Sunday, March 26, 2017

Bertie Berenger. AKA the man Born Blind

He needs a name.  This man born blind, he needs a name. There are plenty of people in the Gospels with no name and plenty of women with the same name.  Given the commonness of the name Jesus in that era, we should give thanks that the text isn’t full of Jesus’.  So many of the recipients of wonders are named by their imperfections: the paralytic man, the hemorrhaging woman. Their namelessness makes them more universal, but less three dimensional. Our man born blind, I want him to have a name.

I want to give him a B name, his name as we know it is the man born blind. Maybe Bennett, which means blessed.  Or Bohdi which means awakened.  Berenger means brave as a bear, and that certainly suits him.  Bertie is the name of one of my favorite fictional characters, and it means wise and graceful. Bertie Berenger.  Wise, Graceful, and Brave like a Bear.

Bertie is said to be a man, so by cultural standards of the time, he is at least 13. It is hard for me to imagine a person born blind who hasn’t been educated and accommodated.  Imagine all the people you know, with all their inborn imperfections, imagine their gifts tossed aside.  In some ancient and modern cultures, illness is a mark of sinfulness.  A system where shame is used to control who has power and who does not.  Bertie would have been automatically unclean from birth, never formally taught, not welcome in synagogue or temple.  He is clearly smart because while he may not have sight he has big ears to hear.  On the outskirts all his life, he has learned enough to rebut and challenge the authorities after his awakening.  It is amazing what the people we never notice know about us.

Maybe he had heard about this Jesus of Nazareth.  The wonders he had done and the welcome that he taught and practiced. This Jesus who every time he shows up at the Temple there is some type of hub bub.  We don’t know why Bertie begs outside the Temple, maybe he was hopeful, maybe he was curious.  Maybe that was the spot where the charity was better. Even with the shaming his birth creates, Bertie Berenger’s family is still in the picture.  There his parents are, passing the buck, willing to be silenced,  saying ‘go ask him’.  Bertie was known to be theirs and I imagine he still lives with them.

One of the characteristics of ancient Judaism that stands out in the simmering cultural soup of the Roman Empire was its celebration of life. We tell of our origins with the Lord chanting ‘it is good’, it is good.  With God breathing the spirit into dark earth and bringing life to life.  We hear of how we are to be fruitful and how our top priority is to care for the least.  Most other realms of the Empire had a different take. A family was a burden and children were necessary but considered germ ridden vermin.  An imperfect child, any disability, such as being born blind was a waste of time and effort.  Bertie, grown and blind and still a part of his family, would have been radically unusual in the rest of the Hellenistic world.  

It is a sabbath day when we meet Jesus today, and he had just left the Temple under threats of violence. Did he see Bertie, walk up to him, did he whisper hello, my name is Jesus, I have come to set God’s people free.  May I help you see?  He goes to this man directly in front of the temple with authorities and Pharisees right there.  Like stealing a cookie in front of your parent. Not only does Jesus work a wonder, he also makes clay.  Clay that recalls the primordial making of God, clay that fractures boundaries because making is one of the categories of things not done on the sabbath. The bold challenge to the authorities is unmistakeable.Two flimsy walls were broken and a man is healed like nothing anyone had ever seen and the powers that be are fraught.

Bertie's witness progresses steadily through the story, living a metaphor where enlightenment is about more than what is seen or unseen, it is going from the burdens of darkness to recognizing and praising and joining the saving works of God in Jesus.  This highlights a very different understanding of how Jesus saves than what we sometimes see. In John’s gospel rescue from sin and brokenness is the fact of Jesus life, even more so than his tragic death. God’s light and word were born in the human life of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus’ presence was full of God’s grace and truth and when we let our life be defined by this light,  we are brought out of the dark and the chaos. Bertie’s words clearly outline this central idea to his interrogators.  He says, from the beginning of time there has never been anything like this - THIS IS IT!  Jesus is a creation restart.  When we are oriented to the Son, we see. When we turn toward any other vision of reality, we are in the dark.

We must be careful with passages such as these where the Pharisees can be paper bag villains and the Jewish authorities more defined by their tradition than their role. By the time the author of John is writing there is a charged and fraught atmosphere amongst family and friends who are all Jewish.After the temple was destroyed in 70 there was drastic reshuffling that after a few hundred years defines the Judaisms we know today.At the time there were multiple sects and streams and groups, including the Christ followers.  The differences are not unlike some of the struggles amongst we who share the title Christian today. Important and consequential disagreements about who we are to be and how we are saved. This is true with our Anglican siblings, and it is true with our ecumenical friends and most obviously our fundamentalist cousins.  You may be familiar with authors Rachel Held Evans and Brian McLaren. They are both raised in more evangelical and fundamentalist traditions, and they are both people who over time became more ‘progressive’ Christians.  Two people who do bring light and voice to a compassionate faith in Jesus that many very much need to hear.  And they are two people who are responded to with volumes of hateful vitriol by folks some of whom are from their root communities, who are challenged by their testimony.  You don’t have to know those authors to know of an example, there are plenty of other examples of folks who play on the same team not getting along.  

However, the plain text reading of passages such as this where the ‘Jews’ are the terrible other have caused millennia of sin and massacre, and in the name of Jesus we cannot fall victim to it again. This Anglican and Episcopal tradition rarely makes straightforward directives,  but here we do.  In our interfaith relationships, especially with other ‘people of the book’ such as Jews and Muslims, any form of anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism is turning away from the Triune God and embracing the darkness. In today's gospel sin isn’t so much about things done and left undone, but about something broader and more relational.Here sin is the un-response to Jesus, it is the turning away, the refusal to hear, the blindness of not trusting the endlessness of the peaceful welcome of the Holy Lord , Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Bertie Berenger, the man born blind,  is one of my absolute favorite people of the New Testament.It really goes back to those two lines, those brave and wise and somewhat smart-aleky lines: You keep asking questions, do you want to be his disciples? Never from the beginning has there been anything like this, and your don’t know who he is? Are you kidding me??  I really like Bertie, I identify with Bertie when he says these things. However, I also connect with more of this story.  I was raised in the church, in the Episcopal church, required every Sunday unless I was ill. But I was blind to it.  I didn’t dislike it, it just didn’t connect. 

This episode of the man born blind is a story of conversion, and it has all the parts of mine. Acknowledging a moment of grace, asking questions to find out more, going from saying I don’t know who Jesus is but I am drawn to him, to proclaiming he is our friend and shepherd and savior.  I have been every character in this gospel text today: the religious authority deciding what is in and what is out, the caregiver replying to a difficult moment with I don’t know, when I did, the disciples asking provocative questions, and perhaps at my best moments the healing light of Christ.  Who have you been?  Over and over again, I visit these personas, twisting into the dark and being loved back into the light. Turning, turning till we come round right.

Bertie Berenger.  Where he is, we are to be also.  We are to be with him in his trust, in his response of commitment to the way of Christ.  We are to be with him in his response to the forces of darkness and silencing. The man born blind. Bertie Berenger.  Wise and graceful. Brave as a bear.  His smart response sees us clearly. Do you want to become Jesus’ disciples too?

Will you pray with me.. 

You are the God who unleashes well-being 
You are the Savior who lights the Way. 
May we see; 
may we love; 
may we follow. 

Lent 4 A RCL 
March 26, 2017
St. Paul's Walla Walla

Prayer expanded from Walter Bruggemann Lent Book.

Audio if the widget doesn't work for you!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Slaying Inner Devils: Promise, Problem, Talking Snakes and the One Girl Who Might Help

Many years ago, it was the first Sunday of Lent in Children’s chapel.  I had not gotten two sentences into the gospel story before I was interrupted.  Miss Jane.  She said it with all the scandal a five-year-old can muster. Miss Jane. We don't say that word here. They say that word at my grandma’s church. They say that word at grandma’s church a lot.  But we don’t say that word here at OUR church. Maybe you can guess which word she was referring to. There it is today in the Gospel, and the litany and the collect.  He who apparently we don’t name, face to face with Jesus.

The young girl was right. I want to skip over it.  Speak of accusers, the dark side of the force. Why does my heart race when I try to say those phonemes in a serious manner? Why is there this twinge of fear that I am summoning Beetlejuice or Rumplestiltskin.  The feeling that if I say it, it will know where I am. Like Voldemort.   Monsters of greediness are stealing God’s gift of satisfaction, giants are stacking up bones of cynicism in gruesome walls, beasts of anti neighbor-li-ness they are in front of us, growling at us, threatening us on the journey back to God’s garden.  Evilness of every variety is telling us who to despise and where to hurl the blame.  Casting a spell of weakness in our hearts and assaulting our ears with absurdity. I know that evil is real and it seems to loom big and dark and frustrated all around us.  Yet she was right. I don’t say those names.
In the original Hebrew, satan, is a verb which evolves into a noun, a name. The Hebrew verb means to “obstruct or oppose.” In the era when Jesus lived there were folktales, not Scripture mind you, fantasy stories about angelic beings in the heavenly courts and the one who challenges God's sovereignty. This challenger is the Satan, the devil, The Oppose-r.   

In our lesson today Jesus goes into the wilderness to fast after his baptism and at the end of the 40 days is greeted by this Tempter, this devil.  Their debate looks very much like ancient rabbinical academic duels, where instead of wands or swords the weapon is scripture.  This devil dares Jesus to accept the way things work in this world, you are here man, go ahead, give into the seduction, embrace the circus, the sideshow, the easy way out.  Come on Jesus, everybody does it.  The Tempter, whatever he looked like, whatever form he took, he stands before Jesus and proposes to the incarnate Son of God that now is all there is, so take care of yourself, all by yourself.  Me me me is the tune of the world Jesus.  God’s holy commands are to much, to judgy, to heavy.  

Which really is the same brokenness that sprouts in the Garden of Eden. The fracture wasn’t birds and the bees or the advent of death. This gorgeous and monstrously misused text doesn’t say any of those things. What it does explore is how we are the glory of creation, and tragically, also the problem of creation. This story asks everyday questions, such as why are we troubled and shameful and anxious? And the answer is because we do not hear God’s shepherding as good news.

The serpent isn’t some alien demoness come to destroy paradise. The serpent COULD BE the monster inside of us, the part that wants things easy, undemanding and self-serving.  Some of you might know that one of my favorite shows ever is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  A sometimes campy and absolutely theological drama about one teenage girl with mighty superpowers called to fight demons and hold back the gates of hell while getting on with school and life.  It has one core idea that might help us find our way into the Good News of our texts today.

The entire premise of the show is to take the notion of ‘battling our demons’ in a literal way. The show pulls the truth out of the metaphor and gives it muscle, sight and speech and fur and teeth.  What if we tell a story where we take our inner wrestling with brokenness and temptation and we put it outside where we can work together to slay it?  A talking snake is a pretty good sign that this story isn’t something we should be foolish enough to take literally, but smart enough to take seriously.

What if the serpent is an outer expression of the inner argument between right and wrong, between trust and independence?  What if the snake is our craftiness given flesh and eyes and teeth? 
What if this devil is Jesus’ inner argument between divine graciousness and human selfishness?
What would your Vindictive demon look like? How about the Apathy monster? Or your Lying beast, what is its shape and patterns?  And critically: what needs to happen to send it back to dust?
This fallen angel, this crafty serpent, these may be creatures you have run into. However, I will share that I have not, and I suspect many of you share that. Who I have met is Jesus, I have found him beside me in the deserts of loneliness I have found him in communities that sustain each other. He is my good shepherd who seeks to lead me away from my wolves of disasterizing and perfectionism. He leads us to the strength to heal the unacceptable, the inner demons and the outer terrors. When we turn and follow Jesus’ commands, Good News will emerge before us, behind us, and perhaps surprisingly, within us.

Author and Professor of Religion Stephen Prothero says that every religion says two things.  There is something wrong, and here’s how to fix it. Big categories of religion - like Islam or Jainism - they do that, and so do traditions like Methodist or Orthodoxy, and so do streams of theology like Calvinist or Womanist. That little girl, her grandma's church, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect they might say that the world is broken by utter depravity and is healed by solitary commitment to Jesus.  And it seems to bring healing and solace for many people.  Yet it isn’t the way we would say it, or why Jesus matters to me.  When I say we I mean the Episcopal Church and the many of the ecumenical traditions we share so much with.  Here is what I do say. The world was made good and beloved and holy. And the world is fractured by our not trusting God or each other and turning away from both.  This is healed by reversing that.  We fix it by hearing the call of Christ to follow him, to live together what he taught and following him in how he leads us now.  

We are both the promise and the problem of Creation. We are broken in sin by the things that could make us incredible, but instead we choose the disturbing and mixed up mass of other powers instead.  Eden and our loss of it isn’t about a place a long long time ago.  It is about the current state of our lives and our world, and it is about daring to trust that God can make us whole within ourselves and in every neighborhood.  Maybe we are still in the Garden, but the monsters and demons and devils that occupy us won’t let us experience it.

The summons of Lent could be a question.  How will we confront our horrible and crafty demons? How will they be lamented and how will they fall?  When we say we trust that God created all that is, when we say that we trust in the love of Christ for all that is, we embrace the promise that our deceptions and exclusionary temptations can be slain like monsters in a garden or a graveyard.  When we say we believe in God the Father almighty, we are standing in a promise, upheld by the Holy one against the forces of demons and devils and  Satan and darkness. Can stand up, will stand up.  God calls us to be with the One, as one. In Eden, again.

Will you pray with me by repeating after me.
Gentle us Holy One into an unclenched moment, a letting go of shriveling anxieties. That surrounded by the garden, and following Christ’s call, we may be found by wholeness,  and filled with the grace that is you.  Amen.

St. Paul's Episcopal Church
Walla Walla, Washington
March 5, 2017

And sorry folks, forgot to click 'record'.
And yes, finally, a Buffy sermon on a Sunday morning.
Prayer adapted from Ted Loder.