The True Compass

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_PosterIn 2012, Dreamworks released Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s film about our sixteenth president and his struggle to move the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives. Though Lincoln is at the height of his popularity during the period portrayed in the movie, he is hounded by people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Southern sympathizers in Congress consider the President an abolitionist tyrant, describing him melodramatically as the “Great Usurping Caesar.” Meanwhile, the more radical members of Lincoln’s own party accuse him of being uninterested in abolishing slavery, calling him an “inveterate dawdler” and a “capitulating compromiser.” In one memorable scene, Lincoln is discussing this discordant position with Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Congressman from Pennsylvania. Stevens lambastes the President for his apparent timidity and naive willingness to trust that the American people will vote to abolish slavery. “You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery,” he charges. With remarkable calm, Lincoln challenges the Congressman’s assumption that a compass is the only tool needed to direct our actions. “A compass,” he observes, “[will] point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?” This rhetorical question highlights not only Lincoln’s political philosophy, but also his sense of what it means to lead. Those who follow have the luxury of inhabiting the extremes; those who lead are required to move slowly and deliberately, sometimes to the point that they appear to be standing completely still.

Without question, the most conspicuous feature of Mark’s gospel is its astounding pace. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus hits the ground running at his baptism and then sprints through the Galilee at breakneck speed. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately” for good reason; the narrative gives us precious little time to ponder what has happened. This is particularly true when Mark describes a healing or exorcism. Each of those stories follows the same breathless formula: a supplicant asks Jesus for help, Jesus heals, the crowd is amazed, Jesus sternly orders the people to tell no one, and then he moves on to the next location. At first glance, the story of blind Bartimaeus seems to follow the brisk pace of Mark’s narrative. Mark even tell us that Jesus enters and leaves Jericho in the space of one verse, as if to remind us that this Messiah is on the move. Yet there is a striking difference between this and the other healing stories. Throughout most of Mark’s gospel, the crowds are usually dumbfounded when they encounter Jesus. In this story, however, they can’t stop talking: they go from angrily telling Bartimaeus to keep his mouth shut, to essentially patting him on the back and saying, “Don’t just sit there; get up! He’s calling you!” In the meantime, Jesus, who normally has quite a lot to say, is fairly reticent in this passage. Indeed, Mark tells us that when he hears Bartimaeus’ supplication, Jesus stand still. While this may not seem significant, it is the first time that Jesus stands still in the whole of Mark’s gospel. In this gospel of perpetual motion, in other words, this is the first time Jesus stops.

The significance of this is revealed in the crowd’s response to Bartimaeus. When Bartimaeus shouts “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Mark tells us that those around him “sternly order him to be quiet.” This happens to be exactly what Jesus generally says to those he heals. The implication is that the crowds finally get it, that they finally understand how they are supposed to respond to the presence of Jesus among them. When Jesus confounds their expectations by calling out to Bartimaeus, the people in the crowd have an immediate and dramatic change of heart. Like sycophants, they quickly race to the opposite extreme, terrified that they will end up on the wrong side of things. size1The crowd is capricious, uncertain where to stand. Jesus, however, is unaffected by this fickle response. In the midst of ambivalence and uncertainty, Jesus stands still, animated only by a profound sense of his mission. In many ways, this passage functions as a powerful prologue to the passion narrative, where those who greet Jesus with “Hosannas” as he enters Jerusalem are the same people who clamor for his crucifixion before Pilate. In the face of these extremes, Jesus stands still, unaffected by accolade or condemnation. Jesus moves deliberately and inexorably toward his fate, despite the fact that those around him cannot understand what he is doing. Unlike the political and religious authorities, Jesus does not inhabit extremes, he inhabits the kingdom of God.

Ask pretty much any political pundit, and they will tell you that, for better or worse, our politics have become increasingly polarized over the last several decades. Gone are the days when political parties worked together and compromised, or so the narrative goes. The reality, however, is not that our positions have become any more extreme (just look at the fight over the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865); it is that the popular attitude toward moderation has shifted. We no longer celebrate the collaborators; instead, we admire the principled partisans, those who are willing to defend their principles regardless of the consequences. Moderation, in other words, has fallen out of fashion. This is no surprise and probably necessary, if we think of moderation as a desperate attempt to be as inoffensive as possible. What the gospel reveals to us, however, is moderation at its best: a deliberate and powerful articulation of a truth that is neither fickle nor inflexible. imgresAs Anglicans, we embrace this middle way “not as a compromise for the sake of peace,” as the Collect for the commemoration of Anglican divine Richard Hooker puts it, “but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” The gospel is neither nostalgic nor novel, it is neither liberal nor conservative; the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcend all these binary categories because they are the fullest expression of love the world has ever known. Love does not inhabit extremes; it is an enduring center, it is a place where we can be perfectly still, indeed, it is an unfailing compass that can shape the direction of our lives. Everything we do: our worship, the stewardship of our resources, the ordering of our life, all of this is a response to the immeasurable love made known to us in Jesus Christ. When we make that love our compass, it leads us into a place where we can live not as inhabitants of this fickle world of extremes, but as citizens and inheritors of God’s kingdom.

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Reimagining our Roles

Sermon on Mark 10:2-16 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Fifty five years ago this week, one of the great careers in major league baseball came to a memorable and poetic conclusion. On a damp and chilly day in Boston, the Red Sox were playing their final home game of the season. There would no October baseball in Boston that year; the Red Sox were the worst they had been in 27 seasons. Nevertheless, the Fenway crowd was electric as Boston’s 42 year old left fielder came to the plate in the eighth inning. In his long career with the Red Sox, Ted Williams had been one of the most enigmatic players in all of baseball. He was unquestionably a transcendent talent: he still holds the record for highest single season batting average. Yet, there was always a simmering resentment among the Fenway faithful when it came to their impressive left fielder. Williams never led his perennially frustrated team to a World Series victory. He was injury prone and plagued by a host of personal and family issues. He craved solitude and, as a result, expressed no interest in cultivating a relationship with press or the fans. But perhaps most galling to fans and baseball purists was his failure to honor the timeless baseball convention of tipping one’s cap to acknowledge the accolades of the crowd.

But none of that seemed to matter on that autumn day in 1960. When Ted emerged from the on deck circle for his final plate appearance at Fenway, the crowd stood and applauded in unison. This was not the primal, indistinct roar of a typical stadium crowd; it was, in the words of John Updike, a “somber and considered tumult.” Indeed, the ovation seemed to represent an attempt to exorcise the ghosts of the past, a collective desire to create a redemptive moment. On the third pitch of the at bat, Teddy Ballgame swung mightily and crushed the baseball into the Red Sox bullpen. ted-williamsx-largeThough it was his last major league home run, Williams rounded the bases as he always did: hurriedly, head down, like a commuter dashing through a sudden downpour. And in spite of the cheering crowd, the pleas of his teammates, and the even entreaties of the other team, Ted steadfastly refused to tip his cap. Many sportswriters complained that this was emblematic of the legend’s arrogance and contempt for the fans. Updike put it more poetically:“Gods do not answer letters.” But I wonder if Williams’ refusal to end his career by tipping his cap stemmed from a fundamental conviction that his relationship with Boston could not be changed in a single cathartic moment, that his purpose was not to play a mere role in the great narrative of baseball, that no matter how we may want our stories to play out, the people at the heart of them are more important.

In the passage we heard from Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus is once again squaring off against the Pharisees. And once again, the subject of their dispute is the nature of God’s Law. As always, the Pharisees approach Jesus with a fairly straightforward question designed to test his familiarity with the Law in order to examine his claims of rabbinical authority. So, when Jesus responds by asking, “What did Moses command you?” the Pharisees must think they’ve finally won: “Some rabbi he is!” they might have thought. “He doesn’t even know the rule about divorce!” You can almost hear their smugness as they refer their opponent to Deuteronomy 24: “Well Jesus…Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her; surely everyone knows that.” But Jesus, who is playing a very different game than the Pharisees, accuses them of being hard-hearted, an epithet that recalls Pharaoh’s steadfast refusal to let God’s people go in the story of the Exodus. In other words, Jesus challenges the Pharisees to think beyond what they believe the Law says and consider instead the ways it affects God’s people.

If we look at the portion of Deuteronomy the Pharisees refer to, it’s pretty clear that they are missing the point. The passage describes a hypothetical situation in which a man divorces his wife by writing her a certificate of divorce, putting it in her hand, and sending her out of his house. It goes on to explain that if she marries another and loses that husband through death or divorce, her first husband “is not permitted to take her again to be his wife…for that would be abhorrent to the Lord.” While this language doesn’t exactly empower women, its purpose is not to explain how a man goes about divorcing his wife. Rather, it articulates that a woman is not subject to the arbitrary whims of her first husband, that she cannot be treated as a commodity, that she has intrinsic value. The religious authorities, however, were reading this text not as an affirmation of human dignity, but as a prescription: “how to divorce your wife in three easy steps.” The Pharisees believed that if their wives did not fit neatly into their life plan for whatever reason, they could be removed from the equation with no more than a the stroke of a pen. They were so concerned with maintaining absolute control that they were willing to disregard the humanity of their wives. Jesus responds to the Pharisees in a surprising way. He doesn’t suggest that his opponents misunderstood the Law; he doesn’t even offer his own unique interpretation of the Law. imgresInstead, Jesus takes us back to the Garden of Eden, back before there was a Law, back to the moment when humanity came into being. He does this to remind his audience that we are all created by God. With this reminder, Jesus affirms that no one is disposable, that everyone has value, that no one’s purpose in this life is merely to play a role in someone else’s story. Jesus, in other words, frames the issue of divorce not in terms of whether it’s allowed or not, but rather in terms of how it affects the people involved.

It’s important for us to recognize that Jesus is not simply replacing one rule with another. By framing divorce within the context of creation, Jesus invites us to think about the issue, as he invites us to think about everything, in terms of what God has done and is doing rather than how we behave. At the same time, we can say with confidence that God is not in favor of divorce, not because it violates some abstract rule, but because of what it does to God’s people. Those of you who have experienced divorce know how painful it is, how dehumanizing it can feel, how it can eat you alive. But even in the midst of that pain, we are called to remember that we are created by God. Even as we bear witness to the migrant crisis in Europe, we are called to remember that those escaping from conflict are not statistics, they are people created by God. Even as we express our grief and outrage over the massacre in Oregon, we are called to remember the God-given humanity of everyone involved: the victims, the survivors, even the shooter. So often the sheer magnitude of the issues facing our broken world leads us to forget about the people at the heart of those stories of anguish and hope. Jesus calls us to remember their humanity, to remember that each and every one of them, and each and every one of us, was created and is beloved by God.