Sunday, October 28, 2018

Seeing Truth: Mark 10:46-52 - Reformation Sunday

As [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.
Guide-dog at work by smerikal on Flickr.  CC BY-SA 2.0

Out of all the people I’ve known through the years, I’ve never met anyone like our friend Roy.  He was the husband of a fellow seminary student, who was quite an extraordinary woman herself.  But Roy had been blind for most of his life.  But Roy lived a most abundant life.  His faithful seeing eye dog would lead him to wherever he wanted to go (on foot).

Yet Roy also had an extraordinary ability to see with his ears.  He sang tenor in the seminary choir.  He enrolled in classes.  And he greeted everyone by name, just by recognizing their voices.  Sometimes, I forgot that he was blind.  He had an uncanny ability to perceive the world before him, even though he couldn’t see it.

The same holds true for blind Bartimaeus.  Even though he couldn’t see, he knew much about Jesus.  He’d obviously heard Jesus or heard about him.  He calls out to him as the Son of David, which no one had ever done before.  He was persistent in crying out for Jesus while everyone was trying to shut him up.  He asks Jesus to give him eyesight, which Jesus does.  His eyes are opened, and he immediately follows Jesus.  Now, his eyes will see the wonders and works of the Savior he had heard so much about. 

But still, I wonder: how does a blind beggar understand Jesus better than his own disciples? 

The answer to the question lies in the problem of spiritual blindness.

In last week’s Gospel, James and John want Jesus to give them seats of honor when Jesus supposedly ascends to his throne as the most powerful ruler on earth.  In Jesus, they saw the potential of gaining great wealth and privilege for themselves.  They did this after Jesus told them three times of his death and resurrection.  This after Jesus taught them that greatness in God’s kingdom is known through service and self-sacrifice.  The proverbial writing was on the wall, but they weren’t seeing it. 

This is the essence of spiritual blindness: you see with your eyes only what you want them to see, but you do not see truths that are literally staring you in the face.  You are blind to all that Jesus is saying and doing right in front of you.   

Do you believe you know everything there is to know about Jesus?  Have your eyes seen; your ears heard; your hands worked; and your mind comprehended all that Jesus has in store for you? 

Contrary to popular opinion, truth does not come from within you.  No matter how learned or experienced you are, you still don’t know all truth. 

One of the most disturbing realities of our world today is that you can choose your own facts from like you choose food from a buffet.  You seek out information and experts who tell you exactly what you want to hear.  If you believe that NASA faked the moon landing, you can find plenty of people who’ll present a compelling case for that.  If you believe vaccinations cause cognitive impairments in children, you can find plenty of people who’ll present a compelling case for that.  You’ll feel really wise and intelligent listening to them.  You feel like your part of something special when you can be part of a tribe of people just like you, who believe just like you.  And you’d sooner reject the truth if it means that you’re wrong or that you need to change. 

To make matters worse, people use the bible to manufacture their own truths.  They call our chapter and verse to support all kinds of human rights abuses and atrocities, including slavery, violence, genocide, sexism, racism, and the like.  Much of the time, you can tell if someone is crucifying the truth—when someone’s cries are ignored (like Bartimaeus) or when they are silenced (like Jesus Christ). 

It’s the truly blind who say, “I’m not the one who’s blind to the truth.  I’m not broken.  I’m not a sinner.  You are!” It’s the blind who believe the voices that tell you that you’re saved because you deserve it; or that your salvation depends on your beliefs, your faith, and your good works.  It’s the blind who believe embrace the prosperity gospel, and look for Jesus in their individual power, success, and the quick and easy fixes to their problems.

It’s the truth of God, that comes from beyond you, that sets you free.  To see the truth, you must first own the fact that you are blind, and that only Jesus can open your eyes.  To know the truth, you must leave behind your “favorite facts” and listen to Jesus.  To hear the truth, you need to listen to voices of people who say things you don’t want to hear; whose cries are much more convenient to ignore.  The voice of truth will call you to repentance.  It will challenge your assumptions.  It will change your beliefs.  It will transform how you live, what you value, and what you strive for.  It will crucify you with Christ before it raises you up into new life. 

Jesus opens the eyes of the blind to the truth that sets you free.  Follow him, and you will see the truth in action.  Better still, you will be the truth in action!

The freedom Jesus is giving is about seeing the truth and living it!  You’re free of any questions as to whether God loves you or if you’re good enough to be saved.  Embrace the cross of Jesus who embraces you as you are.  You’re free from the pressures of having control situations and control people, because God has your best interests at heart.  You’re free from the pressure of having to fix problems yourself, because you’ll see the healing works of Jesus.  You’re free from the fear that festers in conspiracy theories and factions because God owns your future, and God will have the last word.  You’re free from the bitterly divisive politics of the day that wreak violence, destruction, and division.  Fear, competition, and bitterness give way to peace. 

The freedom you find is the freedom you give when away.   Never underestimate the transformative power of listening to someone tell the story of their pains and struggles.  Never underestimate your power to ease the soul-crushing burden of poverty by sharing what you have and doing the good that is in you to do.  Never underestimate the indescribable peace and healing of reconciliation and forgiveness. 

The greatest truth you’ll ever know is that Jesus loves you with the world.   You are worthy of dignity and daily bread because God made you.  Jesus loves you and you belong to him.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Where Jesus Takes You: Mark 10:35-45 - 22nd Sunday after Pentecost

35James 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.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But 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?” 39They 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; 40but 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.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So 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. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (NRSV)
Covered bridge in Gatineau Park by monica.orchard.  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

Those weren’t his exact words, but that’s the gist of what was asked of a former coworker of mine.  Before I worked with him, he had been a manager of a Miami bookstore.

Five minutes before closing, a sharply-dressed man walked in, identifying himself as a personal assistant of pop superstar Michael Jackson.  The King of Pop was requesting a private, after-hours shopping spree for himself and his entourage.

This was a highly unusual request, but the store manager told him that he and the other salaried managers would give him what he asked for, and like it.

So, for the next six hours, the celebrity purchased over $10,000 worth of books and merchandise.  That’s nearly five hundred books. 

In today’s Gospel, the disciples James and John brazenly tell Jesus, “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 

What they wanted was to sit right next to Jesus when he supposedly ascends to his throne of power over all the world.  They wanted the Rockstar treatment—and believed they were entitled to it. 

After all, they’d been struggling and striving with Jesus for several years now.  They left behind everything to be his disciples—their homes, their families, their jobs.  And they wanted to be sure it was all going to be worth it.  They’ll follow Jesus anywhere, provided they can own their future.

Why do you follow Jesus?  Let’s be honest: we all come to Jesus with high hopes and great expectations.  We all have some ideal in mind about where our discipleship should take us.  Coming to Jesus is supposed to make your life better.  It’s supposed to help you through your problems and become a better person.  People don’t say “Jesus is the answer” or “God has a plan” for nothing.  Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior; ask him to forgive your sins; and he will let you go to heaven instead of sending you to hell.  Have faith, obey the commandments, do good works, and you’ll be rewarded.

Why do we as a congregation put so much time and effort into our programs and outreach?  We want to see this congregation grow and prosper, of course!

We seek Jesus in prosperity and success; in the triumph over adversity; in the humiliation of our adversaries.  Essentially, You and I are more like James and John than we care to admit!  Then Jesus says, “you don’t know what you’re asking me for.”

Jesus asks James and John if they can drink of the cup he will drink and be baptized with his baptism, and they say, “Yes, of course.  We’re able!”  But that’s a lie.  Honestly, I don’t think anyone follows Jesus for the right reasons.  I’ve never witnessed an altar call where someone says, “I’m here to be crucified with Christ.  I hereby give all my possessions away.  I hereby surrender control over my life and my destiny.”

You’re not a Christian because you decided to follow Jesus.  Jesus does not claim you because of a decision you made.  You’re a Christian because Jesus decided to pursue you and embrace you as you are, where you are.  James, John, and the other nine disciples do not choose to drink Christ’s cup of suffering and be baptized into his death.  But they will, because this is what God has chosen for them.  And it’s not to cruelly subject the disciples to suffering so that they will prove their worth.  Just as they will drink the cup of suffering and be baptized into death, they will also drink the cup of healing and arise into new life.  Resurrection is born out of death.  Salvation is born out of brokenness.  God’s heart is revealed in humble service.  God’s victory is won in forgiving, reconciling, welcoming, sharing.  God’s glory is new life being born in death.

The disciples’ lives certainly changed when Jesus called them to be disciples.  But their whole world; their whole existence will change when he dies and is raised from the dead.  Jesus does not say, “if you do this or believe this, then you will…”  Jesus just says, “you will…”

That means if you are going through tragic and terrible times right now, Jesus is already in it with you.  God isn’t subjecting you to it; God is embracing you through it.  You know Jesus not in the absence of pain but rather in the triumph of life and love over pain.

At the same time, Jesus is leading you in the way of his self-giving and self-emptying service.  Jesus binds himself to those who are prisoners to pain, poverty, death, and despair.  Sometimes, you must stop and marvel at what people are going through and be amazed that they’re enduring it.  That’s because Jesus is there—and when you enter into fellowship with those persons, you are in fellowship with Christ.  He will act through you to ransom his people from poverty and pain.  At the same time, those persons will ransom you from all the stuff that keeps you from living in Christ’s promises.  You come into the life that was meant for you.  You discover your true self.

We spend so much of our lives trying to control our own futures; to eliminate uncertainty; to prevent loss; to ensure favorable outcomes for all that we do.  We follow Jesus for what we can get—and Jesus says, “you do not know what you are asking me for.”  Nevertheless, you will drink the cup of suffering that overflows with healing.  You will be baptized into death and rise to new life every single day. 

Trusting in these promises, be bold then to ask Jesus to give you faith to see his presence in your trials; to see his face in fellowship with the poor and hurting.  Be bold to ask Jesus to take you to where his glory is revealed—not on the peaks of power and privilege but where life and love conquers evil and death.