The Iterative Process of Faith

Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2018 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52

*Before today’s service, I said a word about the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. You can find that here.


Today’s sermon is the sequel to the one I gave on this Gospel passage three years ago. You all remember that one perfectly, right? No? Here’s a recap: I did a first-person sermon in which I played the part of Bartimaeus. But the last bit of that sermon I was more Adam than Bartimaeus. It went like this.

He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane. And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again. Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”

I’d like to pick up right here today with the concept of “again.” Continue reading “The Iterative Process of Faith”

True Mutuality

Sermon for Sunday, October 21, 2018 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:35-45

Today I’d like to talk about the concept of mutuality. In a world full of fractures and broken relationships – both personal and societal – mutuality stands as one of the ways Jesus invites us to shine our lights on the life-giving ways of God to a world that has lost its way. Living lives of true mutuality takes intention, selflessness, partnership, and good communication. With God’s help, we can model such mutually beneficial relationships, and in doing so, demonstrate just how joyful it can be to serve one another.

Continue reading “True Mutuality”

Go, Sell What Owns You

Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2018 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31

Until I moved into my first apartment after seminary, I could fit everything I owned inside my 1993 Mazda Protege. I was twenty-five years old, and I owned clothes, some books and DVDs, a collection of movie posters, a laptop computer, a printer, and a TV. My first apartment was an 1,100 square foot two-bedroom townhouse that I filled with furniture from IKEA: a bed and couch, a desk and bookcases, a kitchen table and chairs, a TV stand and end tables, and a piano. Dishes and pots and pans and kitchen utensils filled the kitchen cabinets. I bought an XBOX 360 and video games and more DVDs, and I built another case to store them. Eighteen months after moving into the townhouse, I moved again. And this time, my stuff no longer fit in my tiny car. My dad drove the 12-foot U-Haul from West Virginia to Massachusetts, and we crammed it full.

Continue reading “Go, Sell What Owns You”

I Had a Choice

Sermon for Sunday, October 7, 2018 || Proper 22B || Mark 10:2-16

When this set of readings came around three years ago, I focused my sermon on Jesus’ words about divorce. I’m choosing not to do that today, so if you are curious about my understanding of them, I’d invite you to head into the archives of my website. I’ll provide a link in the written version of this sermon online. Today, I’d like to look at the final scene in today’s Gospel lesson, in which Jesus’ disciples try to stop people from bringing their little children to Jesus to receive a blessing. Continue reading “I Had a Choice”

Let Me See Again

Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2015 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52

letmeseeagainImagine with me the beggar Bartimaeus. He is remembering the fateful day when a large crowd passed his perch beside the road from Jericho. It started like every other day, with a certain memory dancing before his sightless eyes.

I was seven and a half years old when I got sick. It was the kind of illness you don’t usually recover from, but I did. Almost. The last image my eyes captured was my mother’s face – beautiful and distressed, a smile worn for my benefit betrayed by a furrowed brow. When I returned to the land of the living, if not the sighted, I could touch her face with my fingers and know the smile and the worry lines were still fighting with each other. I could hear her singing me to sleep. I could smell her bread baking, and I could taste it, too. But I could not see. With no new picture to replace it in my memory, the image of my mother hovering over my sickbed remained with me all those years.

I was remembering the way her hair always fell across one side of her face until she pushed it behind one ear, the way her tears ran over her cheekbones, the way her smile battled her furrowed brow, when I heard it – a large crowd coming down the road from Jericho. You might think the prospect of so many people passing me by would excite me, since my only source of income was the kindness of strangers. But large crowds rarely yielded much coin in my experience. People couldn’t really stop for fear of being run into; they usually were just paying attention to each other; and they always kicked up such a cloud of dust that I was probably as invisible to them as they were to me.

Or at least those were those reasons I told myself. To be honest, I think I made their excuses for them because of how disheartened I got when so many people passed me by without noticing me. It was as if my blindness struck them blind too. But not that day. The moment I heard Jesus of Nazareth was in the party, people would have to have been both blind and deaf not to notice I was there. This was my one chance. I had heard stories of him from other beggars and from people coming down from Galilee. I knew he had the power to heal me. I believed he could restore my sight. This was my one chance. And I took it.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” I shouted as loud as I could. But someone hit the side of my head and told me to shut my mouth. Other voices joined the first, a chorus of shush-ers. It wasn’t enough for them that I be blind; apparently, they wanted me to be mute too. But this was my one chance, and I was not going to be deterred. I yelled again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then something happened. The tremor of hundreds of feet stamping the ground just stopped. The sound of voices died away. I could hear the echo of my own shouted words fleeing for the hills. For a moment there was no noise, save for the grunts of pack animals and the laughter of children. Then I could feel next to me a looming presence, a hand on my shoulder, a few flecks of spittle on my face when the man spoke. He smelled of sweat and old fish. “Take heart,” he said. “Get up, Jesus is calling you.”

The vision of my mother swam in front of me. I could see her mouthing the words, “Take heart.” I could see the smile gaining ground on the furrowed brow. I jumped to my feet and clung to the man’s hand as he led me away from my beggar’s nest. I counted the steps I took in case I had to make my way back there if Jesus wouldn’t help me…or couldn’t help me. Fourteen. Fifteen. Sixteen. Stop.

A new pair of hands gripped my shoulders, gentler but still strong. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked. It was the most extraordinary question. He could have assumed I wanted my sight back. He could have assumed I wanted to leave the life of begging. He could have assumed any number of things about me. But instead of just mandating my cure, he asked me what I wanted. He engaged me in conversation. He let me take the lead.

“My teacher, let me see again.” Once more, my mother’s face danced in front of me, and her smiling mouth formed the word, “Go.” And as she spoke, her smile turned into someone else’s: a man’s smile, a man about my own age with piercing dark eyes and no furrow whatsoever in his brow. “Your faith has made you well,” he said.

I turned my head this way and that. Everything was so bright. Suddenly I felt sick to my stomach, dizzy, my balance gone. But as I started to fall, Jesus’ strong arms clenched my shoulders tighter, and he kept me on my feet. “Look at my eyes,” he said. “The vertigo will pass. Just at my eyes, nothing else.” For a long moment – a minute, five, ten, I don’t know – he anchored me with his gaze. And in that long moment, I memorized his face like I had memorized my mother’s. I had seen her face everyday of my blindness. Now I see his.

But not everyday. While he was still with us, I saw him in the flesh most days, but now that he’s here only in Spirit, I find it hard to see his face. My eyes work perfectly, but to see him now takes a different set of eyes. He said my faith had made me well. And now it’s the eyes of faith I need, the eyes that see beyond what’s in front of me, the eyes that see God’s reality swirling beneath the mundane.

And so I repeat my request: “Lord, let me see again.” Let me look again at your presence in the world around me. Let me notice again the people who are usually invisible. Let me see again your face in their faces. Let me serve again. Let me help again. Hope again. Love again.

Lord, I asked for mercy, I shouted at the top of my lungs for mercy. And mercy is all about second chances. Mercy is all about “again.” And so my first request remains the most fervent longing from the depths of my heart. I have made this my prayer for all time: “Lord, let me see again.”

Three Little Deaths

Sermon for Sunday, October 18, 2015 || Proper 24B || Mark 10:(32-34) 35-45

Over the last six weeks, our Gospel lessons have been tracking Jesus’ movement. We began in the Roman garrison town of Ceasarea Philippi, then to Galilee, then south to Judea, and now we find ourselves on the road towards Jerusalem. In each of these places, Jesus performed wonders that restored people to health and wholeness. He also sparred with his opponents over various issues, and he taught his disciples many things. But one thing he taught them just didn’t sink in, and so he teaches it to them over and over again – three times to be exact – he teaches that he is walking to his death.

In Caeserea Philippi, after Peter makes his famous declaration that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus tells his disciples that he will be condemned, killed, and after three days rise again. Peter just can’t handle this information, so he tells Jesus off. As they pass through Galilee, Jesus tells them a second time he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again. They don’t understand what he is saying, and they lapse into an argument about which of them is the greatest. Now they’re on the road to Jerusalem. The time is near at hand. So Jesus tries one more time to prepare them for what is coming.

The problem is – we skipped those verses this week. For over a month, we’ve read every verse of chapters 9 and 10* of the Gospel according to Mark, and now suddenly we skip three verses. Apparently, the framers of our lectionary don’t think we need to hear all three predictions of Jesus’ death and resurrection. I disagree. So here’s the third one, which is sandwiched between last week’s Gospel reading and the one I just read.

“They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.”

(Quick aside – They’re afraid because Jesus was relatively safe in the boondocks of Galilee, but his fame has spread south to Jerusalem, where he has few friends. Apart from his seemingly clueless disciples, no one thinks he’s coming home from this trip.)

The skipped verses continue: “He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, ‘See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again.’ ”

Of the three predictions, this last one is the longest and most explicit. It’s the only one that mentions his mistreatment at the hands of the Roman soldiers. In fact, all three predictions are different, but they all share one common phrase: he will be killed, and after three days he will rise again.

Even after this third most strident attempt, the notion that their Lord could ever suffer such an ignominious fate still doesn’t sink in. And once again, the disciples lapse into an argument about places of prominence when Jesus enters into glory. You can see that their current outlook is untroubled by such a mundane thing as reality. They are stubbornly unwilling to engage Jesus on such a weighty topic as life and death.

Or should I say death and life. This small distinction, this tiny flipping of two words, makes all the difference. The disciples put their fingers in their ears the moment Jesus starts talking about dying in Jerusalem, and so they miss the most important part. They miss that life comes after death. They miss the rising again.

And we miss it too. We miss the resurrection because we tend to place it in chronological order after our own physical deaths. This makes sense because the death of our bodies terrifies us, and so hoping in the resurrection gives us some comfort. Let me be clear, this chronological thinking about the resurrection is not wrong, but it’s also not the whole picture. The whole picture is drawn on the canvas of eternity. If we believe we are given the gift of eternal life in the power of the resurrection, then we already have it – even now, here, this day, long before our physical deaths. Eternity, after all, has no start date.

But this eternal life, this resurrection life, does have one kind of beginning: the day we awaken to this beautiful reality, the day we decide to participate in God’s mission of renewal, the day we choose to live. This awakening doesn’t happen just once, God knows, but again and again – because, like the disciples, we are clueless and stubbornly unwilling some of the time. How does this awakening happen? Remember, we’re not talking life and death here. We’re talking death and life. Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death. Let me say that again: Each moment of awakening to resurrection life begins with a little death.

Here’s what I mean. Notice that each time Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection, he follows his disciples’ lack of understanding with a call for them and us to let little gangrenous pieces of ourselves die. After the first prediction, he says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Deny yourself – in other words, let your own will die. Too often, we let the selfish or petty or abusive or apathetic or ruthless pieces of ourselves take the wheel. We lapse into these death-dealing behaviors when we are scared, which is why Jesus tells us so many times not to be afraid. Let your will die a little death, he says, so mine can come alive in you.

After the second prediction, Jesus puts a little child among his quarreling disciples and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Welcome the lowest of the low – in other words, let your own presumption of privilege die. Too often, we allow ourselves to get caught up in death-dealing hierarchies – caste systems built around money or race or any number of ways we can differentiate ourselves from others. Let your presumption of privilege die a little death, says Jesus, so my compassion for all life can come alive in you.

And today, after the third prediction, Jesus silences the disciples anger toward James and John when he says: “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Serve each other – in other words, let your own complacency die. Too often, we expect life to be easy. We like to coast along, untroubled by the death-dealing evils of world around us. And to be honest, life is easy when we ignore everything that makes it hard. Jesus invites us to awaken to the power of servanthood so we can help others awaken to the power of the resurrection in their own lives. Let your complacency die a little death, says Jesus, so my mission of healing and reconciliation can come alive in you.

Three times Jesus predicts his own death and resurrection. Three times he encourages us to let parts of ourselves die little deaths in order that we might awaken again and again to the beautiful reality of resurrection life here and now. As we live into this reality, as we participate in resurrection life, remember this: our faith is not a matter of life and death. Jesus turned everything around, so our faith is really a matter of death and life.


*I lied a tiny bit. We also skipped verse 10:1.

Giving in Five Directions

Sermon for Sunday, October 11, 2015 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31

givinginfivedirectionsJesus feels drawn to the man kneeling in front of him. His heart is warmed, and he feels the stirrings of love and compassion for this frightened soul in the midst of an existential crisis. Perhaps the man recently had a parent or friend die, or perhaps he himself had experienced an accident or illness that brought death near. Whatever the trigger, the man comes to Jesus with a serious question that has obviously been plaguing him because of some unspoken dread roiling within him.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus lists off some of the standard commandments, and the man checks each box. That’s when Jesus looks at him with love and compassion. Here is this man in fine clothes getting dirty in the dust of the road. Here is this man with obvious wealth and power coming to an itinerant preacher with no place to lay his head. “I know what’s holding you back,” Jesus says. “It’s always something. There’s always something in the way that only you can shift. I can help. I can encourage. I can give you strength and courage. But you must decide.”

“What? What is it?” pleads the man.

“In your case: sell all you have and give the money to the poor. Then come, follow me.”

Shocked into speechlessness, the man gives Jesus a hard look, stands, dusts off his finery, and stalks away, not really understanding the source of his tears. Jesus invited this man to give away his possessions. He was holding his stuff so tightly that he couldn’t open his hands to receive what Jesus was offering him. He couldn’t let go, so he never discovered how life-changing it can be to release your grip, to uncurl your hand ready to give and ready to receive.

Jesus diagnoses this man on the spot. Jesus loves him enough not to sugarcoat what he needs to do to get past the barriers his own wealth has set up. Give it all away. Just give it all away. This action of giving is one of the more powerful steps we can take in our lives of faith in response to God’s movement in those lives. So it makes sense that Jesus invites each and every one of us, like the man in the story, to give. And as near as I can tell, this giving follows a general pattern.

First we have giving up. I know, I know, the great American sports movie teaches us differently: every single one of them follows the same pattern: upstart team or individual gets trounced by dominant team or individual. Upstart trains, learns something about teamwork or grit, and challenges the champion. The game goes horribly for our heroes until the last minute – it’s gut check time – and they decide never to give up. With renewed strength and faith, the upstart wins in the last second. That’s the narrative we are steeped in here in the United States. Never give up.

And yet, that’s exactly what our faith calls us to do. Give up. So we ask ourselves: what does God desire us to give up? Most questions we put to God are hard. But not this one. God dreams for us to have as close a connection to God as God has to us. Therefore, we have to give up all that stands in the way of such intimate connection. There’s a special word for this stuff that stands in the way: “idol.” Whatever it is, each of us has something we tend to put ahead of God. We look to that something to give us life. But since the idol will never be able to give us what we need, our lives shrivel until they are brittle and paper thin, starved because the idol provides such poor nourishment.

So God urges us to give up such idols. But that’s just step one. Step two is giving in. It’s not enough to do away with the idols. If we don’t give in – if we don’t surrender ourselves into God’s loving and sustaining care – then the power vacuum will just attract another idol to take the place of the old one. So we give in to God. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and mercy.

This giving in is so hard. It continues going against the grain we’ve been taught. Now the war movie takes center stage. Of course, we’d never surrender! But again, we must ask ourselves: to whom are we surrendering. Not to the enemy. Not to the bad guy. We surrender to our own commander. We were in rebellion all along, and now we’re coming home.

So we give up, then we give in. And then we give ourselves over to trusting God with our whole beings. It’s not enough simply to surrender. Giving over means joining God’s side. You say, “You’re in charge, Lord, not me. Of the two of us, I’m not the better decision maker, so why don’t you take the lead. I’ll follow.”

Again, giving over is no cakewalk. Our socialization is still against us. We’ve seen too many movies, and now the Teacher-Pupil archetype comes to mind – the one where the hard luck case puts trust in a mentor who turns out not to be as perfect as the hard luck case thought, and drama ensues. We are the hard luck cases, but our mentor just so happens to be as perfect as we think. (More perfect even, since we can’t begin to perceive the wonder of God.)

So we give up, then we give in, then we give over. Now we’re ready to give back. We remember the TV shows and movies in which the teenager gets a first credit card and goes on a crazy buying spree. Yep, that’s us, if given half a chance, so maybe we shouldn’t be in charge. Since we trust God more than we trust ourselves, we conclude, it’s time for God to take charge of all our stuff. We can be stewards of the stuff, but it’s not ours anymore.

Each year, God gives us stewardship of most of this stuff and keeps a small percentage to be used for God’s mission here at St. Mark’s and elsewhere. We partner with God by pledging this small percentage towards God’s mission. That percentage might be 10% or a little less or a little more. Through prayer, we can discern what’s right for each of us in our circumstances.

This giving back transitions into the final act of giving: giving forward; that is, not only financing God’s mission but participating in it with our own gifts and passions. Think of disaster films in which everyone bands together to beat the odds. Giving forward means making decisions and making sacrifices with people other than ourselves in mind. Giving forward means propelling into God’s bright future those people who think they have no future.

Just as Jesus invites the man in today’s Gospel to give away all he has, Jesus invites us to give. With God’s help, we give up our idols. We give in to God and surrender our malfunctioning wills. We give over to God our self-determination and trust God’s guidance. We give back to God all that we have, knowing that our stuff is safer in God’s hands. And we give forward for God, partnering with God in the great mission of healing and reconciliation in this world. To give up, in, over, back, forward – to give – is a great act of faith. Thanks be to God, then, that God began this entire process by giving first: giving us God’s son, God’s grace, love, hope; giving us our own deep desire to give.

Never Alone

Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2015 || Proper 22B || Mark 10:2-16

NeverAlone“Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” By the end of this year, I will have said these words eleven times after hearing the marriage vows of eleven couples. Jesus says these words in today’s Gospel lesson. And he says many other words about marriage and divorce, about fidelity and desire, and about relationships with the most vulnerable. Beneath these words, no matter how hard they are to hear or to speak, beneath these words shimmers Jesus’ surpassing dream for all creation – that none of us and no part of that creation will ever truly be alone.

Let’s start at the beginning and see what we shall see. The Pharisees come to test Jesus. Whenever this happens in the Gospel, we can bet that Jesus is not going to fall into the Pharisees trap, for a trap it is. They are not being genuine. They are not actually curious about what this great teacher has to say about a certain hot button issue. They just want to make Jesus look bad. This is not the way to begin a conversation of such consequence, and yet testing Jesus is their motive. Thus, we have our first notion of aloneness – the Pharisees desire to set Jesus apart, on the wrong side of an issue, in order to ridicule and debase him, to say to his followers, “See, your teacher is callous and wrong. How could you listen to him?”

You can see how the test is rigged to put Jesus on the wrong side. They lay their trap with this question: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” The answer to this question in the Jewish society of the time was simple: “Yes, it is lawful,” as described in the Law and codified in the book of Deuteronomy. But the Pharisees suspect that Jesus might have something else to say, something they could use against him.

Of course, Jesus doesn’t fall for the trap. Instead, he turns the question back on them, in effect drawing them closer to him, into a conversation instead of a courtroom proceeding. “What did Moses command you?” The Pharisees reply, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” Notice there are two separate actions in this process: writing the certificate of dismissal and completing the divorce. The reality of this two-step process spurs Jesus’ next statement: “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.”

You see, Moses created the “certificate of dismissal” in order to protect the divorced wife. Men held all the power in the relationship. Women went from being under their father’s power to being under their husband’s. They had no freedom of choice. They were closer to property than people. There was no such thing as mutuality in the relationship. According to some schools of rabbinical thought, a man could divorce his wife for burning his dinner.

In today’s society, some divorced women feel a sense of liberation when they finally tunnel out of the pit their husbands’ misplaced power had dug for them. These women are models of resiliency and courage. But in Jesus’ culture, a woman simply couldn’t leave her husband. If he divorced her, she might feel some small sense of liberation, but this would most likely be snuffed out by fear: fear that she had no protection, no connections; fear that she was now a ripe target for exploitation.

That’s why Moses created the “certificate of dismissal.” It was something a divorced woman could carry with her to show potential employers or future spouses that the divorce was her husband’s idea and everything had been done according to the Law. The “hardness of heart” Jesus speaks of comes from husbands who kicked their wives out of the house with absolutely no thought to their future welfare. So the certificate of dismissal was an oh-so-small gesture to keep the divorced woman from feeling completely abandoned, completely alone.

But Jesus isn’t willing to let the conversation go with an oh-so-small gesture. Instead, Jesus reaches back, past Moses and the Law, all the back to the creation narratives of the book of Genesis. In the first creation story, humanity is made after everything else, so there was no chance for loneliness. But in the second creation story, which Jesus’ references, the “person of earth” (ha adam in the Hebrew) is created first, so this person is utterly and hopelessly alone. So God makes every animal to see if it would alleviate the human’s loneliness, but to no avail. And so God makes another person. And finally the human being finds deep connection, deep relationship. Of course, this is before the fall, before domination and isolation had entered into the story.

Jesus dreams for all creation to embrace living lives of deep connection, so no one need be alone. That’s why he spends so much time with people whom others completely ignore. So the question is, does this mean Jesus prohibits divorce, in all cases, for all time?

I don’t think so. Because domination and isolation are the sad realities of our fallen state, they often become the sad realities in our relationships. Sometimes dominance is the hallmark of a marital relationship, and so one person’s desire guts the relationship of its presumed mutuality. Sometimes the debasing feeling of aloneness is most acute when a marital relationship is supposed to be warding it away and isn’t. In these toxic cases, separation often leads to new life, new possibilities, new chances for mutual connection with other people. Sometimes divorce is the merciful choice, because mercy is all about second chances.

Jesus knows a thing or two about mercy. And so, like he often does, by appealing to a deeper reality, Jesus reorients the conversation to what really matters: not the Pharisees’ insincere test, but the sacredness of relationships that chase isolation away. Jesus ignores the Law, which the Pharisees bring up, and sidesteps the legal ramifications, so I don’t think his energy is invested in legislating new territory for his society’s divorce debate. The last two scenes in the passage show where his energy really sparks.

First, he clarifies something for the disciples. If someone initiates a divorce specifically to marry someone else, then that person has already committed adultery. In other words, the adulterer has satisfied his own craving without thought to the welfare of his spouse.* That person is now alone, and all because the adulterer couldn’t keep himself from straying. This lack of fidelity, this wanton disregard for the welfare of another really gets Jesus’ blood boiling. Again and again throughout the Gospel, his underlying dream surfaces: no one need ever be alone.

And so the final scene in our passage makes perfect sense with the others. We mentioned children two weeks ago: how they were the lowest of the low in Jesus’ society; lower than farm animals, they weren’t even thought of as people until they were old enough and strong enough to work. And yet, Jesus welcomes them into his arms, lets them cling to him, offers them the kingdom of God. In effect, he says, “You are not alone. You may be treated as if you don’t matter, as if you don’t exist, but don’t you believe it for a moment.”

He says the same thing to each of us. This is the conviction he breathes into our souls. In a world where domination and isolation reign, his good news reports a different story, one of connection and deep relationship. Too often, people fall victim to such domination and isolation, which infect the marital relationships that are designed to ward off such evils. In these cases, Jesus’ promise still holds: “You are not alone. I am with you. You need not seek fulfillment where none is to be found. Come to me and together we will begin your story again, so you may find new sources of connection and deep relationship. Remember: you need never be alone.”


*I adlibbed a bit here on Sunday to make sure people understood how I interpret this bit: basically, I think the “and” between “divorces” and “marries” assumes that the two are linked (i.e. the person driving the divorce is doing it in order to marry another). I don’t think he’s talking about a divorce and then a remarriage ten years later.

On the Road

(Sermon for Sunday, October 28, 2012 || Proper 25B || Mark 10:46-52)

He can’t see them, but he knows they are coming. As he sits by the roadside, he tastes the dust cloud stirred up by their approach. He feels small tremors in the ground caused by their steady, tramping steps. He hears the snorts and bellows of animals, the jingle of bells, the laughter of people. He smells fresh bread and wet animal hair. He can’t see them, but he knows they are coming.

They begin to pass him by, a large crowd: cajoling, telling jokes and fish stories, brushing his knees with rough, hand-spun garments. They begin to pass him by, Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. They begin to pass him by, and he is as invisible to them as they are to him. They are walking on the road to Jerusalem; he is sitting by that road—just sitting, waiting for a coin or a cup of water. But soon some people mention Jesus as they pass him, and in a few moments, Jesus transforms Bartimaeus from this passive sitter by the road into an active follower on the road.

Bartimaeus probably sits in the very same spot by the road every day. Other beggars probably know that is Bartimaeus’s spot. He probably sits down by the road early in the morning and spreads his cloak over his crossed legs, making a basket to catch whatever travelers’ spare from their purses. I’m sure Bartimaeus can hear the coins jangling from their hips. By the sounds different amounts of money make, I bet he can tell how much people will toss onto his cloak. Too few coins in the purse—or too many—and he will get nothing. Bartimaeus sits by the road, waiting for that dull thud of coin on cloak. Day by day, from dew-laden morning to scalding midday to shadow-stretched evening, he sits by the road, waiting.

You might notice that I keep saying that Bartimaeus sits by the road. At first glance, Mark telling us this innocuous detail sounds like the blocking for the scene; if Mark were directing this encounter for the stage, he would plop Bartimaeus down next to, but not on, the road. Now, Mark is usually in a hurry to tell his story, but in detailing the blind beggar’s location, he slows down and sets up a profound encounter with Jesus. Before we get to that encounter, let’s go back to the seemingly insignificant detail of Bartimaeus sitting by the road. I’ll tell you about the road part now, and I promise I’ll get to the sitting part in a bit.

In Mark’s Gospel, road turns out to be a very significant word, indeed. At the beginning of his Gospel, Mark quotes the prophet Isaiah: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” Now, you might be confused here because, unless you were translating that passage into Greek on the fly, you didn’t hear me say the word road. Let me try the same passage again: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your road; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the road of the Lord…’” Not as poetic, perhaps, but the point is in the original language way and road are the same word. So Bartimaeus is sitting next to the way, which we might think of as the way of the Lord. I suspect that some of you are now thinking: come on, Adam, you got all that from Mark telling us Bartimaeus is sitting by the road? Isn’t that a bit of a stretch? If you’re thinking that, just bear with me for another couple of minutes.

Okay, so Bartimaeus is sitting by the road. He is just sitting—no movement, no motion, just monotony. All too often, we are sitting by the road, too. We sit by the road when we let opportunities to serve our neighbors go by. We sit by the road when we choose not to forgive others and when we reject the forgiveness of others. We sit by the road when we rely only on ourselves and not on God to move our lives. The road is the way of Jesus Christ. When we sit by that road, we know the road is there, but we choose not to journey down the road in the company of our savior. We just sit—no movement, no motion, just monotony.

But Bartimaeus’s monotony is about to end. As he sits by the road, he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by. He shouts out and Jesus halts the moving crowd. Jesus stands still and calls the blind beggar forward. While Jesus takes no physical actions at all in this story, his mere presence catalyzes Bartimaeus into action. First he shouts out from his sitting position by the road. He shouts out again because he hears that Jesus is near. When Jesus calls to him, he throws off his cloak. He literally tosses his cloak aside, probably scattering coins in all directions. Then he springs up, he jumps to his feet and comes to Jesus. Each of these actions portrays an exuberance that cannot be controlled, an excitement that cannot be contained. The very presence of Jesus, even a Jesus who just stands motionless, causes Bartimaeus to leave his motionless sitting position by the road.

Imagine how odd the scene would be if Bartimaeus were politely to ask if he could talk with Jesus rather than shouting at the top of his lungs while people tried to silence him. Imagine how odd the scene would be if Bartimaeus were carefully to fold his cloak and set the garment aside before calmly standing up. No, these staid actions won’t do. The exhilaration Bartimaeus feels at being in Jesus’ presence translates into such evocative actions as throwing off his cloak and springing to his feet.

When Bartimaeus, in all his enthusiasm, comes to Jesus, Jesus asks him what he wants. I hear Bartimaeus say his next line with breathless excitement: “My teacher, let me see again.” And with a word, Jesus immediately renews his sight. When Bartimaeus regains his sight, does he go back and sit down cross-legged by the road with his cloak over his legs? Does he go back to a life of no movement, no motion, just monotony? No. Mark tells us that Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the road. Bartimaeus is now following the way of the Lord. The very presence of Jesus transforms Bartimaeus from a passive sitter by the road to an active follower on the road.

We follow that road when we take the opportunities to serve our neighbors, and when we forgive others, and when we accept forgiveness from others, and when we rely on God and not only ourselves to move our lives. This road is the way of Jesus Christ. When we follow the way we participate in God’s movement, in God’s motion, in God’s majesty. We know the way we are to follow by the presence of Jesus on the road. Like Bartimaeus, the presence of Jesus causes us to shout out and refuse to be silenced. The presence of Jesus causes us to throw off our cloaks and spring to our feet. The presence of Jesus causes us to be healed and follow Christ on the way.

When the power, when the passion, when the presence of the living God, of Jesus Christ, of the Holy Spirit erupt in and around us, we cannot stay sitting by the road for long. This eruption of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ flows into and out of us; God heals each of us and gives us the strength to spring up and follow on the way.

The Overstuffed Life

(Sermon for Sunday, October 14, 2012 || Proper 23B || Mark 10:17-31)

During my time in college and seminary, I spent seven years living in dorms. Over that time, I lived in five different dorm rooms, and you know what? They all came with a bed and a dresser and an end table and a desk. The beds weren’t always long enough for my six-foot frame and one of the dressers had several sticky drawers, but those were minor complaints. For the most part, I loved living on campus. And the best part about living in a dorm was that I could fit everything I owned – everything – in my car. At the end of the school year, I could pile all of my stuff into my 1992 Mazda Protégé and just drive away.

Then, after seminary, I moved into a rented townhouse in West Virginia. There was no bed, no dresser, no end table, and no desk. So my dad and I drove a borrowed Chevy Suburban to an IKEA near Baltimore and came back with the SUV full of cheap furniture (some assembly required). Gone were the days when I could just throw all my stuff in the back of the car and drive away. I now owned enough stuff that when I moved here to Massachusetts, I had to rent a 14-foot U-Haul.

Then, Leah and I got married, and all of a sudden our apartment had my stuff and her stuff and our stuff. As I sat in the living room pondering this sermon, I looked around and made a mental note of what size U-Haul we would need the next time we move. Let’s just say it’s much bigger than 14 feet.

Reading this morning’s Gospel, I get a bit wistful for the time when I could pile all my stuff in a subcompact car. Now that I have a Subaru Forester, I bet I could fit all of my college-aged stuff and all of Leah’s college-aged stuff in the roomy SUV, though the cello might need to go on the roof rack. And then we could just drive away. We’d be unburdened by everything we have accumulated since: the piano, the couch, the TV, the dining room table, the chairs, the queen-sized bed, the full-sized bed, the bicycles, the bookcases, the books, the DVDs, the dishes…the Kitchen-Aid. (Well, maybe I could find a space in the Forester for the Kitchen-Aid, since Leah makes a mean apple pie.)

I read this morning’s Gospel, and thoughts of such a free lifestyle, unburdened by all that extraneous stuff sounds so appealing. But, of course, whenever I envision such a life, I’m romanticizing it. As I finish mentally storing the essentials in the back of the Forester, I remember that plenty of people live with just the essentials – or not even them – and they don’t have the option to live comfortably in a one-bedroom loft in an apartment community in Weymouth.

I’ve met many such folks at the Long Island Homeless Shelter. With many of you, I’ve served them chicken parmesan and ice cream. I’ve sat there listening for the handful of Spanish words I know while Deb Viscomi carries on with a group of laughing gentleman. I know a young couple – probably about mine and Leah’s age – who do live out of their car. Whenever I see them, their faces always show a potent mix of hope and desperation that breaks my heart. And confronted with their reality, I feel chastened that I could ever romanticize the notion of throwing all our stuff in the car and just driving away.

So you can see my confusion (a confusion that I’d be willing to bet you share) when we read Jesus’ words to the rich man in today’s lesson. The man wants to know how he can inherit eternal life. He says that he has kept all the commandments since his youth. Then Mark’s Gospel tells us: “Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, ‘You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.’ When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

The standard confusion with this story that trips many of us up is the logical progression that would lead this man to sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor, and then end up being in poverty himself, thus adding to the overarching problem. That’s where I’ve been stuck for a long time, hence the first half of this sermon being about me wondering if I could every truly do this radical thing that Jesus proposes to this man. The trouble is I don’t want to water down Jesus’ words, and, at the same time, I don’t want to wind up down such a confusing logical progression.

So perhaps, I might ask for your charity to bend this story just a little bit, with the proviso that when I’m done I hopefully will have stayed true to an undiluted presentation of Jesus’ message.

The man’s ostensible reason for coming to Jesus is to learn what he must do to inherit eternal life. But Mark tells us that he kneels before Jesus, which is curious behavior. Throughout the rest of Mark’s Gospel, everyone who kneels before Jesus is seeking healing. So, could it be that this man, unbeknownst to himself, is looking to be healed of something?* Since he has kept all the commandments since his youth, his healing doesn’t have to do with obedience to the law. So Jesus gives him another diagnosis. “Your possessions are holding you back,” he seems to say. “You are up to your eyeballs in stuff; therefore, you cannot see the need surrounding you.” This man who kneels before Jesus, not seeking to be healed, but sure in need of healing, has the malady of an overstuffed life, a life cluttered to the extent that he cannot see what is truly important.

After getting rid of your possessions, Jesus continues to prescribe: give the money to the poor, then come and follow me. Here Jesus tells him and us the two things that the man isn’t doing because of his overstuffed life. He isn’t helping the poor (which was a cultural imperative in Israel from time immemorial) and he isn’t following Jesus.

When Jesus heals the blind men in passages before and after this one, he restores their sight with a touch and a word. But to heal an overstuffed life, Jesus can only give the man the prescription to let go of the things that distract him from what really matters. The man can respond positively or negatively. Jesus loves him either way, which is a point that Mark states quite clearly. The man in the story goes away, “shocked and grieving, for he had many possessions.” We can only hope that over time, Jesus’ prescription nestled into his soul and he found his way back to the one who loves him.

When I think of all the stuff cluttering up my life, all the stuff that has no hope of ever fitting in my car so I can just drive away, I wonder hard just what my material possessions are doing to my spiritual life. How often do I abandon Jesus, shocked and grieving, because I am too tethered to my stuff to remember why following him is the most important part of my life? How often do I need to kneel before Jesus to be healed of an overstuffed life?

As we approach the weeks in which our stewardship team asks us to pledge our time, talent, and treasure for the coming year, I invite you to sit in your living room and imagine just how big a U-Haul you would need to fit all of your stuff. Pray about the ways in which your material wealth serves as a barrier to your spiritual health. Kneel before Christ and asked to be healed if you feel your life is overstuffed. And take joyful notice that the abundance in your life has less to do with your material goods and ever so much more to do with the relationships you cherish, the service you render, and the God who loves you no matter what.

* Thanks to David Lose, whose discussion of this passage brought the healing nature of the story to my study.