Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Point of no return

Mark 10: 46-52
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 25, 2015 – Reformation Sunday

        The cries of Bartimaeus in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark could be the cries of the homeless, those not paid a living wage, people with no healthcare coverage, the disabled living on a Social Security check:  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Bartimaeus was blind and thus, he had to beg for his living.  He had to rely on the mercy of strangers in order to have some money to live on.

Beggary was a life one was consigned to.  There was no hope of any other kind of life, for even if one was healed by some miracle, there was no other occupation to fall back on, no other way to earn a living.  Even though beggary is not enviable, in Jesus’ time it was a just-barely sustainable lifestyle, because observant Jews were obligated to be generous to those who were less fortunate, what we now call noblesse oblige.  Bartimaeus could trust that on any given day a few coins would land on his cloak, enough to keep him from starving.  So though his income was meager, it was also a steady stream he could depend on. 

Yet when he hears that Jesus is passing through town (we can assume that being on a public road he must have heard the scuttlebutt coming out of Jericho), Bartimaeus is willing to give up what is familiar to him for a life lived in the unknown.  He tosses off his cloak, his means of collecting the alms given him, with abandon, before he is even healed.  More than a story of healing, this is a story of call: Jesus’ call to servanthood and one poor beggar’s response.

Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Here, Bartimaeus makes use of and trusts with his life the highest form of noblesse oblige.  When a king passes by in procession and a subject cries out for mercy, the king, by virtue of his nobility, is obliged to stop the procession and attend to the needs of that subject.  The title “Son of David”, used for here for the first time in Mark’s gospel, reveals that Bartimaeus not only recognizes Jesus’ kingship but that he is also the Promised One, the Messiah who would bring about a new world order, both spiritually and politically.

Yet notice how this title is used.  First, there is the contrast between “son of Timaeus” and “Son of David”; the Son of David, this king, this messiah came for those humble ones such as Bartimaeus.  And then there is the timing of this title.  Mark places this call story right before Jesus is to enter Jerusalem for the last time.  Jesus has reached his point of no return.  This new world order will come about not by a coronation or by a violent revolution but by an innocent man being put to death.  And this is when Bartimaeus decides he is ready to give up his meager but safe existence for the Way of Jesus, that way that leads to the cross.  And not only that, but joyfully so.

from Rev. Brian Blogs

And then there’s the name Bartimaeus itself.  The author of Mark sounds like he’s repeating himself by saying “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus”.  If you know anything about Hebrew, you know that the word “bar” means “son of”.  Literally it should read “Son of Timaeus, son of Timaeus.”  It’s as if he doesn’t have a name of his own.  If we go a little deeper into the language, there is a choice to be made in the translation. 

Timaeus can mean either something highly prized or something that is unclean, depending on whether Greek or Hebrew is used for the root word of the name.  Bartimaeus is either the son of something highly prized or the son of something unclean.  Or is it both?  Something or someone who is unclean, unworthy needs to be reclaimed as something, someone highly prized.  Eyes wide open.  Right on the road to doom.

Bartimaeus is in it for the long haul, rather than the short term gain.  It’s the bottom of the 9th, 13-0, the Cubs’ last game of the season, and he begs the coach to put him in.  He’s getting on the train right before the wreck.  He’s the last one to get into an overcrowded boat of Syrian refugees.  He’s the last disciple to join the throng the last week of Jesus’ life.  With his eyes wide open.

Bartimaeus is on the event horizon of a black hole, at his own point of no return.  He has no idea what lies ahead of him, but the science is looking pretty grim.  All signs point to certain destruction.  And yet he signs on anyway.  With his eyes wide open.  And an alleluia on his lips.  Because he’s in it for the long haul.  Because he wants to see how it comes out on the other side.

By all appearances, Jesus looks as though he has failed in his mission, that he is headed for the poop storm of the century.  He has failed in the eyes of those who expected a messiah who would come in glory, who would overthrow the Romans, and violently so, who would reestablish the Davidic dynasty and give justice to God’s people.  Instead, faithful to his mission of compassion, forgiveness, restorative justice, and unconditional love, Jesus continued to walk a road that would inevitably lead to his death.  Jesus is the messiah of transformed lives—transformation that comes by way of suffering and the cross.

Sooner or later the way of the cross confronts us all, whether it’s our health—spiritual, physical, or mental—or our aging bodies or our families or a friend or a broken relationship or the loss of a job or we’ve hit bottom or the bottom drops out.  Or someone needs our help or a whole bunch of someones.  Or #BlackLivesMatter and white privilege.  Or climate change.  By all appearances we’re headed for the poop storm of our lives.  The science isn’t looking good.  It’s the bottom of the 9th and we’re on the losing side.  We cry out, “Have mercy!”  And Jesus stops what he’s doing, opens our eyes, and keeps going.

Where in our lives and in our life together do we need our eyes wide open?  Are we in it for the long haul?  Are we ready to toss off our cloak of meager subsistence so we can have it all at resurrection?  Is there an alleluia poised on our lips?  Have we reached our point of no return?  What would it look like for us to have a changed life?  Why are we waiting?  Let’s get on board.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

A holy disruption

Mark 10: 32-45 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
October 18, 2015

            A spiritual discipline that I have struggled to apply over the years of my adulthood, especially as a pastor and mother, is the acceptance of disruptions. A disruption is any change in the status quo. It can be welcome or unwelcome, expected or unexpected. Many a time I have welcomed a disruption, even planned for a few of them, such as moving here from Connecticut, resigning from full-time ministry, and picking it up again. Some of these planned disruptions of ‘the way things are’ were of the most positive kind, like getting married or having children or returning to work, yet each also came with its own challenges as well.

            Most of the time I try to welcome disruptions into my status quo.  Erma Bombeck once said that we have to learn the difference between a lump in the oatmeal and a lump in the breast—most disruptions are a lump in the oatmeal.  And usually they are an opening for ministry.

            In fact, ministry is comprised mainly of disruptions to the status quo, the way things are in our lives.  Someone loses a job or needs some help paying the bills or is homeless or hungry or just moved into town or was in an accident or has just quit smoking or is in recovery or needs to be in recovery or received disturbing news from a lab report or a relationship has ended or a loved one or friend has passed away—and they need to talk, they need community, they need help. 

            Jesus lived his life in service to disruption.  Often he would try to get away by himself and pray but more often than not, folks who were sick or hurting or lonely would find him, and Jesus would give them what they needed most: healing, forgiveness, love, and a changed life.

            In this morning’s scripture lesson Jesus and the disciples are headed for the biggest, most traumatic disruption of their life together.  For the third time Jesus has told his closest friends what will happen to him when they reach Jerusalem.  He goes into great detail—betrayal, torture, then death, and at the last, resurrection. 

            Two of the disciples, James and John, have the strangest reaction to this disruption, this oncoming train wreck:  they ask to be at the right and left of Jesus when he comes into his glory.  The author of Mark does nothing to gloss over their request or to make them appear less connected to this impudent demand, as does Matthew by having their mother ask Jesus for them.  Mark presents the disciples as very human.  It would not be the last time that when a leader’s death or leave-taking is imminent, even one as beloved as Jesus, someone would make a power grab.  This does not beg for judgment but rather understanding.  By asking for seats of glory, they betray their fear at losing Jesus and the uncertain future of this intimate community from which they have received a new life.

            Nevertheless, Jesus is as cool as a cucumber.  As the ultimate transition man, he exudes an ideal non-anxious presence.  He does not judge them for asking something from him, even as he is about to enter the city where he will meet his death.  He gently responds to the ignorance that is masking their fear, as though they are young students lacking certain life experience.

            What the disciples do not understand is that disruptions can also be deep sources of transformation, especially the ones that cause a great deal of pain.  Like birth and death, painful disruptions have within them the gift of transformation, of birthing us from one life into another.  It is how we lean into these disruptions and the pain that comes with them that determines what shape this transformed, changed life will take.

            Jesus warns James and John that indeed they will drink from the same cup and share the same baptism, but who will be at his right and his left has already been prepared.  I have often wondered if the two thieves who were crucified on the right and left side of Jesus were representative of these two disciples, showing us the truth that on the path to glory there is no escaping pain and disruption, but that there is also transformation of the highest order.

            You’d think that if the other disciples were listening in, they would have heard Jesus’ warning and heeded it, but no.  Thankfully these other disciples are just as wonderfully human as we are.  They become angry at James and John, perhaps because they made the request before any of the rest of them could.

            Jesus then reminds them of the worldly powers that be, that there is a certain pecking order to be observed and obeyed, but as usual with Jesus, it is turned upside down.  Eugene Peterson puts it this way in his paraphrase The Message:  “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” Jesus said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not to be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for many who are held hostage.”  And in so doing, Jesus has set the disciples and us free from any humiliation from the powers that be, by commanding that we be humble instead, by living as servants and slaves.

            Servanthood is a life lived in the service of disruption.  The master calls, the servant responds, disrupting whatever task or chore they were currently doing or few minutes of peace they were enjoying.  The servant is willing to disrupt his or her life for the sake of the master.

            A few years ago I was a part of a group of clergy friends who met for spiritual nourishment.  Each month we would take turns leading the group through a discussion, some prayer and singing, and sharing Communion.  One particular occasion we shared Communion quite differently.  We were instructed to take a sizeable chunk of bread and then to feed each member of the group with a small morsel of it, saying each person’s name with the words “I am willing to disrupt my life for you.”  Communion reminds us that Jesus was willing to disrupt his life, even lay down his life, for friends.

We can’t live a life with Jesus and think we’ll remain the same as we’ve always been.  We can’t be the Body of Christ and not change, not be transformed.

I’ve said once, I’ll say it a hundred times:  a life with Jesus is no rose garden.  The only thing we’re truly promised is that Jesus will be with us to the end of the age; that God will unconditionally love and forgive us; that the Holy Spirit will continue to comfort and agitate, inspire and afflict us.  There are no guarantees that we’ll be successful at this thing called community.

I’ve shared with you before this quote by one of my favorite authors, Samir Selmanovic.  He grew up in what was Yugoslavia, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother.  He was raised culturally Muslim but as for religion he was raised as an atheist.  At 18 he began his compulsory service in the army and it was through a friendship there that he converted to Christianity.  His family disowned him, throwing him out of the house, and it was years later before he was able to reconcile with them.  He is now a Christian pastor and the founder of an interfaith community called Faith House Manhattan.  He says this about what is promised in following Jesus:

“Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him…to summarize his selling point: ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be empowered—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not. If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life. Follow me nevertheless. Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’”

Love is a holy disruption.  Grace given freely to all is holy disruption.  God’s generosity is a holy disruption.  #OccupyWallStreet, #BlackLivesMatter, street protests of any kind are holy disruptions.  Injustice is a holy disruption.  God’s justice rather than human fairness is a holy disruption.  God’s mercy rather than human merit is a holy disruption. 

When was the last time the Church, this church was a disruptor of the status quo?  Where are we bugged, irritated, frustrated, pained, provoked?  Could that be the gospel disrupting our status quo to get our attention?  And if the gospel isn’t disturbing our status quo, what are we not paying attention to?

How willing are we to disrupt our lives for each other, disrupt our life together for the sake of our communities, for the sake of the gospel?  Are we sure we want to be a servant and a slave of all?  Are we ready to learn to love well?  Do the words of Jesus challenge us, provoke us?  His words were intended to poke holes in our arguments, our resistance, in our status quo, to change our lives and our life together.  For through those holes, through those holy disruptions will come shafts of light, to illumine our way to true servanthood, to glory, to transformation.  Thanks be to God.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lighten up!

Mark 10: 17-31
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
October 11, 2015

            Last week in Adult Ed., Rabbi Peter Grumbacher shared with us a Jewish method of scriptural interpretation called midrash. He described it as putting flesh on dry bones. One of the passages we looked at was in Genesis: the story of God calling Abram to leave his country, his family, and his father’s house to go where God would lead him. God called Abram to leave behind the foundations of his life, everything that gave him his identity. From my perspective, God wanted Abram to call upon God as country, kindred, and father’s house. God would now be the foundation of Abram’s life, that which supplied Abram’s identity, for it was then after that he was known as Abraham, the father of many.

            Funny thing was, Abraham didn’t go alone.  Of course, he took his wife Sarai, now Sarah, but also his brother’s son, Lot, all the possessions they had gathered, which would include livestock, and all the persons they had acquired, that is, slaves.  Though he did all God asked of him, he still had many possessions to take on this long journey with God.

            The story from the gospel of Mark sounds like putting flesh on the dry bones of the story of Abraham, of Jesus going deeper into what it means to be called by God on a journey of eternal, that is, abundant life.  It’s as if God has invited this young man on a camping trip. He’s read the guidebook, he’s followed the map; he’s prepared for this journey since he was a Boy Scout.

            But instead of being light on his feet, he’s pulled up in his shiny, two-ton pickup with his state-of-the-art travel trailer, tricked out with an electric fireplace, flatscreen TV, and microwave oven.  And yet Jesus doesn’t judge him for this.  There’s no rebuking, no finger-wagging, no questions asked.  Rather, Jesus looks at him, really looks at him, and loves him.  This rich young man is prepared for every eventuality, he has everything he needs for what may come, and yet he’s still seeking what it means to have an abundant life.  What more must he do?  Instead he hears Jesus tell him that he lacks only one thing.

            And in my mind’s eye I see Jesus looking like Jack Palance as Curly in the movie “City Slickers”.  “You know what the secret of life is?  One thing.  Just one thing.  You stick to that, and everything else don’t mean squat.”

            Earlier this week I asked the same question in a different way on my Facebook page:  “What's one thing you need to let go of to be a free, alive, joyful human being?”  I got over 40 responses, from college friends to seminary classmates, from colleagues to church folks here and far, from friends and family.  No smokescreens, no beating around the bush.  The honesty was searing.  People were seeking just as much as that rich young man.  Many of us had a guidebook of some sort.  Some of us had a map laid out for our lives; some of us got lost along the way, but we all had and have friends and support systems of some kind to help us through.  And yet inside all of us is this gnawing feeling that prevents us from leading a free, alive, joyful human life.

            Here’s what was said:  the words “should have”; comparison; fear; hate; the past; control; guilt; doubt; greed; ego; expectations; perfectionism; shame; the belief that I can do it all—or even should; grudges; other people’s standards; regret; blaming oneself and others; helplessness at the world’s problems; distractions; overthinking; always being in control of one’s feelings; prejudice of any kind; judgment of self and others; fear of the unknown; the feeling of not being good enough; and most of all, worry.

            Jesus lovingly confronted the rich young man because of his many possessions, but in our time we know that one of the main reasons we are burdened with so many possessions is so that we not feel this gnawing feeling of worry, guilt, fear, regret, shame; so we feel like we have some measure of control, prepared for any eventuality, so we have what looks like an abundant life.  


            It all comes back to the foundations of our life, what gives us our identity, that which tells us who we are.  It’s not what’s in our bank account or our education or where we live or what we’ve achieved; if we’re the perfect friend, partner, child, parent, employee, leader, church person.  

            We can let go of all these things, all our worries, fears, regrets, the past we can’t change, the future we can’t know, because each of us is a child of God: beloved, precious, one of a kind.  And if you don’t believe in God, you are a child of this universe, made of star stuff, beloved, precious, one of a kind.  As the good doctor once said, “Today you are You, that is truer than true.  There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

            What can be difficult some days is to remember it’s true not only for ourselves but for everyone else too.  Everyone is struggling with at least a burden or two but probably more.  Everyone is beloved, precious, one of a kind.  We all want to be free, alive, and joyful.  We all carry that gnawing feeling.

And it’s not just individuals.  It’s families and schools and churches and synagogues and temples and mosques.  It’s communities and workplaces and governments and nations.  We grab and claw, hurt and destroy, bicker and complain, murder and kill.  We don’t take the guidebook—the Bible, the Torah, the Qur’an, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—as seriously as we need to.  We want to build more walls on the map.  We’re defunding our support systems.  We allow all this to dictate when we will feel free, alive, joyful, which is nowhere nearly as often as what the gospel calls eternal life.  Which always begins right  now.

We were created, all of us, all of this earth, for praise, delight, and joy; 

           to enjoy what it means to be human; 

           to grow through the struggle, to raise our voices when needed and help others as best as we can; 

           to lean into the mess of life and learn to love it—and to forgive when we can’t; to appreciate beauty wherever we can find it; 

           to travel lightly, to let go of that which burdens so that our hands are free to give and to receive; 

           to count it all as blessing.  For in this way, what we think comes first, is last, and what we leave for last, becomes first.  Amen.

"Freedom" by Zenos Frudakis, Philadelphia, PA