Archive for scandal of the Gospel

Wrapping up the Scandal

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on October 28, 2018 by timtrue

Mark 10:46-52

1.

Today wraps up a larger section in the Gospel of Mark that began back in chapter 8, verses 22-26. I’ll read that opening story to you now; as I do, listen for similarities to today’s passage:

They came to Bethsaida. Some people brought a blind man to Jesus and begged him to touch him. He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village; and when he had put saliva on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, “Can you see anything?” And the man looked up and said, “I can see people, but they look like trees, walking.” Then Jesus laid his hands on his eyes again; and he looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly. Then he sent him away to his home, saying, “Do not even go into the village.”

There are some obvious similarities here: there’s a blind man; people bring him to Jesus; Jesus heals him. These similarities provide us with clues that the two stories are connected.

And yet, there are also some significant differences.

The blind man by the Pool of Bethsaida is rather passive, not saying anything that we know of and allowing himself to be led along by others; whereas Bartimaeus is proactive, shouting to Jesus even when the crowd discourages him from doing so.

At Bethsaida, Jesus never asks the blind man what he needs; with Bartimaeus, however, Jesus asks, “What is it you want me to do for you?”

Over here the man is healed in two parts—at first the people look like trees, walking, he said; he sees clearly only after Jesus lays hands on him a second time. Over there Bartimaeus leaps up and throws off his cloak, and his own faith makes him well.

Jesus tells one man to go home without even setting foot in the village; he tells the other man, “Follow me.”

Now, all these observations are worthy of contemplation. But the thing that scholars have long noted—where I want to dwell today—is that these two stories form a pair of bookends.

It’s characteristic of Mark: he does this elsewhere. He tells a story; a little while later he tells a parallel story; and everything in between relates to the bookends.

2.

So then, the easy question is, What are these stories about? Blindness, we answer.

But the more difficult, corollary question is this: How does everything in between relate?

This corollary question is not so easy to answer; but I think we can figure it out. For, if you’ve been in church at all since Proper 19—September 16th, this year—we’ve been talking about it every week—this in-between stuff.

That’s the last seven Sundays in a row, including today: How does blindness thread its way through these seven weeks?

So, here’s a quick review:

On Proper 19 I preached a sermon entitled, “Crying ‘Fowl.’” I told a story from my childhood of an encounter with a bobcat. My neighbor caught the bobcat by means of a trap with a spring mechanism.

This entire section of the Gospel, beginning with the man born blind and ending with Bartimaeus today, is sometimes called the Scandal of Mark. Skandalon, the Greek word from which we get our English word scandal, originally meant “a trap with a spring mechanism.”

We wondered together if Peter may have felt like he’d walked into a trap when Jesus rebuked him: “Get behind me, Satan.”

Next, Proper 20, I preached a sermon called, “Greatness and Awkward Silences.” That day’s passage was structured around two awkward silences: the first because his disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was telling them; and the second because they’d been arguing along the way about who among them was the greatest; and they were embarrassed.

At the conclusion of this passage Jesus called a little child to himself and said, “Whoever welcomes a little child welcomes me.”

On Proper 21 we wondered together what constitutes a community, for Jesus’ disciples had encountered a man who was doing signs and wonders in Jesus’ name but wasn’t a part of their community.

Like the disciples, we like to say we’re welcoming and inclusive, but what does this catchphrase really mean? I considered a few models with you—church as country club, church as museum, church as hipster joint—in this sermon entitled, “Called to Do Welcoming and Inclusive.”

Then, on Proper 22, in a sermon called, “The Kingdom of God and MeToo,” we took on a difficult passage about divorce, remarriage, and adultery, concluding that with the kingdom of God it’s not about what’s permissible but what’s possible.

We human beings like to come up with rules and regulations to govern our institutions, including the church. Jesus says it’s more about who we are called to be than what we should or should not do.

Again, he concluded by calling a little child to himself, this time to say, “Unless you receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it.”

Next, on Proper 23, I preached a sermon called, “Wealth Intervention.” This was about the rich young man who came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” But he went away sad, for he had many possessions.

How difficult it is for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of God, Jesus warned—maybe because it blinds? Remember the bookends.

And last week, Proper 24, I preached a sermon called, “Assessing Effectively,” where we contrasted effective self-assessment with self-absorption.

James and John were at it again, their egos in charge, arguing once more about which of the disciples were the greatest. This time they asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand in glory. They were self-absorbed, not self-assessing.

And yet (we got our noses out of the details and looked at the bigger picture), after they learned to deny themselves and assess themselves effectively, in a kind of holy irony they did in fact become two of the greatest disciples ever.

Which brings us to today, and the story of Blind Bartimaeus.

Do you see (pun intended)? We began with the man born blind; we end with blind Baritmaeus. Everything in between complements and amplifies blindness; or, in other words, what it means to be spiritually blind.

3.

Now, here’s the hard part. Throughout this section, the Scandal of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ followers—not his opponents—are the focal point. It is his followers who demonstrate spiritual blindness.

It’s Peter to whom Jesus says, “Get behind me, Satan.”

It’s the twelve who do not understand what Jesus means when he says he must suffer and die and rise again.

It’s the twelve who fall into petty arguments along the way about who among them is the greatest.

It’s his closest disciples who shoo away the little children, the very ones whom they are supposed to be like.

It’s the rich young man who respects and comes to Jesus eager, wanting to learn from him—but then goes away sad because of his many possessions.

It’s James and John, who’d lived with Jesus day in and day out for three years, who approached him with an audacious, even rash, request.

And did you notice the crowd today? As the passage begins, they’re shushing and otherwise rebuking blind Bartimaeus. But then, when Jesus speaks up and says, “Call him here”—

It’s the fickle crowd who suddenly changes their tune. “Take heart,” they say, “get up, he is calling you.”

Bartimaeus may be physically blind; and yet, isn’t it blind Bartimaeus who really sees more than anyone else?

Throughout the Scandal of the Gospel of Mark, everyone around Jesus, including his closest disciples, is characterized by spiritual blindness. His followers are the focal point; and, today, we are his followers.

That means, like it or not, spiritual blindness characterizes us.

Whether you come to church just a few times a year, attend weekly, volunteer, sing in the choir, serve in leadership, or are ordained as a deacon, priest, or bishop—to some extent each one of us is spiritually blind.

Shouldn’t we work, then, to become more spiritually awake? Shouldn’t we pray daily that Jesus will increasingly open our eyes? Right now we see to some extent: people look like trees, walking. Shouldn’t we want to see people as they truly are?

4.

That’s the hard part: the bad news, if you will.

But there’s good news here too—there always is with the Gospel. We see it today in Jesus’ patience with us.

Jesus rebuked Peter, this is true. But very soon after that—through and beyond the rebuke—Jesus honored Peter. “Look,” Peter said, “we have left everything to follow you.” And Jesus said, “Yes, Peter, I get it. Truly I say to you, anyone who has left anything behind for my sake will receive a hundredfold in the kingdom of God.”

The rich young man came to Jesus and, looking at him, the text states, Jesus loved him.

Today, the crowd is fickle. They shush the blind man; then just as quickly, when they realize that Jesus actually wants to include the blind man in his mission, they welcome and include him. Yet Jesus doesn’t even make an issue of their fickleness. His patience towards them is beyond measure.

So it is with us. As a community of Christ-followers, we have our differences and distractions—whether wealth or ego or interpersonal squabbles or our inability to comprehend the mission Jesus left to us.

Does anyone have the patience for this kind of stuff?

But Jesus does.

Jesus’ patience with us is infinite and eternal. That’s the real scandal of the Gospel!

Called to Do Welcoming and Inclusive

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 3, 2018 by timtrue

Delivered at St. Thomas of Canterbury Episcopal Church on September 30, 2018.

Mark 9:38-50

1.

“Whoever is not against us is for us.” What a welcoming and inclusive phrase!

It reminds me, actually, of a story from Alexander the Great’s conquests. Maybe Jesus had this in mind too.

The year was 331 BCE. In his campaign against Darius III of Persia, Alexander’s army was making significant headway. Strategist that he was, Alexander reasoned he would divert his focus for a time to conquering Egypt. Conquest of Egypt would be advantageous for many reasons, not the least being the establishment of a strong coastal base from which he could communicate across the Mediterranean.

When he reached the town of Pelusium (in Egypt), he was met by a man named Mazaces, the governor who had been left in charge by Darius himself; but only Mazaces—no army, no navy, no kind of resistance whatsoever—for Darius had recently commanded all military forces to return to Persia.

So, Mazaces did the only thing he could think of: he handed over the treasury, 800 talents; and the royal furniture. Alexander installed a new governor, Cleomenes, but warmly received Mazaces, even appointing him to an administrative position overseeing finance and the royal mint.

News of this meeting spread. Later, having sailed up the Nile, Alexander and his navy reached the capitol Memphis. There they were received with a red-carpet reception. Alexander was hailed across the land as Savior and Liberator. As if to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us,” no battle of even the smallest scale took place. In fact, awed as he was by Egyptian culture, Alexander largely returned life to what it had been before Darius.

But this saying also reminds me of St. John’s Episcopal Church, in New Braunfels, Texas: the first Episcopal Church I ever attended, on Maundy Thursday of 2006. Soon after that, the bishop visited and confirmed Holly and me. At last, my family and I had found our spiritual home.

But about a year later, on a Sunday morning, from the pulpit, the rector announced, “After much prayer and discussion, the vestry and I have decided to leave the Episcopal Church. Next Sunday will be my last. In fact, we will march in procession out of these doors and down Guenther Ave. two blocks to where we have rented a new facility. Who’s with us?”

Is this the same thing as to say, “Whoever is not against us is for us”?

Now, the bishop was against him, surely. As for me, I didn’t really care what he, as a person, decided to do; but I was concerned about the parish, the community. I suppose, then, I was against him, in a way.

But what about all the other people, people like my dad, who was far removed from this drama and didn’t really care one way or another. He wasn’t against the rector; did that then mean he was for him?

Well, no.

So, I wonder, what about all those people in and around Galilee and beyond who were ambivalent toward Jesus? Was Jesus saying that, well, they weren’t against him so therefore they must be for him?

Um, Jesus, I’m not so sure it works that way.

We like to say things like, “Whoever is not against us if for us”; and “We’re welcoming and inclusive.” But in reality it doesn’t always flesh out like we think it’s supposed to.

2.

Whatever we make of Jesus’ words, today’s Gospel puts these ideologies to the test.

A man is casting out demons in Jesus’ name; and the disciples want to stop him, “because,” they say, “he was not following us.”

Jesus then says something unexpected: “Do not stop him”; and, “Whoever is not against us is for us”; and we think, rightly, that Jesus wants us to be similarly welcoming and inclusive.

However, did you catch what happens a little farther down? Jesus says it would be better to maim the body than to enter hell whole. Entering hell complete is still complete hell.

But here’s the thing: by body Jesus probably means the common metaphor for church; then what Jesus is now saying is that there is a time and place to be exclusive. Specifically, it is better to cut off a bad body part—better to exclude a present member of the community—than not to include an outsider seeking to come in.

Include the outsider yet exclude the insider? Is this a paradox? What gives?

At the very least, today’s passage brings up some difficult questions about communities that are formed in Christ’s name: churches.

Questions like:

Who is in the community; and who is not?

And:

Once a person is in the community, what are acceptable behaviors; and what are not?

3.

We, the Christian church, like to say we’re welcoming and inclusive. It’s a good thing to say. Nevertheless, what we do often demonstrates otherwise.

What do I mean?

Well, for starters, a church can become like a museum.

A museum is beautiful—and sacrosanct and awe-inspiring and all that—but at the end of the day it is mostly a place for artifacts, things that maybe once upon a time made the world a better place but have lost their relevance for today.

Chanting Rite I, facing east, wearing holy vestments from Roman times, burning incense, singing masses—these sorts of things are spectacularly and aurally beautiful, and no one wants to see or hear them fade out entirely; but when they become a church’s main focus, that church largely loses its relevance to the outside world.

A church can also become like a country club.

Now, don’t get me wrong, country clubs are nice places—the food, the recreational activities, the hospitality, the friends. But the reality is they are there to serve the insiders, the members, those who pay the annual fees. Apart from a modicum of marketing efforts, country clubs do very little for the outside world; and likewise the outside world is little concerned about what happens inside the country club—or the country club church.

A third analogy: I’ve heard statements made on many occasions like this: “That church is in hospice.”

The idea is that the church body in question is on its last leg, doing all it can to keep going another year or month or week or day before it is forced to close its doors. The focus is no longer on its life in connection with the outside world, but on life support: on how much longer it can be kept going.

Hospice facilities are good and necessary; and a very real part of the church’s responsibility is to focus on end-of-life issues. But death is just that: only part of the story. New life—resurrection—is the other part. And if you ask me, new life actually takes precedence over everything else. It’s the focal point in all our liturgies, even funerals. The goal of a “church in hospice” shouldn’t be to keep it going.

On the other hand, a fourth analogy, a church can just as easily become hipster.

But, regardless of how much a church tries to keep up with the times—technology, fashion, music, how cool the pastor is, whatever—trends toss and turn like the waves of the sea; yet the deeper realities and needs of humanity, the outside world, continue.

One more: a church can become a school of theology, where doctrine becomes the brand. What matters to a church like this is where you stand or don’t stand on hot topics—abortion or home-schooling or global warming, for instance.

I could go on, there are more analogies; but the point has been made. In each of these cases—no matter how welcoming and inclusive they say they are—these churches end up excluding those who are not like them.

And this is Jesus’ point today: even as communities of Christians, we humans naturally establish unwritten rules—shibboleths, invisible boundaries, walls—to keep out those who don’t see things the way we do.

But when these are stumbling blocks . . . it would be better to tie a millstone around our necks and plunge into the sea, Jesus says, than to put them in the way of those outside of our community who seek to come in.

I cannot stress it enough: Jesus calls us not just to be but to do welcoming and inclusive.