Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Oct. 14, 2018

Lessons:

Isaiah 53:4-12
Psalm 91:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:35-45

The comedian Hasan Minhaj is a second generation American. His father, like me, is an immigrant to this country. I come from Canada: Minhaj’s Dad, Najme, comes from India. Unlike me (I grew up in a stable and peaceful context in Vancouver, BC), prior to coming to the United States, Najme lived through some of the worst days on the Indian subcontinent. He saw awful violence after the departure of the British and after partition, violence that claimed north of a million lives.

Minhaj, like a lot of people of colour in America – like every person of colour in America – experienced racism growing up, he experiences racism to this day. Similarly, like many members of an immigrant  family, Minhaj did and does experience xenophobia. Minhaj tells the story, for instance, of being an adolescent shortly after the September 11th attacks and hearing a strange noise outside. He and his Dad went out to investigate what had happened and found that someone had smashed the windows of their car. Shortly thereafter the phone rang and a laughing voice on the other end demanded:

Where’s Osama?

Here’s the thing. Minhaj’s Dad had a totally different reaction to the vandalism and to the phone call that followed it than Minhaj himself. For Minhaj, as you might expect, as you could likely understand, this event was profoundly upsetting. He was shaken by it, angered by it. His Dad? Not so much. He just swept up the glass and went on with his day.

Compared to the violence that Najme had seen in India – well, this just seemed like no big deal. Getting your windows smashed occasionally, his Dad reckoned, was the price of admission for being brown and being an immigrant in America. It was a reasonable price to pay for the brutality that he had left behind and for everything that he had gained by coming to this country.

Minhaj found that this disconnect with his Dad just kept on happening, and not just in the disorienting days after September 11th. When Minhaj would experience the small and everyday acts of racism that someone who looks like him encounters in the United States, when he would endure the thousand paper cuts that we call by the name micro-aggressions (sometimes the aggressions weren’t micro at all – sometimes they were macro-aggressions), he would tell his Dad, he would relay these stories with anger and sadness. And his Dad simply couldn’t understand what Minhaj was so upset about.

No one is trying to kill you, his Dad would say to Minhaj in essence. What are you complaining about?

I heard Minhaj interviewed, I heard him telling these stories, on the wonderful podcast Invisibilia. The episode was about what psychological researchers call a human being’s Frame of Reference or, sometimes, simply their Reference Point. Our frame of reference is the perspective, the baseline against which we measure other experiences. And Najme’s baseline, his frame of reference, was of such radical suffering and injustice in post-partition India that every wrong that he encountered in America seemed kind of small and trivial by comparison.

In that interview, Minhaj is pretty deeply ambivalent about his Dad’s perspective on reality. On the one hand, Minhaj believes – rightly – that micro-aggressions are not okay, that small acts of racism, such as a clerk assuming that a brown-skinned customer is more likely to be a shoplifter than the white customer standing beside them, are wrong. On the other, he is glad for his father’s perspective. Glad for the reminder that it holds that, as much we get wrong in our country, we get a whole lot of things right. More than that, Minhaj is glad for his Dad’s reminder that life is good, glad for his Dad’s invitation into gratitude, glad for his Dad’s serenity.

Consider this: if someone smashes the window of your car and you feel neither fear nor anger, if the only cost to you if the cost of replacing the glass, well, that’s a kind of superpower.

The encounter that we witness today in the Gospel between John and James, the sons of Zebedee, and their teacher Jesus is about competing frames of references. In this conversation, the speakers apply two radically different reference points to the question: what does a good and holy and joyous life look like?

For the two brothers, for John and James, their point of reference for this conversation is worldly status and power. Growing up in the home of a modest fisherman, John and James have looked out the window and seen people with power, people who drive past their house in high-end carriages, people who are followed by servants, people who inspire not just respect in others but fear in others. And like many of us who have seen these things, maybe like you and me leafing through the catalogue of things that we can’t afford, John and James want in.

And so they go up to Jesus, full of eagerness. Their opening line is greedy and innocent at same time. Here is an echo of a pair of children trying to scam their way into the cookie jar:

Teacher: we want you to give us whatever we want.

Is Jesus smiling as he replies? What do you guys want?

And so they tell him: We want to sit on your right hand and your left in your glory.

Are he two of them are rubbing their hands in glee as they speak? Are they are dancing from one foot to another in anticipation?

Jesus, smiling no more, says:

You don’t know what you are asking for. 

That’s because Jesus’ point of reference for a good and holy and joyous life isn’t power. His point of reference is the cross.

In all four Gospels, Jesus speaks with this amazing and terrifying clarity about the cross as his future. It is an awful inevitability for him. And this knowledge, this reference point, profoundly shapes how he encounters reality.

When Jesus sees a suffering person – someone who is hungry or sick or lonely or lost or carrying a demon – because Jesus’ reference point is not money and privilege, he does not ask, “What can this person do for me?” and turn his back when the answer is “nothing.” Because his reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his hurting neighbour with the compassion and solidarity of one who knows all about hurt himself.

When Jesus sees a wealthy and unjust person, because his reference point is not worldly status, he does not ask, “How can this person help my career?” and then begin to network. Because Jesus reference point is the cross, Jesus responds to his neighbour as one who knows all about what it is to endure injustice, and he challenges us and calls us to be better.

And when Jesus comes to a party – and this next part might be counterintuitive, I’m not sure, let’s run with it – because his reference point is not consumerism, where there is always something more and better waiting somewhere else, Jesus does not participate halfheartedly. Rather, because his reference point is the cross, because suffering and finitude and injustice are so clearly in his field of vision, he participates in celebration with gusto. Jesus is immune to what the kids call FOMO: Fear of Missing Out. He does not spend the party on his phone looking for something better to come along. There are an amazing number of passages in the Gospels about Jesus eating, an amazing number of passages about Jesus delighting in celebration within community. Jesus gets that this life is a fleeting gift to be lived fully right now.

Jesus tells his disciples, John and James and you and me, that following him means drinking from the same cup as him, being baptised the same way as him. That it means taking up your cross. He doesn’t warn us that grief and loss and hurt might be part of following him. He guarantees it. But here is the amazing thing: when our reference point shifts from worldly status and power and money and stuff to the cross, we may just be surprised to find that we discover not only hurt but also freedom, justice, and joy.

 

Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost by The Rev. Martin Elfert

Lessons:

Genesis 32:22-31
Psalm 121
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
Luke 18:1-8

Jacob’s story begins decades before this moment. It begins long before Jacob tells his family and his servants to journey ahead and to leave him alone, long before Jacob lies down on the cold ground and looks up at the stars, long before he wrestles with the stranger in the night. Jacob’s story begins – as your story and my story begins – when he is born.

Jacob’s mother, Rebekah, is in labour. She is about to deliver twins: the two children who shall be Jacob and his brother Esau. Esau comes out first. And then Jacob immediately follows, his hand clasped tight around Esau’s heel. Because this is an archetypal story, a story about brothers like Cain and Abel, like Romulus and Remus, a legend that is about specific people but also a legend that is about everyone, Jacob’s parents name him in a legendary way.

“Jacob” means “he who grabs by the heel” or “he who usurps.” It would be a liberty – but not a big one – to translate “Jacob” as “thief” or “trickster” or “con artist.”

Jacob comes out with his hand around his Esau’s heel. From the very beginning, Jacob is trying to catch up with his brother.

The two boys grow up in a patriarchal culture, a culture that privileges the first-born male. Jacob sees his brother’s privilege, he knows that privilege in his bones, he endures it every day. And he sees that privilege is magnified still further in the way that the boys’ father, Isaac, looks at Esau, in the love that Isaac has for Esau that he does not have for Jacob. Scripture tells us that Esau is a skillful hunter and Jacob a quiet man. And then the Bible goes on, synopsising all the pain of Jacob’s lonely childhood in eleven simple words: Isaac loved Esau, scripture says, because he was fond of game. There you have it. Much like thousands or maybe millions of dads who are drawn to the child who reminds them of themselves, Isaac likes to hunt and to eat meat, and so he is drawn to the child who likes to hunt and eat meat.

As Jacob grows up, his sadness and his resentment builds. And so maybe we can understand, maybe we can even forgive, what he does next.

One day, Jacob is cooking. And Esau comes in from the hunting, famished; we may infer that he has been out in the bush for days, that he is dehydrated and exhausted, that he is at the limit of human endurance. Esau stares hard at the food that is roasting in a pot above Jacob’s fire. Let me eat some of that red, red stuff, he says to his younger brother. But Jacob keeps his ladle clutched close to his chest. First, sell me your birthright, he tells his brother. Esau replies, I am about to die. Of what use is a birthright to me? And so Esau, faced with starvation, gives away his birthright, gives away the privileges of being born first. And he eats.

But it doesn’t end there. There is more.

Later, when the boys’ father has grown old, when Isaac’s vision has become dim, his memory failing, and his movement halting, he calls Esau to his side. He tells him to go hunt and prepare for him the meat that he loves so much. And then to come back so that he may bless him. But Rebekah, the boys’ mom, who loves Jacob in a way that her husband does not or cannot, concocts a plan. She prepares the food that Isaac likes and then she helps Jacob dress up as his brother. And Jacob – he who usurps, the con man – takes the meal to his Dad as he lies in bed.

The scene that follows next is equal parts comedy and pathos. Part of it genuinely is funny – Rebekah has put furry sleeves on Jacob’s arms, a simulation of the abundant hair that grows on Esau, and something close to slapstick happens when the almost-blind Isaac feels these arms that are wearing what amounts to a toupee. Isaac says, “The voice is Jacob’s, but the arms are Esau’s.”

But another part of the scene – a bigger part – isn’t funny at all. I imagine Isaac lying in a contemporary hospital or hospice bed, white sheets and a bedpan and high stainless steel railings, the old man drifting in and out of awareness. And then I imagine one of his adult children doing what amounts to cajoling him into blindly sign a new last will and testament. Because that’s what this blessing-stealing is, it is an effort to trick an old man into changing his will. What Jacob does to his aged father – well, it is contemptible.

When Esau returns from hunting, he and Isaac realise what has happened. And they are left holding a profound injustice and the profound grief that comes with it. Scripture makes it clear that, in the Ancient Near East, a blessing is somehow irrevocable and irrepeatable. Esau asks his Dad, Don’t you have another blessing for me? But the answer is no. And so the two men, father and son, shake with the enormity of their loss.

When the initial wave of Esau’s grief passes, it turns into rage. He promises to kill his brother.

And so Jacob flees. As he journeys away from home and towards a new land, towards danger and possibility, he stops to rest. He lies down beneath the stars with a rock as his pillows. And he has a dream in which angels ascend and descend upon a ladder.

Once he gets to the new land, Jacob does well. Really well. Years pass, during which he makes a fortune for himself, he gets married, he has kids. Life, in other words, is mostly good for Jacob. But his heart is never easy, it is never light, it is never at rest. In it, there is a strange cocktail of emotions: his old resentments towards Esau and their father, his shame and self-loathing at having stolen from them, his abiding loneliness. And all of those things are covered in a patina of fear. Fear that his brother will find him, that he will make good on his promise to end his life.

And yet something – something that Jacob cannot name – calls him to reconnect with Esau. He sends Esau a letter. And he sends him a present, an extravagant gift, made up of several different kinds of livestock. “I hope that this gift will appease him,” Jacob says.” And then comes a sentence that is as full of longing as any sentence to be found anywhere in the Bible. “Perhaps when he sees my face, he will accept me.”

Esau writes back. He is coming to meet Jacob. But the news is not entirely good. Esau will be accompanied by 400 men.

And that brings us to the reading that we heard a few minutes ago. It is in this place of anxiety and loneliness that Jacob journeys forth, that sends his family ahead of him, and that he is left alone. Once again, he is by himself under the immensity of the stars. Perhaps Jacob falls asleep immediately, the deep sleep of one who knows that the future is out of his control, the strange freedom of knowing that he has said and done everything that he can, that there is no way that he can control what comes next, that there is no trick available to shape what Esau will do when they meet the next day. Or perhaps he has the opposite reaction. Perhaps this is a night of insomnia, and Jacob paces the cold ground, shouting at the stars. Scripture doesn’t say. Here is its awesome brevity:

Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until daybreak.

All night, the two of them struggle. Jacob cannot win. But neither can the man. They are in a stalemate, sometimes rolling around in the dirt together, sometimes back on their feet, swaying like two lovers left on the dance floor long after everyone else has gone home. When the man sees that he will not prevail, he strikes Jacob on the hip socket. Jacob will limp for the rest of his life.

But still Jacob does not let go.

All through the darkness and the cold of the night the two wrestle. The stars spin around above them. And then the sky changes: the first glow of the sun appears in the east.

Let me go, says the man. Like the angels on the ladder, this man does not belong to the day.

But Jacob says, No. No, I won’t let go unless you bless me.

So the man asks, What is your name? And Jacob replies:

Jacob.

He who usurps. Thief. Con Artist.

And all of the shame and the hurt of his life is back in an instant. It hits him hard like so much cold water.

But the man says No. No, that doesn’t have to be your name. That doesn’t have to be your story. Someone gave you that name years ago and you have carried it ever since, but you don’t have to live with it any longer. You aren’t Jacob. You are Israel – the one who strives with God.

And then the sun rises and the man is gone. Standing in his place in the first light of the morning is Esau.

Jacob, scripture us, bows to the ground seven times.

Now, at the beginning, I said that this was an archetypal story, a story like Cain and Abel, a story like Romulus and Remus, a story about a pair of siblings who have struggled to love and trust one another, who have struggled to escape the stories that they inherited as children. And perhaps, as he bows – one two three four five six seven times – as his forehead touches the dust, each bow whispering the words forgive me, forgive me, forgive me, Jacob wonders if his story will end as the stories of those other brothers ended, if the knife will enter his body, if the 400 men will set upon him.

But that isn’t what happens. This story has a different ending.

Esau runs to meet him and embraces him and falls on his neck and kisses him. And the two of them weep. They weep the tears that they have been saving up for years, the tears of their jealousies and their resentments and their anger and their screwed up relationship with their dad. The tears of their grief and their self-doubt and their shame. Their tears fall into the dust where they are swallowed up by the earth.

And Jacob understands. He understands that this embrace, these tears, this reconciliation with his brother, Esau: these things are the blessing for which he asked the stranger in the night. This is the blessing that he did not have to steal, this is the blessing that he did not have to usurp. This is the blessing for which he asked – in openness, in total vulnerability – and it is the blessing that his brother gave to him freely.

The two brothers hold one another in the first light of dawn. Esau and the one who strives with God.

And then the sun rises higher in the sky and the new day begins.

Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost by Donald Grayston

Lessons:

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

 

 

“Jesus said to [blind Bartimaeus], ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ 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” (Mark 10:50-52).


Let me begin with a word of thanks to Martin for the privilege of preaching here this morning. Then let me offer a word of appreciation for the great state of Oregon, towards which I have warm feelings for three reasons. The first of these is that I have just spent four days in Ashland, at the magnificent Shakespeare Festival, at which I saw four plays, every one a winner. Second, I had the opportunity on the way down from Vancouver to stop in at the publisher of my book on Thomas Merton, Wipf and Stock, in Eugene, and meet some of the people who brought my book into reality. Third, because this morning I am having the opportunity to meet the people who were discerning enough to invite Martin to be your rector—you will not regret this decision.

My sermon: blindness and vision. In 2006 I went on a big walk in Britain—400 miles, one pair of boots, no blisters. Somewhere in Derbyshire I got lost, and found myself wandering across a farm with no workers apparent on it. Eventually, over a wire fence, I chatted with one of the farm staff who showed me on my map where I had gone astray, and where I wanted to go. I thanked him, and then for no reason in particular, I said to him, “I once was lost, but now am found”—to which he replied, “Was blind, but now I see”—and when I smiled at this, said, “Lapsed Methodist.” I once was blind, but now I see.

Some 45 years earlier, I was at the seminary, also in England, where I did the first two years of my theology. One morning, at 11 am, everyone in my class, the first year class, was having our morning coffee break—“elevenses,” as they call it there. But where was the second year class? A few minutes later they came in, wiping their eyes and blowing their noses. We asked them what had happened. They told us that the preaching instructor, Father Ellis, had given his famous lecture (of which we had never heard), on the illustrative use of the Bible in preaching. The passage he chose was this morning’s gospel, the story of blind Bartimaeus. We in the first-year class expressed our bemusement at their emotional response to a simple lecture, and assured ourselves that we, tough guys that we were, would never so react.

A year later we were the second-year class, and the morning came when Father Ellis was to give his now famous lecture. We nudged each other, and smiled knowingly to each other, as if to say, what happened to the second-year class won’t happen to us. I only remember a few of his lines, including his opening line: “Dawn … in Jericho!” But then in a very moving way, following as I later realized the method of St Ignatius, who encourages us to make ourselves present to a biblical situation—to see it, feel it, touch it, smell it, hear it, imagine ourselves inside of it—he gave his lecture. And yes, after the lecture we went down to elevenses wiping our eyes and blowing our noses, to be greeted by the incredulity of the new first-year class. With our fellows in the previous second-year class, and with Bartimaeus himself, we could say, we had to say, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

Back to John Newton’s hymn. Newton was a slave-trader when he was converted; and when he wrote his famous words—“I once was lost and now am found, was blind and now I see”—he was still working as a slave-trader, and didn’t stop that vile work until some years later. His blindness had only been partially healed. He could see some things, and not others. He saw “through a glass, darkly,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Not everything was clear to him. In this regard he was similar to many of us if not most of us: we see some things clearly, there are other things we simply don’t see.

About five years ago, I read a book on the sayings of Jesus which included the sayings that are found in the Gospel of Thomas. This book is not part of the New Testament; it was found in the sands of the Egyptian desert in the 1940s, and quickly recognized as a document which goes back to the time when the official New Testament gospels were being written. It has no narrative, nor does it include the parables; it consists simply of wisdom sayings of Jesus, one of which hit me like a ton of bricks, to use a very useful old cliché; and here it is.

Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed; for there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.

Yes, know what is in front of your face—right here, right now. Immediately my mind went back to several important moments in my life when I had not known what was in front of my face. This quickly took me to another thought: what is in front of my fact right now, and am I seeing it and knowing it?

It is an important spiritual practice, I began to realize, to practise knowing what is in front of one’s face. Many of us set our faces mainly to the past, in guilt or shame or depression. Others of us look mainly to the future, in hope or fear or anxiety. What Jesus asks us in this saying to do, however, is to focus our line of sight on the present moment. If this becomes habitual, then past and future will click into focus, take their rightful places in support of the only moment in which we can live and see and know and make decisions, the present moment, the only moment when history and eternity can touch.

Does not every human being wish to be seen as he or she is, for what and who they are? The people with whom we share our lives want this; and we will only be able to see them as they want and need to be seen if we are present to them in the present moment, not pulled back into the past or thrust forward into the future. As an imperfect parent, I want to say how particularly important this is between parents and children.

What I am describing here is known as the contemplative approach: to be lovingly present to the present moment. I emphasize “lovingly.” It is possible, of course, to be present to the present moment in ways other than lovingly: to be angrily present to the present moment, or fearfully present, or manipulatively present. If, however, we are lovingly present to the present moment, we are present as Jesus was—present to himself, present to others, present to God. There is no passage in the gospels which suggests that Jesus permitted himself to be dragged back into the past or forward into the future. Living in God, and living in the present moment, he was able to see clearly. He never had to say, “Once I was blind, but now I see.”

We nourish this contemplative approach by contemplative prayer—prayer without words, silent prayer, silent meditation–simply giving ourselves time to be in God’s presence. The great practitioners of contemplative prayer, of whom Thomas Merton was one, tell us that if we wish to grow in clarity of spiritual vision, we will sooner or later need to commit ourselves to the daily practice of this silent form of discipleship.

As we grow in this practice, we will see those around us more clearly for who they really are, and we will also see where God is in the events and circumstances of our lives. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus in the Beatitudes, “ for they shall see God.” And what does this mean—to see God? In saying this, Jesus is moving beyond the experience of Moses, who believed that we could not see God in his infinite immensity and live. Jesus meant something different from a physical seeing such as Moses was envisaging. He meant, I believe, that we can learn through practice to see God at work in the lives of others, in the life of the world, in the life of the planet itself, and in our own daily lives.

And yet the mystical tradition of our faith speaks of something more, something ultimate: the beatific vision, the vision of God in Godself. Here another statement from Father Ellis’s lecture comes to me: “His vision restored, he opened his eyes; and the first thing he saw was the face of his Saviour and his God.” Our Christian ancestors quickly came to the conclusion that, as Paul says in Second Corinthians, “God was in Christ.” In seeing Jesus, we are seeing God. That was their privilege, in the days of his flesh, one of course no longer available to us. What is available to us is to look for the work of the Spirit of God in the lives of those around us and in our own daily experience. In that regard, I commend to you another spiritual practice, the daily examen, as it is called: a time at the end of the day when you review the events of your day and seek to identify the instances when God wanted to be present to us, to speak to us, to call us into greater clarity of vision—on our way to the heavenly vision, the beatific vision.

There is a wonderful and memorable poem which holds up to us the possibility of the beatific vision, the moment when we will see with total clarity how it is that we have every moment of our lives been loved by God and invited to respond with love. This poem is called “General William Booth enters into heaven,” by Vachel Lindsay, an American poet of the early 20th century. Booth, as you may know, was the founder of the Salvation Army, and in his last years, became blind. His blindness is the starting point of the poem. I won’t read it all to you, but I will share with you some of the lines that have stayed with me since I read it for the first time in my senior year in high school. The strong beat, I should say, is meant to suggest the beating of the bass drum in a Salvation Army band. I offer it to you as encouragement to take into your daily consciousness the command of Jesus to know what is in front of your face, and so to move step by step from darkness to light, from blindness to vision.

 

And here’s the poem.

 

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,

Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,

Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—

Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—

Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,

Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

 

Jesus came from out the court-house door,

Stretched his hands above the passing poor.

Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there

Round and round the mighty court-house square.

Yet in an instant all that blear review

Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.

The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled

And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.

 

O shout Salvation! It was good to see

Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.

The banjos rattled and the tambourines

Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.

 

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer

He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.

Christ came gently with a robe and crown

For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.

He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,

And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

 

Once I was blind, but now I see.

May it be so.