Sunday, October 25, 2015

He is calling you

Scripture: Mark 10: 46-52, NT page 47 Sermon title: He is calling you It’s always worth noticing the details of Scripture. If you think about how valuable paper has been in history you’ll realize that every single word counts, because not every word could fit. Maybe you’ve seen letters written during the Civil War where the words were so bunched together that it’s hard to even read what was written – but that’s how it had to be because paper was rare during that war and most wars, and paper was valuable in ancient Israel when the Gospel of Mark was first written down. There were no computers to store thousands of pages of documents. If you went on for too long you’d have to kill another goat and dry out its hide or go down to the river to beat reeds to make papyrus so you’d have another sheet to write on. Mark Twain is famous for saying, “I’d have written you a shorter letter, only I didn’t have enough time,” and we are used to reading books where you can just read the first sentence of each paragraph and follow the plot well enough because most people use too many words and there’s no shortage of paper so you can just fill those pages up, but not so with the Gospel of Mark. In Mark every single word counts. Notice then who is named. I promise it’s not a frivolous detail – in Mark there wasn’t enough room on the page for frivolous details – notice that no one from the town is named, not the mayor, not the doctors, not the priest, only this blind man on the side of the road. And he’s not just named, his full name is given – Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. I wonder if anyone in that town knew his name. They say that there’s nothing anyone would rather hear than the sound of their own name, but there are plenty of people in this world who rarely hear it. I once read about a group of surgical interns who were being trained by the chief surgeon of a great big hospital. They were gathered in the gallery, the room where the bypasses are done and the replacements replaced, and in walked a man with a mop bucket. He was surprised to see the group there and meekly apologized for interrupting and tried to excuse himself, taking the mop bucket with him but the chief surgeon called him over and introduced him to the group: “This is Tony. He was born in Lithuania, but immigrated here, learned English and has been working at this hospital for 20 years now. He has three children in college, and after every surgery he cleans this place, scrubs it from top to bottom. Without him this place would be full of bacteria that would jeopardize the health of our patients. I want you all to know him.” The interns gave perfunctory nods and followed the chief surgeon for the rest of their tour of the hospital, and at the end of the day the chief surgeon stopped and she asked them, “I only have one question. Which one of you can name the man who you met in the gallery who cleans the room after every surgery?” Not one of them could answer. I imagine that not one of them could answer because humans have been trained by the world to believe that some names are worth remembering and others can be forgotten. That you should remember the names of the people who can help you advance in the world, who can give you a hand up to the next level, so we remember the names of the boss’s husband, the principal, and the rising politician because maybe they can help us get what they have. And maybe Jesus would also train his disciples to remember some names and forget others based on the same principle, but the rich man who goes to Jesus saying, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life” goes unnamed while the blind man by the side of the road is known forever as “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.” The teachings of Jesus based on his life on earth are so unlike the teachings of the world. The world has taught me the names a number of people I’ve never met nor will I ever meet – Kim Kardashian, Doctor Oz, President Obama. But then there are people who I interact with, if not every day at least once a week, but I have no idea what their name is – the man who delivers our mail, the woman who works the cash register at Fred’s, the lady who takes my dry-cleaning through the window. She notices how my children grow, she comments on my hair cut, she knows I like medium starch on my shirts but do I know her name? Is it not shameful – that I know more about the people I see on television but will never meet in person than some of the people I depend on for basic needs? The opposite is true in Mark. The rich man in verse 17 of chapter 10 is nameless but the blind man in verse 46 is known, and if we remember the names of the people who we think can help us while forgetting the names of those who we think can’t, Jesus is telling us something important about getting our foot in the door of the Kingdom of God. Sometimes it is the man on the side of the road who possesses the wisdom that we need. That was true a couple years ago. Our Director of Christian Education, Susie Baxter, was leading her group of children up the stairs and to the front doors of this sanctuary. She was leading her Wednesday evening lesson, and so she told her group that there are things that you do when you’re preparing to enter a lot of places. When you get ready to go into school you make sure you have the right clothes on, your lunch packed, and your backpack ready. At the movies, you make sure you have your drink and your popcorn, and you have to have your ticket out to hand it to the person taking the tickets. “The same is true for church,” Miss Susie said as they stood just outside this sanctuary, “when you get ready to go into church it’s your heart that you have to get ready. You have to prepare your heart to worship God.” After that she took the kids, I guess there were 10 or 11, back down the stairs and past Melvin Taylor who was sitting there like he used to always do, by the side of the road on the corner of 7th and High. Melvin looked at Miss Susie, then at the line of children following behind her, “All those your kids?” he asked. “Yes they are,” Miss Susie responded. Now we can all imagine that this group of kids following around Ms. Susie all have different parents. We can see well enough that they come from different families, but sometimes the man on the side of the road sees with greater clarity than most of us do, sometimes it is from the man on the side of the road that we must listen and learn and finally begin to understand that they really are all Miss Susie’s kids. Likewise, Bartimaeus was blind to the world and the world was blind to him. He couldn’t work, so no one could ask him for help, no one could borrow money from him. He needed help getting from place to place, he had to sit by the roadside begging, never knowing whether someone had put a coin or a piece of broken glass in his bowl. Not only was he blind, he was helpless, and there’s nothing that this world despises more than a helpless man. No parent wanted their kids hanging around him. No one went to him with their questions. He couldn’t see, nothing he could give had any value in the eyes of the world, but Jesus gives us his name holding up the example of Bartimaeus, because those of us who think we are so different from him have everything to learn from his example. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he yelled out, and the crowd told him to be quiet, if he’s anything like our friends on the side of the road they had probably heard him yelling enough already, but he just yelled even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus, not nearly as offended says, “Call him here.” “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Your faith has made you well. Now what is it about his faith that so impressed Jesus, what is it about this man that so impressed the author of the Gospel of Mark as to remember his name when so many other names have been forgotten? This man knows his need and he knows the one who can help, and we need his example, because our problem is that at the most, we believe we are simply nearsighted and not completely blind. We look to the church and we see an institution that can help us become better people. We can come here and learn good moral lessons of kindness and virtue, decency and respectability. Membership in a church is the central part of any upstanding citizen’s resume, so we come here out of duty and out of a desire to be better, surely we are not blind – we just need a little tune up every now and then. Some say that the church is full of hypocrites. People who pretend to be one way on Sunday and something else for the rest of the week, but I say the great hypocrisy of a church is that when we are afflicted with shame, when we don’t feel so upstanding, so decent and respectable, we are more likely to stay at home thinking that we don’t deserve to be here. We think this is a place where you may as well not show up if you can’t look put together – but I say, Jesus won’t be any good to you unless you’re ready to admit that you’re a mess. We think this is a place where you learn how to do better, be better – a place for nice families to pick up a few pointers on life and then get back to normal – but I say this is the place to call out to the one who can save you from the pit of failure. That we gather around the one who embraces the broken and rejects the self-righteous. Not everyone believes that about the church, so a man named Sam Shoemaker, an Episcopal Priest, wrote a well-known article back in 1955 called, “What the Church can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous.” In this article he said: The first thing I think the Church needs to learn from AA is that nobody gets anywhere till he recognizes a clearly defined need. These people do not come to AA to get made a little better. They do not come because the best people are doing it. They come because they are desperate. They are not ladies and gentlemen looking for a religion, they are utterly desperate men and women in search of redemption. Without what AA gives, death stares them in the face. With what AA gives them, there is life and hope. There are not a dozen ways, there are not two ways, there is one way; and they find it, or perish. They have the need, and they are ready to tell somebody what it is if they see the least chance that it can be met. Is there anything as definite for you or me, who may happen not to be alcoholics? If there is, I am sure that it lies in the realm of our conscious withholding of the truth about ourselves from God and from one another, by pretending that we are already good Christians. Let me here quote a member of AA who has written a most amazing book: his name is Jerome Ellison, and the book is "Report to the Creator." In this (p. 210) he says, "The relief of being accepted can never be known by one who never thought himself unaccepted. I hear of 'good Christian men and women' belonging to 'fine old church families.' There were no good Christians in the first church, only sinners. Peter never let himself or his hearers forget his betrayal in the hour the cock crow. James, stung by the memory of his years of stubborn resistance, warned the church members: 'Confess your faults to one another.' That was before there were fine old church families. Today the last place where one can be candid about one's faults is in church. In a bar, yes, in a church, no. I know; I've tried both places. Now I’ve read this article numerous times, but it has only really struck home for me in light of the example of Bartimaeus. We are slow to remember his name because we don’t recognize how far his recommendation can get us. We think we pretty much are OK. We think we can pretty much see, and sure I’m not perfect but I’m doing alright. Well, the church isn’t for people who are doing alright – the church is for sinners – and redemption doesn’t come to those who think they are doing OK on their own, redemption comes to those who call out for it - so it is the blind man who understands. It is the blind man who knows him truly. It is the blind man who knows his need so clearly and calls out in helplessness and fear, “My teacher, let me see again.” “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And I say, if only we all had faith enough to confess our blindness we might finally see too. Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Where were you?

Scripture lessons: Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, and 35; Job 38: 1-11, 25-27, and 39-41, OT pages 484-485 Sermon title: Where were you? It’s frustrating to ask a direct question without getting a direct answer, so I apologize, that the same week of the debates between the contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination where many significant statements were made but few direct answers were given, we also have this Scripture lesson from the 38th chapter of Job, where after Job asked a direct question to God – “Why Lord must the innocent suffer?” not even God seems willing to give a clear and direct answer in response. It’s frustrating. What Job wants is the truth, but God seems to be echoing those iconic words of Jack Nicholson when he stared in “A Few Good Men,” “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” Our passage begins: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” This is not a gentle response, nor is it a direct answer, but anyone who asks questions has learned that sometimes you get an answer and sometimes you don’t. I remember well enough a day in Sunday School long ago, we were in 3rd or 4th grade and had just read the account in the Gospel of Luke chapter 2, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child...” “Mr. Thomas,” I asked my teacher, “what exactly is circumcision?” “Well that’s a question you should probably ask your father,” he responded. Now that wasn’t the answer I was looking for, but sometimes an indirect answer is what’s most appropriate, and while it’s disappointing in the moment, there have been times when non-answers did more good than a direct answer could have. I remember sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen, I was in the middle of my first year of college and having spent most of high school goofing off college posed more of a challenge for me than it did for many of my classmates. Knowing that I was discouraged and wondering whether or not I’d even make it, my grandmother started telling me about long nights in nursing school. She was about my age then, 18 or 19, away from home for the first time, asked to cram more information into her brain than seemed possible, especially during daylight hours, but lights had to be turned off in the dorm by 10:00 at night, the only lights that could stay on were the ones in the lady’s bathroom, so she would study there, sitting on those cold tiles reading on the night before a test, and after graduating she began a 50-year career in nursing. Now that’s perspective – the kind of perspective that only my grandmother could have provided, and every time I’d be tempted to complain about studying hard I’d imagine her there on that bathroom floor and she didn’t seem so far away nor did my lot seem so pitiful. She, my own flesh and blood, had made it through worse. The perspective of grandparents – they’ll tell you that they walked up hill to school, both ways, but nothing can help us see the sufferings of this present age clearly like the experience of those who made it through worse. And if the perspective of a grandparent is beneficial, imagine how helpful is the perspective of God. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” the Lord asks Job. “Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements – surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” The Lord answers Job this way, and in one sense this stanza of God’s poetic non-answer makes Job and all his problems seem so very small – the death of his family, the destruction of his home, like a blip in a cosmic time-line - but this account of creation in the 38th chapter of Job is more than that, for in this testimony is the account of the God who laid the foundation of the earth, determined its measurements and stretched a line upon it. It is the story of how God has been in the business of building up beauty out of nothing since the beginning of time. The formless mass of that nothingness that existed before creation was the Lord’s building blocks, and when there was darkness, before there were even lights to turn out, the Lord laid the cornerstone and the morning stars were born to sing together. Just as my grandmother helped me to see that I could study, I could be successful in college, so the Lord is helping Job to see that you can make a life out of nothing – you can rebuild, “for I am with you and I have done that and much greater things before!” Now this isn’t a direct answer to Job’s question of suffering, but there is value in God’s perspective – there is always value in perspective. Back in 2013, researchers from Boston College analyzed data from a long-term study called the Longitudinal Study of Generations. The study gathered data from 376 grandparents and 340 grandchildren, and concluded that “an emotionally close grandparent-adult grandchild relationship was associated with fewer symptoms of depression for both generations. The greater emotional support grandparents and adult grandchildren received from one another, the better their psychological health.” And you can already imagine why that is the case, that grandchildren benefit from the perspective their grandparents provide, because they teach you to appreciate the restrooms at every gas station on in the interstate when you travel with them. But you also value those restrooms because you hear about your young grandfather who as a boy tried to relieve himself out an old model A while it was still moving. The story goes that the windows were down back where his sisters were sitting, and unfortunately the wind was blowing the wrong way, and you hear this story and you remember one who has made it through hard times already – who passed through the rough waters of the Great Depression, World War II, unemployment, and still maintained his sense of humor. His perspective alone gives me strength to overcome obstacles that lie before me. He is one who has gone before, but my grandfather’s perspective is dwarfed by that of my God. Think of the stormy seas of life, and then consider the Lord, “who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?” The Lord gives an account from the memory of one who is infinite and remembers the sea when she was little baby: “when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and not farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” Can you hear the Lord say, “The sea was like chaos, but I grabbed that great chaos up and changed her diaper – so even now, the chaos that you face, the victimization, the sadness, the despair and the heartache – just as I tamed the sea so I will bring order to your life once more.” Perspective. There’s some comfort in that, because when you are facing hardship for the first time it feels like the end of the world. In 5th grade my nose started bleeding right there in the middle of class. Some kid called me a booger picker, and the rumor spread. I went home that afternoon and made the bold announcement to my mother, “I know you like it here Mom, but we’re going to have to move. I can’t go back to that school ever again.” I can hear her now – “You think they’re mean now, just wait!” But I can hear her just as well saying, “I’ve made it through worse, and I’m here to tell you, this is going to be OK.” “Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt, to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?” There is such a great benefit to knowing the ones who have seen the desert put forth grass. One who has been a witness to such a miracle is the great CS Lewis, who among other books also wrote one about mourning the death of his wife. It’s called A Grief Observed. It begins with a description: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” And “There are moments,” he writes, “most unexpectedly, when something inside me tries to assure me that I don’t really mind so much, not so very much, after all. Love is not the whole of a man’s life… Then comes a sudden jab of red-hot memory and all this ‘commonsense’ vanishes like an ant in the mouth of a furnace.” The book is valuable, but it can’t tell you why. It can’t tell you why the Lord would create a world in which the innocent suffer. Why the Lord would create a world where the guilty go free. It can’t tell you why there is so much evil and pain and hatred. Why there would be men in God’s creation who would abuse their own mothers, parents who forsake their children, diseases that afflict our bodies and rend us with no thought in our minds beyond pain. You can look, but neither in the Bible nor anywhere else have I found a satisfying answer to the question of “Why there would be cancer?” Why death? And why grief would be so deep and so bottomless? In the book of Job is this: “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?” Is this poetry a direct answer to our questions? Hardly. But in this passage is perspective. The young lions were hungry – and God satisfied their appetites. The ravens cried aloud to God, and the Lord provided. Will He not do the same for you? Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Seek good and not evil

Scripture: Amos 5: 6-15 and Mark 10: 13-27, NT pg. 46 Sermon Title: “Seek good and not evil” Sermon There were people bringing little children to Jesus, and when the disciples tried to stop them, not wanting their leader to be interrupted as he went about the important work of teaching and preaching, Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Now what Jesus means here is up for interpretation. The exact quality of children that Jesus sees as vital for entering the kingdom of heaven is not clearly stated, so today we tend to read these words and get some idea of what Jesus must have been getting at based on the qualities of children that we admire. Some would say that children, unlike adults don’t see race or nationality, and so aren’t susceptible to the prejudices that afflict their older counterparts – so it could be that in seeing all people as equal children are to be emulated. Others would say that to enter the kingdom of God you must become innocent like a child, able to trust or believe in ways that jaded adults cannot. Then others would look to some instance of children sharing toys and come to the conclusion that you must become selfless like a child, sharing what you have. But before you decide which quality it is that Jesus is talking about, let me remind you that there’s a word to describe people who use words like “without prejudice,” “innocent,” or “selfless,” to describe children: “Delusional.” As far as prejudice goes, if you believe that children look into the heart of people without judgement based on appearance, then you have never seen a child terrified by the sight of a bead. Baby Margaret Hill for one, during the first year and a half of her life has run away at the very sight of me, she has never liked me, but I don’t take it personally because neither does she like the image of Abraham Lincoln printed on the five-dollar bill – she is one of many who has come to the early conclusion that men with beards are not to be trusted. While some would say that children are without prejudice, I disagree, and I also disagree with those who say that children are born innocent. Some will say that they are, but if you have ever witnessed how early an older sister masters the art of manipulating her little sister then you might say they are naturally crafty, more like the wise serpent than the innocent dove. And would you say that they are selfless? I don’t, knowing that before any of us mastered the art of language, our parents knew what we wanted through our high pitched squeals and cries, not understanding but comprehending none-the-less for in the language of infants we made our demands, “I want my bottle and I want my bottle now! Not in 5 minutes – not when you’re done with what you’re doing – NOW!” Therefore, I claim that the quality that Jesus points to as the little children rush to his side is not the absence of prejudice, innocence, or selflessness – for while children are many wonderful things, above all else, what children really are is dependent, completely and utterly dependent on those bigger and more powerful for their well-being. I believe that dependence is the quality that Jesus is pointing to. Not one of those qualities that children seem to lose as they become teenagers but that parents wish they could keep, rather it is the quality that we all want children to lose as soon as possible but some seem to keep to the disappointment of their parents. So often we think we know better, so we try to instill in children the qualities we think they should have – while failing to value the quality that they actually do. It is interesting that Jesus would urge his followers to emulate children, and countercultural that he would celebrate their dependence, for we think they should be independent and self-sustaining. Be like children, he urges, and we are prone to believe he’s not all that serious, so the lesson must continue. As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good – except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” the rich man declared, “I have kept all these since my youth.” Did you hear that? Before scripture tells us Jesus’ response to this statement, the author of the Gospel of Mark wants you to know that, “Jesus looked - at this rich man who has apparently never sinned in his entire life - and loved him.” Now the writer of Mark wrote in Greek about a Palestinian Jew named Jesus who spoke Aramaic, a language that never developed its own literary tradition, but remained an oral derivation of Hebrew only. So these words, first retained as a spoken story told in Aramaic, then translated and written down in Greek, were then translated into English to form the words, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” So it’s possible then, that the description we have in English fails to capture fully how Jesus actually looked, how Jesus actually felt. In fact, I’m confident that what the author of Mark meant to use to describe Jesus here is an expression Grandmothers in the South say often when their grandchildren do something stupid but they’re too naive to know any better – if this event here with the rich man were taking place in Columbia, Tennessee, and Jesus were not a Palestinian Jew but a Maury County Grandmother then the words would not be, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” but, “Jesus looked at him and said, well bless your heart.” What the author of Mark didn’t take the time to write down, I assume he just ran out of parchment, was that, “after looking at the young man and loving him, Jesus said to Peter under his breath, this guy thinks he’s never sinned! Can you believe that? Well bless his heart!” This rich man goes to Jesus asking, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life.” What must I do? As though this rich man could pull himself up by his bootstraps right up into the kingdom of God. As though he didn’t need anyone to help, as though he could do it all himself, as though he were all grown-up, self-sufficient, and self-secure. But here is an independence based on an illusion – an illusion provided by the perceived security of affluence – for wealth convinces us all to believe the lie that we are not children dependent on God – we are not dependent on anyone or anything. Wealth closes our eyes to the insecurity of human existence. The rich man can’t seem to face this fact – that those fields that provide him so much income would be dry ground, if it were not for the God who provides the rain. That his property would not be nearly so beautiful and valuable if it were not for the God who prevented the river from rising above her banks – at least most of the time. And that his life would not be so pleasurable if it were not for God – who keeps that heart inside this man's chest beating – if it were not for God who provides him air to breath and eyes to take in the majesty of creation. So Jesus asks him to give up his wealth willingly that he might figure it out. There is danger in wealth. Some feel safe in their nice houses – but then the water rises and they face the fact that they are victims to the whims of powers bigger and stronger than themselves. We feel secure with money in the bank – but should the job market dry up, stock values drop – should powers out of our control choose to shift the winds of favor - how self-sufficient do you feel now? We feel as though we may just live-forever – but who knows when the heart that beats in our chest might just stop beating? So Jesus addresses the disciples as children, not because they are innocent, kind, or unblemished by the prejudices of the day, but because we are not in control of our lives. Though we are often blinded to it – we are more like children then we care to admit. And the rich man isn’t ready to admit it. He isn’t sick – so he doesn’t need Jesus to heal him – and so he walks away. He isn’t poor – so he doesn’t need Jesus to feed him – and so he walks away. He hasn’t hit rock bottom – so he thinks he can make it without a Higher Power – and so he walks away. He came to Jesus looking for some wisdom – calling him “good teacher” – but when Jesus couldn’t offer him anything, besides urging him to face his own limitation – he just walked away. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” How hard it is – but it’s not just hard. It’s impossible. It’s impossible for you to do it on your own. But the rich man thought otherwise – Good teacher, what must “I” do to inherit eternal life. So you see - the rich man who went looking for a teacher wasn’t looking for a savior either – so he walks away. Some would say he walked away doomed – but he’s no more doomed than any of us. For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. It’s impossible in fact. “But not with God; all things are possible with God.” So give thanks for the one who interceded when you couldn’t do it on your own. Who grants you the salvation that you cannot earn. Praise God for the high priest – the one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart and exalted above the heavens. For he is no good teacher – he is your savior. Thanks be to God. Amen.