"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Eye Witness

Pentecost 24 B

Mark 12:38-44 

O God, whose blessed Son came into the world that he might destroy the works of the devil and make us children of God and heirs of eternal life: Grant that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves as he is pure; that, when he comes again with power and great glory, we may be made like him in his eternal and glorious kingdom; where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

All across America today, preachers, hunting for happy pledge cards, are milking today’s Gospel for all that it's worth.[1] Hey, can you blame them? Our reading hands them the faithful widow, giving all that she has on earth to the Temple treasury! 
          “Now that is trust in God!” we crow. “How much better to give sacrificially of your time, talent, and treasure than just to drop what’s left-over into the plate each week.” 
          Yes, I’ve heard that sermon before. Haven’t you? I might even have preached it. After studying the text, though, I was taken aback to see what today’s Gospel reading is really about. 
          Since we preachers in budget season can’t be trusted with this text, I’ve invited someone else to come speak to you today. An eye-witness, you might say!
          "Good morning! My name is Hannah. I’m Miriam’s friend from Jerusalem … Miriam, she’s the widow who Jesus talks about in your lesson. Miriam and I share neighboring shanties on the outskirts of the city, together with our kids. We both lost our husbands several years ago. She’s got four young mouths to feed—three girls and a boy--and I just have two, thanks be to God, though they’re both girls. Why the Holy One couldn’t at least have given me sons, I’ll never know, what with Him taking away my husband so young. What am I supposed to do with a bunch of helpless girls?
I apologize for these rags that I’m wearing, and for the smell. It’s hard to find water to wash with, out where we live. All that we have comes from what we can scavenge from the garbage dump or from the edges of harvested fields. We didn’t used to be like this, you know. When our husbands were alive, we lived in real houses and cooked warm food for our children every day! How I dream of those days! My husband was a carpenter, and Miriam’s had a stand at the market. But they were both only sons. When they died, there wasn’t any family left to care for either of us. We and our kids have to make do on our own.
Miriam, she hasn’t been quite right in the head for a while now. Sometimes desperation makes people believe crazy things, you know? She’s really fallen for the promises that some of the religious leaders preach to us widows. Every day, there’s a group of scribes praying and carrying on out in front of the Court of the Women. You know, it’s the faction with those fancy robes and those voices like honey. They sound so sure of themselves, so clever and educated, that it’s hard not to listen to them. I’ll give you that. They keep telling us that if we give them money, then they’ll use their beautiful words to appeal to God on our behalf, and God will bless us with new husbands and fine homes. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe in the Holy One. I love His Law. I’d even buy some doves to sacrifice in the Temple, if I had the money for them. But Miriam, she falls for every story that these fancy men tell her! Instead of buying bread for her children, she keeps putting every penny that she gets into their fat, ring-clad hands. I worry about her. That’s why I went with her to the Temple that day—to try to talk her out of putting her last fifty cents into the Treasury. Her only son has been so sickly lately, and she’s so desperate for him to get well. She told me that she just knew that today was the day. Today, she told me, if she just gave the Temple the 2 coins that she had earned sweeping up trash, then God would hear the prayers of the scribes. God would spare her little boy’s life. How could I stop her, without dashing all of her hopes?
So I just stood there like a fool, wincing inside as I listened to those slick prayers. I watched her drop all of her coins--and all of her hope--into one of their grand, trumpet-shaped boxes. Blinking back tears, I turned my head to go. That’s when I caught a glimpse of a thin rabbi standing apart from the crowd. He looked so different from the other religious leaders, that he really caught my attention. His robes were rough and covered in dust, and his cheap sandals looked as if he had walked many a mile. I could tell that he was a rabbi because he had a group of men and women with him, clearly his disciples. They all looked like country-bumpkins, maybe from somewhere out in the Galilee. This rabbi wasn’t praying out loud or preaching to anyone, though. He was squatting thoughtfully on his haunches, watching everything intently. I saw him turn his head toward the scribes and listen, a deep frown forming on his brow. I saw his hands clench into fists at his sides. A few of his disciples noticed, too, and looked jumpy. He was clearly angry at what the scribes were saying. Well, good for him! Somebody needs to be angry at the way they pretend to love God while they take advantage of poor folk!
Then I saw his eyes focus on the people who were bringing their offerings to the treasury. He studied them carefully and quietly, and his expression changed from anger to something else—maybe pity, pity mixed with love? His fists weren’t clenched anymore, but he looked so, so very sad. He saw the rich parading up to the treasury box looking pious and pleased with themselves. He saw Miriam drop in her coins, too. And I think that I saw him blink away a tear. He got up slowly, as if he carried the weight of the whole world on his shoulders, and he went over to his disciples. I couldn’t hear him, but I could see him pointing at the scribes, and at the wealthy donors, and at Miriam, and shaking his head in exasperation at how wrong it all was.
I wanted to take Miriam over to him. I just had the feeling that this rabbi could truly help her. But she had hurried off, back to her little boy. I decided to follow him myself. As I caught up with his group, I heard him telling his disciples that the Temple would soon be torn down. “Not one stone will be left,” he shouted in disgust. He seemed really determined about something. He walked on into the city like a man with an important purpose, like someone who had made an important decision. I thought then that he must also be a prophet, just like Jeremiah, or Amos, speaking God’s judgment upon us and our corruption.
Miriam and her son both died, you know.  Starvation, sickness, broken hearts …all of that.  I took in her little girls. One day, I was outside the city walls, looking for some scraps to feed all of these kids, and I saw the rabbi again.  I saw him die. Right there on a Roman cross, like a robber or a traitor. It was a terrible sight, and it upset me. It’s just like the authorities to kill a prophet like that—to mow down somebody who would dare to stand up for the poor.
Now, of course, I know what it means. His disciples taught me. Miriam gave her whole life to God, but she didn’t understand. But this rabbi--Jesus was his name—he understood, and he gave his whole life, too. I think that Miriam inspired him. He gave his life for Miriam and her baby boy. And for me. And even for the pompous scribes and for the rich givers. He gave his whole life for the life of the whole world. I know it's hard to believe, but he didn't stay dead! He rose up and appeared to his disciples. He rose to show that God’s power is different and stronger than the power of money and smooth-talking politics. He rose to prove once and for all, that love is stronger than oppression and death.
I follow Jesus' Way now. For me, what I remember most about that day at the Temple is how Jesus held us all in his gaze. You could tell that he truly saw us, and that he cared. The Holy One himself was looking through Jesus’ eyes, looking into squalor and injustice, into sin and earnestness, into generosity and greed. And not flinching. God was right there, blessing the goodness that He could find. But what am I lecturing you all about?! Rev. Anne has told me about this parish. She told me about how so many of you came to the airport at midnight to welcome Ortance and her daughters into their new lives in this country. You reached out to them with a loving embrace, their first welcome after so much hatred, so much indifference. Your embrace to them was just like Jesus’ eyes watching Miriam. The blessing of God was in it. Rev. Anne also told me about the struggling cancer victim in the Kroger parking lot—the one who wept when she received a palm cross from the hand of a small child from this parish. That palm cross was just like Jesus’ eyes, too--full of blessing. This parish knows how to see the world like Jesus sees it: down on your haunches, looking outward, open to take in hurt, injustice, and joy alike. And to offer them up to God, in Jesus’ Name. May the love of Christ continue to flow through you and sustain you always.

[1] This sermon is inspired by David Lose’s commentary, “Pentecost 24B: Surprisingly Good News,” found at http://www.davidlose.net/2015/11/pentecost-24-b-surprisingly-good-news/

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Of Saints and Story

The Feast of All Saints, Year B

John 11:32-44

Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Christ our Lord: Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Here in the church, we are always sanctifying things, setting them apart for God’s use. Each week, we sanctify the bread and wine: we set them apart from ordinary food and drink so that Christ can use them to become present to us in the Eucharist. Last week, you may remember that we sanctified a new fair linen for our altar. With a special prayer, I set it apart from ordinary tablecloths for God’s use alone. But we often forget that we human beings are sanctified, as well. We are set apart in baptism as living members of Christ’s Body. Holy people, sanctified people, people set apart for God’s use. That’s what “saint” means: someone who is set apart, someone who is made holy.

People, however, are not inanimate objects that can be filled with the Divine, like water is poured into a vase. People are made holy through story. All Saints’ Day is a day for stories. We remember the stories of the lives of our departed loved ones, those who are no longer with us on earth. In today’s liturgy, when we speak their names and light candles in their memories, our minds and hearts will be flooded with scenes from shared lives: the time grandpa taught you how to do that magic trick; the day that you walked down the aisle as husband and wife; the day you brought that tiny baby home from the hospital; the laughs you shared during coffee hour; even the terrible moments like a frightening car crash or the Thanksgiving dinner when everyone cried. The stories behind those memories unite us, even across the separation of death. They hold us in communion with those who have gone before us, with those who are still alive in God. They free us from the loneliness of time.

Even better, when we’re baptized, we join Jesus’ story. We have more than our own family stories to sustain us. We become part of God’s story of death and resurrection. When I sprinkle you with water in a few minutes and ask you to remember your baptism, I’m not asking you to remember the holy water that some priest sprinkled on your brow when you were a baby. I’m asking you to recall the whole amazing story of which you are now a part: the story where you die--where you die to self, to sin, to the things that you have done or left undone, to the evil done on your behalf. And the story where you rise with Jesus into light and hope and new life. It’s like Jesus goes into the smelly cave where you lie bound up like a mummy and tells you to get up. It’s like he is sending you out into the sunlight, like Lazarus, and telling the rest of us to unbind you, and to let you go free into a life of living out resurrection.

Set apart in baptism, are we to hold the rest of the world at a distance, then? Are we to shut our souls away in the sacristy cupboard with the chalices after church on Sunday? You might know Christians who think that the sinful world is somehow going to contaminate them if they venture too far from certain rigid rules and practices. Part of the warnings that new priests receive before ordination is that people are going to look at them differently once they are wearing that collar. It’s true, of course! Wear a funny white collar (especially if you’re a woman!) in the elevator at University Hospital, or at Kroger, or—heaven forbid—in a liquor store or an airport, and you are going to feel “set apart,” all right! People frown and greet you with wide-mouthed stares.

Those once-overs have never bothered me, though. I see my collar as more of a privilege. By being visually set apart, I don’t have to deal with any of society’s walls and hiding places. I can go up to someone who is hurting and ask, “What’s wrong?” without first having to make polite conversation for an hour. I am immediately invited into people’s stories. I am trusted with a glimpse into their souls. There is no greater gift on earth. Sometimes I think that I was made a priest because I need that outward sign in order to bear my baptism courageously. But as Christians, our baptism is our “collar.” In some ways, it might set you apart in the eyes of others. But if you are wearing it right, it will stand out as love when the rest of the world is full of hate. It will stand out as humility, when the rest of the world is full of pride. It will stand out as peace, when the rest of the world is filled with chaos. And most of all, it will set you free to enter into the lives of others, carrying with you the love of God. Baptism sets us apart, only that we may enter more deeply into our hurting world.

Finally, we are not alone as saints of God. We remember today the stories of the men and women lifted up by the Church throughout history as paragons of Christian virtue. Martyrs and scholars. Mystics and fools. People like St. Augustine, St. Francis, St. Clare, and St. Theresa of Avila. Their lives have been examined in great detail by popes and committees. Their stories have been cleansed of many of the mistakes that pepper our own lives. The Church has set them apart to give us stories that will lead us in “all virtuous and godly living,” as we prayed in today’s collect. Inside the thick walls of the Church, as Christian “insiders,” our statues and saintly stories pull us into God's presence. I can look at the stained glass saints in our Cathedral windows, for example, and feel held in holiness. Their lives give direction to my life. Their courage and their loving, human hearts give my story an end, a goal, toward which I can strive.

I wonder, though, what becomes of  those saintly statues out in the secular world? In the world where their stories aren't known? One hot summer day, I sat on a bench at the convent at Loretto, Kentucky, on retreat. I was surrounded by the glory of God in nature. God's Spirit flowed through the water, sparkling on the top of every wave; it sang in the birds' joyful chorus, and danced in the ballet of bobbing turtles. There, in the midst of light and shadow, surrounded by an abundance of life, I saw a chalk-white statue of the Virgin Mary. In contrast to the life around me, she seemed dead. She was trapped on a concrete block in the middle of the lake, dwarfed by the majestic pine trees at her back. She looked both resigned and unhappy under the hot sun. She seemed to know that she was too heavy to float, that if she were to step off of her small island perch, she would sink into the water of oblivion forever. I worried about her. Like faith unmoored from story, she seemed out of place out here in the woods.   

Then, all of a sudden, I could imagine her shedding her heavy stone body with a sigh of relief. I could see her swimming to shore and padding softly through the fields. Her robes were now supple and bent back the tall grasses; her scarf blew in the cool breeze; her kind eyes smiled in greeting at the world around her. “St. Mary needs me to free her,” I thought as I pondered the statue on the bench. She needs me to take her holy story outside, and give it the words and the freedom to live. She needs an invitation to walk with me out into the world.

          No wonder the story of Jesus and Lazarus appears in our All Saints’ Day lectionary. In all of our stories, Jesus arrives (not always when we want him to) and ventures into the darkness of sin and death. He rouses us and pushes us out into the light where a whole community of fellow saints awaits to unbind us and set us free. For what are we saints “set apart?” We are set apart for freedom: Freedom to love and to live. Freedom from solitude; freedom from sin and death; even freedom from the walls that we build around God and Jesus himself.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Courage to See

Pentecost 22, Year B

Mark 10:46-52
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

A little girl nervously chews the collar of her school uniform and taps the eraser of her pencil on her desk. Brows furrowed, heart thumping, she tries to work out the math problem in her book. She doesn’t want to ask for help. She doesn’t want to admit to the teacher that she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand these crazy fractions at all. There seems to be some kind of system to these numbers. There seems to be something significant about the patterns, but she can’t quite grasp it. Erasing, re-erasing, scratching wildly with her pencil all over the paper, she finally makes the numbers work. “Oh, yes, I SEE!” she thinks with relief, as her body relaxes and a smile spreads over her face. “Now I SEE.” The patterns make sense. The pieces fit into their fraction of the whole. “Seeing!” What a relief! What a marvel!

          Years later, this little girl, now a young woman, sits beside the bed of her critically ill child. She frantically chews her fingernails and weeps silently at the doctor’s incomprehensible diagnosis. Her world is dark and foggy. Nothing makes sense anymore. How can this be happening? Where is God? How has life become this chaos, this problem with no acceptable solution? “Jesus, have mercy on my baby!” she shouts in her heart, over and over again. Or is she squawking her desperation out loud? Nurses are rushing over to her, telling her to hush and to calm down, offering to call someone to take her home to rest. But her legs won’t work. Her mind won’t work. For goodness’ sake, the universe itself no longer works. She can’t see her way forward. She can’t see anything. “Jesus, have mercy!” is the only thing she has left in the darkness.
          Seeing is so much more than merely the seeing that we do with our eyes, isn’t it? When we “see” something, we understand it. We grasp it. If only all of life were as easy to see as a math problem or a word puzzle! If only all frustrations could be reasoned out and all inconsistencies smoothed away with a well-placed answer. Sometimes we pretend that our own mental gymnastics or right actions can bring us the understanding that we seek. But blindness always lurks in the corners and beside the way.
Professor Gordon Lathrop presents an interesting take on this problem in his interpretation of today’s Gospel. Lathrop reminds us that the Timaeus is the Greek philosopher Plato’s most famous dialogue. Interestingly, it too features a blind man. The Timaeus is about the cosmos and the mathematical beauty and wholeness of the universe—the perfect pattern of all things. The blind man in Plato’s work is left out of that wholeness, unimportant and cast aside in his imperfection. Lathrop believes that the blind beggar in Mark’s Gospel, given the specific name, “Son of Timaeus,” is a direct contrast to Plato’s blind man. Lathrop believes that Mark is poking a deep hole in Plato’s perfect universe. Where the suffering have no place in Plato’s harmonious system, the suffering are directly engaged in Mark’s Gospel. God pierces the heavens and comes down to earth in the form of Jesus: Jesus who dives down into suffering with a love that leads to his own crucifixion.[1] In the Christian Gospel, the “perfect sphere [of the cosmos] is torn as the Triune mercy of God is made known on the earth.”[2]
In Mark, Bartimaeus, the Son of Timaeus sits beside the Way, a beggar rejected by a society that won’t even abide his cries for help. But Bartimaeus is courageous enough to risk the taunts and jeers of those who exclude him. In complete humility, he cries out to a savior that he cannot see, a savior who rips open the heavens and comes to him in his small dark corner of the world.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus—using the exact same words that he offers James and John in our Gospel two weeks ago. In that exchange, James and John are still trying to figure out how God works. They think that life has an answer that will lead them straight to a place at Jesus’ right hand in glory. Bartimaeus, however, asks only to see. His suffering has taught him that the way to eternal life lies on the way that Jesus is walking, on the perilous road to Jerusalem. He asks to see a road that the disciples are still too blind to grasp. As soon as Jesus heals him and gives him sight, Bartimaeus takes off to follow Jesus, on the Way—no longer beside it—on the way that leads to the Cross. Given sight, what Bartimaeus sees is not the cosmic mystery. He doesn’t learn why he was born blind. He doesn’t find out the answers to all of our curious questions about God and the universe. He doesn’t look down to find his beggar’s cloak turned into a king’s crimson robe. All he sees … is Jesus. When the light enters his eyes, he looks straight into the face of Jesus, crucified Son of David, living Son of God.
And that’s not all. Mark tells us that this encounter takes place in Jericho. Just as Mark’s readers knew the Greek story of the Timaeus, they also knew the Hebrew story of Joshua. We know it, too, in all of its shocking violence. Joshua fights the battle of Jericho, and those walls come tumbling down. The Hebrew armies parade around the walled city of Jericho during their terrible conquest of the Promised Land, shouting at the top of their lungs and beating their drums. God causes the walls to fall so that the soldiers can enter. They kill the Canaanites inside and claim the Land that God is giving them. Some scholars believe that Mark is turning this violent story inside out, too, just as he turned the story of the Timaeus on its head. Writes Scott Hoezee, “After all, here is Jesus—the new Joshua--outside the walls of Jericho… Bartimaeus shouts in Jericho, but this time the result of all the shouting is not bloody battle and loss of life but a restoration of [peace/] shalom. Salvation happens this time. A man is restored and joins Jesus’ larger band of followers. [As it says in the well-known hymn, ‘For not with swords’ loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums, with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.’”[3] Jesus is always taking our stories and turning them inside out. Every time we think we have life and the universe figured out, he turns our solid answers into a vulnerable, loving face. Every time we think that we are peering into certainty, he presents a picture of mercy, instead.
Once I was troubled by a recurring image that frustrated me to no end. I saw myself alone and unhappy in a desert, standing beside a winding path. I could see buildings and people on the left, and I could see life-giving water and green trees behind me. Ahead, I only saw the path, stretching into the horizon. But I couldn’t move forward or even step sideways onto the path, because on the right, I was blind. I couldn’t see anything to the right of the path, no matter how hard I stared. It was as blank as an empty page. Like the little girl trying to solve the math problem alone, I was distraught. For the life of me, I couldn’t see “what was right.”
“Maybe you are afraid to see it,” suggested my spiritual director. “Maybe you don’t want to know what is right, because it is difficult.” Yes, she spoke the truth. After reading today’s Gospel, I think that I could have stopped straining to make sense of my dream. I could have stopped trying to write my own story.  Instead, if I had cried out to Jesus, for all that I was worth: “Lord, have mercy on me!” Jesus might have immediately bestowed on me the healing gift of courage. The courage to see what is right: the self-giving love that leads to eternal life, the sacrifice that leads to peace, the healing joy that comes only in the morning. 
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[1] Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003), 33.
[3]Scott Hoezee, “The Lectionary Gospel,” found at http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-25b/?type=the_lectionary_gospel