Tuesday, December 5, 2017

What can we say October 28? 23rd after Pentecost

   If you’re tracking the Job readings, this week’s (chapter 42) is the dud of all endings to a book, surely the original ending to the old corny story the rest of the book is designed to debunk.

     Hebrews 7:23-28 intrigues, especially as (for us) we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  I like always at the end of October to touch on Martin Luther and the church’s ongoing need for reform. Without sliding into supersessionism or anti-Semitism, it’s possible to notice that Hebrews diminishes the power of the earthly priests; Jesus renders them less essential or even unnecessary. This was, of course, one of Luther’s key principles, the priesthood of all believers, and thus an end to the abuses of clericalism. I wonder in our day if we have the opposite problem: not too much power in the priesthood, but trying to function while viewed as a laughingstock with no authority at all. Best we can do is point to the high priest, like a docent in a museum, exhibiting in our preaching and praying our own devotion to what he has accomplished for all of us.

     Hebrews offers the highest possible Christology (what George Lindbeck called “Christological maximalism,” our theological burden to glow as enthusiastically as possible about Christ), and yet with little human, earthy touches. Jesus’ priesthood never ends – for the simplistic reason that the others die! “Mortal priests are therefore necessarily multiple” (as Luke Timothy Johnson wryly put it). Hints of Platonism here, where the many are inferior to the one.

     I’m not preaching on Hebrews, but I love to play with the merging of roles in Jesus. He is the priest, he is the sacrifice, he is the judge, he’s all in all – and what that means for us is he gives not blind justice or fairness. This judge is entirely biased – as he’s also the defense attorney, and the one offering the most profound sacrifice ever, his own self. We’ve got it made with such a priest.

     The Bartimaeus text is astonishingly rich.  I think it happened.  I think it’s richly symbolic. Both. Here is a sermon I preached on this a couple of years ago that I felt pretty good about. Interestingly, we often speak of the plot of Jesus’ life shifting at Caesarea Philippi. Before that, he’s a man of action, in control, dazzling the crowds – but afterwards he becomes passive, bent on facing his fate in Jerusalem. The exception is this vignette in Jericho – which I think makes it stand out all the more. This miracle is a shimmering emblem of them all. Yes, a blind man sees – but it’s about everyone seeing, seeking mercy, and finally following.

     The Jericho in question isn’t the breadloaf-like hill from the Bronze Age most tourists visit (where the wall came a-tumblin’ down). Below a few find their way to what remains of Herod’s winter resort (how many resorts did one man need?). But the linkage to Jericho has its resonance: Jesus is a new Joshua, invading the Holy Land, not to seize it but to reclaim it, not by savage force but by suffering love.

    A close, slow reading of the text reveals so much we might miss. His cry isn’t “Jesus, heal my blindness,” but “Have mercy on me.” That’s the pain, that’s the need: some mercy. Pope Francis deemed 2016 as the “Year of Mercy.” Should have made it a decade… Like the children clamoring to see Jesus, this blind man is rebuked, hushed by the ever vigilant and dimwitted disciples.

   Then notice this. Jesus stops: the consummately interruptible one… and says “Call him,” which is a little odd. They say to him, “Take heart, he is calling you.” Not “Take heart, you’ll be seeing soon.” He can take heart because he is called. We tend to think if we get healed or blessed, then we might tune in for God’s call. But the very fact of God calling is cause to take heart. For all Bartimaeus knows, Jesus will be calling him – as a blind man.

     Instead of simply taking charge, Jesus again, with more questions than answers, leaving people space instead of commandeering them, asks “What do you want me to do for you?” He had just asked this of the sons of Zebedee, and their reply was their vain pursuit of power and glory. Bartimaeus keeps it simple. He wishes to see – and the text invites us to realize our deep need to be able to see. Joel Marcus relates this to a Holocaust survivor who wore dark glasses while giving testimony at the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Her points, which she clarified, was that she appeared to be blind – but then with dramatic force she said “I saw everything.”

   And I love this: Jesus says “Go your way.” Not “Follow me,” or “You sure owe me.” And yet, Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” Those are pregnant words, implying he didn’t follow for 100 feet and then go home. He followed (which is what disciples do with Jesus) “on the way,” the road, which is the long, symbolic road of discipleship. And they’re headed to Jerusalem for a massive crisis and terrible danger. Why, after all, did they remember Bartimaeus’s name? He had to have been among the company of the early followers.

     The name: bar-timaeus means “son of a guy named Honored.” This beggar, probably shunned by many, pitied by others, is, like all who suffer or are poor, somebody’s son. I’ve always envisioned Bartimaeus casting away his cloak to get to Jesus – with the preaching trope where we ask What do we need to cast aside to follow Jesus? Morna Hooker suggests he may have had his cloak spread out on the ground in order to collect alms – so he would be pushing it aside more than taking it off.

   Either way, the abandonment of key clothing: I think of early Baptismal rites, where you shed your dirty work clothes, descended into the pool, then emerged to be clothed in a pure white robe. Or even better: St. Francis of Assisi, embracing poverty, sued by his father, removing the fine clothes his father had provided for him to return them, standing naked in the city square. Ridding himself of stylish finery, he donned the apparel of the poor in solidarity.

     Kelly Johnson has gifted us with a marvelous book on the history and theology of begging: The Fear of Beggars: Stewardship and Poverty in Christian Ethics. Beggars make otherwise invisible poverty visible, unavoidable. Yes, begging can be sloth or avarice, but the beggar still is always a challenge to holiness, wealth, generosity. In the Middle Ages, the Dominicans and Franciscans, chose to become beggars – in solidarity with the poor, and deliberately distancing themselves to the church’s corruptions with wealth. John Wesley saw beggars as a question: “The Lord has lodged money in your hands temporarily; what return will you make?” And Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day’s mentor, repeatedly said “What we give to the poor for Christ’s sake is what we carry with us when we die.”

     Yes, we have to parse dependencies, and how we contribute through agencies. But we can always be kind to the poor, to beggars, giving them the gift of love. Marion Way, a great friend and longtime missionary in Brazil, would always stop when encountering a beggar, ask the person’s name, lay hands on him and pray.

    Johnson teases out the way theologians over time have come to understand God posing as the beggar, awaiting our response of love.  I tend to think the stories that report the healing of the blind are a problem, as we don’t see this miracle much. But in my time, I have twice had a lay reader in church to read (from a Braille Bible) this very text. The first thanked me for asking him, and told me it was his favorite passage in the Bible.
 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.

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