Monday, November 26, 2012

Who has the ultimate power?

Christ the King B.  25 November 2012.  

John 18:33-37



            Several weeks ago, we were home doing something or other and Peter started talking about someone in his class, in first grade, who was getting in trouble a lot.  And Peter said that it was pretty serious, because the little boy was having to go down to the principal's office.


            Do you remember "the principal's office?" And all that that meant..?  I don't have any experience with the principal's office, because I never had to go.  But I remember the stories about the principal's office.  I remember being told that the principal had a room that was dedicated to spanking.  And it had a wall on which the paddles were hung in order of the pain they produced.  You had the first paddle that was solid and smallish, and then the larger one that had the holes in it, that when spanked would provide just a bit more sting.  And then they increased in size all the way up to the big one with the spikes that would likely draw blood if it was ever used.


            Of course, none of this was true.  I think there was a paddle, but it didn't have spikes.  But the story, like most cautionary tales, was given in hushed tones as Gospel truth, and I didn't need to hear it to stay out of trouble.  I was already terrified of the teacher and the principal. 


            Maybe you remember the feeling of being in trouble.  Your face feels hot; you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach.   I hate those feelings.  The couple times I've been pulled over, it's like I'm five years old again.  People drive by looking at you, wondering what you did.  It's awful.


            Whenever we'd read the story of Jesus before Pilate, when I was a kid, I always thought about him being called into the principal's office.  He's been going around doing wonderful things for the people.  You would think that he wouldn't have an enemy in the world after all that he'd done.  But his location was given away by Judas Iscariot, and he was arrested and brought before Pontius Pilate who was the local Roman official whose job was to oversee Jerusalem for the Empire.  His role was to keep the peace—or at least make sure no one could launch some sort of insurrection that would overthrow Rome's governance.


            You see, Rome and the Temple had an understanding.  As long as the Jews played ball and paid their taxes, they could keep to the religious traditions of their fathers.  The Roman culture had a secular sort of system of virtues.   We have them in America, too.  In America we believe—or at least we say we believe—that all people are created equal. One of the chief Roman virtues was called pietas, which means a whole range of things.  It means duty, or religious observance, or filial piety—which essentially means that it's honorable to do what your ancestors did.  If they did it, you should do it, too.

            And that's why Rome had no problem with the Jews, and hated the Christians.  The Jews were merely carrying on with their traditions.  The Christians were deviating from them.  Christianity had become a kind of splinter group that claimed to worship a King, who was not a king.  But I'm getting ahead of the story.


            Jesus has been arrested and brought to Pilate.  And the old saying applies:  if you're a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Pilate is concerned with who is in power, because he is in power, and his job is to keep that power and eliminate the possible threats to him, and therefore to Rome.  Managing risk and power is how he keeps his job. 


            So his question to Jesus is intended to figure out what kind of power Jesus thinks he has—whether or not Jesus believes that he is the King of the Jews.  Of course, it's a heavily loaded question, because it's illegal to claim any kingship other than Caesar, the Emperor. 


            It's a yes/no question, and Jesus answers it with a question.  "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"  Now step back for a moment and look at this question.  Jesus has very subtly undercut Pilate's power.  He may as well have asked, "Do you yourself want to know, or are you scared because everyone is watching how you handle me?"  Another way of saying it might be, "Are you after the truth, or are you after the convenient answer?"


            Pilate answers, "I'm not one of your people.  It's your people who have brought you here.  What have you done?"  Jesus responds, "My kingdom is not from this world.  If my kingdom where from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."


            Pilate challenges his use of "king" language, "So you are a king?"   See, for Pilate the word "king" means ultimate power.  It is the human embodiment of ultimate power.  You don't get higher than king, unless you overthrow all the other kings and become an Emperor.  But either way, it means a man who has ultimate power.


            Jesus does not think in those terms, because they are limited to span of human life.  Even the wealthiest, most privileged person lives but a little while.  As Moses' psalm, Psalm 80, reminds us, v.10, "The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty; yet the sum of them is but labor and sorrow, for they pass away quickly and we are gone."


            It is not the king who has ultimate power.  For Jesus, truth has the ultimate power.  Jesus responds, "You used the word king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."  It is at this point that the lectionary writers ended the lesson, but the next verse, verse 38 gives Pilate's next words, "What is truth?" 



            And in that question of Pilate, "What is truth?" we see with utter clarity the difference between Jesus and Pilate.  Pilate reveals his craven powerlessness in the presence of Jesus, who is—even in the principal's office—completely grounded in who he is. 


            He is the Son of God.  He is the truth, the true king of all creation.  Pilate may have temporal authority.  He may have a role to play in the system of government, but Jesus knows and is the truth.


            The truth is that the Roman Empire is temporal.  The truth is that humanity cannot maintain humanity without our Creator and Redeemer.  The truth is that the person who lives in a genuine relationship with God will naturally behave in godly ways, which promote the justice, healing, and peace of the world.  The truth is the power to see the image and glory of God in every human being, and to try to give every human being the wholeness and love who is God, our home and our destination.


            Pilate believes that his position—a position that only lasts for a little while—is worth protecting, while Jesus—who is truly worth protecting—is in the process of laying down his life.


            And in so doing, Jesus shows the truth and the power of that truth in laying down his human life, and rising again.  The truth is not temporal; the truth endures for ever.  Love never ends.  (Long pause.)


            I have marveled at this account, and all the accounts of Jesus before Pilate in the Gospels over the years.  No one—at least, not that we know of—was actually present with Jesus and Pilate when they spoke.  It was likely a conversation between two men that ended badly, and the church likely wanted to have some words to remember it by. 


            So in a very real way, what we have here is John at the height of his theological understanding of Jesus, and of the inability of this Roman official to comprehend who he was up against.  The tables are turned in this interaction.  Pilate goes from being the interrogator to the being the one on trial. 


            And with him, all the other people who would put a higher value on their own temporal position than on the well-being of the world.  It is always interesting to see how these themes continue in our modern world.


            Have you noticed that when a politician runs for office, he or she almost always says that the election isn't about himself or herself, but about the country, or about the world?  There almost always seems to be some attempt to make it about a cosmic shift toward a better society, a better world.  And that through becoming a better society, we become a model for other countries. 


            That's the narrative of our founding, when those rigorously devout Anglicans set sail and created a New England.  New York.  New Haven.  New Jersey.  

            The idea was to show England a better society than the one they were leaving, hoping that it would become an example of freedom and peace—that reforms, both secular and religious, would make for a better world.


            I think it was a noble idea, and it continues to be.  The problem is that there are many Pilates and only one Jesus.  There continue to be many people who want to be in positions of power who cannot, or will not, lay down their political lives or their actual lives for the true welfare of the world. 


            I have a feeling that that's what Jesus meant when he cried over Jerusalem and said, "42'If you, even you, had only recognized … the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43…the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.'" (Luke 19.42-44)


            And yet, as the people of God today, our hope continues.  Not in any temporary leader, but in the one who showed us the truth.  Who is truth.  And who will one day bring us to the fullness of the kingdom he preached.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Take care of your soul

Proper 28B.  18 November 2012.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail


Mark 13:1-8


          Several weeks ago, as I am sure you recall, we were in the throes of Hurricane Sandy.  Fortunately for us, it wasn't as bad in the Valley as it was for many other places. The night we had so much wind, it was hard to sleep, and it's always unsettling to go to bed wondering if the power will go out or something like that. 


          I'm sure you were watching the news as I was.  And I would guess that you were also variously amused and alarmed by the coverage.  With all the channels competing for attention, they all seem to try to outdo each other in their predictions, and in the reports of damage.  It reminds me of the boy who cried "wolf," when something truly threatening is about to take place.


          You may remember the big snow storm we had the year before last that was, truly, a massive storm.  Do you remember the name they gave it?  "Snowpocalypse."  I think this storm we just had was nicknamed "Frankenstorm," since it happened around Hallowe'en, and because the system moved atypically from East to West.  That's part of the coverage now—to come up with some sort of alarming nickname. 


          It would be tempting to read the Gospel lesson for today and just sort of file it in the category of the alarming things that you hear from time to time.  We're in Mark's Gospel.  Jesus and his disciples have come to Jerusalem and have been in the Temple And I'm sure you recall that the Temple was not just one building, but a series of large, ornate structures.


          You and I cannot imagine it.  Nor can we fathom the symbolic and actual power that the Temple had.  This was the dwelling place of God.  There was only one Temple.  You can have any number of synagogues you want, but they're just synagogues.  The word synagogue, which comes from the Old French and Late Latin roots, simply means to draw together, or to lead together.  You can have any number of congregations, but there is only one place where the Arc of the Covenant resides—and with it, the glory of God—and that's the Temple. 


          The Temple is where sacrifices of incense and animals were offered by the priestly class of Jews, known as the Sadducees.  You had to be born a Sadducee, and you had to learn from your fathers precisely how the Scripture mandated that an animal should be prepared for sacrifice.  There were rules and regulations regarding every aspect of Temple life and worship, along with an elaborate and probably highly nuanced pecking order that predetermined who would rise and who would not.  As within any one-of-a-kind organization, there are circles of power within circles of power, and corruption was not unknown.  Evil was just as closely associated with influence and money then as it is now—if not more so.


          Jesus and the disciples visit the Temple as complete outsiders.  They are not part of the Temple's nudge, nudge, wink, wink culture.  They don't know the right hand shakes or who does what.  And the disciples are looking around like the first time you see New York City.  "Look Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"


          They had heard about the Temple, but it's one thing to hear about it and another thing to see it.  And please understand that it was immense, ornate, and it seemed like the kind of place that could never be destroyed.  It held an unrivaled place of significance for the Hebrew people, and as long as Rome was not challenged for its political authority, the Temple enjoyed the protection of Caesar. 


          In fact, it was Herod the Great who had had it rebuilt to such ornate majesty.  It was a show of solidarity that paid off politically—you know how that goes.  If they scratch our backs, we'll scratch theirs.  We'll pay our taxes and we won't fuss, and we'll get to keep our Temple, and our God, and we'll be fine.


          The disciples are impressed by the Temple, and Jesus says, "Do you see these great buildings?  Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."  Sobering words. 


          Mark records that they made their way to the Mount of Olives, which has a view of the Temple complex, and is also a very important place in the story of Jesus.  The Mount of Olives is where he was Transfigured, and his face and clothes became a dazzling white.  It's where the Garden of Gethsemane is—where Jesus was arrested.  It will be the place where Jesus ascends into heaven after his resurrection. 


          The Mount of Olives is a place that is both common and extraordinary—like Jesus himself, you see?  And so Mark writes very deliberately in verse 3 that "he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple."  The Greek is unmistakable: katenanti.  In the King James Version, it's rendered, "over against."  In most translations, it's "opposite."  The word has a connotation of being seated in judgment over.  Mark is artfully implying that Jesus is sitting down on the Mount of Olives to judge the Temple.


          Peter, James, John, and Andrew are scared of what he has just said.  They've probably made their way to the Mount of Olives very shaken by Jesus' words, so they ask him, "Tell us, when will this be, and how will we know when it's going to happen?"


          And then Jesus tells them, "Beware that no one leads you astray.  Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!' and they will lead many astray.  When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.  For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines.  This is but the beginning of the birth pangs."


          As I said, it's tempting to file these words in the same file that we have for terrorist threats and weather warnings.  But that's not what we're meant to do. 


          It seems like the word apocalypse no longer means what it really means.  People use it now to mean catastrophe, or disaster, but the word means to reveal.  And its fullest meaning is to reveal what is really happening.  My favorite example of this is when Toto pulls back the curtain to reveal that the Wizard of Oz is just a man pulling levers and shouting into a microphone.


          And really, that's what Jesus is trying to do.  I would guess that you and I are so shell-shocked by news coverage that we focus on the earthquakes and famines, but read Jesus' words more carefully, and look at what he is really saying, "You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed…"  The fulfillment is still to come. 


          Let me paraphrase.  The end of corruption and violence does not happen when you see corruption and violence.  People are going to fight for money and power, for food.  The weather is going to go crazy sometimes, and people are going to draw cosmic conclusions from that, but don't you do it.  Do not be alarmed…this is only the beginning of the birth pangs.


          And notice that Jesus shifts the metaphor from this catastrophic language to child-birth.  The Kingdom of God is coming, but it's coming like a baby.           The world will writhe like a woman in child-birth, but when it happens, it will be a beautiful thing—like new baby being wrapped in swaddling cloths.  It's how Jesus and all humanity is born—that's what the end of time is going to be like. 


          The response of the faithful soul, therefore, is not fear or despair, or stocking up on drinking water and flashlight batteries—rather, we are meant to welcome the unfolding of the Kingdom in our midst.  Faith is not some kind of denial of what is happening around you.  Faith is reaching your life forward into a deeper trust that God, who has brought you this far, will be there for you in the future. 


          The Temple will fall, and indeed it did fall.  And other buildings will fall—and people will call it the end of time, but that's not what we are meant to do.  We are meant to embrace faith in the midst of uncertainty, believing that we are in God's hands, and that God is always bringing about something better than we have known.  (Pause.)


          I want to share with you something that I have been thinking about over the last several weeks.  It's not a very deep thought, but if I share it with you, maybe you can take it back to your prayers, and see where you come out.


          It seems to me that you have to do your part to take care of your soul.  You can't just mindlessly watch anything on television, or read, or whatever, and believe it doesn't affect the way you think and feel.  I could point to a hundred examples of things you could watch, or read, that are subtly corrosive to our outlook on life, but you already know about that.


          I want to hold before you the incalculable value of drawing aside. Turning it off.  Making a cup of tea or coffee and thumbing through The Book of Common Prayer or the Bible.  If it's morning, read through Morning Prayer.  A lot of Episcopalians don't know that the service is actually titled—and this is true even in the 1928 Book—Daily Morning Prayer.  It's meant to be read daily.  Try that. 


          I would be willing to bet that you've never read though the Ordination liturgies.  You might do that.  Or read through the Catechism, or the Thanksgivings.


          Or just pick up the Bible and thumb through it.  Find your favorite Psalm, or dip into one of the Gospels.  Just read it.  Just sip your coffee and read it.  Let the words wash over you.   Turn off your mind a little bit, and read the words with your heart.  Let them soak into your soul, and wash away the anxiety and fear that seems to be everywhere.[*]


          You and I were created by God to enjoy this life, not to fear it.  Do not be afraid.  Nurture your soul.  Pray.  Find ways of drawing aside.  You have the power to do that.  It will make such a difference in your relationship with God.  And it has the power to change everything for the better.






If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, &

St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.



[*] Inserted at the 11:15 liturgy in honor of W.S. Gilbert's 176th Birthday:

"You might go over and pull down a book of poetry.  Sir William of Harrow, whose birthday is today, wrote, "Try we life-long, we can never straighten out life's tangled skein / Why should we, in vain, endeavor guess and guess and guess again.  /  Life's pudding full of plumbs / Care's a cancker that benumbs…  Hop and skip to fancy's fiddle / Hands across and down the middle /  Life's perhaps the only riddle that we shrink from giving up." (The Gondoliers) So draw aside.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lazarus, come out.

Click here for the audio version.

All Saints' Sunday.  4 November 2012.

The Rev. Alexander D. MacPhail


John 11:32-44


            Today we celebrate "the great cloud of witnesses," as the letter to the Hebrews calls them—the Saints of God who have lived the Christian life to its fullest, trusting beyond all else in the Good News of Jesus Christ.  Therefore it is most appropriate that the lectionary has given us part of the story of Lazarus from John's Gospel as our Gospel reading for today.


            The story of Lazarus is a turning point in John's Gospel.  It is the last sign in the Book of Signs, chapters 1-12, before the narrative of the passion begins.  Remember that John uses the word "signs" instead of miracles, because the signs are meant to point to who Jesus is—they reveal the unique person that is Jesus of Nazareth. 


            All the signs are leading up to this last one: the raising of Lazarus from the dead.  Jesus has changed water to wine, healed the blind, fed the five thousand.  Sign, sign, sign.  He can heal, he can provide, he can bring wholeness and joy and peace.  But all of these signs have been offered against the backdrop of the ultimate pathos of humanity: what about death? 


            Even though all the other signs reveal that Jesus is able to do whatever it takes to provide wholeness and healing, it isn't until Jesus is confronted with death—the death of his friend, and then ultimately his own—that gives full revelation of who Jesus is.  And John gives us this story with the dramatic tension that still exists whenever we encounter death in our own lives. 


            When Jesus finally arrives, several days after he had learned that Lazarus was dying, Mary of Bethany comes to him.  (Please remember, this is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus, not Mary, the mother of Jesus.)


            Mary of Bethany says the words that all of humanity might want to say to God, "If you had been here, this wouldn't have happened."  They are words of reproach.  They express the pain of our limitation—our inability to control life beyond a certain point.  If God is unlimited in the ways that we are limited, and wishes always to provide wholeness, then why does death and violence, hunger and disease happen? 


            In theological language, it is called theodicy—"Why do bad things happen if God is good?"  But there is another term, apatheia—the feeling that God seems unaffected by what hurts us.  And the response of Jesus is not anger at the reproach.  Instead John writes that "when Jesus saw her weeping, and the [people] who were with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved."


            It is a moment when John allows us to see Jesus' humanity in full display.  This is not a superman.  Jesus is feeling the devastation of the mourners at the grave.  You know how it is.  (Pause.)


            We go about life, most of the time, with thoughts of death on the far back burner.  We know it's there, but no wants to consider it, because it seems so final.  Even if you take time to nurture the Holy Faith that was enacted over you at your Baptism with prayers and readings, death still seems very final when you're standing in the cemetery saying goodbye. 


            Aunt Jane and Uncle Charlie have made their way from Georgia to be here.  Merle and Patty and Bonny are here.  Bonny's lost weight it seems.  The men from the funeral home have put up the tent and that awful fake grass carpet.  There are buckets of flowers from friends and family who couldn't come. 


            How is it that a bunch of flowers can look so beautiful in any arrangement except the ones for a funeral?  A rose grows in the field hoping to be part of wedding.  Knowing that people will see it, and love it, and say how pretty it looks.  Lilies grow up hoping to make it to church for Easter, but praying that it won't be a funeral. 


            The priest or pastor knows in his or her theology and heart that it is an honor to lay someone to rest in the holy hope of the Resurrection, but even in our hearts there are moments, standing at the edge amongst the polished chrome of the catafalque, that the grave seems awfully deep, and awfully final. 


            The sermons we've offered Sunday after Sunday, Easter after Easter are not just words to us.  But you cannot authentically make your way through this life without the occasional glimpse into a faithless void. 


            I don't know if Jesus felt that way, but I believe in the moment when John writes that "he was greatly disturbed in the spirit and deeply moved" that he experienced what we experience when we lose someone we love very very much. 


            "Where have you laid him?" he asks.  They said, "Lord, come and see."  Jesus began to cry.  The others said, "See, how he loved Lazarus."  But others among them said, "Well, if he can open the eyes of the blind, you'd think he could keep his friend from dying." 


            They came to the tomb, which was a cave, and there was a stone against the door.  Jesus said, "Take away the stone."  Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary, reminded Jesus that it would probably smell pretty bad.  Lazarus had been dead for four days by then.  (Pause.) Martha is still in funeral mode, you see?  She's still eating ham biscuits and wondering what to do with his clothes.  He's dead.  Everyone knows it.  Even Jesus knows, he's dead. 


            "Look Jesus, here's the tomb—here's the stone.  Satisfied?  Now we've got a whole house full of people here and some fried chicken in the fridge, if you're hungry, but this is it." 


            Jesus said, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?"  So they took away the stone.  Jesus looked upward and prayed, "Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me."  (Pause.)  This is not just for Martha and Mary.  It's not just for Lazarus.  This is so that humanity will see that Jesus is the Resurrection and Life. 


            And with that, Jesus calls into the tomb.  Life calling into death.  Resurrection calling to humanity from across the chasm of existence.  "Lazarus, come out."


            Notice what does not happen.  There is no puff of smoke.  There are no magic words, or curtains being pulled back.  It is simply the voice of life calling into our death.  That's all.  Because, you see, this is a sign.  It is a sign of who Jesus really is.  "Lazarus, come out."


            And Lazarus came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth.  Still bound from the burial customs of first century Palestine.  Still bound, you might say, by death itself.  So more words from Jesus, the Resurrection, as he says,  "Unbind him, and let him go."  Unbind humanity, and let us be free from death.


            This is the ultimate vision of the Kingdom of God for humanity—to free us from death.  To free us from the fear of it that clings to almost all of our conscious and unconscious lives. 


            Jesus has experienced the pain of mourning the loss of a close friend, and has experienced the joy of that friend rising again.  But in order to experience the full horror of being a human being—and he must know this—he is going to have to face his own death.  And not just a sickness that eats away—awful and horrific as that is—but an even more painful path awaits him. 


            He is going to have face not only his own death, but the terror of violence, and the misery of knowing that it's going to hurt a whole lot before death comes.  And when it comes to him, his body will be completely mangled by the ravages of the whip, and the nails, and the crown of thorns. 


            You see, for Lazarus to come out of the grave, Jesus is going to have to enter it.  He is going to have to be "greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved," far, far more than he has ever been. 


            No one will be standing on the other side of the tomb.  Even those who saw Lazarus come out will not be there to call him out.  Instead, Jesus will rise because he is Resurrection and Life.  It's not something he does; it's who he is.


            To live in relationship with him is life, because he is life.  It's experienced over the course of everyday existence through the gift of the Holy Spirit.  (Pause.)


            You go out in the yard this time of the year and look at the calico pattern of the leaves on the mountains.  Magnificence spread out like a table cloth.  You stand out there sipping coffee, and looking up at these little wisps of clouds—just hanging there in the sky, as if frozen in place.  They're going to burn off any second now.  If you blink you'll miss it, but you hold your gaze and drink in the beauty of the Valley.


            All of these trees are in the process of letting go.  They've held onto their leaves for the last, what?, six?, seven months?  The winds have blown, the storms have come.  I've seen them grasp those leaves with such ferocity as the storm would have liked to rip the whole tree up by the roots, and like a mother holding her baby, the tree would not let go.  And now, it's autumn, and the leaves have changed, and little by little, the trees are no longer able to hold on as they once did. 


            Have they given up?  No.  They still have faith.  They let go.  There will be a time of loss, as they stand there with nothing to hide the skeletal frame that was adorned with the glories of summer.  But they know that the earth continues to enjoy the favor of the living God, as they drink deeply from the water of the soil below.  And when the time is right the buds will form and break, and little by little, new life will come from what seemed like death.


            It's how the beginning of the Lazarus story goes.  "In the beginning was the Word…He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."  (John 1:1-5)


            You stand out there sipping coffee looking, as it were, at the life of God.  And the mystery holds.  Death lies in the tomb, and Life calls to it once more.  The day turns to night, and the night turns to day.  The seed falls to the ground, seeming to be dead, and lo, it rises again.


            Lazarus is coming out.  The water is wine.  The deaf can hear.  The blind can see.  The hungry are fed, and the poor have the good news preached to them.  Blessed is the one who is not offended.


            Do you have any idea who you're dealing with here?  You are not standing out there sipping coffee alone and unobserved.  You are loved and cared for and treasured beyond all knowing.  And one day, when you let go of your leaves, the man who is Life will call to you once more.




If this sermon was meaningful to you, please consider giving to the church where you feel most at home.


The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.

Beautiful Bartimaeus. 28 October 2012.


Mark 10.46-52


            I remember hearing some time ago that people don't really think in terms of good and evil.  It's not that we don't know the difference between them, or that we don't know right from wrong.  It's just that we don't really think in those categories. 


            A couple weeks ago, when Bishop Goff was here and we were posing for pictures [at Emmanuel], Bishop Goff was still in her alb (which is white), and I was wearing a cassock (which is black) and the bishop thought it was funny to have a confirmand flanked by white and black, like the angel and devil perched on their shoulder. 


            When you are a child, the world fits into these neat little categories: good and evil, misbehavior and being good.  But as we mature, we begin to see that life and people are much more complicated than that.  No one is good all the time; and few people are under the influence of evil all the time.  I say "under the influence of evil," because as a Christian, I believe God created us good, as it is written in Genesis, but that evil affects us, and influences us to turn away from that goodness.


            But I'm getting off the topic.  The man said, "People don't think in terms of good and evil, but they do think in terms of beautiful and ugly.  They know what they like, and don't like."  And I found that thought interesting and somewhat scary, because just because something seems good or "beautiful," doesn't mean it is good, or good for you.  We all know that just because someone looks good on the outside, it doesn't mean that they are nice or well mannered.  And the opposite is also true.  Our eyes often deceive us because we want to be deceived.  We want the beautiful to be good, and the ugly to be bad.  


            We've been reading though Mark's gospel in our Sunday lectionary cycle, and time after time our eyes have deceived us.  The woman with an issue of blood is only beautiful to us now that Jesus has shown us her beauty, but before she was ritually unclean, and in her culture and context, unknowable, untouchable, and completely undesirable.  Jesus turns to her in the crowd and she is healed.  And look at her now.  She's beautiful. 


            Likewise, the Syrophonecian woman—you remember her?—she comes to Jesus wanting him to remove the unclean spirit from her daughter.  Can you believe it?  She's not one of us.  She's ugly.  Jesus starts by insulting her, "It's not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."  I'm not here for you, lady.  The woman says, "Yes, but even the dogs get the crumbs under the children's table."  And in that moment, her faith makes her beautiful, and Jesus takes care of her problem.


            A man came to Jesus wanting to hear, and Jesus pulls him aside and heals him.  We didn't even notice him until Jesus did. 


            We definitely noticed the rich man who came to Jesus.  Did you get a load of him?  Young, rich, handsome man.  Probably had the women lined up around the block.  He asked Jesus "What must I do to inherit eternal life?"  Translation: "What should I do so I can keep this for ever?" 


            Look at this guy!  He sounds pious, but he's not.  He doesn't want Jesus; he wants a financial advisor.  You don't inherit eternal life like you inherit your dad's house.  But he's a rich, young man, and he still seems handsome…until Jesus says, "Well, I'll tell you what...  Sell it all.  Give it all up.  If life is what you are after, and not the money, then get rid of the money, and you can have the life."  And the man when away grieving, because he had many possessions.  That grief doesn't look so handsome, does it?


            Have you noticed something about these people?  They don't have any names!


            I mean, I'm sure they had names, but Mark doesn't record their names.  The Syrophonecian woman.  The blind man. The rich young ruler.  The deaf man.  No names.  And we've come to end of Jesus' ministry in Mark.  Jesus and his disciples have made their way to Jericho.  Jericho is where you pick up the road to Jerusalem.  And what follows in Mark's account is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  We celebrate it on Palm Sunday.


            But in the story of Mark's gospel, today we're reading the transition from the public ministry of Jesus to the story cycle of his Passion.  Through the eyes of Jesus, we've seen the ugly become beautiful, and the beautiful become ugly.  And they've mostly been these anonymous, unnamed people.  But on road to Jerusalem, we meet Bartimaeus. 


            It's almost jarring when you read it in the Bible, because you get a name: Bar-Timaeus.  Son of Timaeus.  He was a blind man, a beggar.  He was not born blind, but his blindness likely meant a fall from whatever his position in life had been.  Unable to see, unable to earn money, except by begging.  So…he's ugly. 


            This is Jesus' big moment.  He's coming to Jerusalem.  The crowds are huge; the disciples are there.  The public ministry was supposed to be over.  It's now time to focus in on the job at hand, which is the restoration of Jerusalem, the kingdom of God coming to the holiest city. 


            It's a beautiful moment.  And here is ugly Bartimaeus.  You know what I mean, right?  The beautiful table is set for dinner and the ugly phone rings.  You're about to sit down to beautiful dinner with friends, and the ugly delivery man shows up with a package, needing a signature.  It's not that they're truly ugly, but this is not the time or the place. 




            If you want to be healed, you should have been with us in Galilee.  You should have been out there with the bread and fish, and Jesus had all the time in the world to lay hands on you.  This is a big moment, Bartimaeus!  We're about to head into Jerusalem.


            Bartimaeus calls out for Jesus, and Mark writes that the crowd "sternly ordered him to be quiet."  So now it's a contest to see who can be more ugly, the crowd or Bartimaeus.  But because he's got a name, we already know Bartimaeus is special.   He calls out all the more for Jesus, and Jesus says, "Call him over here."


            So, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak—throws off his only possession (unlike the rich man who couldn't get rid of his many possession)—and comes to see Jesus.  Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?"


            Does that sound familiar?  Just a little bit earlier in the chapter—in fact we read it last week—James and John said to Jesus, "We want you do for us whatever we ask of you."  And Jesus responds, "What do you want me to do for you?"  Same words.  James and John ask for places of prominence in Jesus' glory.  They think it's beautiful, but Jesus shows them the ugliness of their request.  Now, again, Jesus asks, "What do you want me to do for you?"  And Bartimaeus asks for what the James and John should have asked.  To see again. 


            Jesus can't give James and John the places of prominence in the kingdom—remember he tells them that that is for the Father to decide—but Jesus can restore sight.  He can show blind people the beauty of the kingdom of God, and help them discern the truly beautiful from the truly ugly.


            Bartimaeus looked ugly to the crowd, because the crowd was blind.  But ironically, though Bartimaeus was blind, he could see.  (Pause.)


            So much of the kingdom of God—especially in Mark's gospel—is about seeing, or perceiving, or discerning what is good or evil, beautiful or ugly.   This story is not just another healing.  Bartimaeus along with the crowd is symbolic of humanity.  The majority think they are beautiful and can see, but are blind and ugly.  And the one who seems blind and ugly, is beautiful and can see.


            In the kingdom of God, the treasures don't always look like treasures, and the timing of when they show up is often unlikely.  God has placed the Church in the world as a minority who can see what most people do not. 


            So, if your soul finds itself crying out to Jesus sometime…  Crying out for love, for peace…  And in turn Jesus asks you what you'd like him to do for you.  Ask him to help you regain your sight.  There may be some beautiful people you've been missing, who might like to see you, too.





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The churches of Beckford Parish, where this sermon was preached, are:

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 122 East Court Street, Woodstock, VA 22664, & St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, P.O. Box 117, Mt. Jackson, VA 22842.