Saturday, October 27, 2012

Sermon – Mark 10:46-52 – Pentecost 22B

Read the entire text here: St. Mark 10:35-52

What do you want me to do for you?
Jesus has been on the way to Jerusalem now for the last couple chapters.  Throughout this journey he has repeatedly tried to help the disciples to understand that Jerusalem is going to be the place for rejection, betrayal, crucifixion, death, burial and resurrection.  And over and over the disciples have demonstrated a complete lack of understanding; a blindness to everything Jesus has been trying to teach them.  For them, Jerusalem signifies glory, power, victory and wealth!  Last week in our Gospel lesson from the verses immediately before the lesson for today, James and John come to Jesus (immediately after Jesus has again repeated for them the purpose of his trip) and asked Jesus to do something for them.  “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks in verse 36.  “We want to sit at your right and left hand, when you come into your glory!  We want to be powerful like you!  We want to share in your glory!”  “Oh, you will share in my glory all right,” says Jesus.  “But not the way you think.”  Is it any wonder that for most of Mark up until this point Jesus keeps telling the disciples to be quiet and keep their mouths shut about the things they have seen?  No, because they may have seen but they have not perceived or understood.  They have been completely blind to everything that Jesus had been teaching them.
So, we have reached the end of the journey, but there is still one more healing in Jericho.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The anguished voice pierces the air.  This voice calls Jesus, the “Son of David.”  It won’t be long (the beginning of chapter 11 in fact) when cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David” will ring out loud and clear.  But this voice comes not from the crowd, but rather from a poor blind beggar.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd, who like the disciples still is blinded by their visions of glory and power, tries to silence him.  “Shut up!” They tell him.  “The Master is too important to be bothered by the likes of you!”  “Shut up!  Jesus has more important things to do; Jesus has more important people to see; Jesus doesn’t need to be bothered by some poor looser like you who is a leech on our society!”  But Jesus stops, and I can imagine one of his disciples saying to him quietly, “Don’t bother with this guy, Jesus, he is a looser.  Don’t encourage or enable him.  We have more important things to do.”
I am really struck by the beginning of this healing story.  Jesus has come to the end of his journey.  He has consistently made it clear that he is going to be crucified and raised; that his calling is for all human beings, not just the select or the powerful or the wealthy or the good and pure – but for all, especially tax collectors and sinners; and he has gone out of his way to love, heal, reach out to, care for and feed those who are on the margins, those who are poor and sick and are needy, those in questionable relationships, those who the rest of society thinks are loosers and leeches and sinners.  That is who Jesus cares for and serves! And that is who Jesus keeps pushing the disciples to open their eyes to see.  And before I go any further – please note – when Mark talks about disciples he is not just talking about the 12 – he is talking about all of the disciples of Jesus, through every age: the community of believers down through the ages even to including us here in Steeleville.  We are the ones who are the disciples and the crowd around Jesus who want Jesus to focus on us; on power and glory; who are interested only in our own relationship with Jesus, and who would at the same time like to shut out the cries of those who are hungry, those who are sick, those who are hurting, poor and on the margins.  They are loosers! They are leeches! Jesus has more important people to see and things to do!
Well, perhaps not.  “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks the beggar, Bartimaeus?  Recognize the question?  Jesus just asked James and John the same question, using the very same words.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  For James and John, it was we want to share in the power and glory of God.  For Bartimaeus it is, “Open my eyes so I can see again!”  And what does Jesus do?  Nothing!  He does nothing.  He simply affirms that this man, because of his faith, can already see clearly.  Much more clearly in fact than the disciples and crowd whose vision is clouded by their own preconceptions, prejudices and priorities.  “Go, your faith has made you well.” “Go, you can already see, for faith has opened your eyes!”  And the Gospel tells us that immediately this man then follows Jesus on The Way – which was the name for the early Christian community.
So what do you want Jesus to do for you?  Do you have a long list?  Would you also like to share in Jesus’ power and glory?  Would you like Jesus to make you comfortable and wealthy and worry-free?  Would you like Jesus to affirm your prejudices and priorities? If so, we are in danger of beginning to sound like that praying Pharisee from Luke’s parable: “Thank you God, that I am not like those others folks, the poor, the sick, the hungry, those who I think are immoral, those who’s relationships I don’t approve of, those who are different from me.”  Is that what we want from Jesus? From our church? From our religion?  Affirm me!  Judge everyone else!  Affirm me!
Maybe it is the election season – I don’t know – but it seems to me that here lately in all kinds of contexts – not just politics – there seems to be more and more judgment going on.  Good Christian folk seem way too quick to judge – this person, this group of people doesn’t believe the right things, they are too poor so they are on the take, they are in the wrong kind of relationships, they are sinners, they are evil – I hate those people!  Yes, I have heard the “h” word spoken and not just on TV.  How can any Christian dare to use this word?  Here are echoes of the disciples and the crowd, looking out for number #1 – “Can we sit at your right and left hand? – And many sternly ordered him to be quiet.”
There is another way.  Bartimaeus is showing us a different way and prompting from us a different prayer:  “Let me see again.”  Perhaps, we could ask God to open the eyes of our faith, and with Bartimaeus to ask Jesus to let us see again; to let me see the neighbor in the one who is different from me; to let me see my own calling to service as I encounter those who are sick, or hungry or poor, or struggling; to let me see that I have this responsibility as a Christian and a follower of Jesus on the Way!  This is not pablum friends – this is the Gospel of Jesus!  We are called to serve.  Jesus says in verse 45 – “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”  And guess what, this is what our calling is as well; for we are called to join Bartimaeus following Jesus on The Way towards the cross, and towards resurrection.
Take a minute here and do this exercise with me.  You can close your eyes if you want.
Bring up in your mind a person or group of people who you hate, or let’s say dislike intensely.
Now – bring to your mind the reason you feel this way.  Why?
Now – keeping all this in mind – here is what the Gospel says to you today – these are the folks you are to find a way to serve!
What ways can you find to serve these folks who are so different from you, and whose values you reject?  Jesus doesn’t say you have to like them – or agree – but Jesus does say you have to serve them.  That means to me, to not put them down, not speak badly of them but to give them the benefit of the doubt, to provide for their basic needs as best you can.  These are some ways.  So – who are they and how are you going to do this?  Our Lord came to serve and has called us to serve. Our Lord offers us sight, but with it comes responsibility and service.
The Gospel is inviting you to join Bartimaeus on The Way -  to take a step towards service – towards fulfilling the great commandment.  Our gospel today is inviting you to take a step; to spring up, throw off your cloak and run to Jesus
Jesus’ disciples were blinded by their preconceived notions, and this kept them from being open to really being able to experience God’s grace – instead it kept them firmly rooted in judgment and law and in self-centeredness.  And this is true with us as well – every time we judge, every time we use that “h” word, or dismiss another group of human beings we bind ourselves tighter with the knots of the law and judgment, every time we turn our back on another human being we tie the knots tighter and tighter and in so doing we judge ourselves.  But, every time we take a step towards service and reach out to another in faith and in Christ’s love – esp the other who is so different than we are – then our bonds are loosened and we move towards freedom and healing and wholeness – we move towards grace – we move towards God’s love.
What do you want me to do for you?  Lord, let me see again!”

"Jesus Heals Bartimeaus" by Nicholas Poussin 1650

Friday, October 19, 2012

Blest to Be a Blessing

Blessed to be a Blessing!
What does it mean to be a blessing?  For that matter what does it mean to receive a blessing? These are not easy questions to come up with a simple answer for.  We can all probably can tell when we are being blessed, most of the time.  In church during worship we experience a series of blessings: we are blessed during the absolution of our sins after the confession; we are blessed through the singing and the prayers; we are blessed when we reach out to greet one another during the sharing of the peace; we are blessed in the words of the closing benediction as we are being sent forth.  Most profoundly we are blessed as we participate in the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, as we re-affirm our baptism and in the taking of bread and wine in the Sacrament of Holy Communion.  So, what is a blessing?  One simple answer to this is that it is an experience of God’s presence; it is a moment when we sense God’s promises coming to fulfillment in our lives; it is a moment when we accept God’s commitment to us and we affirm that commitment in some way.
In Holy Baptism the candidate for baptism (or his/her parents) are asked to make a series of promises: to bring the child to worship and see that the child becomes an active part of the faith community, to see that the child gets immersed in the Holy Bible, to teach the child to be able to recite by heart the Lord’s Prayer, the Creed and the 10 Commandments and to be a model of Christian faith for the child.  The parents, sponsors and congregation are asked to affirm these promises with the words – I DO.  And in that affirmation the child is blessed through us; and we are blessed through the making and affirming these promises.  And as we all continue to grow in the Lord throughout our lives, we get to experience the many times when this child begins to accept and acknowledge his/her faith and in that we experience God’s blessings.  So too in our affirmation of baptism, making the sign of the cross, dipping ones fingers into the water of the font, confirmation, marriage and even at funerals, we are reminded of God’s promises, of our promises in response and we experience God’s love and commitment to us.
A couple things to be said about blessing: 1. God creates through blessing!  Genesis 1 gives us a series of blessings as God calls life into being, names it and pronounces it good.  When we experience failure or loss, when it feels as though things are broken, God’s blessings brings forth new life.  Which leads to points #2 and #3: Blessings are leaky and Blessings are stubborn.  Think of a blessing from God like blue dye, it is hard to wash it off!  For God’s blessings stick to us and color us and define us.  And not only that, but God’s blessings are leaky, they have this tendency to affect everyone in the vicinity.  When we as a community experience and observe (for example) the blessing of children at baptism, students at confirmation, couples in marriage, and the blessed dead in funerals, the blessings pronounced and experienced might be aimed at specific individuals, but they splash on to us as well.  And we can leave a wedding with a sense of joy and renewed commitment to our own marriage; or we can leave a funeral with a sense of peace and assurance of God’s victory over the powers of sin and death.  Blessings create; Blessings are leaky; Blessings are stubborn.
For the remained of the fall, I invite you to think and pray about blessings.  During worship we have been including some extra blessings – the Blessing of the Backpacks (Sept. 9); the blessing of teachers and students; the blessing of safety and emergency workers (police, fire, prison guards and EMT) on St. Michael’s Day (Sept. 29/30); the blessing of the animals for St. Francis day (October 7).  Perhaps you might like to experience a personal liturgy of blessing.  Our worship book provides for Individual confession and absolution, the blessing of a home, the blessing and anointing of the sick, among others.  From these experiences, I hope that you will recognize that as you experience, observe or receive a blessing you are called to be a blessing for others – to allow the blessings you receive to leak and affect others.  We are called to be Christians round the clock 24/7.  So how are you a blessing? How are you an experience of God’s presence in your everyday lives?
May God bless you now and always!  SBD+
I attended the Liturgical Institute Conference held at Valparaiso University last April and the theme was Blessing.  This article is a reflection on many of the ideas and speakers which were presented at the conference.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Christians and Politics

In case you haven’t noticed we have entered into the final days of the political season.  This means that everywhere you go you see signs in lawns and that no matter what TV show you watch you have to contend with all kinds of political advertising – most of it mean-spirited and most of it lacking in factual veracity. We are being bombarded and it is almost impossible to escape.  This inevitably leads to the question about whether Christians should participate at all in this political process and, if so, in what ways.  If you look over the landscape of American Christianity you get a wide variety of responses to those questions.  At one edge of the spectrum there are those who want to usher in God’s Kingdom through the electoral process and so support candidates and positions which they believe will bring them closer to achieving this goal.  On the other edge there are those who completely remove themselves from the political process branding it as too worldly and sinful for Christians to participate in.  And then there is every sort of variation of these positions in between.
Lutheran Christians, inspired by Luther’s doctrine of the Two Kingdoms, have historically taken a middle road between these two extremes.  The problem with The Two Kingdoms doctrine is that it is easily misunderstood and misrepresented. The name itself suggests a separation, which is misleading. Another difficulty with Luther’s Two Kingdom’s doctrine is that it is really rooted in the political structure of early 16th century Germany, whose realities are very remote from our own.  Even so, there are a couple points that are still very relevant to our own times and might be helpful for Christians to keep in mind as they consider their participation in the political process in November.
First – Christ is Lord of both the Civil Kingdom and the Kingdom of God, and we as Christians are citizen of both Kingdoms. These Kingdoms are inter-connected, they are not completely separate from each other.  In other words, our values and priorities as Christians should inform our participation in civil society.  But at the same time we must recognize that they are separate realms that cannot become one and the same thing.  It is similar to Luther’s doctrine of Law and Gospel.  Law informs Gospel.  Without the law we do not recognize our need for the Gospel.  Law alone is judgment; Gospel alone is cheap grace; together they point to the costly grace of the cross.  We, as citizens of both Kingdoms, have responsibilities in both realms.
Second – We live in a fallen world where the Kingdom of God has not yet come in its fullness.  It is up to the God to bring into being the Kingdom of God.  It is not up to us.  We are not called to establish God’s Kingdom on earth.  Those times in history when groups have attempted this have all ended badly.  Our calling is rather to be faithful and diligent servants of Christ living in this fallen world, which is governed by civil authority.  This means we are subject to the laws of the land, and that we are to participate fully in politics, and in every way to be good citizens.
How does this translate then into representative democracy, an institution that Luther never knew or experienced.  I would suggest these conclusions: 1. The political process, that is a part of the civil kingdom is a secular process. Therefore we do not vote on the basis of a candidate’s Christian convictions or denomination.  In fact, to do so would put us in the position of judge and we have no right to judge another’s relationship with God. Therefore, 2. The important thing to ask oneself is not the popular – Am I better off with this candidate or that candidate?  But the pertinent question is this: Is my neighbor better off?  Which candidate or party’s position will benefit the largest number of citizens?  Which candidate or party will make care for the poor, the hungry and the sick the higher priority? We cannot flourish and grow as a nation if there are segments of the population that are suffering.  We cannot simply turn our backs and ignore those who are in need. We have an obligation, as Christians, to make care of neighbor our number #1 priority. Which party or candidate understands that we, as a society, are a large interconnected community, not a collection of self-centered individuals.
Lastly, as Christians we must take a stand against the idea that selfishness is a virtue and that compassion is a sign of weakness.  Both of these views are being articulated more and more and both of them run completely counter to the teachings of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is Jesus who every time he encounters one who is in need is wracked with compassion; it is Jesus who in the one time when he talks about judgment on the day when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness lifts up – not strength, not power, not moral purity - but care for the neighbor.  (See Matthew 25:31ff).
So, finally it comes down to you as a Christian citizen of the Kingdom, and as a responsible citizen of the Civil Kingdom. There is not a right or wrong candidate or party; there is not a more “Christian” candidate or party.  All candidates and parties are a part of the Civil Kingdom.  And so we then have to determine which to support based on our convictions that God has called for us to have compassion for and reach out to physically care for others.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Reflections on the text: Hebrews 1:1

Knowing and Speaking
Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by the Son...  (Hebrews 1:1)
            We are a very verbal society, we talk and explain and discuss everything.  This reflects the fact that we have become a very intellectual society.  Reason and comprehension often drive our actions and decisions, our relationships and decision-making. We seek to understand everything and the drive for knowledge and comprehension, the lifting up of reason, which has been a part of the Western experience since the 18th century Enlightenment, is in many ways a good thing.  It has led to great discoveries in science and breakthroughs in, for example, medicine.  This has led to the space program and the development of computers and the internet.  Of course the dark side of all of it is that it has also led to more and more sophisticated and lethal weapons.
In the area of faith this emphasis on reason and logic, on knowing and explaining is more of a mixed blessing.  Many of our friends and neighbors have, on the basis of their own reason and understanding determined that God is not logical and have opted either for out and out atheism, or usually more often for disinterest. Many do not see the value of faith or of being a part of a faith community mostly because for many of them it doesn’t make logical sense and they have not had an experience of the Holy to build on.  (This is one reason why it is so important to bring children to worship from their youngest years – so they can begin to experience worship, experience a faith community in worship, experience Christ present and in our midst.) 
Now, there is nothing wrong with seeking to know about God.  I, myself, consider myself to be seeker and a bit of a scholar and I prize learning.  But there comes a point at which we must be willing to accept and admit that there are some things that are unknowable, and simply not understandable about God.  If God is God, then we humans, no matter how smart we are and how deep we dig, will never be able to answer all of the questions of the universe.  And I would suggest that this is what the book of Hebrews is suggesting in the very first verse of the text.  God is beyond us, unfathomable and there are times when we have to be able to say, “yes Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief!”  There are times when we must allow ourselves to quiet our minds and just experience God’s presence.
In the opening statement of what many feel is actually a sermon, the preacher in Hebrews talks about speaking.  “God spoke… by the prophets… now, God has spoken by the Son.”  I suspect that when you hear these words many of you immediately think of words: God spoke words by the prophets, God has spoken words by the Son.”  I want to suggest that this text is not about words.  When God speaks things happen and the line between words and actions gets blurred.  Think of the opening of Genesis: God creates and the poet in Genesis 1 describes this in terms of speaking – God says “become” and “it is!”  When asked for a name, God tells Moses that God’s name is being itself.  God is a God that IS!  A God that just doesn’t lecture or preach, but a God that acts and accomplishes!  We have a lot of words from the prophets but the prophets of Israel were much more than words as well.  Elijah defeated the priests of Baal through action, Jeremiah purchases a property as a sign or action of hope and promise just at the point when the Babylonians are breaking down the gates to destroy the nation and life was falling apart.
And St. John tells us that Jesus, the Son of God, is the Word made flesh!  God is not sending only words.  God acts out of love and grace by becoming human, by loving, healing, caring, dying and rising! These are actions.  God is a God of action!  And God’s greatest action is living and dying and rising through a person – God incarnate – whom we know as Jesus.  It is God, through Jesus, who opens his arms to us to invite us to live in him.
But what is our tendency? It is to replace experience with comprehension.  To spend a lot of words trying to explain our faith in ways that would be understandable to skeptical 21st century men and women. So we hear about people going to great lengths and effort to explain, and explain, and explain.  All those confusing parts of the bible, all those parts that don’t seem to jive with modern science, all those parts that seem to be contradictory, well we feel we have to come up with explanations.  We cannot stand the ambiguity and so, too often we miss the main point because we are too distracted by these kinds of details.
The other difficulty of all this intellectualizing is that we end up turning Jesus into a great moral teacher and Jesus’ words then become a new law.  The passage in our Gospel this morning is an example.  Jesus has some harsh words about divorce and if you extract these words from the context of both the Gospel story and of Jesus’ own society then these words become a very harsh new law indeed.  And many do just that and use these words and other passages to condemn and judge.  But when we put this text back into its context in the Gospel, and set it also within the experiences that we ourselves have had with the love and grace and forgiveness of God through Jesus, then this passage takes on a very different meaning.  While divorce is a sign of our sin and our fallen-ness, the resurrection of Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness and acceptance.  Not only that, but we also have the promise and experience of Jesus entering into the pain of loss and suffering, including the pain and suffering which comes as a result of divorce.  Our faith is an experience; it is a relationship.  It cannot be completely explained or understood; it is not always reasonable or logical.  It is grounded in the experience of God’s love and grace that reaches out to us, to lift us up, to love us and forgive us and give to us new life.
So, here I am using words to try to explain the unexplainable: Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by the Son...  How have you heard God speaking to you? How have you experienced God’s love and grace and forgiveness and acceptance?  Have you ever wondered why worship is primarily actions: bathing with water, signing the cross, prayer, reaching out to greet another in Christian love, sharing bread and wine.  The words we do share are primarily texts from Scripture, and the sermon seeks to open up scripture so that we might see and understand a little more.  But it is all surrounded by action; action which reminds us of that we are loved and forgiven and treasured by the God who became enfleshed in the Word,  and who then empowers us to act in the world in ways that reflect God’s love and grace. 

"The Road to Emmaus" by HeQi - My favorite story from the Gospel and a story that is emblematic of the point I was making above.  Talk, talk, talk and no recognition - but recognition comes in the breaking of the bread.  Same with us!