherit the Kingdom of God, he must be stripped bare of everything upon which he has built his life.  It is only in nothingness that God’s reign can take hold.  But who wants that?

One of the greatest ironies of the Christian faith is that for as much as we may love Jesus, our desire is happiness.  Much of the time, we find it in achievement and possessions.  It’s really great to be you if you’re successful and self-sufficient; people like and admire you; you don’t make mistakes and do everything well.  It’s a mighty good life to be able to wake up in the morning and put on your good health and physical fitness; your talent and tenacity; your character and charisma for all the world to see…

But it happens, sometimes by our own fault; sometimes for reasons we will never understand—that we are stripped of these things.  Everything we build our lives upon is gone from us. 

But who would voluntarily take off wealth or self-sufficiency?  Who would voluntarily submit to a divine judgment that reveals all of sins and weaknesses, including every secret thought and desire?  Who would put on nothingness?

But this is what Jesus does.  He strips himself of all divine power and glory to be crucified naked.  Yet through his death, Jesus accomplishes all things for our salvation.  Our sins are nailed to the cross and we bare them no more.  Jesus’ resurrection destroys death’s dominion over us and the world God created. 

Which leads to the other great irony of the Christian faith: that grace flourishes in times of brokenness and deprivation.  For when we are nothing—and we have nothing, Jesus will become our everything.  Jesus takes the crosses we bear and uses them to give us new life.  He draws nearer to us than he’s ever been before—for nothing is impossible with God!

This is God’s promise for all who struggle beneath the crushing weight of sin and suffering.

But for the rest of us: there is a great challenge…  If you enjoy health, intelligence, success, and a good reputation, praise GodBUT—these gifts are not your divine right, for your exclusive benefit.   Much of what we count as essential for life can destroy us in the end. 

Ultimately, the rich young man needs the saving mercies of Jesus Christ every bit as much as the lowliest beggar and most miserable sinner… Perhaps, even more…

So today, challenge yourself in this way:
1.      Ask Jesus to enact his judgment in your life.  I know that sounds nuts, but Christ’s judgment is not for destruction—but for redemption.  We need judgment to reveal the sin in our lives, especially in the ways we conceal it from ourselves.
2.      Name before Jesus every single loss and pain that afflicts you today.  Even the stuff your guilty conscience tells you that you shouldn’t be sad about…
3.      Finally, name before Jesus the things you fear losing—and the things you could never see yourself doing that, deep down, you fear Jesus may want you to do: like forgiving someone; giving away something valuable; or making a major change in your life.  Again, don’t let your guilty conscience tell you that shouldn’t be afraid of losing this or that.  Lay it all out there for Jesus. 


Bottom line: Jesus loves you!  Yet we all need to die with Christ in order to rise with him.  We need to embrace our nothingness before Jesus in order that his reign may become complete in us.  

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Communion of Belonging: Genesis 2:18-14 - Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Hidcote Manor Garden (NT) by Dave Catchpole.  Creative Commons image on flickr
18 The Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” 19 So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. 20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. 21 So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. 22 And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 Then the man said,
   “This at last is bone of my bones
     and flesh of my flesh;
   this one shall be called Woman,
     for out of Man this one was taken.”
24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. (NRSV)
What would you do if you had the winning Power Ball ticket? 

Wouldn’t that be the dream?

No more horrible bosses or lazy co-workers; no more stressing over paying the bills; no more worries about retirement or staring at your dream house with sadness and self-loathing.  With such a fortune, the world is literally yours.

St. Francis of Assisi was a man born into fortune and glory—who threw it all away…

He was born the son of a wealthy cloth merchant and his French wife, who spoiled him beyond reason.  Francis’ dream was to become a knight in the likeness of King Arthur’s court.  Yet his rise to glory proves anything but easy.  He rides off in battle to defend his hometown, only to be taken prisoner of war.  While in prison, he falls ill, though—and his father manages to ransom his son’s release.  He begins to question his dreams—as God calls him to something better…  It isn’t long before he publicly renounces his noble birthright (and his father), to embrace a life of poverty, begging, and belonging to the poor.

Francis realized what is so contrary to human nature: that life isn’t about fame, fortune, domination, and subjugation.

When God created the first man and woman, God never intended a master-slave relationship.  God is the only superior here.  God created the woman as a helper, that she and the man would be servants to each other, to God, and the world God created.  They belong to each other as they belong to God. 

Francis never married—but he nonetheless embraced his God-given place in the world.  Life in God’s kingdom is a mutual communion of serving, and not power, possessions, or personal glory. 

But who among us truly believes that?  Trouble is, our personal desires and ambitions have just as much influence how we live as our fears.  There’s no denying that our two greatest fears are poverty and powerlessness. 

Is it any wonder that that the homes of the rich and powerful are gated?  Protection is the most obvious answer; keeping the thieves and bandits out.  But they’re just as important for what they keep in.  What is security but the freedom to pursue happiness on our own terms, made possible by dominating everything we deem necessary for that happiness; and, by locking out anyone or anything that would threaten it.

Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing of lasting value to be found living this way.  Salvation does not lie within the boundaries of our desires.  It’s not about having it all and coming out on top.  It’s not about rising above all vulnerability.  You can conquer the world—and still you’ll be mortal.

Salvation is given through the communion God designed into creation. 
God created the woman because the man needed her every bit as much as she would need him.  What’s more is that the welfare of God’s creation depended on their service inasmuch as they were dependent on the creation for their own sustenance.  God’s creation is a communion of mutual dependence—and not one living thing was created to be exploited or dominated for another’s exclusive benefit. 

Who was it but Christ who divested himself of the power and glory of his divinity, to become one with the poor, the outcast, and even the most despised sinners, with whom he was crucified?  Who is it, but Christ, through the Holy Spirit, who makes his temple our mortal bodies, then to reveal himself in the coming together of his One Body around Word and Sacrament?  Whose face is it, but the face of Jesus, who we see in the faces of those in need; whose face is seen in us as we give ourselves away to the lost and the lowest?

Salvation is not about possessing but belonging.  What happens in communion is that we bear with one another’s faults and forgive sins, recognizing our own imperfections and limitations.  Peace becomes reality.  We give generously out of the abundance of God’s grace, recognizing that we need others every bit as much as they need us.  Needs are met.  Diversity and individuality enrich our communion, rather than denigrating it.  All are welcome.  Everyone belongs.

Take every person: young or old, male or female, wealthy or poor—we all need something that is beyond our reach.  We all have burdens we need to be rid of; some that may be of monetary value.  Yet we all have some spiritual gift to share.  Life is better and God is nearer as we belong to each other.  Best of all, we see Jesus in each other.


Together, Jesus leads us through the darkness and losses we fear so greatly, to where light and new life can be found.  Our worst fears, realized or not, become the instruments of God’s salvation.