Saturday, October 24, 2015

October 25, Proper 25, You Can Do This #8: Practicing Generosity

Heidelberg Catechism 110-11, LD 42, Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22, Hebrews 7:23-28, Mark 10:46-52

“Don’t steal.” 

This episode in the Gospel of Mark takes place right before Palm Sunday. That’s the very next thing after this. Jericho is the final stop before you make the turn for the road up to Jerusalem. When the Lord Jesus makes this turn, there’s nowhere else for him to go.

The climax is coming. The procession is gathering. His followers expect him to show himself triumphantly now as the Messiah, the Son of David, going to set up his new government in Jerusalem, and kick out the Romans, and reinstate the Kingdom of God as a real live kingdom on earth. They can taste it, they want to see it.

There are details reported in this episode that you wonder how much to read into. Like the repetition of the blind man’s name: Bar-Timaeus, the son of Timaeus. Is the emphasis on his name because the name Timaeus is a Greek name? Does this imply his father was not a Jew? Does this mean he’d be uncertain of his welcome in the Kingdom of the Messiah?

Then there’s the movement in the titles by which Bartimaeus addresses Jesus. First he calls out to him as the “Son of David,” which is the political and Messianic title, when he cries out for mercy. Like, could the candidate please display with some royal charity his grand munificence? And maybe cut him a little slack when the Kingdom comes? But then when he gets his interview, he addresses Jesus as “my rabbi.” Why the lesser title?

Does this mean that if you want the Lord Jesus to be your Messiah, your savior, you must approach him as your teacher, so that from his teaching you can learn to see the Kingdom of God? Do you want to be able to see that too? Don’t you want to see the Kingdom of God, right now, in Brooklyn, in this church, in your own life?

Jesus says, “Your faith has saved you.” (Our NRSV translation missed it.) When he says “saved,” he doesn’t mean just getting well. He means more, that Bartimaeus is fully inside the Kingdom of God, he’s gotten on the bus. His faith was in his actions, his actions of calling out loudly and then getting up and casting off his cloak, casting away his long identity, his dependence on charity, and getting on the bus that Jesus was driving. Like you did this morning to get yourself here.

You came here today to see the Kingdom of God. And when you’re looking at things from within this kingdom, you have to look again, you have to “see again,” because now everything looks different than it did. It’s like in Harry Potter, where the wizards can see so much more in the world that ordinary muggles do. It’s like Dorothy going from the familiar black-and-white of Kansas to the shocking color of Oz. And would it not be wonderful to watch the World Series in 3-D?

What it means to be saved is to get on the magic bus that Jesus drives. That bus has magic 3-D windows, and when you look at all the scenery around you, everything ordinary has a whole new look. You can see the Kingdom of God in everything.

You’ve got to be on this bus in order to get the Eighth Commandment. Well, you don’t need the Kingdom of God to tell you not to steal. The laws of secular government tell you not to steal, as the Catechism reminds us. But the Catechism also says that for Christians, we have to obey this commandment a long ways past the negative prohibition into the positive practice of sharing. You’ve got to see this commandment in 3-D, because it’s not just about the goods that belong your neighbor, that they are not for you, but about the good life of your neighbor, which does belong to you.

The Catechism draws its expansive interpretation from what the Lord Jesus said in our Gospel lesson two weeks ago. That wealthy young man proudly said that he’d kept the commandment all his life, and then the Lord Jesus told him to sell it all and give the proceeds to the poor. And that means more than charity. That’s expensive generosity. That’s sharing enough that it will cost you.

Simple charity would leave Bartimaeus still begging on the roadside. Charity leaves the economic systems as they are. We’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and that means new rules, and seeing everything differently, and re-viewing everything. It means that every economic system is judged by the Kingdom of God.

Now it’s true that the New Testament never proposes an economic system. That’s not because economics is in a different realm than religion. No, the opposite. It’s because every economic system gets judged by the Kingdom of God. Especially on how the system treats the poor. Our various systems are the bus-stops, and the Kingdom of God is the bus.

Why does the driver keep stopping? For you to take a good look at the systems. But look, the driver keeps staring at the various individuals on the sidewalk? Why does he do that? The Epistle tells us why. He is praying for each one of them. The Son of God is making his intercessions for every one of them. We had better do that too.

And as we look at them on the sidewalk through our 3-D windows, we can see them in full perspective, where they came from, and what systems have disserved them and opposed them. The Catechism calls these systems the “schemes which are made to appear legitimate.” Slavery was legal in this boro for half our congregation’s history. Colonialism was legitimate foreign policy even into my childhood. Just because something is legal does not make it moral. The very things that make me richer and more comfortable can impoverish my neighbor.

In the economic order of the world today, we who do not steal personally, and who are even very generous individually, we participate in and even benefit from systems and structures and patterns that internationally are regarded as “legitimate” but which effectively “cheat and swindle” the more vulnerable populations of the world and “squander” the resources of this planet. I’m using the language of the Catechism, but I am looking through the bus window right behind Pope Francis.

So we passengers have to turn from our windows of perception and judgment and look back at the driver, and in his name be repentant of our share in the misery. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And he intercedes for us. We have to accept his grace in order to live within our systems, but also accept his sight to witness to our systems, so that our wealth might be a common-wealth, for the good of the disadvantaged and the poor.

You Christians need to take a ride on this bus every once in a while, just in order to see again. But let’s get off it now and walk. Let’s talk about our walk and how we address the world each day.

We’re talking about regular charity, yes, and generosity, but more than that, sharing, and sharing so generously that it costs me. That takes faith, in the providence of God, because lots of black-and-white evidence is against it. Scarcity. Violence. There is powerful evil and sin and greed in the world, and most certainly that malice will take advantage of your generosity. If you share, you will be stolen from.

You have to be clear-eyed about the malice and exploitation. You have reason to be afraid. The Christian antidote to fear is not courage but faith. The Christian practice of sharing means opposing fear. The Christian practice of generosity means opposing defensiveness.

You don’t want to see through rose-colored glasses. I do not trust a one of those panhandlers on Seventh Avenue, all of whose names and stories I know. I don’t trust them but I do love them and I pray with them and give them a bit of change and I leave the results up to Jesus. So for your actions you can put your faith in the teaching of the Son of God, and for your security you put your faith in the providence of his Father that his teaching is grounded on.

And even though your generosity is might be resentful and your sharing half-hearted, what saves it for your conscience is your sometimes desperate faith in that greater generosity of Jesus that he shares with you. And when you act out of your faith, you can see again the Kingdom of God.

Richard Wilbur famously wrote that “love calls us to the things of this world.” That same love calls you to share the things of this world, because the world belongs to God, and God is love.

Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.

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