Monthly Archives: October 2009

10-25-09 OPEN OUR EYES, LORD!

OPEN OUR EYES, LORD!

Mark 10: 46-52

 

John Newton, the famous writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace,” wrote on his gravestone that he was an infidel, but by the rich mercy of Jesus Christ his Lord, he was “preserved, restored, and pardoned.” His famous hymn, which we will sing, has the famous line, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me; I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” How does a man with two good eyes describe himself as blind?  Are there not fathers who are blind to their daughters becoming little princesses because they have daddy wrapped around their little finger? Are there not people of age who are blind to the growing danger they pose to pedestrians and other drivers if they get behind a wheel?  And are there not children who are blind to dangers in this world that adults can clearly see?  With two good eyes, people are blind. With two good eyes, someone can ask me what another person was wearing who I just saw thirty minutes earlier and I can’t tell them!  Yes I too am blind with two good eyes.  Blindness is everywhere. Sometimes it takes a blind person to cultivate, and to help me cultivate, my perceptive vision.  Fanny Crosby was blinded as a little child and show wrote the gospel songs “Rescue the perishing,” “To God Be the Glory,” and “Blessed Asssurance, Jesus is mine.” Her physical eyes did not work. But her mind’s-eye did, with such lines as “But purer and higher and greater will be, our wonder, our transport, when Jesus we see.” Sometimes it actually takes the blind to lead “the blind.” 

 

Today the physically blind one is a beggar named Bartimaeus. Actually his name might have been unknown since our text says he was the son of Timaeus, and bar meant “son.” So, he was the “Son of Timaeus.” He could not use his eyes to see that Jesus was drawing near. What other senses might he have used? Certain his hearing was more perceptive; as the din of noise grew higher and others called Jesus’ name, he would have known that he was in earshot. Like a crowd that begins to push closer in to catch a glimpse of a parade character, he would have felt the movement that clued him in about when to speak. The he used his voice, likely in a loud way not unlike a bleating goat: “Jesus,” he calls him by name. He does not call him Rabbi. He has Jesus’ attention. “Son of David!” or “Bardavid.” That was a title of honor; David was the anointed King and Bartimaeus claimed that Jesus was his spiritual ancestor. “Have mercy on me.” In those days people needed to be declared clean by tabernacle priests. But from Jesus they wanted to be well. The people who were sighted heard Jesus say “Call him,” and even though Bartimaeus had keen hearing, they thought they need to point it out: “He is calling you!” The rest is history. He addressed Jesus as “master” -a statement of humility-and respectfully asked to receive his sight. The faith that this blind beggar demonstrated moved Jesus to do what in all ages is called miracle: he made a blind man see.  We don’t know how he did it except with great faith in his Father. But he did do it! Did God also make the spiritually blind John Newton be able to see; to see the error of his ways; to see his life of sin; to the depths to which he was sinking? Could it have been the very same Jesus passing through John Newton’s wretched life who moved him to declare “I once was blind, but now I see?” 

 

Hindsight is so clear, isn’t it? With hindsight I can see myself saying words of criticism that I wished had not come out of my mouth. Hindsight lets me see what I was blind to seeing earlier. Hindsight lets me see mistakes I made in judgment. Leaders must take risks in order to move forward, but hindsight lets us all become Monday morning quarterbacks.  Sometimes we have to choose, even in our blindness or limited vision; and then we, at times, will join blind Bartimaeus and cry out to Jesus, “Son of David, have mercy on me.”  It was blind, deaf and mute Helen Keller who finally got the word associations that a persistent teacher named Annie Sullivan taught her. She had a breakthrough of understanding that sighted persons would envy: she understood. Some time in school, did you understand, all of a sudden, what you did not understand a day before? I remember when I was young and learning writing that penmanship did not come easily to me. Those who have seen my writing know I am challenged in that area! As all my 5s looked like Ss, my mother taught me this: Instead of writing them from top to bottom in one motion, she opened my eyes to a way of getting my fives write. It involved lifting up my pencil once, and saying: “the little man walked down the street, turned the corner, and put on his hat.” Hearing and practicing that rhyme made the scales fall from my eyes. Hearing some Bible passages have made more scales fall from my eyes. And hearing precious words to anthems like the one today help me to pray earnestly and intensely. Today we do not have a priest,  rabbi or other sighted person to lead us. We have a blind beggar who got his physical sight, to guide us to see a new insight about God, about others, or about ourselves. I still don’t know that my powers of observation will ever be as sharp as my wife’s my daughter’s, or my daughters-in-law Amanda and Vicki. They can instantly tell me what a person was wearing, and, without me asking, they’d add descriptive words like, cute, darling, or frumpy. Maybe I can do that someday. For today, I ask for the ability to at least see my own mistakes and repent of them. Perhaps that kind of blindness is the kind that can be most healing.

On this Reformation Sunday I am reminded that the banner for the Westminster Confession of Faith has one eye in the middle of it- the symbol of our all seeing, all knowing, never sleeping God. God neither slumbers nor sleeps the Psalmist wrote.  God does not have an eye that grows cataracts or scales. God does not have eyes that look away; God always sees. Perhaps the logical choice for our lack of perception is putting our trust in the God who is always perceiving and noticing. When you can’t see; God can. When you can’t make out what’s ahead of you, God can. If we acknowledge that we are blind as a beggar, can we also acknowledge that we need Jesus, for without him we are a miner without a lantern, or a search sub trying to find a sunken ship without eyes or sonar. If we stumble on what we’re looking for, it is just by accident or timing. But with Jesus, we have the light, and we have the eyes, and we have the way, the truth, and the life.

 

On last thing: if your prayer is “Open my eyes, Lord!” be ready for what you see. If your eyes get opened, be ready to change. Bartimaeus could no longer sit on a street corner and beg; he would have to get a job. If your eyes are open, you’ll likely want to change your relationship with others; you’ll have to toss out cherished viewpoints and biases. You might be moved to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or give shelter to the homeless. Spiritual sight can mean a giant shift in priorities. And it can be
wonderful! So get ready! Will you become found who was lost? Will you become spiritually sighted who was blind? Are you ready to receive God’s amazing grace?

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                      October 25, 2009

10-18-09 THE REQUEST

THE REQUEST

Mark 10: 35-45

 

There are times when a teacher can tell when those in her class are not paying attention; times when a director can tell that members of his choir are not paying attention; and times when a preacher can tell when some of his congregation is not paying attention.  Oh don’t look so guilty; it’s not now! It happens a few minutes into a sermon when some begin to drift. A teacher might turn to a student and ask him or her what she just said. “Busted!” A choir director might turn to the daydreamer’s neighbor and say: “Show Joe where we are!” Preachers don’t do that much. There have been a couple of times when I have preached solely from my wireless mic so that when I came down from the pulpit, the daydreaming or sleeping parishioner was unaware that was right next to him. The story is told of the Catholic priest who was known for putting his flock to sleep, but, being Catholic, they all knew the different parts of the liturgy by heart, like: “The Lord be with you,” “and also with you” is the reply. “Lift up your hearts,” are the leader’s words; and the response is “We lift them up to the Lord.” One day when his congregation got exceptionally sleepy, the priest’s mic failed to work properly. Finally the sound came on as his voice carried out to his people:

“There’s something wrong with this microphone.” Dutifully, his distracted and sleepy congregation answered him: “And also with you!”

 

Today I wonder how many of us are really listening in church when they hear what happens to disciple of Jesus. For example, Paul was a disciple and he was imprisoned. Who wants to be put in prison?  Peter was a disciple of Jesus and according to Eusebius the early church historian, Peter was crucified until death, nailed to a cross like Jesus, except, since he felt unworthy to be crucified in the manner of his Lord, Peter asked to be crucified u-p-s-i-d-e—d-o-w-n!  That’s right. Do you still want to be a disciple?  And James, the son of Zebedee, one of the two talking in today’s passage, was beheaded according to Acts chapter 12.  Do you still … well, you know the question. Why would a preacher want to talk followers and potential followers of Jesus out of discipleship? Today’s lesson has the answer.

Today’s lesson in Mark was later retold in Matthew; Matthew seems to be so embarrassed that biological brothers, grown disciples, could ask Jesus such a thing about being first. Matthew says their mother made this request on their behalf. Really? Is it more embarrassing to have to grown disciples of Jesus making requests of rank to Jesus, or is it more embarrassing to have the mother of the grown men asking for them???!!  Remember what Jesus had just said, during the time when they must have been daydreaming? In verse 31 Jesus said, “The last shall be first, and the first shall be last.” Then he took them aside and said that the Son of Man would be condemned to death, not by Romans, but by Jewish priests! They would hand him over to the Gentiles they will mock, spit on him flog him, and kill him.” Immediately after that, the two self-absorbed daydreamers say these astounding words to Jesus: “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” “What an audacious question,” may be your first thought. But then you want to give these men the benefit of the doubt. After all they are disciples, two of the Twelve! But then you read on and find out their request: “Pick us to be the two closest to you, one on your left and one on your right.”  About this request, noted New Testament scholar William Barclay wrote: “They had completely failed to understand Jesus. The amazing thing is not the fact that this incident happened, but the time at which it happened. It is the juxtaposition of Jesus most definite and detailed forecast of his death and this request that is so staggering. It shows, as nothing else could, how little they understood what Jesus was saying to them. Words were powerless to rid them of the idea of a Messiah of earthly power and glory. Only the Cross could do that.” [THE GOSPEL OF MARK, Westminster Press, 1975, p. 254.]  The men who Jesus was training would soon have the responsibility of spreading the subversive kingdom news to a world that liked prestige and power; it still does. Their news was not the kind that the world usually calls “good.” Only when they finally proclaimed Jesus’ true message did worldly leaders decide they had to be stopped. Even today, accommodating people are really no threat to the world’s leaders. Accommodating people blend in and are rarely threatened. But disciples are supposed to shake up their world. Only when these disciples did Jesus’ true work did their lives end. Remember that I told you that James’s lost his life?  The naïve or distracted man who made the request of Jesus “Can you pick me to be at your side” was finally at Jesus’ side, not by request, but by service. James would finally grow up, and put aside his childish ways, and become a real disciple.  

 

Today the words of Jesus are these, words that sound counter-cultural; words you heard in the anthem today: “Whoever will be great among you, must become servants, and whoever would be first among you, must be the slave of all.” Being first out of ego is the problem Jesus addresses; being first in the kingdom gets named because of service. I know my father was in demand at in his company far past the normal retirement age in part because of the service he gave. Businesses do not get ahead by meeting expectations, but by exceeding them. A restaurant I love is among my favorites because of service. This week it was Marianne Sabatka who, in the midst of her husband’s stroke and ultimate death, had service on her mind. She called Halifax Urban Ministry with her regrets that she could not come and serve food that day. Every other week she is serving bags of food to hungry people. When I was about to go for Chris’ wedding in Pennsylvania I broke a tooth. My dentist, by himself, came to his office on a Sunday for me and fixed my tooth so I could leave of Monday. The man from whom I buy and have my cars repaired gives free loaner cars while the work is being done. Service, the action word for the noun servant, matters. The word that sounds derogatory to our ears is slave. There are those who say going the extra mile is something they are unwilling to do. But at our elder retreat last Saturday, one of our elders spoke up and, without being prompted, told fellow elders our job was to do what ever was needed for Jesus: to welcome and care for others, to build up and maintain Gods’ house and to take the mission to the world. Amen! Sometimes we fall short, and that I regret. But we know from James’ and John’s request what a reaction Jesus had. “You don’t know what you’re asking.” Their attitude would put them squarely in the back of the line in the next life. But, in this life, if we don’t work to be first, but instead put others first with hospitality, help, and kindness; then Jesus will be holding a spot in line for us on earth, at the very back, where he also is standing! Where wi
ll we be in heaven? I know there are people in churches whose brains go numb and whose souls grow cold with distractions so they miss Jesus’ lesson. Don’t miss this one!  Today I am asking (choir) you, (nave) and you, (new section) and you (balcony), if you think Jesus considers you to be his disciple? How will you know? Look for him to hand you an apron, a bag of food, a broom, a paintbrush, or a wrench.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                October 18, 2009 

10-11-09 RICH MAN

RICH MAN

When reading this passage about the rich young man, it’s easy to think it’s not about us. After all, rich people are people like Bill Gates, or Oprah Winfrey or a CEO of a major company. Some people actually like this passage, using it to prove the evils of the rich and greedy. Even if we sympathize with the plight of the rich young man, it doesn’t have anything to do with us, right?

Well, think about this. When we look at the world as a whole at least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day. $10 dollars a day. So since I’m living on more than $10 a day, I must be in the top 20%, right? I certainly don’t think of myself as rich, yet have more money than 80% of the world.

And it isn’t a slight difference, either. In 2005, it was discovered that the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. That means that those of us who live on more than $10 are using most of the world’s resources.

When we compare ourselves to people like Bill Gates, it would be hard to see us as rich, but when we begin to look at the rest of the world, we start to see we have far more than our share.

It’s easier to see ourselves in the role of the rich young man now, isn’t it? And he becomes a bit more sympathetic too. Sure, he has money, but he’s a decent fellow who has sought to obey all the “oughts”. “You know the commandments,” says Jesus, and lists them. “I’ve kept these since my youth” replies the man. And so have we, most of them, most of the time. We come to church and try to love one another, usually. We don’t lie very much. We don’t steal. For the most part we’re good people, just like he is.

We can identify outwardly with his striving to be a success, as the world calls success. We can identify with him inwardly, too. “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s a heavy question. A value-loaded question.

And here is where I at least start to squirm. This passage makes me uncomfortable now that I’ve identified with that rich young man. I’m a lot like him. We’re all a lot like him. And he walks sadly away from Jesus because of his possessions. Jesus says about him (and therefore about us) that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for us to gain eternal life.

Now, people have tried to explain away the difficulties of this passage. They point out that the word for camel and the word for yarn have just one letter different so perhaps Jesus was really talking about a thick yarn going through a needle here. Hard, but not impossible.

There’s another theory that talks about the Eye of the needle really being this gate that was small and low to the ground that a camel could only get through if we took off all the bags he was carrying and he crawled. So if we’re humble, we can get through. Again, it’s not an easy journey, but not impossible.

But I think both these stories are suspect. If we allow that a letter was written wrong, in not just one but in three of the four gospels, turning the camel to yarn in all of them, how much can we trust that the other words are right? That puts us on dangerous ground I think.

And the gate that was supposedly called the Eye didn’t appear in any texts until the 9th century. It was likely made up to explain this very difficult passage and has become a sort of theological urban legend.

No, we are faced with a literal camel going through the literal needle’s eye. An impossible feat, we know, especially if we’ve ever met a camel. Yet it is easier for that camel to go through that needle than it is for us for us to inherit eternal life.

After all, how many of us are likely to go home today, give away everything to the poor and go live the life of a missionary? It’s not realistic, we say. It’s not that simple. There are other things to consider like family, responsibility and practicality. We can’t just sell everything and follow Christ.

More than that, we like our stuff. I spend more time than I care to admit on a computer – both for work and play. We love our cars, comfortable beds, and indoor plumbing. There’s a level of comfort we’d really rather not give up.

You can start to see why many people don’t like this passage. We switch roles and take up the disciple’s call. “Well, then who can be saved?”

And Jesus answers with a word of hope for all. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Who can be saved? No one. Not if we’re trying to save ourselves.

Abundant resources almost inevitably lead to the assumption that whatever needs to be done, we can do it. Whatever we need, we can supply it. With enough money or education or ability or goodness we will be able to secure our own future. With larger barns or investments, we will be able to relax. We will be somebody.

There’s an old joke about a man who found a genie’s lamp. Upon rubbing it the genie promised three wishes. The guy was elated and immediately asked for a new convertible for his first wish. When it magically appeared he proceeded to ask that it be filled with $100 bills. That wish too was fulfilled. Planning to give careful consideration to his third wish the guy decided to go for a drive in his new convertible. As he drove down the highway he was so happy he burst out singing, “I wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener….”

The riches he gained made him feel like someone – and made him forget what was important.

Self-sufficiency and self-produced security cut us off from grace. Life becomes an achievement earned or a commodity purchased rather than a gift gratefully received and shared. God becomes unnecessary, or becomes simply another commodity to be used for personal ends. Resources become intertwined with identity. We become what we own, know or produce. Riches become gods, and the foundation of our identity and security.

In the face of a profoundly disturbing question comes the all-embracing love of God. It is essentially impossible for any of us to attain salvation by our own efforts because we all at our deepest level crave the security we think comes from possessions and money.

We have to realize that it is impossible for us to do anything to save ourselves. It isn’t something we can do. Even with all our money and success, it is impossible.

But for God, all things are possible. Through God, we can be saved.

It is interesting the word the young man uses: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Why not “gain” or “get” or “acquire”? Why does he say “inherit”?

Well, who inherits; how does one inherit? Yes, a family member will inherit our worldly possessions. We expect to inherit things from members of our f
amily.

But there is nothing we can do to inherit someone else’s birthright. Only in exceptional circumstances can we inherit something from someone who is not a family member. The same goes for those who are God’s children. We are by Christ’s sacrifice made members of God’s family. We all share in the wonderful inheritance of salvation, not because we deserve it, but because we have been born, created, made by a wonderful God who loves us unconditionally. There is nothing we need to do or can do to inherit something that is already ours, a freely given gift of God.

Does this mean that wealth is OK? We can accumulate as much wealth as possible, hoard it and keep for it ourselves. After all God loves us without conditions.

No. The warning of this passage is that, while there is nothing we can do to inherit something that already belongs to us because of Christ, there are many things that will make us turn away from our inheritance. While the gift is given to us, we are not required to accept it. We are given an inheritance but we are not obligated to keep it, if we choose instead to rely on our own merits. To rely on ourselves to have eternal life.

God does the impossible for us, passing the camel through the eye of the needle and giving us eternal life. We just have to accept that grace. Amen.

10-04-09 A VERY DIFFERENT WORLD

A VERY DIFFERENT WORLD

Mark 10: 13-16

 

It has won numerous awards and has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for two and a half years. It is a book about a very different world; in the beginning, the country he visits is very different place from America; and as the man brought change to Pakistan and Afghanistan, we rarely hear today about the different world over there that he succeeded in creating.  Greg Mortenson is the man that David Oliver Relin writes about in that book called THREE CUPS OF TEA. Mortenson had been an avid mountain climber all his life, having scaled Mt Kilimanjaro at age 11. No one younger had ever made it. Twenty-four years later, he decided to climb the next highest mountain in Pakistan. He spent seventy-eight days on the mountain, not quite reaching the summit. He had trained for over a year and still he ended up exhausted and emaciated. He was in danger of dying. Villagers from a local community called Korphe took him in, cared for him, and nursed him back to health.  When he was going to depart, he asked to see where their children learned. He was taken to a dirt plateau where students wrote their assignments out with sticks in hard ground. “What you need is a school,” he said. “Yes Dr. Greg” the Balti master replied. “A school is what we need.” “I will see to it that you have a school” he said. Later he wondered how he could have spoken so boldly. Then he knew: he would do it to honor his young epileptic sister who had died a year earlier. “I’ll do it to honor Christa.” he said. Greg Mortenson has currently spent over 16 years in the regions considered to be the front lines of terror. He is an American who believes that education will help lift people from ignorance and poverty to new places of dignity. So far he has helped natives build 64 schools to help educate over 26,000 students. He is proud that 16,000 over them are female, for other brutal leaders forbade the education of girls. He survived an eight day armed kidnapping by the Taliban, and he later survived a kidnapping by organized terrorists in northwest Pakistan. He escaped Afghan warlords by hiding for eight hours under a pile of putrid animal hides, a place where no human thought another one could survive. He has also received hate mail from Americans for helping to education Muslim children. But to the people in those villages, Greg Mortenson is a living hero; he has gained the trust of Islamic leaders. They love him, protect him, and welcome him. And he says he has consumed gallons of tea to do it!  He learned that negotiations are done differently in that culture: everything in America seemed rushed to him, whereas in Pakistan, everything took time. He learned how to be welcomed by following the customs of the Baltis including this ritual described by a tribesman: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family, and for our family, we are prepared to do anything, even die.” Building relationships had to happen first. Then—together with the money from generous people and the labor of locals—on the rock of relationships they built schools, and bridges.

 

Greg Mortenson is a hero, but he is just a man. One man, or one woman, can do something for others. The Lord Jesus was busy teaching in Galilee and Jerusalem about not forgetting those who society marginalized. Like some groups today, in his society women were less valued and were not allowed to be educated except by their husbands.  Like some countries today that do not have Medicare, Medicaid or appropriate laws, a man could leave a woman on just his spoken word; if that happened she would have no income and no education. Widows found themselves without means as well. In today’s text, however, Jesus speaks up for another group: children. In the Biblical accounts, do you notice some gospels only count how many men are present at gatherings? No women or children are counted. Yes, children mattered if there were chores to do. Also girls would be domestically trained while boys were trained in Torah. Yet Jesus is perhaps one of the only men they have met who will not only acknowledge children, but welcome them and, as a rabbi, bless them. In the middle of a group of men and some women, Jesus has children surround him. The disciples, not as enlightened as their leader, wanted to shoo the children away. “Do you want to shoo away my examples of how to enter the Kingdom of God?” Jesus challenges them. You enter the Kingdom by welcoming people such as these!”

 

Today Jesus is not in Galilee; he is sitting here—perhaps cross-legged—on this platform with the table before him. He is glad to see men here who are disciples or seekers; he is pleased to see women here who seek to follow him too; but he is delighted with the children who are here, learning about taking faith into their world; who are tucked under the arm of a loving parent or grandparent, and who need all the help they can get. Like children, those who enter God’s Kingdom have to admit we need all the help we can get. Long before a man learned the meaning of three cups of tea and made a difference to hopeless people, faithful Jews and then a Savior taught others what was meant by cups of wine, and unleavened bread. Come to this meal where relations in heaven and earth are both restored and remembered.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                  October 4, 2009