A little over a month ago, Shannon’s water broke at our house and we needed someone to watch Ruthie while we went to the hospital. She stayed with Val and Tess for the afternoon and then Mosoba and Dorcas came and took her to spend the night with them. That evening, on my phone, I received several videos of Ruthie and Mosoba playing and getting ready for bed. In one of the videos, the two girls are in their pjs, laying on the bed and Ruthie is holding Mosoba’s phone and watching cartoons. Dorcas, filming the scene, asks Ruthie to look at the camera and say something to her parents. Ruthie is completely absorbed in the cartoon and doesn’t even look up. After trying several times to get Ruth to look away from the phone, Mosoba finally snatches it out of her hand and then points Ruthie to Dorcas camera. Ruth looks up with shock on her face, stares at Mosoba, and shouts, “Mine!” Of course, the phone was not hers. It was Mosoba’s. Mosoba had given it to her only moments before. But in those few minutes with Mosoba’s phone Ruth had begun to feel that it was hers. That the phone belonged to her, that she had a right to watch the cartoons on the phone, that she was entitled to this phone. In only a few moments Ruthie had gove from the grateful recipient of Mosoba’s generosity and mercy to an entitled jerk, convinced Mosoba’s phone was her birth right, and dismayed that anyone would have the gall to take it from her. Its an unfortunately common trait in us human beings, this jumping from gratitude to entitlement- and it can bring out the worst in us.
The story of Blind Bartimaues comes at the end of the middle section of Mark. The first half of Mark has Jesus doing ministry in Galilee and doing his best to keep his Messianic identity a secret. In the second half of Mark, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, where he will confront the authorities and be crucified. But this middle section, this is the part where Peter correctly guesses Jesus’ identity as the Messiah, and where Jesus attempts to describe that as Messiah he will suffer and die. The disciple’s have a terribly difficult time understanding and accepting that Jesus’ fate is to suffer; their minds are stuck on the possibility of their own glory. If Jesus is the Messiah, and they are his followers, surely they are headed to glory and greatness. First there is Peter who outright rejects Jesus’ own claim that he will suffer and die. He rebukes Jesus over his claim that he will suffer, insisting upon the glory that he has only just begun to imagine. Then the disciples begin to focus on themselves, their own role in what they are sure is Jesus coming glory, they argue over which of them will be the greatest. Finally, James and John, work themselves up into a blinding sense of entitlement and approach Jesus by demanding that he do for them whatever he ask of them. Can you imagine? Like a 6 year old trying to tie the hands of their parent, “Whatever we ask you, you have to do for us.” And what it is it that they feel so entitled to demand of Christ? That they be allowed to sit at his right and left hand in glory.
Before Jesus found them and called them to follow him, these disciples were fishermen and tax collectors. They were ordinary people, living ordinary lives. Everything that they now have, their relationship with Jesus, the authority that comes with being among his select followers, the prestige amongst the crowds, the incredible responsibility to follow Jesus, all of this has come to them from Jesus’ free gift. From his decision to call them, these ordinary people, with ordinary lives, to be his followers, these men have been given new lives and great new importance. And now, only months after their call, they seem to have forgotten their gratitude entirely. Instead of remembering that they were outsiders called to follow out of God’s mercy and grace, they have come to think of themselves as part of the in crowd, deserving and entitled to perks and benefits that must be denied to others.
In addition to the entitlement of the disciples, this middle section of Mark, also introduces the story of the rich man who wishes to follow Jesus. He asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus replies that he must follow the law, he must love the LORD his God with all his heart, and mind, and strength, and spirit and love his neighbor as himself. The rich man happily replies that he already does all of this, and asks if there is anything else. To this Jesus replies that he must sell all his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. And the man, turns away, chooses not to follow, because he had many possessions. In a society as materialistic as ours, it is almost possible to miss the humor in this story, for we tend to value possessions over nearly everything else. Jesus has just told the man the secret to eternal life, he can live forever, all he has to do is give up his possessions, and he chooses instead to hold onto his stuff and die. Why? What a crazy choice! The answer may be in how the rich man views his possessions. Are they gifts from God, given to him freely out of sheer grace? Or are they His possessions, the things he worked for and acquired himself, things that he deserves, possessions to which he is entitled? This man who knows the law of God and seeks to follow it, he too, has forgotten that everything he has, everything he is, is a gift of God’s mercy. His sense of entitlement keeps him from sharing his gifts, it keeps him from helping others, it keeps him from eternal life.
By any reckoning we, each and every one of us, are among the most blessed and fortunate people ever to walk the earth. We live in the wealthiest country in world history. We live free of the violence of war. We have access, to varying degrees, to food, to health care, to employment, to education. We have a government that has peacefully changed hands for over 200 years. We have religious freedom in a society where our religion is the norm. As we all know these blessings are not universal and timeless, we are among the minority. The vast majority of the world’s people do not have such fortune, such incredible blessings. The question that Mark’s gospel raises for us today, is how we are to think about such blessings? Are we to understand them as the entitlements granted to Jesus’ in crowd, those closest to the Messiah? Are we to understand them as our just deserts, things we have earned and worked for and come to deserve? Are we entitled to these blessings because of our hard work and virtue? How are we, as Christians, to think about our great privilege?
After the disciple’s miss the point, and the rich man chooses his wealth over eternal life, it is Blind Bartimaeus whose story ends this middle section of Mark. Jesus is in the midst of a great crowd of followers and disciples when a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road calls out him, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The term Son of David, is a messianic one, the Son of David, was to sit on David’s throne, he was to be the Messiah. Bartimaeus has correctly identified Jesus as the Messiah, just as Peter had done. Without ever having met him before, without hearing his teaching, without the gift of sight, Bartimaeus knows Jesus to be the Messiah. Yet this knowledge does not lead him to view himself as deserving, entitlted, or part of the in crowd. Instead of demanding that Jesus do whatever he asks him, Bartimaeus instead says, “Have mercy on me.” Batimaeus knows that he is need of Christ’s mercy, he knows that he cannot earn his sight, he cannot deserve healing, but through the mercy of God he may be healed regardless. When he hears that Jesus has called him, Bartimaeus throws off his coat, his one and only possession, and eagerly goes to Jesus. There is nothing he is not willing to set aside, no possession he feels so entitled to that he cannot give it away to come to Jesus. Finally, When Jesus asks him, using the exact same language as when he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” Blind Bartimaeus does not ask for glory, but merely for sight… “My teacher, let me see again.” He wishes to see, to regain his vision, but also to truly see, to see things the way they are, to see himself for who he truly is, to see who he is before God. To this Jesus replies, “Go, your faith has made you well.” When he regains his sight, Bartimaeus immediately begins following Jesus on the way. He has been given the ability to see that all he is is due to God’s mercy and that the only response to such an incredible gift is to give yourself to Jesus, to God, to others. Bartimaeus, though blind, came to see what the disciple’s and the rich man could not, he saw that his very life was contingent upon the mercy of God.
What might we, the fortunate children of the United States in the 21st century, from Blind Bartimaeus? Remember from where our blessings have come.All that we have and all that we are is a gift from the God who created the heavens and the earth. We do not deserve any of it, nor are we entitled to any of it, it is all a gift of God’s mercy. Remember that we are called to throw off any possession that would keep us from following Christ. Our incredible fortune is not a private treasure to be hoarded, it is to be shared with all God’s children as they have need, and as God calls us to give it away. We must remember that our being Christians does not grant us entrance to an in-crowd more deserving of God’s blessings than those outside. God calls those on the outside to the center, and God calls us to do the same. If we wish to follow Jesus in 21st century America we will have to share our blessings with the rest of the world, we will have to ask for vision to see the sufferings of our neighbors, and we will have to remember that we live and breath only by the mercy of the God who loves the entire creation and all of Her children throughout the world. Amen.
One of my best friends in high school was a terrifically funny guy by the name of Cliff. Cliff was a little older than the rest of my friend group and was the first of us to drive. Maybe its not the same anymore, but when I was a freshman in high school having a car instantly made you the coolest kid around. Just about everyone with a car knew this and so most of them liked to play up their cool factor while driving by leaning back in the driver’s seat one hand on the wheel, smoking a cigarette and blasting music at ridiculously loud volumes. Cliff was never very into being a cool kid, at least not as much as he was into mocking them. So whenever Cliff picked me up in his car- he’d hand me a pair of aviator sunglasses and then turn his car radio to NPR and blast the news. We’d drive around St. Louis with the news bumping out of our stereo. Nothing was better than pulling up next to a car at a red light, having them look at our car in bewilderment and then watch Cliff give them a cool head nod, as if to say “You down with the news too?”
Lately, the news has been overwhelming. One natural disaster after another, one mass shooting after another, the blatant lies and manipulation coming from our political leaders, the world’s largest refugee crisis since World War II and of course, climate change. There is no need to bump the news anymore, it already feels like its been turned up as loud as possible and set to fast forward. The scandals and crises are so constant that its impossible to pay attention to them all. Its enough to make you crazy, enough to make you despair. I have heard a lot of people say in the past few years that they stopped watching the news. It was too depressing. Too overwhelming. Its easier and safer and more comfortable for some people to just tune out. To stop paying attention to anything outside of themselves and their own lives.
In this morning’s Gospel reading from Mark, James and John approach Jesus with a special request. When they approach him they state rather boldly, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus refuses to aquiesce to their demand before hearing what it is, and so he asks them, “What is it you want me to do for you.” To which the two disciples reply, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The request is self- centered, they are asking Jesus to give them what they want. Their request is also notable because it mirrors what Jesus has said will happen to him after his death and resurrection: He will sit at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus knows, and has told the disciples’ that his path to glory require his to give up his very life for the good of other human beings. So when the disciple’s flippantly request to be served and honored by Jesus, he responds by asking them if they too are willing to give up their very lives for others, ““Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I baptized with?” Using the metaphor of cup and baptism, Jesus is asking the disciple’s if they are ready to suffer and to die. This is a heavy question, something to be considered and meditated upon, for it means enduring pain, and suffering. At the very least you would want to sleep on such a question, or get back to Jesus, but no, not James and John. They immediately respond, “We are able,” a response that demonstrates that they have a very optimistic view of the costs and trials of discipleship. Indeed at the end of Mark’s gospel, James and John abandon Jesus at the cross. They were not ready, they were not able. They had vastly underestimated the cost of discipleship.
This is the problem with optimism, it is often an ill-informed hope. Optimism underestimates the difficulties that are coming its way, it reports sunshine and blue skies, even when a storm is obviously approaching. Optimism turns off the news when its too depressing. Optimism chooses to isolate itself from the suffering of others, living a life where the less fortunate can be ignored, and its navite can go unchallenged. James and John are concerned with themselves and their reward and so they are optimistic that they are up to any test involved. They have tuned out Jesus repeated warnings that his destiny is to suffer and die. So when the time comes for them to drink the cup, they are not at all prepared, they never imagined it would cost them their lives.
If the disciple’s have trouble fully facing the cost of discipleship, then what hope do we have for so doing? After all they had a living breathing Jesus in front of them warning and teaching them, and they still couldn’t fully face the suffering of the world, they still couldn’t give their lives freely for others. How can we find the strength to face the world’s suffering and yet not run away, not isolate ourselves in despair or indifference? Especially when many of the problems we face are global in scale and seemingly beyond our capacity to do anything to fix? How can we read the UN Report on climate change, acknowledge our leaders unwillingness to tackle the issue, and not simply melt into despair?
My family isn’t terribly athletic, my father is short and somewhat round, with a bad back, so he didn’t play a lot of sports with us. But he did for one year, coach my kindergarten T-ball team. We were, most of us, a rag-tag group of kids who were more scared of the ball hitting them than we were excited about the opportunity to hit it. But we had one boy on our team, who was possibly the world’s largest kindergartener. I can’t remember his name, but I remember him being a full foot taller than anyone else on our team. And I remember where he batted in the order: he was fourth, he was clean up. The first three batters would do their best to make it to base on a slow ground ball, or unintentional bunt. And then our big guy would come up to the plate and hit a home run. Like almost every time. We scored in multiples of four, this giant would usually hit two or three grandslams every game. So despite my teams lack of talent even courage, and despite my father’s inexperience at coaching, we went undefeated that season. We had a secret a weapon, our own giant kindergartner who could carry us home we if we could just get on base.
Perhaps the greatest difference between us and those original 12 disciples, is that we have a secret weapon, we have faith in the risen Christ. Its true that Jesus told the disciples repeatedly he was going to die and rise again, but its one thing to hear it, and quite another to witness it, to experience it. After the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the very same disciple’s who abandoned Jesus at the cross, became the foundation of the church. Their faith in God’s miraculous defeat of sin and death in Jesus’ resurrection completely changed them. The bumbling hard headed disciples become brave and bold in speaking truth to power, they perform miraculous healings, they begin a movement that has not stopped growing for over 2,000 years. And they did all of this while facing oppression, torture, and execution. Indeed we know from the book of Acts, that James did drink the cup of suffering, he too was executed. And hundreds and hundreds more over the first three centuries of Christianity would meet the same fate, torture and execution; yet they would face it with joy.
This is the difference between optimism and faith. While optimism underestimates or outright ignores the risks and costs involved, faith looks soberly and squarely at all the problems of the world, the countless, global, overwhelming problems of the world, and does not flinch. These problems are real, they are urgent, they are causing terrible consequences, and they will be nearly impossible to solve. That is true, and any faith worth the time, must be able to acknowledge that. But faith in the risen Christ is faith in a God for whom anything is possible. It is faith in a God of abundant grace and unparalleled power. It is faith in a God who conquers sin and death. This faith faces the crises of the world in all their horror and urgency, and nevertheless proclaims that God’s resources are greater than any of these problems. That God can and will and is working for justice, peace, and righteousness in the world. We can be realistic and yet still have hope, for our hope is not in ourselves, our hope is in the God who defeats sin and death, the God who can and will redeem anyone and anything. Our task is to be set free from despair, from indifference, from apathy, by our faith in God and to go about doing whatever small thing we can do to be a part of God’s saving work in the world. We can’t win the game by ourselves, we can’t even score a run by ourselves, but we can get on base if we try. We can do our small part and trust that God is always batting clean up. That God will bring us home. May we all find this trust, find this faith that sets us free to hope, and find ways in which we all can partake of the salvation that God is bringing to the world. Amen.
When I was in 8th grade I discovered Creedence Clearwater Revival. Granted, Creedence had already been around a good thirty years by that point, but eighth grade was when I first heard them. And I loved them. I liked Put Me in Coach, I liked Proud Mary, but absolutely loved the song, Fortunate Son. Fortunate Son had just enough rebellion, just enough disgust and disdain with the status quo, to really appeal to my rebellious adolescent spirit. The lyrics proclaim that the singer is not a Fortunate Son, “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate Son, Oh it ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no Senator’s son.” Not only is the singer among the unfortunate, he also heaps judgment upon the wealth and injustice of the fortunate: “Some folks are born silver spoon in hand, Lord, don't they help themselves, oh But when the taxman comes to the door, Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale, yes.” The singer is upset, he’s angry at the injustice of some people, the fortunate ones, taking all they can, well beyond what they need or can create, and then refusing to contribute to the well being of all through the paying of their taxes. These fortunate sons take and take and take and when it is their turn to give, their turn to pull their weight, to take responsibility for their actions, they are nowhere to be found.
Amos, the Israelite Prophet of the 7th Century BCE, was decidedly not a Fortunate Son. Amos came from the small village of Tekoa, where he worked with his hands. He was not descended from a line of prophets, he did not grow up in a prophetic school, he was merely a common man, a laborer. Amos simply believed he had heard the word of God, and that he had been called to speak God’s word of judgment to the newly prosperous kingdom of Israel. God’s message to Israel was not good news for the fortunate of their society. Amos was a prophet with precious little good news to share, he was a prophet of doom.
Why? Why was God so upset with Israel? Why is God threatening them with annihilation? Isn’t this the same God of Jesus Christ, the God of grace, and mercy, the God whom John identified as love itself? How can such a bright, sunshiney, loving God be so eager to condemn, to punish, to take from the people their wealth and their security? What could the people have done to provoke the wrath of God?
Amos is not shy about publicly listing the sins of Israel; their actions which have brought about God’s wrath. The people have turned justice to wormwood, and they have righteousness to the ground. They have trampeled on the poor. They have built vineyards and houses and fortunes from the sweat of other men’s brows. They have pushed aside the needy, they have abhored the truth, they have taken bribes. What is worse, they have done so all while claiming God’s blessing. They have deceived themselves so thoroughly that they have come to believe that God has given them the wealth which they have taken from the poor. That they, the fortunate, are God’s chosen people.
Amos comes to remind them of their covenant with the One True God, the God who created the heavens and the earth. This belief in single God, a God not of a certain people, but a God who creates and sustains all of the Universe, was and remains the unique and special gift of Israel to the rest of the world. What made the Israelite belief in a single deity so significant was that it tied faith in God to ethical action in the world, it was and is, an ethical monotheism. The connection between belief in God and ethical action is all over the bible, it is most succinctly stated in the summation of Israel’s law, “To love the LORD your God with all your heart, and mind, and spirit, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” This two loves, that of neighbor and of God, are inseparable; for the God who created and loves you, also creates and loves your neighbor. To love this One God, requires loving what She loves, loving all the creation.
The wealthy of Israel have broken their covenant with God. They have not loved the poor, but exploited them. They have not sought the well being of the needy, but pushed them aside. Like any mother who sees an older son beating and abusing a younger, weaker son, God chooses the side of the oppressed and abused and meets the abuser with wrath. If the people of Israel continue in this oppression, “God will break out against the house of Joseph like fire, and it will devour Bethel, with no one to quench it.”
The message of Amos to Israel should hit us like a ton of bricks in our present situation. The wealth of our nation came largely from the sweat of other men’s brows: 400 years of slavery, a continued history of exploited immigrant labor, extraction of wealth and natural resources from the third world. Our political leaders have thrown off any semblance of shame and lie routinely and boldly to the nation, its people, and the world. They abhor the truth. The gap between the poor and the obscenely wealthy continues to grow, and there seem to be a never ending supply of preachers scrambling to bless the wealthy to declare their prosperity a sign of God’s favor rather than a sign of their hatred of justice and the poor. If Amos brought a message of doom and destruction to 7th century Israel, what message would he bring to 21st century America?
We may not need to wonder any longer. In the last week the United Nations released a report on climate change which states clearly that without massive and immediate government intervention the consequences of climate change will be severley felt by the year 2040. Coastal cities and communites will be washed away. Famine, drought, and flooding will ravage the globe. Plant and animal species will go extinct at alarming rates. Disastrous weather, hurricanes, typhoons and tornadoes will increase in frequency and intensity. And all of this will happen, all over the globe, by the time our children are in their twenties. It would seem that God’s wrath is about to be poured out, or at the very least God seems to be leaving us to face the consequences of our sin. The coming disaster has been foretold. The question remains how will we respond?
Although Amos had a lot of bad news to give to Israel in the 7th century, he did hold out just the tiniest speck of hope for the people. “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; And so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said.Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” In the face of a global enviornmental crisis, it is natural to feel overwhelmed. It makes sense to feel that their is nothing that we alone can do. In fact, that is precisely what the UN report says, volunteerism will not solve this crisis, it will take massive government intervention just to lessen the disaster. As people of faith, people in covenant with God, what should our response be? The new covenant, of which are a part, proclaims that through the power of God’s grace we can be saved, we can be set free to pursue righeousness, to seek good and not evil.
This is precisely where Amos locates hope, in the grace of God, “It may be, that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.” God’s grace is what saves. God’s grace is what makes possible newness of life, and transformation. It is in the grace of God that we must put our trust and our hope for salvation.
Does that mean that we are passive, that we keep on living the same way we have been, hoping that God will miracoulsy save us? No. Grace is transformative. It calls us to new life. It makes it possible to seek good over evil. If we are to trust in God’s grace that requires that we begin living as a people transformed, here and now. In the face of the coming disaster, in the face of the consequences of our sin, we must begin bearing witness to God’s saving grace by our actions as the church. We must bear witness with our lives together to God’s saving power by changing our ways. We must seek to care for the creation, to live in greater harmony with nature and our neighbors. How can we as church live more sustainably, how can we limit our pollution, our carbon footprint? We must seek to care for the poor and oppressed who will face the worst of the climate crisis that the wealthy have created. How can we help refugees? How can we work for justice for the poor and exploited? We must seek to tell the truth, even the difficult truth of the coming disaster and our responsibility for it, in love. How can we as church bear witness to the importance of truth telling? How can we help people out of denial and into a new life of covenant responsibility? The Church can be that faithful remnant of which Amos spoke, the seed of a new world of justice, righteousness, and truth. We can bear witness to a more just world, to the world that God is calling us to be. But we will have to choose to do so. This transformation of our selves, our congregation, and our community, will not happen if we don’t work for it. It will require our generosity, our giving of our money, our time, our love, and our compassion, and it will require our trust in the saving grace of God. My prayer is that we may find renewed enthusiasm for the work and ministry of St. Paul’s UCC. We are called to be a light to the nations, to model the kingdom of God for the world, to be a people who seek transformation through the giving of ourselves and our gifts to God and God’s plan for all creation. May it be so. Amen.