Tuesday, October 30, 2012

That All May See

Scripture for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

All these Gospel stories we hear resemble pearls on a string. We slide them off, one by one, to notice each one’s particular shape and color and weight and size, but they belong together. And they belong to us. Together, we appreciate them better. I mean that in two ways: taken in context, paying attention to how a stories fit the larger scheme of the Gospel, there’s more to value in any one story. Heard and appraised together in community, we hear how they address the believer (and the skeptic), the community of faith (and the wider world).

So on the far side of today’s portion, the future, the very next scene in Mark is Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the story of Palm Sunday, the drama of what happens to Jesus when he completes his public ministry of speaking truth to power, and what happens then when God turns the table on Jesus’s executioners and proves his love to be stronger than death.

And on the near side of today’s passage, what just passed, we recall last Sunday’s pathetic pitch by James and John, sons of Zebedee (Sons of Thunder as they are remembered), who asked Jesus to let them sit with him in glory, his left-hand and right-hand men ruling the kingdom of God… his very own Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

That was a request Jesus could not fulfill. It just didn’t fit his mission, which is God’s will getting done on earth as it is in heaven. The best he could make of this embarrassing moment in the company of the twelve disciples was to hold it up as a good example of how leadership is not to be exercised in the community of faith. Whoever would be great must be servant of all.

And here today we have Mark’s final example of how Jesus fulfilled that leadership model. Servant of all means stopping dead in your tracks to let someone else’s life matter more to you than whatever you had your mind set on in that moment. Jesus had set his mind on Jerusalem, on the final outcome of his mission, only to notice the insistent voice of someone calling out to him from the crowd. And what Jesus hears when he calls this man over to him is a request that he can fulfill, because it is spot-on his own vision. He expressed that himself back at the start of his public ministry, when at his very first appearance, at his hometown congregation in Nazareth, he read from the prophet Isaiah in a way that everyone knew meant he would fulfill the words on the scroll, for he was himself the Word made flesh. Here is what he read.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In the course of his two-to-three year journey through cities, villages, and wilderness, Jesus is remembered as having two characteristic passions. One I have already mentioned, his speaking truth to power, fearlessly rattling the cages of sacred cows and secular authorities, to assert the rights of the poor and the discarded, to teach a standard of justice that continues to our day inspiring relief and advocacy for undocumented workers, drawing marginalized people to the very center of the community’s life, applying the community’s resources to the healing of people in body, mind, and spirit.

How he does those things shows us his second characteristic passion: He fulfills his mission person by person, one to one and one by one. Members of Congress provide constituent services. Millennia before, we see Jesus developing this into an art form, and not just for people from his native Galilee and his covenant people Israel; he gives his love away to anyone who wants it.

What happens when he does? Today’s story tells us. On the face of it, this is the report of a physical healing. Jesus restores a certain power this man had lost, the ability to see. This is a power we take for granted until our having it is threatened by injury or disease.

His blindness had cost him a livelihood: he was a beggar. Is it a chorus from the crowd or some of the disciples who try to hush him, sternly ordering him to be quiet (in one translation)? Whoever that was, in their world beggars had no rights: they were at the far margin of society, not its center. But suddenly he is at the center, there with Jesus, who has asked for him.

Is it our stereotype that we expect a blind person to slowly, deliberately, cautiously inch his way along? This man throws off his cloak, springs to his feet, and comes confidently to where Jesus stands.

Doesn’t Jesus know what this man wants? But no: he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” The man is a beggar: he may want money. If so, he may be out of luck. Jesus wasn’t known for carrying a wallet, you remember. Besides, the chemistry of this encounter requires the seeker to name exactly what he seeks. “Rabbi, I want to see.” Feel how these words come from this man’s deepest, most vulnerable place within him. It is from this interior font that his power of trust rises: “Your faith has saved and healed you.”

Instantly, his constantly dark night is torn open by sunlight, color, contrast, comprehension of how all things fit together, work together, make a fuller sense of themselves. We’re not told how this immediate illumination doesn’t blind him all over again, but the gift proves his resilience. And he responds not by thanking the doctor and going home, but by following Jesus on the way… on the way to his confrontation with untrustworthy powers of church and state, and with the treachery of one of his own disciples… all of which this liberated beggar may have gotten to see and perhaps comprehend from a front row seat.

Now, the story works its way on another level. There is seeing with the eyes, and there is seeing with recognition, seeing with imagination, seeing with the conscience, seeing with insight, seeing truth, seeing one’s duty, seeing how seemingly conflicting parts make up a dynamic whole, seeing the choices before us for what they really are, seeing God where God may be, seeing Jesus in the face of a discarded person, seeing the movement of the Spirit. Any of these could be what we would answer Jesus when he asks, “What can I do for you?”

And all of those ways of seeing play their part in our learning to serve. Without these dimensions of spiritual sight, our efforts to serve may be aimless, we may be flying blind.

I am not suggesting metaphorizing this story to be less than it is. I’m wondering what it came to mean to the early Church, that our ancestors kept telling it, relishing it, feeling that it applied to them, that it came together in their own experience. Together with the community of faith then and now, let’s make sure this story is appreciated for all it can be.

And that brings me to what all this has to do with Lucy and Sofia, whom we will baptize in just a few moments.

It is the responsibility of all of us in this room today—parents, Godparents, grandparents, relatives, friends, and very much congregation—to see, to see our duty and to see our opportunities, to ensure that these girls meet Jesus Christ and come to know him in his two characteristic passions. One is how he fulfills his mission person by person, one to one and one by one. The other is how he speaks truth to power.

Sofia and Lucy are about to experience Christ in the first of those two ways. His cross is soon to be signed on their foreheads. His Spirit is going to dwell within them. They will become members of his body, the church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God-- who does not wait for them to see how all this works, but takes the first step towards each of them, immersing each of them in love that is not earned but freely given.

And given so that each in time may have formed within her a faith, a hope, and a caring that express themselves in the servant love that Jesus calls great, the passion that shows itself person to person, that all the world may see.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

At the Holy Creative Center

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

In Mark’s Gospel we have two men seeking high office. One sees himself to the left of center, while the other places himself to the right. Neither says persuasively why he should be elevated to such a position of power, but they both expect it to be glorious and good for the kingdom of God if they are. And they picture that what they’ll be doing is a lot of is sitting in glory, in great authority, in places of honor, thrones, oval offices.

I wonder what today’s Bible readings could say to us, as we step into late fall 2012.

In his reply to James and John, whose nickname was Sons of Thunder, Jesus tells them that it’s not enough to want to win an election. It’s imperative to know what it is they’re asking for. Why do they want to sit with him in glory? What would they do with the authority they’re eager to wield? Wield it for what purposes?

And wherever do they get the notion that they will like it when they have gained such power as Jesus can give 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?”

How glibly they respond, “Oh, yes! Our whole lives, we’ve been preparing for this. Our family, advisors, and handlers all tell us it’s our destiny. We are James and John, sons of Zebedee, and we approve this message.”

It’s no accident that we’re also given today the voice of Job, a study in contrast to James and John. This portion comes near the end of Job’s long struggle with the unjustness of God, who has allowed many lifetimes’ worth of misfortune to befall this one good man. And Job has refused to relinquish his self-esteem, despite the clumsy coaching of his friends who assume he is somehow to blame for his own tragic losses, and the prompting of his overwhelmed wife who urges him to give up, to curse God and die.

If James and John could have stood in Job’s sandals and heard the Lord God of hosts speak of the infinite gulf between divine knowledge and the partial knowings that limit even the best mortal human being as he rises up and asks why things are as they are… why, James and John might, like Job, have ratcheted down their self-righteous expectation to get what they wanted.

After much more of this dramatic dressing-down by God, this sharp reminding of who is central to the universe and who is not, this putting Job in his place, when God has had the last word, the Book of Job will end with Job abasing himself before the Almighty. “I had heard of you,” he says to God, “by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

That is not an ending designed to please the modern hearer. We might want to consign it to the dustbin of unnecessarily dour piety. But it would be a shame to miss this point: God has honored Job’s longing for a day in court. God has climbed into the dock, to answer Job’s charge that God is profoundly unjust. For what other person in all the Hebrew Bible has God gone face to face? For Moses… and now for Job.

This ending tells us that for Job this is enough. He will not win this campaign debate by argument. He will not put down the Creator God who is central to the universe. He will not go farther down the hazardous road of making God his adversary when, in fact, God is the very ground for Job’s famous cry of hope, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth… then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.” (Job 19:25-27)

Job’s ending is a beginning of recognition that it is time for Job to shed the mighty chip he has had on his shoulder—understandably—since suffering so many losses. That feisty spirit has brought him as far as it can: face to face with the Inscrutable One who here reveals the desire to be known, the Magnum Mysterium who desires relationship.
We are given Job today to remind us of the virtues of humility, honesty, and repentance; and the roles these human powers play in creating responsible leadership.

James and John do not have these virtues, not yet. Notice how patient, how unrattled, how calmly Jesus responds to these two hot-headed, likely well-intentioned, disciples. None of the high-blown oratory of God’s challenge to Job, no trace of indignation, no rapping of knuckles. Jesus is pointblank but gentle: “You two just don’t get it, do you?” Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Do you suppose he means to evoke the same meaning of self-sacrificing servant love that he indelibly attaches to the cup of wine that he will share with them at the last supper? “This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins…”

And by holding up to them his own baptism by John the Baptist, when he through whom the worlds were made stood in line with hundreds of ordinary men and women to be immersed in the silty Jordan River, wasn’t that a public sign that he is one with us, bound to us, on our side (as Job would say); and wasn’t it precisely then that he was anointed, empowered, for his brief public ministry that forever would be remembered not for any lording over us, but for his serving us to make us servants of his?

Coming at the height (or is it the depth?) of a presidential campaign, these readings invite us to realize that every candidate for high office is a human being, just a human being. No candidate can be the center of our universe, nor even the center of our nation.

That center is a holy place, a crucible of creative leadership from which can come unification, progress, transformation—if the center is acknowledged to belong, not to a party or a president, but a nation, a diverse commonwealth of us, the people. Treated like a sanctuary, a place for repentance, reconciliation, honest amendment of life, and encounter with the transcendent, the center holds promise. The center is a place of grace.

No leader is the center of power and authority. A candidate who thinks he is will, once seated, find out otherwise. We place a leader near the center so that he or she will draw to the table all who are willing to work for the common good.

For either candidate to do that for us as president, he will, like Job, have to shed any major chip he has shouldered, repent of the role he and his party have played in desecrating the holy center, the creative center, of the people; and, in humility, demonstrate what it takes to respect and serve and lead from as near as he can get to that place of demanding and delicate balance.

For either candidate to do that for us as president, he will, like James and John, have to forego dreams of glory, in exchange for knowing certainly what he is asking of us, and what is required of him to become great—as a servant.

In a season when passions run high, these readings remind us that at the center of the Christian’s universe is the passion of Jesus Christ—his life, his death, his victory over death—and this passion beats with the pulse of new life. However we plan to vote on November 6th, whether to the left or the right of center, all Christians are centered in Christ, and we’ll do well to lay all our passions at the foot of his great passion, his indelible servant love for all people.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Eyes, Feet, Hands for God

Scripture for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost includes Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 9:20-22; James 5:13-20; Mark 9:38-50

Ah, yes. The amputation metaphors. “This collection of sayings is very difficult for Christians to hear,” writes one commentator. Do you think? Not to mention what non-Christians might make of it…

A Christian friend of mine made a perfect response to these verses. She lives with aphasia; speech is hard for her. Her response to these verses: Arrrghh! Seems entirely reasonable to me.

The commentator adds, Jesus’s audience would have had no difficulty recognizing the fact that he was speaking metaphorically and not literally. Which still leaves us challenged to figure out what Jesus is saying to us about our own discipleship.

His metaphors of body parts include sensory organs of perception and limbs of ambulation and outreach.

First, eyes. How often do we express disillusionment in words like, “Now I’ve seen it all!”? Jesus trains disciples to see by faith, to witness the worst with eyes that have seen the best-- evidence of resurrection-- and will keep looking for grace in every encounter. A popular blessing challenges us to see Jesus in every face we see.

Second, feet. A common word associated with faith is “walk”, as in walking the walk. By contrast, we often feel we’re walking in circles and running out of steam and, as James says today, wandering from the truth. By contrast, running the race that is set before us-- looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith-- has global positioning built into it, and walking the way of the cross is all about finding it to be the way of life. Pilgrimage is not aimless, both because it has a destination and because the journey itself is every bit as important as the arrival.

Then, hands. What our hands reach for is determined by where and how our hearts are attached. Think of Michelangelo’s Sistine fresco, the outstretched hand of God impelled by love to create, the receptive hand of Adam showing more than a need for A hand—the need for THE hand that establishes covenant relationship.

So if all this is the positive message, why the negative language, why the verbal extremism? Violence in the language of this part of Mark’s Gospel is thought to be the symptom of sharp disputes going on when Mark wrote this first of the four Gospels. Last Sunday, we heard about the disciples disputing among themselves who was greatest: that was a foretaste of human arguments that would persist in the early Church, magnified mightily by the wicked persecutions waged by the Roman empire, and preachers like Mark (modeling their approach on their bold assertive teacher Jesus) didn’t hesitate to employ a shock factor to rein-in erring church leaders.

Salt and fire are puzzling images, aren’t they? In that day, they’d have been understood as being all about preserving food, preventing decay and poisoning and waste and hunger. These chemical tools are good, as the Gospel says, but as chemical tools they involve reaction and change. We may think that agents of preservation represent the status quo, but in fact they represent change, transformation. In Mark’s hands salt and fire become emblematic of how everyone gets tested in life, and we’re probably meant to be reminded of psalms and other Hebrew scriptures that speak of God refining God’s people to reveal their integrity and prepare them to be agents of God’s own demanding love. The Bible is the many-centuried witness to the puzzling truth that those who are closest to the heart of God are also likeliest to be tested. Think of Jesus. Think of the Jews.

And our reading from the Hebrew scriptures today, the eccentric Book of Esther, gets us doing just that: thinking of the Jews. We need some commentary. “The underlying question of the book,” says one commentator, “ (is) the question of destruction or survival for Jews under persecution…”, a religious question. But nowhere in the book is God mentioned. Prayer is noticeably absent. “The spirit of vengeance is considerably more prominent than the spirit of devotion.”

But what a story it tells! We get its denouement today wildly out of the blue. A bit of background: “Esther, a beautiful Jewish maiden living in Susa, the capital of the Persian Empire, was selected for the king’s harem, and so delighted King Ahasuerus… that he made her his queen. Then Haman, the prime minister, influenced the king to issue an edict authorizing the annihilation of all Jews in the Empire. In this emergency Esther was able to persuade Ahasuerus to proclaim a second edict reversing the situation, thus saving the lives of her people, and accomplishing the annihilation of their enemies. The rejoicing following this victory, the two days of feasting and gladness on the fourteenth and fifteenth (days of the Hebrew month) Adar, was then fixed by Queen Esther as an annual celebration, the festival of Purim.”

Mordecai, the fellow who escaped the fate that befell Haman, was Esther’s cousin and guardian. Though Haman had set him up to seem a traitor, at the last minute Mordecai is discovered by the king as the one whose intervention at just the right moment had thwarted an assassination attempt on the king by one of his top officials. Suddenly, in a true uh-oh moment, Haman’s eagerness to do away with Mordecai appears to the king to be damning evidence. And the tables turn. This is an exciting story of court intrigue, and it’s no wonder that it’s retold annually.

But it’s pretty clear that the story’s origins are not Jewish. Its non-religious character, and the Persian names of the characters in the story, combined with the fact that nowhere in Jewish law is observance of Purim required, all suggest that here we have an example of the profound principle Jesus believes: that whoever is not against us is for us. This Jewish festival of deliverance is rooted in a non-Jewish drama taken over by Jews from their Persian neighbors.

This is delicious, and well worth noticing. I wonder if this isn’t a witness to the wisdom of recognizing how interdependent we all are, in the experience of being human—how we need one another’s best stories.

When your religion motivates you to give a cup of water to a thirsty person, when your faith prompts you to help a person wrapped in anxiety find freedom, when your piety frees you to pray for the suffering and sing songs of praise with the cheerful, then you are tapping into a universal love that will teach you about the divine. And it is then, with the humility and the intensity of beginners, that disciples of Yahweh who is revealed by the law and the prophets, disciples of Jesus incarnating Abba Father and Lady Wisdom, disciples of Allah whose ways are expressed by the Prophet in the Koran, disciples of Lord Buddha emulated in mindfulness, and who knows who else, will discover the salt and fire of being for, not against one another.

May that day keep coming. Remember that the journey there is as important as the arrival—but may the day noticeably arrive, in our lifetime, in that of our children, and may we help it happen by bearing the holy fruits of peace and understanding.

Dorothea Ward Harvey’s article on the Book of Esther is found in Volume 2 of The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Abingdon Press, 1962).