Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Son of Poverty

Peter Lockhart

Today I have taken as a theme “seeing with new eyes” which is of course about the story of Bartimaeus.

Now stories work in a number of different ways and are used for a number of different purposes in the Bible and I want to explore with you a couple of ways this story works.

First off at face value the story of Jesus healing of Bartemaus is a story about a man – a real person: a person who because of his affliction was ostracised by the society in which he lived.

We know that this was his predicament because he was sitting by the side of the road begging.

But more than that we know Bartimaeus was at the fringe of society because of his name.

It is quite likely that Mark has actually made up the name Bartimaeus to emphasise a point.

Bartimaeus, which means Son of Timaeus in Aramaic could be translated something along the lines – Son of Poverty or Son of the Unclean.

This little detail is important as we shall see.

Now Bartemaus must have heard something about Jesus because when he hears that Jesus is passing by he calls out to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The words Son of David are obviously a title and recognition by Bartimaeus that Jesus was a man of power.

Not only that, the title Son of David also contrasts with Son of Poverty strongly.

Bartimaeus persists in calling out and Jesus responds to Bartimaeus request calling him over.

The Son of David engages with the Son of Poverty.

Jesus asks him, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Bartimaeus asks, “My teacher, let me see again.”

Jesus response as we heard as to heal Bartimaeus and at the same time affirm his faith.

In the story:

we see the willingness of Jesus to respond to those who are sidelined by the community;

we see Jesus care and concern for an individual;

we see Jesus desire to renew people’s lives through healing;

we see the power of Jesus displayed;

we see the truth of Jesus identity; and,

we see something of the nature of true discipleship in Bartimaeus.

But do we really see?

That is the real question for us now as we move into thinking a bit more deeply about the story.

Do we really see?

Whilst the story is on one level the story of a miraculous healing because of the way Mark tells us the story and where he places the story is meant to tell us some other things as well.

Leading up to this story in Mark’s gospel there are a series of interactions between Jesus and his disciples which demonstrate their ‘blindness to who Jesus is and what he is on about.

One of the clear indicators that this is what is going on is found in the fact Jesus asks exactly the same question of Bartimaeus that he had of James and John not long before.

So what Mark is doing is using the story of how Jesus healed a blind beggar to make a point about the disciples.

Bartemaus called Jesus Son of David, which tells us that he ‘saw’ who Jesus was and knew that Jesus had it within his power to show mercy.

This recognition by Bartimaeus of where true power lay is a contrast to the disciples who, although they appear to know who Jesus is, keep bumping into things because of their blindness to what Jesus is really on about.

For instance the disciples are more interested at times in who will be the greatest in heaven and who will get to sit in places of honour when Jesus comes again in glory.

This is a contrast to Bartimaeus who recognised his affliction and his need of Jesus mercy.

In this Bartimaeus ‘sees’ the truth not only of Jesus but of his own existence.

He the Son of Poverty needs the help of the Son of David. This is at the core of true discipleship – admitting that we are in need of Jesus help, of God’s grace.

This is emphasised in the story when Bartimaeus is said to have thrown off his cloak.

As a beggar his cloak would have been pretty much all he had.

It could be argued that for the sake of coming to Jesus for mercy Bartimaeus leaves everything that he owns.

Once again I suspect this is deliberately put in the story in this way to contrast the rich young ruler who was not prepared to sell everything he had to follow Jesus.

So the story of Bartimaeus is not just another miracle story but functions in an important way to highlight the difference between sight and blindness among his disciples.

This brings me to the question of what all this means for us 2000 years on.

Going back to my theme for the day ‘seeing with new eyes’ the question is raised for us what blinds us to seeing the truth of who Jesus is and what impedes us from true discipleship which is about trusting in him.

I want to suggest a number of things which dim the light of Jesus and cause blindness in us and the world in general.

Firstly, I want to focus on some stuff inside the Church that causes us to be blind.

It is difficult to really see Jesus because there are so many variations about who Jesus is floating around and so many groups claiming ownership of Jesus.

The Church is really a bit of a mess: there are Uniting Churches and Lutheran and Anglican and Catholic and AOG and Baptist and Pentecostal and Orthodox and so on and so forth.

These different churches give us different images of Jesus and different messages about salvation.

This brokenness of the Church can be discouraging to those within the Church and more importantly those searching for faith. It can make our proclamation seem confused and impotent!

We can add to this the institutionalisation of the church and its traditions.

Some within the church are so set in their way of doing things they have become blind to the meaning of what they are doing.

Some within the church see the church more like a social club.

Some see the only way forward to perpetual change: change for the sake of change.

All of these things can keep us in the dark about the truth of Jesus Christ.

If we look more broadly at the world there are many things around us that obscure our vision even further.

To start with Christianity is one religion or one expression of spirituality among a many: Buddhism, Islam, Shinto, New Age, Confucianism, Wicca and list goes on.

One response to this diversity of belief has been to elevate a view know as pluralism above them all. This is a view which kind of suggests that all religions are valid – which if you follow the logic through means that none are really valid.

Then there is the competing ideology called humanism which has dominated Western thinking for around 500 years. It is a view which has ultimately suggested that we human beings can do away with God and any notion of the divine.

Our society is awash with things which can distract and blind us: consumerism? Information overload? Entertainment? Self gratification?

All of these things can keep us in the dark about our true nature and about who Jesus is.

My point is to challenge all of us with the question of what we really see. How clear is our vision?

Bartimaeus realising his own blindness calls out for mercy.

If we suspect that we are even a little dim in our recognition of the world around us or the reality of our own lives or our knowledge of God, maybe in faith and hope our prayer should match Bartimaeus: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The good news is indeed that the Son of David reaches out to the Son of Poverty and it is in this that we can all find hope in God’s love and concern for us all.

Take a moment listen for what God might be saying to you this day.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Servant of all

Peter Lockhart

One of the things which I often encourage you to do as a congregation is to read the stories we hear from the scriptures a little more broadly. Today is a good example of the need to do this as we read again from Mark’s gospel a story which when taken as part of the longer narrative of Mark has more to it than meets the eye.

At the beginning of Mark’s gospel we hear that the story Mark is telling is the good news of Jesus Christ the son of God. One of the prevailing themes of Mark then becomes who knows and understands this and who doesn’t.

The disciples play a special role in mark as foil for what is occurring through the story particularly in the notion of how Jesus was misunderstood.

A few chapters earlier in chapter 8 of Mark’s gospel Peter, who seems to be the leader of the 12, declares the truth of Jesus identity. It is a pivotal moment in the gospel of Mark when one of the disciples actually confesses what the reader of the gospel already knows.

The question might be asked whether after this point a change comes over the disciples as a group – do they understand Jesus and respect him any better?

Of course what we find is that once Peter declares his understanding as to Jesus identity Jesus begins to teach the disciples about his death. Peter, despite having just making this startling statement about Jesus, rebukes Jesus and so denies his teaching.

The disciples appear not to understand or respond any better even once they know who Jesus is, in fact if anything things get worse.

Twice in the ninth chapter Jesus teaches the disciples concerning his death and on both occasions the disciples who are present fail to understand the teaching.

For people who are listening to the story or reading it and know where it ends up, the cross and resurrection, the behaviour of the disciples is bamboozling. How can they not get it? How can they not listen?

But not only do they not listen, the disciples begin to argue among themselves about who of them is the greatest among them.

And then later, in today’s gospel, James and John turn up asking for favours. Do whatever we ask of you? They say. Grant that we might sit on your right and left hand in glory.

The allusion that they make about sitting on the right and left hand is a direct reference to meal hospitality where the honoured guests sit closest to the host.

Jesus answer once again points at his impending death. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink or be baptised with the baptism with which I will be baptised? These are direct references to Jesus death and by the swiftness and ease of their response at this point James and John do not seem to get it – they do not understand the consequences.

As the reading unfolds the other disciples get annoyed at James and John no doubt for jockeying for power but Jesus once again challenges them.

Being his disciples is not about position and authority and power it is about service. The greatest among them will the one who serves and Jesus says even he, the Son of man came not be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.

It is ultimately in the giving of his life that Jesus reorders the relationship between God and people, it is an act of self sacrifice and generosity by God to include people within his loving and living kingdom. God serves humanity and the whole creation.

This is what is meant to typify being a follower of Jesus, not claims at power and authority, but the serving of others.

It is a mindset which the disciples really struggle with and it is mindset that we no less struggle with. How do we see our lives as serving others not simply gaining benefits for ourselves?  Is our faith about the rewardss we get or the service we give?

This is a pertinent reading for us this week as we prepare for the week ahead as a congregation. Next weekend 2 events of the congregation are occurring in which we are called to think about our place and purpose in St Lucia.

Firstly, next Saturday morning we are holding a planning day to think and pray and discuss about how we can serve the community around us and share the good news of Jesus Christ.

The day has been arranged by the Church Council and is open to anyone who is interested. If you can’t come along we invite you to pray for wisdom, creativity and insight as we consider how we might be faithful to what God is asking of us as a congregation in this area.

Secondly, next Sunday we are going to be focussing on others in our worship service as we take into consideration the beginning of the study week and exam period for the university. More specifically we have informed students and staff from some of the residential colleges of our care and concern for them as they enter study week.

As a congregation of Jesus' followers, as Jesus' disciples, it is good to be challenged again by Jesus words of correction to his disciples who were focussed on themselves and their own potential rewards.

As recipients of God’s unconditional grace let us also contemplate the gift of grace we have received and live lives of thankfulness for this grace of God.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Being a Camel. What can one say?

Peter Lockhart

This morning I woke up in my 4 bedroom house with its 2.5 bathrooms. I went to the shower with its hot running water and afterwards put on these clothes which cost me somewhere around $300, if you include the shoes.

I went to the kitchen in which I found breakfast in a full fridge and pantry, and then hopped in my car which cost us close to $30 000 and drove here using petrol which costs around $1.60 per litre.

Standing before your now I preach holding my iPad, which cost over $500, plus the Internet I pay for annually.

And now preaching I am called to make a comment on the story of a rich young man who come to Jesus asking, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" To which Jesus responds, "Sell all you have, give the money to the poor, and come follow me."

How true it is when the writer to the Hebrews says, "Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow... Before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked."

For me 2 out of 3 of the descriptions of the rich young man remain true and let me say I no longer count myself as young.

In fact I am numbered among the most wealthy people in the world. If you go to the global rich list you will find that my personal taxable income places me in the top 6-7% of the world's wealthiest people.

This is something that I find difficult to comprehend at times given my context. Many of my good friends are lawyers, doctors and accountants, many are engineers and business owners. Quite a number of these people are millionaires and quite a few of them pay more tax than what I earn. It is easy to lose perspective of the fact that I am wealthy.

Now if Jesus' words are not confronting enough, that it is easier for a camel to go through than the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, then maybe some of the other ethical implications of my lifestyle should jolt me to the core.

If you look up websites which detail your ecological footprint you will find some websites which approximate how many earths it would take to sustain all of the worlds inhabitants in the same lifestyle that I lead. According to a couple of different sites, if everyone lived like I do we would need somewhere between 4 and 6 planet earths.

The reality that is continually being placed before us is our Western lifestyle is destroying the sustainability of human life on the planet at the levels we currently enjoy. And, equally disturbing, that our lifestyles are propped up by the exploitation of workers in other parts of the world.

There are so many people in the world who may have reason to cry out as the Psalmist does. My God, my God what have you forsaken me.

Or to wonder as Job does where God is: If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right but I cannot see him.

Reading books like Paul Gilding's The Great Disruption or Clive Hamilton's Requiem for a Species are sobering experiences. Watching Martin Scorcese's documentary Surviving Progress is equally confronting.

For me The Make Wealth History website has greater echoes of Jesus teaching than the Make Poverty History Campaign, which is still of paramount of importance.

Yet the notion that wealth and personal economic prosperity is somehow bad flies in the face of so much we want to hold dear. Success in our culture is so often associated with wealth. And in Jesus time the disciples reaction was no less confused. "They we're greatly astounded and said to one another, 'then who can be saved?'"

I find it fascinating that the lectionary places the story of Job alongside the story of the rich young man. The book of Job is one of those paradoxical mysteries in the scriptures.

Job's wealth is seen as a good thing but he is stripped of it and the debate that rages through the book revolves around the question of whether prosperity is linked to righteousness or not. In the reading today we hear Job longing for God to appear so he can plead his cause.

Yet I also think that Job, as a story which challenges the whole Deuteronomic notion that God rewards those who are good and punishes those who are not, ends on a perplexing note in that Job's wealth is restored. There may be an issues to explore which Jason at some point.

Just as the book of Job disassociates wealth from righteousness so too does Jesus. In fact wealth is viewed by Jesus as an impediment to entering Ito the kingdom of God. This might raise all sorts of questions about where we find ourselves in our own wealth in the western world as Christians.

So where do we find hope. Even though Jesus analogy is extreme, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a wealthy person to enter the kingdom of heaven.". The impossibility of this analogy is not the defining movement in our faith, for Jesus words are not condemnation of the young man whom he looked at and loved but rather grace is what is offered, "With God all things are possible."

The grace offered is described in the Hebrews reading from today in the High Priestly role of Jesus Christ who stands in the heavenly realm offering true worship to God on our behalf and offering us God's mercy in freedom and love.

For me this shifts the question of the rich young man away from how can I inherit eternal life, for the answer to that question has essentially become redundant because it is only through God doing the impossible that any can have access to the kingdom.

Rather the question is 'how do I now live having encountered that grace'. What does faithfulness look like?

This was a question which confronted me as I recently sat in a meeting with about a dozen other Uniting Church people from around Australia. Most of us who were in the room had a certain passion for justice issues and for serving others yet all of us pulled out our iPad at the beginning of the meeting. iPads produced by a company which led by Steve Jobs has no place for philanthropy and whose workers are known to be heavily exploited in the factories in China.

We live in a complex world in which it is difficult to really comprehend the consequences of our actions, even of buying an iPad. As Zygmunt Bauman says we cannot be sure anymore that any of our actions may not have an adverse effect on a person even on the other side of the world.

The word of God may cut us to the core. The anatomy of our flawed existence is exposed. Yet hope remains because in the end there is nothing we can do to inherit eternal life, it is a gift freely offered. In these confusing times when we are becoming more aware of the problems generated by the culture in which we live, let us take confidence in the grace we have been given and as we seek to live more faithfully consider how we might better follow Jesus as wealthy people.

And us listen to the invitation to the Hebrews and "let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."