This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations or presbytery I serve.

Monday, November 5, 2012

A Trashed Rep?

Psalm 126; Mark 10:46-52.

            In today’s gospel reading we have the story of a blind man named Bartimaeus.  Bartimaeus lives in Jericho and spends his days sitting on the side of the street, begging.  He would presumably live off whatever coins he managed to get from people walking by.

            One day he hears a commotion up the street, and he asks someone what is going on.  He is told that Jesus of Nazareth is coming through town.  And immediately he begins to yell at the top of his voice: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  Why does he do this?

            He obviously knows who Jesus is and he knows Jesus’ reputation as a healer.  This would have been how Jesus’ contemporaries would have known him.  Jesus is an itinerant healer from Nazareth.  He is also a teacher and a community organizer, but his main reputation among the common people is healer.  That’s what gets their attention.  That’s what attracts the crowds.  Jesus is known as a person who heals, saves, liberate, deliver, and restore people, mainly from diseases, maladies, afflictions, and infirmities.

            If you were lame, blind, a leper, possessed by evil demons, or had some internal bleeding disorder, had suffered a recent death in the family, Jesus was your hope.  Healing and restoring to sound health was his reputation.  That’s what he is known for.

            Our reputation is based on past performance.  People hear about what we have done, what kind of people we are, what we say, how we relate to others.  Our reputation precedes us.  We understand that past performance is a reliable indicator of what we will do in the future.  It doesn’t always work this way.  But we hope and expect a person’s work to be consistent with what they have done in the past.

            In Psalm 126, the first part is about God’s reputation.  The Psalm remembers what God has already done.  In this case, it is the spectacular miracle of release from exile in Babylon.  This is something no one, except a few eccentric prophets, thought could happen.  The return of the exiles proved God’s nature as a God of deliverance and liberation. 

            And this experience only ratified what had always been God’s reputation.  This God originally delivered the people from slavery in Egypt.  God is about liberation, salvation, healing, renewal, justice, and love.  So when this happened in history again, it only meant that God was faithful and true to God’s original identity.

            So the Psalm has the people sing: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. 
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

            Unfortunately, we live in a time when God’s reputation with people isn’t as positive.  Not that God isn’t forever and always the God of blessing, liberation, deliverance and freedom, but some of those who claim to worship and follow God have managed to trash God’s rep.  It is so bad that many today, especially young people, think that our God is a God of judgment, condemnation, punishment, retribution, exclusion, inequality, nationalism, racism, vindictiveness, bigotry, fear, and hatred.  In other words, many people today have an opinion of God that is exactly the opposite of what is actually true about God.
            This is a tragedy.  God’s reputation with a lot of people is so bad right now because so many of God’s representatives have been misleading folks about God; and it’s been happening for centuries.  Instead of telling the truth that God is working in the world to liberate those in bondage, heal the sick, comfort the afflicted, feed the hungry, and welcome the stranger, God gets made into the mascot for the way things are and the people in charge.   Instead of telling the truth that God loves everyone, regardless of race, language, or culture, they say that their nation, ethnicity, class, economic system, political philosophy, and moral framework are God’s favorites!  Instead of lifting up Jesus Christ, the Palestinian Jew, the healer, the exorcist, the non-violent community organizer, the teacher who practiced reconciliation, equality, justice, and peace, and who gave his life for the life of the whole world, we get an unthreatening, domesticated, comforting caricature of Jesus who manages to tell us whatever we want to hear.
            Nothing discredits God like tying God to human agendas, especially the agendas of people recognized as leaders.  The main job of leaders seems to be protecting and projecting their own power.  Did you ever notice that Jesus calls no one to be a leader in his church, and he acknowledges no leaders in society?  Jesus is in tune with the whole direction of Scripture when he calls for us to be followers and servants.  Jesus is allergic to any kind of leadership; he even sees himself as a follower of the Father.

            So we have a difficult job.  We have to rehabilitate God’s reputation among people.  I suspect that were I to go into a crowded college cafeteria and announce an opportunity for people to know Jesus, it could very quickly clear the room.  If you got any takers at all it would probably be those few who were already believers.  The results would be similar in a homeless shelter, a detention center, or a jail.  An opportunity to hear about Jesus would likely be met with a lot of skepticism, reluctance, avoidance, disregard, or hostility.  And in my experience the most hostile are some of the ones with the most church experience… and have the scars to prove it. 
            When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is coming, he immediately raises his voice to get Jesus’ attention, and when Jesus calls him he jumps up in eagerness to meet him.  What do we have to do today so that people will be that interested in knowing and meeting Jesus?  What is going to get people to want to hear more about Jesus?  What kind of presentation do we have to make so that people will hear about the coming of Jesus as good news they want to be a part of?
            How do people come to know that God is not condemning but forgiving?  Not rejecting but welcoming?  Not judgmental but redeeming?  Not excluding but including?  Not violent but peaceful?  How do they come to know God as healer and liberator, rather than afflicter and punisher?  How do they know that God is on the side of the poor, the sick, the outcast, the rejects, the alien, and the struggling?  How do we change God’s reputation from retribution to salvation?
            I think this Psalm would say that first it’s about what you choose to remember.   What we choose to remember shapes our whole identity and our relationships.  When one member of a couple chooses to remember only the difficult and challenging times, only the negative things about their partner, then it’s all over.  Marriages and families are sustained when we choose to remember the best times, when we were happy, strong, and loving.  
            The first line of this Psalm is a celebration of God’s miraculous liberation of the people from exile in Babylon.  That is what it chooses to remember.  It does not lift up the fact that they got themselves to Babylon in the first place by their own disobedience and injustice.  That is not what this Psalm leads with.  It leads with the great things God has done for them.
            In his ministry, Jesus doesn’t begin by threatening people with God’s judgment if they don’t shape up.  He starts by proclaiming the Kingdom of God and healing the sick.  His more apocalyptic warnings he mostly saves for the last days of his mortal life.  But first he wants to make it obviously and undeniably clear that he has come into the world to save, to deliver, to heal, and to liberate.  By the time he gets to Jericho, just before reaching Jerusalem, Jesus has a strong resumé as someone who makes people more free, more whole, and more connected to God and their community.

            In the Psalm, after reciting the memory of the return from exile and how that is the event that establishes God’s reputation for liberation upon which the people may rely, it then goes on to address people in trouble.  On the basis of the tremendous and wonderful things God has done before, we can now approach our own broken situation with confidence that God will act in those same saving ways again. 

            The Psalm mainly uses the image of a farmer.  “May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy. 
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.”  Because God is the God of miraculous abundance, we know that, as hard as it is to bury the last of the saved grain in the ground at planting time, God will bring a good harvest in the fall. 

            For farmers, planting time is very much about sacrifice, loss, grief, risk, liability, and poverty, as well as hope in the future and trust in God.  By early spring they may have been very hungry, but instead of eating the leftover grain they had to plant it… and stay hungry a while longer.     

            In other words, no matter how bad it is now, no matter how empty, lifeless, bereft, drained, and apparently hopeless life seems today, no matter how much we are left with nothing, having just buried the sum total of our worldly assets in the ground, we may depend on God’s track-record, which is salvation.

            But we have to take the risk.  We have to make the investment.  We have to give up all we have.  We have to pay the cost.  We have to make ourselves poor and face our losses – in other words, we have to plant the seed – before we can enjoy the harvest.  At the same time, we could never muster the courage to do the planting and endure the loss without the hope in the harvest.  We require the prior knowledge that God saves; that’s where we get the strength and confidence to make the investments in life we have to make.

            The Psalm is suggesting that the difficult times in our lives are the planting times, the times of investing.  It is framing our down-times as necessary times of preparation for God’s blessings.  But it is the coming blessing, not the present suffering, that is the point.

            What if we made it very clear in every possible way that our God is a God of blessing?  God is about liberation, healing, deliverance, salvation, redemption, justice, and love.  God is about generosity and sharing, forgiveness and peace, goodness and joy, acceptance and inclusion, thanksgiving and delight.  What if the main theme of our ministry is that no matter how deeply and thoroughly people get themselves into trouble, disaster, grief, injustice, and disease, God always, always, always brings them home… and God is waiting and willing and able to bring you home, too?

            What if we made it equally clear that we know this because this is what Jesus Christ is about, as we see in the gospel accounts of his ministry?

            What if because of this we became a blessing as well to all, especially the underprivileged and suffering?  What if therefore people began to think of Christians, not as hypocritical, judgmental, paranoid, nasty, self-righteous prigs, but as people as filled with hope, joy, faith, and love, as the God we worship and serve?    
            What if we built such a reputation for healing, blessing, liberation, and joy that, when they hear we are coming, needy people like Bartimaeus leap up to be a part of God’s salvation?  What if it wasn’t just blind beggars on the street, but others, like AIDS sufferers, the undocumented, the homeless, drug addicts, the unemployed?  What if it was the young, the depressed, the elderly, the indebted, the lonely, the bullied, and the grieving, who heard good news from us?
            I suspect that in order for people to realize that God is a God of blessing and goodness, we who profess to be God’s followers have to be people of blessing and goodness.  We have to show that some of who God is has rubbed off on those who claim to be God’s disciples.  Let’s make sure that this is the case.  Let’s make sure that in all that we do and say, we are always witnessing to the good news of God’s saving, healing, liberating, reconciling love for the world in Jesus Christ.

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