Monday, October 26, 2015

Blind Bartimaeus, Sam Dotson, and Lessons in Gratitude

"Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way."
-Mark 10: 52

What does gratitude look like?  When we’re kids we’re taught to always say thank you.  I can remember winter mornings after Christmas sitting at the table and writing out a bunch of thank you notes to family who had given me presents.  It seemed so tedious; why would anyone think that a note of 2 or 3 sentences from a little kid was important?  Over time, however,  I came to see how meaningful those little notes are—especially after receiving them myself.  Although to be honest, I’m still struggling to get thank you notes sent out in a reasonable time.

But that is what gratitude is.  Not flashy.  Not attention-grabbing.  Gratitude can be something as small as a little handwritten note, or even taking a moment or two to say thanks to someone in person.  It goes an awfully long way.  

Take the case of blind Bartimaeus.  This beggar, this nobody, sitting on the side of the road in Jericho hears the crowd making noise over Jesus, who is passing through on his way to Jerusalem—about another 15 miles away.  So he cries out for Jesus:  “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Others are telling him to be quiet but he shouts even louder, “Have mercy on me.”  He is so desperate.  Desperate to meet Jesus, desperate for healing in both his body and his spirit.  And when he is brought to Jesus he lays it all down at his feet and tells him plainly:  let me see again.  Jesus, with no magic hands, no magic words, says simply your faith has made you well.  So what does Bartimaeus do when he realizes his sight has been restored?  He follows Jesus on the way.  Heading for Jerusalem.  Heading for the cross.  Heading for glory.  

An artist's rendering of the encounter between Jesus and bling Bartimaeus.

Bartimaeus had nothing to offer Jesus except himself.  He couldn’t walked away like so many others—remember the 10 lepers that were healed?  Remember how only one, a Samaritan, one of those filthy foreigners, came back to say thank you to Jesus?  Bartimaeus could’ve just been content that Jesus healed him and then move on.  Instead, he joined him along the way.  We don’t know how long, nor do we know if he ended up being scattered along with the rest of the disciples during Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion.  But we do know that he followed him, and that—giving our very selves to Jesus—is the ultimate means of saying thank you.  

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews talks about the role of the priest and how the priest would have to regularly make sacrifices on behalf of his own sins and the sins of the people.  But Jesus, the writer points out, does not have to do this.  Jesus’ single sacrifice, his laying down of his life on the cross, is the perfect sacrifice because it is once and it is for all.  Jesus’ sacrifice is enough.  It’s enough to atone for the sins of every human being who ever lived and who ever will live.  There is nothing more that needs to be done on our part, except to say thank you.  How do we do that?  

I want to tell you a story of a man I once knew named Sam Dotson.  Sam was in his late 40s/early 50s when my family met him at the local nursing home.  My home church conducted monthly services there, and Sam was always in attendance.  He had cerebral palsy and was confined to a wheelchair.  He could barely speak, usually relying on a computer, with which he would type out his thoughts with his index finger.  Sam was a big basketball fan, so we would wheel him across the street to the local college where he would sit next to me on my dad’s bench, watching intently.  Never once did Sam curse God for the hand that had been dealt to him.  Around age age 12 I asked him if he ever got mad at God for being the way he was.  He shut his eyes, shook his head, and managed to say, "Thankful."  That was Sam.  He was always thankful for each day that he had, each visitor who came to the nursing home, each blessing that God bestowed on him.  We never expected Sam to give anything to us in return for worshipping with him or taking him to the basketball games, but he did.  He had framed a picture of Jesus as the Good Shepherd and gave it to us.  It stayed in our basement, where I spent most of my time, and whenever I looked at it, I always thought of my friend, who had every right to be angry at God, but who found joy and love all around him, and who showed us what gratitude looked like.  

With Sam Dotson, the man who showed me what faith and gratitude look like (circa 1994).

So will we say thank you?  There is no single answer to that. No matter how you say 'Thanks' just know that it matters!  Even if it seems as small and insignificant as I thought those notes were that I wrote as a kid.  Whether it is time, talent, or treasure, every means of showing gratitude is important. How you show gratitude will change you, as it changed Bartimaeus when he followed Jesus.  And it will change those around you, as knowing Sam Dotson and his gracious and loving heart changed my family and me. So how will you say thank you to God?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Grace Is Not a Contract!

"James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
--Mark 10: 35

As a sports fan one of the things that frustrates me so much with modern athletes is free agency.  After signing a contract for a few years a player can test the waters and leave a team to sign with someone else.  Sometimes they sign with a team closer to home, but most of the time we hear the same narrative:  they leave for more money because they don't think that their previous team was giving them what they deserved.  All we who are sports fans can rattle off a litany of players who have left our favorite teams because, in their words, they weren't getting what they deserved.

Today we find James and John, the sons of Zebedee, suffering from this very frame of mind.  They come to Jesus telling him that they want him to give him that which they feel they deserve.  Remember that James and John--the sons of Thunder--and Peter made up Jesus' inner circle.  They alone were allowed to go into the house when Jesus healed the dying young girl, and they alone will witness Jesus' Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor.  They're kind of a big deal.  And they're starting to get a little cocky, thinking that they're better than these other amateurs, that they are entitled to something more than them.  So they come to Jesus.  "Teacher," they say, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."  Wow!  That's not even a question.  It's not a request.  It's a demand.  And it takes some intestinal fortitude on their part.  Jesus goes along with them for a bit.  "What do you want?" he asks.  "We want you to let us sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory."  Jesus goes along with them for a bit, but then he informs them that such a demand cannot be granted by him, rather it is for God alone to decide.  Tough for James and John.  Yet it isn't the demand that I would ask that we focus on, instead it is the arrogance with which it is made.

A few posts back I talked about the deacons, those folks who embody for us what Jesus' call to be "servant of all" looks like.  I guess James and John missed that lesson, because for them this tour of the Palestinian countryside appears to be more about campaign than ministry.  You see, James and John have their eyes on their prize, on glory.  But their glory is not Jesus' brand of glory.  Their glory is Rome's glory, which is about power and lording that power over others.  It's a military and political glory, and unfortunately for James and John--and many others--this is the kind of glory they thought Jesus' messiahship would bring.  Jesus, though, comes and speaks of a kind of glory that is not Rome's.  His glory is that of a cross, not a throne.  His ambition is one of service to others, not the lording of his power over others.  He, therefore, calls his apostles, and those who come after them, into this brand of glory.  It's not the kind of glory the world would have us seek.  James and John seem to have forgotten why they listened to Jesus and followed him in the first place.

That makes me wonder:  why did they follow Jesus?  What made them drop their nets and go with him?  Maybe they sensed in Jesus something the world could not give them, namely a glimpse of the Kingdom of God--already here and yet still coming.  Maybe they knew that he could give them that peace that the world could not give; the kind of peace that says you are no longer subject to the sins of your past, that you are loved beyond measure, and that you are God's own forever.  Maybe their hearts were on fire when he called their names.  Who knows?  Whatever the reason was, I think I can say with certainty that the reason they took those first steps was because they thought they were going to get power and prestige out of it, or that Jesus was somehow going to reward them for doing it.  After all, a part of them died when they followed Jesus, as they gave up family, friends, and livelihoods to go with this guy!

When we decide to follow Jesus a part of us dies, as well.  Death is essential to our faith; after all, it is through the gate of death that Jesus offers us Resurrection.  And as St. Francis says in that famous prayer, "it is in dying that we are born to eternal life."  The old self, the self that says that I should look out for me and no one else because I deserve to get what's coming to me, that self dies.  The self that is often beaten down by my own sin and disappointments, that self dies when we follow Jesus.  The selfish ambitions that we may have had are washed away, replaced by the new ambition of service to others, and the prize of our own personal glory and satisfaction is replaced by the glory of the cross, of sacrifice.  To be a follower of Jesus means to give more than we receive, to focus outwardly more than inwardly.  When we do that we get a very real glimpse of the kingdom Jesus promised.  

So I wonder:  why have you decided to follow Jesus?  I'm sure if I asked folks to email me their answers I'd never get the same one twice.  Still, I'd be willing to bet that none of you would say, "I follow Jesus because it'll get me what I deserve" or "I do it because I want Jesus to give me whatever I ask him."  Jesus doesn't work that way!  James and John figured that out; James was beheaded and John died alone on an island.  True, we do get grace upon grace poured out for us when we come together in common worship, song, and sacrament.  But we don't come together because Jesus is going to reward us if we do.  Grace is not a contract!  We come together because Jesus has said to each of us, "Follow me!"  And we gather together to continually ask what that looks like and to work together to live into the answer.

Following Jesus is not about getting everything we want or feel that we deserve.  Following Jesus is about dying daily to our selves, replacing the ambition to be served with the ambition to serve.  It's about asking not what Jesus can do for me, but what can I do for others on Jesus' behalf.  I wonder what the world would look like if we asked ourselves those questions:  what can I do?  Why have I decided to follow Jesus?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Rooted In Love

A lot of parishes are getting ready for that "joyful" season that we called Stewardship.  Very seldom do we ministers get a kick out of talking about money, but we also recognize the necessity for it.  Not only is money important for keeping the heat or lights on in the church building, but it is also a mandate of the Church.  All that we have comes from God, and so we offer a portion of what we have right back to God, so that the Church--that body which is the hands, feet, and heart of God in this world--may use it to God's honor and glory and for the work of the Kingdom.

Where we get in trouble, however, is when we equate money with blessings.  If you give more to the Church, then your life will be a greater blessing.  That's what we hear far too often in this day and age. Recently, I spent time with a woman who came into my office seeking some help with some bills.  Through her tears she prayed, "I've been a good person, so why is God punishing me and my family?  Other people are blessed by God.  Why not me?"

Perhaps, I said, God doesn't work that way.  The story from Scripture that came to mind as we sat and prayed was what we often call The Widow’s Mite.  The story appears in Mark & Luke and goes like this: Jesus, sitting across from the treasury, watches a rich man place a large amount of money in the alms basin, thanking God for blessing him with abundance,  unlike the worthless sinners whom God has cursed.  Just then a poor woman puts in two copper coins, which Mark tells us equal a penny.  Jesus’ response to this act of gratitude is, “This poor widow has put in more than all these…she has put in everything she had, her whole living.” (Mark 12: 43-44, Luke 21: 3-4)

This is a miraculous moment.  Beautifully, it is not Jesus who performs said miracle; rather it is the poor widow.  A woman who has, seemingly nothing, offers all that she possesses.  This is not done in an attempt to be praised by anyone, or because someone hounded her and made her feel guilty, or because she thinks she is going to get some kind of grand blessing out of it in the form of material possessions.  She offers what she does out of her love for God, out of a sense of honor and respect for what God has commanded her to do.  And that, especially in our day and age, is truly miraculous!

In an age when we are told we need more, where the woman came to me in tears because her lack of money was, for her, a sign of God's displeasure with her, we need to hear this story.  The so-called Prosperity Gospel, which is preached far too loudly, tells us that if we give SOME money then God will bless us with MORE money (or some other treasure). This is simply poor theology, and it treats our giving as some sort of contract with God, that if we do our part, God will bless us even more.  But what happens when we give and give and God doesn't reward us with a new house or car? And what of the widow?  She does not give with the hope of attaining, rather she gives because that is what God has called her to do.  It is this same kind of giving of the self that we are still called to model today. 

New Testament scholar Preston Epps once wrote: “The Kingdom of Man says ‘get and accumulate,’ while the Kingdom of God says ‘give and share.’”  The widow is not concerned with the getting; instead, it is the Kingdom of God with which she is concerned.  When we give of ourselves, whether it be time, talent, or treasure, we are giving for the growth of the Kingdom of God. 

We can learn from this woman’s example of giving in a world that often tells us otherwise. We can learn that, to borrow the words of St. Francis, “it is in giving that we receive.” For when we give out of love we do so prayerfully, carefully, in deep conversation with God.  It is all rooted in love.  God is not bound by our world's standards, which tell us that we have to have more to be worth anything (just look at our unhealthy obsession with celebrities).  God loves us simply because we are God's children. Thus, when we root our lives in love--rather than a false gospel of prosperity--we give of our selves, our time, our talent, and our treasure.  Our lives are then built on a foundation that cannot ever be shaken. It is then that we get glimpses of the Kingdom.  And it is then that miracles happen. 

Monday, October 5, 2015

Jesus, Divorce, & Biblical Interpretation

"Some Pharisees came, and to test Jesus they asked him, 'Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?' He answered them, 'What did Moses command you?' They said 'Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.'  But Jesus said to them, 'Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  But from the beginning of creation, "God made them male and female.  For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife and the two shall become one flesh."  So they are no longer two but one flesh...Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her.'"
--Mark 10: 2-8, 11

I’ve been asked more than once whether or not I read Scripture literally.  My response is that I do. I read it literally in the context of the time and the place in which it was written, and I take into account the audience to whom it was written.  We call this historical criticism, putting a piece of Scripture into its historical content and trying to figure out what it meant at the time because, sometimes, what it means now isn’t what it meant then.  So, yes, when I read what Jesus says about divorce I think that he actually said it and actually meant it.  But what exactly did he mean?

In order to understand Jesus’ attack on the practice of divorce, we have to understand the institution of marriage from the viewpoint of ancient Judaism.  In that custom, a woman was quite literally a thing.  She was a possession, property.  She was something that was used to unite families and strengthen alliances.  Exodus even says that a daughter can be sold into slavery and that if she is she is not to be freed as male slaves are.  The result of such a view was that a man could divorce his wife on almost any grounds, while the only grounds on which she could seek a divorce was if he were a leper!  So if the woman found no favor in the man’s eyes, for any reason, he could dismiss her—Deuteronomy 24 gives him this privilege.  Jesus sees a society where men can dismiss women for no good reason, thus his statement that God never intends for divorce to happen is one in which he is calling his own people at this particular time to remember the sanctity of the institution and to remember that marriage is about spiritual unity; in fact, the commitment between two of God's people is a reminder of the commitment God has made with all of us.  So yes, Jesus deplores the practice of divorce.

But Jesus’ own statement changes as time goes by.  In the Gospel of Matthew, written about 10 years after Mark, Jesus is asked the same question and this time he tells the people that “Whoever divorces his wife—expect on the grounds of sexual immorality—commits adultery.”  This is in Matthew 19.  Here in Mark Jesus’ statement is black and white—“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery”—but in Matthew he gives an exception to that rule, and that is if the woman is unfaithful.  So which is the actual law?

For each community of the gospels in its own time and place, what Jesus said was literal.  Each community took it to heart.  But times change.  All we have to do is look at how Mark and Matthew both handle this moment to see that it is nearly impossible to read Scripture through any other lens than the one with which it was written.  When we do that we misuse Scripture, which is something that evolves.  It isn’t static.  It is meant to be read with a critical eye, which is exactly what the rabbis of Jesus' own time did when they would read the Scripture in the synagogue, give an interpretation, and then hand it off to the next person.  They knew that a passage of Scripture may not hold the same meaning now as it did when it was written.  

My parents are divorced.  I can remember reading this passage and crying because I thought this somehow meant my parents, good people, had committed some kind of egregious sin because their marriage didn’t work out.  Some of you have been divorced.  That doesn’t make you miserable sinners.  Yes, it’s disappointing that divorce has become so commonplace among folks that something like irreconcilable differences—I don’t even know what that means—is a reason enough to dissolve the bonds of marriage within mere weeks.  But if we take Jesus’ words literally in our own time and place then that means all divorce is wrong.  And I can’t agree with that.  I can’t agree that someone who divorces a spouse over physical abuse is an adulterer.  I can’t agree that someone who divorces a spouse because he or she is manipulative or emotionally abusive is an adulterer.  And I don't think that there is some kind of special grace given to parents who stay together in a loveless marriage for the sake of the children.  Times change.  If we apply the same ethics of Scripture to our own day, then that means we are limited God. But God is not done speaking.  God did not stop speaking with the Amen at the end of Revelation.  And we are not meant to limit God to the pages of various books written over different periods of time to different people. 

I respect Scripture way too much take every single word at face value and apply the ethics of its time to our own.  It deserves to be taken way more seriously than that.   I saw a politician the other day claim that this passage was proof that Jesus condemned gay marriage--evidently because Jesus said, "God made them male and female."  This is flat-out wrong!  The very concept of gay marriage--or even marriage based on love--were foreign to Jesus' times, and to use this passage to promote one's own agenda is a gross misuse of Scripture. When preachers or politicians like this one say that this is God’s Word and it never ever changes, they’re wrong on two fronts.  Firstly, it does change.  The Exodus law that allowed women to be sold into slavery was not custom by Jesus’ time.  Secondly, God didn’t write the Scriptures.  Inspired, sure.  Wrote, no.  Men wrote the Scriptures and put their own spin on it based on the context of their time. The Word of God is Jesus Christ.  He is the living, breathing, embodiment of God.  And while interpretations of the specifics of what he said may change over time—just look at Mark and Matthew—the truth of his message of love for God and for each other, and the truth of his death, resurrection, and ascension do not change.  Hold to those truths, and the rest is just details.  We are meant, therefore, to read them through the lens of their own context.  It's like Ben Witherington said:  "A text without context is a pretext for whatever you want it to mean!" 

So how should we read Scripture in light of a very difficult passage today?  Some preachers may say just to ignore it and preach on the epistle instead!  But we shouldn't do that.  Whenever we encounter pieces of Scripture that are so hard for us to take we should wrestles with it, listen to it, and dialogue with one another about it. Ask those critical questions:  who wrote it, to whom did they write it, and what was going on in the community?    To just say, “it says what it says and that is it” is to deny your own God-given reason, which can be dangerous; in fact, the very reason that snake-handling churches exist is because one single sentence of Scripture says that a sign of true discipleship is to take up serpents--it's in the extended ending of Mark's gospel.  Do not deny your capacity for reason that God has given you!  Use it to discern how God’s Spirit is moving in our time, and believe me, the Spirit is still moving.  Don’t limit God to just the pages of a book.  Read Scripture literally in the context of its time, but don’t take it so literally.  And you may find God opened up to you in a whole new way.