27 October 2009

Claiming Vision (Mark 10:46-52)

Rev. Richard S. Hong
First Presbyterian Church of Englewood

The story of Bartimaeus, though brief, is a story that you could spend hours talking about, exchanging little “Did you notice…?” tidbits of information. Did you notice that they enter and Jericho and immediately leave – what happened there? Did you notice that he is the only person in Mark who is healed and is named? Did you notice that Mark explains that Bar-timaeus means “son of Timaeus”, even though anyone who has the least familiarity with Hebrew would understand this?

It is often easier to discuss trivia than face the obvious. And the obvious fact of this story is that a blind person, reduced to begging for sustenance, was not only ignored, people tried to silence him. And who did it? The very people who were supposedly following Jesus.

It’s easier to show off our learned study of the Scriptures than it is to face the possibility that we, as followers of Jesus today, are sometimes no different from the followers of Jesus in his day. How many Bartimaeuses are there in the world whom we are ignoring? How often do we wish that the persecuted and the oppressed would either go away or be quiet rather than assert their claim to healing?

Bartimaeus claimed his right to be heard. Today, for all who are being persecuted, for all made to feel like lesser people, his cry is your cry. Whether you are being told to be silent in the face of oppression based on your sexual orientation, gender, race, socioeconomic class – be like Bartimaeus and claim your right to the vision that God has for you.

The Bartimaeuses of the world need to speak out because it is too easy for us to overlook them. We read this story and it’s ho-hum … another healing story. They always get healed. It gets routine. We forget about the ones who are being ignored.

The way to be transformed into people who will hear the cries of the hurting every time is to stop reading this story from the outside and instead let the story get inside of us. Because inside each of us there is a Bartimaeus. Every single one of us has a place of rejection, of pain, of loss. Too many of us tell the Bartimaeus within us to be silent. We only allow the successful, popular, “socially acceptable” parts of us to be seen and heard while burying the hurting parts of our souls. When we do that even to ourselves, we become more like the followers who tried to silence Bartimaeus. We become oppressors rather than healers. But when the Bartimaeus in us experiences the healing love of Christ we learn to connect with every Bartimaeus around us.

So… Did you notice that Bartimaeus, unlike most of the people Jesus heals, follows him along the way? Jesus needs Bartimaeus to follow him. Because with Bartimaeus following him, do you think the next blind beggar will be silenced? It is easy to think that Jesus only needs or wants the successful, gifted part of ourselves. But Jesus – and by extension the Church – perhaps more than anything else we have to offer, needs the Bartimaeus in us. Because the Bartimaeus in each of us is where Christ meets the needs of the world. And when the Bartimaeus in us follows Christ, the Church becomes the community of those who will always listen for the cries of those whose healing is yet to come.

19 October 2009

A Reflection on Psalm 131

Rev. Jean Southard


O Lord, my heart is not lifted up,

my eyes are not raised too high;

I do not occupy myself with things

too great and marvelous for me.

But I have calmed and quieted my soul,

like a weaned child with its mother;

my soul is like the weaned child

that is with me.

O Israel, hope in the Lord

from this time on and forevermore.

I grew up in the era of black and white TV, an age when Groucho Marx and Ed Sullivan ruled the airwaves and the episodes of “I Love Lucy” were not reruns. It was commonplace to hear Groucho sound surprised when a lovely blonde woman gave a correct answer on his quiz show. He would often ask in wonderment, “How did a pretty girl like you get to be so smart?” In a test of wills with her husband Ricky, Lucy never won outright, but had to get her way by scheming and conniving behind his back, which sometimes resulted in his tipping her over his knee for a hard spanking. What may surprise you is that I never questioned the appropriateness of that at the time. In my own household, the man was King. Upon reaching driving age, my older brother received a car. My sister and I did not. It never occurred to us to complain. It was only later, looking back through the lens of the women’s movement, that I found I could no longer tolerate such blatant assaults on the rights and dignity of women.

Psalm 131 appears to be written by a woman. Like me in my earlier life, she lived in an era when it probably never entered her mind to question the restricted role she was expected to play. She considered it a virtue to keep her eyes downcast and to leave the heavy theological arguments to the men. She had bought the line that she shouldn’t trouble her pretty little head with such matters. Her job was to bake the bread, sweep the hearth, tend to the kids, and when it came time to go up to Jerusalem for the great feasts, to stay back with the other women and children while the men went into the temple to offer their sacrifices for worship.

Women were not the only ones who were kept out of the temple. Men whose bodies were not perfect, who were blind or lame, disfigured in some way, perhaps with a cleft lip or palate, or with improperly reset broken limbs, with crushed testicles, dwarfism or hunched backs, with diseases of the skin, were not allowed to present offerings in the temple either. Women were in the category of physically imperfect men, and all were held away from God as though their presence would somehow contaminate God; or was it feared that God’s fiery wrath might consume these thought-to-be-inferior men?

For whatever reason the barrier was up, the temple was off limits, God was in “his” throne room and they were to keep their distance. But God is not bound by the cramped and limiting ways of humankind, for while the psalmist was demurely keeping her eyes downcast and thinking that she must think only lowly woman-thoughts, God’s own unbound liberating presence came to embrace her soul, as a mother wraps comforting and encouraging arms around a weaned child, giving her hope.

13 October 2009

Images and Idols Aside...

Ray Bagnuolo
Stated Supply Pastor and Head of Staff
Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House

Psalm 97, v. 6-7

From the lectionary reading for Monday, October 12, 2009

The heavens proclaim [God’s] righteousness;

and all the peoples behold [God’s] glory.

All worshipers of images are put to shame,

those who make their boast in worthless idols;

all gods bow down before [the true God].

Idols and images? “Worthless.” I know, sound like one of those commercials, and neither have ever brought me closer to God or truth or courage.

Instead, as the author suggests, the times that God has been most present are when the “boasts” evaporate and the image of God breaks through. Such manifestations are truly great moments of wonder, humility, and courage.

It was all there at Jan Hus Presbyterian Church and Neighborhood House during our celebration of “Coming Out Sunday.” Gathered friends of the church community were invited to tell their “coming out” stories as part of worship. Three spoke with eloquence and from deeply God-given places.

One very brave woman entered a place of transparency in her comments that can only occur when self has been set aside. She was in “God’s glory” of the psalmist; equal parts an amazing and terrifying transformation. She spoke from beyond herself and of a family that had been challenged by her coming out. She referred to the Scriptures, recalling how Jesus stated he had come to separate son from father, mother from daughter; she added sister from sister, reflecting on a visit with her sister that had ended just hours before. She closed by saying that what Jesus had come to do, he had done in her life. It was a profound moment.

As each speaker showed us, such courage of God’s glory occurs when we abandon ourselves to God, losing self in the process and touching the Creator and eternity all at once. It is experiencing a glancing touch of the Power that is so great, even Moses was only permitted to see it from a distance. We, too, saw it from a distance on Sunday. And, as much as it was unexpected, it was also a reminder that we live and work in the presence of God at all times, too often restricted by assorted images and idols. In our midst are those who regularly set aside illusion and bless us with their courage to let the world see who they really are, and in so doing, allowing the rest of us to see God in a different and life-changing way.

Our movement for the end to marginalization in this church is a call to end the worthless imagery and idolatry that has confused too many into believing silence or ambivalence is ever an honest approach in the face of others’ suffering or the witness to God’s wonderfully diverse creation.

How grateful we can be to those who continue the radical love of setting aside self, so that the shining light of God’s presence makes it through, all images and idols aside.

05 October 2009

The Weak and the Lowly

By Sharon

Please join me in reading Psalm 85: 1-4
1God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
2"How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
3Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
4Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.

Usually I do not like to think of topics such as God’s judgment. When I hear the word ‘wicked’ I want to think that we all have tendencies towards wickedness and these type of Psalms help us to pray against that in us. The problem for my Presbyqueerian community is that we have painful baggage with the word ‘wicked’ and the church. When we feel falsely judged we want to lash out with words that condemn those who condemn us. I have done it plenty of times. But am I in a place to judge?

I live and work in a ghetto of Atlanta. It is the fall after I graduated from seminary, and I am trying to figure out how to live and be; how to lift up the lowly, to “give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and destitute (v.3).” That is a pretty heavy calling for we who follow the Juedo-Christian tradition. Let us not forget the dark corners of the world besides the ones we kick it in. In my context, I feel that the weak and the orphan are the children who are abused and neglected in this forgotten section of Atlanta; the prostitutes who have gone to that ‘lowly’ of a profession out of necessity for survival. In my situation, it is so different from my seminary bubble. People do not fight about LGBT issues here. They just try to survive. It is nice, to be honest, to be out of those psychologically damaging circles that do or don’t stand up for justice for we who are called to ordained ministry but forced to do other jobs (like mine) when we get out of seminary.

Now I find myself laughing at gay jokes in the very poor African American community within which I live and work. Isn’t that crazy? I was an activist for us at seminary but now my focus is tutoring math in Atlanta Public Schools through Americorps. When a kid uses ‘gay’ as an adjective, it means weak. I can ask them what ‘gay’ means? Usually when I say there is nothing wrong with being gay, they don’t use the word anymore. Before, they were using it in a way that was hurtful but also getting a few laughs. I hope that as I serve the needy kids in this community that I can spread love to them and teach them about the love of God in what words they use for insults. Everybody in my school seems to need to be ‘hard’ and show no fear because that is the culture. But I know that many of us are weak because we cannot maintain this badass image after school. It is when we can be vulnerable with each other that we can bond; and there God’s grace meets us after a day of chaos in a school of critical need.

‘Gay’ used here is much less hurtful than ‘gay’ used in church circles. When, O God, will you bring justice to those who are hurt deeply by hateful words, by wicked words? When will you bring justice for those who are raising themselves in the sixth grade?