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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Your faith has healed you

Job 42.1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34; Hebrews 7.23-28; Mark 10.46-52

The key theme in today’s lectionary readings is that of passage or transformation.  Passage from a place - variously described - of ignorance, fear or blindness to a place of repentance, trust and the enlightened following of Christ. 

Over the past few weeks we have been reading about Job.  Here, at the very end of the book, the Lord has finally himself spoken to cut through the ignorant speculations of Job’s advisors.  The response of Job to this rather spectacular intervention is recorded in the verses we read:
Who is it that obscures your counsel without knowledge? Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said ‘Listen now and I will question you, and you shall answer me’. My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes.
The passage traversed here by Job is not the classical Greek journey from apparent knowledge, through ignorance, to ‘true’ knowledge. It is not that Job thought he knew about divine things, but then was shown some secret knowledge or mystery which gave him the key to understand what God was on about in a brand new way. No. Job’s passage is from apparent knowledge, through ignorance, to repentance.  A crucial difference, that.  Not to ‘true’ knowledge but to repentance.  The point of this last chapter in Job is not that he has a beautific vision of God which unveils for him the meaning of everything, but that Job has a vision of God that uncovers prescisely nothing, nada, nihil.  That is the paradox of this final vision.  God reveals Godself, certainly, but the God so revealed is one who cannot be mapped, contained or domesticated within the strictures of human thinking or imagining.  The ‘repentance’ of Job represents an acknowledgement of this fact.  ‘My eyes have seen you . . . therefore I repent in dust and ashes’.  Dust and ashes is apparently all that remains of Job’s apparent knowledge and insight into God’s ways.  That Job’s fortunes are then immediately restored, and doubly so, should not therefore be read as some kind of reward for Job’s new-found insight, a classically Greek restoration of equilibrium because of the hard work of the hero toward the restoration of order from chaos. On the contrary, the restoration is a gift. It comes without antecedent or reason or work. It cannot be inferred or deduced from anything that comes before. It is sheer grace, the very opposite of the karmic worldview of pagans which is obsessed with buying the favour of the gods through the performance of virtue and of knowledge. In Job, the abundance of the final restoration represents, by contrast, the sheer grace of God toward everyone who repents of such ambitions.

When we turn to the Gospel, a very similar rite of passage or transformation unfolds, a passage that might be characterised as the movement from pagan blindness to Christian discipleship.  The gospel stories are highly symbolic. They should not be read primarily as history in the modern sense, although they certain contain such history.  Thus, this story of a blind man encountered and healed by Jesus on the road from Jericho probably does have a historical core ,but Mark takes this core and turns it into an occasion for preaching about the path one must take in order to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ. 


That this is so becomes clear when we consider the name of the blind man.  It is Bartimaeus – the ‘son’, Mark is careful to underline, of ‘Timaeus’.  Now Timaeus is not a semitic name, it is neither Aramaic nor Hebrew.  It is Greek.  So we know immediately that this man represents not the lost of Israel, but another population of the lost, namely the Gentiles, citizens of the wider Roman empire that, at this time, is overwhelmingly pagan in the sense we have begun to describe.  Furthermore, Timaeus is the common name of one of most influential philosophical treatises of the ancient world, a dialogue written by Plato in the 4th century BCE.  It is an account, given in the voice of one ‘Timaeus’, of the making of the universe and of the gods by a master craftsman who purposes all to his own good pleasure.  The purpose of human life, according to ‘Timaeus’, is to ascend through the pecking-order of created things at the conclusion of each earthly existence, being constantly reincarnated to a new station in the hierarchy of being according to how virtuous (or not) one has been in a former life.  Here the pagan universe reveals itself as essentially karmic.  The apparently ‘good’, the industrious and the knowledgeable, are rewarded for their goodness, their industry and their knowledge. They are rewarded by ascending the ladder of being towards a form of divinity which is clearly of their very own making.

That Mark is not particularly impressed with such ideas is clear from his story.  For we find Bartimaeus, surely a ‘son’ or ‘disciple’ of Timaeus, in a very bad way! His careful following of the way of Timaeus – the way of virtue, industry and knowledge - has not, in fact, led to enlightenment or a superior station in life, but only to ‘blindness’ and economic poverty.  In fact, he is a beggar who has reached, as it were, the very bottom of life’s barrel. And this at the margins of a barbaric town on the very periphery of all that really mattered to citizens of the empire. In Jericho. 

Now it’s a funny place, the bottom of the barrel. It is a place where things can suddenly become very clear in a way that they have never been before.  It is the place where many an alcoholic, for example, recognises that they have been kidding themselves, and will probably continue to kid themselves to death unless . .  unless they get some help from somebody else, some other who can intervene on their behalf and give them a hand.  And that is exactly what this former disciple of Timaeus does.  Having recognised that the path of the self-made man has taken him nowhere fast, he cries out for help.  That Bartimaeus was very, very desperate is clear from his willingness to seek the help of one whom his philosophical masters would certainly have regarded as a complete ignoramus, a Philistine or Cretan even, namely the Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth.  ‘Son of David, have mercy on me’ he cries out, and not very timidly.  On the lips of the historical blind beggar, the term ‘Son of David’ would probably have meant little more than ‘hey, Jewish person’.  But in Mark’s story it takes on the character of a nascent step of faith towards a very new God.  It means ‘Hey Jesus, anointed one of God, Messiah, have mercy on me’.  There is a recognition, here, that the way of his pagan master - the way of Timaeus - has come to nothing but blindness and poverty.  There is a recognition here, that Bartimaeus needs a rather different kind of God than that offered by the pagan philosophical tradition, a god who sits impervious in the distant heavens and waits for us to earn our way to his footstool.  Here there is a recognition that Bartimaeus needs, instead, the God of Jews and Christian, a God who is gracious and loving, a saviour and healer who meets us where we are, in the midst of our troubles, and actually helps.  And so he cries out to Jesus time and time again, even when he is told by the frankly racist crowd to shut up.

What happens, of course, is that Jesus responds.  He ‘calls’ Bartimaeus to come.  This ‘calling’ is something that only the God of the Jews does. It is the way in which the God of the Jews creates his people Israel, his chosen people, his covenant people.  Not on the basis of their deserving industriousness, virtue or knowledge, but on the basis of God’s free grace and lovingkindness.  So when Jesus ‘calls’ Bartimaeus, he is saying ‘come, be part of the community of God’s calling, the people who know God’s grace and favour, the people to whom God has given his very self.’  When Bartimaeus responds to the call by indeed coming to Jesus, Jesus immediately acts to heal him, to take away his karmic myopeia and gift him with the chance to take a rather different route in life.  It is important to note that the Greek word for ‘heal’ is the same as the Greek word for ‘save’.  Jesus heals the man of his disease, that is to say, but in so doing also ‘saves’ him from the karmic chains in which he is bound so that he can experience, for the very first time, that reality we call the ‘grace of God’, that is, God’s unmerited favour and love. Note, also, that Jesus tells the man that it is his ‘faith’ that has saved him.  ‘Faith’ mind you, not virtue or industriousness or knowledge.  For faith, in the Christian tradition is basically about trusting someone else with our lives, trusting Jesus the son of God.  It is the opposite of trusting in our own vision, in our own virtue, work or knowledge. It is about trusting that only someone else’s vision, virtue, work and knowledge – that of Jesus Christ – is able to save us. The story ends with the man following Jesus along the road to Jerusalem, an image of true discipleship if ever there was one.

Now, what are we to make of these stories today, in the midst of our own world?  Well, simply this, I suggest: That we are as likely as Job or Bartimaeus to be enslaved by the laws of karma so beloved by the author of the Timaeus. While the philosophy of the ancient world is rarely read anymore, its basic message nevertheless permeates our society at every level. Day by day, in popular culture or high culture, on the television or at the museum, we are bombarded by a neo-paganism that proclaims that our purpose in life is to ascend some kind of pecking-order, to better ourselves through virtue, industriousness and knowledge.  Some versions of this neo-paganism are purely materialistic, measuring the desired-for ascent in purely materialistic ways, like how prestigious your job is or how big a house or holiday your income will buy you. Other forms are more ‘spiritual’, explicitly proclaiming the potential divinisation of the human self through various paths of virtue, self-discipline or self-knowledge.  These range from the ‘neo-buddhist’ and the ‘new age’ through to the ‘new Christianity’ of the so-called ‘progressive Christian’ movement, which is as enthusiastic about the necessity of human beings to save themselves as the materialists, the new-agers and the atheists.  

Ironically enough, this all-pervasive neo-paganism possibly began its comeback with the subversion of Christianity by capitalism. When Max Weber toured northern Europe and America at the turning of the 20th century, he noticed that it was the ‘protestant’ countries that were succeeding the most in economic terms.  He proposed that there was a ‘Protestant work ethic’ that made this possible.  Protestants worked harder than atheists or Catholics because they lived to work rather than working to live.  The irony here is that this ‘ethic’ is as far from the foundations of the reformed faith as one can get.  The reformers wanted to protest what they saw as a subversion of God’s grace in Catholic thought and practise, the tendency in medieval Catholicism to grant salvation only to those who were able to satisfy the church’s harsh conditions and demands.

The good news for us today is the same good news that revolutionised the ancient pagan world and gave rise to the Reformation: that God does not treat us as we apparently deserve to be treated, that the favour of God is not conditional upon our capacity to be good, or industrious or knowledgeable.  That God simply loves us, and has acted to save us from our misguided attempts at saving ourselves in Jesus Christ.  For in Christ we can throw ourselves upon the mercy of God and find that God has accepted us and welcomed us into God’s family or commonwealth no matter what we have done or what we think we know.  I, at least, find that to be very good news indeed, not least because I feel that I am simply unable to ‘come up to scratch’ in ways that my society and culture can recognise as ‘successful’. Perhaps you do as well!  In the welcome and grace of God I feel that I am loved, accepted, and valued.  And I need that more than I can say.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Can you be baptised with my baptism?

Mark 10.35-45

Today we gather to witness a most astonishing and disturbing event.  In a few moments we shall watch as a small child is put to death . . .  and then we shall see her being raised to an entirely new life.  Is that what you expected to see today?  Is that why you came?  Baptism, you see, is a profound ritual of death and re-birth.  It seeks to imitate the experience of Jesus as he was tortured and killed by evil men, buried in the ground, but then raised to be with God forever.  At its heart, the ritual of baptism seeks to bind the heart and spirit of the baptised person to the heart and Spirit of Jesus Christ.  Baptism is therefore a moment of high drama on the journey of faith.  It is not to be entered into lightly, for it is very, very dangerous to join a life to that of Jesus Christ.

Baptism is dangerous in three ways.  First, it will certainly kill you.  Second, it will take you into a strange and terrifying new world - a world I like to call 'the Godzone'.  And finally, baptism will lead you to do stuff which no respectable citizen ought to do.  You'll lose your reputation for being a nice person.  You'll nuke your credibility.  So don't go messing about with baptism.  I'm warning you.  It's dynamite.

When Jesus talked about baptism, he was talking about death.  When James and John, two of his friends, asked to be head honchos in the political oligarchy they thought he would set up, Jesus asked them this question:  ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I will drink, or be baptised with the baptism I am baptised with?’  In Mark's story of Jesus, cups and baptisms were short-hand ways of talking about Jesus' crucifixion.  The cup represented blood, and baptism was about being drowned.  The message is clear.  Just like for Jesus' friends, if we want to belong to Jesus then we've got to be prepared to die.

Now there are big deaths and there are little deaths.  Being baptised is both.  In baptism, we're called by God to nail all the destructive stuff in our lives to the cross with Jesus.  You know what I'm talking about.  Being so ego-centric that we don't give a toss about anyone else.  Living like money means more than people or clean air.  Being control freaks who won't come at anything that gives someone else the reins.  Worshipping at the altars of false gods.  Like TV.  Or Sport.  Or the perfect body.  Or corporate image.  Baptism means letting go of all that stuff.  It's killing us.  We need to let that stuff go in order to grab hold of the new life which Christ offers us. You can't have both.

If you’re serious about dying with Christ through baptism, then you'll eventually wake up in a strange and terrifying world - the Godzone.  You'll meet weird people there.  People who don't pretend they have it all together.  People who struggle with life.  People who are honest about their doubts and fears.  People who believe that God loves them and will never forsake them.  You'll also get to know a self that you never knew existed.  A self which is unafraid of life.  A self which can sit with pain and not want to run away.  A self which regularly forgets itself in the raptures of loving . . . loving people, and beauty and truth.  A self that can stand to be alone with that dark and terrible fire which is God.

But, be warned!  If you hang out in the Godzone too much—if you allow your baptism to shape your life—then you'll lose most of your credibility as a nice, middle-class, person who is going somewhere.  You'll find that your core values are changing, that they're no longer consistent with the dominant values of our society (or even your family).  You'll be sickened by the way in which the strong exploit the weak.  You'll become an advocate for the voiceless ones, the vulnerable ones, the forgotten ones.  Your drive to get ahead will be transformed into a desire to come alongside.  You'll stop hoarding your love and your time and your money.  You'll learn to give yourself away, as if that was all that mattered.  Because, in the end, you'll see that only God matters.  The God who gives himself away in Jesus Christ.

I hope you can hear what I'm saying.  Baptism is a very big thing.  It is not a nice day for the rellies. It is not an outing for grandma's christening gown.  It is not a naming ceremony.  Baptism is God's offer of love and liberation.  But it is also our response to that love, that vulnerable love of a God that is able to change our lives and makes us vulnerable too.  In baptism we become inextricably joined with the crucified and risen God.  We promise to live his life, and die his death, and we submit ourselves to be raised to the Godzone with him.  Live dangerously.  Live out your baptism.

This sermon was delivered at Christ Church, Kensington, in October 2003.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

For God Everything is Possible

Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

No matter whether we are rich or we are poor, there comes a time for many of us when we awake to discover that we are without what matters most, we are without God.

Job was a man who was very rich in every way. He owned land, and goods. But he was also rich in the joys of family, whom he loved and they him.  He was also rich, it seems, in what might be called ‘moral goods’ or, in middle-class speak, ‘brownie points’.  He was renowned for his honesty in business dealings and his charity to those in need.  Yet it was not until all of this was taken from him that he came to see that although he possessed all things, he did not possess God.  Let me quote from chapter 23 of the book that bears Job’s name:
If only I knew where to find God; if only I could go to his dwelling . . . But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him.  When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.
The rich young man who comes to Jesus in the story from Mark’s gospel is in many ways the same as Job.  He is a wealthy man when it comes to lands and goods.  But he, too, is wealthy in the ways of the moral law. ‘All these commandments I have kept since I was a boy’ he tells Jesus.  Yet, despite his wealth in all these things, he comes to Jesus because he is aware that something is missing.  ‘What must I do to inherit eternal life?’ he asks. The rich young man is different to Job in that he still, at the point we encounter him here, possesses his material wealth.  Yet he is the same as Job in possessing his integrity, his moral uprightness.  And he is the same as Job is what he does not, apparently, possess: God. For that is what ‘eternal life’ apparently meant for this young man.  To possess all that God possesses. To ‘inherit’ the very life of God that can never be lost or stolen away. To possess such life as God possesses it: absolutely, and without any danger of loss or corruptibility.

So. Whether we are rich or poor, for many of us there comes a time when we awake to discover that we are without what matters most, we are without God.  I say ‘for many of us’ because I am aware that there are a great many people today who never come to this awareness at all.  That is not to say that there are not a great many existential crises out there. They are everywhere!  It is simply to say that the emptiness a great many of us feel is rarely understood, anymore, to be about the lack of God.  For most, their existential crises are about a seeping away of meaningfulness in what we do each day, but that is about as far as the analysis gets.  That a loss of meaning may also signal a lack of God is something that Christians and Jews and Muslims can talk about, because we live inside a language and culture – a ‘house of being’ as Heidegger said – which names what human beings need more than anything else by the name of ‘God’.  God is the name to which all names point, the desired which all desires ultimately allude to.  God is the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the one thing necessary to life in all its fullness.

So, for we Christians, the experience of awaking to God’s apparent absence can be a very scary thing indeed. If we do not feel God’s presence and experience God’s blessing, then what is life worth?  If God seems to have disappeared from the stage, then what are we to conclude? That God doesn’t care for us, or that God is dead? Or perhaps Professors Freud and Dawkins are right: God does not exist, God is no more than a cultural construct, a product of our needy, infantile, imaginations?  Well, in the face of the experience to which we refer, that is indeed one way to proceed. But it is somewhat reductionist, and it suffers from the precisely the kind of cultural captivity that it accuses the believer of having – in this case, a rather unquestioning acceptance of the culture of modernity.  Furthermore, it is not my way. My way is interested in what the scriptures have to say about the matter.

What today’s scriptures have to say about the experience of God’s disappearance or absence can be summarised in two ways. First, that the experience of God’s absence is more apparent than real. For both Job and the rich young man had over-identified God with the world of things and of achievements, that is, with those dimensions of life one may possess or use or control. In both cases, it was the loss of the same that brought on the crisis: in the case of Job, an actual loss; for the rich young man, the fear of such loss. For when Jesus invites the young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, he turns away. Clearly he cannot see that possessing eternal life, possessing God, is something rather different to possessing or using or controlling things.  For God cannot be possessed or used or controlled like material goods or brownie points can be possessed and used and controlled. The Jewish and Christian tradition about idolatry makes this clear.  If we identify God with such things, then we have not identified God. We have created an idol instead – a false god which is not God but merely an extension of ourselves.  And this is what Job and the rich young man had done. They had made their possessions and their achievements their god, and thus when these things were lost (or, in the case of the young man, when Jesus suggests that they ought to be lost) they also lose their god. Instant existential crisis ensues.

This loss of God is therefore more apparent than real. When we over-identify God with a comfortable, easy, life where things go pretty much the way we would like them to go, then the loss of such things can feel like the loss of God. But it is not.  Indeed, for much of the Christian tradition, the loss or (more positively) the refusal of such things is, in fact, the precondition of really finding God. Or, to put it another way (and here we are moving into the second of our summaries) the de-identification of God with what we can possess or use or control becomes the first step in a path which realises that it is not God who is present to us, on our terms and according to our desires, but God who is present to us, under God’s terms and according to God’s desires.

Listen at what Job starts to understand in the wake of his losses: ‘But God knows the way that I take; when God has tested me, I shall come forth as gold’. And listen to what Jesus says to his disciples after the young man has turned away: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God . . . With humankind this is indeed impossible, but for God all things are possible’.  What is being taught us, in both instances, is this:  that God desires to find us, even when we have apparently lost God.  In the love of God, it is God’s desire that through such losses we shall discover that it is not God whom we have lost, but only the idols that keep us from God; that God can do in us and for us what we could not, in a million years, do in and for ourselves: create in us the life that is only God’s to give, the life that is full of joy, and peace and healing, a spring that quenches our thirst and a bread that finally satisfies. So there is an indispensable passage that all of us must pass through if we are to find the life that God is always near to give, a passage that St John of the Cross called the ‘dark night of the soul’ and Mark’s gospel calls, simply, ‘taking up one’s cross’. It is about the putting away of idols and the surrendering of our need to possess and use and control every damned thing.

Lest this all seem too hard, remember that God himself has walked this way before us in the person of Jesus Christ.  In Christ the figure of Job as the innocent sufferer comes to its genuine fulfillment. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of him as one who became in every way like his human brothers and sisters, a high priest tempted in every way like us, and experiencing the apparent abandonment of God just as we do.  The appearance of Psalm 22 in today’s lectionary is a reminder of this. But it reminds us, also, that Christ did not give up his faith in the one true God, any more than the Psalmist did. He continued to trust himself to the one who saves the wretched, finally surrendering himself into his Father’s hands and forging a path for we, as fellow human beings, to imitate and follow. So, in Christ, we know God as who knows the experience of the loss of ‘God’ from the inside. God is therefore a sympathetic God, a God who knows our weakness and encourages us to keep on walking by faith.

In fact, according to Mark there are consolations for the people of God who are able to surrender their idols to God.  Listen to what Jesus says to those disciples who were willing to leave everything else in order to follow him:
Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age - houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions - and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.
According to Mark, whomever has surrendered their false gods – whether material wealth or a certain kind of righteousness in the eyes of our families or peers – will receive them back again in an even greater measure.  Not, this time, as a reward that necessarily follows from our righteousness or hard work. Not this time as those things that can be mistaken for God but which are really just extensions of our own desire. No, following the renunciations of the ‘dark night’ they can be finally received as the gifts of sheer grace that they really are.  Gifts to enjoy and give thanks for.  Not things to possess and use and control. Gifts to be held lightly and to share liberally with our neighbours in the spirit of the grace which they now represent. So take heart. God is not dead or departed.  God is near to give us his very self. And that is everything, everything that God can give!