Throughout Epiphany, we get these tasty hors d’oeuvres of Jesus going about fulfilling His mission. In this week’s reading from Luke, Jesus reads a pointed piece of Scripture, hands it back, and sits down. What do you think this has to do with the Jesus’s mission? A lot.
Eating Scripture is a short video series in which we explore the juicy and the crunchy in this week’s gospel in four minutes or fewer.
Jesus heals people. At this point this seems like old news. Remember several chapters ago when Jesus healed the man of leprosy? Jesus urges the man to tell no one and instead, the blabbermouth runs into town and tells everybody about Jesus. It seems so long ago now. Routine. A blind begger is given his sight. Just another story of healing. No urging to tell no one. Maybe Jesus has given up on that idea. It wasn’t a secret anybody could keep, anyway. No blabbing to everyone in town. To us, this story might seem pretty mundane.
We could be excused then if we just jumped to that powerful line toward the end. Jesus urges the man “Go; your faith has made you well.” Many are going to hear this morning about faith and about the rewards of faith. Many other people are going to hear that Jesus isn’t the healer; GOD is. That this is just like the woman that touched Jesus’s cloak. Many preachers will preach about GOD’s healing, restorative power.
I am not. That’s not what I’m preaching today. Because this isn’t any old healing. This isn’t just a story of redemption. This is the capstone of the journey. This is the end of the line. And this is the moment in which we anticipate how everything will be revealed.
Not Such a Simple Story
We must hold in our minds for a moment that we have read through three straight chapters of Jesus talking about discipleship, turning his attention to Jerusalem, and preparing for his death. He has warned his followers of what is to come and they have failed to understand Him. He described a worldview that they are to use to replace the dominant worldview; to start not just a paradigm shift, but a paradigm overhaul.
Our own response to these chapters was to have our assumptions challenged. We have heard difficult things about how we treat children and minorities, divorce, and wealth. This has been a really tough sequence. So we might be tempted to read this morning’s gospel story as a respite: a simple healing story like all of the others.
This is no simple healing story.
There are many reasons why, but we need to speak of only one. This blind begger has a name. Let’s let that sink in.
He isn’t The Blind Begger. He is Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus is a blind begger. The recipients of Jesus’s healing ministry aren’t named in any of the gospels. The only other is Lazarus, who was already one of Jesus’s buddies. So this man is the only one who is healed and is named in the text.
What’s In a Name?
There’s an obvious reason he is named. He becomes a disciple. While others are focusing on Jesus’s statement at the end of this morning’s text, the important sentence is the one immediately after that, which concludes chapter 10:
Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
The man had lost his ability to see the world and Jesus helped him retrieve it. But more importantly, the man sprang up from the ground, threw off his cloak and in that moment got in line behind Jesus.
Greater than his physical blindness was his spiritual blindness.
Bartimaeus is named because he’s a disciple. Therefore being a disciple is way more important to this story than the healing or the faith. It was all in the action. It was in his declaration that Jesus is the Son of David, in the shedding of his garments, in his leaping to his feet, and especially, in the act of getting behind Jesus and following Him. That day the new walls of Jericho fell down.
We Are St. Paul’s
We receive this story because to the early church becoming a disciple is more important than receiving GOD’s redemption or the healing touch of Jesus. Perhaps because we are all freely given such miraculous grace; that this is the part that is on us. What is different for us today is in Bartimaeus’ participation in the Jesus event; in his response to Jesus. That our response to Jesus is more important than what He has done for us. That we shed our cloaks, spring up, and embrace our own calling to this world.
The good news is that we already are. We are already hearing the call to discipleship. We are already hearing the call to generous giving and faithful devotion. We have ministries at home and abroad we are beginning to tackle with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit. We are embracing the challenges before us. In all of this, St. Paul’s is embracing its future powerfully.
Many of us are taking up new expressions of our discipleship; baking bread for the Bishop’s visit next week; heading up our fundraising effort for Nets for Life; meeting to worship in new ways.
We must not forget, however, that our journey with Jesus inevitably leads to Jerusalem; that death is around the corner. That we, for all of that grace given to us, will die. But through death, we find new life. For all our struggles and all that we have going for us, we are assured of a future, even when our present is over. Jesus invites us to follow Him through it all.
I am sure that we are so called. Because we have a name.
On her blog yesterday, the Rev. Susan Russell announced a Celebration of Equality. It is a really special event in the life of her Pasadena congregation and I’m sure is going to be an awesome sight. In the midst of this celebration is a “sneak preview” of a new documentary about the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, whom she describes as “the first openly gay bishop in the high church traditions of Christendom”. The film is called Love Free or Die. It says on the poster:
LOVE FREE OR DIE is about a man whose defining passions the world cannot reconcile: his love for God and for his partner Mark. Bishop Gene Robinson will not give up on either.
I for one am eager to watch what is certain to be an engaging documentary with a subject that is so close and relevant to our recent Christian history. But the film brings up a greater question to me than simply how does Bp. Robinson reconcile what he has been taught with what he feels, which makes for an engaging film, but there is something more fundamental than that. How do we reconcile being taught things that are in conflict with each other? In this case, the specific teaching by modern churches of the incompatibility of homosexuality with the conviction of loving anybody generously as demonstrated frequently in the form of loving those we’re taught (often by society, but also often by our church) to despise.
The wholly inadequate response of “love the sinner / hate the sin” shows neither such a clear division of action or any of that supposed “love”. Similarly, the drive on the part of many to ignore one teaching while supporting the other rings hollow and false to most people, Christian and non-Christian alike. In my own sandbox of Christianity, the supposed “listening process” that was begun in the late 1990s to determine the mind of the church on homosexuality was a farce. Not because there weren’t a large number of Episcopalians and other Anglicans wrestling with the theology of homosexuality (as many did), but because this was a political attempt to sweep it under the rug and stop the rising tide of support for equality; and therefore not listen.
My own views on this have evolved over the last decade, and thankfully continue to evolve. But this can only happen if we engage the challenging bits of our faith. Like not necessarily reconciling two teachings that are at odds with one another. Perhaps one of our teachings is wrong. Perhaps one of them is less right than the other. Perhaps one is for us to worry about and the other is for GOD. Perhaps we should take a more mature reading of Scripture than we normally take. Perhaps Scripture shouldn’t be used as a dividing line in any event. Perhaps it isn’t GOD that screwed up, but us. Perhaps current teaching is based not in good exegesis but in faulty human tradition. Perhaps Scripture never actually said what we think it says.
That is where Christ meets the world, after all. In those spaces of human abuse and rejection of our brothers and sisters is the place where Jesus appears, feeding, clothing, comforting, liberating. And where we, in our ivory towers of certainty, erected by a self-righteous belief in our own systems of separation find ourselves further and further from those in greatest need of Christ like a Babelish tower reaching toward GOD and departing from the people GOD calls us to serve. From this spot, we wrestle. Wrestle with these great questions of our faith. Or like Jacob, we wrestle with the very figure of our God.
I saw a comment online a week or so ago about these gospel readings we’ve had that said something to this effect:
What horrible readings for stewardship season!
This morning’s gospel, like the last few weeks have been a pretty mixed bag. On the one hand, we are given a vision of prudent, thoughtful behavior. At the same time, we see some pretty harsh treatment of the ignorant.
In this one specifically, we have that compelling moment in which Jesus says what one does for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned–
“Surprise! You did it for me!”
This is an incredibly gut-wrenching moment for us. It hits us like this low-blow and we are reeling.
-because this isn’t just anybody and this isn’t just anything. This is what we do, when, and with whom.
-and Jesus isn’t sticking to the subject of what we do, he moves to what we didn’t do. Who we ignored, walked past, had someone else help.
We can’t read this and not get confused. Are we sheep or goats? I give to charity (like a sheep) but not every time I see a coin box (like a goat). So aren’t we a bit of both?
The gospel then asks a bigger question than our own cosmic place. It asks about the very principle of division—how we all get sorted out in the end.
How we sort
Let’s start with us: how do we sort ourselves? Jesus used examples that people would know, so let’s use a better example for us than sheep and goats. I like dogs and cats. When we deal with differentiation, we seem to do it in four steps. We begin with our own affirmation: “I love dogs.” Then we name the other, which we condemn: “I hate cats.” The third step is to self-identify in a group: “We love dogs.” Lastly, we differentiate from the “other” group: “We hate cat-lovers.”
Notice how we move from the thing to the person: first we hate cats then we hate the people who love them.
Many of you are probably cat-lovers and now hate me for hating you. We could, and ought, to switch the animals around and prove why cats are better. We could do the same with the goats.
This second point is essential. We easily differentiate and group ourselves without thought or intention. We condemn one animal for simply not being another. We do the same for people.
So here’s the million dollar question: does G-d really divide us and condemn us this way? Because, let’s be honest, it isn’t really fair.
-My reasons for loving dogs are pretty good (mostly about personality) but my reasons for condemning cats aren’t. They’re actually pretty outrageous and unfair (again, mostly about personality).
Is G-d this petty?
The last time I was here we had a pretty petty vision of G-d in that gospel, too. Do you remember? It was the one about the king throwing this wedding banquet for his son and he killed all the guests for skipping out. That was a few chapters ago, but it all takes place on the same day: Tuesday of Holy Week. That parable began with the phrase: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” This one is a lot like that one. The evangelist we call Matthew began this chapter, #25, the exact same way. Jesus then tells three parables that have one common element: they’re about division. We have 1) the Bridesmaids, 2) the slaves, and 3) the livestock. Here’s the really good news for us: this dividing, how they’re divided, doesn’t fit the Protestant 6-line paradigm about salvation, which is awesome for us!
Each of these three parables is not a division between good and evil but between those who know better and those who don’t. See it this way: if it were good and evil and other-worldly heaven and hell, the sheep and goats (or dogs and cats) would be divided between the givers and the stealers. Follow me? But we have givers and ignorers.
Jesus is the Son of Man and this, our world, is the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus isn’t proclaiming an apocalyptic future but a divided present that is unlike G-d’s grand vision for us. Jesus is reflecting our world back at us. So he’s saying we divide dogs and cats and exalt one and condemn the other. G-d doesn’t.
G-d’s building a better kingdom than this is now and we are working there already!
The kingdom depends on us
I know this sounds kind of weird, but this seems to bookend Jesus’s public ministry with a much earlier event. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, kicks off Jesus’s ministry by speaking of how the Kingdom of Heaven is for (every-one) and who is responsible (us). It ends with this parable about division and discord. He ends his public teaching with a sequence of parables which appear to counter all the pre-Jerusalem teachings about mercy and love for others. But this is [I think] intentionally dark. The next chapter is Jesus bringing his disciples close and feeding them one last time. He is then tried as a terrorist and killed as one.
But the story doesn’t end there, does it? Neither does it end in resurrection. It ends with people, filled with the Holy Spirit, telling other people about this weird guy who stood up to the Roman Empire. Not the dark and not the bright light, but daylight.
Here’s the thing for us: our world divides us; we don’t have to. We’re called to love, not just the poor and sick and not just Jesus separately, but we’re called to do it together, in the way only we can do it. And to do that, we’re going to need all of us to give: generously and sacrificially to this crazy endeavor that is Transfiguration—A people of vision who experience G-d’s transformative power.
This passage is known as the Parable of the Talents. Which is unfortunate, since it sometimes gives us the wrong idea. We think that it has something to do with investing our talents and treasure in the Kingdom of God. That’s what we normally preach. And we’d be wrong.
We also preach that this has to do with punishment; that God punishes the weak, the ignorant and the lazy (hide it under a bush? NO!). But that’s wrong too.
It is something much more sensible than either. When we get a strange vision of God from Scripture, what makes us think that we shouldn’t question that vision?
In this parable, (Matthew 25:1-13) with bridesmaids, waiting for the bridegroom, the easy reading is wrong. It doesn’t work. If we see this as being about…The Second Coming or Heaven after death or the perfect example of Christian community…
Then God is an idiot.
See, the easy reading makes us think two things:
We need to prepare for Jesus or God to show up.
We’ll get judged as smart or stupid, with the stupid left out.
Does this even sound like God?
Proper 27A, Matthew 25:1-13
Also check out some great takes on this gospel, first Lauren Winner’s reading, which is spot on about the passage being wrong, and then check out David R. Henson at his blog, and his sermon can be found here at Religion at the Margins.
How then, might we envision the Kingdom of Heaven?
Two of the most recognizable parables sandwich a poor, misunderstood parable in Luke’s gospel. A parable of revolutionary proportions, often mistaken for an afterthought. A small, instructive parable that speaks today in the volume of a whisper with the effect of a hand grenade.
Before we get to that parable, it is useful to talk about what is around it. Continue reading →
In this corna! Weighing in at a paltry 135 pounds of emaciated flesh, Jesus of Nazareth! And in this corna! Weighing a combined 1,600 portly pounds, the Pharisees! [Booooo!]
For the last few weeks, we’ve been dealing with this sequence in Jerusalem in which Jesus is tangling with the Jewish leadership. He takes on the chief priests, the scribes, the Sadducees, and now the Pharisees come after him with their last best shot:
“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
Tricky! Another trap! But Jesus turns it around on them. Of course the Shema would be good, but then he tacks on “the golden rule”. In Mark’s version of the story, it is a scribe asking this question of Jesus. This is how I imagine a modern retelling of that exchange:
Scribe: OK, I’ve got a tough one. Which commandment is greatest?
Jesus: Love God with all your heart, mind, and strength. But also love your neighbor as yourself.
Scribe: Huh! That is some serious Jedi $#@! Wow! There wasn’t actually supposed to be an answer, but you made one! Do you have any room in your posse for me?
So Matthew doesn’t quite have such an exchange. He has Jesus respond then give it back. It is something like a quick jab followed by an uppercut that knocks them flat on their backs. If the Messiah is the Son of David, how can David call him Lord? That shuts them up pretty well.
Over at the Hardest Question, Danielle Shroyer deals with the time/space conundrum in Jesus’s rebuttal query. If he is before David, how can he come after him? And why didn’t we see that coming?
Jesus’s question was
“Whose son is he?”
Of course, this raises for many all of the theological soft tissue, dealing with Jesus as the divine Son of God and the human Son of David. But that is all 2000 years of theological extrapolation. I’m intrigued by how they would have heard this suggestion. If we were to answer the question, we wouldn’t say David’s son, we’d say God’s, right? But they are thinking about David, divine ruler of the chosen people. They are thinking about lineage and promises to the people and a forgiving and splendid God of theirs and their ancestors. The Messiah would no doubt come from that family line.
The power for me in this message comes from their expectation and Jesus’s enunciation. They expected the Messiah to be a divinely aided human ruler who would liberate the Jewish people from Rome. Jesus enunciated our human relationship to God and one another. That our own expectations are to avoid these principles, instead focusing on a divinely-created spiritual ruler, leaves us in strange theological turf.
In asking the Pharisees about the Messiah, was Jesus intending to shut them up, or did He have something else in mind?
Is it possible that we, like the Pharisees fail to understand that Jesus’s question was meant to illustrate His answer to their question?
Could it be that the lesson about Christ’s nature is not physical, but a very reflection of the great commandment?