Wednesday, 21 October 2015

“What do you want me to do for you?”: a sermon (Mark 10: 46 - 52)

I recently heard a story about a children’s talk based on today’s gospel lesson.  The minister told the children about Jesus meeting the blind man Bartimaeus.  The minister got to the point where Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”   With great seriousness, she asked the children, “Boys and girls, if you were blind, what would you ask Jesus to give you?”  

One little girl looked at the minister with wide eyes and said earnestly, “I’d ask Jesus for a nice ... little ... dog to lead me around!”
Everyone in the church began to laugh ... everyone, that is, except the little girl’s parents.  She had been pestering them for a dog for months.  Now, she was beginning to enlist the aid of a ... a Higher Power.
Anyway, as we hear about Jesus and Bartimaeus, you may wonder about Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  What do you think?  Wasn’t the answer to that question a bit ... well ... just a bit obvious?  Bartimaeus was blind. ... He wanted to see. ... Why did Jesus ask that question when the answer was so painfully obvious?  I’ll return to this question, but first I’ll tell you another story about a blind man.
There were once two young men named Dan and Earl.  They were university students in the United States.  Dan was blind.  Earl and Dan were the closest of friends.  They did everything together.  One day, they were in Earl’s room, listening to some music together on Earl’s stereo, music of the sort known as “rhythm and blues”, or “soul”. 
Eventually, Dan said to Earl, “Why don’t you turn off that nigger music?  It’s getting on my nerves.”
Earl replied, “Dan, I’m black.”
Dan stormed out of the room, shouting racial slurs and obscenities, obscenities that were vigorously returned by Earl.
“What do you want me to do for you?”
Why did Jesus ask that question when the answer was so painfully obvious? ...  Or was it?
You see, I don’t think the answer was all that obvious.  I believe Jesus needed to ask that question.
Bartimaeus had a certain role in his community.  He was the blind man who sat by the side of the road and begged.  Many people gave money to beggars. ... Some gave out of a sense of compassion for the beggar ... Others gave so they could feel a bit better about themselves. ... They could say things like, “I’m not such a bad fellow, really.  I gave some coins to that blind man by the side of the road the other day.”
Bartimaeus had a certain identity in his community.  People may have said things like:  “Old Bartimaeus there, what a great guy!  Blind as a bat, but do you hear him complain?  Never!  He lost all his sight in that accident a few years ago, but do you hear him complain?  Never!  He went from being a senior hand down at the olive farm to begging by the side of the road, but do you hear him complain?  Never!  I gave him a few coins yesterday and he was so grateful you’d think I gave him the deed to my best vineyard.  Poor old blind Bartimaeus, what a great guy!”
You get the idea. 
Bartimaeus had a certain role in his community.  He had a certain identity in his community.  He had a certain security in his blindness.  By healing Bartimaeus, Jesus had the power to disrupt all of that.  He would gave regained his sight at the cost of his role in society.  So, in his compassion, Jesus asked Bartimaeus for permission to heal him.  “What do you want me to do for you?”
I believe that, when Jesus asked that question, he was not engaged in an exercise in the painfully obvious.  In all his healings, Jesus expressed God’s compassion in the presence of human suffering.  In this encounter, Jesus showed that the divine compassion is also marked by the divine courtesy.  “What do you want me to do for you?”  
“What do you want me to do for you?”:  Jesus asked this question to Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus asked for his sight, despite all the scary changes that this would entail.  And Bartimaeus received his sight.
Returning to my earlier stories, one of them had a happy ending.  The little girl eventually got her dog.
My other story didn’t have a happy ending.  For the rest of the time they spent at the same university, Dan and Earl didn’t speak another civil word to each other.
“What do you want me to do for you?”:  In a way, Jesus asked the same question to Dan as he asked Bartimaeus. 
And to that question, Dan - in a way - replied, “Oh, please, sir, please don’t disturb my prejudices.”   And, as far as I know, those prejudices are still - tragically - intact.
As well, Jesus asks us, every day, “What do you want me to do for you?” 

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”: a sermon (Mark 10:17–31)

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”    I’m sure that most of you have heard Eddie McGuire ask this question more than once.*

We may know that the source of the TV show’s title, a song from the classic film “High Society”, has the repeated refrain “I don’t”.  (“Who wants to be a millionaire? . . . I don’t.”)  The behaviour and attitudes shown by most people in our community give the impression that most of us - if we’re brutally honest with ourselves - would not answer “I don’t”.  Rather, the honest answer for most of us would be “Yes, please” .

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”    Most people seem to admire the very rich - even if it is a grudging admiration at times.  Whether we think of a rich person on a global scale (such as Bill Gates), on a national scale (such as Dick Smith), or even a local success story, we attribute a fair degree of intelligence and good judgement to the very rich.  Even when we think of those whose gains were probably (at least in part) ill-gotten, we credit the very rich with a high intelligence, even if the intelligence sometimes takes the form of rat cunning rather than true wisdom. 

It’s a bit like the song “If I Were a Rich Man” in the play “Fiddler on the Roof”.   Tevye, a poor dairyman, speculates what life would be like if he were a wealthy man.  People, even total strangers, would come to him for answers to their thorny questions and, as Tevye muses:

It wouldn’t make one bit of difference
if I should answer right or wrong,
for when you’re rich they think you really know.

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”    Most of us admire the very rich - even if it is a grudging admiration at times. 

In our gospel lesson today, Jesus has a conversation with someone who is often called “the Rich Young Ruler” by people who preach sermons and write Sunday School lessons.  In our lesson from Mark, he is only described as being rich.  The same story in Matthew’s gospel tells us that the man (besides being rich) is young.  In Luke’s gospel, we are told that he is a ruler, as well as rich.  So, thus, we have the “Rich Young Ruler”.  He asked Jesus, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus gave a good Jewish answer:  “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.  You know the commandments.”  He then proceeded to list a few.

The man replied, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.”  This must have been an essentially honest answer, because Mark tells us that Jesus looked at him with love.

Jesus then said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come follow me.”

The “Rich Young Ruler” was “shocked”.  Mark tells us he “went away grieving for he had many possessions.”

Jesus told his disciples:  “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God. . . . It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  

The thing about the camel going through the eye of a needle is interesting.  In the United States, I’ve heard of a “religious” amusement park. (Yes, as tacky as it sounds, they do have religious amusement parks in America!!!)  This park has a ride in which you can ride a camel through a very large eye of a very large needle.  (I’m sure it is very comforting for some!!!)

As well, I once heard a “popular” preacher here in Australia, one who specialised in ministry with the wealthy (and politically conservative), talk about a gate in one of Jerusalem’s ancient walls, a narrow gate called “The Needle’s Eye”.  It was difficult - but not impossible - for a camel to go through that gate.  This information may have been very comforting to the “popular” preacher’s affluent and conservative listeners but, like the amusement park ride, I doubt if it was really what Jesus had in mind.

Back to our lesson, the disciples asked Jesus, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God:  for God all things are possible.”

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”   

The “Rich Young Ruler” was a good person.  He kept all the commandments and was serious about it.  But the one thing that hung him up was his wealth.  Jesus challenged the rich man at this very point:  “... go, sell what you own and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven...”.

Jesus challenged the “Rich Young Ruler” to move from a lifestyle centred on his belongings to a lifestyle centred on the needs of his neighbour.  Over the centuries, Jesus continues to challenge us to move from a culture of acquisition to a culture of generosity.

The poor understand this “culture of generosity” and seek to live it.  Even the comparatively poor in our society, who are still very well-off in global terms, understand the nature of this “culture of generosity”.  Even the frantic overspending that we see each December among less affluent families in our community - as maddening as it may be - is a sign, however flawed, of this “culture of generosity”: a sign of a desire to express the generosity of the season to family and friends ... particularly the kids.

But it is among the world’s poor:
  • found in places like Bangladesh, Cambodia, and the Sudan; 
  • found in Aboriginal communities in this country and in refugee camps on nearby islands;
it is among the world’s poor that we see this culture of generosity most clearly expressed.

In my four visits to Bangladesh in the 1990s on behalf of the Christmas Bowl appeal, I saw this many times. 
  • If you want to see generosity, look for it among the poor. 
  • If you want to see real generosity, look for it among the very poor.  
  • If you want to see sacrificial generosity, look for it among the poorest of the poor. 
Among the poor, we see a real "culture of generosity".

Ultimately, whether one is rich, or poor, or (like most of us here) poorer than Bill Gates but much richer than more than 90% of the world’s population, the question Jesus asks us (like the “Rich Young Ruler”) is whether or not we are prepared to be part of such a “culture of generosity”.   “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

“Who wants to be a millionaire?”   

Eddie McGuire asks that question.

So does Jesus.

Jesus expects a different answer than Eddie.

*  For readers in nations other than Australia, Eddie McGuire was the host of the Australian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire", and its spin-off "Millionaire Hotseat" since the internationally-franchised programme was first seen on Australian TV in the 1990s.  This is alongside such other hosts of this quiz show as Chris Tarrant (U.K.), Regis Philbin (U.S.), and the incomparable Gay Byrne (Ireland).


Sunday, 4 October 2015

Thinking about the Pope's meeting with Kim Davis without jumping to too many conclusions

In the past few days, we've seen various commentators wildly jumping to conclusions after the revelation that Pope Francis, on his recent visit to the United States,  met with Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky who was at the centre of a legal case involving her refusal to authorise marriage licenses for same-gender couples.

Both in the mainstream media and among online commentators, many expressed horror that Pope Francis would meet with Ms. Davis and grant her cause a level of respectability it did not deserve.  The whole matter was threatening to cast a cloud over Pope Francis's visit, including his strong calls for peace, social justice, and environmental sustainability.

In Saturday morning's news (Australian time), there was a statement from the Vatican that emphasised the informal, pastoral nature of Pope Francis's meeting with Ms. Davis, a statement which runs in conflict with some of the claims made by Ms. Davis's supporters that the Pope's meeting with Ms. Davis constitutes an endorsement of her activities.

Looking at all this, there are a few points we need to recognise.

1.  Pope Francis is a Latino, not an Anglo.

We make a mistake when we try to assume that the ideological pattern of an Anglo can apply to Francis. We can't assume that Francis can be put into the same Left-Right "package deal" that exists in the English-speaking countries.  
  • On the one hand, he is decidedly an individual with progressive concerns when it comes to issues of poverty, peace, refugees, and the environment.  
  • On the other hand, he's pretty conservative on issues of gender, sex, and bioethics.  
For an Anglo, this contrast may be confusing.  It goes against our usual ideological "package Deal" in which an individual who is either conservative or progressive within one cluster of views is similarly conservative or progressive within the other. 

However, Francis isn't an Anglo; he's a Latino.  A combination of viewpoints that may seem contradictory to an Anglo makes far more sense to a Latino.  Let's not force him into an Anglo mould.

2.  Pope Francis is a pastor, not a cultural warrior.

Francis is far more of a pastor than were his two most recent predecessors.  (One could almost say that Father Bergoglio was preceded in the papacy by Professor Ratzinger and Field Marshall Wojtyla.)  In a real sense, contrasted particularly with Benedict XVI, Francis is serving as Pope not only for the Roman Catholic Church (let alone for merely the conservative faction of the Roman Catholic Church), but for all Christians,  for all people of faith, and (indeed) for all people of good will, in a style that was last seen in the papacy of St. John XXIII.  Like Good Pope John, Francis is a pastoral Pope. 
In this light, what do pastors do?

Pastors are - or at least should be - far more concerned about promoting the well-being of the people for whom they have pastoral responsibility than in the political success or failure of their personal programmes.
Pastors meet with all sorts of people.  That's part of being a pastor, sitting down with people, talking with them, and listening to them.  When a pastor meets with an individual, there is no sense that the pastor endorses all (or even any) of the other person's viewpoints or activities.  It's what a pastor does.
Pope Francis's meeting with Ms. Davis needs to be seen in the light of his being
  • not an Anglo, but a Latino, and
  • not a cultural warrior, but a pastor.

In short, the narrative of Pope Francis's papacy should not be seen in terms of any expectations of substantial changes of content within the Roman Catholic Church's approach to issues of  gender, sex, and bioethics, but in terms of;
  • changing the tone of the language coming from the Vatican from a "cultural warrior" stance to a pastoral one, reducing both the volume and the temperature of papal rhetoric,
  • appointing far more pastors and far fewer "cultural warriors" to key church positions,
  • making progress in combatting corruption in the Vatican and in dealing with questions of child sexual abuse (noting that substantial action within either area will significantly weaken the influence of the ultra-conservative faction within the Roman Catholic Church), and
  • presenting his successor (hopefully in many years in the future) with a far more inclusive Church than Francis inherited from his predecessor.