10-26-21 - Focusing on God

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

On the face of it, this question a scribe asks Jesus seems silly: “Which commandment is the first of all?” All the commandments are important; is one more so than another? But if you’ve devoted your life to God’s law, and keeping the commandments is the measure of pleasing God, maybe knowing you can keep the most important ensures your fidelity to the rest. Or something.

And the fact is, not everyone would give the same answer that Jesus did. Many would say, “Oh, the most important is ‘thou shalt not kill,’” or “Thou shalt not steal.” Certainly the preoccupation with sexual sin among many American Christians would move “thou shalt not commit adultery” into the top spot. But Jesus says the Number One commandment has to do not with how we regard other people, but how we regard God. “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’”

This is the Shema Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is one.” This is how we are to live a life of righteousness and holiness, not by focusing on our behavior, but by making God our focus, acknowledging who God is, and loving God with our whole selves.

How easy it is to take our focus off of God and let the life around us, this world and its people, consume our attention. As soon as we do that, we start to focus on behavior, not devotion. When we make God our focus and cultivate our love for God, godly behavior flows from us. When we start with moral behavior, we become more distant from God, trying to please God or walking away from what we feel are impossible demands.

To focus on God, on loving God, puts us in a place of Grace. To focus on moral behavior puts us in the space of Law. That is not a life-giving place to dwell, as Paul articulated so powerfully in Galatians and Romans.

What spiritual practices might we put into place to help us cultivate a God-focused life? Certainly a pattern of daily prayer, or frequent stops throughout the day to return our gaze God-ward is one strategy. Another is to become mindful when we’re in the grip of a negative emotion – anxiety or anger, despair or envy. Chances are our focus has become consumed by something or someone not-God. Awareness of our emotional state can remind us to pray about the issue troubling us and invite God’s grace to cover it, and us.

One day we will live fully in the presence of God, of love beyond our comprehension. All will be love. We prepare ourselves for that day by cultivating our awareness of God’s presence here and now, and learning to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength.

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10-25-21 - For the Sake of Argument

You can listen to this reflection here.

Next Sunday’s gospel story opens right in the middle of an argument. Jesus has just successfully fielded a bunch of ground balls and pop flies (getting in my baseball metaphors right in time for the Fall Classic…) from Pharisees, Herodians and Sadducees about taxes, marriage and the afterlife. That seems to have emboldened a scribe loitering nearby to test Jesus with his own quiz:

One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?"

Lest we think this merely a contentious culture, let’s remember that argument and disputation were how ancient Jewish leaders sought to mine the truth, the Torah. Scripture was not blindly authoritative in the way some today see it; it was full of nuggets to be pored over, looked at this way and that, approached from different angles, chewed over and digested. That process involved arguments and counter-arguments, comparison to other scriptures, imaginative retellings (midrash) that teased out other possible interpretations, and arguments and counter-arguments to those interpretations. Interpretations by known and respected rabbis might outweigh those of lesser lights, and the ones that came to dominate were those agreed with by the most people. Those with the most "shares" stood out.

All these questions lobbed at Jesus that we might see at as entrapment and interrogation – which they may also have been – were a sign of grudging respect, as leaders evaluated his wisdom and how it stacked up to others. And Jesus played by different rules – often, instead of giving an interpretation directly, he’d turn the question back on the interrogators. At other times he gave a definitive answer with an authority uncommon in this system of constant questioning and reinterpretation. In the passage we examine this week he will answer straight out, but combine a foundational passage of scripture with one that was little known and give them equal weight. Jesus made his own rules.

What questions do you have for Jesus? In imaginative prayer today, pretend you are that scribe, overhearing his conversations and daring to approach him with a really good question yourself. Where are you? What does he look like in this scene?
What do you ask him? What does he answer?

Sometimes we get answers to our hard questions, and sometimes we have to wait, maybe a really long time. But Jesus never seemed to mind the questions, and as one who invites us into the kind of relationship in which no topic is off limits, he welcomes our coming near with our own. That’s the most important thing that scribe did – he came near and asked. We can too.


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10-22-21 - The New, New Story

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

Stories function in interesting ways for many people. While we generally love a new story, something we haven’t encountered before, we are also very attached to the stories we already know. “I love to tell the story,” goes the old-time gospel hymn, “The old, old story of Jesus and his love.”

And yet that “old, old story” is ever becoming new in our lives. In order to really accept healing and freedom and renewal, we need to be able to believe a different narrative than the one that has defined our lives so far, a different story than the one the world or our parents or our society has told us. We are often bound by what we have experienced as “normal.” Jesus’ gift is to show us the new normal, to show us what we can be.

Bartimaeus believed this story he had heard about Jesus, and it gave him power to walk out of his old story into the new. 
The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again.’" Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

That meant giving up a certain kind of identity, a certain degree of security. Walking into our new stories always does. That’s why we often stay stuck in situations that are less than what God might have for us.

What old stories have defined you for too long?
One way to get at that question is with this one: What are you pretending not to know?

What new story is calling you? Maybe it’s a vocation stirring in you, to use your time and gifts in some way other than how you have been doing. Maybe it’s a different place, a new person to love, a rediscovery of yourself. What is trying to be born in you?

Bartimaeus left his roadside and followed Jesus – right into Jerusalem, where Jesus was at first lauded and soon after condemned to a brutal death. That new story might not have been at all what Bartimaeus hoped for – and maybe it was more. For he got to witness firsthand the greatest love story the world has ever known. And he got to be around when that perfect man who had poured himself out for us, even to death, rose from the grave to usher all of us into the New, New Story God is writing. And that story, like God’s mercies, is new every morning, as we allow it to claim us.

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10-21-21 - What Do You Want?

You can listen to this reflection here.

What a beautiful question: “What do you want me to do for you?” How often does someone ask us that? Take a moment and think about it. What would you answer if someone stood before you and said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

I can think of a billion things, mostly having to do with stress. Give me some time off. Inspire my congregations. Increase my metabolism. Send me an IT person.

What if the person standing before you asking that could move heaven and earth? That’s what Bartimaeus experienced in this week’s story: And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again."

On one level, it seems ridiculous for Jesus to ask – isn’t it obvious a blind man wants to see? Yet Jesus did Bartimaeus the honor of asking him to speak his desire. He didn’t assume, he didn’t impose. He asked, inviting relationship.

Jesus gives us the same honor, and the same freedom. Yes, God knows what we need, better than we do. And God wants us to ask, just as we want our children to ask for what they desire. Prayer is not about getting what we want; prayer is about drawing closer in relationship to the God who loves us. As we can ask in freedom, God responds in freedom.

It’s not like a genie granting three wishes; we don’t always understand the response. Just as we don’t give our children things that would harm them, we sometimes seem to experience a “no” from God. Presumably, had Bartimaeus said, “I want you to smite those who harass me,” Jesus would not have complied. We can be sure, though, that we worship a God who desires wholeness for us in body, mind and spirit.

I have preached on this story in nursing homes, to people in wheelchairs. That tested my faith: “What do you want me to do for you?” Still I went about praying for God’s healing love to be released in each one as I shared communion. I don’t know why I didn't see quickened limbs and straightened spines; I believe Jesus’ power is undiminished and his presence real.

It's not always instant. Yet I will proclaim God’s goodness and love, and keep telling her what I would like him to do for me, and for this hurting, beautiful world.

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10-20-21 - Throwing Off Our Cloaks

You can listen to this reflection here. Sunday's gospel reading is here.

They tried to hush him, this blind man sitting by the side of a road shouting out for Jesus.
Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

But it was too late – Jesus had heard the commotion and had stopped: Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, 'Take heart; get up, he is calling you.' So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

What wonderful energy is conveyed in that sentence, in Bartimaeus’ actions. He throws off his cloak. He springs up. He comes to Jesus.

Wait a minute, springing up and going to Jesus I get. But why did he throw off his cloak? What did that cloak signify? Perhaps it represented his identity as a beggar. It may have been more than protection against the elements – it might have been his sleeping bag as well, if he lived by that road, which some beggars did. It may have been his most prized possession, as well as a symbol of his degradation.

Whatever that cloak represents, his throwing it away speaks volumes: Bartimaeus knew that he wasn’t going to need it anymore. Even before he got to Jesus’ side, he was so sure about Jesus’ power to heal, that he cast it aside and came to Jesus exposed and vulnerable. Bartimaeus was ready to cast off the story that had defined him and enter a new story. Bartimaeus was ready for healing.

What “cloaks” do we cling to that inhibit our faith? What cloaks define our status in this world? For some, the cloak might be signs of security, like safe homes and bank accounts. For some, patterns of addiction that are safe and familiar, no matter how deadly. For some, it’s carrying too much weight, or being busy all the time.

Do we continue to benefit from habits and patterns and wounds that may tell a truth about our lives, but not the whole truth, not God’s truth? Bartimaeus had a certain safety in his life as a beggar; little was asked of him; he was cared for, more or less. But he was ready to toss that away and move into a new life.

Is there a time when you have tossed away your cloak in faith, confident that God was up to something in your life – or at least ready to stand before God vulnerable and expectant? Did you ever take it back again (it can be distressingly easy to find the cloaks we throw aside…).

Is there anything you cling to now, that may hold you back from putting your full trust in God? What if you talked with Jesus about it? What if, in imaginative prayer, you asked Bartimaeus what it felt like to throw away a garment that both protected and falsely defined him?

Bartimaeus was ready. He believed, and he sprang. Jesus is calling you and me to his side too. What need we throw away so we are free to spring up and go to him?

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10-19-21 - Lord, Have Mercy

You can listen to this reflection here.

In this week’s story, we find Jesus leaving Jericho with a large crowd, on his way to Jerusalem. At the side of the road sits a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who is anything but shy. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This shouted prayer has come through the ages from the lips of Bartimaeus into the lives of millions of Christ-followers. It forms the heart the “Jesus prayer,” which many pilgrims and mystics have taken as a mantra to help them cultivate the practice of praying without ceasing. This spiritual practice, called “hesychasm,” flourished in Russia and some of the Eastern Orthodox churches, and has popped up in other unexpected places, most notably in J.D. Salinger’s great novella of spirituality and neurosis, Franny and Zooey. Also called “the prayer of the heart,” the words vary somewhat, but are most often rendered, “Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me,” with the words “…a sinner” added in some formulations.

What is it about these words that so many have found so compelling? Need we beg for mercy from a God of love? In a perfect world, we wouldn’t. In the world we yet live in, awaiting the perfection of God’s plan of redemption, many of us find ourselves aware of the need for God’s mercy and love on a regular basis, whether from a place of pain or poverty or as a cry of repentance. No matter how well we know God’s grace, our awareness of being less than we were made to be compels us to that prayer.

But let us not mistake this for a prayer of degradation or forced humility. Bartimaeus uttered these words with vigor and volume; this was not a meek plea, but a cry of faith and recognition both of who Jesus was and who he himself was. God is God, and we are not. God is all in all; we are ever becoming whole. This side of glory, we will always be in need of the mercy of the One who made us, knows us, loves us, and never lets us go.

What would you utter such a cry about? What are you in need of deliverance from or blessing with? One night a friend, whose family was going through great travail, was putting his very church-experienced little girls to bed. As he turned out the light, he sighed and said under his breath, "Lord, have mercy!" And from the darkness came the whispered response, "Christ, have mercy."

Whatever drives us to pray it, let us like Bartimaeus, pray it with pride, “Lord Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me.”

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10-18-21 - Son of...

You can listen to this reflection here.

This Sunday’s Gospel reading finds us at the cusp of the final act in Jesus’ earthly life and mission. He and his entourage come to Jericho and, the text suggests, leave it soon after. Jericho is his last stop on his way to Jerusalem for the last time; there he will enter into his passion and death. On the outskirts of Jericho, the ancient site of Joshua’s miraculous victory, the new Joshua – Yeshu’a – encounters a blind man, a blind man who can see better than anyone else around.

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’


Why does Mark make such a point about Bartimaeus’ sonship? “Bar” means “son” in Aramaic, so Bartimaeus already means “Son of Timaeus.” Thus Mark identifies him as “Son of Timeaeus, Son of Timaeus.” Now, maybe it’s just that his father was named Timaeus, but that’s not a Hebrew name. And this isn’t Mark’s usual pattern. Some scholars think Mark is trying to make a point with this name – “Timaeus” is also the name of one of the more influential Dialogs of Plato, and contains a discourse on the eye and vision. Is Mark signaling his readers with this name that we are talking about a new way of seeing the universe? Or is he suggesting that all the intellectual and philosophical insight in the world won’t allow you to see what can only be perceived by faith?

This blind man already sees by faith what no one else in the story seems to: who Jesus really is. Mark’s gospel is the one that makes the most of the “Messianic secret” – and here a blind man “outs” him as the Son of David – code for the Messiah, whom prophets said would come from David's line.

What do these two sons, the son of Timaeus and the son of David have to do with each other? And what do they have to do with us? One might say we are all sons and daughters of both Timaeus and God, heirs to both worldly reason and spiritual sight. As Jesus lived with two identities at once, human and divine, so we in some measure live in these two realities simultaneously, even as they exist in tension.

This rich story invites us to explore our dual citizenship in the realm of this world and the realm of God. It bids us question how our gift of physical sight and intellectual insight can help or hinder our faith vision. 
How does your capacity for thought about God lead you closer to God?
What “evidence” does the world present that holds you back from believing the impossible power of God? Do we fall prey to the mixed messages of too much data?

As we will see, Bartimaeus was unhindered by physical sight, even as he longed to see. But his faith vision was highly developed. The invitation for we who are blessed with physical vision is to be as sure as this blind man was about the God-Life that is all around us, unseen but very, very real.

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