Thursday, October 25, 2012

Too Many Roads!

Our texts for this week, our last in our "Road Less Traveled" series on discipleship centered on Mark chapters 8-10, are Mark 10:46-52 and Job 42:1-17, which can be read here.

In the Robert Frost poem "The Road Not Taken," which we have been alluding to over the last month or so together in worship as a visual way to think about Jesus' call to discipleship, he speaks of "two roads diverging in a yellow wood."  The problem with this week's gospel text, however, is that it does not present to us two roads of interpretation; as I read what seem like 7 very basic verses from Mark, the roads we could take into and out of this story seem almost infinite.  Seriously, I think I could spend 6 or 8 Sundays preaching on this passage and preach a radically different sermon every time.  I'm sitting here this morning, trying to decide which road to take for Sunday, and I feel kind of overwhelmed by the options.

We could talk about the significance of this story taking place outside of the troubled and historic city of Jericho--anything here bring back memories for you of the famous story from Joshua 6?

We could talk about the significance of Mark giving this blind beggar a name--Bartimaeus--when the characters Jesus heals are almost never named!  Furthermore, he emphasizes the meaning of Bartimaeus' name--"son of Timaeus"--and Timaeus was the name of a famous dialogue written by Plato--one that also talks at length about seeing and blindness.  Coincidence or not?

And speaking of names, we could talk about the names given to Jesus in this story--the crowd calls him "Jesus of Nazareth," while Bart (as I like to call him) names him "Son of David"--the first person in this gospel to do this.  There's all sorts of stuff here.

We could talk about the crowd trying to silence Bart, and the fact that they only pay him attention to scold him, while Jesus stops to engage him.  Ouch...there's an indictment of Jesus' followers.

We could talk about the parallels with the two stories of faltering discipleship that preceded this one--the man who came to Jesus and was told to sell everything (notice how Bart threw down his cloak without even being told to do so!) and James and John, who like Bart were asked, "What is it you want me to do for you?"

Then there's this whole metaphor of seeing, so crucial in the Gospel--so tightly tied to believing.  We see it also in the Job passage, where what has changed in Job's heart is that now he not only hears about and knows but SEES God; and we see the irony here that a blind man is the only one who sees Jesus clearly.

We could talk about how this whole section is bookended by stories of blind men being healed--and how different the healing in Mark 8:22-26 looks from this one that happens right before he enters Jerusalem.

And speaking of that, we can talk about how this is the last healing Jesus does before he enters Jerusalem for his final week--what's the significance of this being his final act?

Overwhelmed yet?  I am.  But the multitude of threads here--and I haven't even named them all--tell me above all else that this is more than another healing story; this is a story that has many significant things to teach us about discipleship, about Jesus, about ourselves.  I don't know where we will end up walking together on Sunday, but I am glad we are on the journey together.

Friday, October 19, 2012

God Questions

Our texts this week are Mark 10:32-45 and Job 38:1-7, 34-41, which can be read here.

I ask God questions all the time...and think about questions I wish I could ask God, questions for which I wish I could get some sort of clear definitive answer.

But our passages this week are not full of questions we pose to God; rather, they are full of questions God poses to us.  The Old Testament reading from Job overflows with them.  Which of these questions resonate with you?  What do you hear in them?

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Who determined [the earth's] measurements? Or who stretched the line upon it? 

On what were [the earth's] bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? 

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?

Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, 'Here we are'?

Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?

Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? 

Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? 

Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?

Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?

God is full of questions in Job--absolutely full of them.  But in Mark's Gospel, Jesus has only two questions, both directed at his disciples:

"What is it you want me to do for you?" 

 "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" 

So what's the question behind all of these questions?

I guess my question, simple though it might be, is...what might God's questions be for you at this point on your journey, disciple?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

When Roads Diverge, Where Will The Chosen One Lead?

Our texts this week are Mark 10:17-31 with a nod to Job 23:1-9, 16-17, which can be read here.

The Bible has a habit of leaving stories unfinished--all sorts of tales of encounters with Jesus that just beg for a sequel.  So, when I write curriculum for youth, one of my favorite things to do is to let the youth imaginatively finish the story beyond what the scriptural text gives us.  For instance, this week I wrote a lesson encouraging youth to finish the story of Nicodemus after his encounter with Jesus in John 3 where he is told he needs to be born anew (we get hints of the trajectory of his story in John 7:50-51 and John 19:39, but only glimpses!). But what might Nicodemus have told his friends and family--or his fellow Pharisees--about Jesus when he went back home after their encounter. How did he act differently, if at all? How did he interpret what Jesus told him? How did his life change? What encounters might Nicodemus have had with others in the days, weeks, months, and years after his nighttime meeting with Jesus?

You could ask questions like these about several stories--how might the wounded man's life had been changed after he was helped towards healing by his enemy, the "Good Samaritan" in Luke 10?  You could ask it about Job in today's Old Testament text--though we have 19 more chapters in his book to learn about his story, still, how was he different after these losses and the ensuing encounters with his friends and, most of all, with God?

And perhaps this exercise could work best with today's Gospel lesson--the story of the man who is called elsewhere in the Gospels "the rich young ruler."  After Jesus speaks hard words into the man's life, all we are told is that "he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions." So...when he went away, where did he go? What did he do? When he got back to his house and saw his possessions, did he hold them close? Weep over them and then reluctantly let them be pried from his fingers? Toss them all out on the front lawn and have a giant, free yard sale? Just burn the house down so he didn't have to deal with it all? And then...what? Did he just go back to work? Or, like the disciples, did he end up leaving his vocation and livelihood behind and take up the new one of following Jesus?

How do you imagine the story ends? Which diverging road through the yellow wood does this man choose, and where does it lead?

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Does Jesus Get Frustrated?

Our texts for this week are Numbers 11:10-16, 24-29 and Mark 9:38-50, which can both be read here.

Here's a fun question:  do you ever get frustrated?

Ha.  Okay, that's a silly question.  A better question perhaps:  what makes you REALLY frustrated?  What just absolutely sets you to ripping out your hair, wanting to climb the walls and scream?  What makes your temper flare, your patience wane, your edginess escalate?

People who don't follow through on commitments, or who are incompetent at their jobs?

Repeatedly falling short at something even though you're trying really hard?

DC/Baltimore beltway traffic?

People who don't listen or repeatedly fail to understand?

Spending 6 hours on the phone with Dell without being able to get a straight answer as to how to fix your computer, getting connected from one department to another (not that this has ever happened to me...)?

What's on your list?  Why do these things frustrate you?  What is it about these things that might cause you to snap, to lash out, even to toss your hands in the air and give up?  What do you do when you are frustrated?

I ask these questions because I know Moses was frustrated in today's Old Testament reading, and I have good reason to think (and I don't believe this is heretical) that Jesus was frustrated in Mark 9.  Who could blame him?  I mean, let's chart what has happened in this chapter:

  • First, Jesus gets followed by crowds EVERYWHERE--and usually those crowds are bickering over something (9:14-16).  
  • Then, he has to step in and exorcise a demon the disciples couldn't handle (9:17-29).  
  • Then, Jesus talks to the disciples AGAIN about his upcoming death, only to have them stare blankly at him and one another (9:30-33).  
  • Then, Jesus catches the disciples responding to his death pronouncement by arguing over who is the greatest among them (are you kidding me, disciples?  nope--9:34-37).  
  • Finally, in today's lesson, the disciples try to get praise out of Jesus because they managed to stop someone from outside of their group who was casting out demons in Jesus' name.  This news causes Jesus to become so exasperated that he busts out every over-the-top metaphor he can think of, telling the disciples they'd do better to chop off their hand than to use that hand to get in the way of someone who is trying to live by faith. for my opening question, "Does Jesus get frustrated?" I think the answer has to be yes.  And I'm grateful for that--how else could he be fully human?  But here, perhaps, is the more pertinent question:  WHY does Jesus get frustrated?  And what does he do with his frustration?  What can we learn from the things that really set Jesus off, and how he responds in these touchy moments?  How might Jesus' frustration with these disciples show us where our attention and growth needs to be as disciples today?  As we continue on this "road less traveled" of discipleship, how might the things that frustrate us and that gain our energy and attention--or don't gain it--set us apart as those who have chosen a road rarely taken in a culture full of frustration?