Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Raising the Bar

Mark 10:46-52
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today we begin a brief sermon-series about stewardship…, which should not really surprise anyone.  It is common practice for many pastors, at some point in the fall to use the word “stewardship” in at least one sermon.  

Now, you can look at this from a cynical point of view: as we come to the end of our church’s fiscal year, your elders want to start planning a budget for the next.  So at some point, we want to ask (what I think) is a reasonable question: what do you suppose is your best guess about how much you’ll be giving to the work of the church in the coming year?  I say that’s the cynical point of view, but it’s really not that cynical.  Like I said, I think it’s a reasonable question and it helps us discern what we can or cannot afford to do.  

But there is another way you can look at sermons like these that is decidedly not cynical.  These sermons give us a chance to remember, at least once a year, what the notion of “stewardship” is all about.  Stewardship, especially when it’s about more than money, is actually a beautiful thing.  

Now, I’ve been your pastor for ten years now.  Which means that I’ve been preaching at least one sermon about stewardship a year for the past ten years.  Each time I do, I try to throw in my own definition of stewardship; because it’s different than what you’ll find in a dictionary.  So out of curiosity, does anyone want to take a stab at how I define stewardship?  Didn’t think there’d be a pop quiz today did you?  Well, don’t worry, I am prepared to define it again; but pay attention, you will be tested on this again.  Stewardship is everything we do in response to the salvation we’ve received.  So yes, our financial giving is stewardship; but so is the kindness we show to those in need; the time we spend helping others; the ways we use the talents we’ve been given in the church and in the world; and so much more.  Today we talk about stewardship; and we learn about it from a guy who knew how to do it right.  

Today, we hear Mark’s account of the healing of Bartimaeus.  And what strikes me about this story all that we know about him.  We know from the story that he was, of course, blind; but also that he was, of course, a beggar; that was really the only job a blind guy could get in those days.  But there’s more to him, isn’t there?  Based on this interaction, it seems that he was also kind of mouthy, right?  He practically extorts this healing out of Jesus: he just shouts until he gets what he wants.  He’s so obnoxious that people try to quiet him down; which only makes him louder.  We may know people like that, right?  So finally, Jesus calls for him and everybody suddenly changes their tune: “Hey, good news, buddy; he’s calling for you.”  

As a beggar, maybe this was his begging style: just yell and make a scene until someone helps you; it may not be a nice, or even effective way to solicit donations, but berating people until they give is a style.  It’s not my style, by the way; I’m usually quite polite about “the ask,” as they say.  But I think, more to the point, he’s not the kind of guy who will be passive about his own salvation.  He is disabled, yes; he is dependent on society’s handouts, but he’s not going to stay that way if given a choice.  And as Jesus walks by, he has his choice.  

It seems strange to me that Jesus calls him over, rather than going to Bartimaeus.  I mean, wouldn’t you go to the blind person, rather than the other way around?  But maybe it has something to do with his take-charge attitude.  Maybe Jesus is trying to see how much Bartimaeus is willing to put into his healing.  Hard to say.  

But more importantly, perhaps the most surprising thing we know about Bartimaeus is that his name is Bartimaeus.  They called him blind.  They called him a beggar.  But we call him Bartimaeus!  There’s sort of a joke in the way Mark tells us his name, by the way: Mark calls him “Bartimaeus son of Timaeus.”  The joke is, in Hebrew, “Bar” literally means “son of;” his name is “Junior.”  Either Mark is, for some reason, translating the Hebrew part of his name for his readers, or there’s something else going on.  My money is on the “something else.”  I think Mark mentions Junior by name because the early church knew Bartimaeus by name.  They knew him because he was important in the early church; they knew him because knew how to respond to his salvation.  That’s a pretty good thing to be famous for.  

The stewardship lesson we learn today from Bartimaeus is that salvation ought to inspire something in us.  A pastor friend of mine asked me recently what I was grateful for.  The time it took me to think of an answer made me realize that I should be asked that question more often.  Last week the question was, “Which kingdom are you living in?”  The fact that we can answer, “I am living in the Kingdom of God,” ought to bring us such joy!  Bartimaeus gets it right.  The God who called all things into being–the God who became one of us so that we might have life forever–intends for us to live in that abundant kingdom now.  We have much to be grateful for.  

But there is one other lesson we learn from Bartimaeus that’s worth noting.  It comes right at the end of verse 52: Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well;” and what does Bartimaeus do?  After receiving his sight, Mark tells us that he, “Followed [Jesus] on the way.”  Now to be honest, it’s not really clear as to what Mark means by “followed Jesus on the way:” it could be that he literally started walking behind Jesus along the road that Jesus was on that led to Jerusalem.  I think it’s more likely a way Mark is saying that, on that day, after receiving his salvation, Bartimaeus became a follower of Jesus; on that day, he became a disciple.  

There are other notable blind beggars in the Gospels.  I like to think that at least a couple of them are Bartimaeus, but perhaps unnamed. Like the guy in John who gives the religious leaders such a hard time.  More likely we meet him again in the Gospel of Luke: in Luke 18, we read a story that seems to me to be this same story.  But Luke goes on to also mention the way Bartimaeus begins to follow Jesus: it reads, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus], glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God.”   

He follows Jesus the way any disciple should: giving glory to God.  Now lest we forget, it doesn’t seem that he was exactly wallowing in the mire before Jesus gave him his new life.  But after his sight is restored, he uses his renewed life to let the world know his joy.  The way he followed Jesus matters; he follows with grateful joy; I wonder if he skipped.  

Have you ever noticed men aren’t really allowed to skip?  Everyone else can skip if they want to: children skip and you hardly even notice it; a grown woman skips and it’s cute and whimsical; if you see a man skipping toward you down the street, you cross the street.  Men cannot skip.  

Which is really a shame, if you think about it: I mean, why would a person skip?  No one needs to skip; walking is a perfectly efficient way to get you from one place to another; and running would certainly get you there faster.  No, skipping does more than just to get you where you’re going.  In a way, skipping tells a story about someone.  Skipping tells the world how you feel (and if you’re man, that maybe that you’re a weirdo).  And how does a skipping person feel?  Well let me put it this way: have you ever seen anyone crying while they’re skipping?  You can’t be sad when you’re skipping; you can’t be angry when you’re skipping.  In fact, skipping might be at least a temporary antidote to unresolved anger.  Give it a try: next time you are mad go for a nice skip around the house; my guess is that you won’t stay angry for long.  

Skipping is about joy; a joy that just can’t be hidden away; a joy whose expression can’t be bothered with self-consciousness just because it looks silly.  Which is why it’s tragic that men can’t skip: because everyone who truly understands the gift of salvation that they have received, has a reason to skip.  The good news is: skipping is not the only way we express the gratitude we feel.  In fact, as our Scripture lesson remind us today, our entire lives can be an expression of the joy we have in our salvation.  

Whatever our circumstances might be today, we have been given a wonderful gift.  The salvation we have received calls us to respond: it calls us to rise and follow Jesus and it calls us do so with joy.  Let us learn from the example of Son of Timaeus: let us seek to live as faithful stewards of the lives we’ve been given; giving thanks as we follow Jesus along the way.

Monday, October 22, 2018

King Dumb

Mark 10:32-45
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Part of my contribution to society is not always saying the things that pop into my head.  One way I’m trying to make the world a better place (I have a feeling some of you share in this ministry with me).  So yes, a public service I provide is to keep my mouth shut.  For example, I once heard someone say they were a “news junkie.”  What I didn’t say was, “Well you are clearly on something.”  I can’t think of many things that are more damaging to the human spirit than a close attention to the news; especially during an election year.  

I have certain tendencies to start with.  I don’t need to be intentionally reminded of the troubles of the world.  I can see the cloud in every silver lining.  I don’t need the help of the news media to remind me of the negativity of the world.  

It gets to us as human beings; it gets to as a culture; and it gets to us as a church.  It erodes our hope and trains our brains to only see only the bad.  I’m not saying we should just ignore the troubles around us; we’re not going to make the change in this world our Savior calls us to if we pretend that nothing is wrong.  What I am saying is: let’s keep in mind that the world we see around us is not the world we really live in.  We live in the world our Savior proclaimed.  Let us remember that Kingdom; a kingdom that lives in us; a Kingdom we help to build; a Kingdom that will live on long after this one is gone.  

You may know that I am a supporter of the “Me Too” movement.  I know some have mixed feelings about it, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable for men, particularly men of power, to be held accountable for the ways they treat (and even have-treated) other children of God.  And of course, I can be so staunchly supportive of the movement because I know my own personal history.  I know I have never done anything that would jeopardize my position as a pastor.  I have a relatively skeleton-free closet.  I could run for public office and the most questionable thing you’d find about me is the decision to run for public office.  

But having said that, I am a man of a certain age who grew up in a different era.  This movement causes men like me to take stock of that personal history.  I may not have ever done anything that would get me fired, but there may be some things I’m not proud of; there may be some things I regret; I might even owe an apology or two.  

I hope someday, when people look back on my life, I will be remembered for the good and not the dumb things I’ve done.  In short, I’m glad I’m not one of the twelve disciples.  I’m glad I don’t have gospel-writers, telling the Good News of Jesus, while also telling about all of the dumb things the disciples did.  They couldn’t have been that dumb all the time, right?  But those are the stories that got written down.  

To say that what we read today was not their brightest hour is a huge understatement.  They are on their way to Jerusalem.  Jesus has just explained why he’s going to Jerusalem.  He has just told them what is going to happen there.  He just indicated what his kingdom looks like: he has just told them that he will give his life over to brutality and death and that he will rise again in three days.  And without missing a beat, the Sons of Zebedee jump up and try to claim seats of power.  Now, the other disciples are understandably angry, but keep in mind, they’re dumb too.  They’re not angry because James and John have done something wrong; they’re angry because they didn’t think of it first!  

As bad as all of that is—as clueless as that is to what Jesus has just been saying—it’s actually worse than that.  It’s worse because this is not the first time this has happened.  Back in chapter eight, Jesus says something similar: he tells the disciples that he must (quote) “undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”  Then we hear that Peter took him aside and rebuked him.  We’re not sure what Peter said to his teacher, but he was clearly trying to talk Jesus out of going to the Cross.  To that, Peter gets called Satan.  You’d think being called Satan by your teacher would stick with you and teach you a lesson.  Nope. 

One chapter later, Jesus took a trip with the disciples for the express purpose of teaching them.  He tells them again that he will be betrayed, killed, and will rise again.  When they get where they were going, Jesus asks them, “Hey guys, what were you arguing about on the way?”  And of course, that’s when they were arguing about which one of them was the greatest.  

So the story we read this morning isn’t just an example of how the disciples don’t understand Jesus and what he’s doing, it is one in a series of examples of how the disciples don’t understand Jesus and what he’s doing.  Are they not listening?  Are they amazingly forgetful? Are they dumb?  What’s wrong with these people?  

Once upon a time, there was a couple off on a road trip.  They stopped at a roadside restaurant for lunch.  When they were done with their meal, the woman unfortunately left her glasses on the table.  It wasn’t until they were on the road again that she realized what she’d done.  As it turned out, they had to travel quite a distance before they could find a place to turn around.  Of course the man fussed and complained the entire way back to the restaurant.  When they finally got back, as the woman was getting out of the car, the man sighed and said, "While you're in there, you may as well get my hat, too."

We wonder at the cluelessness of the disciples, we may even find them funny, but the truth is: we are just like them.  We may not manifest our cluelessness in the same way, but we are certainly clueless.  We so quickly forget the Jesus we claim to follow and we so quickly forget what went to Jerusalem to do.  We live in fear and confusion.  We become divided and isolated.  We speak more than we listen.  We take more than we give.  We insist on being served more than we seek to serve.  We so quickly give up hope and we lose sight of joy.  

Do you know who else does that?  Everyone.  These are traits, not of the followers of Jesus, but of the world we live in.  These are the traits that are killing us as a culture, and unfortunately they are killing us as a church.  The Sons of Zebedee were not any more ambitious than anyone else; the problem was that they were exactly as ambitious as everyone else.  The thing they failed to see was that, in the Kingdom of Jesus, ambition is worthless.  As are fear, division, isolation, greed, and self-service.  If you look around this world and it all seems overwhelming and disheartening, that’s because it is.  But I would suggest that you may be looking at the wrong world.  

Like Jesus to the twelve, he keeps pointing us—by his work, his words, and his Spirit—to a different world, his Kingdom; but we keep looking at this one.  We live in this world, but we are meant to seek and serve his.  We are meant to live in the Kingdom of God, not as if it’s a someday place, but as if it is a place that is here and now, built in and through us.  

I know that’s hard to do; the disciples show us today that we’ve never been good at it.  But that’s why we’ve got one another.  Let’s learn to ask one another, “Where are you living today?”  And let us learn to answer, “I am living in Kingdom of God.”  And then let us remind one another what that Kingdom looks like.  Because it looks strikingly different than this one.  It is a Kingdom shaped by Jesus himself: a kingdom of self-sacrifice, unconditional love, unity, eternal hope, and eternal life.  This is Good News!  I want to be a news junkie for that kind of news!  How about you?  

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Grownups Are Talking

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I haven’t preached this sermon in a long time… out of fear.  Last time I preached from this text, some heard me say something I didn’t say and wouldn’t ever say.  So before we go any further, we need to draw up a contract, you and I.  We need to be clear about what this sermon is not about.  Please repeat after me: this sermon… is not… about divorce.  

The truth is, I would never judge you for your marital status or history.  If you have gone through a divorce, rather than my judgment, you have my compassion and sympathy.  The fact that I am still married to my first wife is not only by God’s grace, it’s by a lot of hard work.  Even though we’ve been married for twenty-two years, I know well that the next twenty-two are not guaranteed.  I do not and will not judge anyone who has been through a divorce.  And frankly, neither does Jesus.  

If you were following along with the Scripture reading in your pew Bibles, you may have noticed that the section heading for verses 1-12 is titled, “Teaching about Divorce.”  And the well-trained eye may also notice that Jesus, in fact, does not really teach about divorce here, at least not in front of the Pharisees.  Although he is asked about divorce, his answer is about marriage.  He does what I believe those in the political world call a “pivot.”  It’s where you are asked a question and you then answer a different question.  And this isn’t the only pivoting that’s being done in our reading this morning.  

No, they ask Jesus a tricky question about divorce, but the answer Jesus gives is about wholeness; the answer he gives is about what God knows is good for us.  And that’s a truth that extends way beyond marriage: that’s a truth that applies in our friendships, with our siblings, with our neighbors, and especially in our churches.  I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that this Scripture lesson ends with children.  As I consider this story as a whole, I can’t help but think about the children: children, who have the least to do with our relationships falling apart, but who often bear the same scars.  As he does elsewhere, here again Jesus raises up a child as an object lesson; and as before, it isn’t a lesson for the children.  As it is whenever Jesus puts a child before us, it’s a lesson for the grownups.  

An interesting thing happens in this part of the Gospel of Mark.  In the chapter leading up to our text today, there is this reoccurring theme of children.  But again, the point Jesus is building to isn’t for or about the kids.  

This part of Mark’s Gospel begins with an argument among the disciples of which of them were the greatest.  To show them what greatness means in his kingdom, he put a little child in front of them and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”   And then later, Jesus alludes to the child again to make a similar point: speaking of those who are not like us doing the work of Christ, Jesus says, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”  

I hope that it’s not the same kid.  That would be awkward, right?  Every time someone misses the point of what life in the Kingdom of God is all about, Jesus brings out the same kid.  “Come here, Charlie, they need to hear it again.”  Jesus uses, again and again, the image of a child to each us something; and as is often the case when we need to hear the same lesson again and again, we aren’t getting it.  

But before that, the Pharisees come to Jesus with a question designed to make him look bad.  There is no good way to answer their question.  It’s a “yes” or “no” answer that, either way, will alienate someone.  But in fine Jesus-form, he pivots.  He answers their question with a question.  And by the way, here’s something I’ve learned in 22 years of marriage: when someone answers your question with a question, never answer that question.  It is almost always a diversionary tactic.  “Did you eat the rest of my sandwich?”  “Where did you see it last?”  

They ask Jesus about the lawfulness of divorce and Jesus asks them, “What did Moses command you?”  And his use of the word “command” is interesting because they don’t really answer his question either: he asks them about commandments and they answer with what is “allowed.”  Another beautiful example of a pivot.  Jesus asks them about what the law commands and they cite the loophole.  

Isn’t that just like us?  We spent the better part of September talking about practicing good religion; about knowing the difference between a religion that’s about living out our faith to the glory of God and a religion that’s about something else.  Well, it seems we’re not done talking about it yet.  Bad religion is always looking for the loophole.  Rather than trying to grow in our understanding of what God wants for us, bad religion looks for what we can get away with.  

Again, this is not so much a question about divorce.  Jesus asks a better question: what does God want for you?  Understanding that not every relationship does or even should continue; still, what is God’s will for you?  As Jesus points out, God has made us so that we might belong together.  Taking away the legalism we might otherwise be tempted to impose on what Jesus says, he points to a simple truth: God made us to live together and commit to one another.  

And then the child walks back in; actually it seems there were a bunch of them, clamoring for a blessing.  The disciples do the sensible thing: they try to send them away.  These kids are in the way; these kids aren’t useful to the cause; they have no influence or money or importance.  The disciples don’t see any need to have these children around and so they try to send them away.  

But Jesus shows us that we do need them.  We need them like they need us.  Or rather, we need them because they need us.  Who better to illustrate the fact that people belong together – in a family or in a church family – than a child?  Notice how Jesus states the parable this time: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”  I think what Jesus is getting at in this parable is that we depend on one another.  What he’s really pointing to here is how children remind us that we need each other.  Rather than looking for loopholes for how we might separate ourselves from one another, we are to look to the child and remember that we were, from our birth, made to care for one another and depend on one another.  

Today, as we gather around the Table of the Lord, we remember that today is World Communion Sunday; a day in which, many churches around the world, remember this meal that we have in common.  And there’s a huge amount of irony in that.  Yes, we have one faith in one Lord that is celebrated through Christ’s one table.  But we’re also talking about a lot of different churches; churches that have, among many other things, divorced themselves from one another because of various understandings of the meaning of Communion!  Did they have valid reasons for these separations? Sure.  Did they hurt?  You bet!  Will we continue to have legitimate reasons to separate ourselves as individuals and churches from other followers of Christ?  The odds are good.  

But for us, instead of looking for those loopholes, we would do better to remember that we have been made to live together; to depend on one another and to take care of one another.  We would do well to remember that God has made us to live together; and what God has joined together, let no one separate.