Saturday, April 13, 2024

“Look at Us” - April 14, 2024

Text: Acts 3:1-10

The Book of Acts is an action-packed book – I mean, wild things happen on almost every page.  Last week we looked at Jesus giving his followers instructions to wait for the Spirit to come, and then he ascended to heaven.  Then in Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit did show up in a powerful way, with tongues of fire, and Peter gave a sermon about how this was the fulfillment of the promise given to the prophet Joel, that God’s Spirit would be poured out on all flesh, to all people.  Three thousand people were baptized that day.  We will look more closely at that on Pentecost Sunday.  

And then the fledgling church got down to the messy and necessary work of figuring out what this all meant in their daily lives – what it meant to live as a community that was led by the Spirit.  This new way of life involved sharing fellowship, sharing meals, praying together, worshiping together, sharing what they had so that everyone’s needs were met, and basically living simply and generously and joyfully.  

This brings us up to this morning’s scripture.  At the temple in Jerusalem, there were three daily prayer times: at 9 am, 12 noon, and 3 o’clock.  John and Peter were going to the temple at 3:00 for prayer and they come upon a man who is crippled – lame from birth, we are told.  Apparently, some friends or family members carried him there every day at this time so that he could ask for alms from those arriving for prayer.  He was there at the high traffic time of day.

This man’s physical condition probably meant that he was not allowed to be a part of worship at the temple.  There is reference to this both in Leviticus and in 2 Samuel.  The gate where he sat was as far as he could go.  Peter and John came to the temple and saw this man, asking for help.  And what happens is very interesting.

They stop to help him.  Not out of compulsion and not for what they would get out of it, but simply because here was someone who needed help.   

Both Peter and John look at the man intently and then they say to him, “Look at us.”  It’s a little out of the ordinary, don’t you think?  It’s not the way we usually interact with someone who is asking us for something.

In fact, it is the opposite of the way we generally relate to such a person.  We have learned to avert eye contact.  We often try to keep it as impersonal as possible.  And particularly with a person begging on the street, we generally don’t want to be noticed.  That can even be true for the Salvation Army ringers at Christmas or kids selling Girl Scout cookies at Hy-Vee – if we don’t have a donation to make, we want to kind of slip on by unnoticed.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of people went through this gate to the temple every day, and you have to think that for the vast majority, this man was just part of the scenery.  Oh, they might give him something as part of their religious duty, but to really engage him, to look him in the eye and relate to him as a person - that was something else.

“Looks at us.”  Why would this man not be looking at Peter and John?  

It’s not hard to imagine.  If you were reduced to asking for alms, that meant you were on the lowest rung of society.  There is an honor/shame dynamic going on here.  This man knows his place.  He is too embarrassed, too ashamed, he feels too inferior to look them in the eye.

But when Peter and John say, “Look at us,” this man looks up.  What Peter and John are doing is no small thing.  They are saying, let’s forget about social classes and social rank and the dynamics of begging for help and almsgiving.  What if we just treat each other as human beings?

Peter and John saw this man.  Not as a poor man with a physical disability that forced him to beg for a living.  They saw him as a person.  “Hey, look at us,” they said.  It was OK to look them in the eye.  In God’s sight, they were equal.

They truly see each other, and then Peter said, “I have no silver or gold, but what I do have I will give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.”  Peter takes him by the hand, and immediately the man felt his feet and ankles made strong.  He started walking and leaping in the air, and then he entered the temple with Peter and John.  People recognized him as the guy who always begged for alms at the gate, and they were amazed.

This is a miracle of healing.  This man was lame from birth and now for the first time, he could walk.  

That is the first miracle.  But there is another.  The man enters the temple with Peter and John, and everyone is amazed.  He has never been able to worship in the temple before.  He is able to fully be part of the community, and that may have been just as great a miracle.  The man’s life was changed physically, but it was also changed spiritually and socially.  This man had just hoped for a couple of bucks, but he received so much more.  

Now, healing stories like this are always problematic – this one perhaps even more than most, because it isn’t Jesus doing the healing, it is Peter and John.  Through the power of the Spirit they were able to carry on Jesus’ ministry and even perform healings.

So, why can’t my pastor do that?  Why can’t our deacons go out and heal?  Why doesn’t this happen today?

Healings - what we would think of as miraculous healings - do happen, yet today.  But for every person healed in what seems a miraculous way, there are a whole bunch of people who are not.  Some of us here have prayed for healing for ourselves or others that did not come.  And so, what are we to make of this?  And how are we to offer healing or participate in healing?

Rolf Jacobson, a professor at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, had cancer as a teenager, which led to having both of his legs amputated.  He spent a lot of time in the hospital.  He said that a lot of people suffering from illness face a great deal of isolation.  When he was in the hospital, none of his best friends came to visit him.  It was just too hard for them.  One even told him, “I don’t like to see you that way.”

It is difficult to see people hurting.  We all know that.  But when we turn away from them, their pain can become even greater.  The man who was healed experienced physical healing, but just as important, he was restored to community.  He was seen as a person.  

So what can we do?  We may not be the conduit of God’s physical healing.  But like Peter and John, we can offer what we have.  For loved ones who are ill, we can be there.  We can offer our presence.  We can pray.  We can make sure they are included.  And for everyone we see in need, we can be kind.  We can see people in need as people, as real live human beings.  We can care about them and we can advocate for them.
It is interesting that this gate to the temple was called the Beautiful Gate.  For some, it was a symbol of welcome to the fellowship of the gathered community inside.  But for others, the Beautiful Gate took on an ugly function: to keep people out.  Gentiles could go no farther than this gate.  Those who were lame or blind or considered ceremonially unclean were not allowed through this gate.  

The Chicago Tribune told the story of a man who walked into a Chipotle and ordered a burrito bowl.  The guy behind the counter was friendly, thin, covered in tattoos, with short black hair, and as he scooped food into the dish, he looked at the tall, middle-age white-haired customer. 

“I think we know each other,” he said.  The customer, who had been thinking the same thing, said, “Where did we meet?”  “Diversey and California,” said the counter guy.  “I was a panhandler.”  “Nic!” the customer cried. “How are you?”

Nic Romano looked different from the panhandler Mike Nowak had known - no more long, dirty hair, no more filthy, bulky clothes - but he was as polite as Nowak remembered, and they talked until it came time to pay.  Nowak reached for his wallet. The cashier waved him off.

“No,” said the cashier, as Romano flashed him a smile, “you’re good.”  Nowak walked away with a free burrito bowl, served by Nic Romano.  It was a better return on investment than Nowak had ever dreamed.

Sunday after Sunday, around 8 a.m., even in the fierce heat and bitter cold, Nowak had passed the panhandler on the way to host his gardening show on WCPT radio.  He usually gave the guy a couple of dollars.  They encountered each other so often that they eventually learned each other’s names and occasionally visited a little.   Nowak learned that Nic had an addiction, maybe more than one.  But then one Sunday, Nic wasn’t there, and he never showed up again.  Mike feared the worst.

Nic grew up in an affluent North Shore suburb where he began drinking and doing drugs as a high school sophomore.  His family tried to help, he says, but he was kicked out of high school.  For a long time, he was a functional heroin addict.  After overdosing three times, he managed to get clean.  But in a moment of distress, he told himself, “Oh, just this one time isn’t going to matter.”  But it wasn’t just that once.  He eventually lost his job, lost his apartment, and wound up on the streets.  

Begging embarrassed him.  But his addiction was more powerful than embarrassment.  He was finally arrested for violating probation and when the cops came, Nic went quietly, even gratefully.  Seventeen years of heroin.  Half his life.  He was sick of it.

“God,” he remembers thinking, “put me wherever you know I can get help.  I’m at rock bottom.  I can’t do it anymore.”  Romano calls his four months in rehab at Cook County Jail a blessing.  Now he was working two jobs and seeing an addictions counselor, and when he runs into people who helped him out while he was panhandling, people like Mike, he goes out of his way to say hello.

“I just have to say something,” he says.  “I like to be able to say thank you for your kindness, thank you for your blessings, I want you to know I’m better.”

Mike Nowak is glad that his donations helped keep Nic going until he could get his life together and he said, “I would rather live in a world where people attempt to engage than put on blinders.”  

That is exactly where our scripture for today begins.  Peter and John see this man at the gate.  He is a person with a story.  He is a person of value.  They really see him, they engage him.  And it leads to healing – not only of body, but of spirit.  He joins the community.  
We can be a part of that miracle of community when we remove barriers, whether they are physical or cultural or spiritual.  We can be part of that miracle of community by welcoming others in.

Now, when I read this story, there is, at least for me, one question hanging in the air.  And it has to do with the whole temple structure and system.  Why was it that people with physical problems like this man could not enter the temple?  Why could women go into the outer court but then no further?  Why was there such a big deal about being ceremonially clean or unclean?  Why did there need to be such an insider/outside divide?

The man would sit each day by the Beautiful Gate.  And maybe a question to ask is: does the church have a gate?  Can the church be like a gated community?  Is the gate a way to keep folks out, or is it an entrance through which to offer welcome?

There are all kinds of ways we make people feel welcome or not welcome.  Some of the structures of our society are set up to exclude, sometimes without our even realizing it.  People can be excluded by rules or traditions or maybe by a certain vibe we are not even aware of that says, “You really need to be like us.”  

People can certainly be excluded by architecture and physical structures.  Accessibility is not always easy, especially with older buildings like ours.  We have a ramp and an elevator – we have made improvements, but this is still not the easiest building to get into and get around in.  

Of equal importance is what we might call social and spiritual accessibility.  It is not just whether a person can physically enter the building; the question is whether folks are truly welcome into the community.  Folks like this man – considered different, considered an outsider, a person on the margins.  Who are those people outside the gate today?

With an extravagant welcome for everyone, the church is truly the church of Jesus Christ and a community where we are truly seen and where we truly see one another.  To become a part of the community is to enter through a Beautiful Gate, a gate that leads to hope and healing.  Amen.


Saturday, March 16, 2024

“It’s the End of the World As We Know It” - March 17, 2024

Text: Mark 13:1-8, 24-37

Susan and I had a friend back in Illinois, a retired pastor named Dick.  Dick had a bowl of cereal for breakfast every morning.  His system was that he had five boxes of cereal and he would rotate each morning which cereal he would eat that day.  He told us that one of the cereals he ate he really didn’t care for.  

We asked him, “Why on the world would you have a cereal you don’t like in your breakfast rotation?”  And he told us, “It’s a good discipline.”

I thought about Dick this week.  We have been making our way through Mark’s gospel.  Some passages are tougher than others, but I have to confess that I am not all that enamored with the scripture for today.  I considered skipping it, but then I thought of Dick.  “It’s a good discipline.”

The 13th chapter of Mark is sometimes called the “Little Apocalypse.”  My inclination is to avoid preaching on such apocalyptic passages that can be confusing and lead to all kinds of wild speculation.  And I suppose I have too many memories of my youth, when people I knew were overly enthusiastic about the Rapture and end of the world scenarios and the Mark of the Beast and so forth.  

But we have been reading from Mark since the beginning of the year.  We have tried to follow the story line, and it doesn’t seem fair to Mark to ignore it, so here we are in chapter 13.  And it’s good discipline.

Jesus has been in the temple complex, made up of buildings and outdoor areas and an outer wall.  He has been teaching and responding to detractors.  He has just answered a question about which was the greatest commandment and then made an observation about a widow who gave her two coins, which we looked at last week.  As Jesus and his disciples left the temple, some of his disciples commented on how magnificent it all was.  “Look at those massive stones,” they say.  “Look at these ginormous buildings.”

The temple dominated the Jerusalem skyline.  While not as extravagant as the first temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, this second temple was nevertheless very impressive.  

Like everything in the ancient world, construction was done with manual labor.  And it really is amazing to see the massive structures built in antiquity and contemplate how in the world they moved such massive stones and managed to build such impressive structures.   

Micah Kiehl reports that when later Greeks saw the stonework from abandoned Bronze Age settlements, they called the style “cyclopean” because, to their eye, the only way such large stones could have been moved and arranged would be if a Cyclops had done it.  Many of the stones used in construction of the temple were about 2.5 x 3.5 x 15 feet and weighed about 28 tons, but some weighed well over 100 tons.  Think about moving and setting a 100 ton stone in the ancient world.  The temple in Jerusalem was a monumental structure.  The disciples didn’t just see this kind of thing every day.  They were rural folk from Galilee.  Of course they commented on what a phenomenal building it was.

But Jesus is not thinking about stonework or architecture right now.  He is in the midst of the last week of his life.  His arrest and death are near.  He says, “Yeah, these are big buildings.  And guess what: it is all coming down.  Not one stone will be left upon another.”

“From there, it only gets worse,” he says.  “False prophets will lead people astray.  There will be arrests and persecutions.  There will be earthquakes, famine, suffering, the sun will go dark and the heavens will be shaken.  And then the Son of Man will come in great glory.”

I read passages like this and that song starts playing in my head: “It’s the End of the World As We Know It.”  Images of wild-eyed prophets on street corners with signs saying “The End Is Near” come to mind.  Folks who have maybe overdosed on Bible prophecy announce the exact day that the world will end, and how the elect (which somehow always includes them) will be saved while there will literally be hell to pay for everybody else.

But you know, it isn’t just that particular Christian subset, God love ‘em, that sees an end of the world coming.  This is a time of anxiety for an awful lot of people.  

We can list off the concerns.  Ecological and environmental threats: global warming, rising sea levels, increased drought, more extreme weather, wildfires, water shortages, climate refugees.

And then the rise of terrorism, both global and domestic.  Gun violence and mass shootings.  A dysfunctional political system and the specter of political violence.  Increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots.  An increasingly uncivil society.  And as our text puts it, “wars and rumors of war,” which certainly describes our world today.

A lot of people are anxious.  Many of us are feeling anxious.   In times of trouble and stress and persecution and great fear, apocalyptic literature and language is often employed.

One commentator said, “Contrary to what you have been led to believe, when Jesus goes apocalyptic, and talks of the end, he’s not predicting the future; he is speaking of the precariousness of the present.  This temple, this world, is not as stable, not as eternal as it appears.”

Scholars believe that Mark was written sometime around 70 AD.  Guess what happened in 70 AD?  The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans.  It was a cataclysmic event for Israel.  The temple was the center of worship and national life, and it was a powerful symbol of the nation, going back centuries, back to the temple that preceded it and all the way to King Solomon.  

Without the temple, it was hard to imagine that they could even exist as a people.  Take 9/11 and multiply it a hundredfold, and you start to get a sense of what the loss of the temple meant to the national consciousness.  This was very much on the minds of Mark’s first readers.  

It really was The End of the World as They Knew It.  And this is exactly what Jesus is talking about.  This temple, this magnificent structure that holds so much meaning, that represents so much – it is just a building.  It is just a building made of stones, even if they are big stones, and it is all coming down.

But Jesus is saying more than that.  He is working on more than one level.  Jesus has three different times spoken of the destruction of the temple that is his own body, and of rising again after three days.  After he is arrested, accusers will conflate the two temples, saying “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’”

While Jesus may have been speaking of the temple, he is also speaking of himself.  Much of the language and imagery of this chapter comes to pass in Jesus’ passion and death.  Jesus says “Stay awake” – which he will repeat to his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane.  The sun will turn dark – which we read as happening during the crucifixion.  The temple will be destroyed – which happened in 70 AD, but which in a sense takes place when Jesus is crucified, as the curtain of the temple is torn in two.  And the glory of God will be seen – as voiced by the Roman centurion, who said, “Truly this man was the Son of God.”

This was as much about the present as it was the future.

Jesus is near the end.  And when you are near the end, there is a lot of fear.  There is a lot of anxiety.  There is a lot of pain.  In one way or another, we all know about this.  We have all experienced those times when it seems to be “The End of the World as We Know It.”

Before moving to Ames, we lived in the small town of Arthur, Illinois – that’s where we knew Dick, the guy who had cereal every day.  The high school was very small, with around 150 students.  For such a small school, they had an excellent music program and an award-winning show choir and did very well in sports.  The football team had made the regional playoffs.  The town took great pride in these accomplishments.  But there was one group in particular.  

There was a group of girls in the same grade.  In 5th grade, 6th grade, you could see how talented they were in basketball.  This group was special.  When they were freshmen, the high school team started 4 freshmen and a senior, and one of those freshmen was the star of the team.  As the years went on, this team made the playoffs, but inevitably had to play a school 4 or 5 times its size with two 6’3” post players and didn’t advance very far.

But when those girls were seniors, there were great expectations.  The star player would be going on to play Division 1 basketball.  The team had been playing together for years and knew how to play together.  They started those same 4 players, all seniors now, and one junior.

In the first round, they played a powerhouse team from a school of 750 students.  Not many people gave them a chance, but they won easily.  Folks were talking about going to state.  It was our own version of Hoosiers.  I went with a friend to the second round of playoffs.  And it was awesome; again, we were crushing a much bigger school.  The mood was absolutely jubilant.  

Early in the second half, our star was driving to the basket when her knee gave out.  She collapsed in a heap on the floor.  The crowd, which had been cheering and celebrating, became deathly silent.  You could hear a pin drop.  Our star was carried off the floor.  Nobody had to say a word.  We all knew what this meant.  The other players held on to win that game, but that was it.  Literally years of hoping and dreaming, and it all ended with a torn ACL.

I am not equating missing out on a chance for a championship with some of the deep pain that life can throw at us.  But there are those moments when everything suddenly changes.  There are those moments when it seems to be The End of the World As We Know It.

You lose a job.  Immediately there are concerns over paying your bills, but it can be more than that.  Your job may have been a big part of your identity, and you are not sure what you are going to do.  Where will you live, will you have to move, what about the kids?   

Tyson Foods announced the closure of its plant in Perry this week, and a lot of people are feeling like it is the end of the world as they know it.  

You or a loved one receive a difficult diagnosis.  It hits you like a ton of bricks, and you know that life will literally never be the same.  

You go through a breakup.  You go through a divorce, and in an instant you know that your future will take a different course from what you had planned for and hoped for.

A parent, or spouse, or friend dies.  A child dies.  The world will never be the same.

We have all experienced, in different ways and to different degrees, “The End of the World as We Know It.”  We read this chapter in Mark, and it seems very dark.  It is depressing.  There is a reason that a lot of preachers steer clear of it.  And yet, there is hope to be found here.

William Willimon told about a student mission trip to Honduras.  A group was working in an impoverished village at a health clinic.  Each night they built a fire and sat around the fire singing with villagers.  One night a student had the bright idea that they all go around and share their favorite Bible verse.  Of course, some didn’t have much of a favorite verse – some mentioned John 3:16 or “The Lord is my shepherd.”  And then a Honduran woman said through an interpreter that her favorite verse was from Mark 13.  “Not one stone will be left, there will be earthquakes and famine and fire.”  She said, “That passage has always been such a comfort to me.”

Willimon was stunned.  How could this possibly be a comfort?  It sounds more like Jesus having a really bad day.  How could a warning of coming apocalypse be comforting?  
But then a nurse told Willimon, “I was talking with that woman.  She has given birth five times and three of her children have died due to malnutrition.”

We hear that God is going to dismantle all of this, upend the status quo, and it sounds frightening.  The way things are is not too bad for most of us.  But for this woman, the status quo has been hell.  And the notion that God was going to end all of this and turn this world upside down was welcome.  It was hopeful.  

That is where she found hope in Mark’s Apocalypse.  But what about us?  Jesus says that when all of this happens, it will be but the beginning of the birth pangs.  The beginning of something brand new.

That is the way it often works.  We may suffer loss that is devastating, but it can lead to something new.  An ending may serve as a beginning of something else.  Sometimes, it is only after suffering painful loss that we are open to new possibilities.  Sometimes, on the other side of loss comes new life.  As we will celebrate two Sundays from now, after death can come resurrection.

Jesus warns his friends that changes are coming, changes that will shake the earth, and so they should be ready.  But it is not only the end.  It is also the beginning.

We need to keep awake, says Jesus.  We need to pay attention.  Be awake to the life we have right here, right now.  And pay attention because God’s kingdom is coming, and it is changing everything.  Even in the midst of a time filled with anxiety, there is hope, and there is life.  Amen.


Saturday, February 24, 2024

“Seeing and Really Seeing” - February 25, 2024

Text: Mark 10:32-52

Have you ever been in a situation where someone is being completely inappropriate for the occasion – acting in ways that just don’t fit the context?

If you had just made an error that was going to cost your company thousands of dollars, that would not be the best time to ask for a raise.  It just wouldn’t.

If someone had just poured their heart out to you, shared something deep and important, that is not the time to say, “Hey, did you hear the one about the priest, the rabbi, and the Baptist pastor?”  I mean, timing matters.  

In our scripture today, two of Jesus’ closest friends and followers show themselves to not only be somewhat clueless, but they have an absolutely terrible sense of timing.  

Our text today has three parts.  First, as Jesus and the disciples travel toward Jerusalem, Jesus speaks about what is to come.  “The Son of Man will be arrested and condemned to death… they will mock him and spit on him and flog him and kill him, and after three days he will rise again.”

This is the third time Jesus has spoken of his coming suffering.  It is hard to imagine a more intense conversation.  This is deadly serious – literally.  The disciples may have been confused, upset, unsure.  The may have been in denial.  Or maybe they chalked it up to another of Jesus’ hard to understand teachings.  But regardless, this was serious stuff.

Jesus predicts his death, and how do James and John respond?  “Hey Jesus, we want you to do whatever we ask of you.”  Are you serious?  This is what they say in response?

Jesus, with an immense amount of patience and forbearance, I’m picturing this as maybe with a deep sigh, says to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  

What James and John want is power.  Honor.  When Jesus gets to be king, they want to bask in the glory.  They want to sit at his right and left.  They want places of honor.

Where we sit can matter.  Iowa’s women’s basketball team with Caitlin Clark has been selling out arenas all season.  And with sellouts, ticket prices go up.  For the game in Iowa City where she broke the women’s college scoring record, resale tickets started at $350-400.  That was for far away seats – for really good seats, the price was a lot higher.

I went to the Final Four one year.  It was at what was then the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, a football stadium.  We sat in the upper deck, so far away that we watched these little ants on the court playing basketball.  It was a great experience, but better seats would have been nice.

When you come to church, where do you sit?  The same place every week?  Do you look for a spot where the sun isn’t too bright?  Do you look for a seat where you can get a decent view of the preacher?  Or more likely, are you looking for an obstructed view?  In our sanctuary, what would be considered the seats of honor – in the front, or in the back?

Where we sit matters, and James and John understood this.  For them, the seating chart was important.  Where a person sat was a matter of prestige.  A person’s seat could reveal greatness.  And so they sought the best seats, at Jesus’ right and left.  

Their request is hard to believe.  Three times now, Jesus has spoken of his death.  He keeps on saying that things will be turned upside down, that the first will be last and the last will be first.  He has already redirected the disciples concerning their desire for greatness, telling them that to save their lives they must lose them.  He has told them they must become like children in order to enter the kingdom.  Yet the disciples still don’t get it.  They still cannot get it in their heads that Jesus’ kingdom is different.

Do you remember another occasion when the Bible speaks of two as being at Jesus right and his left?  I recall that two criminals were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.  To go where Jesus was going, to be near Jesus, is to know suffering.

Jesus replies to their request: ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.’  With love, Jesus is saying to them that they will get what they are asking for, at least in part – but they still do not understand what they were asking for.  

Not surprisingly, the other disciples are not happy with James and John.  To be honest, it’s hard to tell whether they are angry because James and John are such jerks for asking this, or if they are angry that they did not think to ask first.

Jesus reiterates what it means to follow, spells it out yet again: “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Jesus has been saying this over and over, in various ways, and the disciples still have a hard time getting it.  And it’s not just the Twelve; it’s not just followers who were with Jesus then.  We have to admit that we can have a hard time with this.  There is a reason that for a lot of people, a person who serves others and cares about the needs of others is not the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the word “Christian.”

The narrative continues and Jesus and the disciples come to Jericho.  They travel through the town and as they are leaving along with the large crowd heading to Jerusalem for Passover, they come upon a man who is blind.  He is begging along the side of the road.

Bartimaeus is there, outside the city gates.  He lives off the pity and generosity of strangers.  It’s a hard way to make a living.

Bartimaeus hears all of the commotion about Jesus, and he starts to cry out: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

What an embarrassment.  Jesus is with a large crowd of people.  He’s an important person.  And this blind beggar, with no sense of propriety at all, starts yelling out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The way we might react is to just ignore the person and keep on walking.  Don’t look at them, don’t acknowledge them, pretend they’re not there.

The disciples had a different approach: they told Bartimaeus to be quiet.  You’re being inappropriate, you’re causing a scene, just shut up.

But as much as they tried to hush Bartimaeus, he just kept yelling all the louder.  “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  The crowd tried to shut him up, but Jesus called for Bartimaeus to come to him.

And interestingly, the crowd made a 180° turn.  “Hey, it’s your lucky day!  Jesus wants to see you!  Get up!”

Bartimaeus is desperate enough to call out over the crowd.  He throws aside his cloak and goes to Jesus.  His throwing aside his cloak is significant.  Beggars laid out their cloaks by the road, and passersby would toss money onto the cloak.  This was his livelihood, his security, and he tosses it aside to go to Jesus.

And Jesus asks Bartimaeus the very same question he asked James and John.  

What a question.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  It could be a pretty compelling spiritual exercise for us to imagine Jesus coming to us and asking, “What do you want me to do for you?”  It is a tender question.  It is a deep question.  How would you answer?

And what if Jesus showed up this morning and asked of us as a church, “What do you want me to do for you?”  If we seriously pondered this question, it could change things.

Jesus asks Blind Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?’  We might think that the answer is obvious.  But not necessarily.  Perhaps Bartimaeus doesn’t really want to see.  Maybe the darkness is better.  To be able to see would change everything.  There would be no turning back.  Everything would be different.

He would have to live somewhere else.  He would have to find a new way to make a living.  It would be new territory.  It would be unfamiliar.  It would involve tremendous change, and that can be scary.

I’ve known people who have lost their sight and would dearly love to be able to see again.  I’ve known people who are terribly frustrated that they can no longer see.  But not everyone is like that.  Annie Dillard, in her book Teaching Stones to Talk, reports that there are those who recover from blindness and are so disoriented that they would prefer to go back to being blind.  The change is just too much.

Bartimaeus had been begging - for alms, for food, for anything which might get him through another day.  But that is not what he asks for.  He knows his deeper need.  He stood and threw off his cloak and he went to Jesus and said, “Teacher, let me see again.”

And Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.” And the man “immediately” regained his sight and “followed Jesus on the way,” the text says.  Some whom Jesus healed, he told to go back to their homes.  Jesus said to this man, “Go your way.” But this man followed Jesus on his way.

Mark 10 is a really interesting chapter.  Jesus is teaching, healing, proclaiming the kingdom of God, but nobody quite gets it.  The Pharisees -- religious leaders -- only want to see Jesus fail.  His own disciples try to keep children away from him and get scolded, and they seem puzzled by his teaching.  

The disciples have been following Jesus for close to three years.  They have received his teaching, they have witnessed his miracles, they themselves have gone out to preach and to heal.  And when Jesus asks two of his closest disciples what they want him to do for them, they say, “We want to sit at your right and left.”

And then there is Bartimaeus.  He may have been blind, but amazingly, he is the one with real vision--the only one who really sees Jesus.  

Jesus tells Bartimaeus that he is healed and he can go live his life.  And for Bartimaeus, to go on living his life means following Jesus – as though now that is the only life he can imagine living.

In Mark’s gospel, this is the last healing that Jesus performs.  We have rea about several of these healings over the past weeks.  And of all the people Jesus heals, Bartimaeus is the only one known by name.  I think that maybe that is tied to the fact that he followed Jesus.  

I wonder if years later, when Mark wrote his gospel, people said, “You know old Bartimaeus, the Sunday School teacher over at First Baptist?  Years ago, he was blind, and he was healed by Jesus.”

I know that many of us have some issues with our vision.  I used to wear contact lenses until they really didn’t do the job, and now I’ve had bifocals for several years.  Some of us can see better than others.

But there is more than one kind of vision.  There is seeing and then there is seeing.  And we all have our spiritual blind spots.  

Who do we not see?  Do we see people like Bartimaeus?  Do we see people who are different than us?  Do we see the good in others, or only look for faults?

Do we try to push others aside or put others down in our quest to be Jesus’ favorites, or do we look in the mirror and see a beloved child of God – and go out to live with care for all of God’s children?

May it be so.  Amen.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

“A Dark Love Song, A Hopeful Future” - November 26, 2023

Text: Isaiah 5:1-7, 11:1-5

I know that a number of you are gardeners.  How many had a vegetable garden this year – even if it was just a couple of plants?  Even if you just used containers?  How many had a flower garden?

We just had a couple of tomato plants and some basil and cilantro.  We won’t talk about the basil and cilantro, but the tomatoes really produced.  We still have a few green tomatoes that we brought in before we had a hard freeze.  That was a few weeks ago if you remember.  We have had a lot of 60 degree days, even a few 70 degree days since then.  So that’s been a while, and those green tomatoes are still ripening on the counter.

But we have had plenty of years when things did not go so well.  A number of years ago we had raspberries – I got some starter canes, as they are called, from Michael and Jill Leininger.  It took a year or two, but they did pretty well for a few seasons, and the raspberries were delicious.  And then the yields were less and less until they hardly produced.  I mean, I was eating a few berries on the spot, as I picked them, and that was it – there weren’t any to put on my cereal, much less make a cobbler.

Growing things can take some work.  Our first scripture this morning is about a vineyard.  The owner takes great pains to prepare the vineyard for the best possible grapes.  It was planted on fertile ground, on a hill.  He cleared the ground of stones.  We can read that and think oh yeah, good idea, but this is serious labor.  Has anybody dug up stones out of a field?  I personally would not sign up for it.  Those stones may have been used for the wall surrounding the vineyard.  The vineyard owner planted choice vines.  He didn’t just pick up what they had on clearance at Wal-Mart, these were quality vines that would produce grapes for fine wine.

The vineyard owner really goes above and beyond.  There was a wall around the vineyard and there was a hedge.  That is even more planting.  And a watch tower is built so that the vineyard could be observed.  Presumably this was to look out for animals who wanted to eat the fruit or mess with the vineyard as well as individuals who might be up to no good - as well as to just get a look at the whole vineyard.  (The watchtower was necessary because they had not invented drones yet.) 

So I hope you have the picture: a great deal of planning and preparation and lots of hard work went into readying and planting and caring for this vineyard.  And the end result, the goal of all this, was not simply the grapes, but to produce wine.  Before there were even any grapes, a wine press is built.  Remember that this was long before refrigeration.  Oil and grain and wine were important commodities – other than what could be sold locally, these were the ways that what was grown were stored and traded.

It is a beautiful picture.  You can just imagine that vineyard on a hill, a winery in the making; maybe there were plans for a little café on site.

Has anybody grown grapes?  I am told that it takes a few years, maybe even 4 or 5 years for vines to really produce grapes.  It just takes time.

So the vineyard owner has invested not only a great deal of effort and financial resources; he has invested time.  He has put so much into this vineyard, and it will be a few years before he even sees and yield.

In time, the vines produced.  I’m sure it was exciting that first year that the vines started putting on grapes.  I’m sure everyone was looking forward to the harvest.

There was so much anticipation, but then when they finally tasted the grapes, they were awful.  They were sour.  They weren’t fit to eat.

The vineyard owner decided to cut his losses.  These vines produced wild grapes and they were good for nothing.  He doesn’t outright destroy the vineyard, but basically says, "I’m done here."  He removed the hedge, removes the wall, and essentially lets nature take its course.  The vineyard becomes overgrown, there are briars and thistles, wildlife invade, and it’s done for.  

The vineyard is a metaphor for the nation of Israel.  We are told that it is a love song - at least that is how it begins.  God loves the house of Israel and has taken great effort to care for it.  The purpose of the vineyard was not just to produce grapes, but wine.  Wine is often a symbol of the good life – of joy and contentment and celebration and fellowship.  But Israel has not produced fruit of justice and righteousness.  That is the fruit God intended, those were the grapes that were expected.

Now it is not that there were no grapes.  It’s not like my raspberries that stopped producing so well.  The grape vines produced, but the grapes weren’t any good.  They tasted awful.  And so the vineyard was useless.

I went to the grocery a couple of weeks ago and Susan put grapes on the list.  I saw some that looked OK and the price wasn’t bad so I got some grapes.  I brought them home – and they hardly had any taste.  They were not what anybody would have in mind when they want grapes.

Our translation says that God “expected justice but saw bloodshed, expected righteousness but heard a cry.”  There is actually a play on words in the Hebrew.  God expected mishpat (justice) but got mishpach (perverted justice), God expected tsedaqah (righteousness) and got tse’aqah (a scream).  

The Hebrew pun is hard to replicate in English.  Maybe God expected justice but got “just us” – as in a complete disregard for others.  Robert Alter tries to capture that Hebrew play on words and translates this as “He hoped for justice and, look, jaundice, for righteousness and, look, wretchedness.”

Israel was not producing the wine of justice and goodness and compassion.  They may have thought they were doing justice; they may have thought they were righteous, but it was a perverted justice and a false righteousness.

We can say all the right things.  We can put on an air of niceness.  Now don’t get me wrong, I prefer that to an air of meanness, but true justice is seen in the way we act.  It is seen in our living and it is seen in the way we demonstrate our values.  The nation of Judah was falling far short, talking justice but neglecting the poor and the widow and the stranger.

Rosalynn Carter died this past week.  To me, she is an example of someone whose life reflected a true concern for justice.  You probably remember those images of Rosalynn alongside Jimmy, swinging a hammer working on building a Habitat for Humanity House.  

Rosalyn was an equal partner with Jimmy in founding the Carter Center after Jimmy left office.  Through the Carter Center, she continued her long advocacy for people with mental illness, working to combat stigma and discrimination and to promote better mental health care in the United States and abroad.  

She helped campaign to end guinea worm disease, a terrible tropical disease that has now nearly been eradicated.  

And she saw how being a caregiver to others can take a toll.  She founded the Rosalyn Carter Center for Caregivers to support those who selflessly cared for others.  She said that “there are only four kinds of people in this world: those who have been caregivers, those who are currently caregivers, those who will be caregivers and those who will need caregivers.”

President Jimmy Carter was instrumental in founding the New Baptist Covenant in 2007.  It was an effort to bring together diverse Baptist groups, especially both predominantly white and black Baptist denominations, to work together especially around issues of justice.  Several of us were there at that first gathering in Atlanta – I remember Wayne and Irene Shireman and Bob and Jenna McCarley and Jere Maddux and Michael Thompson and myself, along with Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter.  Working for justice, trying to make a difference.  Mrs. Carter said, “Do what you can to show you care about others, and you will make our world a better place.”

Now I am not trying to do a eulogy for Rosalynn Carter, but it just struck me this week that she was about producing good fruit, fruit of the spirit.  Isaiah prophesied in a time when Israel was failing to produce goodness and justice and righteousness.  And it led to a bleak future.

This is purportedly a love song, but it is a pretty dark love song.  Fortunately it is not the end of the story.  We continued reading in Isaiah with chapter 11.  This is a familiar passage – often an Advent text.  Advent begins next Sunday so we are getting a little bit of a head start here.

We first read about a vineyard that was overrun.  There was destruction, and indeed the metaphor was accurate: the temple in Jerusalem was eventually destroyed and the nation of Judah taken into captivity in Babylon.

But that was not the end of the story.  From the stump of Jesse, a shoot would grow.  A branch would grow from the roots.  

We also know what that is like.  We have a pagoda dogwood in our backyard.  It is a small multi-stem tree – it had 3 trunks.  I say had because the largest of the three was injured and starting to die.  It had to be cut off.  But a new shoot started to grow from the roots, and today that new shoot is the tallest of the three trunks.

The nation of Israel was a mess, and the future looked bleak.  The turn away from justice brought disastrous consequences.  But that was not the end of the story.

Isaiah foresees a new leader, a shoot from the stump of Jesse.  Jesse was the father of King David, so this would be someone in the line of David.  He would rule with justice and equity.  He would have a spirit of wisdom and understanding and counsel and power and defend the poor and the humble.

When things look bleak, when we are discouraging and despairing, it is hard to see light.  It is hard to hold onto hope.  But those despairing moments are not the whole picture.  They are not the complete story.  And the future is not set in stone.  There are possibilities.  There can be wonderful possibilities.  Things can be different.  Things can be better.  Things can be made right.  The life we long for and the world we long for are possible.

I know, this can sound naïve.  Sometimes it can look like the world in a going to hell in a handbasket, and I can be discouraged as well as the next person.  But in the midst of a desperate time, Isaiah holds out the possibility, holds out the vision of a just and peaceful future, and that vision is as needed today as it was then.

Having dreams and visions, seeing another way, can be a counter-cultural act of defiance.  The conventional wisdom may be that the poor may always be with us, don’t worry about it; but it is an act of defiance to believe that things can be better, that the world can be more fair, more equitable.

The conventional wisdom may be that people of different races and ethnicities and faiths cannot peacefully coexist.  It is an act of defiance to live with and work with and befriend those who are different.  The conventional wisdom may say it’s a dog-eat-dog world, only the strong survive, you have to look out for #1.  It is an act of defiance to put other values, like compassion and love and family and making a real difference, ahead of simply “getting ahead.”

King Hezekiah was a leader to come who helped to restore, at least for a time, a commitment to justice in the nation of Judah.  That commitment did not outlive his reign.  But ultimately, we believe this prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus, born in the line of Jesse, who brought hope and showed us the way to peace and justice and righteousness.  

How do we tap into that?  Jesus showed us the way.  He said, “I am the vine and you are the branches.”  As we stay connected to Jesus and as we follow in the way of Jesus, we are led to peace and hope and love.  And as we share that with those around us, the world becomes a little more hopeful, a little more just, and little more fair and equitable.  And the vineyard starts to produce good fruit.

May it be so.  Amen.