Saturday, October 28, 2006

What do you want? (Pentecost 21B)

Back (I think) in the 1920s, the famous German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, invented a new approach to live theatre that he called the ‘alienation effect’.  At the time, this was radical stuff – course, if you’ve seen a play in the last 50 years or so you might not think Brecht’s approach was all that brilliant for the simple reason that ever since Brecht everybody has been doing it that way.  His invention was just that stunning.  The ‘alienation effect’ just means you use various tricks to make the familiar seem unfamiliar, to create a sort of psychological barrier to make it a bit harder for the audience to just slide uncritically into the illusory world of the narrative.  Brecht wanted his audiences to actually think about what was going on.  It might be as simple as a few abstract stage props or lighting techniques, or else an actor that all of a sudden steps out of the role and starts talking directly to you in the audience, but the idea is that when you’re watching the play, you have a little bit of emotional distance, a bit of objectivity so that you get to see familiar realities in a new light.

Mark’s Gospel, I think, does exactly that.

One of the reasons I just love this Gospel is that it is so compact and concise.  Not just because you can read it through in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee – in fact quite the opposite.  You’ve got to slow down.  It’s like reading a telegram, you’ve got to slow down enough to really think about why the person who wrote it chose this word instead of that word.  Mark doesn’t dress it up with poetic bits or fine literary descriptions, there’s not a single piece of useless information.  Mark would also have agreed with the Russian playwright Anton Chekhov who used to say to his students, ‘pay attention!  If you see a shotgun hanging over the fireplace at the beginning of Scene One then you know it’s going to get used before the end of Act Two’.  With Mark you’ve got to pay attention to the details.  So, for example, in our story today, the name Bartimaeus literally means "son of Timaeus" but just we don’t already know that, Mark tells us.  Which means you’ve got to figure that the name has got some significance.  Son of Timaeus, literally, it means the son of worthiness.  Someone to emulate.

Mark tells us that Jesus was just on his way out of Jericho.  He’s come to Jericho for some reason that Mark doesn’t tell us, and now they’re off again.  They’re in-between; on the way – which, when you think about it, when we least expect it, is often when the most significant things happen. Jesus has been trying to get the disciples to "see" what it was that he was about, but they’re not getting it. So this is the first significant thing, the irony that this man who physically is blind can actually see better than anyone else.  He can’t see, but he has insight. This blind man, this "son of worthiness" calls Jesus ‘son of David’ which we know is a code word for Messiah.  The one who is anointed to lead God’s people out of the darkness.  So this is the first thing, that there’s none so blind as those that won’t see.  Mark is playing with metaphors here, he is asking us, in effect, whether we have really got the point like Bartimaeus or whether like the disciples we can’t see the wood for the trees.  Are we so dogmatic about the Christ of faith that we fail to actually see that, in Jesus, God is revealed to us as the God who really wants nothing more than to be in relationship with us, the God who can’t bear the thought of not being around when we’re getting on with the everyday business of being human?

But here’s the second thing.  Bartimaeus really is blind.  He’s not just a convenient metaphor.  We don't know how he became blind but we’re told he wants to see ‘again’ so we can assume he wasn’t born that way.  Like disabled people everywhere, but even more so in the very, very non-PC 1st century, Bartimaeus is living on the edges of society.  Being blind meant being marginalised, pushed out, being told he must have been a particularly bad sinner to be in such a state.  Bartimaeus is (or at least he should be) the pin-up boy of anyone who has ever felt that way, ever felt that their disabilities are what define them, because he is persistent.  He doesn’t give up.  A man who has faith that this other child of God can make a difference in his life and so he doesn’t hesitate to make a nuisance of himself.  And Jesus shows us – as he does time and again – that God’s agenda is always to be interruptible, always to be available.

The action-words in this story tell us a lot about Bartimaeus.  When Jesus speaks to him, acknowledges his presence and calls him over, Bartimaeus "springs" up and "throws off" his cloak.  This is what he’s been waiting for, and he doesn’t hesitate – yet, strangely enough, Jesus asks him what he wants – see, here’s an alienation effect, it gets us, the audience to pay attention because the gospel writer has in effect stepped up to the front of the stage and looked us in the eye and said ‘well, what about you?  What are you after?’

I think this is the crux of it.  What do you want?  What do you really want in your life?  What are your priorities?  This is what Mark is asking us here.  And this is where he is playing with his metaphor again because Bartimaeus says ‘I want to see again’ – but when Jesus tries to send him on his way with just the gift of physical sight he isn’t having a bar of it.  Instead, this guy is following Jesus on the Way – a word that in the 1st century was a code word for the Christian movement itself – in other words, if you really see, then you have to act on it.  Seeing means commitment.

Now you know, and I know, because by this stage we’re two-thirds of the way through our cup of coffee, that where Jesus is headed next is Jerusalem, and an ignominious death on a Roman cross.  That’s what happens next in Mark’s story.  What Mark is saying is that to truly see who Jesus is, is to understand that his way isn’t the way of being smart, or cool or successful, it’s the way of the cross, what the world sees as powerlessness and basically, being a loser who thinks that the way to have it all is to give it up.  Is that what you really want?

It is no accident that the words we use for the physical senses of touch, taste, hearing and sight are also the words that the Gospels use to speak of deeper spiritual realities. The things that are the most real to us are those things which are tangible, touchable, taste-able, see-able, smell-able.  The point is that the spirituality of the cross is just as tangible, just as earthy as that.  You either get it or you don’t.

The way Mark tells it, Jesus’ disciples can’t see because they’re caught up in their preconceptions that Jesus’ agenda has to be other-worldly and triumphal.  The people who get the point are the blind and the lame, the oppressed and the downtrodden; the ones society has given up on.   And what they understand is that Jesus is showing them that God doesn’t identify with the powerful and the rich, God identifies with them.  So Bartimaeus not only gets the point, but he understands the next step which is to follow Jesus on the way that he’s actually going: the way to Jerusalem.

So, here’s the other point – that there’s a connection between being on the receiving end of Jesus’ healing touch, and being propelled on your own journey of costly love.  What we most desire also points us in the direction of how God wants us to change and what God wants us to give.  Bartimaeus wants to see, and what he sees is the way of the cross.  What he sees is that the way of the cross isn’t just a spectator sport, it’s a journey that we’re being asked to sign up for.

‘So what do you want?’  That’s Mark’s stage-whisper to us, the audience.  It’s the same stage-whisper we hear 16 centuries later, from St Ignatius who pads it out a bit for us.  ‘What’s your desolation?’, he asks us.  ‘What’s your unhealed wound or you secret shame that holds you back from giving and receiving the joy that God made you to share?’  ‘What do you, really, most want in the whole world?  Be honest!  What’s your secret hope that you wouldn’t dare speak aloud?  Because that’s where God is calling you to be whole, that’s where God is daring you to change and to grow, and to join in the dance of love that God calls the way of the cross.’



Saturday, October 21, 2006

I and Thou (Pentecost 20B)

The great Jewish scholar of the early 20th century, Martin Buber, writes that human beings have got two main ways of relating to our environment.  The first way, he says, is when we focus on what a thing or a person can do, how it works, how to make it behave the way we want it to behave - and he calls that an ‘I and It’ way of relating.  We’ve all had the experience of being treated as an ‘it’ sometimes.  For example anybody who’s been in hospital can vouch for what it feels like to be on the receiving end of the diagnostic process where you’re poked and prodded, examined and measured and X-Rayed – of course at times that’s just what we need because we trust the doctors to think about us as a system that’s either functioning well or showing signs of malfunction – this objective sort of relationship is what Buber calls ‘I and It’ – unfortunately we also tend to treat people this way when we want something from them, when we treat them as a problem to be solved or an obstacle or even as a resource – when we relate like this we don’t really open ourselves up to a complete and trusting relationship with the other person – instead we stay objective and we treat the other person as an object.  That’s not so good.

The other way of relating to our environment Buber calls ‘I and Thou’, and the difference is that here we take a risk, in this sort of relationship we just want the other person to be themselves, and we just want to show ourselves to the other person as we really are – no pre-conditions, no hidden agendas because there’s really only one reason for relating to somebody like this, and that is because you want them to grow, you want them to reach their full potential, to experience joy – you want the other person’s life to open up just as much as it possibly can – and when two people relate to each other like that then both of them are strengthened, both of them grow in confidence, communicating without words, just being with each other and for each other.

The reality of course is that most of us go back and forth between the two ways of relating a lot of the time, even with people we love, sometimes having ‘I and thou’ moments, other times dropping back into the ‘I and it’ mode –

But the point Buber really wants to make is this – that it’s in the ‘I and thou’ relationships we have with human beings that we come face to face with God.  This is a typically Jewish way of seeing the world, refusing to draw a strict dividing line between matter and spirit, for example, or between human and divine.  The Jewish way of thinking about God is that there is a connection between the holiness of God and the holiness of human beings, when human beings love mercy and justice, when we love each other and seek the best for each other then God becomes visible and takes on flesh in our world.  Like Christian theologians, Jewish thinkers emphasise that God is first and foremost a God of incarnation, a God who seeks to be known in and through the relationships that human beings have with one another.  Which means Christian spirituality is also incarnational, learning to be open and vulnerable with one another, learning to see the face of God in the likely and even the unlikeable faces of everyday life.  We experience the compassion of God when we receive the rare gift of compassion from a stranger, we make God’s compassion visible and real in our world when we show compassion to one of God’s children.  Sounds almost too simple, doesn’t it?

We read today from the epistle to the Hebrews, that strange, very Jewish book of the New Testament that doesn’t get read much in church, hidden up the back of the New Testament where most of us don’t often go.  One of the most striking things about Hebrews is that the writer is really interested in Jesus – unlike Paul who doesn’t say a word about Jesus before the crucifixion and who seems not even to know any of the stories about Jesus’ earthly life – for the writer of Hebrews, as we read today, there are some really important things he wants to say about Jesus the man.

Now for me personally, as a priest, this letter makes compelling reading.  What does it actually mean to be a priest?  What does it mean to be part of the priesthood that we read about in 1 Peter, which is the priesthood of all the baptised?  And Hebrews tells us – two very important qualifications to be a high priest or for that matter, any sort of priest at all.  I’ll get to the first one in a minute but the second qualification is this – you’ve got to be chosen by God.  You don’t get to be a priest because it seemed like a really good job or because it turns out you’ve got the right qualifications.  This whole bit about Melchizedek, you know, Hebrews just loves Melchizedek, that odd character from Genesis who’s both a Canaanite king and a priest – I guess this is a bit the same as how ship’s captains are also qualified to marry people, the ancient pagan understanding of kingship was that the king was also a priest.  So Hebrews is making the point that Jesus didn’t have to be a Levite, he didn’t have to go to priest school because being a priest is about God’s initiative, not human initiative. 

But the first qualification to be a priest is this, that you have to be one of the people.  That’s actually really important, and I find it very, very reassuring.  You’ve got to be human to be a priest, you’re not a priest in spite of your humanness but because of it.  If you can’t make mistakes you can’t understand people who do.  If you can’t recognise your own unholiness, if you can’t recognise and confess your own sinfulness, then you’re not going to be much good to regular flawed human beings.  There’s one of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church, those stuffy old clauses invented by the Reformers, that’s my personal favourite, and for the sake of this one I’m prepared to take them on as a job lot – number 25 - and it’s called, ‘On the unworthiness of the ministers, which hinders not the effect of the sacrament’.  Just as well, really.  Now Hebrews is working up to the point that Jesus is the great high priest, so the writer doesn’t really want to suggest that Jesus is a sinner but he does want to emphasise that being a human being was just as much of a struggle for Jesus as it is for you and for me, and that, I think, is a point worth making.

This is where all three of our readings today connect, because in the gospel reading Jesus refers to his own death as a baptism, and in the Suffering Servant poem of Isaiah we read how God’s will and God’s compassion for the people is revealed through the Servant’s obedient suffering.  The underlying theme of Mark’s gospel is that it’s in Jesus that we can really understand what that means, that Jesus fulfils the Servant prophecy and that the obedient suffering of Jesus somehow shows God’s compassion and God’s care for human beings.  It’s the underlying paradox of faith that theologians wrestle with – how does Jesus’ holy suffering help?  And the writer of Hebrews has got a unique take on that, because he says that Jesus, who cries out to God in the face of death – this verse sounds a whole lot like Mark’s description of Gethsemene where Jesus prays in anguish to be relieved of this dreadful ordeal and yet chooses to trust in the goodness of God’s purposes for him – Hebrews reminds us that on the other side of that suffering was life, and dares to suggest that in this suffering Jesus himself is being perfected.  That Jesus has to struggle towards some completion that can only be accomplished on the other side of death.  According to Hebrews, Jesus’ suffering is part of Jesus becoming who Jesus had to be, the completion of Jesus’ high priestly preparation because it enables him to fully identify with the suffering of human beings.

Jesus is our great high priest not only because he is chosen by God to be God’s Son, but because he dares to offer himself without reservation to what it means to be human, because he knows and embraces the full range of human joy and human suffering.  It comes back to what Martin Buber calls ‘I and thou’, or God’s relational mode of being.  In Jesus, God becomes fully available to us, vulnerable to the point of sharing the depths of human suffering, and the whole point of doing that, the writer of Hebrews wants to suggest, is so that, in Jesus, God can be fully in relationship with us.

The challenge is that it doesn’t stop there.  I guess we all cringe a bit at the lack of understanding when James and John want the top jobs, but the point is that they do share Jesus’ costly baptism, and so do we.  This high priestly mode of being is not just God’s way of impressing us, but God’s way of inviting us into a new way of being ourselves.  Be available.  Be vulnerable.  Be in love.