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.