Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Finding Vision

Miss Kathleen Frazier lived on Bedford Avenue in Altavista, Virginia, in the house where most likely she had been born.  She had a spare bedroom with a private bath, left vacant by her mother’s death just a year or so before I was to occupy it after my sophomore year in college.  I came to Altavista to be the summer intern at the local Methodist church.  The lay leader of the congregation met me on a late spring Sunday evening and after initial pleasantries headed with me down the block towards Miss Kathleen’s house.  “I should tell you,” said he, “that the lady you’re going to be staying with is blind.  She can see a little bit, but she’s practically totally blind.”  And he added, “You’ll discover what an amazing person she is.”

Miss Kay, as she was known, had spent her entire adulthood as a music teacher in Altavista Elementary School.  She walked there and back every day that school was in session.  She sang in the church choir.  She was phenomenally well read.  Sometimes I would pass her room and see through the open door her sitting with a huge volume of Braille in her lap.  She frequently commented on what I was wearing or how I looked particularly good in the color blue.  One day she commented on a novel I had left beside the chair in which I’d been reading.  She didn't much like it.
She sometimes had a huge volume of Braille in her lap.

In retrospect, the most valuable lesson that Miss Kay taught me was how ambiguous blindness is.  To be sure, there is a vast difference between total blindness and partial blindness, however limited the latter might be.  But I realized very quickly how much I saw but did not truly look at.  I began to realize how much more she, nearly totally blind from birth, actually perceived than I did.  

Bartimaeus in the gospel story told by Mark was a blind beggar.  Apparently he had once been able to see, for the favor he asked of Jesus was “let me see again.”  Blindness in the gospel narratives is paradoxical.  The blind can frequently see what the sighted miss.  The vignette about Bartimaeus is about exactly that.  His is the only instance of a healing story in Mark’s gospel where the person healed is actually named.  And he is the one in this early gospel who first calls Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David.”  So on one level the story is about names and identity.  Hold on to that thought because, as we shall see, it has something to do with the central point. 

Mark’s terse prose doesn’t tell us how Bartimaeus knew about Jesus, although at this point it is not at all unusual for his fame to precede him.  The picture Mark paints is of a noisy crowd of people who are surrounding Jesus on his way out of Jericho.  In all the commotion, Bartimaeus finds out that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by, and that is enough to ignite his enthusiasm.  He begins shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Maybe the crowd is used to loud-mouthed beggars and therefore used to putting them down and shutting them up.  Or maybe Jesus is carrying on a conversation or doing a bit of teaching along the road—we can speculate.  It could be, too, that the implication here is that Bartimaeus is using a politically sensitive title which the crowd is eager to avoid lest the authorities get worked up about Jesus.  Whatever the case, Bartimaeus is not about to hush. He just gets more insistent.  “Son of David, have mercy on me.” 

"Son of David!  Have mercy on me!"
The most dramatic moment in the narrative begins when Jesus simply stops.  Note that.  He stands still.  That, too, might be more than a tiny gloss on the main theme.   “Call him here.”  By this time in the story, it is becoming clear that this story has a function that far exceeds that of another miracle story.  “Call him.”  That tips us off that on another level this story is one about vocation.  It is about a calling and a response. 

 “Take heart, cheer up, Pal. He is calling you.”  And with that the moment arrives.  Bartimaeus in a gesture which seems to be brimming with enthusiasm indeed does take heart.  He throws off his old cloak and comes to Jesus.  Let’s pause the action for a second and take stock of what Bartimaeus is doing.  First, he has opened his voice full throttle and cried for mercy.  He has persisted in crying despite the crowd’s attempt to silence him.   And finally he springs to his feet and throws off that trademark of his beggarly life, the cloak.  In that way, Bartimaeus stands in marked contrast to the rich young man whom we recently saw in this gospel.  When Jesus invites him to come follow him, the young man goes away sorrowful for he has great possessions.  Bartimaeus, it would seem, is not only ready to give up what he has of a life but knows that if he is ever to see again he must seize the moment without second-guessing whether it will work out for him. 

Jesus repeats the question which he put to James and John when in the story immediately preceding this one when they too come to him asking for something.  “What is it that you want me to do for you?”  Jesus asks.  And so he asks that question of Bartimaeus.  That, too, is key to the meaning of this story.  What exactly do you want?  And what do you imagine that Jesus has to do with whatever you desire?  James and John were quite prepared with their request.  In a word or two, they wanted status and prestige, place and honor.  Disciples, even members of Jesus’ inner circle though they were, they had no grasp of what his Way entailed.  Perhaps Bartimaeus doesn’t know either.  But he knows that he wants to see again. 

Unlike the other story of a blind man being healed in this gospel, this one has no account of Jesus laying on hands or using spittle or commanding that someone go wash in order to gain sight.  He simply says what he often does.  “Go your way.  Your faith has made you whole.”  The implication here is not that faith is about believing that but rather about believing in.  Modern Christianity by and large doesn’t get that.  People spend enormous energy arguing about what is correct or not, what is God’s will about this or that, how you ought to think or how you should behave.  Faith is never really about those things, at least not centrally so.  It is about giving your heart, which is the root meaning of belief.  “My God, accept my heart this day and make it truly thine.”  It is quite literally falling in love with this indescribably wonderful Force that brings all things into being and keeps the universe in motion.  And it is this love that heals and saves us. 
"The way" from Jericho to Jerusalem is incredibly steep. 
The way of Jesus is even steeper.

Now the denouement of the story is that Bartimaeus, whom Jesus gives the command, “Go your way,”  actually uses that freedom and his restored sight not to go his way but to go Jesus’ way.  So Mark ends this passage with the thought, “He followed [Jesus] on the way.”

I said earlier that we’d return to the matter of identity and names.  In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is quoted in a number of places making “I am” statements.  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.”  “I am the true Vine.”  None of that is at all accidental.  But frequently, though not in the beginning so much, the Church has understood those statements to be about the uniqueness of Jesus as contrasted with the rest of us. But the issue is not ever that Jesus is about arrogating power to himself, or even asking to be worshiped.  He rather asks that his disciples follow him. And to follow Jesus inevitably means joining him in the way that leads through suffering and death.  The point is to sign on to his cause, not just his benefit package.  Jesus is on the way to suffering and death precisely because he has chosen to identify with the poor, the blind, the marginalized, the outcast, the ones who have been chewed up and spit out by the unholy alliance yoking political power and religious authority.  Who would be lingering in the background here upset at a messianic title being used to address Jesus?  You know who.  Those in power.  Make no mistake about it:  Jesus is going to Jerusalem and, as he himself predicted to his spiritually blind disciples, be killed.  And the reason is simple.  His teaching and preaching directly liberated those who were society’s poorest and least powerful in many cases.  His is a kingdom truly not of this world.  It is made of people like those little children in the story immediately preceding the one about the rich young man.  “Let the little children come to me and don’t stop them, for to such as them the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

That is the way that Bartimaeus chose to go.  Jesus became not only the healer but the Way himself.  Did Bartimaeus stick with Jesus through the coming crisis?  Was he there during the last week, or did he revert to the old life?  We don’t know.  What we do know is that Bartimaeus for a tiny little slice of the gospel narrative embodies the essence of the faithful disciple.  He follows Jesus on the Way, and all who do that discover that the Way is indeed Jesus himself.  He is, for every Bartimaeus among us, “My teacher, Rabbouni.” He is the model.  Our model.

I do not believe I need to tell you that the deck is stacked against Bartimaeus today.  And if Bartimaeus is, as I have said, the kind of disciple that really gets it, gets the truth, and acts on it, then those like you and me who are paying attention to this formerly sightless beggar might be aware that there is a virulent hatred, growing in today’s world, of noisy beggars.  Beware if you are an immigrant, a foreigner, or a person who does not serve the purposes of those in political power or religious authority.  Be careful if you sit by the roadside because you are a refugee.   But in a wider sense, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and tweet all manner of lies and evil against you falsely, and claim that you are undermining the system and threatening the security of everyone who matters.

Just observe who it is who is standing dead still and calling you.  Calling you.  Calling you.  Rejoice and be exceeding glad.  For great is your opportunity once you take that first step on that steep climb from Jericho to Jerusalem.  You will have a new identity,  and gradually a reworked self-understanding.  And most of all, you will have a vision.  You will be able to see again, and the first thing you’ll behold once your vision comes, is Jesus, “Rabbouni,” your teacher.

A sermon preached on October 28, 2018, on Proper 25, Year B, of the Revised Common Lectionary.  The Text is Mark 10:46-52.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

Monday, October 01, 2018

He's Not One Of Us

“He isn’t one of us. Neither is she.”

We somehow seem unable to get away from tribalism. If you are a member of our tribe, well and good. If you’re not, you have to prove yourself, if that’s even possible.

We are all members of tribes of all sorts. 
Tribes meet deep human needs for bonding and affection.
Tribalism becomes dangerous
because it emphasizes commonality and is suspicious of differences.
Tribal identity is so deeply embedded in human consciousness that when any of us begins to dismantle the walls that separate tribe from tribe, anxiety immediately rises, sometimes to a shocking degree. People who have been taught to feel proud of the tribe they belong to don’t like it when that identity is threatened. We all belong to a great many tribes of different sorts. We’re Americans, and so we’re members of the USA national tribe. We belong to a religious tribe or tribes, a racial tribe, perhaps an ethnic tribe, a tribe of those who do a particular kind of work, a tribe that encompasses people who live in a section of the country, the fans of a sports team, residents of certain state, a particular neighborhood, and so on. All of these things make up the identify of the “I.” As in “I am an American, a Nationals fan, a Southerner, a man.” They don’t, however, have a great deal to do with who we are at our core. Most of those things that we think we are come and go, many are negotiable, some are exchanged rather easily, and none last past death.

That is what I think is at stake in the little snippet from Mark’s gospel about the “alien exorcist”[Mark 9:38-40]. It wasn’t what he was doing. It wasn’t about the Name in which he was doing it. The trouble was (for the disciples of Jesus) he wasn’t one of them.

Native American dance being performed in an Episcopal Church.
Times have changed since the first century. I remember a comment made by one of my professors forty years ago when I was in seminary. He said, “When the real ecumenical movement comes…” referring to the serious interaction between Christianity and other religions, which had only just begun to gather momentum in those days. Nowadays, there is enormous interest in the confluence and differences among religious traditions and practices. People gravitate to conversations about religious traditions for all sorts of reasons and with all kinds of agendas. And while such interest is broad, it is still a minority interest. Sometimes conventional Christians find themselves climbing the walls when other traditions seem to be competing with, possibly even altering or, worse yet, displacing the received norms of Christianity. I’m thinking in particular of a General Convention of The Episcopal Church several years ago in which Native Americans played a major role. To its credit, The Episcopal Church has a laudable track record of having brought Christianity to Native Americans without disparaging their own cultures and religious traditions. As a result, there are small but highly significant examples of Native American communities that identify as Episcopal, and who have brought their music, art, dance, food, and symbol systems into the wider Episcopal experience greatly enriching us. Some at General Convention, however, were reportedly scandalized and horrified at what struck them as pagan and certainly as non-Christian. That is not an example that exactly parallels the passage in the gospel about the alien exorcist, but it comes close enough to make the point: somebody is suspect if they appear to belong to a tribe other than ours.

Lest you think this is not a matter of some urgency, I want to tell you that my reading of culture these days is that it is imperative that we find as much common ground on which to stand as possible. Otherwise, fragmentation threatens to devolve into enmity and enmity into warfare on a planet that cannot stand much more stress among its human inhabitants. Means of killing whole populations are far too much available for us to imagine that ideological divides are just backwater eddies that can’t have momentous effects.

More to the point is who we imagine Jesus to be. I have little notion that in a small slice of a single sermon I can say much that would help you in revisiting your understanding of Jesus. But if I could say only one thing it is that if Jesus is indeed, as Christianity insists, the manifestation of the essence of God, then it is also true, even according to our own scriptures, that the essence of God pops up in every culture, clime, race, nation, and tradition. Jesus the man is or was a particular human being. Christ, however, is the phenomenon that is experienced across lines and boundaries, both in time and in space.

I’m saying nothing new here. Hear from the first chapter of the Epistle to the Colossians these words: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rules or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things and in him all things hold together.”[1] That is saying something far beyond one human life. It is a claim that what was embodied in this one human being, Jesus of Nazareth, was a universal power that touches and embraces all things. Everything holds together in him. So that is a theological statement, a faith claim. But clearly it is at odds with any attempt to make Jesus the private Savior of a select population. In confessing Jesus’ uniqueness, the Early Church expressly found in him the glue that bonds everything together. As the first chapter of John’s gospel says, “The light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.” Jesus is not the private possession of a relatively small slice of humanity.

Mayan ritual in a Guatemalan forest
One day in about 1977, I opened my mail and saw a flier from a publisher that I didn’t know at all. It advertised a couple of books that caught my eye. I ordered one entitled Return to the Center by Bede Griffiths, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk who had at that time lived in India for some time in a Benedictine community styled in the manner of a Hindu ashram. The book turned out to be a brief exploration of similarities of Buddhism and Christianity. Reading it began a new stage in my growth that continues to this day. I have experienced a chain of discoveries of the truth of Christ cropping up in all sorts of places and in unexpected languages. I’ve found Christ showing up in a pagan ceremony of the New Moon, expressed in other language, but acknowledged as old, crippling behavior was denounced and new openness welcomed, much as in Christian baptism.  I’ve found Christ showing up as I’ve shivered in a cold Guatemalan forest, warmed by a great bonfire, and have had hands laid on me and prayers offered in the language of indigenous shamans in a Mayan rite, not unlike the healing services that I hold as a Christian priest. The Truth of Christ is universal. That is not to sell short the beautiful particularities of Christian tradition as found in more familiar places, such as your favorite parish church. But the idea is not nor ever has it been how people who attach themselves here or there are better or closer to God than many others. Being a Christian does not mean believing that yours is the only faith or the best. Nor does bearing witness to the power of Jesus mean clobbering other people with a Bible and proving them wrong.

Sleep Blessing from a pagan source. 
Comparable prayers can be found in Anglican prayer books. 
Note the Trinitarian symbol in the above graphic.

Some people who have looked carefully at the way human consciousness operates have observed that the us-versus-them mentality is inherent in early stages of development. We pass through such stages in our pre-school and elementary school years. If the conditions for growth are present, we learn how to make allowances for others who think and believe differently from us. And if we continue to grow, we get on a path that brings us farther and farther towards the place that we begin seeing that not only we and other humans but also everything in creation actually is a part of a great whole.

There is a critical lesson to be learned in Jesus’ response to his disciples’ concern about the alien exorcist. “They who are not against us are for us.” That doesn’t mean that if some are against us we can drop all attempts at respect and reconciliation and proceed to fight back. But neither does it mean that if some are twisting and perverting the Christian faith, as indeed in my opinion is happening on a frightening scale these days, that we have to play nice and not push back.

Speaking of that, look at the next sayings of Jesus. What is the point of the gospel if not to reconcile people to each other and all creation with the God who actually manifests in every part of creation? If then we participate in dehumanizing persons, treating them as inferior, ignoring their suffering, disrespecting them no matter who they are, we are betraying and outright denying the very gospel that we affirm by being baptized Christians. Does it not send chills down your spine to hear “if any one causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better to have a millstone hung around your neck and be thrown into the depths of the sea?” Does that not ring a bell very clearly to the mass mistreatment of children in the name of the United States? In the name of the Church? And how do we so easily forget that vulnerable children that wring our hearts and move us with compassion grow up to be adolescents and adults who need to be loved and affirmed and fed and clothed and cared for as well? Can our compassion not extend to them?

Now you may see why these hyperbolic statements of Jesus that strike us as impossibly hard, even irrational, are meant to shake us out of our lethargy and to call us to full awareness of how necessary it is to grow, to change, to stretch ourselves to live this delightful, joyful, playful life of God that we simply can’t live without giving up our delusions, our enchantments with tribal gods, our fixations on prejudices and pride that separate us from our fellow human beings and cause us to depreciate creation. Is it painful to leave our comfortable positions? It is like cutting off a hand. Is it easy to revise our views of reality? It is like plucking out an eye, so hard it is. Is it difficult to learn to love those whom we can’t stand? You bet. It is like cutting off a foot on which we’ve stood for so long we can’t remember, so long that we’ve forgotten that to hate is to stumble and fall, though it masks as if it makes us taller and more powerful.

There is a story in the Orthodox tradition of a monk named Peter who was known for his irascible temper. He prayed and prayed for God to remove his anger from him. Finally he went into the church one day, confessed his terrible anger, asked for healing, and heard the Lord speaking words of assurance to him that he had been healed of his anger. Immediately on leaving the church, Peter came upon a man who had been an irritant to him for years and within seconds they fell into an argument and Peter lost his temper. Distraught, he turned around and went back into the church, fell on his knees, and asked, “Why, Lord, did you promise that I was healed only to let me again flare up in rage at someone?” And he heard the Lord pose a question: “Peter, you didn’t think that I would not give you the opportunity to use your new gift, did you?”

The Christian life is a life of growth. You have every day new opportunities to part with old ways, shed old behavior, get rid of thought patterns that really contribute nothing to your health and happiness, and live differently. It doesn’t happen in a momentary conversion in which you are made pure and perfect. It happens when each day you decide to use your new gift. Salt is good, and you are salt. Yours and my gift is to make life in the world taste better for all.

If we don’t do it, who will?

"Salt is good.  But if salt loses is saltiness, how can you season it?  You are salt."

A sermon based on Mark 9:38-50, preached on September 20, 2018, on Proper 21 (Year B) of the Revised Common Lectionary.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

[1] Colossians 1:15-17.