Change ... for the Here and Now
December 9, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
The second Sunday of Advent (and for that matter, the third as well) asks us to prepare ourselves to see and welcome the coming Messiah, drawing us up close and personal that we might hear the words of John the Baptist, the prophet central to Jesus’ story but nowhere to be found in any Advent calendar. Yet, John is present in all four Gospels as the gateway to arrive at the nativity, and I would guess, the gateway to arrive at Jesus’ second coming as well. The prophet on whom the season depends, the opening act for the coming of the Lord.
John comes onto the scene, “In the 15th year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of,” you’ve already heard it, all the way to the priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas. It’s quite a lineup, the “magnificent seven.” Seven sets of power, of wealth, and of influence, secular and religious, a veritable “who’s who” of first century Palestine, as Luke places John and his message squarely into the time and place right in the middle of the events and happenings. Located in history, John comes out of the wilderness, going to the region around the Jordan with a message from God. “Prepare the way,” someone’s coming, and when he comes things are going to happen; mountains will be leveled, valleys filled in. Be prepared, get yourself ready for him, as John proclaims a baptism of repentance. Not a Christian baptism, not a once-in-a–life-time response to God’s promise of grace, but an Old Testament, human-motivated baptism. A symbolic act of washing, scrubbing away the dross, the impurities, the contaminations, that continually happen in every life. A washing that occurred in every Jewish home or mikvah on a regular basis, exchanging the isolation of being unclean, because of who was touched or what was done, to a state of purity with its return to the joy of family and community. John shifts the act of removing physical contamination to a spiritual place, accomplished, he proclaims, by the act of repentance. In a time and place unburdened by two millennia of Christian guilt, to repent was less a feeling and more an action, less about being remorseful and more about changing behavior, re-orienting direction, adjusting priorities. John calls folks to a repentance that is at the same time both harsh, but also liberating, as his message was heard up and down the Jordan. Not that everybody listened. Maybe the Tiberiuses and Caiaphases, presuming they spoke for God already, just couldn’t hear a fresh revelation. Let’s face it, such high positions, where money and power put folks at the top of a mountain, make it hard to want to see the mountain leveled. Maybe they couldn’t hear, but other folks did, like the disciple Andrew, who later follows Jesus, first follows John1 who announces the dawn of a new age and a new and different way of living. Folks come and prepare themselves for the Kingdom in their time and place.
Through the arc of time, John comes. We are now in the second year of the presidency of Donald Trump; in the eighth year of John Kasich as governor of Ohio; when Rob Portman and Sherrod Brown are Senators and there are a plethora, as in 16, representatives of the House; when Ruling Elder Vilmarie Cintron-Olivieri and Reverend Cindy Kohlmann are co-moderators of the PCUSA; and Cathy Ulrich is General Presbyter and Stated Clerk of Eastminster Presbytery. Again, it’s quite a lineup, as John continues to call folks now, today, as he did over 2,000 years ago. In our time and place, six weeks after the shootings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in the midst of revelations of issues between Chinese and US relations, and just a few days after the death and burial of our 41st president, John announces we are to get ready for the One who brings the coming kingdom, and I’m guessing he is still proclaiming that it can best be accomplished by a baptism of repentance. John calls us to turn and live a different way, a better way, that we might live into the abundance he promised here and now, in 2018. In case we’re unsure of what “preparing the way” might look like, in case John the Baptist seems too extreme and the example of Jesus seems too unlikely, just think back to the last week. We’ve just heard, during the funeral of George H. W. Bush, of what making the crooked straight and the rough smooth might look like, however faulty and imperfectly. Whether you like his politics or not, his political life not always considered great, elected for only one term, yet, he was someone who strove to be a good man, a godly man, who worked not so much to win as to have everyone on the field playing, and offered generosity beyond self and circle. The Americans with Disabilities Act leveled the mountains for many, and his Clean Air Act, protecting the ozone level, made the world a better place. In his eulogy Jon Meacham said, “His life code was: tell the truth, don’t blame people, be strong, do your best, try hard, forgive, stay the course,”2 even as he called on us “to choose the right over the convenient, to hope rather than to fear, and to heed not our worst impulses but our best instincts”3—words of preparation. Still, while most of us may not personally know Presidents who lead by example, many of us have known private folks in our lives who strive to be good and godly men and women, also probably not always applauded, but whose choices, the arc of time will show, have found them preparing the way in the here and now.
Well, in the 2,018th year of our Lord, John’s words come to Kinsman, Vernon, Burghill, and Johnson, speaking to you and to me, asking if we are preparing for the coming of the Lord, asking us how we are filling in valleys, leveling mountains, and making the path straight, that all flesh might see the salvation, the healing of our Lord. John comes asking what, in our lives, do we need to repent of, to turn from so that we aren’t a stumbling block, an obstruction to the One who comes, or to each other. What do we need to change that relationships may be reconciled? And what do we need to remove so that we can more clearly hear the word of God and follow on the path of a new era? What gets in each of our ways will likely be as different as each of us are from the other as we wrestle the hard questions. For they require a tenacious honesty that acknowledges places in each of our lives that need the borax of Fuller’s soap and the fire of conviction, neither of which are particularly comfortable. For sure, change is never easy. Re-formation is seldom painless. But that’s what we need to do when we bump up against sin that delights in rough ways and loves living on the mountains as it watches others scramble in the valleys. Sin is the reality of refusing to be fully human, refusing to open our whole hearts to God, to others, to ourselves. It’s the truth of choosing disconnection and disharmony over creativity, abundance, and flourishing. Repent, John says, turn around. Yet, if we can remember times and places when we have heard John’s call and acted, when we have filled in valleys, like the tutoring program that has lifted kids to a level playing field with their peers; when we have smoothed the fractures and rough edges by providing a space for NA, AA, and Al-Anon to meet and heal; when we have straightened tortuous paths by supporting the Needle’s Eye and the kids that attend; and when we have made the heights of mountains accessible by the wheelchairs Lisa Alfonsi works with—if we can remember such times and places, then we realize we have the background and building blocks to wrestle and struggle with the broken places that are still in our lives and world as we continue to prepare the way of the Lord in our time and place.
The reality is, the lectionary refuses to allow us to get to Christmas without going through Advent. Jesus comes only after we face John, who emerges in whatever time and place we find ourselves, telling us to get ready for the appearance of our Lord. John requires from us an honest reckoning, a willingness to undergo the unsettling movement that comes with the straightening and smoothing of our ways as we are re-formed and changed for our time in history, in our here and now.
2Jon Meacham, presidential biographer and author, eulogizing the funeral of George H. W. Bush at the National Cathedral, Washington, DC, 5 December 2018
4Jill Duffield also touches on these thoughts in her article, “Looking into the Lectionary, Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018,” in Presbyterian Outlook.
Signs of Hope
December 2, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
It is the first Sunday of Advent. For folks who enjoy the taste, sounds, and excitement of Christmas, it’s easy to want to go straight from Thanksgiving, with the smell of sage, turkey and pumpkin pie, to Christmas trees, nativities, and Silent Night, with one long consumer-feeding frenzy filling in the middle. But the church isn’t about to let us do that; she reminds us that we are entering a holy season as we begin our new year while the days are still getting darker, which should tell us this is not a season for the faint hearted, but a season that rejects shallow sentimentality and fake cheer. Luke starts us off not with shining stars and fleecy lambs, but the world as it really is, with falling stars and the sea overwhelming the earth, a world, lovely, fragile and coming apart.
The days are surely coming, says the Lord: there will be signs in the heavens and on earth. Friday’s earthquake in Alaska seems to be right on cue, with the earth heaving and its isolated tsunami-like waves doing an imitation of the roaring seas. And wouldn’t you know it, the G-20 meetings bring to the surface fears of another cold war looming, while domestically, tear gas and rocks found their marks on our southern border. Signs of fear, signs of a certain destruction, rather than signs of gratitude for redemption or the hope of new life, seem to be what we see all around us. No wonder Luke says people will faint from fear. Perhaps it’s that very fear that allows us to transform people who are somehow different than we are into enemies whom we should distrust, or even eliminate. Perhaps it’s that very fear that causes us to hoard, as if there just isn’t enough, making everyone else our competitors. Fear that causes us to view each other as “them or us” as we choose to define ourselves not by attributes or ideas that we share, but by our differences, only to make it impossible to find a middle ground. The same fear causes us to close our eyes to the fact of climate change and our part in it. Such fear certainly fractures any understanding of or desire for some kind of solidarity or compassion. Instead, it has the power to stunt our imagination, harden our hearts, and gives us a dark vision with the power to make us wonder what’s coming upon the world even as the heavens shake. Jesus warns us there will be signs. Signs that seem amazingly timely not because they’re prophesying the future, but because they’re reading the reality of the world, a world that has always lived with uncertainly and fear. The days are surely coming, if they aren’t already here.
So realize it and act accordingly, Jesus says. Read the signs and know what’s going on and then figure out what and how we need to respond to what we see. Be awake, be alert, and be on guard, that we don’t lose heart, get distracted, numb ourselves, or believe the stuff the false prophets are spewing. There’s a reason “Fear not,” in some form appears 120 times in the Bible, proclaimed by angels, or priests, or prophets or some ordinary Joe Blow off the street, usually speaking on behalf of God. Let’s not quake in fear, rubbing our hands together, but instead, raise our heads, be courageous, because whatever we’re fearing doesn’t have the last word. The Kingdom is near, meaning righteousness and justice might be just around the corner. It’s just a little hard to see. So we need to prepare not for what scares us but to meet the new life that’s coming, trusting the promises of the One who is more than the fear that whirls around us, who brings new life even out of what has been cut down, who draws green shoots out of what looks like dead branches. Luke’s words aren’t about “the end” but about our very real future. And while we may not have a clue what it might look like, we know it will find us and lift us up. So stand up, for redemption draws near. Jesus promises not to abandon us amid the tumult of the world but to be with us, to strengthen us, encourage us, and equip us for what’s coming that we might not only endure, but flourish. So let’s stand up and raise our heads.
Whether we realize it or not, we, people of faith, have been told what’s happening, given a heads up, for a reason—so that we might live as signs of hope. That we might shine enough when other folks stand on tip-toe and look at the horizon in fear that they might see glimmers of the Kingdom, different and better ways of living that bring not just survival, but abundance. Jesus came living out the reality of what life in the Kingdom will look like that we might not be tempted by the fake news of fear, but instead live with the courage and love that behooves his followers, evident in our acts of kindness, our offerings of community, our whispers of encouragement, and our whiffs of reconciliation. We are called to live in such a way that our actions might be a sign of a viable alternative, as tangible of a sign as the bread and cup found on the Table which offers welcome to all—equally—in ways seldom seen in this world, and just as real as the forgiveness found at the font that allows us to lay our burdens down and move forward. Font and Table, both signs of hope created out of things of the earth but imbued with divine purpose just like we are. Jesus’ promises continue in the real presence of disciples whose actions are motivated not by the fear around us, but by the love and courage of Christ. For we have been grafted into the branch of Israel, Jesse, and David and our light reflects Jesus’ own as we become signs of hope and promise.
Advent is brutally honest and invites us to look and live in our world in our “here and now” precisely because it’s in the “here and now” that God dwells with us. But God also shows us what will be, that we might live into God’s future, becoming signs of hope in a world where oceans heave, the ground shakes, and the world’s redemption comes.
November 11, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
I kinda’ chuckled when I first turned to the lectionary reading for this week. I couldn’t help but think that it must be November—what is typically “stewardship month” in the Presbyterian Church. To that end, perhaps it’s a good time to mention that there were pledge cards in the October newsletter and the joint meeting of the session and trustees, for the purpose of talking about budget, may be a long meeting, so if you’re a member of either board make sure you’ve had lunch prior to coming. That said, we’ve got to wonder just what Jesus is doing when he asks us to notice the widow who stands at the treasury box.
Let’s face it, we all know the story of the widow’s mite. We’re just not always sure what to do with her, her offering, or the scribes who are the focus of Jesus immediately before the widow comes on the scene. Growing up, if we were churched, most of us heard the widow’s story as a tale of sacrificial giving. A woman, poor and vulnerable, offering all that she has, two coins worth about 1/64th of a laborer’s daily wage,1 generosity par excellence. Likely we’ve all heard a few preacher-types suggest that if she gives all she has, in her poverty, shouldn’t we, out of our abundance, dig a little deeper, maybe skip a few lunches at Times Square after church, to further God’s work, as well? Yet, placed next to the passage about the scribes, supposedly good church folks whom Jesus charges with devouring widow’s houses and feeding off the vulnerable for their own gain, it seems unlikely he would encourage anyone, the widow included, to further impoverish themselves for an institution he’s just declared corrupt. It’s hard to imagine Jesus would applaud the poor he’s spent his ministry caring about for sharing their pennies empowering scribes who act like bottom suckers, their piety a sham. In the story, Jesus neither congratulates the widow on her faithfulness, nor does he reprimand her for becoming a victim of the scribes grasping behavior. We don’t know if he asks a disciple to invite her to lunch or gives her some spare change to live on. And we certainly don’t know if he wants us to follow her actions—or shut the church off from our giving. While we all know the widow’s story, Jesus isn’t clear just what he wants us to do with her.
Yet, what Jesus does do is notice her. Scripture says Jesus sits himself down opposite the treasury and begins to people watch, like so many of us are prone to do. He notices her and invites disciples, then and now, to notice her, also. At a time when everyone is so busy rushing here or there, being absorbed in what’s going on inside our own minds, or heads down looking at phones, Jesus says notice her, when it’s easy to overlook the person standing right next to you. See her while other thoughts are vying for your attention. Think about it: did you notice the first stranger who came into your line of vision, your first contact, at the Bazaar last weekend? Did you really see them, notice the color of their sweater, or how about their eyes? So, what’s it take for us notice someone? Who attracts our attention? And who are the folks we don’t notice, people our eyes seem to naturally avert when they come into our line of vision because we don’t want to know them, or because they aren’t like us, or because they make us uncomfortable? When was the last time you made eye contact with somebody who maybe came up to you on a bike at the mall or came close as you walked out of the library, asking you for some money to get a cup of coffee? If we’re honest, most of us really don’t want to know anybody like that. We don’t like to think of someone destitute and dependent. We certainly don’t want anyone to mistake us for one of them. It messes with our self-image. We’re actually pretty good about ignoring the widow, the derelict, the stranger. We don’t make eye contact, so we can forget who she is. Like the scribes, it’s much easier to notice the seating chart at banquets and make sure our long robes are neat. Granted, we all have days when we can kinda feel for her, when we feel invisible or not worthy of notice, but they’re fleeting and not a way of life. Yet, Jesus calls to us, as disciples, to see her, to recognize that she has value, to acknowledge that she is a person worthy of respect, to notice her.
See, not noticing individuals gets us off the hook when it comes to categorizing people. It’s easy to make generalizations, fit people into stereotypes if we don’t know, don’t see, the individuals within the group. Poor folks like the widow become freeloaders, sure to be trying to beat the system, forget that her culture places a woman without a man, either husband or son, in a situation where she has no income or support, catches her in a situation with few exits, akin to the way payday loans, cash bail, and ever rising court costs punish and keep the poor in a downward spiral in our own culture. It’s easy to dehumanize groups of people when there’s a past precedence, as when we counted African-American slaves only 3/5 of a person for political representation. It becomes uncomplicated to think of enemies, like the Germans, as we come to Veterans Day, as a just a bunch of godless Krauts, just like it was effortless for Germans, a generation later, to refer to Jews as Kike and Hymie, persons without a real name, without identities, just vermin. It’s an attitude that makes all blacks look alike and all whites elitists, and before you know it, such sinful blindness turns into sorrow as the crimes we have seen all too frequently recently have shifted from simply ignoring others into something more malevolent, full of fear and hate, striking out towards nameless persons in a group that, to the perpetrator, the executioner, has no worth or value. But that’s what happens when we lump everyone in a group and refuse to notice the individual, the person.
Maybe that’s why Jesus asks disciples, we who claim to be part of Christ’s body, to follow his example and notice the widow. Maybe part of our commitment, as a people of faith, is to stand with the One who comes to bring good news to the poor, to let the oppressed go free, and to care for the least of these. And maybe, we’re to encourage others to see her as well. To be the church and to lead the way in this time and place when we, as a country, are so divided into groups and so hostile towards each other. For when we notice the individual, foolish stereotypes begin to break like Humpty Dumpty falling off the wall, never to be put back together again. It’s one thing to think all Muslims are terrorists until our daughter marries one and he becomes the father of our grandchild and we begin to appreciate that the man prays five times a day. It’s one thing to think anyone gay is an abomination until we realize our grandson is gay and that he is as good a man and as faithful a Christian as anyone we’ve ever met. It’s one thing to think of folks seeking asylum as a mob until we recognize that an asylum seeker is someone who had to leave their country but didn’t want to leave their country—kind of like Mary and Joseph.2 Jesus reminds us to notice each person before us—the Muslim father, the gay grandson, the refugee, the widow, and the countless others, including the person who shares your pew but thinks differently—and to see them for what they are, a child of God just like we are, our brother and sister, worthy of respect. For to see someone as an individual is the beginning of treating them with respect, and respect is the beginning of knowing and developing a relationship, and a relationship is the beginning of loving our neighbor, so Jesus asks us to notice the person God places before us and to show others how to see them as well.
The widow’s mite is a story of redemption as Jesus calls us to notice what other fail to see, that each and every one of us—you, me, and everyone else—is valuable to him and is a beloved child of God.
1Footnote found in the Harper Collins Study Bible, NRSV, 2006.
2 Interview by Presbyterian Outlook Leslie Scanlon with Andi Atkinson, executive director of La Posada Providencia, a shelter on the border of the United States and Mexico. https://pres-outlook.org/category/ministry-resources/looking-into-the-lectionary.
How Shall We Live?
November 4, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
It’s just been a week and a day after 11 people were gunned down by an act of violence. During the same week other folks had pipe bombs delivered; we can only assume that the original intent was their demise. It feels like we are surrounded by death. Certainly, we here, today have become only too familiar—some of us touched all too closely. Yet, what better reason to take the opportunity to name, remember, and lift up the folks we have loved, who’ve moved more deeply into the presence of God this year.
The reality is death is real. As much as we wish it were a bad dream, just an illusion, if we’re honest with ourselves we have to admit that we are incurably mortal. And everyone, everything that is mortal has an expiration date, even the folks we love. One of the questions I always ask young couples who come into the office to speak of wedding plans is how will this marriage end, for we will all die some day and there’s no sugar coating that news. Even Jesus, the One we call the Lord of life, in some kind of worldly irony was put to death, his life ended, and while we believe that with his resurrection death is defeated we still know that, short of the rapture occurring, there’s a 100% chance none of us will get out of here alive. Even the promise of a heavenly hereafter doesn’t diminish our yearning for, our desire for, vitality, intimacy, and just five more minutes. The things of earth that we love—our friends, the lake, the sky, the hills, and the stars, we will have to leave. No wonder we tend to feel “swallowed up” by death. The thing about being mortal is our mortality. We will all die.
Maybe that’s why it’s only fitting we grieve the death of the ones we love. Even Jesus weeps at the tomb of a friend. Grief takes hold of Jesus, the most accurate revelation of the divine we will ever have, and he cries. The truth is any kind of Christian faith that leaves no place for grief, no place for lament, should be suspect. Honest faith has room for, even embraces, the full spectrum of human emotions; has room for Martha’s anger and resentment, “Lord, if you would have been here” as well as her trust in the power of the resurrection; has room for Mary’s accusation, “Lord, if you had been here,” even as she kneels at his feet in a posture of belief . Honest faith even has room for Jesus’ tears, and it’s through his tears that he assures Martha and Mary that their brother’s worth crying for, as he stands with them in empathy. Jesus gets that loving someone always comes with a mixture of joy and sorrow—it’s never just one or the other—and that future joys, for a very long time, will be shaped and molded by the sorrow of missing someone we love. Things will never be quite the same even as Jesus, even as we, affirm that with God nothing of value is ever lost, and whatever is loved shares in God’s everlasting life.1 So Jesus encourages us to live out our grief—the grief we carry as individuals, the grief we share with everyone sitting in the pews around us—for he knows that sometimes things need to fall apart before they can be gathered back together, often stronger than they were before, as we move forward in a resurrection that begins now, not crippled, but healed through the power of grief.
But grief is not the end. It’s not the stopping point. Jesus’ tears show us that sorrow is a powerful catalyst. The story, the lament, of Lazarus gives impetus to Jesus’ own journey, propelling him and others forward to Jerusalem. He knows that death can’t be allowed to have its way, can’t be allowed to slow us down prematurely. Maybe what breaks the heart, splits it with sorrow, opens us to the needs of others and draws us to be part of life-giving acts so that when Jesus later orders the crowd to “Unbind Lazarus, and let him go,” they complete his miracle, becoming part of God’s resurrection work by caring for one in need. Jesus allows us not only to do the work of grief and healing, but moves us with powerful compassion to live as a people preparing to die so that living or dying our lives are in him. Yes, we all face death, but we serve the God who invites us into life, calls each of us into sainthood, not by transforming us into “perfect people,” but by placing opportunities before us that allow us to care for our neighbors. While none of the people we love, who have died this year were perfect (they left clothes on the floor, were sometimes forgetful, often chose not to wear their hearing aids, and could maybe be a bit self-centered) yet, in each of them we saw glimpses of God in their care for others. Whether that was making sure there were bikes for kids, or taking care of the million odd jobs for a mother and mother-in-law, pushing for the creation of a kindergarten, or drawing people close by constantly teaching them something new, whether it was the faithfulness of always showing up, the compassion to push a little girl on a swing, a willingness to put themselves in a hard place for others, or offering gifts with such joy and laughter that the whole church shook, they showed us how to love our neighbors with a myriad of possibilities, leaving a legacy that we might live our lives more fully in ways that overcome death itself with God, because of God, and in the presence of God. How we live our lives matters, not for the sake of a promised future in heaven, but because our lives and the lives of our neighbors are called into resurrection life in the here and now. In the devastation of death, Jesus recognizes what it takes to restore life.
How shall we live in a world where death is inevitable? Jesus points us to the way of life, and the saints who have gone before us offer us glimpses of how we can love God and neighbor while we continue our own journey of life.
1Epperly, Bruce, “Living a Holy Adventure” online blog for 4 November, 2018, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/ 2018/10/ the-adventurous-lectionary-twenty-fourth-sunday-after-pentecost-november-4-2018/
Get Up, He’s Calling You
October 28, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Jesus has come to Jericho on his way to Jerusalem and is now in the midst of leaving. It’s a short distance, a mere 15 miles. If they hurried they could make it to Jerusalem before dark. Of course, from all the stuff Jesus has been saying, none of his disciples are sure what might happen when they get there. What they are sure of is that everywhere they stop Jesus seems to attract crowds and mobs on the way. Yet, he doesn’t seem to notice the crowds, but the people in them, always individuals in need, persons worth making whole. As they leave Jericho such a mob goes with them, only to come upon a blind man. It’s the first time anyone who isn’t a demon or a disciple calls Jesus by his title, Son of David. The blind man who recognizes what no one else can see.
Most of us don’t have to imagine, too awful hard, how it feels to be sitting alone in the darkness. To some extent, we get Bartimaeus. If we’re over forty, and most of us are, we’ve probably experienced a few dark places. They aren’t all that rare. A lost job with kids to feed, the death of a marriage or someone we love, or the moments when we think about the hopes, dreams, and aspirations we once had that have come to naught. It’s easy to lose our way in the darkness. It doesn’t help when a cloud of negativity, cutting out any light, surrounds us as well. Words that express love or kindness, patience or gentleness are rare. About the only place I’ve heard them lately is, frankly, inside our walls, in the interaction between tutors and kids, in the interaction between each of you as you work together preparing for the Bazaar. Instead, for the most part, the language of midterm debaters and their surrogates’ rallying cries surround us all with words of how dangerous the other guy is, as fear is injected into every campaign speech. And when was the last time we heard anyone take responsibility for anything other than great success? Forget the old adage of “the buck stops here.” For sure, humility is out of vogue, no one is willing to acknowledge any ignorance in a complicated world, any mistakes, even when it comes to God. Maybe it’s not just some of us who sit alone in darkness, maybe it’s the whole mob of us fumbling around in a darkness that has the power to envelop and push some folks into mailing pipe bombs and entering places of faith with the intent of spreading the darkness. A crowd that’s equally blind as the crowd around blind Bart. Folks wanting to ignore him, determining his shouts and cries weren’t worthy of attention, his suffering not important enough to warrant tenderness or compassion. The only reasonable thing to do was to shut him up to restore order as they, like we, shove the Barts who need healing under the rug, out of sight and out of mind. A mass effort that works to keep out the light as we sit alone in the midst of a crowd living in darkness.
Yet, for as much as it feels like we’re alone, that’s an illusion of the darkness. Know him or not, Jesus is with us. Present, he is able to hear a voice searching for a bit of light in a sea of darkness, calling out, ”Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus is no different than we are in our struggles with deep sorrow and suffering. In the depth of darkness we turn to God, and we don’t plead alone, for the promise is that Jesus is our great High Priest, certified by God’s own self, without term limits, unhindered by death, willingly interceding for us, willingly offering to be our bridge, our way through difficult circumstances, by our side into the presence of God. While others may sternly order us to be quiet, not to make a scene, accept our fate, Jesus calls to us and asks “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t regard us as a condition or a circumstance, a nameless person with cancer, or a blind man sitting by the side of the road, but honors the hurt in each of us made in the image of God. “What do you want me to do for you?” He doesn’t presume to know our needs and longings, but instead respects our fullness and complexity as real human beings who likely have a multitude of desires and needs. So he leaves it up to us to answer, give direction, and make decisions about exactly what we want him to do. As tempting as it may be to hem and haw, Jesus will have none of that. Instead he invites us into the honest reflection that’s necessary for growth and healing and asks us to answer with the same honesty and trust. Jesus allows us to set the conditions for our healing and to have our voice heard when he asks “What do you want me to do for you,” as he stands with us in prayer before God.
But it’s not enough, Jesus’ presence. Get up, he’s calling you. Bart wanted out of his own personal darkness and does everything in his power to gain some light. If it’s light we want then maybe we need to do the same. Get up. Placing ourselves before Jesus in a commitment that joins faith and action puts us in a place that opens us to God’s healing, because if there’s going to be any change in the darkness that surrounds us it’s going to need to come from a power beyond our abilities, it’s going to come from the light of God. Do we want to see, or not? We can stay sitting where we are, in the familiar dark, not seeing what we don’t like, only concerning ourselves with what’s in reach, with no desire to get our hopes up for anything different, or we can cast off our cloaks of familiarity and security and leap up, becoming part of a new reformation that refuses to be compromised by the negativity of the culture that surrounds us. A reformation that shines a light on the darkness of complacency and compliance, that asks us to ignore our core beliefs about how we treat our neighbors. A reformation that refuses to accept uncivil discourse and deafness towards folks whose voices need to be heard as they are pushed into the periphery, as if they are the problem. The gospel has a way of upending the neat and tidy, demanding to be heard even when its good news makes us uncomfortable by insisting that it, not the culture around us, has the responsibility of shaping our moral imagination. It is a reformation that gets up in answer to God’s call, trusting that God is doing a new thing as it goes not its own way, but follows Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, to a cross, and to an empty tomb that has the possibility of saving the soul of the world if we have the courage to get up because he’s calling us.
We all need the mercy Bartimaeus seeks. His is a story of a man who wanted out of his own personal darkness and did everything in his power to gain the light. It’s a story for folks who want, and know we need, the same thing.
Joined as Family
October 7, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
This morning’s gospel reading is an awkward passage, a personal one for many. My guess is, having just heard it, some of you have already started writing your own sermon in your heads that has nothing to do with what I’ve prepared as you remember your particular challenges and circumstances, along with a gamut of emotions, regardless of whether you’re married, divorced, widowed, none or all of the above. The passage is so often used to bludgeon people of faith, it has caused mothers to quietly warn their children, if they have any second thoughts, if they want to change their minds, they’d better do it before the wedding because they aren’t only marrying the person, but joining the entire family.
Jesus’ point seems to be to keep the family together when the Pharisees come with an agenda to challenge him through the difficult question of divorce. Either way he answers, he loses. If Jesus argues against the law like his cousin John did, a criticism that eventually got him beheaded, then Jesus angers Rome and faces the same possible backlash as his cousin. On the other hand, if he agrees with them, following the protocol of the law written by Moses, then Jesus is left to face the many women and children who follow him, having supported a law that leaves them completely and totally disenfranchised and in economic ruin with nothing and no one to protect them. For Moses had written that if a man finds something objectionable about his wife he can write a certificate of divorce and send her off. What the good men of the law conveniently forget is that laws are suppose to be a means to an end, put in place to protect folks from danger and allow for human flourishing—not a end in themselves. So Jesus takes the religious righteous—then and now—back to the beginning when in the midst of lavish and carefully created goodness God pauses and decides that all the goodness needs something else, something more. So God creates them, in God’s own image, male and female, maybe figuring it wasn’t good for either of them to be alone, that they needed companionship, a partnership that was both supportive and mutual, and intimacy that they might form a union that would work for both of them, that they might both flourish, which is the purpose of laws and institutions like marriage. And then, at the end of the discussion, as if to put an exclamation point on what he said, Jesus welcomes the children his disciples try to discourage with blessings that surely lead to their own thriving. Jesus’ answer about divorce isn’t about staying in bad relationships or marriages or living with a mistake; it’s about being in relationship, the creation of family, that we may thrive.
That goes for the larger human family, as well. The only way that folks truly thrive is when we see each other as partners and companions and work together. Jesus seems pretty sure that it’s our own hardness of heart that buys into a mentality that reduces others into commodities, objects, scapegoats for our fears, or peoples to be conquered, as if the world is made to be some kind of macabre sum-zero pie rather than the good place God creates it to be. Time and time again, the human family seems more bent on tearing each other apart in a scorched earth plan, rather than working together for the good of all. This weekend was, yet again, another example between the liberal and conservative lawmakers, but it’s just as evident when the wealthy get tax breaks while services for the poor are impoverished and gutted, and on and on we could go. If we can’t get along and thrive within one of the richest countries in the world, how, indeed, can we do so with the countries outside our piece of geography? For Jesus, through the words of Mark, speaks to all human relationships, inside the home, inside the community, inside the nation, and between the nations, encouraging us to offer community by trading power for partnership, replacing egotism with empathy, and giving worth to folks without a say that we might live out a vision of the Kingdom of a lavish garden with enough for all. God’s intent for the world was that it be “good,” that we might live in integrity regardless of how the “laws” of the nation might allow us to circumvent basic decency, for we have been created for honor and glory, made just a little lower than the angels, that we may live as one family, God’s human children joined in relationship.
That dream, that hope of God, is so important for the world God so loves that Jesus comes to live out by word and deed what being in relationship, rather than putting ourselves first, can look like as he pours himself out, serving others and standing up with and for folks who usually stand alone. Jesus shows us he’d rather die than let the world sacrifice wives and children, the working and not working poor, the foreigner; he’d rather die than let us go to hell in a hand basket. Instead, he goes forward like a pioneer charting a path through the difficult landscape, refusing to back down on the message he was born to bring, that God has a major investment in us and isn’t going to stop until the brokenness in the world is healed, until justice is served, and until the meek get their due. Even suffering and death isn’t enough to stop him. Calling beyond the grave, Jesus invites us to follow him in the difficult job of building relationships in the world. Hopefully, it won’t cost us our lives, but surely in the difficult labor of combating the evil that sells the vulnerable for a piece of silver, and tramples or discounts other folks will cost us something in time, in energy, in finances, or in reputation. There’s always a cost in doing good, but it is far more temporary than the long-term effect of evil. Jesus invites us to come be a part of the good that working together in relationship can do. Come, as a community that supports preschoolers whose voices are small but full of hope. Come, as a community who tutors kids so they can find a path out of situations that dismiss or demean and into responsible jobs with a future. Come as a community that opens its door to folks with addiction problems, but through the help of a God who is bigger than we are, move step by step into happier homes and lives. A community that freely gives its space away, not for revenue, not for fame, not to get something out of it, but because Jesus gave himself away and asks us to come follow his journey as we look for new ways to build relationships, ways that spread like a stone that skips across the waters of baptism until it touches the ends of the world God loves.
Today we gather with Christians all over the world, where all languages and countries sit together, joined as family, celebrating with each other the God who brings us together around an ever expanding Table of grace.
Who Speaks for God?
September 30, 2018
Rev. Susan H. Francis
Goodness knows, the last few days we have been witness to bitter contention as to who will speak for us. Who will have the right to interpret and be a deciding vote over our laws and because of that, to some extent, the way we can and will conduct ourselves? Who speaks for us, and who we might speak for is a question we, disciples, like Jesus’ earliest followers, should ponder.
Interesting, the criteria we use when we allow someone to speak for us. I’ve never quite figured out just what the qualifications are other than we want the person or group to share our purposes and understand our perspectives. The trouble is for human beings both are such fluid things. My guess is any one of us is in a very different place than we were five years ago. Just like we can never put our foot in the same stream twice, neither do we stay the same, but are constantly changing. While a few things remain somewhat constant—most of us ask for the same basics, to raise our kids, keep the wolf from the door, enjoy a little down time, and some sort of security against when we can no longer make a few extra bucks when needs arise—our purposes and perspectives are constantly changing. How we accomplish them, what we see as fair and beneficial changes with our age and situations. That’s why at one point in our lives we enjoy the benefits of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, and at another time the advantages and perks of AARP appeal to us. So, to achieve our purposes we belong to communities that represent us, we put ourselves in the position of allowing other folks to speak for us, folks who may have more clout, more power, whether from politics or religion, respect or status, casting our vote for the characteristics, the by-laws, the doctrine of whatever that particular community ascribes to. We put our check in the terms and conditions box, agreeing to the lines and boundaries they ascribe, consenting that we will fit into their expectations, follow their rules, and try to live out their ideals, deserving or not. We allow them to speak for us until they don’t, until we differ to the point of a fracture beyond repair when we take our marbles elsewhere. But depending on what they have going for them and the qualifications we deem important, we allow them to speak for us.
We pay our dues and we follow the rules—that’s how it works in any organization—and the deeper we go into it the more we color inside the lines, abide by their Book of Order. So maybe it’s no wonder the disciples get their panties in a twist when they come across some, likely, pagan dude casting out demons in Jesus’ name. Let’s face it, it’s not been an easy time for them; no wonder the inner circle, the future church organization, is tense. They’re on their way to Jerusalem, they’ve been getting a crash course and haven’t fared too very well. Peter is told to “get behind me, Satan,” and everyone else gets reprimanded with “the first shall be last” when they argue over who’s the greatest. They have consistently tried to cross their t’s and dot their i’s, and now Jesus acts as if there’s no need to get it right by saying to leave the guy alone, if he’s not against them he must be for them. What’s Jesus doing? Doesn’t he get disciples, then as well as now, are only trying to keep his ministry safe and secure, free from folks who have no idea what they’re saying and doing, folks who have no insider knowledge of the creeds, no understanding of polity, and certainly no correct dogma? In a time and place when the church is fracturing over what we believe and who we will accept, where we worry that decency and order are too often ignored, that the structure, theology, and doctrine that guides us and helps us live out our faith is being compromised, doesn’t Jesus get that we’re just trying to keep his ministry from being tainted? Doesn’t he get that after all our work and study we’re entitled to speak for him to the world because we know what he wants? But Jesus says, “Wait a minute,” as if he doesn’t need our well–intended protection to keep God, him, or his church pure. Jesus says “Leave him alone,” warning that when we take it upon ourselves to scold and chastise others who bear the name of Christ but disagree profoundly on issues important to us, when we refuse to make room for folks who live out their faith differently, we might be the cause of tripping up their discipleship, the grounds of their stumbling in their faith, and the reason they question if they are truly a viable member of God’s Kingdom. Let’s be honest, God can work through whomever God chooses, so why put up walls that Jesus came to break down, why choose to be a stumbling block instead of living water and salt? Jesus makes it clear that it would be better for us, so sure we know the mind of God, to drown ourselves with a millstone, rather than to get in the way of someone’s faith. It should give us pause—we who are insiders, who are fully credentialed, washed in the blood and raised in Sunday School—to self-righteously presume we are speaking for God.
So then, if not us, who does speak for God? Who is to stand and make a difference through the name of God? Oddly enough, as if with some weird twist of humor, I think that’s us, too; we do. We who are baptized with God’s vision to see the world with the hope that God has for it are called to be agents of grace. But not we alone. Baptism isn’t an entitlement. Words of truth and healing can come from unexpected places, not necessarily found in church pews, for God heals in many ways and through diverse people. God’s will is done when Esther uses her position and privilege to save herself and her people, the vulnerable, persecuted, and suffering crushed by government. God’s will is done when the pagan exorcist calls on Jesus’ name and casts out a demon and the misery that comes with possession by evil, by drink, by drug. God’s will is done when any of us see someone thirsty or hungry or needing safety and gives them a cup of water, the Bread of Heaven, and the protection of four walls and the Holy Spirit. Anyone who promotes abundant life is on God’s side, regardless of their pedigree. The truth is God is bigger than we think, and God has created all of us in God’s image—people who know Jesus and folks who don’t yet—filling us with unrecognized and unrealized power to forge new and better ways as the God whose circle is radically open, hospitable, and wider than we imagine reminds us that just the time we think it’s wide enough Jesus says, “Nope, make it bigger, enlarge the circle, lengthen the Table, and share a cup of cold water with each other, for there’s work to be done,” and “Whoever isn’t against us is for us.” Whoever doesn’t oppose the redeeming works of God that are profoundly hopeful and healing is part of the good news. Whenever healing and truth are present, God is the source, and when we are part of the good news, we speak for God.
The criteria of who speaks for God seems to be all about attitude, the difference between the desire for authority and the willingness to take on the responsibility, to advocate and agitate for God’s will to be done, working with whomever God places with us whether we consider them one of us or not. For grace is present in all sorts of disguises; only when we recognize that will it be well with our souls.