Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reformation Sunday - October 25, 2015 (Mark 10:46-52)

“Every time a coin into the coffer rings,
Another soul from purgatory springs!”

That was the little jingle that a man named Johann Tetzel is reported to have showed up singing along the streets of northern Germany in the early 1500s. Johann Tetzel was the church official assigned by Pope Leo X to sell something called indulgences in the towns of the farthest reaches of the empire as Rome began a new capital campaign to upgrade the cathedral.

An indulgence was an official certificate that stated the Church had conveyed upon you an extra merit of goodness that Christ and the saints had “built up” in what was called the Treasury of Heaven. By receiving an indulgence (so taught certain factions of the church, including Tetzel), one could cut off the number of days one could spend in purgatory, the place where most people ended up after they died before their sins were totally repaid and they could enter heaven. It was a very complicated and convoluted theory that was easily abused. By the time the 1500’s rolled around, people had been led to believe they could purchase one of these slips of paper in order to guarantee their eternal salvation or that of their loved one’s in some way.

That’s where Johann Tetzel and his little rhyme came in. Not unlike a beggar, he was an aggressive figure, and he came into an economically impoverished northern Germany collecting money for indulgences among people who strongly suspected it was all going to finance the refurbishment of an opulent church they’d never see. And somehow this was supposed to make them feel closer to and more grateful for a God who loved them.

“Every time a coin into the coffer rings,
Another soul from purgatory springs.”

Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses (Gustav Freytag)
As you can imagine, this drove people crazy. In all actuality, the Roman Church did not know that Tetzel was going as far as he did, and he and his views about indulgences were roundly denounced by the Roman church not too long after he was doing this. Unfortunately, however, the damage was done. The people had had enough of Tetzel and his indulgences jar (or table), and their frustration found a voice in another upstart figure, a university professor named Martin Luther. He publicly challenged the whole idea of indulgences along with several other practices of the church and, before he really knew what was going on, a huge rift opened in the Christian church, all over what the nature of the gospel was. What did it mean to have faith in Jesus Christ? Like people throughout history, the people of northern Europe in the late Middle Ages wanted to be assured there was a God who graciously and generously loved them and Tetzel’s jar of coins wasn’t doing it for them.

To help us find that God, we really don’t need to look to Martin Luther, or any other church figure, for that matter. We can go to another beggar with a jar of coins who is on the streets not of northern Germany, but along the road outside Jericho. His name is Blind Bartimaeus, and he sits by the gate crying out with an entirely different “jingle” that goes like this: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus, who drives people crazy with his constant begging and interrupting, who upsets the respectable people surrounding Jesus with his calling out, serves as the perfect example for what it means to trust in a God who generously and graciously loves his people and who trusts that that love can transform one’s life.

I know that here in Richmond we think the people who stand at the street corners and beg for money can be aggressive, but beggars in the Middle East are even more so. In fact, scenes like this one with Bartimaeus play out on a daily basis in cities throughout that region of the world. They sit at places of high traffic, day in and day out, typically with a cup in hand but sometimes collecting handouts in their robe stretched between their legs. Many times they are handicapped or disabled in some way. Bartimaeus has chosen “primary begging real estate” for his spot. The road up from Jericho to Jerusalem was a well-travelled commercial route. It would be like sitting to beg at the point where I-95 and I-64 come together in Richmond.

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his huge entourage have to pass along that way. It’s a little unclear how Bartimaeus, being blind, knows that Jesus is passing by, but we may assume it’s because the crowds following Jesus at this point are just that large and noisy. It’s long been known that people who are deficient in one sense often have heightened sensitivity in others. Maybe Jesus is teaching as he walks and Bartimaeus hears him. Maybe he hears other people calling his name. Regardless, he wastes no time in singing out his jingle: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

"Christ gives sight to Bartimaeus" (William Blake)
And it drives people crazy. Frustrated and bothered, they quickly try to silence him, not unlike the way they had tried to prevent children from being brought to Jesus a few days earlier.

Yet Bartimaeus is undeterred, and he continues to shout louder and louder. Then here is another thing that’s unclear about the story: are Jesus’ followers trying to silence Bartimaeus because they view him as a distraction on the way to Jerusalem, another noisy detour for someone on the margins that they don’t have time for?

Or might they be so eager to distract him because of what he’s actually saying? You see, up until this point in Jesus’ journey, no one has called Jesus “Son of David” yet. Unbelievably, Bartimaeus is the first one to apply that label to Jesus, and it is a label that is loaded with meaning. “Son of David” carried with it all kinds of connotations about God’s coming kingdom. “Son of David” meant the people’s long-awaited king was finally here. Jesus’ entourage is following their wise teacher and powerful healer to Jerusalem, but it seems like the only person able to perceive just what Jesus has really come to do and be is this obnoxious blind person on the side of the road: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” That drives people crazy, because saying that out loud could cause all kinds of trouble for Jesus.

As it turns out, Jesus responds graciously to Bartimaeus—as graciously and generously as God always deals with God’s people. Bartimaeus springs up from the road. He throws off his cloak and coins likely go everywhere.  He recognizes his true riches are in his relationship with this Jesus, Son of David. Bartimaeus is saved by grace through faith. He gains his sight and—here’s the real miracle—he doesn’t go back like Jesus commands him. Instead, he follows his Lord, joining in the parade that will continue to Jerusalem and, as we now know, to the cross.

Reformation Day is kind of a strange thing. It’s a church festival that only Lutherans really commemorate anymore, and it actually is all about calling to mind a time of church division which is not really a thing to celebrate at all. If you are like me and don’t often know how the message of Protestant Reformation fits into these post-modern times, if you don’t know how it really affects your faith with the living Lord, a God who loves generously and graciously,  perhaps blind Bartimaeus can point us in the right direction.

In other words, Reformation Sunday is a good time to step back and consider which jar we, as people of faith, are rattling and which jingle we are singing. That is, does our witness sound more like Tetzels or Bartimaeus’s? Do people in the world hear us proclaiming what we believe with arrogance and insensitivity, calling others to an empty, sham faith that is like an exclusive club which loves to trumpet its good works? Or does the world hear us as sinners, blind and begging, calling out for mercy to a God of infinite love?

As it happens, blind Bartimaeus is an excellent role model for the church, a reminder that an encounter with Jesus is transformative, that a meeting with the Son of David takes us from the sidelines of darkness and brings us into the light. Bartimaeus reminds us that our relationship with God is not based in doing works of mercy, but in calling out to God for mercy. Our own Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, has warned us about assigning too much importance to all our charitable actions, as great as they may be. She said in recent article, “The church is not just a social service organization with sacraments.” Who are we then?  Today we could add that we are the people who primarily cry out to Jesus for mercy.

Bartimaeus also shows us that true faith—the kind of faith that saves us—does not come from having the right insight, but in trusting the One who gives sight. The church has always felt pressure to equate faith with believing certain matters of doctrine or, even worse, aligning itself with certain outside interests, be it an empire or political or social agendas. It is always helpful to remember that saving faith is not found in those things, but in the one who stops along the side of the road to address us and engage us in love. Faith is found not in believing the right things, but in trusting the Son of David who gives his life on the cross.

Finally, the people of God are at their best not when they are obsessed about making a difference, but instead, like Bartimaeus, when they realize that Jesus is all the difference. There is a lot of anxiety among people of faith these days about how relevant the church is in society, panic about the future of the church, and angst about the rise in those who claim no religious affiliation. What are we to do? If people of faith continue to cry out for mercy from the side of the road, from the margins where we find ourselves…if people of faith continue to live lives transformed by the mercy of Jesus…if those who have regained their sight continue to spring up and follow Jesus through suffering to the joy of the resurrection, then there will be no reason for anxiety. There will be no reason for worry or fear. Because it will drive the world crazy. We will drive the world crazy with our hymns of hope and prayers of peace and jingles of joy.
And we can do this all because we trust that there is a God who generously and graciously loves us in Jesus Christ, and he stops along his way help us see. 

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 28B/Proper 23B] - October 11, 2015 (Mark 10:17-31)

“You lack one thing,” said Jesus to the rich man, the man who probably thought he had everything. “You lack one thing.” And without much effort at all, we can imagine the rich man’s thoughts as he hears Jesus’ answer:
One thing? One thing will be easy. Surely I can go get that one thing. And because I’m rich, I can even buy that thing if I have to—like the missing ingredient one needs from the grocery store, or the crucial tool for the DYI project from Lowe’s! One thing is no biggie, especially once you’ve mastered the Ten Commandments, right? Once you’ve figured out how to dot all the “i”s and cross all the “t”s. Acquiring the one thing I lack is going to be a piece of cake.

Yes, without much effort, we can imagine the rich man’s thoughts as he hears Jesus’ answer because it could so easily be us. It could so easily be us, relatively rich people that we are, running up to him on the road and wondering if we can join along with the other disciples as they prepare for their next adventure on the way to Jerusalem, this grand quest for eternal life. We, too, are accustomed to thinking of life and all of its opportunities in terms of what we’ll gain, what we can accomplish. And if we can make a list for it—one of those lists where we check off the things we’ve managed to do—well, then all the better. We feel secure, solid, set.

I know this is how the Martin family operates so much of the time. We make lists constantly, especially if we’re going on a trip somewhere. What I’ve noticed over time, however, is that my wife’s and my lists are very different. She lists things that benefit the whole family’s success and safety on the excursion. She makes a “Things to Get or Buy” list, a “Things to Do Before We Leave” list, and a “Things to Pack in the car” list. My list tends to be, “Bring my bird book, my music, my camera, my other bird book…” Regardless, we all like those lists and those goals. And if we’re ever told there is only one thing we lack, we’ll find a way to add it on.

So, just as we might be able to imagine the rich man’s thoughts, we can also imagine the rich man’s surprise to learn that the one thing he lacks is not something he can really add on at all. It’s not something that can be purchased or achieved or jotted down to a list somewhere. It is something he must give up. “Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,” Jesus replies. “Then come, follow me.”

In a gospel that doesn’t give us precious little detail about people’s emotions, we hear the rich man’s loud and clear: he goes away grieving, for he had many possessions. The whole scene must have been pretty shocking, the disciples and other interested townspeople standing around dumbfounded, wondering why Jesus wouldn’t jump at the opportunity, himself, to include such an influential and obviously well-connected benefactor in his band of followers.

In the ancient world, honor and public distinction was the currency most people valued. It gave a person power in relation to others, and power led to wealth. If Jesus could find a way to incorporate this rich man into his community, there is no doubt their prestige would continue to rise. Yet, instead of playing into those established, worldly ways of influence, Jesus demonstrates this reversal that his kingdom is all about. “Many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

Jesus uses the opportunity to explain how the wealthy have a worse chance at a place in that kingdom than a camel does squeezing through the eye of a needle. Many a Bible scholar has tried to explain this saying of Jesus away, claiming that the “eye of a needle” was the colloquial name for one of the gates surrounding Jerusalem, but the truth is Jesus is speaking like a normal middle eastern male: truthfully, but with a little bit of hyperbole. The point is that attachment to worldly things, status and the acclaim of others, will be a barrier to experiencing the grace of God’s kingdom.

It’s not that wealth itself is evil or contrary to God’s purposes. But the power and influence and freedom that wealth often provides can easily become that which we worship. We can be swindled into believing that the only freedom worth having is the kind of freedom that money gives us. It can cause us to forget about that greater freedom—the freedom that Jesus Christ offers in his journey toward eternal life, the release from sin and shame, the freedom that comes from serving others. Like with so much else in a life of list-makers, it’s often easy to think of following Jesus and the journey of faith and focus on what we’re going to gain out of it, especially in our culture. But here Jesus reminds us that being a disciple will also involve losing something.

This is hard stuff for us to hear, and we grieve, too. Those who have the greatest ability to influence their reality and their future probably have the most to lose—at least initially—from a deeper relationship with Jesus. That is why atheism and agnosticism can take root among those in culture who have the most relative power. I don’t say this to make light of those points of view, or to belittle those who struggle, like I imagine many of us do, with doubts about God’s existence and goodness. But I find myself needing to be reminded that that in our times and in our culture, those who are, by and large, white, male, affluent, and educated will end up being the easiest to convince that they have no need of a God, especially if that God asks them to suffer, or at least indicates that persecution is a part of the deal. The truth is that the rich man wants a deeper relationship with Jesus, but that will involve overcoming that barrier of privilege and security.

In her autobiographical play, “A Little Girl of Privilege,” and more recently in her interview for the upcoming film Human, French Holocaust survivor Francine Christophe tells the moving story of her experience as a young child in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after being rounded up with her mother off the streets of France. She explains that as children prisoners of war, they were “privileged.” By that she meant they were allowed to bring one thing with them from France. Usually they could take along a bag with two or three small items. Some brought chocolate, some brought some sugar, others a handful or two of rice. Francine’s mother had packed two little pieces of chocolate. Her mother said, “We’ll keep this for a day when I see you’ve collapsed completely, and really need help. I’ll give you this chocolate and you’ll feel better.”

Francine goes on to explain that one of the women imprisoned with them was pregnant. The women was so skinny it was hardly noticeable, but the day came when she went into labor. Francine’s mother was barracks chief, and so she went into the camp hospital with the woman. Before her mother left, she looked at Francine and asked, “Remember that chocolate? How do you feel?”

Francine responded, “I’ll be OK, Mama.”

So her mom said, “I’d like to bring your chocolate to this lady. Giving birth here will be hard. She may die. If I give her the chocolate, it may help her.”

The woman did, in fact, give birth to the baby, and she did not die. Francine goes on to say that the baby was extremely weak and very small and never cried. Not once. Not until the camp was liberated by the Allies six months later. When they unwrapped the baby’s swaddling clothes, it finally screamed. That’s when it was born, Francine says. They took the baby, scrawny as it was, back to France with them and they parted ways.

One day a few years ago, Francine’s daughter asked her how much easier it might have been if the concentration camp survivors had had psychologists or psychiatrists upon their return to France in order to help them work through their trauma. It gave them an idea to host a lecture entitled, “If the concentration camp survivors had had counseling in 1945, what would have happened?” The lecture apparently drew a crowd—elderly survivors, historians, many psychologists, psychotherapists. Many ideas emerged from the conference and people got a lot out of it. Francine says that then a woman took the podium and said, “I live in Marseilles, where I am a psychiatrist. But before I deliver my talk, I have something for Francine Christophe.” Francine explains at that point the woman reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of chocolate. She gave it to Francine and she said, “I am the baby.”

Jesus reminds his disciples, reminds you and me, that there are things to give up, even our privilege. But then he also explains this strange economy of God’s kingdom, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.”

If even one piece of chocolate is what we’re asked to give—if it is just one morsel that separates us from a deeper life of service to others—we can trust it will still come back to us hundred-fold. You have experienced that phenomenon already, I’m positive, in some fashion, in your service to others in our ministry programs here or in your personal sacrifices to the kingdom in your lives outside of this building. Jesus says we’ll get fields once we follow him? Well, the youth group happens to be going to go work at Shalom Farm today, a huge field out in Goochland County that provides food for the undernourished of Richmond. It’s our field!

But in those moments we’re not sure we have it in us, when the selfishness rises within and our desire for security and privilege comes crashing in once more, let us remember this Savior is not asking us to do anything he’s not willing to do, himself. That’s not the kind of leader he is, asking, like some televangelist, to fork over some more while he builds the castles of power off camera. He looks at us, loves us, and asks us to give up and cast off things, ideals, agendas, power…but then let us remember he’s on the road to Jerusalem. He knows all about giving up things. He’s going to be giving up his life, after all, and the road to eternal life will go through the cross. And many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.

It sounds absolutely ludicrous, monumentally foolish—a whole life of eternity hanging on just one thing?—utterly impossible! But for God, all things are possible.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Lectionary 27B/Proper 22B] - October 4, 2015 (Mark 10:2-16 and Genesis 2:18-24)

I saw a cartoon recently that features two churches directly across the street from each other. Both churches have signs out front presumably announcing the message for the upcoming Sunday. The sign at the church on the left-hand side says, “Sermon series: What God Has Said,” and beside it stands the lonely pastor, waiting for the people to arrive, shooting a menacing glance to the pastor at the church on the right who stands, by contrast, surrounded by a crowd of interested people who are trying to enter his church. His sign, over which he gloats with a face of smugness, reads, “Sermon series: What You Would Rather Hear.”

I would imagine that’s how many of us feel about many Sundays, and don’t go thinking preachers feel any differently than you do, as smug as we may sometimes come across! On the one hand we’d like to think any of us would come to worship or Bible study to learn what God has said, to explore the meanings of Jesus’ teachings or the letters of the New Testament, but on the other hand we know that hearing things that make us feel good or that help us ignore and smooth over the more uncomfortable sides of our lives is a lot more easy to do.

This particular Sunday’s readings may take the cake, though, and those who have been affected by divorce, or who have been unfaithful to a spouse, may feel especially put on the spot. Indeed, those who find themselves in an abusive marriage, for example, might, because of Jesus’ words, feel forced to choose between continuing in a harmful relationship or seeking an end to the marriage, then re-marrying at the risk of being labelled an adulterer. We’re not used to Jesus giving us no good options.

It must be said: if you are feeling that any of these situations applies to you, take heart that you are not alone today. You need to know that you are surrounded here by people who no doubt have experienced divorce and infidelity and broken relationships in some way, whether as a child, a sibling, a parent, a friend, or another divorcee. And while the topic that Jesus is forced to address by the religious authorities’ question may initially seem to single out certain ones of us, the truth God has something to say to everyone this morning.

First of all, the specifics of marriage contracts and divorce agreements were much different in Jesus’ day, and that’s something to keep in mind. Marriages, in first century Israel, were largely contracts arranged between families and were used as a way to combine wealth and power between the families of the bride and groom. It goes without saying that in these arrangements, the woman was treated more or less as an object to be owned. She had few rights, as we would understand them nowadays, and, in fact, was not often permitted to write a letter of divorce to free herself from her husband if needed. Men would regularly abuse their power in this scenario, writing letters of divorce for their wives simply so they could take up another partner, and in many cases they had already secretly done so. That’s really what Jesus is addressing here.

In the law of Moses, Jesus reminds the Pharisees, God had certainly allowed for the possibility of divorce. It was not an option for which anyone should strive but the realities of sin would taint any aspect of the human experience, even marriage, and there would be times when that sacred bond between a man and a woman would need to be dissolved. However, the use of divorce as a cover for infidelity was clearly a misuse.

But besides all of that, there is a deeper level to Jesus’ words which were very groundbreaking, although he was not saying anything totally new. In answering the religious authorities’ self-serving question meant to trip him up, Jesus bypasses the laws of Moses which speaks to the contractual and property aspects of the marriage bond and hearkens instead all the way back to creation, and the original nature of marriage. Jesus explains that in both creation stories that Israel told, which are contained in Genesis, God places man and woman on equal footing.

"The Creation of Eve" (Michaelangelo Buonorroti)
In fact, in one of those stories, when God looks at man, who is alone, God declares that he needs to have an ‘ezer, which is typically translated as a helper or a partner. There is nothing subservient or secondary about the term ‘ezer, as if the fact that woman is created second she must be just a variation on a prototype. In fact, ‘ezer literally means “one who corresponds to him” and is, in fact, the same word used for God in several others places in the Old Testament. Created together as one humankind, then, male and female complement and correspond to each other, and marriage becomes the sacred union of the two, these two fleshly counterparts becoming one flesh, creating an intimacy so profound that it can only be described poetically or, better yet, lived.

Frederick Niedner, a professor at Valparaiso University in Indiana, tells the story in a recent article about a couple in a parish he served at the beginning of his career, decades ago. By the time he arrived there, the couple had been married nearly 70 years. They had wed in 1902 at the ages of 16 and 18 and had “eked out a living, sometimes just barely,” he says, “on a small farm at the edge of the city.” They never had children, they had no pension and very little savings, so they continued to raise a few pigs to cover expenses into advanced years. One day, Niedner says, the wife didn’t wake up. Having outlived all their kinfolk and most of the few friends they’d made, only a scattering of people attended the funeral a few days later. When the moment came for the funeral director to close the open casket, Niedner writes, “the wiry little husband, dressed in an old suit he may well have worn at his wedding, jumped from his seat a few feet away and, before any of us could stop him, climbed into the casket and lay there clinging to his beloved. ‘Just bury me with her, please!’ he begged, over and over, between his sobs. In all the years since,” Niedner goes on to say, “I may have done something more difficult than helping to pull a weeping old man from his last embrace that day, but I don’t know what it might have been.”[1]

“What God has joined together, let no one separate,” Jesus says, as he shuts down the religious authorities with their pesky questions. Certainly even the most wholesome marriages are still influenced by sinfulness, but this union is something God has blessed, and the joining together of two equal ‘ezers is something to be respected and revered, not manipulated for personal gain or denigrated.

I’m not sure the Pharisees got all of what Jesus was trying to say. I’m not sure the disciples got much of it either, even after Jesus takes the time to explain the issue of divorce to them in private. To be quite honest, I’m not sure any of us ever really get it, even though we constantly come to God with our silly attempts to clarify and define God’s love for humankind merely as a series of cases and for-instances: Does God’s law apply here? And what about here? What would God say about this? And while verbal answers to our questions are fine now and then, while sermons about “what God has said” and how he wants us to live are helpful up to a point, they end up falling short of grace in the long run.

For Christ did not come to earth primarily to answer people’s questions and solve theological riddles about the law. In fact, Christ came not so much to say something for God but to do something. Christ came not to explain and illustrate God’s love for all people but to embody it. His kingdom is always about grace, always including sinners and the insignificant in spite of themselves. This is why is it so significant that in both gospels where this prickly issue about divorce and marriage comes up, Jesus immediately follows his answer by doing something that illustrates the powerful grace of God’s kingdom.

People (probably women) are bringing him small children (probably even ones that are sick), which is the kind of nonsense that a theological riddle-solver and Bible expert would never have time for. After all, children can’t understand the finer points of the law, right? They haven’t experienced enough, haven’t developed the life skills to know what’s good for them. Surely they don’t appreciate just who this is that they are being brought to. Surely the don’t understand what kind of gift, for example, is being offered at the communion rail even as they stick their little hands out in trust. With their screaming and crying, their weakness and recklessness, their diseases and disfigurements, they’re just bound to get in the way.

That’s when Jesus’ rebuke, “Let them come to me! Do not stop them!” reminds us again, that Jesus brings a kingdom that automatically seeks out the lost and little. If we must talk about not separating something that God has joined together, then don’t separate Jesus from the little children. It is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. God has joined himself together with them. For, my sisters and brothers, the kingdom isn’t intended for those who’ve figured out the key to marriage, or who’ve managed a lawful divorce, and it’s not for those who know exactly which rules and laws apply in every case. It doesn’t belong to those who go to church for the “right” reasons, either, or preachers with their clever signs and clever sermons. The kingdom, rather, is for those who look at the cross and learn to trust a God who takes them in his arms and blesses them, no matter what. It is for those who look at a dying Son of God and don’t even know which clever question to ask because they’re so broken, as well as for those who never seem to have their questions answered. The kingdom is for those who look at the one who hangs there and see God who will jump right into the casket along with us because he loves us and nothing, nothing, nothing will ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Now, I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing what we want to hear, but my guess is it’s what we need to.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] “The Mystery of Marriage,” by Frederick Niedner in The Christian Century. July 8, 2015