For a number of years the Chinese government has been increasing its persecution of Christians by tightening enforcement of building regulations, requiring the removal of crosses, the use of political imagery, and pursuing the arrest and detention of Christian leaders from the underground house church movement.
Not all of this oppression is unique to Christianity. Readers may remember the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, for example. In China, as elsewhere, Communism is no friend to religious belief and practice.
But I do think the antagonism between Christianity and Communism is particular and intrinsic to the foundational assumptions of both as ideologies. China has vacillated between limited toleration, hoping to capitalize on the social benefits that may come with Christian belief among the citizenry, and persecution when Christianity seemed to be getting too strong.
These issues have recently been brought to the forefront of my mind by the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one area of China, because of the one nation two systems approach, that has maintained more freedom of religion. Additionally, the Hong Kong legal system has been strongly shaped by the Common Law tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian presuppositions (though, of course it is in the nature of the Common Law to be influenced by the presuppositions of those who adhere to it).
All of this being said, there is a specific danger as President Xi of China consolidates power and sets himself up more firmly as a modern day totalitarian leader. That danger is that religions, including Christianity, will find themselves co-opted into the service of Chinese nationalism.
Precisely because this situation is not new or unique, Christians need to be watchful and pray for our brothers and sisters in China. We need to pray for their clarity and their discernment, as well as their fortitude and courage. The tweet below demonstrates one example of the problematic nature of this sort of coopting:
Folks might rightly point out that you could see similar things at American Megachurches on Memorial Day. But while theologically that too is a marker of something disturbing, it is not a coercive or commanded obedience and nationalism. Even more concerning are efforts by the Chinese government post Tiananmen to influence the media of the Chinese diaspora, as well as their faiths, so as to be more amenable to the plans of the Chinese government.
So, if all of this is the case (and I hasten to add I am no expert, simply thinking about the issues as I understand and have read about them), then what is the hope in terms of Christian witness in China? To answer this question, I think about the words of the late Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of world Christian mission, who wrote of Christianity in China, that:
“Mao might be far from Christendom, but not far enough to avoid rousing the Christian ghost from the mountain recluses and political backwaters to which rhetoric banished it. The political mission of China seemed too evocative of the Christian mission it combated for it to succeed without the Christian alibi. And that alibi came to haunt the gatekeepers of the revolution”
As we grow further removed in history from World War II and D Day, especially as that generation dies and fewer people have even heard first-hand accounts from family members and others they know, people will need more reminders of the significance. The map below is one reminder. 50% of deaths from allied civilians. A trial everywhere, but in some cases completely staggering–a 25% death toll in Belarus for example.
And while a lot of folks may not realize it, for the reasons given above–the postwar pursuit of economic integration, free trade, and the emergence of the European Union (with the UK as an important ballast to prevent domination by Germany or France)–were integral to the peace that emerged and the fact that there hasn’t been another conflagration in Europe.
The breakdown of the postwar consensus, the likely departure of the UK from the EU, and greater moves toward nationalism and economic protectionism, especially when the advocates display very little awareness of the broader implications of those changes, when the broader implications–political and social–of the postwar policies were arguably the major point, with base level economics being secondary. This latter issue was also in play with the short-sighted rejection of the Trans-pacific Partnership trade agreement by both candidate Hillary Clinton and now-President Trump. Trump’s issues with China can be read in part as a result of the fact that the multilateral economic agreement meant to bind Pacific rim powers more closely to the United States and hem in Chinese influence, was rejected in favor of his arrogant attempts at bilateral agreements.
Hull was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his instrumental work in founding the United Nations. Funny that the apocalyptic preachers of my youth who so often used the UN as a Boogieman, never mentioned that a Southerner–a Tennessean!–was integral to its founding. If they had, regional loyalties are such that it might have limited the effectiveness of their message.
As one essay about Hull and his work prior to WWII put it, “Mark Twain said, ‘you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’ Secretary Hull and the commercial policy planners foresaw an integrated world economy where peace would be built on trade liberalization. But most Americans could not yet picture that world” (Available here–requires registration). Now, the problem seems to be we’ve seen only that world for long enough, that we’ve forgotten how bleak the alternative of nationalistic factionalism is.
Sermon Notes for Diaconal Ordination June 1, 2019 Scripture: Luke 12:35-38
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“…Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:36).
Today we celebrate the ordination of a new deacon in Christ’s Holy Church. Another leader called, equipped, and now ordained from the midst of God’s people. Charles, the ordination which you receive today is a gift. Today, when Bishop John lays hands on you and consecrates you a deacon, he will do so for the Church. Through that apostolic authority, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will make you a deacon. You will become part of the order of deacons, and you will bear the responsibilities of the order. And everyone here will be reminded of the gift, and obligations they bear to God and God’s Church.
Our Gospel text gives us a good summary of part of that obligation: “Be like those who are waiting for their master… so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”
This teaching is given to all Christians, but it is a particular call for those who are ordained to the task of helping all Christians honor it.
Our orders do not belong to us, even though to properly exercise them, we must embrace them, and let them shape us. In a way, ordination is the simplest thing in the world–if we didn’t have it, we would have to invent it, so central does it seem to the exercise of the church’s ministry–someone, after all, needs to lead services, to teach, to preach. In another sense it is strange. How, to paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, can an individual be ordained to do what only the whole church can do? Hauerwas was speaking specifically of officiating at the Holy Eucharist, but the same question can be asked of each of the orders that make up the three-fold ministry. These orders are a gift from God for the benefit of the Church. Instituted by Christ and the Apostles, and later guided by the Holy Spirit in development, they are the means whereby the people of God have ordered our common life and ensured the apostolic witness, teaching, and ongoing faithfulness. They are particular embodiments of the way the church has pursued faithfulness to Jesus.
This important aspect of each of the threefold orders is highlighted in the preface to the Ordination Rites, which at the end says “It is also recognized and affirmed that the threefold ministry is not the exclusive property of this portion of Christ’s catholic Church, but is a gift from God for the nurture of his people and the proclamation of his Gospel everywhere” (BCP 510).
This means that while we are ordained in the Episcopal Church, our orders are not strictly of the Episcopal Church. but belong to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. While other traditions may disagree, we have never seen ourselves as doing anything other than continuing the means whereby the church set out, by the Spirit’s guidance, to organize itself.
Which brings us back to the strangeness. How can one person be ordained to do what only the whole church can do? They can, because it is impossible for the church to *do* anything except through the actions and example of particular Christians. Paul attests to the diversity of gifts given God’s people by the Spirit. Ordination is a recognition and expansion of that fundamental insight. The Church recognizes that we need individuals to serve in specific ways so that the Church as a whole can fulfil its mission.. They are the possession neither of us as individuals, nor of our communion within the Church Catholic. Yet we must own them in the sense of fulfilling their purpose and honoring their example–whether as lay or ordained Christians. A Bishop is ordained to exercise oversight within the body of Christ, to offer teaching, exhortation, and occasionally correction, because this is a service and obligation the church owes to itself corporately and to its members individually. A presbyter is ordained and celebrates the Eucharist by virtue of being in fellowship with the Bishop, and preaches, teaches, and upholds tradition because it is a responsibility that the Church owes to itself, and in order to fulfill it, someone must do it. tRe Spirit Calls.
Christians are called to love our neighbors sacrificially, and to work for the good of our communities. We are all called to serve, in imitation of Christ. And yet, we need examples of this love and service. and people who are especially equipped to encourage us in the fulfillment of these tasks. So we have the order of Deacons. In each case, the order exemplifies a call, an obligation born by the whole church, that must then be exercised by specific people within the church in order for it to be fulfilled, and to which people are called, having their ministries recognized and affirmed by the people of God.
A former professor of mine once said that he sometimes thought that those called to ordained ministry were called because God knew we needed a little extra help. Personal experience says that may be. But those called to greater intentionality, are called to serve the church that needs a witness and an encouragement. So your ordination is a gift to you, and to the whole church. Your ministry is your offering. Your call is to greater personal faithfulness, for the greater faithfulness of God’s people.
Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit Jesus tells us. In this service, you will be dressed in the garments of a deacon, and you will fulfill the liturgical functions of a deacon for the first time. It is an honor. The work in the service is symbolic of the work to which you are called in the world and in the church. As a Deacon you will be tasked with searching out and interpreting the needs of the world and of the people of God, to those who are in leadership in the community. You will also have particular opportunities to interpret the Gospel to people in the world. Proclaiming the Gospel, preparing the Altar–these are important acts, and they are also illustrative of the way your ministry should be carried out beyond the liturgy. More fundamentally, they are examples of Christian service that when reflective all of our lives, can draw us to greater faithfulness as baptized people.
Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. All Christians are called to be spiritually awake, to live in anticipation of Christ’s return, and to be observant of opportunities to follow Jesus. And yet, we know as human beings, we have a need for reminders and encouragement in order to do what we need or ought to do. So it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the Church, that there would be Christians called to do just that. One of my favorite analogies for the priesthood comes from a little book by George Sumner, now Bishop of Dallas, where he refers to the priest as a giant finger pointing the people to Jesus. I’d like to expand that analogy. Once again, it is one that properly fits the witness of every Christian- in general-we should all be pointing others toward Jesus. In a narrower sense, it fits the call of those who are ordained. We are called to point others to Jesus, and to point our fellow Christians toward one another and their neighbors.
It could be tempting to be trapped by the imagery of the household, to think that the knocking of Jesus is just about him coming to where we are passively waiting, and opening the door to let him in. But we can expand the imagery of hearing Christ knocking–perhaps it’s hearing Christ knocking in our hearts. Perhaps it’s hearing or seeing Christ present in other people who are in need, or who are highlighting some needed action by the Church. Perhaps the knocking is actually our being willing to discern the eagerness with which Jesus hopes to encounter those who have never heard the Gospel, or to understand their need to hear it. In each case, it is our task to seek out the places where Christ is knocking, where the Holy Spirit is at work anticipating our engagement with what God is doing.
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes… We must be alert in our lives of faith, and in the exercise of our ministries. But I want to share a thought for you in particular Charles. Because you will be moving toward ordination as a priest. Because your vocational path lies in military chaplaincy in the US Navy, I think it’s fair to say that you could face the temptation, as you look ahead at schedules and requirements, and tasks, to allow this season of your direct diaconal ministry to pass by in a blur. I want to encourage you not to let that happen. Take time to explore this new ministry. Listen to what the Holy Spirit and the People of God are telling you. There’s much more to alertness than simply being awake. Being alert means being aware.
Take the time to be aware. To be aware of the people you are called to serve, to be aware of what God is doing in their lives and yours, to be aware of the work of God in your community, and how you can share that with your parish, and with the neighbors, Christian and non-Christian you encounter. If you can do that. If we can all-take the time to hear and see what God is doing, where Jesus is knocking, we will be faithfully fulfilling not only our vocations as ordained people, but as the baptized–and if he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, in the Sunday liturgy, or the Wednesday bible study, the committee meeting, or the neighborhood gathering, in the hospital room, the family supper, or in the prison, or anywhere else Jesus might show up–and finds us so engaged in the ministry with which he has entrusted us, then we will all, indeed, be blessed. Amen.
Periodically during my ministry, or indeed in the life of our family, the need for some form of recognition for the death of a beloved pet has been apparent. I developed what I call a Pet Funeral Framework in response to this–it’s a simple selection of readings and prayers that can be tailored in length to the occasion (and to the age and attention span of one’s children).
Sermon Notes for the Second Sunday of Easter Variations of this sermon preached at 8 AM and 10:30 AM at Church of the Resurrection, Franklin TN April 28, 2019 Scripture: Acts 5:27-32 · Psalm 118:14-29 · Revelation 1:4-8 · John 20:19-31
One of my favorite church related cartoons pops up regularly at this time of year, around Thomas Sunday. It shows three men standing together, with one gesturing emphatically, a bubble above his head with the words “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter” or Mark “Ran Away Naked Mark.” Why should I get saddled with this title?” One of the other men in the drawing responds “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.
The cartoon is a humorous take on a serious observation: for some reason, even as the other disciples exhibited varied flaws and sins, it is Thomas who is remembered as the doubter. Even though, in the Gospel of Matthew, we’re told that when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, they fell down and worshipped him, “but some doubted.” Not one. Some. Plural (cf. Matthew 28:17).
Sometimes Thomas is the subject of condescending chuckles, or portrayed as the embodiment of our own contemporary tilt toward skepticism: Thomas, the first Missourian, saying like the motto of the Show me state, “Show me!” Show me, and then I’ll believe. Not before.
This tendency becomes more and more strange as we examine what has been going on. Notice where the disciples are. They’re back in the upper room where they’d shared the last supper. The doors are locked out of fear. They’ve heard about the resurrection, but have they really believed? I don’t see much evidence yet. Then Jesus appears, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Thomas–poor Thomas–wasn’t around. I think a more accurate nickname for him might be Bad-timing Thomas.
Nevertheless, he’s remembered as the doubter. And yet, while it may seem rather unfair, I wonder if that’s in part because we have the wrong idea about doubt. And here I want to talk about doubt as something different from skepticism or an absence of belief. I want to suggest that doubt requires faith. You cannot doubt what you don’t have to begin with. Thomas had faith in Jesus. Remember, he was so committed that when Jesus said he was going to go back to Judea and to Jerusalem, it was Thomas who said to the other disciples “let us also go, that we may die with him.” I don’t think Thomas was being ironic. I think he really believed enough in Jesus that he was ready to die for him. He just didn’t understand–as none of them did–that Jesus was to die for them. For us.
The context, therefore of Thomas’ reluctance. The context for his unwillingness to believe the account given him by the other disciples, was not the context of rejection or even simple skepticism. It was a reluctance to believe the impossible. A reluctance they’d all exhibited at one point or another. People don’t simply rise from the dead. Even in a premodern, pre-enlightenment time, people knew this. Thomas was simple the latest, and so the title gets hung about his neck.
But it’s not as bad as it seems. Doubt, it turns out, is not something to be rejected or feared. It’s part of the natural process of strengthening our faith. A faith that never encounters doubt is an unexamined faith, just as a world that never leaves us lamenting or, like the Psalmist, challenging God because of what occurs, is a world we haven’t paid much attention to.
We live in a world in which people have a tendency to delight in empty skepticism. To reject belief or doctrine based on a shallow understanding or clear misunderstanding. This isn’t doubt. That’s surface level thinking. Doubt in contrast, can be seen as being like bubbles in the water as we dive deeper into our faith.
The Scottish Pastor turned English Professor and author, and inspiration to C.S. Lewis, George McDonald, describes doubt this way in a sermon on Job:
What MacDonald understood, and what we must understand, is that doubt is only a portion of Thomas’ story. It is a necessary part of the story, but ultimately of less importance than where it leads. You see, Thomas the Doubter becomes Thomas the confessor–the one who most clearly proclaims Christ’s identity: “My Lord and my God!” And he never would have arrived at this place of greater understanding and deeper faith, if it were not for the reality of his faith and his doubt, his doubt in the midst of faith and faith in the midst of doubt.
What are we to take away from this today? What is Thomas’ example to us? I think it’s at least two fold. First, I think we need to understand that doubt arises from the context of faith, and, in order to be true doubt and healthy doubt it needs faith to push against. In other words, doubts are part of a spiritual dialogue that we all engage in. Outside the context of faith, they make no sense to begin with. Secondly, it is not only his own faith that Thomas wrestles with, it is the faith and testimony of the other disciples. Notice that neither they nor Jesus cast Thomas out for his doubt. The other disciples witness patiently and wait on the Lord to act. Jesus actually responds to Thomas’ request and invites him to experience the proof he desired.
And just like the situation in Matthew’s Gospel that I mentioned earlier, where they worshipped him, “but some doubted,” Jesus understands that doubts are things to be worked with and worked through. The occasion of doubt Matthew shares immediately precedes Jesus’ giving of the Great Commission to the disciples, to go into the world making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In our gospel today, Jesus points Thomas and the other disciples–and by extension us–beyond Thomas’ doubts and toward the future: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe–even in the midst of their doubts. Jesus doesn’t let the disciples’ doubts–or our doubts–let them or us off the hook. We’re called to go deeper into faith, to support one another in that process, and in doing so, to confess, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”
“Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ heard the cry of the one who said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Make us a church of Thomases. A people honest and forthright in doubt, rooted in faith. We pray that through our doubts, borne and confronted in the midst of faith, we would grow ever deeper in our knowledge and love of you. Grant that we would move, by your Spirit, from doubt to confession, proclaiming, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” For we know that you have faith is us, saving us through your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.
This is so central to the decline not only of the oldline churches, but of Evangelicalism and Roman Catholicism in the west:
“These students heard plenty of messages encouraging “social justice,” community involvement, and “being good,” but they seldom saw the relationship between that message, Jesus Christ, and the Bible. Listen to Stephanie, a student at Northwestern: “The connection between Jesus and a person’s life was not clear.” This is an incisive critique. She seems to have intuitively understood that the church does not exist simply to address social ills, but to proclaim the teachings of its founder, Jesus Christ, and their relevance to the world. Since Stephanie did not see that connection, she saw little incentive to stay. We would hear this again.”
I once read an essay, by Peter Berger, I believe, in which he argued that the mainline/oldline had won the cultural battle, in that their inheritors in our society hold to a basically mainline/oldline protestant public ethic, but that they lost the war, in the sense that they (we) were unable to demonstrate that the Church or even Jesus, was necessary to any of it. Why would someone spend their time believing? Practicing faith? etc…
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.