sermons, songs, etceteras
This sermon was originally preached on December 19, 2021 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The live recording may be viewed here.
Scripture Texts (full texts as translated by Dr. Wilda Gafney in Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W are included at the end of the sermon):
Judges 13:2-7, Psalm 115:9-15, Luke 1:39-56
Blessed be the Lord most high who comes to us this day in spirit and fire -- not from upon a throne of glory, nor even from the mouths of righteous and practiced men, but from within the belly of a scared, unmarried teenager who’s seen some things, survived some things, and run to the cousin she knows will welcome, recognize, and celebrate the coming of God through her. Indeed, the world is about to turn on its head, just as the baby does on its way through the birth canal, to bring New Life in bloody placenta and primal pain. Oh God, Make us into ready doulas. Amen.
Today marks the fourth and final week of Advent, the last hours of the Great Waiting for God’s Arrival, when we light the fourth candle — the Candle of Peace — which is a fact I find rather funny given both our own current context of 2021 and all this time holds, as well as the scriptural and historical contexts in which Mary’s Magnificat is re-cast into the world.
I say re-cast because while it is most certainly rebellious, even dangerously so, to proclaim the toppling of empires and the humiliation of the proud, Mary’s song is not new. It is an old hymn her people have been singing for centuries, a song sung by Miriam as Israel fled the oppression of Egypt, then by Deborah and Hannah and Samson’s mother from today’s old testament reading. It is the song first sung by Abraham’s womb-slave Hagar to her God, the God who Sees, and it is the song sung again and again by Israel’s mothers to that very same God who continues to See and do justice for God’s people.(1) Indeed the gravity of Mary’s song in her particular moment in time, and ours as well, must not be missed.
But before the song, let us hear the prelude. Luke’s gospel begins with the silencing of the priest Zechariah, a man who really should have known better than to question the Word of God. And what was the Word of God to Zechariah but that his barren wife Elizabeth would bear a child, just like so many other barren women throughout Scripture: Women who were assumed to have had broken reproductive systems and therefore no value in their cultures, but who nevertheless gave birth to God’s good news in their time. God tells the priest that his and his wife’s son would be filled with the Holy Spirit in the womb where he was still breathing amniotic fluid, and would, in life, bring the House of Israel back to its God, back to its Self.
“Shhhh,” the Angel says to the man who’s always spoken God’s word to God’s people. “In silence, watch what God will do.”
Luke then tells of the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary, an unwed teenager, a virgin whom surely no one would believe to be a virgin once all was told; A girl who is “troubled” by the Angel’s greeting declaring her to be highly favored. It would seem she knows the Scriptures well enough to know that the people God favors rarely make it through unscathed. And yet, when she’s told she’s been chosen to bear God into the world according to the same unfailing Word that promised a child to her barren cousin Elizabeth, now six months along, Mary says, “I am God’s. Make it happen.” And then she hurries to her cousin’s home, trusting that if anyone could help her now it will be Elizabeth.
But hold on, we’re still in the prelude. Zoom out a bit further to the socio-political context of Mary’s God-bearing youth, and what comes out of her and Elizabeth’s mouths becomes even more remarkable and riotous. As historian John Dominic Crossan tells us, Jesus was most likely born around 4 BCE, the same year Herod the Great died and Jews across the region rose up in resistance to the oppressive Roman empire. But their uprising was crushed, and Sepphoris, a city in Galilee which was about 4 miles from where Jesus grew up in Nazareth, “was burned to the ground, and its inhabitants killed, raped, and enslaved.”(2)
Friends, for Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, this would have been the reality into which Elizabeth and Mary are bravely bearing God’s truth bringers. It is in this neighborhood that Elizabeth declares Mary blessed for believing God’s promise to her would be fulfilled, and it is in this oppressed homeland that Mary raises her voice in rebellion to all earthly powers and magnifies -- enlarges -- a Name greater than Herod’s: The Lord God her Savior, who raises up the low-born and now stations her among the great mothers of the Faith who’ve been singing the song of God’s completed liberation since the very beginning.
“Completed,” you ask? Well I’m glad you noticed that bit! Indeed, Luke’s text records Mary’s Magnification of God in the Greek aorist tense which, in English, means “completed past tense.” The things for which she sings God’s praises are already done. God has already and completely scattered the proud in their thoughts. God has already and completely brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowborn. God has already and completely filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty, growling guts.
Mary’s words here are meant to be felt viscerally, in the thumping of our hearts and the hard ground beneath our butts and the emptiness of our stomachs, because for Elizabeth and Mary, the promise of the Messenger and the Message is visceral: Hope — not just for their personal spiritual salvation but for the rescue of their people — is literally growing in each of their wombs and jumping in Elizabeth’s. Their hope is alive! Inside their bodies.
I don’t know about you all, but I suspect that many of us are feeling the weight of our own world’s upheaval in our bodies, backs, bellies and bones. I sure am.
How long can this pandemic continue?
How long will the homeless freeze on our streets while the rich flaunt their excess with multiple homes?
How long will the hungry starve while grocery store dumpsters are filled with past-date but entirely edible foods?
How long will the homebound, aged, and infirm be confined to their own quarters while neighbors forego masks and vaccines that may save them not just from death, but from the crushing weight of loneliness?
How long will Black bodies be left dead in the street for as long as Jesus hung on the cross, while the state crushes those who protest?
How long will women be denied the right to decide what happens to and in our own bodies when even the Holy Spirit did not overcome God’s mother without first gaining her consent?
How long will our children be forced to practice the terror of silently surviving a school shooting, and we, their parents, forced to practice surviving their loss?
How long, How long, How long, oh Lord, how long!
There is so much anger and grief and pain and fear that we carry, Beloveds. And we, all of us, bear it in our bodies, not like a cross but like concrete in our veins.
But what would it be like to bear hope, too?
Not instead of, but also?
Mary and Elizabeth didn’t rejoice in the God of kept promises because all was well in the world, but because it wasn’t, and their salvation has come.
There can be no doubt that both these women had deep, embodied spiritual practices. That they were each attuned to what author Glennon Doyle calls their Deep Knowing, which is the truest self that resides in the deepest part of the soul.(3)
They nurtured connection to Holy Mystery and spent _t i m e_ in what the prophet Isaiah called the holy, treasured darkness, where God alone can reach and speak to us, and from where we can be sure that if anyone is speaking it is indeed God (Isa. 45:3). They knew themselves and God well enough that when God spoke from within, their Deep Knowing recognized God’s voice.
Are you, Beloveds, attuned to your Deep Knowing?
There can also be no doubt that Mary’s rejoicing was a response to Elizabeth’s celebration. The call-and-response of God’s promised liberation from oppression always and only happens in community. God is never just born to you or to me but always to us. For sure, it was from her Deep Knowing that Mary said yes to God and chose to bear God into this world through the tearing and breaking of her own body. But her Deep Knowing also told her that she could not and wasn’t meant to do it alone.
So when she said yes to God, she went directly to Elizabeth who also said Yes to God. And it is because Elizabeth recognized and celebrated God being born in Mary that Mary was able to fully rejoice in a pregnancy that might have buried her in shame, but could now be proclaimed as God’s salvation to all.
Are you, Beloveds, connected with others who can recognize and say Yes to God within you, and call forth your Magnificat?
There is so much in Mary’s song, friends, so very much for us to swim in and float in and leap in and breathe in, as Jesus and John did in their mama’s bellies. Infinitely more than I have time to explore today, which is probably best for all of us right?
So for now, as we wait, let us wonder:
Who are the Marys among us, singing the old songs of God’s salvation in such a new way that it sounds like something we’ve never heard, even while harmonizing with and awakening our own Deep Knowing? Is it you?
Who are the Elizabeths among us, so full of God’s Spirit that they recognize it in and rejoice with those who are bearing God to us now, in their own culturally, politically, or religiously rejected bodies? Is it you?
Who are the Zechariahs who are so used to the authority of their own voices that they doubt the authority of God’s, and need to be silent for a time in order for God to be born among us? Is it you?
And yes, who are the Josephs, who are terrified and confused, but still say yes to the ones who say yes, and carry the bearers through labor and delivery, even pulling God from the womb when the time comes? Is it you?
Let us close with a prayer offered by Black Liturgies author Cole Arthur Riley.
“God of Mary and Elizabeth, we thank you for holding space for the words and emotions of these women in the story of Your coming. To experience waiting through their eyes is a gift to all of those who have waited for peace and goodness in the shadows of those whom society most often centers. As you guide us into experiencing holy silence this Advent, help us to distinguish what kind of silence and for whom.? Help those whose social positions make it so that they speak quickly and are heard quickly, learn a silence in this season that considers the quiet and suppressed stories in their midst. And like Joseph and Zechariah, keep the powerful from becoming defensive and insecure when they feel their role being transformed in your wake. Let us use this season to hold space for the unseen and the unheard. And when they speak, Lord, let us believe them. Let us hold their words as sacred, knowing our faith is diluted without the sounds that they carry. Amen.”(4)
FULL LECTIONARY TEXTS (Translations by Rev. Dr. Wilda C. Gafney, 5)
2 Now there was a certain man from Zorah, of the tribe of the Danites, and his name was Manoah. His wife was barren; she had never given birth. 3 And the messenger of the Holy One appeared to the woman and said to her, “Look now, you are barren, having never given birth, you shall conceive and give birth to a son. 4 Now please be on guard not to drink wine or strong drink, and you shall not eat anything unclean. 5 For look! You shall yet conceive and give birth to a son. No razor shall be upon his head, for a nazirite to God shall the boy be from the womb. And he shall deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” 6 Then the woman came and spoke to her husband saying, “Someone from God came to me, and their appearance was like that of a messenger of God, incredibly awesome. I did not ask the messenger from where they came, and their name they did not tell me. 7 Yet they said to me, ‘You shall conceive and give birth to a son; do not drink wine or strong drink, and do not eat anything taboo, for a nazirite to God shall the boy be from the womb unto the day of his death.’”
9 Israel, trust in the Holy One of Old!
Their help and their shield is She.
10 House of Aaron, trust in the Holy One of Sinai!
Their help and their shield is She.
11 You who revere the Holy One, trust in the Holy One!
Their help and their shield is She.
12 The Faithful One remembers us; She will bless;
She will bless the house of Israel; She will bless the house of Aaron.
13 She will bless those who revere God Who Is Holy,
Both small and great.
14 May the Generous One add to, increase, you all, both you and your children.
15 May you all be blessed by the Ageless One, Maker of the heavens and earth.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, her baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill Their promises to her!”
46 And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Holy One;
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s own womb-slave.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
And holy is God’s name.
50 God’s loving-kindness is for those who fear God
From generation to generation.
51 God has shown the strength of God’s own arm;
God has scattered the arrogant in the intent of their hearts,
52 God has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
And lifted up the lowly;
53 God has filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
54 God has helped God’s own child, Israel,
A memorial to God’s mercy,
55 just as God said to our mothers and fathers,
To [Hagar and] Sarah and Abraham, to their descendants forever.”
56 And Mary remained with Elizabeth about three months and then returned to her home.
(1) Based on Amy-Jill Levine, Light of the World: A Beginners guide to Advent (Abingdon Press, 2019)
(2) John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome, Then and Now (HarperOne, 2009), p. 109. -- Discovered through Pastor Niveen Sarras on Working Preacher.
(3) Glennon Doyle, Untamed (The Dial Press, 2020)
(4) Cole Arthur Riley (@BlackLiturgies on Instagram) via Period Pastor.
(5) Dr. Wilda C. Gafney, Women’s Lectionary for the Whole Church: Year W (Church Publishing, 2021), Advent III
Good morning, church. Today is the Feast of Christ the King. The end of the church year, the culmination of Ordinary Time. Unlike many of our other feasts and holy days, today’s celebration was established less than a century ago, in 1925, by Pope Pius XI as a direct response to the rise in fascism and Christian nationalism throughout the world. We come to the Table today reminded that our belonging, belovedness, and allegiance are in the Crucified and risen Christ whose kin-dom is entirely other than those of this earth.
I've had days to ponder and pray, and I am still largely at a loss for what to say to you. Because I come to this day of celebration rejoicing that two Black men who were unjustly held on death row for decades were freed, one just hours before his execution, praise God! But I also come grieving that white supremacy was once more granted favor and permission to continue unabated, unaccountable, in one of the most publicized trials in recent history. I come in solidarity with my Black siblings who who’ve expressed tremendous fear as white nationalist groups - many of whom claim roots in Christianity - call for “stacking up Bodies like cord wood” in the wake of Friday’s verdict.
And I come deeply aware that the individuals in these stories could be swapped with any number of other individuals and we’d see similar results, not because we’re all the same but because that is how systems work. Individuals are props that keep us fighting one another about the veracity of each other’s claims rather than asking what’s wrong with this system that looks like it’s broken but is actually working as designed.
All this to say, I come to you this morning, the day we celebrate the upside-down UNkingdom of Christ, with deep awareness of how profoundly unjust the kingdoms of this earth are.
But I come with hope too, because Jesus knew injustice. He knew the Empire’s system was rigged, and what it would mean for him, and he went steadfastly in its direction anyway. And when standing before Pilate in today’s text, during his last chance to defend himself or call off the hounds, he didn’t. He let Pilate believe what Pilate wanted to believe, because he understood better than any of us that the kingdoms of this earth and their wheels of justice are like slot machines at a casino. The house always wins. Even when an individual here or there pulls a big pay-out…the house wins because that pay out by-design. It was a prescribed loss. What’s more, the House counts on everyone who plays to believe they are special and will bring the house down. But…the house makes the rules, and the rule is the house always wins.
Jesus knew this and so he opted out. Decided not to play. He knew Pilate wasn’t a neutral adjudicator but an agent of the Roman state whose entire job was to maintain the empire’s peace and power. He knew that all of Pilate’s questions were for show, and that regardless of his own thoughts about Jesus’s guilt or innocence, Pilate would hand him over.
And! it would be all the better for the Empire if Pilate could make it look like the decision to kill Jesus was made by the Jewish leaders who, it is important to remember, were an occupied people tending to an incredibly fragile peace. I say this to remind us all that the Roman State killed Jesus, not the Jews, and that keeping Christians and Jews fighting one another over who was responsible for Jesus’s execution is yet another example of how the House Wins.
But Jesus got it, and Knowing how this final confrontation, this faux-trial, would go, Jesus simply said this to the charges against him: My kingdom isn’t like yours. If it were, I’d have an army coming to save me but I don’t, because my kingdom is not like yours. I came for one thing, he says, and that is to bear witness to the truth. The truth that the kingdoms of his earth are rigged against everything and everyone who does not reinforce the kindom’s rule, and my kingdom isn’t that.
So what WAS his Kingdom?
To answer that we have to go back a few chapters in John and look at Jesus’s last hours with his disciples.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus has been telling his disciples how their time together would end in his death and resurrection. But the night of his betrayal and arrest, the night of the Last Supper, Jesus’s urgency grows and his teachings become unmistakably clear and pointed.
In John 13, He washes their feet and tells them that this is how to lead with Love. Next, He predicts Judas’s betrayal, and then — still! — feeds Judas the meal before sending him out to do what he must do, because even in betrayal Judas is loved and served.
He gives them the New Commandment — to love one another because that is how they will be identified as belonging to him — and in the next breath predicts that Peter won’t even be able to love him through to the end of his night, but will deny him three times. Then, in love, he comforts them! Tells them not to be troubled, and promises them the Holy Spirit, because his death is just the beginning. He tells them “If you love me, obey me and LOVE one another! Take no lives, but be ready to lay yours down because THAT is love. He tells them you’ll be hated, you will be afraid, your peace will be disrupted at every turn, and the world will give you trouble on trouble but keep. on. loving. Don’t stop loving, because your grief will be turned to joy.
“This is my commandment, that you love…
“This is how they will know you are mine: by your love”
“Greater love has no one than this to give themself up for those they loves”
“The greatest commandment on which all and everything else hangs is that you Love.”
Over and over and over, especially as his death approaches, Jesus hammers this into their hearts in a hundred ways: Resist the pull of the kingdoms of this world and LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE.
Love is messy, y’all. It is a discipline. A practice of planting our hopes firmly in the future we are desperate for, even while our legs remain stuck knee deep in a reality that says that future is impossible. Love is defiant. It is rebellious. Love is determined that the kingdoms of this world SHALL all pass away, AND that every king whose ever fallen for its lies will be healed, and every orphan and pauper made in the grasping will be made whole, and they will feast together as siblings, at the Festival of Christ who reigns - in Love.
THIS is how we become the KIN-dom of God, in defiance and rebellion of earthly kingdoms: We love. Doggedly. Directly. We love Everyone, always, no matter what.
And if there comes a time when we cannot find in ourselves a way to love those with whom we most passionately disagree, and in whose politics, positions, or personalities we see nothing lovable, then we must dig deeper lest we wittingly or nit become warriors for the kingdoms of earth. Indeed as my friend Francisco Herrera reminded me earlier this week, it is easy to believe God is always on our side, but the instant we start having Jesus agree with us as opposed to STRUGGLING to follow him, we have lost the plot.
To be sure, Empire is everywhere. It was not defeated 100 years ago when the Pope Declared this day for Christ. No, the Kingdoms of this earth persist and have tentacles reaching into everything, every system, every institution - yes, even the church! There is work left to do. There is Love to be spent.
So on this holy day, this Festival of Christ our King, let us return to Love, and let us be especially intentional with those we find hardest to love, because love is our hope against the empires of the age. Being the resolute Kin-dom of Christ is how we not only oppose but ultimately upend the Kingdoms of earth.
That’s it, friends. That’s all I can say.
Love: Love is all and everything we feast on today.
And so, you who are Abundantly Beloved: Be loved. And be love.
This song was recorded in the sanctuary at Oak Grove Lutheran Church on November 4, 2021. The original facebook post may be viewed and shared here.
It’s so rare that I write songs anymore. They don’t come like they used to. But sometimes they do, and when they do I am grateful.
This week is All Saints Sunday. The day in the year when we remember and light candles for the dead. Grieve our losses together. The texts for the day are Isaiah 25:6-9 (“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow…Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”). The Gospel is the story of Lazarus raised from the dead, but for whom Jesus first wept.
Some other pastors and I lamented the collective grief we all have yet to feel. Over Covid, climate chaos, political and police violence… so much hurt and unspeakable pain. How to pastor in that?
Anyway, this is the song that started in my head as we talked, and came to fruition over about 20 minutes. Sometimes songs rise like that.
Welcome to the feast of all Saints
The table is set, the wine is well aged
And the God of the grieving, your tears will redeem
They await with a ribbon of peace
To welcome you to the feast
Oh come to the great lamenting
Here the Spirit of wisdom is interceding
She will take to the father
In groanings deep all the pain
That you cannot speak
When you come to great lamenting
Oh Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy
O Come to the grave and receive
The full count of your tears, the name of your griefs
And our Mother, O Giver of Life, She’ll weep
with you when you come to the grave
She will carry onward you in grace
Oh Christ have mercy
Lord have mercy
Christ have mercy
Oh, come to the Feast of All Saints
The table is set, the wine is well aged
The God of the Rising is still Raising us up today
Oh come now and celebrate
At the feast of all saints
Feast of All Saints (c) Amy Courts 2021
May the Breath of God who filled the lungs of Jesus fill my own lungs here, that with Her anointing I might breathe out Her proclamation: The promise of abundance to the Poor, the emptying of cages to the incarcerated, the lifting of the heel from the back of the oppressed, and the restoration of sight to the blind -- Oh Christ, may my words today manifest God’s Favor to your people in this moment and in this place, Amen.
Friends, first I want to thank you. As I sat down to write this sermon, I was consumed and overwhelmed, as per usual, unsure of which thread to pull. And what lifted me out of that overwhelm and set me on the path I’m taking you down today was finding prayer shawls in my closet that were woven by women I don’t know with the promise that the wearer -- i -- would be wrapped in prayer. I took out a teal one -- my favorite color -- and wrapped it around my body, and instead of praying, I simply sat and let myself be prayed.
Wrapped in that covering, I considered this week’s gospel story about the restoration of Blind Bartimaeus, and I recalled Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth after 40 Days in the Wilderness, went to Synagogue on Sabbath, and, in front of everyone who “mattered” declared that the Spirit had come upon him -- like a prayer shawl, a divine covering -- to proclaim Good News and God’s favor for everyone on society’s margins.
And that’s when I decided that in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to make my own proclamation here today, not as a christ but as a preacher and pastor, in order that y’all might know now rather than later what you’ve gotten yourselves into -- or, rather, what Tom has gotten you into! -- by welcoming me to Oak Grove this year.
To that end, I want you to know that I am an aspiring abolitionist. I look and work for the Day of God’s Favor when prisons and police are obsolete and disbanded; when the incarcerated are restored to full citizenship; the disabled enjoy full accommodations and access to public life; and all those who’ve been marginalized or criminalized by circumstance, social location, or personhood are welcomed back into full participation in church, life, and culture. And I march in the movements for Black Lives, Native Land Rights, Queer inclusion, Disability rights, and prison and police abolition in large part because of texts_ like_today’s. So let’s dive in.
Contextually, the healing of the Blind Bartimaeus -- that is, the blind son of the honored one -- directly precedes Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and marks the peak of a crescendo of Asks that’s been building over the course of the tenth chapter of Mark.
Two weeks ago we read about the Rich Young Ruler who had everything and yet still wanted more. Remember, he asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life but left aggrieved, not because he was denied eternity, but because Jesus held up a mirror in which he came face to face with his preference for property over people.
Last week, it was the brothers James and John who pretty boldly told Jesus to do whatever they asked of him, which was to give them seats of honor in His glory. Jesus’s response was a reminder, again, that his glory would come through suffering, and that those who seek greatness - which is what the brothers and the other ten were really after - become servants of all. Indeed, they too were handed a mirror in which to see their preference for position over people.
And thus we come to today’s Blind Beggar sitting on the side of the road. It’s worth noting that this road where he begs is the Jericho Road that connects Jericho and Jerusalem. It is so notoriously violent, dangerous, and difficult to navigate that it’s often called “The Bloody Way.” You may recall it was the setting of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, in which religious folks ignored and stepped over a beaten and bloodied man, leaving his care to another of society’s outcasts who, unlike the rich young ruler of Mark, put his own _life_ on the line to rescue the man, and spent his own _money_ to ensure his recovery.
So that’s the road where Bartimaeus begs. He is a man who, importantly, has nothing but his cloak. He may wear it to keep warm, or lay it out to collect coins, but either way it is his sole possession and it is essential to his survival. When he hears that it’s Jesus who’s gathered the crowd, he yells out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When he is shushed by the crowd, he gets even more disruptive and shouts even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This stops Jesus in his tracks. Literally! Because this blind man sees and publicly names Jesus as he really is. When Jesus tells the crowd to make a way and bring the man to him, Bartimaeus rises. Again, In contrast to the Rich Young Ruler who was unwilling to give up any of his possessions for the sake of people like this blind beggar, Bart casts off his one possession, his cloak, and rushes to the Christ who says to him exactly what he said to the brothers who asked him for glory: “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus asks to see.
And so he does.
And so, also, do we.
See, just like with his answers to the Rich Young Ruler and to James and John, and just like all his other healings and miracles, when Jesus restores Bartimaeus’s sight, he is not just making way to full inclusion for the outcast, he is also holding up a mirror and showing the crowd who they are, silencers of the Son of Honor.
Like so many other healings, including the healing in John 9 of the man who was believed to have been blind from birth because of his own or somebody else’s sin, this restoration reminds us that even in Jesus’s own time, poverty and marginalization were rarely the result of the poor person’s sinful choices, but of society’s decision to un-see them.
And if we’re honest we must confess that not a lot has changed. If anything, our cruelty has evolved. Beyond condemning, ignoring, or silencing unhoused beggars, these days we send in our police forces to steal and destroy what few possessions they have when their encampments are cleared. And why do so many support the clearing of homeless encampments from public parks? Because tent cities are linked to declines in property values. And we cannot abide the blind beggar asking for money, never mind sleeping in the shadow of the Rich Young Ruler’s home or headquarters. Because when we look at the poor, we are confronted with our own wealth. And that can be profoundly uncomfortable.
Statistics show that today’s poor are most often victims not of their own “irresponsible” choices, but of circumstances beyond their control but which we as a society have decided make them unworthy of having their most basic human needs met.
Maybe that circumstance is a job lost to Covid or another medical catastrophe that resulted first in bankruptcy, then foreclosure, and then homelessness for a family, who like mine, could afford a $700 mortgage but not $1500 in rent. Maybe their poverty is a result of living with Bipolar, or PTSD, or Autism, or fibromyalgia, or another medical diagnosis which requires more professional accommodations or time off for treatment than a multinational employer is willing to provide or pay for.
Or maybe their poverty is the generational curse of centuries of deliberate racial injustice. Across the Twin Cities and indeed the whole of central and North America, Native American poverty rates, which are the highest among all races, are the direct result of ongoing cultural erasure, land theft, and displacement to unsustainable reservations. And to this very day, Indigenous treaty-protected lands are under constant threat of being sold to billion-dollar international corporations eager to rape the earth of its oil, minerals, and crops, regardless of the cost to current inhabitants or their future generations.
Statistically we know that property ownership is by far the most effective way to establish and build generational wealth. And yet, across the USA Black families are still denied mortgages or charged higher interest rates for mortgages than their white peers. In fact just this week Kare 11 news reported that right here in MN the mortgage denial rate for Black borrowers is 3 times higher than that of white borrowers with similar financial qualifications.
Those living at or below the poverty line in my North Mpls neighborhood are, by and large, Black American descendants of enslaved Africans who were stolen from their profitable homelands centuries ago, trafficked to the Americas, and sold to white families whose generational wealth was built on theft of body and unpaid labor.
I myself stand here today as the descendent and beneficiary of at least one white family that trafficked in Black human lives and eventually birthed my maternal grandfather; and of another white family who settled, built wealth, and eventually raised my father on ancestral tribal lands stolen from Arapaho-Cheyenne Indians during the Oklahoma land rush of 1892.
My point is this: In the United States, we are often taught and believe the same lie Jesus’s contemporaries believed, which is that a person’s or family’s or culture’s poverty is a function of THEIR flawed character when it is actually the reflection of a nation’s soul. We are taught that wealth and access can be gained by anyone with the will to work, and that people who live in poverty, systemic or otherwise, do so because they refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We do not see the ancient systems that bind some to free others.
Thus we are inclined to treat poor people either as projects of our own vanity, or, like the crowd following Jesus, as disruptive distractions to our celebrations of privilege. If we see them at all, it is to look down on them with pity or scorn. In this mirror we face our tendency to see projects and problems instead of people.
But Jesus’s message here is that the poor are not a distraction but a delight. It was Jesus’s honor to be stopped in his tracks, to be called and named and belong to the Blind beggar who didn’t belong anywhere. Indeed this story is one of restoration not just of the blind beggar’s sight, but of the privileged crowd’s soul, and crucially, all at once. This is a story of collective restoration that happened because the Son of David, Merciful One, gave his eyes and ears to all the people.
In his book Just Mercy, lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson writes that, “Proximity [to the poor and oppressed] has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He says, “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. And the true measure of our character as a society “cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.”
I would add that the inverse is also true: We are all freed when that mistreatment ends. And that, Church, is why I am an abolitionist: Because the same systems that criminalize others privilege me, and I want to be part of abolishing those systems rather than complicit in them. Because I want to join my voice with the ones crying out for mercy rather than those silencing that cry. I am an abolitionist because of what Maya Angelou and Emma Lazarus and Lilla Watson have taught, which is that all our liberation is bound up together, and that none of us are free until all of us are free. That is: None of us can see until all of us can see!
And I know from this text that freedom comes when Mercy falls to restore a blind man’s sight and to recover the humanity of the crowd around him.
I believe with my whole self that when Bartimaeus cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he was crying out for us all. His was the cry -- the plea and expectation -- of a blind beggar who needed to see and be seen. Blessed is the Merciful One whose answer that day restored his sight and the crowd’s soul. May that same Mercy restore and liberate us. Amen.
May the God who gathers Her children to Her breast and watches us sleep, nourish us now. Amen.
Good morning, Church, and thank you for welcoming me so warmly these past couple weeks as I’ve begun to settle in here. You may or may not know this, but writing sermons isn’t terribly easy until you’re like Pastor Tom or Brice, with years of practice, and even then I imagine it’s still work. For me, it always begins with a knot of ideas in my mind and heart, like a tangle of necklaces at the bottom of a jewelry box. It takes time and focus to find each string and pull gently enough to un-mess the mess without breaking it all.
This week, as I sat in my office to begin pulling at the threads, one of the daycare babies started screaming inconsolably. I turned my music up a bit, but it was useless. She was louder than both my music and my mind, which you’d know is a pretty incredible feat if you could hear my mind. And to be clear, I wasn’t mad about it; It wasn’t that she was bugging me; I genuinely love the sound of babies, so I was just distracted. Her cries were like a siren calling me. So I went into the gym, found her, and I crouched down, looked her in the eyes, and just said hi, how are ya. and she quieted. So with staff permission, I gave her some face time for a couple minutes while the daycare worker cleaned up some things. Then when she was done, the staff member picked her up again and I went back to work.
It’s funny how kids have a way of bringing us back to earth when we’re busy in the “very important work” of adulting and pontificating and theologizing in offices with closed doors and lots of academic books, where we hunker down to look for insight into the messes around us.
As I read today’s texts, I see a tangle of things happening. Our gospel reading catches up with Jesus and the disciples in the middle of increasingly intense revelations over the 8th and 9th chapters of mark.
Publicly, the disciples have witnessed Jesus 1. casting out demons, and 2. healing the deaf, blind, and dumb. 3. Together with him they have fed two huge multitudes of people.
On top of that, some religious leaders are growing ever more suspicious of Jesus and are ramping up their efforts to entrap him.
Privately, Jesus’s teachings are getting wild: When he asks the disciples who they think he is, Peter declares him the long-awaited Messiah - which is a really big deal! In response to that, Jesus commands them not to tell anyone about him, and proceeds to foretell his own death and resurrection for the first of what will be three times in Mark’s gospel.
Six days after that, Jesus takes three of the disciples up a mountain and transfigures in front of them -- whatever that means and into what, we are not told. But it had to be incredibly bizarre and even scary, made all the more by the fact that both Moses and Elijah also made an appearance! And after they witness this momentary glorification of Jesus, he again tells them not to tell anyone what they’ve seen until “after the Son of Man has risen from the dead,” which confuses the absolute heck out of them. Then Jesus goes on to heal another boy with a spirit, which brings us to today’s text.
Jesus tells the disciples for the second time that the Son of Man would be betrayed and killed, and after three days would rise again. Once more, they are confused. Verse 32 says they don’t understand what he’s saying and -- importantly -- they are afraid to ask.
So what do they do? They argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Now, this could be a petty argument, or they could be hearing Jesus talk about his own death, and wondering together what comes next for their crew and who’s going to lead them once he’s gone. Either way, they aren’t getting what Jesus is revealing, and things are getting more apocalyptic by the day. And that confusion and unrest leads to arguments.
Now, over in our James text, we get some insight into this kind of discord. He says that disorder, conflicts, and disputes come from pride, envy, and selfishness: From wanting what we don’t have and either refusing to ask, or asking from an orientation of selfishness. We do not understand and we are not getting what we want or need, so we take up sides and go to war with one another.
As for wisdom and understanding? James says these come not from winning debates or proving ourselves superior to or greater than others, but from a willingness to yield. He says a harvest of peace and justice awaits those who embody gentleness, mercy, and impartiality. He affirms what most of us know from experience, which is that sometimes our desire to be right comes at the cost of being in right relationship, but that a willingness to yield and say, “I don’t know but I am here,” can breathe new life into a room or a relationship.
So, back to the living room with Jesus and the Disciples: It doesn’t appear that any of the disciples admitted to Jesus that they’d been arguing about who was the greatest; they were just silent. But Jesus knows -- perhaps because he’s God and is a magical mind reader, or perhaps because he is wise and understands the human heart and that we default to hierarchies within social groups when the world around us grows unsteady. And so he responds by pulling a child onto his lap and saying that Greatness attends to smallness.
Now, in my holy imagination, I’m taken back to one day when I was a kid and the grown ups were having house church in my living room. We kids were told to go play out back or downstairs, but not to interrupt the bible study -- don’t distract the adults from the important stuff of the Word! But one of the bigger kids dared me to do something stupid and I couldn’t help myself. So I marched into the living room while the other kids hid behind the dining room wall, and in my biggest voice I cried out to a room full of very serious adults in a very serious conversation, “Eww, everybody’s drinking pee!”
Of course, they were just drinking iced tea, and that was the joke of it. But for a moment that stretched on for an eternity, I held my breath while my mom turned red, and I thought for sure I was done for. But then the rest of the grown ups started laughing hysterically, my mom’s face went back to normal. And I was safe. The other kids came out from hiding. The joke was heard. We were the kids whose stupid joke broke the seriousness of the moment and reminded all those grown ups that true greatness yields to smallness and silliness. Greatness knows what the real distraction is -- **and it’s not the kids.
Friends, just like the disciples, we’re living in apocalyptic times. And by that I mean the truth of things is being uncovered in ways we cannot ignore. Climate chaos is upon us, a housing and unhoused crisis is upon us. We are living through what feels like an endless pandemic, and our streets are wet with the blood of both state and street violence. And all the while, politicians and pundits argue in gilded rooms and online forums over who’s the greatest and will save the empire.
I think it’s safe to say that most of us are suffering from pandemic fatigue, politics fatigue, conspiracy fatigue, economic fatigue, war fatigue, and climate fatigue. We are tired. Our nervous systems are absolutely fried, and we are desperate for things to go back to normal even though we know in our heart of hearts normal is gone.
To a certain extent, our sense of safety and security are also gone, and so, just like the disciples, we default to arguments over who’s the smartest, or rightest, who has the best plan. We don’t understand what the heck is going on and we are either too afraid or too proud to admit it, so we fight.
I do not know the answers. What I do know is there is great wisdom in following Jesus’s example by taking in and attending to the children.
That looks like a lot of different things right now, right? It can look like getting the kids a snack or letting them crawl all over us, instead of mindlessly scrolling social media. Or it can look like dropping everything to join a search party for a missing toddler. It can look like letting our kids skip school to join a global climate strike led by an autistic teenager from Sweden. It can mean listening to the Maplewood youth who are protesting for police accountability after two of their friends died as the result of a police chase.
In north Minneapolis, where I live, this stuff is real. Street violence is on a whole other level, kids are killing other kids, and still so many adults are screaming at each other that the answer is to “Lock em up! Put em away for good!”
But the mandate from Jesus here is to “take the children in. Listen to the youth. Attend to them. What are their needs and why are you allowing your fear and in-fights and arguments to distract you from the children who are commanding your attention right now.
Again let me say: Being a grown up, never mind the greatest, has nothing to do with pontificating with other adults about what or who’s important; and everything to do with recognizing what’s important when it crawls on your lap or fires a gun in your neighborhood and says “look at me.” Do we have the eyes to see, the ears to hear, the will to yield?
It has been said that, “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children.” And so I’d like to leave you today with a poem I wrote last January, the day after President Biden’s inauguration and just two weeks after the insurrection and attempted coup at the Capitol. I was watching my son sleep for the thousandth time, and my thoughts were consumed, so I wrote:
I Concern myself
All day every day
With what kind of world we’re leaving
For him and his generation and the next
I worry and concern myself
A few times every day
That the first President of whom
He’ll have a living, working memory
Is the one who just left but
Won’t be gone
For a long, long
Maybe til he’s my age
And has hims and hers and thems
To watch sleep at night.
I worry and concern myself
All day every day -
Are we teaching him well
To resist, respond, resolve,
repent, repair, revolutionize,
Restore and resurrect
to earn the trust to
I worry and concern myself
For his little heart,
So big in its smallness,
Is it filling with right and good
And just and merciful fullness?
Or the weight of all that is
And what we’ve only just
Begun to look at?
I worry and concern myself
All day, every day --
Does he feel like he’s living
At the dying of all things?
So many endings, closings,
Funerals in just a
Few short years.
Have I shown him well
so much death is
Just the birthing?