Archives for October 2012

Transcending all that is ‘thrown down’, 25 Pentecost, Proper 28 (B) – Nov. 18, 2012

1 Samuel 1:4-20 and 1 Samuel 2:1-10 (or Daniel 12:1-3 and Psalm 16); Hebrews 10:11-14 (15-18) 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

On August 23, 2011, Louisa County, Virginia, was rocked by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake. We expect such seismic activity along the Pacific coast but rarely think about it happening elsewhere. Earthquakes in Virginia are rare; however, due to the geological nature of the Eastern Seaboard, the quake’s shocks were felt as far away as Florida and Ontario, Canada. It was particularly sad, not just for Episcopalians, but for many Christians, to see the damage this quake did to the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, better known as the National Cathedral. Who could have envisioned the pinnacles of the towers crashing into the pavement below or great towers completely twisted? The earthquake only lasted 10 to 15 seconds, but in that time a tremendous amount of damage was done. Who could have imagined it?

“Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’” Jesus was referring, of course, to the greatest building project of his day and time – Herod’s temple in Jerusalem. This massive renovation began around 20 BCE and expanded the temple mount complex far beyond what King Solomon had envisioned. While the temple itself was completed in less than two years, the outer structures and courtyards took about 80 years to complete – only to be utterly destroyed in 70 A.D. by Roman legions under the command of Titus, the son of the Roman Emperor Vespasian. It would have been hard, if not impossible, for the disciples to imagine the complete destruction of such a massive building – the most holy place of the Jewish faith.

We, too, can scarcely imagine a time when the important places and structures we know and love will be “thrown down;” however, we have witnessed a glimpse of such destruction in our own day with the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on 9/11. Catastrophic destruction leads to collective trauma and lingering anxiety. But even if the structures are not literally “thrown down,” it is still difficult to ponder that even the place where we worship today will one day be in ruin. It is the folly of humanity to seek permanence in the things of this world, and yet it seems to be our nature. Perhaps it is our deep angst in knowing our own mortality that leads us to build structures of many kinds: buildings, ships, corporate businesses, political empires, families. God has placed a deep-seated need to create something that will transcend the finitude of our earthly lives.

Jesus’ teaching today reminds us of the impermanence of all the structures of this world: “All will be thrown down.” Jesus cuts straight to our desire for immortality with these disquieting words – words that echo the great prophetic tradition of the Jewish people. No doubt this raised the anxiety of the disciples who press him for answers of “when will this be?” They press him for signs of the end. In Jesus’ day, and even to this day, there are plenty of people who look for signs, as if knowing when the end will come will somehow change its coming. Our faith and science tell us there will be a time when all things will come to an end; does knowing exactly when it will happen really give us any mastery over it?

Jesus does not give specifics as to when the end will come, nor does he tell them exactly what will happen. He tells them there will be upheavals of many kinds, but he clearly says these are the beginnings of the birth pangs – not the signs of the end of all things. The things that Jesus describes – war and rumors of war, famine, earthquakes – were all occurring in his day and still occur today. We might wonder when the birth pangs will be done.

Certainly, as Mark wrote this gospel in the shadow of the temple’s destruction and amidst severe persecution of the Christian community, this disquieting apocalyptic narrative seems to fit the unrest of his time; but what about us, living in the relative comfort of the United States in the 21st century? While we have relative comfort compared to Mark’s community, we do live in a highly anxious society where the messages we hear all around us center on being afraid: Be afraid of terrorism; be afraid of the economy collapsing; be afraid of losing our jobs; be afraid of losing our health; be afraid of losing our economic security; be afraid for our children’s future; be afraid of rejection. The list is endless. We are afraid that our neatly constructed lives will “all be thrown down” so we live in captivity to that fear, and when we live in captivity to fear, we never really live!

In the larger context of Mark’s gospel, these words from Jesus come just before he enters Jerusalem to be crucified. These words about the destruction of the temple and upheavals to come are a prefiguring of his own death – the very destruction of his own body. “All will be thrown down” is a promise that all things of this world will fall apart, disintegrate and die. However, within the broader context of this chapter of Mark’s gospel, Jesus reminds us that our job isn’t to know exactly what will happen, how it will happen, or when it will happen; rather our job is to be faithful, patient and keep awake, because God is working out the plan of salvation and has not abandoned us. It will be all right because God is in charge.

This isn’t to say things will be easy and that hardships and suffering won’t befall us. It isn’t an empty optimism promising things will get better for our lives; they may or may not. It is a promise that God is in charge regardless.

Christ promises us that things will be all right because God has the last word. When death on the cross appeared to be the end, God had the last word at an empty tomb. Throughout our lives, we will experience death and resurrection many times over as the neatly arranged structures of our lives are thrown down. These apocalyptic words of Jesus remind us to hang on and to place our trust in something more than ourselves, our possessions, our relationships, our health, our capacities or our intellect. It is to place our ultimate trust in the One from whom all of these things come. It is to accept our finitude and mortality in a radical trust of God’s unchangeable grace and goodness so that we might be freed from the captivity of anxious fear and finally live fully and freely as God’s beloved children.

 

— The Rev. Anjel Scarborough is priest-in-charge at Grace Episcopal Church in Brunswick, Md. She and her husband are the parents of two teenage daughters. She can be followed on Twitter @ReverendMom and blogs at innumerablebenefits.blogspot.com.

Do you see what I see?, 24 Pentecost, Proper 27 (B) – November 11, 2012

Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17 and Psalm 127 (or 1 Kings 17:8-16 and Psalm 146); Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

In two weeks, on the day after Thanksgiving, department stores and radio stations throughout our nation will begin their round-the-clock auditory avalanche of Christmas carols. You may find the constant repetition of “Silent Night” a soothing reminder of “the reason for the season”; or it may annoy you to the point of giving you a headache. But whichever position you take, if you are Anglican, you know that the appropriate liturgical time to begin caroling is during the Christmas season, not Advent. You know that during Advent, we sing hymns about our longing for the birth of the Savior and our faithful vigil as we wait for God’s light to shine in the darkness.

For Anglicans, the “official” singing of carols begins on Christmas Eve. On that holy night, we will gather in parishes across the globe, acknowledge the end of Advent – the end of the long wait – and give voice to the lovely songs we know by heart. We will sing “Away in a Manger,” “O, Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Joy to the World” among others.

There is another Christmas carol that, though it’s known by the title, “Do You Hear What I Hear?” begins with the question:

Said the night wind to the little lamb,
Do you see what I see?
Way up in the sky, little lamb
Do you see what I see?
A star, a star
Dancing in the night
With a tail as big as a kite …
Do you see what I see?

In this Sunday’s gospel reading, we find Jesus taking a break from hours of engagement and debate with an array of people who sought to trap him in his own words. But he brilliantly escaped the traps and turned the questions back on the questioners. He dazzled the crowds and his own disciples with his wit and truth-telling. He called out those who were complicit in a corrupt political and religious system. He gave kudos to a scribe who demonstrated wisdom. He taught the crowds and then, after all that hubbub, “he sat down opposite the treasury and watched.”

But Jesus didn’t people-watch merely to entertain himself after putting in a long day at the temple. He focused his attention on those who were putting money into the temple treasury.

When he turned his gaze to that place, who did he see?

He saw a woman who was apparently invisible to everyone else around her. A woman who was invisible to the wealthy folks tossing their spare change into the tall jars that held the offerings; invisible to the crowds who had just listened to and delighted in Jesus’ teachings; invisible to his own disciples who had wandered off, who Jesus had to call over and say, “Look! Look there. Do you see what I see?”

It’s no accident that Jesus saw the widow and made her visible to those who were ignoring her. Sprinkled throughout the Bible there are scores of references to widows. In many of those verses, we find God either commanding God’s people to care for widows or castigating them for failure to enact justice and compassion on the behalf of widows.

Women who had lost their husbands held a special place in God’s kingdom because, though becoming a widow did not automatically mean a woman would become impoverished, the absence of a husband made her immeasurably more vulnerable to that fate. When Jesus, only a few verses before he sat down to watch the action at the treasury, warned the crowds against rapacious scribes who devour widows’ houses, he was describing a reality of his day and time. A woman without a male protector could be forced into debt more easily by the legal and economic system.

Understanding a little about the poor widow’s social context gives us a different entry point into this story. Typically, Christians are taught that she is an outstanding model of sacrificial giving. But here’s a funny thing: Jesus doesn’t praise her or her offering. He doesn’t claim that we should all follow her example of giving. He doesn’t use her offering to deliver a sermon on the virtues of tithing and stewardship. He doesn’t deliver a lecture on the importance of supporting church operating budgets. Rather, Jesus notices her and comments on her participation in a society that had turned its eyes away from her plight.

It’s instructive to bear in mind that God keeps a watchful eye not only on widows. In most of the verses about how we are to treat them, two other categories of people are usually mentioned: orphans and strangers or aliens.

Exodus 23:9 – “You shall not oppress a resident alien.”

Leviticus 19:34 – “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the house of Egypt.

Exodus 22:22 – “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan.”

Deuteronomy 24:21 – “When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow.”

Deuteronomy 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.”

Do you see what I see? There is a special place in God’s line of sight for people whose economic and political power is slim to none.

It is not always easy or comfortable to see who God sees. For when we open our eyes to the suffering of others, we also come face-to-face with our own complicity in systems that maintain our comfort while keeping “widows, orphans and strangers” in their place, out of sight and out of mind.

We don’t want to see the non-unionized immigrants who work in America’s fields and slaughter houses. We don’t want to see homeless people on city sidewalks as we make our way to the football game or the theater. We don’t want to see the children who in live in group homes around the country because they’ve been removed from violent families and are considered unadoptable.

But however difficult it is, we cannot ignore Jesus when he calls us over to sit with him for a moment and watch. Watch who participates in the life of our churches, our communities, our schools, our politics and our economies. Look into the dark corners of the world for the people who are in need of food, clothing, shelter, decent wages, a helping hand, an advocate, a friend. See the people who stand on street corners and speak only through messages written on cardboard signs.

And then don’t simply observe. Help those who we see.

Call over other people and ask them to open their eyes too. Go and talk with those who are hidden in plain view. Ask them about their lives. Ask them how we might partner with them to create hope and new life wherever there is misery and death. Demonstrate that God’s way is not the way of oppression, but the way of justice. Show them that God is love.

Two days before he was arrested and crucified, at a time when he could have been drawing his attention inward to ponder his own fate, Jesus sat in the temple and watched. He invited those he loved to watch with him, to acknowledge one woman who was otherwise lost in the crowd.

Do you see what I see? God became manifest in Jesus not only to offer us the beautiful gift of eternal life; God became manifest in Jesus to bring to our attention those who are invisible. God walked among us to help us direct our gazes toward those who may not have a great deal to celebrate this season. And God not only placed a star in the sky to light the way to the manger, God placed a light in our hearts and minds that we might learn to see through the eyes of Christ.

 

— The Rev. Christie M. Dalton is a deacon for regional ministry in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. She lives in Winston-Salem, where she is also a development officer for Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

Daring to ask questions, 23 Pentecost, Proper 26 (B) – 2012

November 4, 2012

Ruth 1:1-18 and Psalm 146 (or Deuteronomy 6:1-9 and Psalm 119:1-8); Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Isn’t it interesting? In our gospel reading today we learn that “after that, no one dared to ask him any question.” What an opportunity they wasted!

Several times throughout the gospels we hear that people didn’t want to ask any more questions. Sometimes it was the Pharisees, those few who wanted to trip Jesus up, who backed away out of intimidation perhaps, or anger at being caught out themselves. Other times it seems that ordinary people decided not to ask any more questions. Were they confused and content not to push the issue? Were they afraid? And if so, why?

The discussion in today’s passage was not a scary one. Jesus was not talking about angels separating wheat and chaff, the chaff to be burned. He wasn’t allowing an evil spirit to go into a herd of pigs that then raced off the bluff to be drowned – nothing like that. Today Jesus is talking about love, and the greatest love of all, the love between God and God’s people – the love of neighbor for neighbor. What could be more comforting than learning about how we should live in love? They should have been full of questions. They should have been asking for examples of how we could love our neighbor more and how we could love God more. But they didn’t. Isn’t that sad?

At the beginning of this passage, we hear that Sadducees were disputing with one another and evidently they were asking Jesus questions. This was a very normal way that religious leaders of that culture learned and taught. A group of rabbis would sit together discussing and debating about various points in scripture and law. They would pose many questions to each other – think back on the time when Mary and Joseph found the young Jesus in the Temple. He was sitting in on just such a discussion and he was being praised for his learning. We see here that a scribe was listening to Jesus’ answers and realized that Jesus answered the questions posed to him very well. So the scribe had a perfect right to ask his own question: “Which commandment is the first of all?”

We all know Jesus’ answer by heart. “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself.”

I wonder if Jesus smiled to himself when the scribe told him that he was right and then referred back perhaps to Amos or Hosea by saying that these two commandments were more important than burnt offerings or sacrifices. The scribe didn’t realize he was complimenting God! What did he think when Jesus told him he wasn’t far from the kingdom of God? It was after that short discussion that no one dared ask any more questions.

Perhaps the scribes were put off by the mention of the kingdom of God. Perhaps it made them think of their own preference for being an important part of the temple worship, the sacrifices, the collection of money. Perhaps they weren’t as interested in loving one’s neighbor as themselves. We don’t know if that’s the case, because we aren’t told; but something made them back away from a conversation about love.

What we also need to remember is that the word love in this context is not the kind of love we too often think about today. Loving with the whole heart isn’t the emotional, huggy-kissy kind of love we find on greeting cards or in advertisements. Loving with the heart in that day first of all meant being loyal. So Jesus was talking about being loyal to God – to God’s laws – to the promises of the covenant the people made with God. Included with being loyal to God was being loyal to your neighbor. Because they knew their scriptures, the Jews knew that being loyal to their neighbor meant that they would care for their neighbor, fight oppression, feed the hungry, make provision for the poor, the widow and the orphan. No one would have a surplus where others were going hungry. Maybe the Sadducees were afraid that if they asked any more questions, Jesus would point out to them that they were not doing too good a job as religious leaders in showing others how to care for those in need.

Remember, though, we don’t know why they didn’t ask any more questions. What we might need to consider in this passage is whether we might have asked any more questions. This is one of those passages that most of us could recite by heart. I’m certain we’d all like to think of ourselves as the scribe – asking Jesus a thoughtful question and being praised for our own interpretation of his answer. And yes, of course, there are those days when we do understand and work toward being even more loving – loyal – in our relationship with God and with others in our lives. But we must also be honest in considering when we aren’t. In today’s culture, we don’t like to talk about sin, our own personal sin or the sin we see in the world. We may not think about this “loving my neighbor as myself” thing when we don’t particularly like that neighbor or we are against a particular issue or we don’t want “that kind of person” coming to our church or moving into our neighborhood. The poor are no longer in far-away countries, they are – sadly, too often – us. A recent survey tells us that one in five Americans live in poverty, and even worse, one in four children live in poverty.

Maybe, just maybe, the Sadducees didn’t want to ask any more questions because they were afraid of being overwhelmed with Jesus’ answer about what they, as religious leaders, must do to show their loyalty to God and neighbor. Maybe we’re overwhelmed with all the needs in today’s world – needs of our own for our own families. There is really too much to care about. It would be an impossible burden for one person, but for all of us together, there is a chance. We need not to be afraid to ask any more questions. We need to ask more. We need to ask more people to work together with us. We might need to be willing to ask for help for ourselves. If we truly believe the two great commandments are important in our lives, then we should be like the folks in today’s passage. Be like the Sadducees – talk to others about what the scriptures mean to you. Question and think about what God is calling us to do about the kingdom of heaven that is here already if we just live into it. Dare to ask God questions and then listen for the answer. Dare to ask each other questions about how we can live out these two great commandments. We can dare to do this because we’re not alone. God has promised to be with us. There is no reason to fear.

 

— The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Lazarus, come out!, All Saints’ Day (B) – November 1, 2012

Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9 or Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

“Lazarus, come out!”

You can hear the sternness of Christ’s voice as he commands his servant with a loud voice, powerful enough to bridge the gap between life and death. Lazarus was not just some person living in the area whom Jesus had never met. Jesus knew Lazarus personally, and he loved him deeply. Lazarus was a close personal friend of Christ’s. When Lazarus fell ill, his sisters, Martha and Mary, immediately sent a messenger to Jesus to inform him of the impending death with the expectation that Jesus would save their family from this pain immediately. After all, this is the same Jesus who has healed complete strangers from every multitude of pain, deformity, and disease. Surely he would move quickly to save somebody that he actually knows and loves. But Jesus does not react in the manner in which anybody close to him would expect. Instead of dropping everything and making haste to get to his friend’s side, Jesus continues what he was doing and waits. Both Mary and Martha believed that Lazarus was on his deathbed, and Jesus knew that Lazarus was dying, but he waited.

Four days after Lazarus died, Jesus finally showed up in Bethany. You can only imagine the scene on that day. Martha and Mary are deep in their grief and they are sobbing at the loss of their beloved brother. When Jesus enters the house, one would expect that his reception was not a pleasant one. The sisters were upset, and they lashed out at Jesus by saying that if he had actually cared enough and come right away, then their loved one would still be here. They were angry; they were grieving; and they were distraught.

Instead of caving into their distressed words, Jesus asks to be taken to the tomb. Upon arriving, Jesus orders that the tomb be opened, and at this, he was rebuked by Martha. Lazarus had been dead for four days. Unlike today’s mortuary practices, there was no embalming of the body, nor was there any air conditioning in order to preserve the body for any length of time. In those days, when somebody died, they were placed within the tomb as soon as possible, and the door was sealed. The stench of the tomb after four days would have been too great. But Jesus again ordered the tomb opened, and the family finally obeyed him and had the stone rolled away. The stench that came out of the tomb was horrendous and did cause a number of people distress.

“Lazarus, come out!”

Ignoring the comments from the gathered people, the stench from the open tomb, and the sly comments, Jesus said a short prayer to our Father, and then commanded Lazarus with a loud voice; projecting not just his confidence in the miracle that was being performed, but with great authority. In just three words, Jesus was able to dispel the notions of death, proved the power of God, and exposed himself, yet again, as the only Son of God.

The scriptures do not tell us what Lazarus was doing during those four days, nor is there an interview with Lazarus to find out. Although it would satisfy our human curiosity to find out, the most important thing is that, even after death had overtaken him, Lazarus still obeyed God’s command. Jesus proved that he had authority both in this life, and in the next. That is an important thing for us today.

Martha and Mary were distraught over the death of their beloved, and yet they put their human feelings and emotions away and obeyed the commands of Christ. Lazarus, although he was dead, also obeyed the commands of Christ. What would happen in our lives if we put aside our human emotions and simply obeyed the commands of Christ?

Just a few weeks ago, we heard Jesus say to Peter “get behind me, Satan, for you are setting your mind on human things and not divine things.” Peter knew the prophecies of the Messiah, and had, what he felt, was a good understanding of what was going to happen when the Messiah arrived. When Jesus spoke of what He was going to face in Jerusalem, these facts did not mesh well with the human perceptions, and Peter immediately rebuked his Lord. Jesus knew God’s plan in full detail and he knew what had to happen in order to fulfill this plan.

And like Peter, Martha and Mary had their beliefs about the Son of God, and when Jesus did not respond in the way they expected, they too had fallen. You see, in Hebrew theology the fourth day of death was important. According to Hebrew beliefs of death, the spirit hovered near the body after someone died for three days. On the fourth day, when the spirit saw the face of the deceased turn color, the spirit would leave, never to return. At that point this existence ended and life was no more. In fact, the priests of the temple in Jerusalem believed death in this world was the end. They did not believe in an afterlife at all. When Jesus finally had arrived, Martha and Mary believed that their brother was gone, never to return. But they also believed in Jesus enough to obey his commands.

And that is what separates the saints from the sinners. Today, as we celebrate All Saints’ Day, we are honoring all those who have come before, all those with us now, and all of those yet to come who have obeyed the commands of God at all costs. Today we are celebrating not only the canonically recognized saints, but also those who have not been canonically recognized. As Christians, we hold these saints in high regard, and we have named our churches in honor of their Godly work. For example, many of us can look to Saint Francis of Assisi as an example of how God’s love extends beyond human beings to all creatures of creation.

As humans, we oftentimes have neglected to realize the true humanness of these saints and instead revere them as living nothing but holy lives. The truth is these men and women were just as human as you and I. All of them were, are, will be ordinary people. They just had extraordinary lives – extraordinary lives because they set their minds on divine things and obeyed the command of God at every impasse.

We all believe in the resurrection of the body, and we all know that one day, like Lazarus, we too will hear Jesus commanding us to “come out.” Like the saints, we too can live an extraordinary life if we only obey every command that Christ gives us. When our worship ends today, if you listen intently enough, you may just be able to hear our Lord standing outside these doors calling each of us out into the world – out into His world – to spread his message, to fulfill God’s plan.

— Christopher Zampaloni is a postulant seeking Holy Orders through the Diocese of Western New York. He currently serves three churches: Church of the Good Shepherd, a Native American mission in Irving, New York; St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Silver Creek, New York; and the St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Jamestown, New York. He and his wife Carolyn live within a Native American community on Lake Erie.

Throwing off the cloak, 22 Pentecost, Proper 25 (B) – Oct. 28, 2012

Job 42:1-6, 10-17 and Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22) (or Jeremiah 31:7-9 and Psalm 126); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52

“Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.”

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, we may imagine the cloak was given to Bartimaeus by his mother. Giving him the cloak was one thing she could do for her son, for whom she always felt a mix of grief and pity, a sense of guilt too that she had given birth to a beautiful baby boy, who was also, forever, indelibly, unfortunately blind.

She and Bartimaeus’s father, Timaeus, had rejoiced when her birth pangs began – exulted that they would soon meet this product of their love. They had decided that if this baby was a boy, they would name him after his father, so his name would mean “Son of Honor.” They couldn’t know the irony at the time.

When Bartimaeus was born, their rejoicing turned to mourning. Ten perfect tiny fingers, yes; ten perfect tiny toes. That his lungs were strong they knew when he wailed for the first time, taking in big gulps of air here in the world outside his mother’s womb.

But then, they noticed: his eyes covered with a white milky film that did not clear; not with the midwife’s compresses; not with the prayers of the elders; not with the breaking of his mother’s heart and his father’s tears. Their son was blind.

This Son of Honor would know the indignity of begging. In fact, on the street they didn’t even call him by name. He was known as “a blind beggar” or just “the blind man.” His lot in life, his lone contribution to society, was to be the recipient of others’ charity. His one purpose in the eyes of others was to be the vehicle by which others fulfilled their religious duty to give to those less fortunate than themselves. He would serve as a reminder for others of their own good circumstances. “There but for the grace of God go I,” he would hear people remark as they walked past him.

“Alms for the poor,” he would shout out to them. “Have mercy on me, poor blind Bartimaeus!”

His cloak was his most important possession. Made of wool, thick enough to warm him on cool mornings and in the evening after sundown, his cloak was his blanket, his covering, his one constant companion. He was such a familiar sight by the roadside on the way out of Jericho, wrapped in his cloak, it had become part of his uniform, his identity. When he could hear passersby coming, he would quickly unwind it from his shoulders and lay it out in front of him to catch the coins people dropped for him. After the crowd passed, he would push the cloak’s frayed corners together in order to gather up the coins that collected in its center. The cloak was dusty from using it like this, but Bartimaeus didn’t mind. The smell of the dust and wool brought comfort to him when he wrapped the cloak tightly around him again, a tangible reminder that someone had cared about him once, enough to give him this gift. He had had the cloak so long, he couldn’t really remember his life before it, couldn’t imagine his life without it.

And then, one day, everything changes. Bartimaeus sits, fingering the fraying threads of a hole forming in his cloak, his chin lifted, eyes open but unseeing, listening. A large crowd approaches. Such a crowd is nothing new on this busy road, and yet there is something different: an urgency, excitement. Bartimaeus strains to sift one voice from another, strains to hear what people are saying as they come closer. He hears voices mingled, the fragment of a story, a strain of a song. And then one word, a name: Jesus. Jesus of Nazareth. Bartimaeus has heard this name before. He has heard the man by this name has the power to heal, to make whole, to make dreams come true, to make Bartimaeus’ own dreams come true, his dream of freedom, a life free from begging, a life where he can live fully into his own name: Son of Honor. A life where he can lift his head high, square his shoulders, set his own course, go wherever he desires.

Bartimaeus cries out, his voice dry and raspy, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

“Be quiet, beggar!” a voice close to him snaps. “Quiet down.” Someone tosses him a coin. “Keep quiet.”

But Bartimaeus cries out again, his voice gaining strength, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then he hears it. A man’s voice, up ahead, saying, “Call him here.”

More voices close by, “Take heart, beggar. Get up. He is calling you.”

And Bartimaeus does the one thing he had never before imagined being able to do. He throws off his cloak.

He throws off his cloak.

In that moment, he is like the trapeze artist who trusts that the strong man whose arms are outstretched to catch him will do just that. He trusts that the air through which he sails suddenly untethered is not nothing. The air is the place where a new thing can begin. The air is the substance through which he travels to meet the man coming toward him, whose grasp is strong, whose timing is perfect, who knows Bartimaeus and what he needs, but will give Bartimaeus the honor of allowing him to name his own desire.

And so, standing cloakless – he feels almost naked to tell the truth, but like a new being, a newly birthed person – Bartimaeus stands before Jesus and says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Jesus replies, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

Bartimaeus remembers the word spoken, like a distant dream. Jesus had said it: “Go.” Bartimaeus, you are free to go. Where you want. Go.

But Bartimaeus realizes that he does not wish to go. He wants to follow. To use his gifts, all of them, including his newly found sight, for something, not just for himself. He is freed to follow. And Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

Years later, when the disciples told the story of their friend Bartimaeus, they joked about their own blindness, their inability to see the significance of who Jesus was, even when he was standing right in front of them, plain as day. They laughed, because they had missed it so often, and this blind man, Bartimaeus, could see clearly who Jesus was without even laying eyes on him.

They told Bartimaeus’ story because Jesus left them with a challenge. Jesus would not always be with them physically, in plain view. They would not always be able to see him. But Jesus promised to be with them, to be known to them in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of the Word, in friend and stranger. He told them to use the eyes of their hearts to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself. He told them to use the eyes of their hearts, because there are many kinds of blindness.

There are many kinds of blindness, and we all bear a cloak of some kind. We all carry something with us or within us that we cling to, that is part of our identity, that brings us comfort, that it is hard to imagine our lives without.

In throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus embraces the new life he knew Jesus could give him. He knew that the security, comfort, usefulness of his cloak would be replaced by something much bigger, much better, more permanent. Bartimaeus never goes back to get his cloak. He never retreats to its familiarity. He just follows.

Jesus calls to us too: “What do you want me to do for you?”

 

— The Rev. Amy E. Richter is rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Annapolis, Md.

God will not let us go, 21 Pentecost, Proper 24 (B) – October 21, 2012

Job 38:1-7, (34-41); Psalm 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

In the portion of Mark’s gospel that we heard today, James and John the Sons of Zebedee, who had given up the family fishing business to follow Jesus, come to him asking to be seated on his left and his right when he comes into his glory. It appears that James and John are simply making a power play. It seems like yet another story in which the disciples appear clueless, unable to comprehend the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has for a third time predicted his suffering and death, yet James and John are applying for leadership positions in the new regime. It certainly looks like blind ambition on their part.

However, as Charles Campbell, professor of Homiletics at Duke Divinity School, points out, just a few verses before this story, Mark writes that the disciples were afraid. That sheds new light. What if James and John merely want a secure future? What if they just want some assurance, amidst Jesus’ predictions of suffering and death that everything will be all right? What if they are simply afraid?

We can identify with the disciples’ fear quite easily. We have made some frightening decisions as a nation for the sake of “security” in the last decade. Fear is a powerful emotion that can cause us to forget our compassion and ramp up our judgment. Fear can paralyze us into inaction, and tempt us to quit. As we sit here in a culture increasingly less interested in organized religion, it can be easy to fear for the future of our parish, our neighborhood and our town. Can we really blame James and John for wanting just a little assurance that things will work out?

Jesus’ response to them is that they will drink of the cup he drinks and be baptized with the same baptism. This is to say that they will be with Jesus and Jesus will be with them. Jesus will be with them no matter what. There are some out there who believe that if you just follow the rules (whatever rules that particular person holds dear) you will never experience pain. That thinking is wrong, harmful and dangerous. Jesus was God’s own son and he wound up dying on a cross. Who are we to think that our fate will be better?

In our reading from Hebrews this morning we heard, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.” The writer of Hebrews is lifting Jesus up as an example for us to follow. We are to follow Christ into submission. Now, submission is not a popular word in our culture. We prefer phrases like, “No retreat, no surrender,” “Never back down,” “Stand on your own two feet” and “Pull yourself up.” Our understanding of toughness is not faith in God, not trusting in God’s presence or providence; rather it is of the quarterback who leads the fourth-quarter comeback with a broken nose, or the cowboy who fights despite being outnumbered, out-gunned and injured. We don’t like “loud cries and tears.” We like “Suck it up.”

But as Christians, as followers of the one who submitted not just to being human, but to the cross, we are called to enter into pain and suffering, grief and loss, to be present with each other just as God is present with us. To do that, to practice that ministry of presence both with our own pain and that of our brothers and sisters in Christ, requires that we surrender our self-confidence, our self-reliance, our independence, and submit to confidence in God, reliance upon God and interdependence with each other.

In 1896, Judson W.V. DeVenter, wrote the lyrics of the classic hymn “I surrender all”:

All to Jesus I surrender,
All to Him I freely give;
I will ever love and trust Him,
In his presence daily live.
I surrender all,
I surrender all,
All to thee, my blessed Savior,
I surrender all.

DeVenter said that this hymn came about as he struggled to find his path, whether to serve his gifts for the arts or to become an evangelist. When he finally submitted not to his desires but to God’s will, he explained that a whole world opened to him. It is a mystery of the faith that to lose one’s life is to gain it.

This is a hard task. Submission is not popular. But it is in submission that Christ found his glory. Following the path of Christ will have both joy and pain, suffering and exaltation. Jesus, God’s own son, the one whom we came to know as God incarnate, God made flesh, died on a cross. God refused to be separated from humanity, separated from us. So God became one of us and lived among us and even suffered and died because of us. The testimony of the cross is that even in our darkest hour, even when it appears all hope is lost, even when we the fear threatens to cripple us, God is with us.

We should never limit God. Indeed, God is with us in our darkest hours in a multitude of ways. However, the one way we experience God among us the most is through the Body of Christ. That is the people gathered to worship God, to come to this table and receive the Body of Christ so that we can be the Body of Christ.

It is through us that God is with us. It is through us that God acts to hold us together. It is through us that God will not let us go. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

God will not let us go. No matter what may come, we will be present for each other, we will be the body of Christ for each other. We will share the love of God each and every day just as we share it here in this house of worship. Come to the feast. Come to God’s table. Come to the foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Receive the body and blood of the crucified God. Then go out into the world a fed and renewed people, emboldened and empowered to serve our Lord. Go out into the world as the Body of Christ to seek and serve all people in the name of Jesus. Go out into the world and heal the sick, feed the hungry, comfort those who morn, free the captives, and let all the world know that the love of God cannot be defeated.

God will not let us go. Amen!

 

— Father Jason Emerson is the rector of the Church of the Resurrection and the director of Resurrection House in Omaha, Neb. He and his wife Jodie are the proud parents of 2-year-old, red-headed twins.