Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Seeing Is Believing (Sermon from Mark 6:1-13)



When President Obama spoke to the nation after the Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage he urged respect for the opponents of same-sex marriage whose views are "based on sincere and deeply held beliefs." Then he said, “There is so much more work to be done to extend the full promise of America to every American. But today, we can say in no uncertain terms that we've made our union a little more perfect. That's the consequence of a decision from the Supreme Court, but more importantly, it is a consequence of the countless small acts of courage of millions of people across decades who stood up, who came out, talked to parents, parents who loved their children no matter what, folks who were willing to endure bullying and taunts, and stayed strong, and came to believe in themselves and who they were, and slowly made an entire country realize that love is love. What an extraordinary achievement, but what a vindication of the belief that ordinary people can do extraordinary things.” He concluded, "Those countless, often anonymous heroes, they deserve our thanks. They should be very proud. America should be very proud."

Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Jesus is indeed doing some extraordinary things, though he is considered to be quite ordinary. He is healing people. He is liberating people from their demons. He is challenging the status quo and confronting the religious establishment.

The folks in Jesus’ hometown acknowledge this or at least some of this. They say, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands.” So what is holding them back? Why can’t they join in and be part of the movement that Jesus has inaugurated? Why can’t they participate with Jesus in what he calls the kingdom of God?

They say, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us.” Then Mark adds, “And they took offense at him.” They took offense. Why? Because they knew his family. Because he was a carpenter by trade. Because he was so ordinary. How could someone so ordinary be so extraordinary? And this blinded them.

The text says that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief” and was limited in what he could do there. They could not believe because they could not see and they could not see because they couldn’t get past how ordinary Jesus was. They couldn’t get past their limited worldview, their narrow vision of reality, and so they couldn’t believe that Jesus could be more.

What is it that we can’t get past that restricts and limits our vision – that diminishes our capacity to see? It could be our unwillingness to forgive someone who has hurt us and we want to see them pay and so we keep playing these grievance stories in our minds over and over. It could be our unwillingness to pursue a path of forgiveness.

It could be what I mentioned last week - that which Richard Rohr calls “stinking thinking” - our way of processing and responding and relating to events and circumstances and other people who rub us the wrong way.

It could be our preoccupation with what 1 John calls “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” – our need for power, prominence, possessions, and prestige. There are lots of things that can limit our vision and restrict our capacity to trust and embody and share God’s love.

And it could be a particular issue that consumes us and blinds us to other realities. Dwight Moody, a former professor at Georgetown College who is now the President of the Academy of Preachers based in Lexington (and who spoke here on one occasion) wrote a good piece for BNG this past week.

In his post he calls attention to a colleague who is full of fear and angst and travail over the recent Supreme Court Decision to legalize same-sex marriage. Moody basically asks the question, “Why this?” Why are these Christians so alarmed about same-sex marriage that doesn’t harm anyone – it simply extends equal rights and protections under the law to more people – why are these Christians so concerned about same-sex marriage when they have failed to be alarmed about such concerns like racism, which is still very much with us as we are witnessing today. Or gun violence. In spite of all the recent violence in our country we can’t even pass common sense gun legislation that would call for background checks. There is a clear disdain for the poor among people of power in our country and resistance to government helping the disadvantaged. We have this huge income inequality that is greater in our country than anywhere else in the free world. Why hasn’t there been more concern over these pressing issues? 

Moody writes, “Why is gay marriage the decisive move that makes ‘Bible-believing people’ strangers in our own culture? I am already a stranger, an alien in a land where the wealthy get richer and the poor get poorer, where the alien among us is treated with contempt and anger, where war is the quick and expensive option to international disputes, where poor people are locked up, often on death row, because they cannot afford lawyers, where corporations rape the good earth and then pay ‘scholars’ to testify that they are not harming the earth . . . “

Moody calls us to wake up. He says, “Wake up, Evangelicals. Shake your neighbor in the pew next to you out of this fog of denial and despair. God is at work in the world, redeeming, lifting, saving, transforming, rescuing even the perishing, even if you cannot see it because of the bushel under which you are hiding.”

Well, that’s what we all need to do isn’t it? Even as I critique my sisters and brothers who are stuck on this single issue that blinds them to so much real injustice in the world I have to ask myself, “Where am I am stuck? Where am I blind? What is it that keeps me from seeing God at work in ordinary people doing extraordinary things that may on the surface of things look quite ordinary? What am I missing?” 

In our text the rejection of Jesus by his hometown folks is followed by Jesus sending out the Twelve who are given authority to do the very same kind of works Jesus was doing. These are just ordinary persons – fishermen, a tax collector, a former insurrectionist – common called by Jesus to engage in some very extraordinary works.

When you think about it, who are we to even say what is ordinary and what is extraordinary? Each of us are both. How very ordinary and extraordinary we all – each one – are, for we share in the same identity as Jesus.

I love the way the little epistle of 1 John puts it, “See what love the Father (our Abba) has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world [the domination system] does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed” (3:1-2a). Don’t you love that? We are God’s daughters and sons right now! – there is nothing to earn, there are no hoops to jump through, no doctrines or religious creeds to believe, no rituals to perform, not even a confession to make – we are, right now, the very children of God in whom the divine nature, the Spirit of God dwells.

Now as we claim this reality and grow into this reality we will believe some things, we will confess some things, we will participate in some rituals and spiritual practices, we will engage in acts of kindness and work that promotes justice and peace, but we do not earn in any way our identity as the children of God. And by virtue of that identity we are of infinite worth and value. And that should be enough to set us on a path of healing and liberation from our low self-esteem, from our insecurities and fears, and from our false attachments and addictions that we use to fill the void in our souls that is present when we fail to see just who we are in Christ. And when we realize that everyone else is just as loved and just as valuable as we are then we are empowered to love our neighbor as ourselves – regardless of that neighbor is.

Public theologian and writer Fred Clark emphasizes how both parts of that are extremely necessary and important. He puts it this way: “You’re no more valuable than anyone else, and no one else is more valuable than you. If you believe that you are of infinite, inestimable value, but you fail to recognize that’s true of everyone else, too, then you’re headed to runaway ego inflation and the sin of treating other people as things. If you recognize that others are of infinite, inestimable value, but you fail to recognize that’s also true of you, then you’re headed for misery and the sin of mistaking yourself for a thing.”

Now, when we can see ourselves as a beloved child of God and everyone else too just as beloved, then we have a new platform for seeing reality and living that reality. Seeing is believing, and seeing is also loving. Whenever we do cruel or destructive or evil things to ourselves or others it is because we do not see. If we see we will love. If we do not love then we do not see and believe.

An old Indian lady from New Mexico shared this story: “Our parents never really taught us about prayer. We didn’t memorize prayers. But every morning, my mother would wake us up, and as little children we’d have to sit on the steps of our house facing east. And she’d say, ‘Be quiet. You have to be quiet while you sit here. You sit here and watch the sun come up.’ Me and my brothers and sisters would have to sit on the steps and watch the sun rise every morning. ‘As the sun comes,’ my mother would say to us, ‘welcome it. Welcome it to the world. And tell it, as it goes over the earth, it should drop its blessings on all people.’ That was our prayer every day.” This mother was teaching her children how to see. She was teaching them how to love.

What can we do to help us learn how to see and trust and love? Once upon a time a small Jewish boy went to his rabbi and said that he didn’t know how to love God. “How can I love God when I have never seen God,” asked the boy. The rabbi said to the boy, “Start with a stone. Try to love a stone. Try to be present to the most simple and basic thing so that you can see its beauty and goodness. Start with a stone.”

“Then,” said the rabbi, “try to love a flower, be present to a flower and let its beauty come into you. You don’t need to pluck it or possess it. Don’t destroy it. Just love it there in the garden.”

Next the rabbi singled out the boy’s pet dog and told him to love his dog. Then he said, “Try to love the mountains and the sky and the beauty of creation. Let its sights and smells sink into you. Be present to the creation in its many forms. Let creation speak to you and come into you.”

Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved the creation try to love a woman. Try to be faithful to a woman and sacrifice yourself for her.” Then said the rabbi, “After you have loved a stone, a flower, your little dog, the mountains and sky and creation, and a woman, then you will be ready to love God.”

What was this Rabbi trying to teach the boy? I think what the rabbi was trying to teach is that the way we enter into communion with God and the experience of God is through all that is, through all reality, because in some sense, in some degree God is part of all reality. And I sense too that the rabbi wanted to impress upon the boy that spiritual illumination and love come in stages and is part of our evolving journey. Learning how to see and how to trust and how to love is our evolving journey.

What may be keeping us today from seeing what is real, and trusting what is real, and loving what is real? We may need someone to believe in us and put their trust in us the way Jesus did with his disciples who he entrusted with the power and authority to represent the cause and way of God in the world. And just as we need others to believe in us, so they need us to believe in them.

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Our good God, thank you for our birthright to be your children. Help us to see how loved and worthy we are and how what is true of us is also true of everyone else. If we are stuck, if we are preoccupied and predisposed in ways that are blinding us and keeping us from growing in wisdom and love, then somehow and someway get our attention, make us aware, help us to wake up and see, so that we become the kind of daughters and sons who reflect real wisdom, faith, and love. 

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