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.