Tuesday, October 27, 2009

B: Proper 24 (2009)

Mark 10:46-52

As Bill Cosby put it so well in one of his comedy recordings from the ‘60s: “I started out as a child.” The one thing I can safely say, is that every one of us either is a child, or once was a child—there are no exceptions! Childhood carries with it both blessings and curses.

Children themselves tend to see the curses—they’re smaller than adults, physically weaker, and are forever having grownups tell them what they can and can’t do. It’s really a pain.

Adults, however, tend to be nostalgic, and dwell on the blessings of childhood, the chief of which is that if you get yourself into a jam, your parents will get you out of it—unless, of course, it’s your parents you’re in a jam with, in which case, if you can’t play one off against the other, you’re cooked! But if you’re in trouble at school, or with the neighbors, or you get lost somewhere or forget something, your parents fix it. You don’t always know how; you probably don’t want to know how, but somehow it happens. It’s just magic.

Eventually, though, we have to grow up. And one of the measures of adult maturity is the realization that there is no magic. Getting out of a jam costs somebody something. There is no free lunch; somebody pays the tab. Some people who are physically and legally grown up cannot face this fact. Intellectually and emotionally, they are still children. They cannot face responsibility for their own actions; they try to shift blame and shift adverse consequences for their behavior on to other people. They expect a Sugar Daddy to come to the rescue, to bail them out.

I suspect that it’s this sort of arrested moral development that lies behind many of our social ills, from crime to drug abuse to poverty. Many of us, however, who are well-adjusted adults, and make our way in the world fairly well, nonetheless revert to childish attitudes and behavior where our relationship to God is concerned. Children are always asking for things, telling parents what they want. Have you ever noticed how much we equate prayer with asking God for something? Of course, God invites us to make our requests known to Him. But that’s not the be-all and end-all of our relationship with God.

In our catechism, there are seven different forms of prayer defined. Petition—which is asking God for something on our own behalf—and intercession—which is asking God for something on behalf of someone else—are two of these seven. But the other five—which are praise, thanksgiving, confession, adoration, and oblation—the other five do not involve asking God for anything at all. Yet, how much time do we spend on those categories of prayer in comparison with petition and intercession?

Even our liturgical prayer—which is probably more balanced than our personal prayer—even our liturgical corporate prayer is filled with petition. In particular, we are frequently asking God for mercy— “Lord, have mercy … Show us your mercy … Have mercy upon us.” Asking for mercy has been a consistent feature of the liturgy, both in the east and in the west—but particularly in the east; if you’ve ever been to a Greek or Russian service, you know what I mean—asking for mercy has been a consistent feature of Christian worship since the very earliest times. And what is mercy? It’s a rich and all-encompassing word that includes, but is not limited to: pity, blessing, favor, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, patience, and understanding. This is what we’re asking from God when we ask Him for mercy.

In the tenth chapter of St Mark’s gospel, a blind man named Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus repeatedly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” He had a hard time getting Jesus’ attention, but he eventually succeeded, and it became clear that he had a very specific kind of mercy in mind. He didn’t want just general blessing and favor. He didn’t even want money. He wanted to be healed of his blindness; he wanted to be able to see. Bartimaeus, apparently, was not blind from birth. He knew exactly what he was missing, and he wanted it back.

Well, Jesus grants Bartimaeus’ petition—immediately, fully, and without the drama and complication that accompany some of his other healing miracles. He just does it, accepts Bartimaeus’ grateful thanks, and continues on his way. But if we close the book there— “…and Bartimaeus lived happily ever after” —if we close the book there, we miss a very important point. The timing of this account within the larger structure of St Mark’s gospel narrative is critical. It takes place just as Jesus is nearing the end of his slow trip from Galilee to Jerusalem and the final drama which awaited him there.

Because of this timing, then, there is tremendous symbolism in the healing of a blind man at this point. Bartimaeus’ gift of sight enables him to see. But he sees more than people and trees and sheep on the hillside. He sees Jesus enter Jerusalem, and he sees Jesus go to the cross. For Mark, this is significant, because the cross is absolutely central to his purpose in writing his gospel. Fully one-third of the entire length of Mark’s gospel is devoted to the three days of Jesus’s Passion and Resurrection. Some scholars have called it a “Passion narrative with an extended prologue.” For Mark, everything Jesus ever said or did falls under the shadow of the cross; nothing about Jesus has any meaning apart from the cross.

So, the healing of blind Bartimaeus, when understood on a spiritual and not just a literal level, tells us that God’s answer to our repeated requests for his mercy, even as Bartimaeus had begged for his mercy—God’s answer to “Lord, have mercy” is none other than the cross of Christ. If we look at Jesus but don’t “see” the cross, then we are as blind as Bartimaeus was before he was healed. The gospel of “Christ crucified” is the cure for our blindness. Those who would follow Jesus, those who would want to imitate him or emulate him, those who would ask themselves “What would Jesus do?”, those who would call themselves Christians, cannot avoid the cross, because Jesus does not avoid the cross. The cross is a scandal and a source of shame, a place of suffering and grief, but there is no knowledge of God in Christ apart from facing that scandal and shame and suffering and grief. These are the conditions from which we need to be healed, and the cross is the place of healing. Those who imitate the persistent faith of Bartimaeus—acknowledging his wretchedness, calling out for mercy, calling out for Jesus’ attention—those who imitate Bartimaeus in this way will share with him in the miracle of enlightenment, illumination, restored sight.

As long as we think of God as a Sugar Daddy, one who magically fixes things for us whenever we get into trouble, we will be disappointed. Of course, God is our Father, and we are His children. But that fact does not absolve us of responsibility for becoming spiritual adults, for becoming God’s grown-up children. Child-like trust in God is positive; child-ish spiritual immaturity is not. If our spiritual development is arrested, we are susceptible to one faith crisis after another. We get sick, and pray, but don’t get better, so we question whether God hears our prayers. We encounter financial hard times, and we ask God for relief, but things go from bad to worse, so we question whether God really loves us. We are horrified by the wars and conflicts that are going on all over the world, and we pray for peace, but the violence escalates, so we question whether God even exists. This is what happens when we look past the cross, when the cross becomes optional in our understanding of how the universe fits together.

But if we embrace the mystery of the cross, if we enter into that mystery, our eyes are opened along with Bartimaeus, and we know the cross to be not only an instrument of shameful death, a symbol of humiliation and defeat, but a source of light and restoration, and the very way of life and peace.

Yes, we started out as children. God invites us to see the light and grow up.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

B: Proper 23

Mark 10:17-31

There’s a rather inane movie from the early ‘90s called The First Wives Club, that I probably wouldn’t even know about, except for the fact that it has Diane Keaton in it, and I’ve had kind of crush on Diane Keaton since the ‘70s. At the end of the film, after they've supposedly got their lives and their relationships with men all straightened out, the three members of the club sing a hit song, from the ‘70s—You Don't Own Me.

They were referring, of course, to their former husbands, who had all behaved rather badly, and in that sense they may have been correct. But these three ladies, whether they realized it or not, were very much still owned. One was owned by an obsession with her own good looks, and went to more than extraordinary lengths to preserve them as her years inexorably advanced. Another was owned by an idealized vision of the perfect mother and perfect wife living with her perfect family in their perfect home. The third was owned precisely by the lack of any vision of who she was as a unique human being. And all three were owned by—possessed by—a desire for all the creature comforts and material perks they could get their hands on.

In that aspiration, they probably represent the majority of us who are gathered here in this church, and the majority of those in our surrounding culture. North Americans and Europeans just after the turn of the third millennium tend to over-focus on the accumulation and preservation of material wealth. When I was in grade school, futurists were predicting that the major social problem my generation would face as adults is what to do with all our leisure time. Technology was going to make human labor obsolete, nuclear energy too cheap to even run through a meter was going to drive the cost of living down, and everybody would enjoy an abundance of freedom to pursue hobbies and become citizen-philosophers. Instead, the average work week, after bottoming-out sometime around 1970, has crept steadily upward. Yet, average income, adjusted for inflation, has gone down. True, more and more households enjoy that elusive “middle class lifestyle,” but we do it with two full-time paychecks instead of one.

And the list of standard equipment for that hypothetical middle-class household keeps growing. Cell phones and personal computers, which were luxuries for the elite when my children were young, are now considered normative, essential. Yet, when Brenda and I were married thirty-seven years ago, cell phones were still the stuff of science fiction (remember Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio?), and the internet, such as it was, was the playground of egghead scientists.

The bar keeps getting raised, as we're working longer hours at less per hour to continue to be able jump over it. Oh, sure, there are “the rich,” the “well-to-do,” the “financially independent.” But do you know what my working definition of “rich” is? Anybody who has a dollar more than I do. And I would suspect that that's the definition for everybody here, although the amount will vary according to how much we have. Most of us have the feeling of being just behind the curve financially. How much would it take to feel like we're ahead of the game? Not much. Just a little bit more than I'm bringing in now. That would give me some breathing space. Only when we start to make that little bit more, that amount that we had in mind, it still isn't quite enough. How much would it then take to get ahead? Just a little bit more.

You can see how this plays out. Whether we're living on twenty thousand dollars a year or twenty thousand dollars a month, it isn't quite enough. If you're living on that lower figure, you probably find that difficult to believe.

But if your income is in the neighborhood of that higher figure, you're probably thinking to yourself that I've called it correctly. But wherever we are in relation to those two figures—below, above, or, as is most likely the case, somewhere in between, we are probably in a position where we can truthfully say that we don't own our possessions, because our possessions, in fact, own us. We may be able to sing You Don't Own Me to our spouse, or our parents, or our children, but we cannot sing it to our bank account or our mutual funds or our living room furniture or the clothes hanging in our closet or the books lining our shelves or the paintings adorning our walls or the trees and shrubs and flowers in our yard or the car sitting in our garage. In fact, when we reflect on it, these things do own us, just as surely as if they had recorded a lien on our lives down at the county courthouse.

When Jesus said that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he wasn't talking about Bill Gates or Donald Trump or Warren Buffet. He was talking about us—you and me. The young man who approached Jesus wanting to know what he must do to inherit eternal life discovered, to his great sadness, the extent to which he was owned by his possessions. Indeed, he was faithful in keeping the commandments, and Jesus commended him for this. But even in his exemplary conduct, the young man was fearful.

Perhaps he was once poor, and didn’t want to ever be poor again. Many who are alive today who lived through the Great Depression, which makes this recession that we’re in look like a walk in the park, share a similar fear with this young man in our gospel story. Perhaps the young man had an insecure ego, an under-developed self-image, and very much enjoyed the social prestige and recognition that came along with his wealth. You and I know people—don’t we?—who fret interminably over what significant social events they get invited to, or don’t get invited to. Someone whose financial star is rising is presumed to be of more personal substance, and one who has fallen upon hard times is presumed to be somehow unusually flawed.

So the rich young man who was so good about keeping the commandments was also afraid of losing the material and social security that his wealth afforded him. And when Jesus paid him the highest possible compliment, and invited the young man to follow him, to become a disciple, he could not accept the invitation. One of the consequences of following Jesus—and in this case Jesus actually spelled it out clearly—is to dis-connect ourselves from anything that might distract us from that one all-important obsession, the obsession with discipleship. In the case of the rich young man, this involved a garage sale of monumental proportions, and he didn’t have the heart, didn’t have the strength, didn’t have the consuming will, to go through with it. He may have wanted to find his security and fulfillment in following Jesus, but he couldn’t make the leap. He couldn’t let go of that which would have become an intolerable weight on the road of discipleship. He could not bring himself to sing to his worldly goods, “You don’t own me.” He did not realize that Jesus was offering him freedom. By saying to Jesus, “You do own me” he would have been empowered to say the opposite to the wealth which hung about his neck like an albatross.

As the scriptures teach us, to be a slave to Christ is to be free from every other form of bondage, which is a pretty good deal, because his yoke is easy and his burden is light. Following Jesus enables us to be a steward of our wealth rather than a slave to it. A steward operates under a different emotional dynamic than either an owner or a slave—in fact, both the owner and the slave have more in common with one another than either has with a steward. A steward knows he doesn’t own the property he manages, therefore it can’t own him. When I write a check from my personal checkbook, I wince a little bit—or a lot sometimes—because there’s some pain involved. When I ask for a check to be written from the Rector’s Discretionary Fund, it feels much different. I might have a little anxiety if it’s running low, or over whether I’m making a wise decision about who I'm helping, but I don’t get nearly as emotionally invested as I do with my own bank account, because it’s clear that I’m just a steward of the Discretionary Fund. I don’t own it, so it can’t own me.

Now, the fact is, of course, the exact same thing is true of the checks that say “Daniel H. Martins” across the top as the ones that say “St Anne’s Church.” In both cases, I am a steward, not an owner. When I electronically send my pledge payment to St Anne’s every month, I am not giving away “my” money. I am exercising the primary duty of my stewardship. And it’s a generous deal: I get to keep the great majority of the assets that are entrusted to me! What other steward can get away with a 90% expense ratio without getting audited—and then fired?! When I look at tithing, not as having to give away 10% of my money, but as getting to keep 90% of God’s money, it becomes something else entirely.

Stewardship season is upon us. The Estimate of Giving cards will soon be mailed. This morning’s gospel invites us to ask ourselves whether we are slaves or stewards. Either we are slaves to our wealth because it owns us, or we are stewards of it because we recognize it all belongs to the Lord. Will we succumb to fear as did the virtuous young man who could not bring himself to have that garage sale? Or will we follow the lead of the disciples who left everything to follow Christ? Even they had some anxiety about the whole thing. Peter spoke for them all: “Lo, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus responded with a re-assuring promise:

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands…and in the age to come eternal life.

Being a steward of the Lord’s assets is a well-paying job! He promises to meet our needs—not all our desires, necessarily, but our needs—in this life, and to exceed all that we can ask or imagine in the life to come. So which is it, slave or steward? I will pray that you make the right choice. Please pray for me, that I do the same. Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

B: Proper 22

Genesis 2:18-24

Mark 10:2-9

Very often, subjects which we think we’re the most familiar with turn out to be the ones we actually know the least about. I suspect that the subject of marriage is in this category. Today’s Old Testament reading from Genesis, and the gospel passage from Mark, certainly do not exhaust what the Bible has to say about marriage, but any Christian reflection on marriage has to deal with this material. It is absolutely central to an informed Christian understanding of what marriage is.

I have three main points I want to share with you today on the subject of marriage as it is illuminated by these scripture readings. It will help if you can visualize a garden plant—a sunflower will do very nicely. It has a root system, which is unseen, but which anchors the plant in the soil and without which it couldn’t live. It has a stem, or “shoot,” which is the main body of the plant and which gives the whole organism is height and standing in the world. And on top of it all is what we might call the “fruit” of the sunflower—the flower itself, which contains those wonderful seeds which are good either for roasting, salting, and eating; or—better yet, from a biological point of view—for producing more sunflower plants. The production of this “fruit” is the whole purpose of the sunflower’s existence. Root…shoot…fruit. I want to talk about the root, the shoot, and the fruit of the institution of marriage.

The root of marriage is that it is a gift from God. We learn this from the virtual beginning of the beginning of the Bible, the oldest material in scripture, the book of Genesis, chapter two. The Lord is with the newly-created man, Adam, in the Garden of Eden, and decides that it’s not such a good idea for there to be only one of him. It would be better if he had a partner, someone to share his life with. So he parades all the animals in front of Adam, hoping to find a suitable candidate. Adam thinks they’re all splendid, and he gives them names, but he is not impressed with the potential for any of them to become his partner—not even the dog, apparently, despite what we have since come to say about “man’s best friend.” So the Lord reverts to Plan B, and puts Adam under a general anesthesia, removes one of his ribs, and fashions the woman, Eve. After waking up, Adam takes one look at her and tells God that, this time, He got it right! The author of Genesis then tells us: “For this reason…” —that is, “in order to enter into this sort of relationship”— for this reason, a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and the two become one flesh.”

Therefore, we can affirm that God invented marriage. It is not merely a human invention, an institution that human societies have evolved and adapted, and will continue to evolve and adapt however it seems appropriate and desirable to them. Marriage is God’s idea, not ours. The fact that we first encounter it in the book of Genesis, and not in Exodus, the second book of the Old Testament, is extremely significant. This tells us that marriage is part of the order of creation, part of the very fabric of universal human existence. It is not merely part of one of the succession of covenants that God made with humankind. It is more basic than even the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Law of Moses. Marriage is from the beginning. Marriage is a gift from God. This is the root of marriage, and when we ignore the roots of something, then we don’t really understand it properly.

So if the root of marriage is that it is a gift from God, then the “shoot” of marriage is that it enables human beings, both those who are married and those who are single, to share in the very life of God, the love that exists within the Blessed and Glorious Trinity. I’ll try not to digress too much into complicated Trinitarian theology, but we need to remind ourselves that, contrary to the way we may often think of Him, God has revealed Himself as a “complex” Being. We might even say that God is a “community” —a community of three “persons”: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—as long as we’re careful not to extrapolate from that the idea that there are three Gods. The Church believes that there is one God who subsists in three co-equal “persons” who are in a relationship—an ordered relationship—with one another. There is an essential unity among the Persons of the “Godhead”—they are all equally 100% God. But they are also distinct, and not to be confused with one another. They have their own unique characteristics. Now this is hard to wrap our minds around, I know. It’s a paradox, not really “logical” in the way we think of logic. There is a sort of tension between the “unity” of God and the “community” of God, between the essential sameness of the Persons of the Trinity, and their distinctive differences.

The theological and spiritual significance of marriage is a reflection of this same kind of paradox, this same kind of logical tension. When Adam lays eyes on Eve, he exclaims, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.” He was rejoicing in the sight of someone who was like him, an equal, a peer. Yet, it was obvious that there was also something mysteriously different about her. She was like him in her essential humanness, but at the same time undeniably and distinctly different. This tension between sameness and difference is reflected in our very language: In the Hebrew of Genesis, the word for a male human being is ish, and the word for a female human being is both the same and different, ishah. We see the same thing in the English words “man” and “woman.” A marriage, then, both for those who are in the marriage and for those who are observing the marriage, those whose lives the marriage touches in some way—a marriage is a living icon of the Holy Trinity. In it, we see something of the nature and life of God. This is where marriage “happens,” the daily “living into” the paradox of sameness and otherness. My favorite prayer from the wedding liturgy asks that the marriage which is being blessed will be a “sign of Christ’s love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt, and joy conquer despair.” So the “shoot” of marriage, the main body and life of marriage, is to be a sign, a sign that points to a deeper and higher reality.

Root…shoot…now this brings us to the “fruit” of marriage. The fruit of marriage, is the experience of responding to a call out of and beyond ourselves, into the ideal which it represents. Jesus’ blunt words to the Pharisees are still echoed in traditional Christian marriage services: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” Marriage is an ideal, and Jesus’ words affirm that ideal. In the meantime, though, we are sinful human beings. All too often, we fall short of our ideals. When that happens in a marriage, the courageous response is to admit failure, make amends, seek forgiveness and reconciliation, repent, and move on. Hopefully, “moving on” means doing so together. God hates divorce. But sometimes the damage is too great and the wounds too deep, and “moving on” means doing so separately. The cowardly response to failure to attain the ideal of marriage is to conform the ideal to what is supposed to be real—in effect, to abandon the ideal. If we can’t jump over the bar, then we just lower it until we can. That way there’s no failure, and no need to repent. This might make us feel better temporarily, but it’s dishonest, and in the end it’s a deal with the devil.

A true ideal, by contrast, invites us to extend ourselves, to stretch, to grow, to risk, to have the gall not to accept the unacceptable. Estrangement is the norm of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to unity. Guilt is the norm of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to forgiveness. Despair seems to lie at the end of human experience, but the ideal of marriage calls us to hope. Marriage is an ideal that is desperately needed by all of us. We need to be reconciled with that mysterious Other who is also like us. In our human experience, we generally recognize the mysterious Other in the opposite sex. But ultimately, that is a mere shadow of a veiled Reality. Ultimately, the mysterious Other with whom we seek union is God Himself. The purpose of marriage is to prepare us for Joy: consummated union in bliss with the One who is the true object of all desire, the One who is both the same and “other,” and whose very name and life is Love. Amen.