Sermon for the 5th Sunday after Pentecost at North Presbyterian Church.
Call Them Here
I’ve recently been invited to help my friend, Minister Pamela Robinson of Emerging HOPE Ministries, with her doctoral dissertation. It’s been a privilege to assist with this project because the work she’s doing is so important. The research she is doing is about helping churches raise their awareness of people who live with mental illness or developmental disabilities. Her very helpful term for these conditions is “invisible disabilities”. She calls these disabilities “invisible” because their presence in people is less obvious than a visual or mobility impairment.
There is a stigma around cognitive disabilities in this culture because, in the eyes of many people, mental illness doesn’t count as a “real” disease, like cancer or the flu. Many of us who live with mental illness are often told to “just snap out of it” or “have faith” (as if depression or anxiety could be controlled by flipping a switch). Believe me: if any of us could choose to stop having these symptoms, WE WOULD.
Under the weight of this social stigma, we who live with mental illness often become “invisible people” who suffer silently and alone from the effects of our conditions. We are treated as failures, ne’er-do-wells, and misfits in a society that measures the “worth” of a person based on his or her ability to produce and consume in a capitalist economy.
In this morning’s gospel, we encounter the story of a person, Bartimaeus, who was similarly “invisible” to the people of his own place and time.
There are several things it is important to note about Bartimaeus as a person. First of all, his name. In Aramaic, it literally means “son of Timaeus”, which is to say that he really doesn’t have a name or unique identity of his own. He is only identified in relation to other people. As a physically disabled (“blind”) non-worker in the economy (“beggar”), Bartimaeus doesn’t count as a “real person” in the eyes of his neighbors, so he has been pushed to the margins of society (“by the roadside”), where his presence and voice can be conveniently ignored (“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet”).
Yet, there is more to Bartimaeus than meets the eye on the surface. He might be visually impaired, but we the readers quickly learn that his spiritual insight goes deeper than that of his neighbors. He sees Jesus more clearly than anyone. As Jesus draws near, Bartimaeus begins to make quite a fuss, calling out to Jesus as the “Son of David”.
“Son of David” is a messianic title, referring to King David’s heir, God’s anointed, and the rightful king of Israel. Many have speculated about Jesus’ identity up to this point in Mark’s gospel, St. Peter has even realized the truth in private, but this is the first time in Mark that anyone, anywhere publicly identifies Jesus as the Messiah.
What Bartimaeus says to his Messiah next is “have mercy on me!” This sounds to us like a plea for forgiveness, but is actually more like a welcoming affirmation. Caesar used to enter the city of Rome in triumphant procession with the citizenry crying “Lord, have mercy!” around him on every side. It’s kind of like an ancient version of “Hail to the Chief” or “God Save the Queen”. Bartimaeus has something unique to teach his people: he knows who Jesus really is, but they don’t want to hear it, so they yell at him to sit back down and be quiet.
Sadly, this story is way too familiar for many of our brothers and sisters who live with disabilities, visible or invisible, in the church. As human institutions, churches often act like the crowd around Bartimaeus: ignoring and objectifying disabled people, pushing them to the edges of church life and telling them not to make too much of a fuss, so that business-as-usual can continue uninterrupted on Sunday morning. What these churches don’t realize is that every person is made uniquely in the image of God, therefore each individual has something to teach the rest of us about God that cannot be learned from anyone else on earth. Those who lose the most when disabled people are ignored are not the disabled people themselves, but those who ignore them. So it was with the crowd around Bartimaeus, and so it is in too many churches today.
But the good news is that Jesus is not content to simply walk by while this happens. Jesus listens to the voice of the voiceless and ensures that the lessons they teach will not go unheard. Looking closely at his interaction with Bartimaeus, we can get an idea of how Christ is working with disabled members in the church today, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
To begin with, the first important thing that Jesus does is nothing. He simply stops. The text says he “stood still”. What this tells us is that Jesus is willing to be interrupted by this person. Sure, Jesus is busy. Sure, he has other important things to do (go to Jerusalem and save the world, for instance). But business-as-usual gets put on the back burner for Jesus when it comes to having a relational encounter with this person. Imagine the church doing that! Imagine what Christianity in this world would look like if the leaders of the church were willing to put aside their overcrowded schedules and interrupt business-as-usual in order to listen to the pained cries of needy people.
The second thing Jesus does is say, “Call him here.” He re-arranges his ministry so that the marginalized person sits at the center of the action and concern. And he doesn’t do it alone, either. Jesus could have easily called Bartimaeus over himself, but he enlists the help of the whole community, instead. So then, it is the crowd that changes its tune and says to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Again, imagine the church doing this today: becoming a community that speaks forth Christ’s calling on the lives of the very people whom the world ignores!
The next thing Jesus does is give a voice back to the voiceless. Instead of presuming to know what is best for this other person, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” This is a very important detail because Jesus is relating to Bartimaeus as a real person, not just as an object or problem to be dealt with. And when the miracle is said and done, Jesus even gives the credit back to Bartimaeus himself: “your faith has made you well.”
Imagine a church focusing its ministry like this: interrupting business-as-usual to forge real, authentic relationships with people whose voices have not yet been heard in the mainstream of society. Imagine the church becoming a community where people are treated like people. Imagine a church that re-orients its entire ministry to put marginalized people at the center of its life and action. Imagine a church that doesn’t just welcome people who live with mental illness, but empowers them to fulfill their calling in Christ. Can you imagine a church like that?
I can imagine that kind of church because that is exactly the kind of ministry that North Presbyterian Church has been doing for the last 27 years. This is who we are. This is what we do. This is the kind of community the Holy Spirit has made us into.
So many of us, myself included, have tried to make our spiritual home in churches where we are tolerated at best, or rejected at worst. But the Holy Spirit has called us together in this little community where we can be a light to the world.
And our ministry is not going unnoticed. What we do here has been written about in college and seminary textbooks. Letters of support have poured in from all over the country. Denominational officials are telling us how we have inspired a movement, how we have shaped the national church, how we are pioneering a new model of ministry from which all churches can learn.
North Church may be a little church, but we are “the biggest little church in Kalamazoo.” Our significance doesn’t come from a huge budget or fancy programs, but from the fact that we are doing the kind of ministry that Jesus demonstrated with Bartimaeus: centered on building relationships with marginalized people who live with mental illness.
The power of the special work we do is rooted in the power of the gospel itself and grows out from it to form a community where all people can find a home.
The power of this church comes from that core truth we tell each other week after week:
“I love you. God loves you. And there’s nothing you can do about it!”
Be blessed and be a blessing.
You Are Set Free
My final sermon at First Presbyterian Church of Boonville, NY:
I would like to say a few words this morning on the subject of freedom. Specifically, I would like to talk about where freedom comes from and what freedom is for.
A discussion on the subject of freedom is particularly apropos this week as we prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, which he delivered on August 28, 1963. Dr. King’s words represent a great moment in the history of freedom and I will have more to say on them in a moment.
For my biblical text this morning, I will take our reading from chapter 13 of the gospel according to Luke. This also is a noteworthy text on the subject of freedom. It begins with the story of a woman who attended a synagogue where Jesus was preaching. They tell us she was afflicted by “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.”
Let me ask you this morning: how many people do you know who are crippled in spirit? How many are “bent over” and “quite unable to stand up straight” in our churches and on our streets?
Let me tell you something: when I hear that women in this country still make only 81 cents for every dollar made by a man, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. When I read that there are more African American men in jail than there are in college, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. When I see 20% of the population controlling 80% of the resources, wallowing in luxury while millions starve, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. When I talk to Americans with foreign-born spouses who long to return home to their country but can’t because the federal government refuses to recognize the legitimacy of a marriage between two partners of the same gender, I see people bent over and quite unable to stand up straight.
This is the reality we live in. And it is certainly crippling to the human spirit. Skeptics and cynics believe that there is nothing to be done, that you can’t fight city hall, and these problems are just too big to solve. But there is another reality that we all live in. As the apostle Paul says, there is a God in whom we “live, and move, and have our being.” Jesus has something else to say to those who are crippled in spirit, bent over, and quite unable to stand up.
The Bible tells us what Jesus did. First, it says that “he saw her”. Jesus looked at this woman with all the compassion that heaven could muster; he looked at her with a love that knew her name and counted the hairs on her head. How many times do we just let those statistics just wash over us? How often do we look the other way or change the channel on those of God’s children who are bent over and quite unable to stand up straight? We don’t see them, but God does. And the Bible tells us that the first thing Jesus did for this woman was see her, really see her, as she was.
Next, the text says that he “called her over”. Not only did he know her name, he spoke it. He singled her out and drew her close to himself. He took this no-account, poor, sick woman and brought her to the center of the life of the religious community, the synagogue in which he was preaching. Jesus interrupted his own sermon to call and empower the least likely and most forgotten member of their church. The one who sat in the back, trying not to be noticed, found herself suddenly placed at the center of what God was doing in the life of her community. That’s how God works: taking the people in the margins and placing them in the middle.
Finally, Jesus said to her, “Ma’am, you are set free from your ailment.” And there’s that word again: Freedom. Isn’t Jesus’ choice of words here interesting? He doesn’t say “You are healed of your sickness.” No, he says, “You are set free from your ailment.” There is something freeing, even liberating about what Jesus is doing in this person’s life. Somehow, it’s not just about recovery from a medical condition, it’s about freedom.
There is a great deal about freedom we can learn from this passage. In fact, I think we have to. In this age when terms like faith, family, and freedom are tossed around as political buzzwords on the campaign trail, we owe to ourselves as voters and critical thinkers to know what these words really mean, especially the word freedom.
So first, I want to look at where it is that freedom comes from. It seems that those who hold public office in this country would have the people believe that freedom is a commodity to be regulated and doled out by our leaders as they see fit. They anoint themselves as champions and defenders of freedom in times of crisis. They tell us that freedom comes from the barrel of a gun or the platform of a party. Some would even have us believe that our rights and freedoms ultimately come from the Constitution, but this is not so.
The truth is that Americans do not revere the Constitution because it creates freedom, but we respect it because it recognizes freedom. In point of fact, it was Thomas Jefferson who identified for us the true source of freedom in the Declaration of Independence, which he wrote. Jefferson says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Jefferson is quite clear about the source of our rights and our freedom. He does not say that “we are endowed by our government”; he does not say that “we are endowed by our military strength”; he does not say that “we are endowed by our Constitution”. He says that “we are endowed by our Creator” with the unalienable rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is where freedom comes from. Freedom comes from God. Any system of government is at its best when it recognizes said freedom and holds it in high esteem. Any claim to the contrary amounts to a totalitarian usurpation of the throne of God, which is blasphemy.
This is the truth that emperors and despots the world over have failed to realize throughout history from Pharaoh to Caesar, from Napoleon to Nebuchadnezzar, from Stalin to Hitler, from the Confederacy to Governor George Wallace, and from Monsanto to Halliburton: that freedom is the gift of God to all the world. We disregard it to our own peril.
Jesus distributed this gift liberally in his encounter with the bent-over woman. When he calls her to the center of the church, he does not play 20 Questions, he does not ask her anything about her theology or her morality, he does not check her criminal record or her charitable donation history with the synagogue, he does not require her to take a literacy test or present a government-issued photo ID. No, he simply lays his hand on her and proclaims with the authority of God alone, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.”
Now, it seems that some folks in the church didn’t like that very much. One of the leaders of the synagogue was indignant with Jesus. That happens a lot, by the way: whenever Jesus shows up in church, the preachers and the elders get real uncomfortable (probably because they never know what he’s going to do). So, they decided real quick that they needed to shut this thing down. The leader stepped in, saying something about the church bylaws and biblical precedent, but Jesus wasn’t having any of it. Jesus set him straight pretty quick. You can’t stop the Spirit, once God gets moving; all you can do is hop on board or get out of the way. That’s how it is with Jesus: he gives God’s free gift of freedom for all, uninhibited by the religious or social institutions of the day, because freedom comes from God and God gives freely.
You don’t get freedom from bullets or ballots. Freedom cannot be legislated. Freedom is. Those among us who are truly free know that they are free whether the government chooses to recognize their freedom or not. That’s the strength that led Christians to continue gathering for worship in communist Russia, even though churches were outlawed and the practice of religion was forbidden. That’s the faith that led Martin Luther King into jail where he sang hymns of praise to God like Peter and Paul in the New Testament book of Acts. These people were all free, living in the freedom that God gives, regardless of the government’s recognition of their freedom.
So, that’s enough about where freedom comes from.
Let’s talk a little bit about what freedom is for. We can see this in the gospel story too. After Jesus had seen the woman, called her over, and proclaimed her God-given freedom, the text says “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” So you see, she wasn’t just set free from something, she was set free for something.
This is probably the most ignored aspect of the gift of freedom in this country. We selfish folks tend to think of ultimate freedom as the freedom to be left alone while we do whatever we want, but that’s not what God has in mind. God’s will is not that we should be set free from tyranny and oppression in order to be left alone; God’s will is that we should be set free in order to be together. When we are no longer weighed down by the burdens of guilt, fear, injustice, and suffering, we are finally free to love our neighbors as ourselves as we see the image of God in them and they see it in us.
We are freed for love. Love is the inner law that binds us to one another with chains of affection. There is no threat of punishment that keeps us in line with the law of love. It works by persuasion, so that love’s fruit is genuine and free.
In a world so full of injustice and un-freedom, where our brothers and sisters, God’s children, are bound, bent over, and quite unable to stand up straight, we are commanded to love them and work with them until all have obtained God’s promised freedom in equal measure. This is the gospel. This is good news in action. This is the freedom for which Christ has set us free. We are free to love, free to be loved, and free to live together as God’s beloved children on God’s green earth.
Jesus Gets His Hands Dirty
Last week’s sermon from First Pres, Boonville.
The text is John 9:1-41.
One of the most annoying things about Jesus is that, when you ask him a question, you almost never get the kind of answer you expected. He has this way of turning questions on their head. His response tends to shed more light on the person asking the question than it does on the issue at hand. Such is the case in today’s gospel reading.
The scene opens with Jesus and his disciples encountering a blind man while they are in Jerusalem for a religious holiday. As they pass by, one of them asks a question that has plagued philosophers for thousands of years: “What is the nature of suffering and evil?”
This question is especially troubling to those of us who believe in God. People have come up with all kinds of theories that try to find an answer. Some suggest that God is loving but not almighty. In other words, God cares about suffering but cannot do anything about it. Others say that God is almighty but not loving. God could solve the world’s problems but just doesn’t care. Finally, some suggest that God is both loving and almighty, but that all suffering is merely an illusion or a misunderstanding on our part.
For Jews in Jesus’ day, the most common answer was judicial. They believed that everything happens for a reason. If someone was happy, healthy, and prosperous, then that person was being blessed and rewarded by God. If someone was suffering, then that person was being punished for their sins. This judicial theory is probably what Jesus’ disciples had in mind when they asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Even though they had their own pet theory to explain why this person was suffering, it didn’t answer all their questions. In fact, their pet theory left them with quite a dilemma. You see, the man in question had been blind from birth. There was no way he could have violated Jewish law before the onset of his blindness. Therefore, God was either punishing this person for someone else’s sin or God was punishing this person for a sin that had not yet been committed. Either way, God comes across as unfair.
Jesus doesn’t resolve this dilemma for them. He lets it stand out like a hole in the middle of a donut. He says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Rather than taking a side in this debate, Jesus once again turns the entire question on its head. He says, in effect, “You’re asking the wrong question.” His response seems cryptic and mysterious because Jesus is answering the question they should have been asking all along. He continues, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
What does that mean? It means that Jesus is trying to shift their attention. He’s saying, if you really want to look for God in the midst of these tragic situations, don’t waste your time looking at the cause of the pain; look instead at the response to the pain. The most important thing, to Jesus, is that we be doing God’s work. And what’s the very next thing he does? The text says, “he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes”. In other words: Jesus got his hands dirty. While other people were standing around and arguing about philosophy, Jesus was busy healing those who hurt most.
But the scene doesn’t stop there. The recently-healed blind man quickly became the center of controversy in Jerusalem. This time, the debate was all about whether Jesus had the proper credentials to work such a miracle. Witnesses were called while scholars debated back and forth about the issue. All the while, the healed person is stuck in the middle. He doesn’t have any answers. He was probably still using his brand new eyes to figure out the difference between red and blue. When they push him, he says, “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” He stays true to his experience and simply tells the world what happened to him.
Eventually, it becomes pretty clear to this guy that he is simply a pawn being used in someone else’s religious and political agenda. What I like best about this guy is his moxy (chutzpah). Once he realizes what’s going on, he’s not content to play his part and go home. No, he stands up and gives them a piece of his mind. In more ways than one, his eyes were open. Better than anyone else in the room, this “ex-blind man” was seeing things clearly. So he stands up to this room full of rabbis and tells them off!
Well, these rabbis weren’t used to being spoken to like that! After hurling a few choice insults about the nature of this man’s parentage, they voted unanimously to kick him out of the synagogue. He was anathema, excommunicated, dis-fellowshipped, dishonorably discharged, and “don’t let the door hit you in the rump on your way out!”
So, there he was. His situation seemed hopeless. For years, he had been excluded from the life of his community because of his disability. Now, he was kicked out and called a heretic. What was he supposed to do now? He probably felt further away from God than ever before.
I love that Jesus decides to show up again at this point in the story. It says, “Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and… found him”. Then Jesus affirms what the blind man had suspected all along: that he could “see” better than any of those rabbis and scholars. In spite of their educated debate over this controversy, they had completely missed the point about what Jesus was doing. But this blind man got it, and Jesus wanted to make sure that he knew it. Jesus said, “I came into this world… so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Once again, Jesus makes sure that those who fall through the cracks of controversy and debate find their honored place in heaven’s economy. The pawns become the kings. The victims become the heroes. Jesus shows us that these suffering and forgotten people are the ones who matter most to God.
For the past month or so, the world has been watching in horror at the multiple disasters that have befallen the country of Japan. As if earthquake and tsunami weren’t enough, people are now facing the perils of radiation and nuclear meltdown. The death toll has almost reached 12,000.
In times like this, many people instinctively search for answers in the midst of suffering. They engage in controversy and philosophical debate because it’s easier than facing the reality of tragedy. In the days immediately following the earthquake, one Christian blogger posted a statement in the style of the Old Testament prophets. This person went on for quite a while, offering an itemized list of Japan’s sins. The post read (speaking for God in the first person), “I will punish you for your sins with my passion, and destroy you completely Japan by earthquake and tsunami. I will get you, the little island, back into the water, where you came from, and where you will be just like a piece of wrack (sic) sinking into the bottom of the sea.”
It’s easy to stand at a distance and pass judgment on an entire nation. It’s harder to do as Jesus did: to get our hands dirty in the business of healing. Our controversial issues and philosophical debates keep us at arm’s length from the suffering of our fellow human beings. But Jesus goes out to meet these forgotten and suffering ones right where they are.
Thankfully, there are those who are doing just as Jesus did in the midst of this tragedy. Earlier this week, I received an email from friends of my family in Japan. It’s a statement made by an American living in Tokyo who is not a Christian. He works in the Tokyo office of Goldman-Sachs.
Here is what the email said:
The response to the earthquake by many of the westerners here in Japan has been to head straight to the airport and get out of the country.
The Christian missionaries here have done just the opposite; they collect relief supplies and go straight to the disaster area to help out.
It is truly amazing what they have accomplished.
They collect supplies through donations from local citizens and international aid associations.
Then they get trucks, road permits and take the supplies to the 400,000 people who have lost their homes to the earthquake, tsunami and evacuations from the exclusion zone around the nuclear reactors.
Churches in the affected region are often used as distribution points.
Some of these churches have been damaged by the earthquake, and some are even without electricity.
This has been a 24/7 job for many of my missionary friends, but I have not heard a complaint from even one of them.
If someone were to ask me where I think God is in the midst of the Japanese tragedy, I would read them this letter.
When we go looking for God in the midst of suffering, whether it’s our own pain or the tragedy of an entire nation, let’s not get lost in philosophical debate over the causes. Rather, let’s follow Jesus and get our hands dirty in the work of healing. That’s where we’ll find God in all of this.