The Walk: Baby Steps on the Path

Walk 1.3
For the audio version, click here.

It was early. The sun was just peeking over the hills, kissing the cold, blue, morning sky. Light had been filtering through the windows for an hour however. The room was alive with activity; drawers opening and closing, pockets checked, wallet and keys found and placed on the counter near the door. Two piles sat on the couch, sentinels observing the pageantry in silent vigil. They waited, neither doubting their place, neither concerned with being left. The right was a stack of clothing, three days’ worth to be exact. The other was a mixture of freeze dried food, toiletries, books, and other day to day accessories.

As Max begin to pack his rucksack, he remembered an old George Harrison tune and began singing,

“But oh Lord we pay the price with the
Spin of a wheel – with the roll of the dice
Ah yeah you pay your fare
And if you don’t know where you’re going
Any road will take you there”
[1]

He sang the refrain over and over at the top of his lungs, laughing at his silliness and yet wondering about the truth behind the statement. There was a sense at the moment that Max knew exactly where he was going but then, not so much. He was heading into mountains of North Georgia, Springer Mountain actually, the end or beginning of the line for the Appalachian Trail depending on the direction you took. It was early May, so beginning for him. Potentially, it was the beginning of a lot of things actually. David Maxwell King had graduated from seminary with two very viable options this coming fall: take a church position as an education/discipleship director or begin the long, arduous march toward his Ph.D. and a life in academia. Both were great opportunities but the truth was, they demanded a choice, a diverging of roads for him that he would have to walk one way or the other. The question was never far from his thoughts and yet today, as he packed for the trail, for the next few months he could ponder, sort, figure, whatever was necessary to decide.

The ride from Marietta to Amicalola State Park was everything he expected: traffic from his apartment near the square downtown until just north of Dawsonville. No surprise. Northwest Atlanta had traffic twenty-four seven three sixty-five and it had only gotten worse as he had grown older. People all traveling together and apart, right next to one another but miles apart. The thought occurred to him, not for the first time that the people traveling together on the freeway, while still around one another, were not really aware of one another.

It reminded him of something a seminary professor, Dr. Simon Ames, once said to his class, “Presence is not being present. It is awareness, a connection to those around you.” It was Max’s first year at seminary and Ames was talking about the Emmaus Road story where Jesus was walking with two of his disciples but they had no idea that it was him. Max remembered having to write a paper on the subject, how he had tried to dissect all the Greek words and phrases, looked at a form critical view, spent hours in the library, and felt more confused than ever. Finally, he turned to his professor for help.

Ames listened as Max detailed the process and research, politely nodding to his student, and noting when Max was going in a good direction. Finally, Max was finished and Dr. Ames sat back in his chair with a slight smile.

“Max,” he began, “the problem isn’t the research. Your research methods are always solid and your approach is typical of a good academic.” Ames took a deep breath, “Your problem is you are missing the point.”

“I don’t get it sir,” as a confused expression settled on Max’s face. “I’m all over the point.”

Ames chuckled, “Over, under, around, but not on the point. Why do we have the Emmaus tale in Luke? What does it point to?”

Max started listing the salient ideas: Christ is known by revelation, the gospel is summarized, the Old Testament witnesses of Jesus, Christ is revealed in the communion meal, we understand Jesus by remembrance, the disciples act as witnesses to what they have seen and heard.[2] On and on, Max laid out theological point after theological point, and all the while Dr. Ames patiently, mentally sorting the mounting piles of information. After a substantial list, Max looked up into the patient stare of the professor, eyes staring back at him just over the lenses of his glasses.

“Missed it, didn’t I?”

“Not entirely,” said Ames. “You’re just looking at it as an academic exercise, a puzzle to piece together, a problem to solve.” Ames removed his glasses and set them on his desk. “Max, at its heart what is a gospel?”

“It’s a life story, a tribute to the person it’s written about.”

“Good, and what makes up the bigger story?”

“Smaller stories, parables.”

“Right,” Ames said smiling. “So, what is Emmaus?”

Max paused, mouth slightly open in that universal facial expression that signifies someone wrestling with an idea on the tip of their tongue. The wrestling ended abruptly and Max planted an open palm on his forehead. “It’s a story, a story used to make a point.”

“Point being?”

“Communion, connection with God cannot be limited by death, or our own lack of understanding. Communion is God with us, traveling with us, walking with us, being with us.”

“Now were getting somewhere.” Dr. Ames nodded, picked up his glasses and slid them back in front of his eyes. “You have to remember, always remember, that the world Jesus lived in, the world of the New Testament, was a world that lived and died on its narratives the stories that they told one another generation after generation. The tradition of story means that every story has a point buried beneath the words, but not necessarily in the words themselves.”

“Reading between the lines?” Max asked hopefully.

“Reading between the lines. All the theology and doctrine in the world won’t help you understand God or people unless you realize that both are engaged best in relationship, in conversation.”

“In communion,” Max added.

“In communion.”

Max stirred the ashes beneath the logs in the fire looking for any coals that may have been buried beneath them. Once again, Max thought of the story, the simple truth buried beneath the doctrine and dogma, the complexity of bad church politics and drive that people had to protect their man-made rules and structures seemingly at all costs. He thought again of that conversation with Dr. Ames and the need to get beneath the stuff that hid the story and get to the real meat of it, get to the heart of it. As a younger student, Max had brought certain preconceived notions of how to ‘do right by the Bible’, but after that first year and several conversations with Dr. Ames and others like him, Max began to see things differently.

Like the Emmaus Story for example. Max began to see that the story was not so much about making grand theological points for the future twenty-first century church. The story was something much simpler. It is a story of two men who are despondent about having lost their rabbi, their teacher, their spiritual leader.  It is a story that speaks to the hope of death not being death, of life being greater than its end. It is a story about Jesus continuing to be with the disciples even beyond the cross and the tomb. It is about communion, quite literally, ‘a mutual participation’, our mutual participation with God in this life through the life and example of Jesus.

Max stood, grabbed another piece of firewood, and stoked the fire. He thought about his own Emmaus moments, those moments when he found himself in the presence of God in a way that drew him into a true connection with the divine. In those moments, Max could see and understand the real point, the real reason for the gospel – connection, or better said, communion. It was like in the story itself,

“After he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he disappeared from their sight. They said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts on fire when he spoke to us along the road and when he explained the scriptures for us?”[3]

The fire, Max thought, the sense that the presence of God could be intertwined with our presence so that we could know in a real, spiritual way that God was there. It was there with the disciples as Jesus walked with them, it was in walking with Jesus on the path that they saw him for what who he was and in much the same way, it was how Max saw him as well.

It would be an early morning tomorrow. Everything was ready, backpack sorted, keys ready to leave with the park ranger for a friend to pick them up. Max settled himself against a tree and picked up his copy of Let Your Life Speak, a book by Parker Palmer he picked up for a spiritual disciplines class. As he thumbed through the first chapter, Max ran across a quote,

Before you tell your life what you intended to do with it, listen for what it intends to do with you. Before you tell your life what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let your life tell you what truth you embody, what values you represent.[4]

Max thought about how one of his professors changed the word life to God and reread it,

Before you tell God what you intended to do with him, listen for what he intends to do with you. Before you tell God what truths and values you have decided to live up to, let God tell you what truth you embody, what values you represent.

That is communion, Max thought, that’s what the walk is all about.


References

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Harrison, George. “Any Road.” Brainwashed. Comp. George Harrison. 1. 1988.

Palmer, Parker. Let Your Life Speak. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.


[1] (Harrison 1988)

[2] (Craddock 1990, 284-287)

[3] Luke 24:30-32

[4] (Palmer 2000, 3)

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Resurrection: a meaning and a purpose

Last Supper
For the audio version of the sermon, click here.

As we complete the Holy Week journey today, I have in a sense, seen resurrection first hand. I was fourteen years old at the time and had been cutting grass for a few weeks, saving up money for my new pastime: golf. I had it in my mind that I was going to improve my golf game with a decent putter. Never mind the fact that I couldn’t hit any of the other clubs to save my life, the putter was going to save my golf game and make me a sub-100 golfer.

It was June, so school was out. It was Wednesday, mid-week, and traffic in K-Mart was relatively light, only a few people scattered throughout the store. I had walked away from my parents and was digging through the golf clubs hoping to find one that was more than twenty dollars but less than thirty, a good club but at a decent price, actually a pricier club that was discounted. It took the better part of fifteen minutes but I found what I was looking for and made up my mind that this was the club, the salvation of my golf game.

I heard my parents talking and realized they had tracked me down so I walked around the end of the aisle to show them. As I rounded the corner, my father fell. He went down in a heap, collapsing into a shelving unit, taking down the merchandise with him. Honestly, at that moment, in my teenage addled brain, I thought, “But it’s on sale.” As I realized what was going on, my mother was in a blind panic, screaming for help. In an act of God’s grace, two paramedics were in the store, just off duty from the hospital only two miles away. An ambulance was called and the paramedics tried to keep my father alive, alternately fighting and giving up from the floor of the store all the way to the emergency room. My father lost a week of his life in that he cannot remember the three days before the incident or the three days after. He died. And then he was alive.

Now thirty years later, he is retired, enjoys traveling, stacks of library books, and puttering around the house that he and my mother have lived in since I was eight months old. For me personally, and for my family, this event became not only the physical restoration of my father but the beginning of a spiritual resurrection for my family. Not long after this, we began attending church and each of us: my father, mother, sister, and myself, these were the initial steps in faith journey, one that would send both of my parent’s children into the ministry.

For me this story is quite personal, but for all of us especially those of us who seek to follow in the Way of Jesus, the idea of resurrection is central to how we understand our faith. But I wonder, do we think about it beyond an assent to an idea? I know for myself the idea of resurrection was long an idea in theory online, one of a set of propositions necessary for me to believe in order call myself a good believer. I have come to believe, however, that believing or intellectual assent, isn’t all that God calls us to do. We are called to be disciples or those who study and follow in the way of our teacher, Jesus. So, what do we do to make resurrection something real and tangible.

Meaning

The writer of Luke lived in a world of people hurting and in need of direction. The gospel was written some fifteen or twenty years after the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and the Jewish people had been scattered all over the Mediterranean and Northern Africa. Most of Luke’s audience were poor and barely surviving from day to day. Hope was lost to them in this life as most of those who were wealthy and powerful held little if any regard for their downtrodden countrymen.

And so, the message of something better in a spiritual life was a welcome word, a spiritual balm for their weary souls. If they could live beyond their circumstances in a spiritual sense, they had hope in this life, the hope of a spiritual resurrection and the promise of a life beyond this life. One Christian writer puts it this way,

“The resurrection was for the early Christians not just a promise about the future but a cure for the fear of death, now. Awareness of our mortality can paralyze us. So, the courage born of resurrection is a gift of rebirth in the now, a baptismal present that opens the end in hope.”  (Keller 2008, 129)

For some, the idea of resurrection must be limited to a physical, bodily resurrection or all of the gospel is lost. It is part of an all or nothing proposition that says you either believe everything in a factual, literal way, or you can trust none of it. But as one writer says, “Seeing the Easter stories as parable does not involve a denial of their factuality. It’s quite happy leaving the question open. What is does insist upon is that the importance of these stories lies in their meanings…” (Crossan and Borg 2007, 193) What is important is the meaning and the meaning of resurrection is this: we can die and be reborn, in this life, in the here and now. We can as Paul writes, “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!”[1] and “Being circumcised or not being circumcised doesn’t mean anything. What matters is a new creation.”[2] The point, the emphasis is on a changed life, a life that is orienting itself to the worship of God through the discipleship or followership of Jesus.

Purpose

I was reading a book this week that asked these questions, “God raised Jesus. Yes. And what does this mean? Is it about the most spectacular miracle there’s ever been? Is it about the promise of an afterlife? Is it about God proving that Jesus was indeed his Son?” (Crossan and Borg 2007, 190)

I have had times in my life when I heard these questions through the filter of stuff I had to believe. If I didn’t believe, as I have said before, I couldn’t call myself a Christian. Yet, can you really believe without action. The writer of James says,

“My brothers and sisters, what good is it if people say they have faith but do nothing to show it? Claiming to have faith can’t save anyone, can it?  Imagine a brother or sister who is naked and never has enough food to eat.  What if one of you said, “Go in peace! Stay warm! Have a nice meal!”? What good is it if you don’t actually give them what their body needs? In the same way, faith is dead when it doesn’t result in faithful activity.”  (James 2:14-17)

Real faith calls us to real action. This is the heart of Methodism, born with John Wesley’s vision of seeing faith be real, especially to the poor and hurting of eighteenth century England. “Easter completes the archetypal pattern at the center of the Christian life: death and resurrection, crucifixion and vindication…the two must be affirmed equally.” (Crossan and Borg 2007, 209) This leads to ultimately acknowledging that we accept, we believe and act as though Jesus is Lord (the one with the right of rule over us) personally but also politically (that is, in our public life and actions) as well. (Crossan and Borg 2007, 215-216)

So, if the meaning is the emphasis is on a changed life, a life that is orienting itself to the worship of God through the discipleship or followership of Jesus and the purpose is that we live this changed life as those who are now given to follow Jesus, what does that look like in our day and age? I think you can find it in two places and they are the two places I mention most often when I point people to the Bible: Matthew 5-7 and Matthew 25:31-46. The basics of these verses are this: The Beatitudes, being Salt and Light for the world, Jesus interpretation of the Ten Commandments and their spiritual implication, the inner and outer life, knowing that God has us in his hand, and the life of the disciple. I believe all these things encompass the basics for what a resurrection Christian should look like.

And that leads us to this question: do we live a resurrected life or are we dead to the Kingdom life? How do we keep Jesus alive, resurrected, for the world around us today?

I would like to close with a set of resurrection life practices written by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat that may help points us to some ideas on how to live this out.

“Give your full attention to whatever you are doing, and you’ll recognize the constant renewal of life all around you.

Walk the path of beauty and notice the spiritual radiance in people, places, and growing things — more signs of rebirth.

Leave the past to God’s mercy. Leave the future to God’s discretion. Living in the present moment, the only time when God brings forth new life, is a way of affirming your belief in resurrection.

Whenever you with compassion open your heart, mind, and soul to the pain of the world, you help bring suffering beings back into the land of the living.

When you cultivate the art of making connections, the walls of separation come crashing down and new life can spring up out of the rubble.

When you regularly pray for others as part of your devotional activities, you are practicing resurrection.

Enthusiasm is the mark of a life-giver. When you can laugh and sing and relish life, you are practicing resurrection.

Every time you forgive someone, another resurrection is in the making.

Every time you accept God’s grace in your life and see it in the world around you, your own resurrection is in the making.

Bring hope to someone in despair, bring healing to those in conflict, and you are contributing to the ongoing resurrection.

When you can welcome guests and alien ideas with graciousness, you are participating in a new world of hospitality.

Your work for justice, freedom, and equality sets the stage for resurrection. When you feed the hungry and stand up for the oppressed, you are a life-giver.

Practicing resurrection also means having confidence that God can make something out of your selfishness, anger, greed, hatred, and any of your other shadow qualities.

Love God, love your neighbor, and love your new life as marks of the resurrection.”[3]


References

Collins, Kenneth J. The Theology of John Wesley: Holy Love and the Shape of Grace. Nashville: Abingdn Press, 2007.

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Marcus Borg. The Last Week. 1st (Paperback). New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishing, 2007.

Keller, Catherine. On the Mystery. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008.

Spong, John Shelby. Resurrection: Myth or Reality? New York: HarperCollins, 1994.


[1] 2 Corinthians 5:17

[2] Galatians 6:15

[3] http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/naming-the-days/view/10963/easter-resurrection-as-a-spiritual-practice

Signs of Lent: Palms, no wait, talking rocks and stones

SoL6.2

This past week, my family and I were driving back from Colorado along Highway 85. Not for the first time, I noticed the ridges and sloping landscape to the west of the highway. As I watched the sun going down, I remembered a graphic that I saw at the Denver Museum of Natural History. The first time I saw it the image struck me as being both odd and fascinating. It showed that somewhere between 100 and 150 million years ago most of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana were all underwater. Looking at the landscape it made perfect sense. The rocky ridges looked very much like images of the seafloor that I have seen in the present day. In fact, a Wyoming history website proclaims,

“Fossils found in the Weston County region date back 110 million years to the Cretaceous Period. The land was largely submerged, supporting thriving sea life—plants, shellfish and sharks, among others. A variety of prehistoric marine reptiles, including the sharklike ichthyosaurs and the long-necked plesiosaurs, as well as plant imprints and sharks’ teeth, have been discovered in the area.”

I began to think of the story that those rocks and ridges were telling, one of an ancient time when strange animals roamed a vast, perilous ocean. I thought about all of the places that I have hiked both here and in Colorado that seemed almost otherworldly, as if I were walking on land that wasn’t really land. It also made sense that even though there are times I miss the coast and seeing the ocean back home, I’m still comforted by looking out over the vast plains that lie to the west of the Black Hills.

And as I drove home on Wednesday evening, I wondered about the stories that are being told by the landscape itself. I wondered about the stories hidden in the layers of rock on the rolling wave like prairies and pastures. It would seem that the rocks themselves cried out in the silence story for us to learn something of the world that used to be.
As we enter into this time that we call holy week, we come to a familiar story, one told many times before. It is the story of a man on a mission, a man seeking to right the wrongs of the past and open the door to the future. It is the story of a people who have lived in oppression for generations, a people who hunger to know the freedom that their forefathers spoke of. It is also the story of a people with a tenuous hold on their traditions as they grapple with foreign powers to maintain a sense of who they are.

In the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and John, we have a story about palms. Luke however, is the Charlie Brown gospel and we are going to get rocks for Palm Sunday. In all of the Gospels, we have the crowds gathering to celebrate. They have heard the teachings of Jesus. They have been witness to healings and miracles. They have heard the teaching of the Way, the interpretation of the law and prophets from the rabbi Jesus. And now, they look to celebrate. They look for the Messiah, the one they have been waiting for since the time of the Maccabees two centuries before. They believe that Jesus is this Messiah, this anointed one who will restore Israel to the glory of the past, the glory of David and Solomon. They come out in droves to shout their acclaim for their deliver, the one they believe to be the restorer of God’s people.

But not everyone sees this, not everyone is ready to praise God for this deliver. In fact, some don’t see him as deliverer at all. Some see him as a sign of impending destruction, an instrument of unholy terror who will undermine the foundation of everything that has been worked for these many years. As the crowds swell and begin to heal him as king of the people and the land, these the detractors are afraid, afraid that their tenuous hold as political leaders may be slipping through their hands. They wring their hands and mumble among themselves, wondering how to control the crowds before the Romans get nervous and do it for them. They wonder if this spells certain doom for the peace that they have worked to hold onto. They cannot calm the crowds so they do the next best thing, they go to the people’s king and ask him to do it. “Teacher, scold your disciples! Tell them to stop!” Can you hear the fear and frustration as the Pharisees and other religious leaders go to Jesus with this request? It reminds me of an older child concerned about the behavior of the younger one getting them in trouble. It’s as if you can almost hear a thin whiny voice saying, “Make them stop!”

Jesus’ answer: “Nope.” Actually, it is a little more dignified than that. “I tell you, if they were silent, the stones would shout.” Often, I have heard people try to literalize that statement and say that if the people there with Jesus weren’t shouting and praising him, that the rocks and stones of the ground would begin to speak as you or I do. It would be interesting if it happened, but I don’t think it would. I think this, like much of the biblical writings is metaphor, a speaking of truth through story, allegory, and simile. I think the writer of Luke is saying something about the nature of a truth that cannot be held in silence, a truth that must be spoken.

I think this truth has to do with the idea of story and narrative. Michal Beth Dinkler writes,

In other words, stories are “a form of culture making”; storytelling shapes both communities and individuals. As anthropologist John Berger puts it, narratives are the fundamental elements of a community’s evolving self-portrait: “A [community’s] portrait of itself is constructed, not out of stone, but out of words, spoken and remembered: out of opinions, stories, eyewitness reports, legends, comments and hearsay. (Dinkler 2015)

I believe that Jesus is telling the Pharisees and religious leaders, those who are scared by the potential ruckus that the people are making over Jesus, that they could silence the crowds now, for that matter he could silence the crowds, but they would not stay silenced for long. The story behind the shouts, the accolades, is a story that demands being told. The life and deeds and teaching of Jesus, the greatest story ever told as it were, cannot be held in check by societies, rulers, or as Paul says, ‘powers and principalities’. In other words, someone has to tell the story; that’s what holy week is about. Someone has to tell the story because it is a story worth telling.

So, what is the story that the writer of Luke is telling? One writer put it this way,

“Luke’s gospel had a particular emphasis upon Jesus’ role as a prophet who spoke for God and who called his followers to be diligent in caring for those without privilege, particularly the sick, lame, blind, widows, Gentiles, and the poor…” (Green and Willimon 2012, 1281)

This is why the disciples, more accurately the followers of Jesus, sang his praises and shouted his name throughout the gospels, and especially in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is an advocate for the poor, the masses, the downtrodden, the everyman. He is the champion of those who feel that God has forgotten them. He is the healer of those left for dead and the raiser of those who were dead. He is the one who speaks to the castoffs, dines with the outcasts, and offers grace, mercy, and life to those who have not been offered it. He speaks for a God who is there and loves the people.

Story, a powerful story like the story of Jesus, has the power to heal and change lives. A recent article on the website for Harvard Medical School quotes Dr. Suzanne Kovan as saying,

“The storytelling is really where the medicine is,” she said. “There is nothing that I can think of, there is no kind of testing, there is no sort of physiology or pharmacology that is more essential to clinical skill than the ability to elicit, interpret and communicate someone else’s story… This isn’t an adjunct to medicine. This is medicine, because we’re hearing from patients that they want to feel that their stories are being heard. They want to be listened to. And literature, I think, is a very fine kind of listening and very good training for listening.”

This is the power behind the gospel. It is the medicine, the balm for the soul of humanity, the telling and retelling of who Jesus was, what he did, and how he changed the lives of those around him. In this story, we who follow can bring a sort of medicine to the hurting world by hearing about them, their lives, and their struggles and introducing them to the story of one who understood and continues to understand through us.

As his disciples, followers of the Way of Jesus, we now carry the mantle. It is up to us to cry out for and against the things that Jesus advocated and denounced. It is up to us to cry out on behalf of the sick, lame, blind, widows, the stranger, the sojourner, the poor, the unwanted, the broken. It is up to us to denounce those who bring harm to the innocent, the fragile, the defenseless. It is up to us to be as Jesus would be in order that Jesus will continue to live in our time and our place. We are those who would cry out. If we are not, the message is silenced and passes into history, a forgotten tune, a memory of songs and stories passed.

It is up to us to tell the story and keep telling the story.

When the parade is over, do we pick up our lives, brush them off, and live in the old way? Do we toss our palm branches aside, so we can grasp the seductions of the world? As we begin the journey through the holiest of weeks, let us speak the truth, as we confess to our God,

Ever constant storyteller, mixing love and hope together, you pave the way to the kingdom, but we prefer to stub our toes on the potholed roads of temptation. You would touch the cup of grace to our parched lips, but we seem to hunger for the ashy taste of bitterness. You beg us to learn the songs of salvation, but we hum along with the chorus death plays in the background of our lives.

Have mercy upon us, God of Holiness. As you come to us, you bring healing for our brokenness, peace for our troubled lives, hope for our doubting minds. May we empty ourselves of everything which keeps us from following you, so we may receive these gifts, and more, from Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior.

Laying aside judgment, God offers us redemption; setting aside anger, God embraces us with love; letting go of grief, God pours living water upon us. This is the good news, my friends: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Hosanna! Hosanna! Blessed is the One who brings us the kingdom of God!


References
Borg, Marcus J., and John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006.
Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.
Dinkler, Michal Beth. “Reading the potentials of Jesus’ ‘triumphal entry’ (Luke 19:28-40).” Edited by Mark E. Biddle. Review and Expositor (Sage Journals) 112, no. 4 (2015): 525-541.
Goodman, MArtin. Rome and Jerusalem. New York, NY: Vintage Books / Random House, 2007.
Green, Joel B., and William H. Willimon, . The Wesley Study Bible. Nashville, TN: Common English Bible, 2012.
King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001.

Signs of Lent: Blindness

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
For the audio version of this sermon, click here.

This week as I was preparing for the sermon I ran across this story and I thought it was a good fit for this morning. It’s about a young lady, named Kate Katulak, a math and technology teacher who went through a rather traumatic experience as a teenager. In her own words,

When I was in high school, I caught a virus that attacks the nervous system. I went from having perfect vision to being totally blind in a matter of days. It was a frightening, traumatic experience – I had to relearn how to smell, how to taste, how to walk.

Other than a few years where I was really struggling, I’ve been happy. It sounds so strange, but I think it’s like anything in life – things come at you that you’re not expecting. You just have to roll with it.

I teach math at Perkins, which encompasses a lot. It’s functional skills like money management and timekeeping all the way up through algebra and statistics. I also teach some assistive technology and a study skills class as well. I wear a lot of different hats.

The most rewarding thing about being a teacher is the ability I have to connect with students and their disability. I see myself in some of the struggles they have that I’ve now overcome. I’m able to say, “It sucks, there’s no question about that, but you’re going to get through it.” It’s been as fulfilling as I hoped it would be.

When I moved to Boston I found an organization that connected me with a guide runner. He met me at my house and we went for a run. A half mile in, I fell in love with running. It wasn’t just an activity; it became part of who I am. Now I run four or five times a week and cross-train on the other days. I did my first half marathon in December and my first marathon is May 3.

When it comes to blindness, people need to realize that yes, it’s hard. Any type of impairment you have is hard. But with the right attitude and the right effort you can be totally independent and totally content with life. It is challenging being blind, but it is a lot less challenging than a lot of other things. It’s not only doable, it’s doable with happiness.

In Kate’s case, blindness came as a result of something beyond her control. She was going about her teenage life one minute and the next, a tiny little organism crept into her body and took away her vision. Through the course of our lives, we too will deal with tiny organisms that creep into our lives but more specifically they will creep into our minds. Some of these will be positive and lead us to a better view of the world and our purpose and reason for being here. Others will rob us of our vision and limit our capacity to live life and live it abundantly. These organisms are ideas.

From the beginning of humankind, ideas have been the fuel behind how we choose to live with one another, be they the simple, survival based impulses that keep us functioning or the more nuanced thoughts that lead us to grapple with life’s great existential problems. Much like the virus that took Kate’s sight, ideas burrow into our minds and begin to reshape the fabric of our interior being. If the old adage, “you are what you eat” has any credence to it, we are the embodiment of the ideas that we gravitate toward and embrace.

In the text this morning from Luke eighteen and nineteen, there is an idea that runs as an undercurrent through the verses.  Each section offers a different glimpse of it and a different understanding of a potential human condition.

Blindness is the ancient world was far worse than in our day and age. The most common type in the Bible was something called trachoma, an infection within the eyeball that is transmitted by poor hygiene and flies (King and Stager 2001, 75). But blindness was most often used as a metaphor for something else, something we will discuss as we go along in the sermon.

Sometimes blindness is not so much blindness as not being able to see. Almost sounds like a pithy saying from someone like Will Rogers but there is a truth in it that I think makes sense with Jesus’ comments about an impending day of death and resurrection. As I was reading this passage from verses 31-34, I was struck by two words that show up in this phrase, “The meaning of this message was hidden from them and they didn’t grasp what he was saying.” The words ‘hidden’ and ‘grasp’, or more accurately their Greek equivalents, began to sink in and I began to wonder about the purpose of this idea that the words helped to hold up. I began to wonder why would God or Jesus want to hide something from the disciples? What was so complicated that they could not grasp it?

The phrase ‘not being able to see the forest for the trees’ comes to mind. It has to do with the expectations we bring with us when we engage something or someone. In this case, the disciples have walked with Jesus for the better part of three years with a growing expectation: that Jesus is the messianic figure that will deliver them from their situation in the earthly sense. What they have been hoping for, seeing, believing in is a messiah who would lead a great revolution and restore the House of David to Israel?

As for why Jesus would hide the idea of his crucifixion and resurrection from them: I think they simply are not ready to hear it. An example, when I was a kid I was fairly bullheaded. I grew out of it as an adult and became persistent instead but only because adults need more sophisticated terms for their personal issues. In any case, I have always been the kind of person who has to experience something to believe it. I cannot be told something is this way or that, I have to have experienced it personally or I can’t believe it. I’m one of those really bright people who step on ice after someone says it’s slick just to see if my shoes are better or their definition of slick is less than accurate. Let’s say I’ve fallen down a few times because of it. The disciples seem to be this kind of crew as well. Even having seen the miracles of Jesus and having heard his teaching, they are still by and large, a group of existentialist or even empiricists, believing only what can be shown to them. I think this is the reason things have to be hidden from them, they won’t really believe it until they see it for themselves.

I don’t feel like the disciples and I are the only ones to look at life this way. Many of us, I think, have a ‘show me’ kind of attitude. We would probably have been among those who wanted to see Jesus perform miracles before we would hear what he had to say just so we could know, not believe, but know that he was what he said he was.

Damon Rose lost his vision thirty-three years ago, because of an ill-advised surgery.[1] He writes,

“How do I even begin to describe it? Let me have a go. Right now, I’ve got a dark brown background, with a turquoise luminescence front and centre. Actually, it’s just changed to green… now it’s bright blue with flecks of yellow, and there’s some orange threatening to break through and cover the whole lot.

The rest of my field of vision is taken up by squashed geometric shapes, squiggles and clouds I couldn’t hope to describe – and not before they all change again anyway. Give it an hour, and it’ll all be different.”

I wonder if the man on the road in Jericho saw the world that way in strange geometric shapes and random colors that were beyond his ability to control. Perhaps, he was what is termed NLP or No Light Perception meaning he simply experienced a visual blackness, a void.[2] Regardless, the man was at the mercy of others to help and care for him, much the same as Lazarus whom we discussed last week (Luke 16:19-31). He was probably led to the roadside and left there to cry out to passersby in the hope that they would have mercy and give him food or money. As Jesus and the disciples enter the city, they find the blind man, sitting by the road, waiting for someone to offer him mercy. He hears the crowds and the noise and asks someone what is going on and they reply that Jesus has come to Jericho.

An interesting thing about people who lose one of their senses, the other senses seem to take up the slack. One of the things that happens often with people who are blind is that they develop a very keen sense of hearing and touch. Sitting by the road I would have to believe that he has heard stories of Jesus and his miracles and teachings. Perhaps the man has even spoken with friends about them and wished for himself that Jesus could cure him. I think that in his heart, the blind man believed before Jesus even passed him but simply needed to hear the voice of Jesus to make it real. His moment came and Luke records,

The blind man shouted, “Jesus, Son of David, show me mercy.” Those leading the procession scolded him, telling him to be quiet, but he shouted even louder, “Son of David, show me mercy.” Jesus stopped and called for the man to be brought to him. When he was present Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, I want to see.” Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight! Your faith has healed you.” At once he was able to see, and he began to follow Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they praised God too. (Luke 18:38-43)

It’s interesting to me that the question Jesus asks is “What do you want me to do for you?” He appears not to assume what the man wants but lets the man speak for himself. Notice too, the catalyst for the restoration of his sight, Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you.” This story has the metaphorical implication of saying that if you want to see clearly the world around you, let faith be the guide to your vision and restoration will be brought about by that faith.

Ultimately, the blind beggar had to have help, something we all need, in order to overcome his blindness. Without people leading him to road for him to hear the stories of Jesus he would have lost hope. Without someone to point out Jesus when he arrived in Jericho, the blind man would have missed him. We need one another to help in our more difficult times as we attempt to navigate the roads of life and point out the dangers and struggles we might face on the road.

Finally, we come to chapter nineteen and the very familiar story of Zacchaeus, the tree climbing tax collector. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the beggar in the previous section (and implying that blindness knows no social, economic, or other boundaries) we find Jesus continuing to make his way through Jericho. As he walks along, Jesus is being followed, sought out, by a little tax collector, one so short, he can’t see Jesus for the crowds of people in the way. One thing you can bet on though is that a man who makes his living trying to figure out how to tax/extort money out of people can be creative when he has to be. Zacchaeus runs ahead, climbs a tree, and waits for Jesus to walk by.

Most of us are familiar with the rest of the story, Jesus sees him and invites himself to dinner in Zacchaeus’ house and by the end of the evening, the greedy little tax collector has seen the error of his ways and has promised to, “give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much” (19.8). To this Jesus responds, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. The Human One came to seek and save the lost.” Oddly enough, Zacchaeus name means ‘pure’ in Greek. Whatever his blindness to the gospel message before Jesus, the acceptance and love shown to the little tax collector by Jesus helped Zacchaeus to see with new eyes, eyes that now recognized the world from the right perspective, one of charity for others and mercy for those in need.

In each of these stories, we see an element of blindness. In the first, the disciples cannot overcome their blindness to the real mission and purpose of the gospel for the distraction of understanding what a real messiah is. In the second story, the blind beggar is given his sight and we see restoration by means of faith. In the third story, we see a man’s inner eyes opened to the error of his ways and repentance as the vehicle for the restoration of sight.

What do these stories tell us? One, that blindness comes in a variety of forms and is not limited to the physical variety. We can be blind and never know because we think we are seeing by virtue of our eyes being open. We can also know we are blind but in order to find help, we have to rely on others to lead us to one who can give us sight. And finally, we must recognize the need to repent or change direction in order to see more clearly sometimes.

Unlike Kate or Damon at the moment (perhaps the future will bring medical advancements that can reverse their conditions), our blindness is curable. We can see again. It requires only the humility to admit that our vision is suspect, the courage to seek Jesus’ aid, and the willingness to accept his cure for what ails us, amen.


References

Craddock, Fred. Luke: Interpretation – A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Lousiville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001.


[1] http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-ouch-31487662

[2] ibid