Saturday, July 4, 2009

B: Proper 9

Mark 6:1-6

As most of you know, it’s possible to have almost any manner of conversation with the person who cuts your hair. Some years ago, I had a barber who revealed, as he was snipping away at my locks, that he had, just a couple of weeks earlier, fallen asleep at the wheel while driving 75 miles per hour, and driven his car off the road. The car was totalled, he said, but neither he nor his wife nor either of his two children suffered as much as even a scratch. He attributed his good fortune to someone watching over him, “the man upstairs”, as he expressed it. (Why is it that people are so often afraid to just say “God”?) It was a dramatic and extraordinary escape from a brush with death, and it was easy for him to recognize and name, even if by euphemism, the hand of God in that moment of his life.

But I wonder—I don’t know, but I wonder—whether he would be equally ready to recognize God’s presence in, say, the voice of one of his children, or in the task of sweeping up hair from the floor around his work station, or in the long wait at a red light—in other words, in the ordinary routine of his daily life.

But, then again, I also wonder the same things about myself. We all, it seems, have a tendency to perceive that unless an experience is dramatic and extraordinary, it must not have anything to do with God. Old movies have reinforced this notion, with shafts of light appearing suddenly through the clouds and choirs of angelic voices singing in the background whenever the director wants to invoke the divine presence into the story. God is present only in the miraculous, and the ordinary is simply--well--just that: ordinary.

This was certainly the attitude of the residents of Jesus’ home town, Nazareth. He came back to town after having made something of a name for himself elsewhere. He had cast out demons and healed the sick and demonstrated his power over even the forces of nature. He even had a small band of followers as evidence that others really did take him seriously, followers who had heard him speak with the kind of authority that was the unmistakable mark of God’s presence. But to the Nazarenes, he was just Jesus from down the street, the carpenter who until recently had supported himself by making ploughs and yokes. What’s all this talk about him being the messiah, the savior of Israel? Why, we watched him grow up! His mother lives over on the next block, and he’s got relatives all over this town. We don’t understand why those out-of-towners are so impressed with him. He’s just an ordinary guy!

Now, it’s easy for us to read this story and feel smug and condescending toward those poor stubborn Nazarenes. Hindsight is always 20/20. But I suspect that many of us would have reacted in precisely the same way they did. A God who is present to us in the ordinary time and space of our lives is as threatening to us as Jesus the carpenter being the messiah was for the Nazarenes in Mark’s gospel. We all want God to be there—very few people, I believe, are actually attracted by atheism. We all want someone who will let us fall asleep at the wheel and walk away without a scratch. But we don’t want that God to be with us, to show himself to us, to speak to us, through the ordinary things and events of our lives. If God is with us in the ordinary, then, well, God is with us—all the time!

A sobering spiritual exercise is to climb into your bed at night, and before you drift off to sleep, review all the events of your day and then imagine Jesus by your side, hearing everything you say and watching everything you do. There is, to be sure, a large measure of comfort in that thought, but there’s also a large measure of shame. Most of us say we want an intimate relationship with God, but we want to be choosy about when and how that intimacy is expressed. If God is as close to us as the grass under our feet and the raindrops falling on our head, then we cannot escape his claim on the entirety of our lives, his gentle but persistent call to follow Jesus, to leave all else behind and follow him. And we’re afraid of what that might mean. We’re afraid of whatever it is that such a God—a God who is as close and familiar as the ordinary stuff of life—might ask us to be or do.

And so we put our spiritual blinders on. We choose not to see God who is right here with us, too close and familiar to be taken seriously. We even blind ourselves to the God who is present with us here in this beautiful place, at this time, as we do what we’re doing this morning. For most of us, the liturgy is so familiar, so routine, that we have a difficult time believing that God could actually speak to us in it or through it, just as those first century townspeople in Nazareth couldn’t believe that God could actually speak to them through someone as familiar and ordinary as Jesus. They wanted a messiah who would be larger than life, riding on a stallion and driving the Roman legions from the land of Israel. We want a God who will protect us from traffic accidents and violent crime and cancer, or whatever it is that we feel the need to be delivered from.Both we and the Nazarenes of old run the same terrible risk. In our stubborn refusal to accept God on his own terms, we run the risk of rejecting God altogether. And if we lose God, we lose ourselves.

What we need, my friends, is to listen less to the God of Hollywood, with his thunderbolts, angelic messengers, and heavenly choirs, and listen more to the scriptures and to the tradition of Christian teaching. The truth is that not only does God reveal himself in the familiar and the ordinary, but that is his preferred method! What is more routine and familiar than a human being, born of a woman, starting out as a child and growing to adulthood? Yet, that is precisely the form God chose to disclose himself fully and definitively to the human race. What could be more ordinary than a family, a community of people bound together by ties of common blood, common ancestry, shared heritage?

Yet, the family is one of the primary biblical images for the Church, those who have been adopted by God, made fellow-heirs of God with Christ. What could be more common and routine than taking a bath or eating and drinking? Yet, these are the means by which God unites us with himself and nourishes us with his own life, in the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist.

God has deemed it fitting and proper that the normal channel of his operation in our lives is the very structure of our lives. Our habits and preferences—the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the route we take to work or school, the music we hear, the books we read, the movies we enjoy—the very patterns of our coming and going, our working and playing—become the means by which God speaks to us.

This truth, of course, is applicable to all Christians—indeed to anyone who would seek and find God—but it is a particularly integral part of our own Anglican spiritual tradition. John Keble, the priest and poet of the last century, spoke of seeing God in the “trivial round, the common task.” This applies, of course, to the ordinary and familiar religious observances that we engage in as well, like the Sunday Eucharist. Let’s face it, nothing that you do fifty or sixty times a year can be an extraordinary, awe-inspiring, spine-tingling spiritual experience every time. It sometimes is, but that’s just gravy, a bonus. And on top of that, many of you, I’m sure, are faithful in your daily prayers, whether that takes the form of the Daily Office or something more uniquely personal. I’m sure that get’s pretty repetitive and boring as well. I know it does for me.

Is God present and working in the midst of all this religious ordinariness? You bet he is!—just as surely—no, more surely—than he was with my sleeping barber as he drove off the road. So I, for one—and I hope you will join me—intend to continue with my routine and ordinary religious practices, even when they’re dry and boring. And I’m also going to make an extra effort to keep my eyes wide open in the other ordinary aspects of my life, for there is where the God who made me and loves me and wants to make me like himself will show himself to me. There is where I will hear his voice calling me and inviting me to follow him. There is where I will find the only truly lasting peace and fulfillment.

Have a ordinary day!


B: Proper 8

Mark 5:22-24, 35b-43

Many of us like to think of ourselves as independent and self-reliant, but in the complex economy of the industrialized world, we’re fooling ourselves if we think so. Every day, we trust ourselves to professionals to do things for us that, in simpler times, people may have done for themselves—barbers and bankers, mechanics and manicurists, physicians and farmers, attorneys and architects, gardeners and garbage collectors. We depend on them, we trust them to come through for us, to perform the service that they’re supposed to perform.

Sometimes relatively little is at stake—a bad haircut can eventually be fixed, because . . . hair grows. At other times, a great deal is at stake—I read some time ago about a kidney transplant patient who was all prepped and on the operating table, but when the surgical team opened the container that was supposed to have the donated kidney in it, there was a heart there instead! The man subsequently died waiting for a kidney. The professionals to whom he had entrusted himself manifestly did not “come through” for him.

Jairus was a synagogue official in one of the Galilean towns Jesus was ministering in. His young daughter, as St Mark’s gospel tells us the story, was gravely ill and at the point of death. Jesus had a reputation for healing the sick, so Jairus, as we might expect, made a beeline for Jesus. He didn’t seem to worry about what others might think about someone with his standing in the community requesting help from someone with such a sketchy reputation as Jesus. His only concern was that his daughter be healed. He had left his daughter’s bedside to seek Jesus out and entrust her fate to him. His only anxiety ...was whether Jesus would “come through” for him.

In his anxiety as he approaches Jesus, Jairus is a pretty good spokesman for each one of us. We all walked into this church today carrying a load of anxieties that we want to entrust to Jesus. We may lack the courage to do so completely, but we want to have the faith to turn everything over to him. And, along with Jairus, we want to know, Will he come through? Will he grant our request? Will he supply our need? We have faith, but at the same time, we want to hedge our bets. Something tells us we should not put quite all our eggs in the “Jesus basket” because, What if he does NOT come through? What if he’s not everything he’s cracked up to be? What if we picked the wrong horse?

People who invest in speculative markets often protect themselves by purchasing option contracts in the opposite direction of their principal investment. I might have excellent reason to believe—to have faith!—that the market price of Indiana corn in September will be much higher than it is today, so I might place an order for a ton of corn to be delivered in September, but at today’s low price, and in the expectation of selling it for a profit three months from now. At the same time, I might also spend a small amount on an option contract to sell a ton of corn in September at today’s price, so that if I turn out to be wrong about the corn market, I can minimize my losses.

We do the same thing with God. We have genuine faith, but it’s not complete faith. We hedge our bets. What if we’re wrong? So we reserve an option. We hold back a piece of ourselves—a corner of the heart, a section of the will, a territory within the mind. You know . . . just in case.

When the messengers from Jairus’s home come to tell him that he may as well not trouble Jesus any more, because the little girl has died, Jesus’ response is to ignore them. He simply tells Jairus, “Do not fear, only believe.” Do not fear, only believe. Jesus discerns that Jairus may have hedged his bet, and is now on the verge of exercising his option, of bailing out on Jesus and cutting his losses by entering into the grieving process for his daughter who has now been declared dead. Will he retreat to that corner of his heart which he had reserved for himself— “No Jesus allowed”? So Jesus tells him, “Don’t be afraid, just have faith.” “Have faith” may be a preferable translation to “believe,” because the issue is not whether Jairus had intellectual confidence in Jesus’s ability to heal his daughter; Jesus’s ability to heal had been pretty well established. His healings were both very public and very numerous. No, the issue was not Jairus’s confidence in Jesus’sability, but Jairus’s confidence in Jesus.

And the issue is quite the same for us. Inadequate faith is much less a matter of the mind and much more a matter of the heart and will. We can be quite certain in our minds that Jesus is the Son of God, but if we do not demonstrate that conviction by yielding him the loyalty of our hearts and the obedience of our wills, if we hold ourselves back from total commitment to him, if we hedge our bets by buying options from other “gods,” then we cannot be said to have any meaningful belief, we cannot be said to have faith. Our relationship with God then becomes one-dimensional. We are forever making requests of God, always asking for something. Our prayer is constant petition, with occasional intercession, but precious little praise, adoration, confession, oblation, or thanksgiving. God, as far as we are concerned, is squeezed into the mold of service provider, one more “professional” on whom we must rely to do for us what we lack the time or know-how to do for ourselves. Our relationship with God is defined primarily by fear, suspicion, and anxiety, rather than faith and trust.

If the management of a company says they trust and respect their employees, but then enforce strict policies of punching time clocks and turning in detailed receipts for expenses and requiring notes from the doctor in order to justify sick time, their actions speak louder than their words. It is a relationship based on fear, not on faith. Jesus challenges Jairus to walk on higher ground. “Don’t be afraid, only have faith.” Do not merely believe that I can heal your daughter, believe in me. Some work environments are indeed not based on fear, but on faith. Loyalty and honesty are expected and assumed. Innovation and creativity are encouraged. Everyone’s input is valued. This is an environment of trust which is similar in character to the relationship God wants us to have with Him—a relationship defined not by fear but by faith. Faith in Christ means giving ourselves fully to him in heart, mind, and will; not holding anything back, not restricting him from any corner of our lives, hedging no bets, buying no options.

When people learn to descend from a cliff down the vertical face of a mountain by a process known a rapelling, the most challenging part of that process is learning to do something totally counter-intuitive, and that is to hold on to the rope, plant your feet, and lean back into the abyss, away from the solid and comforting nearness of the rock. It feels like the utterly wrong thing to do, but it is in fact the only right thing to do if you want to get down safely off the mountain. When we can exercise that sort of unreserved trust in God, even when it is counterintuitive, when Jesus’s challenge to Jairus becomes his challenge to us, and our relationship with God is defined not by fear but by faith, then we can rest in the confidence that God’s love is larger than anything that might “happen” to us.

Jairus’s daughter, as we know from reading on in Mark’s account, was restored to life and health by Jesus’s touch and words. During his earthly ministry, Jesus healed a great many people that way. And in every age of the church since then, Jesus has continued to heal miraculously in response to the prayers of his people. Not every request for healing is granted, and this side of eternity, we will never know the ins and outs of this mystery, but God does heal. Yet, even if Jairus’s daughter had not been raised back to life, it would not therefore be a sign that God loved her or Jairus any less.

When faith replaces fear, the details matter less, because God’s love completely overshadows them. Sometimes God loves us out of trouble and adversity; sometimes He loves us in them and through them. As St Paul tells us in his epistle to the Romans, words which are echoed in the burial liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, “None of us has life in himself, and none becomes his own master when he dies. For if we live, we are alive in the Lord, and if we die, we die in the Lord. So then, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.” This is the basis for a life of faith, a life free of fear, a life of complete self-offering to a God who already offers Himself completely for us. Amen.