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“My Way” or a “Widow’s Way”? Mark 12:38-44 Ordinary 32B

Mark 12:38-44

As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Of all things valued in our culture and society, independence must rank very high.
We are schooled to develop it, trained to maintain it, resist the loss of it; God knows we have even gone to war to protect it.
We speak of fierce independence.
It is a quality of life we will fiercely defend.

Another value of our culture is faith.We inculcate faith in our children, we encourage not only faith but faithfulness.

“In God we trust” though somewhat discounted these days is still a motto for many.

Yet I have observed from my work with people who are in the second half of life and thus more aware of ageing, that faith often grows in inverse proportion to independence.
It is often as we lose the independence that made Frankie sing’ “My Way” that we are able to allow dependence on the Greater Self, the True Self what we call God, to emerge.

I am speaking here of course of faith as trust. The more common understanding of faith as belief in doctrines is an unfortunate translation of the Greek word “pistis”.
Trust is often a fruit that grows in the compost of decaying independence.

It is this abandonment of oneself to something deeper and less programmed and planned than our independence plans and investments which jumps out at me from the gospel for this Sunday.
The story of the widow’s gift is a story of abandonment to God’s provision.

It is not a teaching for stewardship Sunday or any fund-raising drive for that matter. Would that the church could learn to trust God more for it’s sustenance and depend less on its fundraisers and hedge-fund managers, like the widow did.
I am presently involved in a second-half of life transition. I would love to say mid-life but that would mean I am going to live to be one hundred and ten! My transition has been the most exciting adventure of deciding it was time to stop what I have been doing for the past thirty years, and then waiting for the flux that the decision created, to take form.

I have been astounded at the providence of God, and the doors and avenues that have opened that I could never have dreamt. But, only after I had thrown it all into the treasury!
My “new life” that begins in exactly one month’s time could never have been planned or strategized for by me acting independently.
It seems after thirty years I will have to begin preaching what I preached.

“My Way” may have been Frank Sinatra’s way.
I prefer to advocate the “Widow’s Way”.
Give it all to God and be surprised.

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Posted in Conflict resolution, Deconstructing Power, Healing, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

“Could we also regain our vision?” Mark 10:46-52 Ordinary 30B

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

It has to be one of the best known, oft-preached sections of the gospel narrative.  It is also the prototypical story upon which the Orthodox Jesus prayer is based. That oft repeated phrase prayer of the Hesychastic tradition, “Jesus, Son of God have mercy on me a sinner.”

Come to think of it the entire account is transformative.

We are told the band of Jesus followers are leaving town. They are setting off on another leg of their journey to Jerusalem. As with all travelers setting off there is an impatience to get going and to keep going. There really isn’t time for distraction and disturbance. The group is focused on the journey.

Then there is this interruption.

Bartimaeus. Well known in the community, he is the son of old Timaeus.  Bartimaeus has a place in society. His role is that of the blind beggar. As a beggar he has the role of reminding all passers by that they have an obligation to give alms. What Bartimaeus doesn’t have though, is the right to be too obtrusive. Bart may beg, but he may not badger the teacher.  After all we will tolerate the poor as long as they don’t become too demanding.

Bartimaeus oversteps this social register with his loud appeals.  Appeals so heart wrenching and profound that they have been captured as the words of transformation used by thousands of Christians in the East. “Son of David have mercy on me”.

We are told that these words stop Jesus. He stands still and calls the man to himself.

It is this moment that we see an amazing transformation begin.  Bartimaeus does two uncharacteristic things for a blind beggar. He throws off his cloak and he springs up.

Living in Africa, one doesn’t have to look for poverty and begging.  It is everywhere.

Beggars, especially blind ones, do not throw off their cloaks and spring up.  Not if they know their place and their craft, or graft.  Beggars cower and cringe.  The fact that Mark records this unusual behaviour suggests to me that the transformation of Bartimaeus has already begun.

I wonder what cloaks and cows us and keeps us from approaching Jesus? Our propriety, our poverty of trust or our politeness?

Cloaked and cowering, we assemble Sunday by Sunday watching the gospel parade go by, never once raising our voices or our expectations that anything could uncloak us and put a spring into our lethargic liturgy.

Perhaps we are so acquiescent because we fear the other who would tell us to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Thank God for this boisterous, blind, beggar, Bartimaeus.

He not only stops Jesus in his journey, he also elicits the strangest question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Hello?! Blind beggar! Isn’t it obvious what he wants?

Well perhaps not. Sometimes we call out to Jesus wanting only some small alleviation of our discomfort but without wanting complete and revolutionary change of life.

That is why Jesus checks.

Uncloaked and springing Bart want the real change. He wants more than alms. He wants life.

Did you notice the interesting detail in his request?

“My teacher, let me see AGAIN”

Blind Bart it seems had not always been unsighted and benighted.

He had seen he once knew colour, depth and shape. He wanted it again.

So do we, don’t we?

Jesus doesn’t seem to do much for Bart except remind him that it is his trust that has restored his vision.

I wonder if our oft repeated Jesus prayers could uncloak us, put a spring back into our lives, and restore our vision?

Repeat loudly after me, “Lord Jesus Son of God, have mercy…”

Posted in Deconstructing Power, New Interpretation of Scripture, Reflection, Sermon, Spiritual Therapy

“Is it Really You?” – Easter 2

John 20:19-31

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

The sign in the shop says, “Nice to look at, lovely to hold, but if you break it, consider it SOLD” Understandable I suppose.  Which is why my childhood memories of going into stores are underscored by my Mother’s mantra, “Look don’t touch!”.  Yet we are tactile beings.  The very first sensations we have as humans involve touch and then of course putting the held object into our mouths!  What a consternation causer for young mothers.

Thomas wasn’t a doubter he was simply human.  “Don’t tell me, show me.”  After all, didn’t the Psalmist say, “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.” Psalm 34:8

I am reminded of the countless movie scenes where a long-lost–thought-dead loved one returns.  The director usually has the other character hold the returner’s face in their hands and say something like, “Is it really you?

Despite the risk of touching instead of just looking, despite my Mother’s nagging voice, I am a Thomas too.

Like him I have had moments of loss, confusion and chaos when I have shut down and denied the possibility and probability of any return from the dark desperate void of my own broken grief.  My heart has shut down as securely as the locked doors of that upper room on that first Easter evening.

I am never sure how, or why, Jesus has come to me and stood in that sequestered place of fear and forgetfulness, but he has again and again.  He is miraculously there despite my barricades and belligerence that often make Thomas sound tame.

He is there, and all I want to do is what the movies characters do.  I want to hold his face in my hand and sob, “Is it really you?

I never do that though.  Perhaps it’s my Mother’s voice, “Look don’t touch”?  I don’t think so.  Rather I believe it is the overwhelming experience of real resurrection renewal that makes me not hold him nor poke fingers of incredulous questioning into him.

In moments of resurrection encounter I like Thomas, can do nothing other, than fall on my knees before his patient ever-returning grace.

“My Lord and my God!”

Posted in Deconstructing Power, Reflection, Sermon

Why God doesn’t…

This Sermon is available in Audio by clicking here Luke 18:1-8 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.‘” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” One of the real challenges I set myself by using the Lectionary (which is not required by my denomination) is to come to the texts once in three years and not remember how I worked with them last time around. It was very tempting to look for someone else’s take on the reading this week, particularly as I return to the mainstream lectionary after detouring into the Season of Creation series during September and a week off preaching whilst leading a retreat on October 3rd. This past Sunday I was with St Francis blessing the animals, but now it is back to the extraordinary text this Sunday in Ordinary time. As I read this well known pericope, I instinctively know one thing. This is not about nagging prayer or an unwilling God, it is about a God who bears the suffering of people with them. I think I speak for most of us from Western Christian backgrounds when I say, “We would like to have all our problems fixed quickly.” It may even be one of the main reasons we pray at all. Prayer thus becomes what one Textweek blogger recently referred to as , “a process of giving God a ‘to-do’ list” That is not what Jesus understood by prayer. Jesus had been speaking about the suffering and confusion that was to take place within the lifetimes of many of his hearers. The coming of the Kingdom of God, was going to be in the midst of tumultuous upheavals. Luke continues, “Then Jesus told them a parable…” It is a strange story of a nagging widow that pesters a judge for justice against those who have wronged her. The story is almost inaccessible to us when we read it in 2010, for our context is so different from the one into which Jesus was speaking. We cannot comprehend what it was to be a widow in the time of Jesus. This was not a society where everyone was entitled to their day in court. The irony of the story in its context is that the widow would have no rights and she certainly would not have access to a judge in a formal procedure of law. So her crying out for justice is in fact a parody. A little background may be in order: “Women’s behaviour was extremely limited in ancient times, much as the women of Afghanistan during the recent Taliban oppression. In Jesus day:

  • Unmarried women were not allowed to leave the home of their father.
  • Married women were not allowed to leave the home of their husband.
  • They were normally restricted to roles of little or no authority.
  • They could not testify in court.
  • They could not appear in public venues.
  • They were not allowed to talk to strangers.
  • They had to be doubly veiled when they left their homes.”(Reference)

So as a woman with no man to speak for her, she would have been walled behind her veil and widow’s weeds. Effectively silenced, the very setup of this story Jesus is telling would have evoked interest and bemusement in his hearers. It was loaded with ironic fantasy. This woman can only cry out to the judge unofficially. Perhaps she calls to him as he passes her on his way to the city gates to judge the disputes and charges of the men for the day. The cries of the woman eventually sway the cold heart of the judge who gives in to her request. A mistake many exegetes of this passage make is to miss the ironic subtlety of Jesus. This is not an encouragement to badger God with incessant “to-do” requests and requisitions. The message I hear from Jesus is this, “If hard hearted judges can be moved to act, how much more will your ABBA-Parent be willing and eager always to help the children of God?” Yet this is still not the main point of this parable. I say this, because the parable ends with Jesus asking, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Why should the Son of Man not find faith on earth? Perhaps there is doubt in Jesus’ question because it is very difficult to keep praying in trust to a loving parent, when every circumstance of your life seems intractable and horrific. How do we keep trusting for “justice, liberation, wholeness, and cure” when there is no obvious way out? It is here that the widow becomes our teacher. The widow had no rights. She in fact did not have access to the judge, but that did not blight her to bitterness, nor temper her trust. She kept right on calling, trusting despite all evidence to the contrary that there would be a breakthrough in her hopelessness. I heard recently of a monk who had disrobed and left the order to pursue life outside the monastery walls. Months later he wrote back to his monk friends and said, “I am living my new life, but have realised that this is not IT“. When I heard the story something in me wanted to say to the ex-monk, “Yes, this is IT” The “IT” being the constant unsatisfactoriness of life. Buddhism calls this “dukkha”, a difficult word to translate but a concept that points to the suffering and stress of life. Buddhist Scriptures say, “Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha; association with the unbeloved is dukkha; separation from the loved is dukkha; not getting what is wanted is dukkha.”(Reference) I find this honesty of the Buddhists refreshing. “Suffering exists” is the first statement Buddhists make about reality. It is their first Noble Truth. Jesus is honest about the suffering of women and widows in his time. The quick fix, romantic and utopian obsessions of our culture will always be tempted to expect our relationships with God to be fulfilling, successful and to have positive outcomes. If my life experience as a parent teaches me anything it is that this is not always so. My relationships with my children and theirs with me is not always rewarding and fruitful. That does not mean that they, nor I, intend them to be so, but the “dukkha” of life somehow directs that the longed and worked for perfection does not always follow according to my schedule or theirs. Yet despite all my experiences of suffering, stress and unsatisfactoriness I still cry out to my ABBA and long with God that it could all be different. Somehow the calling helps. It helps even if nothing changes. I have discovered that it is far more consoling to have a God who feels the pain with me and who longs for a better world than to have a MacGyver God who fixes everything at my beck and call. A Mr Fixit God leaves me fickle and superficial. It would seem that, for Jesus, faith doesn’t fix things as much as it gives the capacity and courage to bear the unbearable. This is IT!” Life isn’t following the script I wrote for it. Some situations are unworkable, stuck, and full of poignant, imperfect, suffering and stress. But I still trust that good things may come. I still have faith that in the end it will all be perfect or that I will see the perfection of the seemingly imperfect. “Will the Son of Man find faith upon the earth?” As long as people who are immersed in dark nights of suffering dream, rather than despair, I believe he will.