Thursday, 5 November 2015

Illusions of scribes & widows

May the words of my mouth
and the meditations of our hearts
be acceptable in your sight O Lord
our strength and or redeemer.

I wonder what it is that you have already decided about the story we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning.  Jesus is at the temple and he criticizes the behaviour of the scribes then goes on to observe people putting money in the treasury, highlighting the actions of a poor widow.

Most of us have a gut reaction to a story, an initial response.  It has been my experience as a person who has chaired many meetings to notice how rarely a person will shift from their initial position.  So the question is for me as a preacher and for you as listeners and any of us move beyond our initial reactions and even if we can will we make a rationale decision.

In his book “Predictably Irrational” the behavioural psychologist Dan Ariely explores the illusionary nature of our decision making.  He begins by explaining how our minds deal with optical illusions like this one with the two tables.

The table on the left appears to be much longer in its length than the width of the table on the right but when we actual measure the distance what we find is that our eyes are deceiving us.  And, even when we know this, our minds still tell us something different.

Ariely’s point is that if our minds are doing this when we use something as functional as our sight what occurs when we are dealing with more complex issues and ideas.  How are our minds creating illusions for us?

The question for us then as we deal with stories from the Bible is what illusions are we creating and what assumptions are we making that might be keeping the truth from us.

As a preacher it is my hope and prayer that in the course of my speaking about the illusions and metaphors that I have understood and that in your listening and interpreting what I say through your own illusions and assumptions the Holy Spirit might be at work acting to reveal the truth that lies beyond our illusions.

With all this in mind and given that it is exam time at the Universities I thought we might get into the spirit of things by having a little multiple choice quiz this morning to both expose some of our illusions and hopefully open the door to other possibilities that might transform us.

I have formulated 4 sets of questions for your consideration as you reflect on the story of Jesus at the temple and what that mean for you and me.

The first is this. 

In this passage Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us) that:
  1. People with religious authority tend to be corrupt and exploit others
  2. People who wear robes or other signs of their office are not to be trusted
  3. People who wish to be greeted with respect in the marketplace are egotistical
  4. People who say long prayers are insincere show offs 
  5.  All of the above
  6. None of the above
If we go back to where I started I wonder which of these you feel an affinity.  In my time as a minister I have attitudes from people within the church that reflect each of these options.  I wonder where you sit!  What is your answer?

The second question relates to Jesus observation as he sat opposite the treasury.

In this passage Jesus is teaching the disciples (and us) that:
  1. People should give as generously as the poor widow to the temple/church
  2.  People who are poor should not be exploited by organised religion
  3. People who are poor are better than people who are rich
  4. People who are poor should be cared for by the temple/church
  5.  All of the above
  6. None of the above
In the 20 years since I began preaching I can tell you that I have preached more than one of these options. And I have a pretty strong opinion about which of these you should choose.  Which way are you leaning?  Is there an option that is not there that you might prefer?

The third and fourth question drive us a little deep because number 3 drives us to think about what this means to us, it is the “what’s in it for me?” kind of question.  Number four is about the bigger picture: what is the good news really about.

So, question three: What is this story asking of me?
  1.  I should give more money to the church
  2. I should give less money to the church
  3. I should not say long prayers or wear long robes or symbols of authority
  4. I should not trust people in authority
  5. I should not try to gain fame so people respect me
  6. I should try to see situations differently like Jesus does
  7.  others...
The list is not meant to be exhaustive but once again highlights what scholars and everyday Christians might take away from the passage.  I wonder what it is that you began with as your idea, is there a new possibility nudging in your mind.

And so to the last of the multiple choice questions, a key question.  When we look at this story in the context of the whole story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection what is the good news?
  1. Jesus loved the scribes and forgave them
  2. Jesus loved the poor widow and released her from her burdens
  3. Jesus loves us whether we are like the scribe, the widow, or even his closest followers, the disciples
  4. Jesus wants to help us to see the truth of people’s lives and to respond with generosity
  5. all of the above
To go back to where I began with Dan Ariely and his Behavioural Economics, his research shows us that we are inclined to make irrational decisions often choosing the easiest or more convenient option, even if it is irrational.

Yet, as we gather in the power of the Holy Spirit it is my prayer that our eyes might be open and our ears hear afresh this story to move beyond our illusions and biases and to be transformed by a life changing message of hope.

Take time to reflect on the quiz questions – what is the good news and what is God calling you to do in response to this message of God’s love.

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Who is this Blind Bartimeaus?

Who is this dirty bedraggled beggar?
Who is this man lying in the filth at the side of the road?
Who is the Bartimeaus? This son of Timeaus?
This Son of the Unclean? The Son of Poverty?
Who is this blind man crying out?
Interrupting our pleasant morning gathered with Jesus.
Who is this man?

This man, this Bartimeaus, knows his physical blindness has excluded him.
He is shunned and shoved aside by the world.
His affliction holds him back from participating in the fullness of life.
It is easier for us to ignore him and hide the problems.

Who is this man?

This man is you and I and everyone single one of us.

He is our soul crying out from within the midst of our needs from within the midst of our afflictions – Son of David have mercy on me, have mercy on us.

This is both a very personal cry and it is the communal cry of the church on behalf of humanity.

We cry out from within our affliction or at least we should be?

We cry out because we have gotten older and our bodies are failing us and the issues of our health dominate our weekly endeavours.  We long again to be more active and engaged in our communities.

We cry out because we are far from home and we miss our families and our friends and although we have found some welcome here loneliness can still overtake us.

We cry out because we are anxious and we are depressed.  Our minds play games with us and seem to thwart our sense security and peace in life.

We cry out because we are trying to forge ahead into a new future.  Studying and trying to find our identity and be the people God calls us to be.

We cry out because our relationships are not as we would have them.  Some of us long to find a partner to share our life with whilst others of us miss dearly a treasured spouse long gone from our side.

We cry out because our emotions overtake us.  We find ourselves angry with other people or judging them and even knowing that in our secret hearts we hate some people – event hose whom we don;t know.

We cry out because the pressures of our work life have overtaken us.  We feel weighed down and beset by the stresses and strains.

We cry out “Son of David, have mercy on me”

We know our predicament: each of us has our hidden struggles and collectively we know as humanity we cry out or at least we should:

We cry out “Son of David, have mercy on us”

Have mercy on those who are in the refugee camps and fleeing across the world.  The young girls being sold as wives.  The people languishing for years with no hope in sight. The people who have no fixed address and no country to call their.

Have mercy on those who feel so driven by their predicament to believe that violence is the answer. Have mercy on the warmongers and those who exploit the fragile lives of those who are seeking meaning and purpose.

Have mercy on us who as a race are driven by progress and growth in a finite world with finite resources.  Have mercy on us who are destroying the ecosystems and the environment and even the climate.

Have mercy on us who perpetuate exclusion and division.  Who ostracise the first inhabitants of lands like Australia.  Who elevate one tribe and country above others at the expense of others.   

We cry out because we are Bartimeaus bus we also are susceptible to crying out for the voices to stop.

Like the crowd who were gathered alongside Jesus, the ones who had become his followers and friends, we too can silence our own cries, each other’s cries and the cries of the community around.

Instead of being honest that we are indeed Bartimeaus we claim a spot alongside Jesus and think we are the only ones who belong there – we forget that we need that mercy too as we shut up and try to silence the voices within us, around us and beyond us.

But Jesus, Jesus, hears the cries.  I believe hears the spoken and the unspoken cries and Jesus upsets us as he invites the blind beggar close – the sufferer, the needy one.

I was here on Thursday afternoon as the thunder and lightning came and as a storm hit, bucketing a torrent of water from the sky.

A noticed a man standing in the doorway and opened the doors of the church so he might shelter from the passing storm.

As he thanked me I joked “The church is always here to offer shelter from the storm” but this is no joke for this is who our Lord is.

Jesus hears the cries of Bartimeaus and of all us as we recognise the shortfalls and the difficulties and the afflictions and we cry out “Son of David, have mercy.”

Jesus desire is that we might have fullness in our lives, Jesus intent is for healing and for hope and for wholeness in life.

He says to Bartimeaus, your faith has made you well.

It’s always shaky ground to connect faith with healing. We spent the last 3 weeks thinking about that as reflected on the story of Job.   Yet, persistent and perseverance are part of our journey and more than that accommodating each other’s cries for mercy – finding tolerance and not blocking the way to Jesus but leading people to Jesus.

Who is this blind beggar at the side of the road?
This man lying in the filth and turmoil of life.
This man is you, it is I, it is everyone we meet who can admit their problems.

And our faith, our hope is this, that Jesus hears our cries:

“Son of David, have mercy on me”
“Son of David, have mercy on me”