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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

Month: October 2018

When God Opens Our Eyes, We Dare Not Look Away

Sermon Notes for Proper 25
XXIII Sunday after Pentecost
Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:7-9 • Hebrews 7:23-28 • Mark 10:46-52

The following sermon was preached at the 10:30 service at St. Joseph of Arimathea on Sunday, October 28, 2018. It varies from the notes below, and slightly from the version preached at the 8 AM service. The recording includes the sequence hymn and Gospel proclamation. The sermon itself begins at 3:38.

It was difficult to know where to begin this sermon. I suppose I’ll just begin with what made me throw out what I’d written earlier in the week and start over. Yesterday a tragedy occurred in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Synagogue. At least, many of us instinctively call it a tragedy. But that may not be the best or most accurate word. Hurricanes are tragedies. Floods and other natural disasters are tragedies. A sudden death from a heart attack is a tragedy. These are forces of nature out of our control, or even if influenced by our actions, several steps removed from them.

The event at Tree of Life (and I’m using a circumlocution for the benefit of the younger ears among us), the earlier events in Louisville, in Los Vegas, In Charleston, in New Town, in Antioch just down the road–these were not tragedies, if by that we mean something that just happens. These events did not happen on their own. As Dorsey McConnell, the Bishop of Pittsburgh wrote yesterday, in response,

“The newscasts, sickeningly, are referring again and again to this horror as a “tragedy.” It is no such thing. A tragedy is inevitable. This was not. It was murder, murder of a particularly vile and poisonous kind. Human beings have moral agency. Someone chose to hate, and chose to kill. And now we are faced with a choice as well— to do nothing, or to reject this hatred in the strongest possible words and actions, and to refute in every way, in every forum, the philosophical foundations of anti-Semitism wherever they have gained a foothold in our churches and our society.

The Rt. Rev. Dorsey McConnell, Bishop of Pittsburgh

I agree with Bishop McConnell, but I think there’s a major step that we have to take in order to properly reject this particular hatred, and so many others: we have to see them, recognize them for what they are, and refuse to accept easy explanations or soothing platitudes that remove any hint of our own culpability–as individuals or as a society–in allowing or even fomenting hate and evil. 

If this is what we need to do, then we could have no better example than the prophet Jeremiah, and as usual, no greater Lord than Jesus. Jeremiah teaches us what it is to look at what is, Jesus shows us how to live once we’ve seen it. In saving us by grace, Jesus frees us from the repetitive cycle justified by the logic of a world turned inward that fuels hatred and discord, and makes us citizens of the kingdom of God, meant for all people, which is always turned outward (you should know from the biblical descriptions, the gates of heaven are always open, it is the gates of hell that are closed, which cannot withstand the assaults of the church).

After the I read the news reports yesterday, these words came to mind:

“Thus says the Lord:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more” (Jeremiah 21:15).

This passage illustrates a facet of Jeremiah’s work that is essential. As Professor Ellen Davis puts it: “The prophet speaks for God in language that is literally visceral: ‘My guts, my guts; I writhe!’ (Jer. 4:19); ‘My guts yearn for [Ephraim/Israel]” (31:20). Although the visceral character of Jeremiah’s words is (regrettably) obscured by most translations, this feature of his poetry is an important indicator of his distinctive place within the prophetic canon. For Jeremiah is a witness to horror who never looks away, and thus he may teach us something of what it is to speak and act on God’s behalf in the most grievous situations” (Davis, 144).

It is that last bit that is so significant for us. It is so easy to look away. To turn the channel, literally or figuratively (caveat lector: ok, if your little kids are watching the news and see something come on that they shouldn’t watch, turn the channel or turn it off, “shield the joyous” as the prayer says). The point is not to do what is comfortable at the expense of facing the truth or doing what is right. 

Jeremiah could shoulder this burden because he was faithful and followed God, delivering the word of God to the people in a time of military defeat and literal and figurative captivity, receiving God’s words of faithfulness and love, even as he railed against the evils and injustice he observed. The Prophet did not hesitate to challenge God or to lament his situation, or that of his people, but he did so in the midst of proclaiming hope based on God’s fidelity. Jeremiah was able to unflinchingly look at what was happening to his people, and to record the word of their trials and even their destruction, because he did so in the context of God’s ultimate faithfulness. So it is that the lament of Rachel losing her children–a poetic way to talk about actual death and destruction–takes place within the context of the earlier passage we heard this morning:

Thus says the Lord:
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O Lord, your people, 
the remnant of Israel.”
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame, those with child and
those in labor, together; 
a great company, they shall return here.
With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
for I have become a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn (Jeremiah 31:7-9).

Because God is faithful to us, we can be freed from the anxieties and fears that prevent us from looking at ourselves and our society with clear eyes, and from responding to our neighbors with love. When set them aside and look at ourselves, we might be surprised what we see. 

The day before he launched his attack on Tree of Life Synagogue, the perpetrator wrote on social media “HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.” Earlier he had written, while posting a screen cap of their web site, “Why hello there HIAS! You like to bring in hostile invaders to dwell among us? We appreciate the list of friends you have provided…” ominously thanking the organization for sharing a list of their supporters.

But here’s the thing. Some folks will want to say about him, as with the recent bomb maker, that they’re crazy, and shouldn’t be taken as indicative of any greater trend. But let’s be honest: how many of you have heard family, neighbors, friends, say similar things about the work of World Vision or Catholic Charities around Middle Tennessee? How many of you can point out similar phrases used to describe the Islamic center in Murfreesboro? I know I can. And if I’ve heard it given the way people often hold back around clergy, I know some of you have heard it.

Some people who perpetrate attacks are clinically mentally ill. Most aren’t. Paranoia and conspiracy theories are popular because they have explanatory power that is attractive to rational people given certain prior convictions and commitment to fear-laden worldviews, fostering different sorts of confirmation bias. Was every Nazi clinically insane? Every Soviet citizen who transported former comrades to the Gulag? As philosopher Hannah Arendt convincingly argues, evil is much simpler and more frightening than that. It’s most frightening because it is banal, ordinary to the point of being boring. It’s not a magical text that takes a special tool to decode. It’s a random off-color email forward from an eccentric relative taken a step too far.

If people can shoot folks in a gas station parking lot for their music being loud, or for texting in a movie theater before a movie starts, or pull guns on each other on the interstate, is it really that surprising that there are folks on the fringes–we hope they’re fringes–who only need the slightest permission to act on hate founded on fear and often willful ignorance?

In 2011 Anders Breivik, as self-styled Christian Nationalist from Norway carried out an attack in that country. Initially, prosecutors treated him as insane. But eventually he was found fit to stand trial and the time limit on his incarceration was lifted as a result. A Norwegian author writing in the UK’s Guardian newspaper in 2012 shared these incisive thoughts:

This verdict is also the end of a long trial process far too focused on Breivik’s persona, and to little on the social and political climate that created him. By prosecuting on insanity, the state asked “Who is Anders Behring Breivik”, and to answer that question every little piece of his personal history became important. But in a political and social context, this is an indifferent question. People such as Breivik have always existed.. But the actions they take and the way they are formed differs from society to society.

The author goes on to say that the is not who Breivik is, but why he became who he became that is important:

If Breivik had been from Afghanistan, Iraq or Nigeria, we would have asked what it was within these countries and cultures that made him a terrorist.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/aug/24/anders-breivik-verdict-norway

I have written before about the lengths we will go to to distance ourselves from the perpetrators of these attacks, but the reality is, for the most part, they aren’t that removed. Growing up I used to go to Gun and knife shows a few times every year. I heard the pitch of folks selling AR-15s by talking to buyers about how easily you could convert one to full-auto. I saw the pamphlets that were inevitably at at least one literature rack where the same author seemingly published the same booklet over and over, only swapping out the word Jewish/Catholic/Masonic/Illuminati banking conspiracy. I recognize the similarity of those well-worn bits of rhetoric to claims that church-based refugee resettlement agencies are just in it for the money and are doing it all–willingly or as dupes–at the behest of the UN or the Vatican in order to weaken the United States.

Which brings me back to 2012. Some of you who had children in school that year, or who worked in Sumner County Schools that year. If you were around and remember, we had some difficulty starting school that year. There was a conflict between the School Board and the County Commission over funding. Eventually schools were started and there was a political shift in the county so that we haven’t had another issue like that.

About a year after that, a representative from World Vision asked if they could present to the Hendersonville Pastors Association. It turned out that they were looking for new communities in which to resettle refugees, and they thought Hendersonville met the criteria: good local economy, available housing, lots of churches. You never heard anything about this initiative from me, because the pastors collectively decided it wasn’t a good idea given the politics in the county at the time. You see, the rhetoric had gotten so heated about the cost of education, and how the children of people “moving in here” were driving up costs and possibly property taxes, that, as we put it to World Vision: we wouldn’t want refugee families to come into a situation where they’d immediately have a target on their back.

Another way in which this cuts close to home. As you know, there’s another Hendersonville. Hendersonville, North Carolina. In the summer of 2016 we were visiting my mom who lives there, and heard some rumblings in local politics.  

What do we do once we’ve faced up to the wickedness abroad in the world, and the wickedness within? When we’ve looked squarely at the suffering and injustice in the world, and the wounds inside ourselves? That’s where Bartimaeus comes in. Mark includes his story in our gospel text as an exemplar–and a more direct exemplar would be difficult to find.

“For Mark, giving sight to the blind is the beginning and the end of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem” (Bryan, 104) but the stories are not exact echos of one another–for one thing, Bartimaeus addresses Jesus two times by the clearly Messianic title “Son of David” and is not corrected for it. Nor does Jesus tell him to remain silent. Jesus knows where he’s headed and there’s no point in encouraging silence now–the time approaches. And in the midst of this, Bartimaeus has his blindness–often a metaphor for idolatry–lifted, receiving his sight, a metaphor for faith, and not incidentally having left everything behind when he threw his cloak aside, begins to follow Jesus on the way, that is, the path of discipleship.

When we have faced the truth about the world in its specific sins, in which we and our society are implicated, will we turn away? When we have discovered that we have been blind.

The Hopefulness of Humanity in the Heart of God, and God in the heart of Humanity

Sermon Audio for Proper 24
The 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Isaiah 53:4-12 and Psalm 91:9-16 • Hebrews 5:1-10 • Mark 10:35-45

The sermon begins at 2:46

A Collect inspired by our Hebrews reading, which I started today’s sermon with:

What Possesses You?

Sermon Audio and Sermon Background notes for Proper 23
The 21st Sunday after Pentecost, Year B
Scriptures: Amos 5:6-7,10-15 · Psalm 90:12-17 · Hebrews 4:12-16 · Mark 10:17-31

The sermon begins at 5:20.

The text below consists of my sermon notes and some of the background research I did, but it is not itself a manuscript.

Sometimes our language can reveal more than we intend. Certain phrases carry more weight than we realize, more historical and intellectual freight. Unfolding it all can be an interesting exercise. And sometimes spoken phrases can catch us up short, like the written word that stands out strangely on page or screen even though it is spelled correctly, taunting us with its alien nature, its out of shape edges.

One such phrase that stands out for me is “What possessed you…” The first time I heard it used–or at least the first time I remember hearing it–was when I was in the third grade. My teacher had called me up to her desk during a quiet moment in class, when we were all working on something or other at our desks. She was looking down at a note, and then she looked at me over her glasses and said “What possessed you to throw a rock at the school bus?”

Now, as a matter of fact the afternoon before when I’d gotten off the Bus I had thrown a rock, but not at the School Bus precisely. I’d thrown it at my cousin who it happens was on the School Bus at the time. He had been irritating me the whole drive home and was at the moment the rock left my hand, leaned out one of the rear windows making a face or shouting some taunt. In one way, I knew very well why I had thrown the rock. I was angry and I’d had enough. Cousins that you grow up with, like other close friends and relatives, often know just the buttons to push, and this was an example. 

But in another sense, as soon as the rock left my hand, I’d wondered why I’d done it. The phrase “what possessed you…” was an appropriate one, though at the time I was confused by it. I remember being a little offended by the phrase, though I didn’t know why. Nothing, I thought, had made me, at least, nothing except my loving cousin.

But of course, something had possessed me. I acted without reflecting. I was impulsive. Anger had me in its grip. I gave myself over to my baser instincts and, well, my action was an indication that my faculties had indeed been possessed by them. I wasn’t in control.

The language of possession that holds on in such a seemingly innocuous phrase is intriguing. What do we really mean when we ask what possessed someone? Of course we can mean something rather mundane–what emotions drove them to act out of accord with rationality? But we can also mean something beyond the normal parameters of this world, something mysterious or even something founded on the evil powers of this world. The phrase can, in other words, be a sign that we are looking for some explanation where no reasonable explanation exists. 

And when no reasonable explanation exists, it can be a sign to look beyond what we normally think of as reason. Father Gabriele Amorth, late Vatican Exorcist (d. 2016) has written for example, that “one of the determining factors in the recognition of diabolic possession is the inefficacy of medicines while blessings prove very efficacious” (Amorth, An Exorcist Tells His Story).

Lest you think I’m going to slip into a reflection on the unseen powers of this world, and how our post-enlightenment rationality can coexist with a biblical view of the unknown–if indeed it can–that is another conversation. Instead, I want to emphasize that sometimes the things that possess us appear to be far more mundane, far more this-worldly than other worldly. Our gospel text this morning invites us to consider that our possessions may be the source of our possession. In other words, the things we own, the things we covet–they may control us; control our thinking, feeling, and acting in a manner as diabolical as any spirit of the air.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey he is respectfully approached by a young man who asks him “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him “You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.” Things get more complicated when the young man, who is quite wealthy, claims to have kept all these commandments from his youth. But it is possible that Jesus knows otherwise. Commentators debate whether the rich young man is depicted in a positive or negative light.  Sometimes it is suggested that the man’s wealth itself calls into question his claim to have kept all these commandments–and the pairing with Amos in the lectionary might lead us in that direction. But before we write the man’s claim off, I think we need more evidence than his wealth. Remember that when Jesus interacts with the wealthy, he doesn’t tend to condemn them for their wealth out of hand, but he does have a tendency to push against the possibility that any of their wealth may have been ill gotten, and to encourage their hospitality. Consider the case of Zacchaeus as an interesting parallel. Jesus sees Zacchaeus and invites himself to supper. Zacchaeus obliges and does not protest (though the crowds grumble, for he is known as a sinner because he is a Tax Collector). But Zacchaeus says something interesting:

Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”  And Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:8-10).

Did you notice something about Jesus’ summary recitation of the commandments? It’s not point for point from Deuteronomy, instead, Jesus imports a command or interprets and expands the commands to include the statement “You shall not defraud.” It is possible that Jesus is gently challenging the Rich Young Man, knowing that his wealth may not have been accumulated by entirely just means. When the man says that he has kept all these commands from his youth, Jesus looks at him, and we’re told he loved him. 

One commentator makes a good argument for the intertextuality of portions of the Gospel of Mark and Malachi 3. Here intertextuality is defined as the “imbedding of fragments of an earlier text within a later one.” In this sense then, this section of Mark may have portions of the book of the Prophet Malachi lying behind it. Specifically, Malachi 3:5 may be in view, and could bolster the view that the young man’s sin of defrauding others in order to gain wealth is in view:

“Then I will draw near to you for judgment; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

(Mal. 3:5)

And yet, it should encourage us that Jesus doesn’t chastise him, correct him, say “surely you could only say you’ve kept all of this if you’re deceiving yourself.” No. Jesus looks at him and loves him. Just as Jesus has looked at people and felt compassion for them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, here Jesus looks at this man and loves him, and gives him an opportunity to be a disciple. Come. Follow me. If we believe that he has defrauded others and is deceiving himself about his culpability, it is an opportunity for repentance and amendment of life. If we believe that he is being truthful and Jesus accepts his statement, then it is an opportunity to enter more deeply into discipleship. But it is more than the man can handle. Mark tells us that when “he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

In reflecting on this passage we should remember the context that we have talked about for several weeks in regard to this section of Mark. It’s all about right relationship. As my New Testament professor wrote about this section, it moves from sections dealing with right relationship to the vulnerable or powerless, represented by children, to our appropriate relationship to other disciples, particularly those who don’t follow our plan (we’re meant to realize that Jesus’ plan and our plan–particularly when it comes to others–may not be the same), our relationship to “little ones” (both literal children and believers in Jesus), to each other (have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another), relationships to wives who were the vulnerable partners in marriages of the period (and by extension, between spouses in general), to children again, and to possessions today.

“In all these passages the underlying emphasis, in vivid contrast to the disciples’ concern as to who shall be “greatest,” is on the strong yielding to the weak, the privileged transferring privilege to the underprivileged, the very wealthy foregoing the fruits of wealth for the sake of the gospel. It is striking that at the climax of this the disciples do seem, momentarily, to see the point. ‘Then who can be saved?’ they ask. The answer, Jesus tells them, lies not in their attempts at obedience, but in God for whom ‘all things are possible’ (10:26-27). Is it then the case that those who attempt obedience are wasting their time? By no means: they will receive their recompense–with suffering! (10:28-30). the summary of it all is, ‘Many that are last will be first, and the first last’; in the context, a splendid paradox, threatening to those who seek to claim to be ‘greatest,’ yet full of promise for those who seek (but do not claim to be very good at) obedience”

(Christopher Bryan, “A Preface to Mark” 102-103).

“As is made clear in the story of the rich young man, Mark is aware of the danger of those riches that make it ‘hard’ for us to enter the kingdom (10:17-22; compare 4:19); but even that sequence has some of its sting drawn. ‘Hard’ it may be for the rich to enter the kingdom, yet ‘all things are possible with God’ (10:23, 25, 27). Indeed, the conclusion to that particular conversation implies that willingness to abandon all for the sake of Jesus is not followed by a life without human ties, even ‘now in this time,’ but rather by its opposite (10:30). While it may be conceded that this passage in particular refers to the believer’s new ‘family’ in the Church (compare 3:31-35), still the followers of Jesus in Mark are made powerfully aware that ordinary human marriage remains a lifelong commitment, precious in God’s sight (10:1-12), and that children, the natural fruit of marriage, are not to be ‘hindered’ (10:14; probably a baptismal phrase: compare Acts 8:36, 10:47) in their relationship with Jesus.”

(Bryan, 157-158)

All of this raises the question: maybe these concerns aren’t so mundane. Maybe they are spiritual after all. Amorth’s definition, that possession is defined by something that won’t respond to medical treatment–to medicine–but will respond to blessing  reminds me of one of my favorite songs by the North Carolina band, the Avett Brothers. I’ve quoted the song before, so I hope you’ll bear with me as I reference it again. The Avett’s grandpa was a Methodist pastor, and sometimes they seem to be channeling a sort of Augustinian perspective, whether intentionally or not. In it they express the concern that “medicine” isn’t cutting it–what they need is a cure. What the Rich young man needs is a cure. What we need is a cure. Jesus offers it to us, if we’re willing to receive it.

I am sick with wanting
And it’s evil and it’s daunting
How I let everything I cherish lay to waste
I am lost in greed this time, it’s definitely me
I point fingers but there’s no one there to blame

I need for something
Not let me break it down again
I need for something 
But not more medicine

I am sick with wanting 
And it’s evil how it’s got me
And everyday is worse than the one before
The more I have the more I think,
I’m almost where I need to be
If only I could get a little more

I need for something
Now let me break it down again
I need for something
But not more medicine

Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I don’t wanna be
Something has me (Something has me)
Oh something has me (Something has me)
Acting like someone I know isn’t me
Ill with want and poisoned by this ugly greed

Temporary is my time
Ain’t nothin’ on this world that’s mine
Except the will I found to carry on
Free is not your right to choose
It’s answering what’s asked of you
To give the love you find until it’s gone.

The background information about Malachi in the Gospel of Mark was brought to light in the following Journal article: 

Hicks, Richard. 2013. “Markan Discipleship According to Malachi: The Significance of Μh̀ Αποστερήσης in the Stroy of the Rich Man (Mark 10:17-22).” Journal of Biblical Literature 132 (1): 179–99. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a6h&AN=ATLA0001984130&site=ehost-live.

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