St. Stephen’s, North Myrtle Beach
Proper 25; October 28, 2018
In a display of faith as extraordinary as any in all of Scripture, the blind beggar Bartimaeus throws off his cloak and comes to Jesus. That simple act of wild abandon is a detail too easily missed. The cloak was likely Bartimaeus’ only possession. Not only that, as a beggar, it would have been the receptacle placed on the ground to receive coins tossed his way.
Contrast for a moment the beggar’s wreckless gesture with the response of the rich man earlier in this same chapter of Mark read two weeks ago. Bartimaeus gives up all that he has to come to Jesus, but the rich man apparently is not able to give up even a small part of his fortune. The man at the top of the pecking order in terms of wealth, status and virtue (remember, he said he had kept all the commandments since his youth), gets a direct call from Jesus and walks away grieving because of his many possessions. The blind beggar Bartimaeus on the other hand, jumps at the chance to be with Jesus. The well-heeled can’t say yes and the destitute blind beggar can’t wait for the opportunity. The first have become last and the last have become first. Once again, Gospel surprise. What does it teach us?
Then there is that question, that strange question Jesus asks of Bartimaeus that he also asked of James and John last week in the Gospel, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Mark, the gospel writer, continues to be clever with irony. The Zebedee brothers had been with Jesus from the outset. They had listened to him teach and witnessed his mighty works. Of all people they should get it. Yet when Jesus asks what they want from him, James and John respond they want to be top-dog, numbers one and two with Jesus, thus showing severe spiritual blindness. In contrast, poor, blind Bartimaeus shows his capacity to see by wanting Jesus to restore his sight. Another Gospel surprise. What does it teach us?
We are caught in a tension aren’t we? We know we are called to trust in our Lord totally as the readings from Job, the Psalm and Hebrews make abundantly clear: “The Lord has done great things for us and we are glad indeed” (Psalm 126:3). Like Bartimaeus we are called to toss aside our garment, whatever that may symbolize for us, and go to receive God’s love and wholeness for our life. Just as we discover in the life of Job, it is God’s desire to restore all things.
Yet we continually hear the lies being proffered around us: “Be strong. Take control. Don’t show your weakness. Never apologize. Fear those different from you. Be rid of ‘the other.” You come first.” Left unchallenged, buying into such lies results in our inability to see the blind beggars around us or even our own blindness. In the extreme, it can end up expressed in hatred and bigotry such as what we saw manifested in the horrors of Pittsburgh yesterday. Our blindness divides us and refuses to acknowledge that all are made in the image God. What does it teach us?
I’m thinking that this is precisely why Jesus asks the question, “What do you want me to do for you?” The answer may seem obvious to some—of course he wants to see. Yet the truth is, often we are content to remain blind. If we remain blind we don’t have to change, be challenged or walk in a new direction. Our presumptions and prejudices can remain intact. We don’t have to recognize God in the other.
Some fascinating research has been done about the response of blind people who are given sight through medical treatment. Their transition is remarkable. Even after being able to see, they would crack their shins on tables and chairs that before had not been a problem. They had issues judging distance. For many, suddenly having sight was not the wonderful gift the sighted would have imagined. One individual is reported to have simply closed his eyes and went back to the comfortable and familiar world he knew. Another said that he couldn’t take it anymore and wanted to tear his eyes out. Seeing was too painful.
To receive God’s sight as shown to us in Jesus is to see differently, through different eyes if you will. It can be difficult. It cost Jesus his life. It has been costly for other prophets of God over the centuries. The call of our baptism and as being renewed today in those coming forward for the laying on of hands, is to acknowledge that Jesus has given us new eyes through a new identity. The reason Bartimaeus can get up with such self-abandon and throw off his only security to then trust in God alone, is that he has come to some awareness of the depth, magnitude and beauty of the gift. When Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well,” the verb Mark uses there signifies a physical cure to be sure, but it also indicates the gift of salvation itself. What it teaches us is that until we see, really see, and know deep within ourselves the immensity and wonder of the gift of God in Jesus, we will too often be content to hold onto our cloak, remain in blindness, what we think we already know, and seek the comfort of the status quo.
Our invitation today, as always, is to follow Jesus “on the way” as Bartimaeus did. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen says in his little book, Here and Now: “If we could just be, for a few minutes each day, fully where we are, we would indeed discover that we are not alone and that the One who is with us wants only one thing—to give us love.” “Start by doing what is necessary,” St. Francis of Assisi said, “then do what is possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
As you renew the baptismal covenant today, throw off your cloak, whatever that may be. Then begin to see, really see, like Jesus.
Bishop Skip Adams offered a video message on October 28 following the attack at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that left at least 11 people dead. A transcript of the video is here:
Dear People of God in South Carolina, as is mine I know your hearts are torn and your minds are reeling in response to the horrifics acts of hatred and bigotry as they were perpetrated in the synagogue in Pittsburgh.
As I visited with the people of St. Stephen's, North Myrtle Beach this morning, we prayed together for the victims, for their families, for all who respond to them, and also spoke of how we ned to be a people who are reaching across all kinds of barriers for those, and to those, who are different from us, to show the way of love to which Jesus calls us.
These things strike awful close to home as we continue to remember the people of Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston.
If you are in a communtiy that has a a synagogue, if you have Jewish friends, I hope you will especially reach out to them in care and concern. Find ways to pray with them, for them, and perhaps you can find other ways for all victims of hatred and bigotry to talk about a new way, a new possibilty, a new hope, a new way of being.
It seems appropriate at this time to share with one another the Shema, the great Jewish prayer spoken before and at the end of worship, and before bedtime each nite, and we share that prayer with our Jewish sisters and brothers: -- Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. --
We know it to be so, and may we share in solidarity with those who are grieving and are hurting this night. Blessings to you all, and thank you.
October 21, 2018; Proper 24
As a disciple of Jesus one of the things I like to do is look for how the truth of God breaks through and becomes manifest in the culture around us. Often it happens through music. If you are of my vintage, perhaps you will recognize the words of the prophet Marvin Gaye, Motown musician from 1971, when he asked in a song’s title, “What’s Goin’ On?” If you do not recall the lyrics, allow me to remind you:
There’s too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother
There’s too many of you dying.
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.
We don’t need to escalate.
You see, war is not the answer.
For only love can conquer hate.
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.”
What’s goin’ on is this: Our world is lost. It is lost in a worldview that seems to highly value expressions of human interaction that come from raw power or domination by who can shout the loudest, misrepresent the facts in the most clever way, or rattle the biggest sword. It cannot see beyond winning at all costs by seeking to vanquish our neighbor through extremism and demonization. The world’s lost-ness appears every day whether it be the recent events in Saudi Arabia or in refugees fleeing their countries in the attempt to find a place of safe haven for their families. You can name your own examples. Too many crying. Too many dying.
The Gospel on the other hand, calls forth a transformed humanity that seeks the good of every human being as made in the image of God. As disciples of Jesus we desire to see human beings fully alive, fully awakened to our humanity in the highest and best sense of what it means to be truly human. It was Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon who said way back in the second century: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” It is what our own hearts long for even when we don’t recognize it. It’s about finding a way “to bring some lovin’ here today.”
That was the mission of Jesus. It follows then that it is our mission – to become a people who embody ever more fully and radiate ever more clearly that pure and unbounded love who is God. Yet we often don’t get it just as James and John didn’t get it. The dust up in today’s Gospel is a very human account of two disciples, ordinary men after all, looking for validation and status. They are seeking advantage for themselves. Jesus sees what is going on as they ask for special seating in places of honor. Who doesn’t like to be noticed for one’s effort and receive validation for working hard and showing faithful effort? Yet even though ambition within a community, even a community gathered around Christ is not unknown, it is not Jesus’ way. James and John truly do not know the depth of that for which they are asking. Jesus challenges both of them with a question of his own: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?” They may say they are able, but truly they are not. We know this because this whole episode of status-seeking occurs after Jesus has presented to them, for the third time, the likelihood of his death. They can’t consider the possibility and so deflect from what they really must engage and miss Jesus’ whole point.
To be baptized into a Christian community, to dare to drink that cup (point to the altar), indeed to come forward today to reaffirm one’s baptism through Confirmation, Reception or Reaffirmation, is costly, if we are looking to live it deeply, faithfully. Too often we travel through life seeing too narrowly, thinking too small-mindedly, and loving with limitations. Jesus dared to see beyond himself as he put his faith in God into action for the deliverance of us all.
Study after study of modern American religion is telling us that the time for casual Christianity is over. From the report of “The Pew Research Center”: “Casual Christianity, the kind that is not lived deeply as a pattern of life, is losing legitimacy among young people because many Christians only speak the truth and fail to DO the truth.”
Jesus teaches James and John what relationships in him are to look like. We are to live on this planet with the attitude of a servant, “diakonos,” literally as “one who waits on tables.” Such an approach ushers in the possibility of a life lived as a self-offering. Being bound in service to one another is a paradox in that we find that the very thing of which we are afraid can set us free. “By his bruises we are healed,” Isaiah tells us today. This is amazing as we discover that entering into the pain of another can actually bring healing to us, and them.
All of us have been called in our baptism to be servant of one another. We have a mission to celebrate and a love to share. Every Eucharistic celebration reminds us that our life as a Christian community is not primarily about the maintenance of an institution, nor about the management of an organization. It is about the profound and challenging transformation of God’s people into the mystery of divine love as we are called out to be. It is what it is to be a part of the “Jesus movement.”
Go again into the neighborhood of Summerville, not “to be served but to serve.” Wherever we can bring forgiveness, justice, release and reconciliation, there is Christ and then we are being a people of God who God can use to bring about his Reign “on earth as it is in heaven.” For what was Jesus’ purpose? It was to bring some lovin’ here today.
21st Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 23: October 14, 2018
Today’s Gospel reading presents one of the places in Scripture where many people feel that Jesus has gone from preaching and teaching to meddling. This is because we find Jesus is taking head on the issue of our money. For most people that can feel like meddling, because our money is one of the most closely guarded, personal and sometimes secretive part of our life. Whereas money, in itself, is morally neutral, for a Christian it is to be used first for the building of the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, issues of money can be so consuming that it takes on a power all its own and demands our obedience. That is what Jesus is addressing here.
The rich man has come to Jesus with a curious question: “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” We discover the man is apparently a person of great moral integrity – keeping the commandments since he was a boy. But Jesus, sensing a disconnect in the man’s life, shows his love by telling him he must sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. His response is one of shock and he goes away grieving, for he was a man of many possessions.
Then come those words familiar to most of us: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.” Perhaps as you, I have heard many explanations over the years as to what those images refer, but the point is this – it is nearly impossible for a rich person to get into heaven. You might respond, phew! I’m off the hook! Do remember, however, that if you own a house, even with a mortgage, you are wealthier than 95% of the world. If you own one car you are more wealthy than 82% of the world. We are the rich! This is about most if not all us and Jesus has gotten to meddling.
At least two questions now arise for me. Why does Jesus talk so much about money? Except for the Kingdom of God, the topic Jesus addresses more than anything else is the topic of money, our treasure. Second, if it is impossible for a rich person, you and me, to enter the Kingdom of God, then as the disciples said, “who can be saved?”
To the first question as to why Jesus talks so much about money, the answer goes back to how money gains a power all its own. Jesus recognizes in the rich man of today’s reading and in humanity, that money is God’s chief rival. Money and possessions, more than anything else, has the power to supplant the place of God in our lives, our time and our energy. We sometimes organize our life around it. It demands our attention. That’s why money is a spiritual issue for Christians and always will be. It can take a place of ultimate importance, demanding obeisance only properly due to God. As such an idol it can command more attention from us than we give to God and our discipleship.
A response to the second question regarding the impossibility of a rich person entering the Kingdom is a bit more complicated. So let me tell you about a rich person I knew who, in my limited perspective, seemed to be in right-relationship with her treasure.
I met Rebecca in the summer of 1979 when I was serving in a parish as a seminary intern. She was the daughter of a man who had the one industry in a small rural Maryland town. When I met her she was in her mid-60’s and had a solid eight figure portfolio. She spent every working day tutoring reading in the inner city of Baltimore.
Her housekeeper was one of her best friends. Almost every Thursday, after she would return from a day of teaching for a salary of $1.00/year (giving the rest to the PTA), she and the housekeeper would go out to dinner and then the Baltimore Symphony. Rebecca would support everything she could, including her parish, and her dinner parties were known as the most racially, socially, and culturally mixed occasions one could imagine. She often wore a favorite wool skirt purchased in 1946. At her funeral in 1982, hundreds attended across the political, racial, generational (many children were there) and socio-economic spectrum. For me it was a vision of the inclusivity of the Kingdom itself.
Her last act of ministry of which we know the day before she died, this rich woman picked through an entire school day’s garbage until she found a pair of eyeglasses a child had left on a lunch tray. Rebecca incarnated what Jesus is pointing to in the Gospel. It is not about what she did, not her behavior or good works that gains her the Kingdom. If you asked her why she conducted her life in this manner, she would have said to you, “Because I love Jesus.” You see, all stewardship of our life, including our financial stewardship, flows from discipleship and becomes an act of worship. It is not a deadly legalism of “oughts and shoulds.” It is about our time on the earth being a joyful response in thanksgiving for the gift of new life in Christ.
That’s what Jesus, out of his love for him, was challenging in the rich man. He wanted him to see that his possessions had begun to possess him. It is why we bring our gifts to the altar, as an act of honoring God with our substance. It is to be our best, our first fruits, before anything else, and indeed is one way we disarm the power of money over us. The issue here of course is not the amount, but the faithfulness with which it is given in order to glorify God in all things.
Jesus was looking to set the rich man free and yes, seeks to set us free, leading us to a new relationship with our possessions and therefore a new relationship with God and each other. It’s all impossible of course, except that, “For God, all things are possible.”
I want to share with you a letter written to The Episcopal Church by the Rt. Rev. David Alvarado, the Episcopal/Anglican Bishop of the Diocese of El Salvador. It is a recognition and celebration of the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero by the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, Archbishop Romero of El Salvador has been on the Episcopal Church’s calendar of saints for many years, noting his assassination and martyrdom on March 24, 1980.
I have had the privilege of walking in solidarity with Bishop Alvarado and many other dear ones in El Salvador for a number of years, even now serving on the Board of Cristosal.org, a vital human rights organization. This recognition, among other things, validates the struggle of the people there in their search for justice for all God’s people.
Having sat in silent prayer before Archbishop Romero’s tomb, stood at the altar where he was assassinated while saying Mass, and being present in his apartment to gaze transfixed upon a blood-stained clergy shirt he was wearing that awful day is contained as a relic behind glass, I can tell you that his spirit lives on in the hearts of the people, including my own. I even keep a copy on my desk here in Charleston a book of sayings and sermon excerpts from Archbishop Romero.
I leave you with this from Archbishop Romero, fierce defender of the rights of the poor: “The Church would betray its own love for God and its fidelity to the Gospel if it stopped being 'the voice of the voiceless.’”
In Resurrection hope,
Bishop Skip Adams
The Right Reverend Gladstone B. Adams III was elected and invested as our Bishop on September 10, 2016. Read more about him here.