Sunday, October 25, 2009

Proper 25

Mariah Carey's new album is called E=MC²

Now, perhaps you are a huge Mariah Carey fan—and I don’t want to offend—but I wonder about Mariah’s relationship to Einstein’s special theory of relativity and the whole area of theoretical physics in general. People have been trying to explain the theory since 1905, and for the most part they end up with one of those headaches you get when you eat ice cream too fast.

Thank goodness I have Wikipedia, and can safely report that Mariah intended E=MC² to be purely symbolic, meaning the "(E) Emancipation (=) of (MC) Mariah Carey (2) to the second power." I think we can expect her to reinterpret any number of things into the future: perhaps pi, or the periodic table. In fact, there is no element “M” so maybe I’ll be the first to add Mariah.

Okay, enough of mocking the pop stars—too easy. E=MC² is the real topic here, not because I understand it (I don’t) but because it is a kind of shorthand for things that are known but largely unintelligible. Think the popular phrases “it ain’t brain surgery” or “it ain’t rocket science.” The person citing brain surgery or rocket science is not claiming insight on the topic, only that whatever they are doing is somewhat less complicated than either. I sailed with a brain surgeon for a few seasons, and we took complete advantage of it: “C’mon Leanne, pull the main halyard, it’s not brain surgery.”

Rocket science is interesting area of human activity, because we know a lot on the topic without really understanding the theory behind it. Most of us can talk about rockets without the physics or the chemistry to back it up. Not unlike E=MC², in that we knew what it is, and a vague outline of what it does, without the burden of complete knowledge.

Enter Blind Bartimaeus. On the surface, it is a simple healing narrative, and follows the standard form. Jesus is on the move and encounters someone with an illness or disability. The person cries out for help and the others try to silence him. Jesus takes notice, ascertains the situation and heals the person, ending with a word or phrase such as “sin no more” or “your faith has made you well.”

Seems perfectly straightforward, or so it would seem. Clever Mark has planted a couple of clues in the text, however, that say that this story is different and there may be a deeper meaning at play.

The first clue is the name: The subjects of Jesus healing ministry don’t get names, usually, because their names don’t matter. Who they are is not part of the story: it is who they represent. And in most cases, they represent someone falsely blamed for their condition or someone with a torment the world does not understand. And the act of healing becomes a corrective for whatever false assumption that is operating in the neighbourhood. But Bartimaeus has a name, and therefore it must have some significance.

The second clue is the repetition, “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.” Bartimaeus means “son of Timaeus,” so the passage really reads “Son of Timaeus, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the read side. Mark is saying ‘pay attention, dear reader,’ but to what? Professor Tom Long has the answer.

Dr. Long argues that Timaeus, a leading character in a dialogue by Plato, was general knowledge in Jesus’ day, much in the way we throw around E=MC². People knew Timaeus, and vaguely what he stood for, and you have nodded with recognition when Mark decided to give this blind beggar the name “son of Timaeus.”

So who was Timaeus, and what did he say? First, we now try to avoid using “blindness” as a metaphor for ignorance. It gets “grandfathered” on certain occasions, but generally it should be avoided. Mark, writing in 60 AD, didn’t feel the same hesitation. So, for the moment, we assume that the blindness of the son of Timaeus is ignorance, that there is something wrong with his worldview, or his theory, in this case penned by none other than the great Plato.

Jesus, then, is not so much healing a man as correcting a misapprehension. Mark’s readers knew Greek, and some Greek philosophy, and therefore would know all about Timaeus. In the conversational way ideas were presented, Timaeus gets the best lines, and a worldview is created. There was no television then, so people had the time to think about the nature of the universe and how it came to be. Enter Timaeus.

Timaeus, along with all his philosopher friends, argued that there were two states: being and becoming. And being is vastly superior to becoming in that being is fixed (like truth) and becoming is, well, becoming. Anything below the realm of truth (like an idea or a theory) is in a state of becoming, and therefore inferior. So far, then:

Being: eternal and good
Becoming: temporary and not so good.

Timaeus takes this a step further and suggests that the realm of being is represented by an eternal god and the realm of becoming is represented by a worldly sort of god. It is this worldly god that tends a “world soul” and various elements including the “fifth element,” something called quintessence. And you thought it was a movie with Bruce Willis.

So what does this mean and why should we care?

Jesus rejects the blindness of Timaeus because the theory was just plain wrong. There is one God, the God of both being and becoming, the God of both the realm we can see and the realm we cannot see. In the realm we can see there is Jesus, “God-with-us” who walked among us and taught us finally the heavenly way. There is no separation, because God came in Jesus and lived among us, understanding the forgiveness we need.

Jesus rejects the blindness of Timaeus because it was one more theory about the structure of the universe to be refuted and set aside. Someone will say, ‘we live in hell and later we will go to heaven.’ Or ‘this is all there is, a heaven of sorts and we need to care for it.’ I’m sure you could name more. Theorising about the structure of the universe is as old as human consciousness, and Jesus intervenes to say only this: ‘thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.’

In heaven, compassion is first priority, because God is fully aware of the human experience and the needs of the vulnerable.
In heaven, love is central, because everything God does is an act of love.
In heaven, forgiveness is the last word, because we all need it, and we need to learn to accept it, and we need to extend it to others.

Jesus is healing a wounded worldview, healing the misapprehension that comes through speculation, healing the mistaken understanding that the world doesn’t really belong to God. We are grateful for healing, and we are grateful for understanding, but most of all, we are grateful that Jesus stopped that day to show us the world God made. Thanks be to God, Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Proper 24

Mark 10
35James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” 36And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” 37And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” 38But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” 39They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; 40but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
41When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. 42So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. 45For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

In Oceans Eleven (1960), a group of army buddies (led by Frank Sinatra) reunite to rob the Sahara, Riviera, Desert Inn, Sands, and The Flamingo in one night.

In The Italian Job (1969), Michael Caine and his group of lads try to steal 4 millions dollars of gold from Fiat in Turin. 2003 remake is an abomination, never see it.

In Gone in 60 Seconds (2000), a group of car thieves reunite to save one of their own by stealing 60 high-end cars in a single evening.

In Oceans Eleven (2001), a group of career thieves led by George Clooney and Brad Pitt gather to rob the Bellagio, The Mirage and the MGM Grand.

In The Perfect Score (2004), the thieves are teenagers, trying to steal the answers to the standardized college admission test (SAT) and get the perfect score.

The genre “caper film” has a fairly standard plot, demonstrated by each of the films named. The first act is the planning stage, where the crew is assembled based on expertise and the unique needs of the job. Next, there is the heist stage, where the job happens with one or more glitches. In the third and final act, things unravel completely and eventually the story is resolved: a bus full of gold teeters on the edge of the Alps or a Mustang named Eleanor foils our hero once more.*

I think there is a story in the fact that in 1960 crime in film was not allowed to pay and now it can and does. But that is a whole other sermon. For today, I want to look at Mark’s Gospel as a “caper film,” where a group of buddies assemble to pull an ancient near-eastern heist.

The story begins with assembling an appropriate team. Jesus starts with fishermen: "Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will make you fishers of men and woman.” From this core he begins the work of travelling about and driving out demons while he continues to build his team. When the last apostle is called and anointed, he begins to instruct them. He uses parables such as the Sower Who Went Out to Sow and the Mustard Seed to outline his plan, and the action begins.

In the second act of Mark’s Gospel, the troubles begin. The apostles argue amongst themselves regarding who is the greatest. They try to stop others from healing and driving out demons in Jesus’ name. And they try to stop the little children seeking a blessing. In the final glitch in an otherwise perfect caper, James and John go rogue.

Of course, this is a common element to the caper film. Following the cliché “no honour among thieves,” James and John decide that they want the seats of honour in the life to come. They approach Jesus in an almost childlike way and say, “please say yes to the thing we are about to ask.” Not falling for it, Jesus demands to know what they want. When they tell him that they want a greater share of the heavenly loot, Jesus says, “Do you know what you’re asking? Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

James and John claim they can. Jesus insists that the seats of honour are not his to give, and the whole group descends into conflict. Jesus finally regains control of the group by telling them how other heists have failed. Usually a strongman takes charge and “lords it over the others,” but Jesus won’t allow that to happen. They have to work together, he insists, by serving each other and being willing to die for the rest.


Before I reveal the ending to this caper, there is one more element we need to address. As the history of the church unfolds, we find rings of development. First Jesus, then the twelve, then the others, then Paul and his fellow evangelists, then the early church and so on. The rings expand, yet the centre remains. Our task as believers is to look back and take our cue from the twelve and Paul and those that followed, but especially the twelve. They stand in for us: we are them in the story, and they have much to tell us about ourselves.

Now, it makes sense that believers would look to the scriptures of their religion to learn how to behave. It would seem logical to include the norms and standards required to live a life of faith. This would explain the Sermon on the Mount and the Great Commandment, the Great Commission and all those parables.

Where the logic fails is in the foolishness of the disciples. Or the problems of David, Israel’s greatest king. Or the scheming of Jacob. Or Peter, the rock on which Jesus builds his church, who cannot admit he knows the Lord when the fateful moment comes.

So you have great goals and great teaching and very flawed actors moving through the narrative, showing warts and all. I can tell you that this puzzles non-believers and makes them crazy. They want us to pass the “hypocrite test,” where words are matched by actions. Sadly this does not happen. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.

From the first narrative (Hey Eve, aren’t you gonna share that delicious looking apple?) to the last (“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do”) human failure is at the centre of the story and serving God does not cure human failure, it only puts it into perspective. Of course they wanted to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in glory, because the human story has always been best hope and least result.

Best hope, least result and our God’s seemingly infinite capacity to forgive. Thanks be to God.

Wait! What about act three, and the ancient near-eastern heist. How will the story end? I will tell you. And with all good caper films, it may delight you and have you leave the theatre shaking your head and wondering how they managed to pull it off. Here we go:

In the final act of the story, Jesus makes a triumphant entry, clears the temple, shares a final meal and faces trial. He is crucified, dies and is buried in a borrowed tomb. On the third day the angel says to the women, “He has risen! He is not here.”

In the end, Jesus and his followers are successful in stealing two of the assumptions that made the Roman world work. Imagine the world altering scope of defeating these two ideas. Caesar sat secure on his throne, and didn’t even know that the caper worked and the thieves had carried off the two things that were more valuable than all his gold: The assumption that things will never change and that this is all there is.

Sure Caesar had legions and roads and fortification, but his most powerful weapon was the belief that his position was secure and that the power of Rome would never face defeat. If things will never change, there is no point in trying, no point in working for change. But on the cross everything changed, Jesus gained power by giving up his life and became greatest of all by being least of all: dying as a criminal on the cross. When the people learned that in weakness there is strength, everything changed.

Same for the second assumption, that this is all there is. If this is all there is, there is no point seeking more, or trying to remake yourself, because there would be no point. Rome offered a pantheon of gods, including Caesar himself, and collectively they were supposed to provide for every eventuality. Bad crop, we have a god for that. Bad fertility, we have a god for that. Bad party, we have a god for that. But a God willing to lay down his life for you, to suffer and die that the whole of human experience might be known in heaven as it is on earth? No, only we have a God for that.

Jesus and his band of hapless rogues stole and destroyed the two things that Rome needed most to rule: hopelessness and resignation. Without them, we became free to see a new world and a new future, thanks be to God. Amen.


Sunday, October 04, 2009

Proper 22

Job 1&2
1.1There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
2.1One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord. 2The Lord said to Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” 3The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” 4Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. 5But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” 6The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”
7So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. 8Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes. 9Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish woman would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

Imagine a meeting of the heavenly Board of Directors. Satan, Corporate VP for Evil and Mayhem, strolls in like he owns the place and gets a pretty nice greeting: “Hey, where you been, Satan?”
And Satan is a little coy: “Oh, you know, here and there, mostly out.”
But God’s not really listening, just being polite. So God says, “Have you noticed Job, my servant? Upright, blameless, and truly one-of-a-kind. Always thinking of me, never you. Sorry mister.”
“Ah yes,” Satan says, “but does he fear you? Have you given him even a moment of pause? No, you’ve given him ten kids, servants, seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, and a nice manure business on the side. But take it away, and he’ll curse you in a heartbeat.”
“Alright,” God says, “here’s a little divine power. Do what you wish with Job’s world, but don’t injure him.”

In a matter of minutes, Job goes from richest man in the East to childless pauper. I’ll leave it to you to read, but you can trust that Satan is nothing if he’s not thorough. And what does Job do in response? He becomes philosophical:

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. 21He said, ‘Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’

At the next meeting of Heaven Incorporated, God is feeling a little smug:

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God says. “Still blameless and upright, even after all your shenanigans.”
“Skin for skin!” Satan says, though 2000 years later no one is quite sure what he meant. “People will forsake everything to save themselves. But let me try something I saw in ‘The Godfather, Part 2” and we’ll see how quickly he curses you.”
“Very well,” God says, “just don’t kill him.”

So Satan, good to his word, covers Job in “loathsome” sores from head to toe. Job’s there, sitting in ashes, scrapping his sores with a potsherd, and we meet Mrs. Job. Sometimes it takes the person closest to you to remind you how big an idiot you are (not being autobiographical, of course). Mrs. Job says “still insist on keeping your prized integrity?” Then she delivers one of the best lines of dialogue in scripture, one that made even the Rabbi’s blush. Never the best source of advice, she says, “Curse God and die.”

But he won’t. Instead he says “Oh, my foolish little buttercup, remember we have to take the good with the bad.”

I’m calling it God, one; Satan, zero. Despite all Satan could devise, Job remains steadfast in his loyalty to God. It was, after all, a simple test of loyalty.


It has been an unusual week for natural disasters: An earthquake in Indonesia, flood in the Philippines, tsunami in Samoa, and mudslides in Sicily. And those are just the ones with sufficient loss of life to make the news. As we pray for victims and those who mourn, we recall that the natural world has always been a source of good and bad.

The sun brings growth, but also drought.
The rain brings nurture, but also floods.
The wind scatters the seeds,, but can uproot trees.
The snow protects the fields, but makes us drive like idiots.

Could it be that Job determined early that God did not make the weather, only stood by those who suffer its effects? Whatever insights Job gained from the worst day of his life, the primary insight is that he must remain loyal to his God.


In the bleak mid-winter, Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter, long ago.

At least one theologian (Thoman Troeger) has argued that when Christina Rossetti wrote these words, she was thinking of Charles Darwin. She was thinking of the popular idea of her day, that Darwin’s work would fatally wound the God of heaven, and cause the faithful to fall away. “Water like a stone,” was the result of a loss of faith, the eventual outcome of divorcing science and religion.

A century and more, and we know the outcome. The ideas of Darwin (which were never really contrary to faith) did not cause the heavens to fall or God to surrender a place at the centre of all that is. Just the opposite, in fact. Most recently, a few scientists have been struck by the infinite order in the universe, and can only attribute such order to a “grand organizing designer.” Get it? G.O.D.

And, of course, Christina Rossetti wasn’t completely given to despair, or else we wouldn’t sing her famous carol each Christmas. No, she can only ponder how she would repay the gift of God’s incarnation, and she writes:

What can I give him, poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;
if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;
yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

This is the same theme once more. At the end of the day, Christina Rossetti settles on loyalty, remaining steadfast in her belief that God entered the world in Jesus and stood among us: To taste as we do, to feel our pain and know our joy, and ultimately to bless us, even as we seek to destroy him.

It is loyalty to God that defines us, that makes us who we are. Job says we need to take the good with the bad, and Christina Rossetti says that in our poverty, we can still give our heart to God. How about one more? This one’s a favourite. St. Augustine reflected on the whole of his life and said “By loving the unlovable [God], You made me lovable.”

In other words, God is loyal to us in return. And although we’ve only looked at the introduction of Job, and there will be many miles and many voices yet to come, I know that at this very moment, God is still delighted with Job and his steadfast loyalty. And so, what we really see is a relationship. God is pleased with Job, Job remains loyal, and even when Job finally takes the advice to speak ill of God, Augustine’s maxim remains: “By loving the unlovable [God], You made us lovable.”

This is good news for today, thanks be to God.