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January 2006

Sometimes We're Blind

Sometimes We’re Blind
Mark 8:11-26
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
4th Sunday after the Epiphany
29 January 2006

I will begin with a Jewish folktale:

The great Rabbi Joshua Ben Levi was certain that all his knowledge of Torah and Talmud did not give him the wisdom for life that he sought, so he prayed for Elijah to come to teach him. When Elijah came, he said Rabbi Joshua could travel with him but not ask questions or voice comments along the way. Their journey was unusual: they stayed with a kind, poor farmer couple, after which Elijah prayed that their one prize cow would die; they visited a greedy, uncompassionate rich man, after which Elijah miraculously rebuilt a crumbling wall for the man so that it would stand for generations; they entered a rude and arrogant town for which Elijah prayed that everyone there would become a leader; they came to a small village of kind and generous people for whom Elijah prayed there would be only one leader. At this point Rabbi Joshua could be silent no longer and exploded with his demands to know the meaning of Elijah’s strange actions. Elijah then explained: he knew the first farmer was to die the next day and asked that the cow die instead; under the rich man’s wall was a chest of gold – now that the wall was rebuilt so sturdily, the rich man would never find the chest and reap its benefits; a community with too many leaders will argue and be discontent until they change their arrogant ways, while a village with one strong leader will grow and prosper – hence the prayers for the two towns. Then Elijah said, “Rabbi Joshua . . . You say you wish for the keys to wisdom and understanding of life on earth. The first key to wisdom is to realize that all that you see is not what it seems.

Fans of science fiction and horror films know that things are often not what they seem. Characters in shows like Star Trek or Stargate often have their bodies taken over by some alien consciousness. And in horror films terror often comes when and where you least expect it.

But there are so many stories in Western culture that teach this lesson. Isn’t that the moral of the frog turning into a prince when kissed? Or of the ugly duckling that becomes the swan. Or that the heroes that save Middleearth are the small, inconspicuous hobbits?

There are two different ways to see. One is to use our physical sight and take in the appearance of someone or some thing. The other way is to see beyond appearance, to use intuition, insight, or discernment. To see means to understand, and to understand in a deeper way. That’s the reason that Luke Skywalker shuts off his guidance system and uses the Force to guide his shot that destroys the Death Star. It is discernment that leads Indiana Jones to go for the humble goblet instead of the shiny, golden ones at the end of The Last Crusade.

Our culture has become obsessed with physical sight and appearances. We promote images of men and women that lead to unhealthy eating disorders or use of steroids. We become fixated on the advertising campaign or the soundbyte and overlook the substance of our political and economic actions. We’ve become so enamored with stuff that we horde more and more things.

Our obsessions don’t seem to be making us any happier or helping us to achieve the good life. Besides addiction and eating disorders, we have higher rates of depression, anxiety, and behavioural problems. And we end up participating in economic, cultural, and political systems that further evil. We in the wealthiest country in the world horde a disproportionate amount of the wealth and goods and destroy more and more of the natural environment.

When we read statistics on the environment or poverty or teenage eating disorders or rates of obesity or whatever, we feel a conviction and compassion. So, how do we get caught up in participating in these systems in the first place? Because we lack the ability to see. In our culture that’s obsessed with sight, we’ve lost insight, discernment, and understanding.

In Mark 4, Jesus tells a parable and then explains it to his disciples at which point he says, “See what you hear.” And with that a theme begins that will run throughout the gospel. In Mitzi Minor’s excellent commentary The Power of Mark’s Story, she points out that throughout the gospel Jesus uses the term “to see” until it becomes clear that this is a theme in the gospel.

Our study this Epiphany season is entitled “Seeing Jesus.” The Epiphany season is about those times in the life of Jesus when people’s eyes were opened and they saw Jesus for who he was. What we are talking about is developing the ability to have true spiritual insight. Once we grasp who Jesus is and what his message is all about, then we will begin to see things for the way they really are.

Jesus performs miracles and healings so that the diseased, mentally ill, and disabled will be seen as people of worth. Jesus’ teaching reveals him to be an authority greater than the scribes. The Pharisees are revealed as hypocrites. The religious system is exposed for its oppression of the poor and the outcasts. It becomes clear that the political authorities do not represent God’s will for humankind.

In the Gospel that we read today, it is clear that those around Jesus still don’t understand what’s going on. First the Pharisees come to him and want a sign. This reveals their blindness. If they’ve been watching and listening to Jesus’ ministry thus far, then they would realize that he is the Messiah, the Son of God as he is announced to be in the first verse of the gospel. Yet, we know that they have been present and have been engaging him in debates. So, it becomes clear to the readers that the Pharisees aren’t really watching, that they aren’t really listening. They don’t have the eyes to see or the ears to hear because their prejudices are blocking them. This is why Jesus warns the disciples to beware of the “yeast” of the Pharisees. As Mitzi Minor writes, in those days yeast was a metaphor for the “evil inclinations of human beings.”

But, then, the disciples aren’t much better. They’ve been present with Jesus, yet even they still don’t see who Jesus is. In fact, this is the point when Jesus becomes angry at their misunderstanding. For the third time in the gospel, they are on a boat. Jesus has already calmed the storm and walked on water. The gospel writer puts them on a boat again as if to emphasize, surely if they are on a boat, they’ll remember what he’s already done the two previous times and this time they’ll understand. But, no, they don’t.

This is also the third story including loaves of bread. Jesus has already fed 5,000 and earlier in the chapter he’s fed 4,000. Yet, they become concerned when they have only one piece of bread.

Exasperated, Jesus scolds them, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not perceive or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear? And do you not remember?”

The author of Mark is a skilled writer. In case these two episodes of the Pharisees and of the disciples on the boat haven’t made the point for us readers, he next tells the story of the healing of the blind man of Bethsaida. The reason that this story comes next is because the author is telling us that there is still hope for those who are spiritually blind. This is the only healing that takes two steps to heal the person. Usually Jesus just speaks and the person is whole again. Why is this one story in this location different? Because it represents that some people do understand partially, they aren’t completely blind, but then they can’t see everything clearly either. This is the disciples problem. They understand a little bit, but still don’t have insight enough.

Mitzi Minor concludes,

Mark’s journey story shows us that following Jesus on the way calls forth an insightfulness that looks beneath the surface of any situation or circumstance for the truth hovering there. . . . [Insightful people] see beyond particular moments to the further implications, consequences, and possibilities of one’s words and deeds. In addition, their sight is not limited by what they cannot see with their physical eyes. Instead, they are able to imagine, and thus see, what yet might be. . . . They see where and how and when God is at work in the world even when surface appearances could suggest that God is not at work at all. Frankly, these seers may look like fools to most folks.

So, one lesson we learn from the Gospel of Mark is that we must develop the ability to see. And in the remaining weeks of this series, we will talk about how to develop this insight.

Today, however, we will act out such insight. Today we are licensing Mary Frances Albert to the ministry. We as her community of faith are saying, we see in you a calling to ministry. We understand that God has called her and gifted her, and we acknowledge that today.

And, you know what, it is something that many people are probably too blind to perceive. After all, here is a woman, and so many stubborn people still refuse to see that God calls women to ministry. And here is a lesbian. Oh, heavens. Surely a “practicing homosexual” (whatever that means) can’t be a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ! Some people might see a quiet, shy person and wonder how she could minister. Or how someone who has struggled with life could.

But you know what? We truly see. We understand that God’s Spirit is poured out on all people. That God will call whomever God wants, that God isn’t bound by human prejudices and expectations.

Today this woman, our sister, comes before us seeking something she has wanted most of her life. As a young woman in the 1970’s she felt God’s call. She attended seminary and served in one Episcopal church for a brief time while in school. Yet she never completed the process of licensure or ordination. Life got in the way. And for many years Mary Frances lost her dream, because surely she couldn’t be a minister.

Then she found the Cathedral of Hope. And with it a group of people who affirmed her gifts. Mary Frances has led our Prayer Team. If you are on that e-mail list, then you understand the gifts of Mary Frances. When someone submits a prayer request to her, she doesn’t just forward it along. No, she writes a prayer to accompany the request. And her prayers are rich, beautiful compositions. They reveal a depth of spiritual insight.

Finally a couple of years ago, Mary Frances realized that she could complete the process of being recognized as a minister, that here was a community of faith that would not deny her. So, she talked with Bob Wilcox and myself and submitted information to Rev. Hudson and last fall the Cathedral of Hope said, “yes, we will license you as a local minister.”

And let me tell you that even though she asked for it, Mary Frances is overwhelmed by the generosity of this gift. She has been quite nervous as we’ve prepared for the day. In fact, too nervous to share her own testimony, which is why I shared it for her.

Hers is a powerful, beautiful story of healing, salvation, and hope. And we are lucky to have participated. With our action today, we also take on a new responsibility. We are covenanting with Mary Frances to allow her to minister among us. We must be open to the grace that she will bring. We need to hear her ideas and encourage her work.

And Mary Frances, you too are taking on a new responsibility. Everyone in this congregation is a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ. But you are committing to help in equipping the rest of us to minister. You will be a leader. And so we will expect you to help us.
First help us to see what God would have us do. We need people of vision who can share their vision. You already lead us in prayer. You have also talked about helping with spiritual formation; one of your ministry goals is a weekend retreat. May you guide us to develop spiritual practices that open us to God. We need to learn how to shut off the distracting noises and images and to really see and really hear the divine.

And we also need your help as we move forward on the journey. Sometimes when we gain insight and see what God would have us to do we are frightened. So, the life of Christian discipleship requires courage. We need leaders who will bravely guide us on the road ahead. Please be that for us.
Let this day stand as a sign for all of us. A sign to remember all those who have ministered to us. A sign to remember that God’s work is often in places that surprise us. A sign to remember our own calling from God. And if we do remember it so, then it will be a sign pointing the way ahead in our journey together.

We need to develop the ability to truly see, because appearances are not always what they seem. May our eyes be opened to see Jesus for who he is.

Democracies in the Middle East

The Bush administration has been such an outspoken advocate of democracy in the Middle East, believing that their policies were going to further it. With religious zeal, Bush has promoted the idea that a democracy in the region would have some sort of domino effect (somehow forgetting that Turkey is already a secular democracy in the region that doesn't seem to have had a domino effect). Yet, the Bush administration freaks out at the results of democracy whether it be the more religious Shiites who governed Iraq in the interim government or the results of elections in Iran and Palestine (in fact, they are also quiet upset with the results of elections in Latin America, Spain, etc., though I'm sure Canada made them happy).

On Iran, I've grown tired of the administration's noise. Now, I too would prefer that Iran not go nuclear, but then I wish most states would reduce or eliminate their nuclear arsenals. I would prefer a different government in Iran, but this is the one we have for the moment, and we squandered the opportunity to work with the more moderate Khatami regime.

However, the Iranian position is quite understandable. They feel threatened by the United States and want to take steps to protect themselves. And their feeling threatened is fully justified. We've always opposed this government and have grown noisy in our threats of sanctions or force. We have invaded their two neighbors and have basically surrounded the country. And our record in Iraq shows that we don't need actual evidence to justify an invasion nor will we be constrained by the international community. Of course Iran wants to defend itself with a nuclear weapon.

I found it funny yesterday how the President reaced to the election of Hamas. Of course Hamas was going to win. I thought it needed to. The PLO has clearly demonstrated for years that it is an ineffective and corrupt government that has less and less support from the people. If Hamas has a genuine mandate from the people, then maybe they can actually get something done. Sure, they'll be more hardline, just as Israeli Likud governments have always been. Yes, it is troubling that they still support terrorism, but so the PLO until just a short time before they were invited back to Palestine to govern. I think that yesterday's election make the longterm prospects look better. Governing will probably moderate Hamas and may open a chance for genuine progress. Or, at the very least, the creation of a genuine two party system will help further Palestinian democracy. And that's our country's stated policy goal anyway.

Underworld: Evolution

A film like this is good to see with friends. Just great mindless entertainment. When it began, I thought it was going to be even better than the fist one, because the opening sequence was pretty exciting. But, then, it just got lame. Mainly the plot was so complex and didn't seem to fit with the first film well enough that I lost interest in the story, which I hadn't done with the first film. I also don't think that the fights were quite as sharp. Kate Beckinsale looked quite sexy in her outfits. And Marcus in his bat-like shape was quite something.

3 1/2 popcorn kernels
1 film reel

We've Never Seen Anything Like This

We’ve Never Seen Anything Like This
Mark 1:29-2:12
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
3rd Sunday after the Epiphany
22 January 2006

I imagine that some of us get a little nervous when we read Mark 1 and 2. Here is an account of Jesus exorcising a demon, followed by the healing of Simon’s mother in law. Then the crowds are coming to Jesus for healing and exorcisms. He heals a leper by touching him. Then he causes a paralyzed man to get up and walk.

I suppose that many of us think that surely this is a more primitive time we are talking about. Obviously the people do not have our scientific and secular worldviews, but did you notice that even for the crowds in the Gospel of Mark these acts are amazing and astonishing?

When Jesus exorcises the demon the text records, “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him.” Or when the paralytic is healed, the Gospel tells us “they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’”

So, if we go with the clear, literal statements of this Gospel, it would seem that the crowds around Jesus early in his ministry were just as shocked by healings and exorcisms as you and I might be if we were to witness them.

This is one of those times when I want us to go outside the story of the Gospel of Mark. I want us to go outside the story for a moment in order to find a bridge to connect us to the story. Because if we can find this bridge, then maybe we can get back into the story to discover its central meaning.

Our opening prayer today came from one of the prayers of St. Patrick. Patrick and the early Celtic Christians left us an amazing spiritual heritage full of respect for the earth and imbued with a powerful sense of prayer. And there are many stories handed down about Patrick and the other early Celtic saints. Legends full of miracles and amazing signs and wonders. We are most familiar with the legend of St. Patrick driving the snakes from Ireland, but all the early Celtic saints were known as healers and miracle workers. Saint Brigid who is one of the three patron saints of Ireland along with Patrick and Columba had many tales written about her abilities to perform signs and wonders. I am particularly fond of the stories about her turning water into beer for thirsty priests and bishops. But more to the point, there is this account from her life:

A certaine woman brought some apples to the Saint, at which time there came some leapers to beg alms of her: the said Saint delat these apples among them. The Woman hearing it, covayed her apples away saying; I brought those apples for your selfe, and your virgins and not to be given to leapers; whereat the Saint being not a little offended, she answere: You have done very ill in hindering us to give almes, therefore your trees will never more produce any fruit. The woman going forth into her orchard, which she flef full of apples, found none at all, and so it remayned fruitless always after.

The work of the early Celtic Christians included fighting slavery and intertribal warfare. They built hundreds of churches and monasteries and converted thousands. They practiced virtues of hospitality, generosity, and peace and developed a Christian tradition that remained distinct from Rome for many centuries. And their spiritual heritage has been rediscovered by many in recent years who are searching for a more holistic and respectful version of Christian practice.

These sorts of legends are not limited to ancient Christianity. In more modern times there have been accounts of prophetic visions and signs and wonders in the great revivals occurring in Africa. One of the earliest modern leaders of an independent African Christianity was Kimpa Vita, known also as Beatrice, who lived in the early 1700’s. Much like Joan of Arc she received visions from the saints that led her to speak out against the colonial churches and governments. When her movement against the colonial powers began to grow, like St. Joan, Kimpa Vita was burned as a witch and a heretic. But she began a tradition of African Christian leaders who spoke of visions and practiced spiritual warfare, healing, and other signs and wonders.

In the twentieth century Africa saw many such figures. Their message included calls for African independence and freedom from the colonial powers. And their movements spread rapidly. One of those was William Wade Harris. Harris was a Liberian who in the teens of the last century had a vision while in prison. In this vision, he was instructed by the archangel Gabriel to be a prophet. The angel told him to quit wearing Western clothes and dress, instead, in traditional African clothing. Harris wore a white robe and turban, carried a bamboo cross, a Bible, and a gourd rattle. Barefoot, he traveled extensively in West Africa preaching Christianity. Unlike the missionary churches who viewed the traditional witchcraft with skepticism, he attacked it. Stories tell of “pagan shrines burst[ing] into flames as he approached.” In just a few years, Harris had converted over 100,000 people. He taught that black and white should be equal, and his churches survive today, especially appealing to the poor. One church historian says that Harris should be known as one of the most important Christian leaders of the twentieth century.

Harris’s story is just one example of many such movements in Africa in the last 100 years where Christianity has been growing like wildfire. Currently almost half the population identifies as Christian, where only one quarter of the population did only 40 years ago. And the Christian message of independence from colonial powers and equality of the races has surely had an influence on the development of the continent.

But we needn’t go to the past nor to another continent to hear stories of amazing signs and wonders. Recently I was reading about the Azusa Street Revival that was the beginning of the Pentecostal Movement and of its founding pastor, the Rev. William Seymour. Seymour was born in Louisiana and had been denied a formal education because of his race. As a young man he headed north looking for greater freedom, but still found social advancement denied to him. Early on he revealed “his long-held determination to seek racial reconciliation through the power of the Spirit.” Eventually Seymour found himself in the Holiness movement learning from many of its late nineteenth century leaders. From the Rev. Lucy Farrow he learned of the experience of speaking in “unknown tongues” like the disciples on the day of Pentecost, what is known as glossolalia.

On April 9, 1906, the Pentecostal movement began when one Edward Lee, a janitor, began to speak ecstatically during a time of prayer. The ecstatic experiences spread among members of a small prayer group of “cooks, janitors, laborers, railroad porters, and washwomen” that was led by Rev. Seymour. Of those days it is written,

At times they shouted their acclaim for all to hear, at other times an awesome hush descended. Some fell into trances for three, four, or even five hours. Unusual healings were reported. Clusters of people outside whispered reverently that God’s power was falling again as in the book of Acts.

In just a few days, this group swelled to hundreds. Richard Foster , the Quaker minister, who records this story in his book Streams of Living Water writes,

A surge of interest brought huge crowds from virtually ever race, nationality, and social class to Seymour’s congregation. . . . The inside of the building overflowed with perhaps eight hundred persons, while four to five hundred more stood on the board sidewalk outside, squeezing together at the windows and doors in at attempt to see inside. These meetings continued unabated for three years. The miracle Seymour had been seeking happened: by the power of the Spirit, a revolutionary new type of Christian community was born. As Frank Bartleman, a journalist who chronicled the events of Azusa Street, exclaimed, “The ‘color line’ was washed away in the blood.”

Foster, who is not a Pentecostal, strives to understand what may have been happening in this episode from recent church history. I assume that most of us here are not from that tradition and look with skepticism upon its practices. But there may be something at the root of its history that we are missing. What I read was new to me and made me re-examine some of my personal prejudices. Here’s what Foster concludes about the birth of the Pentecostal Movement in the Azusa Street Revival.

First that William Seymour preached the power of speaking in unknown tongues because Seymour understood that this spiritual practice would break down racial barriers. Seymour’s reading of Acts 2 is that once the gift of tongues appeared, then racial reconciliation occurred. Nor was this a gift that could be held exclusively for one group of persons. It was acknowledged that God’s Spirit could come upon anyone in a moment of ecstasy. The movement began among the poor, but soon included the educated and well-to-do. All the races mixed together. And women had prominent leadership roles, long before they did in most progressive or liberal denominations.

Seymour also stressed that the purpose of this new outpouring of the spirit was the creation of “one common family” united in love. As Foster writes, “He longed for a whole Church – not just holy individuals but a divine community inseparably joined together beyond race or gender or class or nation.” Over time Seymour focused more and more on this point and viewed the speaking in tongues as only one of the many spiritual practices that can give evidence of the Holy Spirit.

Of course this movement engendered its opponents. And as is so often the case, we can learn much about a movement by attending to what its opponents spoke against. Charles Parham, a white, Holiness minister, came to Azusa Street. Appalled at the racial equality, he marched to the pulpit and proclaimed that “God is sick at his stomach!” Parham worked to discredit Seymour and the Azusa Street revivals. Parham’s attacks led many of the white members of the church to leave, and as Foster records, the Pentecostal movement “split irreparably along racial lines.”

Foster concludes with the following statements,

The ecstatic gifts are most often given to show us that God is present where we assume that [God] is not. . . . To reiterate: the ecstatic gifts often help us to see that God is present and active among people and situations we have written off as hopeless.

As a trained philosopher, I’m skeptical of these sorts of stories. Visions, healings, miracles, exorcisms, speaking in tongues – these don’t fit well within my theology and my spiritual practices.

But I wonder if we are asking the wrong questions. Maybe the most significant questions aren’t “Did these thing really happen?” or “How did this happen?” or “Why are healings reported in this case and not in another?” Maybe the most significant question to ask is “What truth do these signs and wonders point toward?” Is it possible that our skepticism is causing us to miss some important point?

Foster writes that the ecstatic gifts appear to show us that God is really at work someplace that we usually don’t expect God to be. The signs and wonders are themselves not the point of these stories. Instead, they point to something greater, some more important message. Which is exactly what signs and wonders are supposed to do. They get our attention and direct us to the more important meaning.

So, what is the more important message behind stories like this? In every instance I’ve cited and in many others that come to mind, the signs and wonders point toward God’s kingdom and its message of liberation, compassion, and inclusion. The story of St. Brigid is one of breaking down barriers of uncleanliness and inviting the outcasts into the human society. The stories of Kimpa Vita and William Wade Harris are about a great revival that included messages of freedom and liberation to oppressed peoples. The founding of the Pentecostal movement was really not about speaking in tongues. The real point, initially, for this new Christian movement was the creation of an inclusive community that broke down barriers of race, gender, and class and claimed that anyone could be gifted to speak by the Holy Spirit. So, there was a miracle at Azusa Street. But the genuine miracle wasn’t the speaking in tongues, it was the community that was created.

If we get caught up in debating the validity of these stories or these movements, then we end up blind to the real miracle. In our contemporary lesson today, Anne Lamott calls it a miracle when a woman overcomes her prejudice to a gay man suffering with AIDS. And isn’t she right? Didn’t a healing occur there? The man dying of AIDS wasn’t healed, but people in the congregation were healed of their prejudices.

And this is what is happening in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus isn’t healing people and casting out demons just to heal people and cast out demons. No, Jesus is breaking down barriers, including people who had previously been excluded. Jesus is saying that the mentally ill, the disabled, the diseased, and the unclean, that they are people of worth, that they are sacred and holy, that they have access to God’s reign. And in the process Jesus is forming a new kind of human community that will include all people.
The primary plot of the Gospel of Mark is that God is establishing God’s rule over the world. We have already read that the heavens have ripped open and God’s Spirit has descended. Jesus has already come preaching that the time is fulfilled and that God’s rule is drawing near. In these acts of healing, Jesus is both giving a glimpse of what God’s rule looks like and is also helping to create it.

Jesus has authority over the nonhuman forces that would destroy people. Disease, mental illness, and disabilities can oppress people. Remember that in first century Palestine that those who suffered from illness were considered unclean and were cast off from the rest of society. Lepers were ostracized from the towns. The mentally ill wondered alone on the fringes of civilization. The disabled didn’t have full access to life. Even temporary illnesses could make one unclean and therefore unworthy to engage in sacred rituals or unable to go out into public. In some instances, it was considered sinful for a healthy person even to touch a sick person.

In other words, Jesus’ society wasn’t all that different from ours. We still ostracize people, deny people full access to civilization, and even consider some people too unclean or unnatural to associate with. Sadly, we still do it to the diseased, the mentally ill, and the disabled, just like the folk in the first century did.

Many of Jesus’ contemporaries thought that these maladies were the result of sin, or that they were some punishment from God, or even that the person was possessed by a demon. Yet Jesus treats these sufferers differently. He claims that they are persons of worth who can be restored. When Jesus heals in the name of God, he contradicts the conventional wisdom. Healing in the name of God means that their maladies are not punishment or the result of sin. No, God’s will is wholeness and healing.
Rhoads, Dewey, and Michie write,

God’s rule initiates conflict because it invades the territory of uncleanness as configured in the culture of Mark’s story. . . . The authorities believe people attain holiness by separation from the people and things that render them unclean – lepers, women’s blood, corpses, people with unclean spirits, impure food, and so on. The arrival of God’s rule shatters this orientation, because, instead of withdrawing from defilement, God is now actively spreading holiness and wholeness through the power of the holy spirit.

No, Jesus isn’t healing people and casting out demons; Jesus is liberating individuals from oppression. And in the process a new kind of community is being created. Because when God is set loose in the world, then God sets about creating a community of compassion, grace, liberation, and hope. God’s mission is “to empower all people to experience the presence of God, to grow toward wholeness, and to act in love.” The true miracle is the kingdom of God. That’s the message of the Gospel of Mark.

So, when Jesus performs these signs and wonders, the people are astonished because they’ve never seen anything like this. But in these moments their eyes are opened, and they can see who this Jesus is. May we too have our eyes open to see God’s new work in the world. May our prejudices be revealed. Our barriers broken down. So that God’s inclusive community might be created in our midst. And that will be the greatest wonder of them all.


In 1992 Steven Spielberg delivered two films. The first was Jurassic Park which still stands as one of the great films in its genre and whose special effects still look better than many recent films. The second was Schindler's List, which I rank about the top ten films ever made, globablly.

Once again we have two Spielberg films in one year -- War of the Worlds and Munich. The first inspired quite a bit of thought and commentary from me. I wrote a review and preached a sermon about it (the thoughts in the sermon are better developed than those in the review). My basic question about that film was "What is Steven Spielberg afraid of?"

And maybe he has answered the question. In 1992 his films conveyed a sense of heroism and hope amidst the warnings about our own ability to destroy ourselves. And now I realize that maybe always Spielberg was afraid of the terror within. One of my minister friends made much of the fact that in War of the Worlds, the machines rise from underground. As I said in the sermon, "I think that a statement is being made about our destruction coming from within. That destruction comes from a force that has been hidden, that we’ve somehow missed. It is a pessimistic, anxious, maybe even cynical theme." Plus, it is in that moment that the church is destroyed. Something, I think, that was fully intentional and delivered a frigtening message.

As I said, I now feel that maybe all along Spielberg thought that our true terror arose from within us. In Jaws the monster comes from a dark, hidden, deep place. And most folk seem unwilling to acknowledge its existence or power? Divorce is destroying the families in Close Encounters and E. T. From the Indiana Jones films to The Color Purple, Saving Private Ryan, and Amistad evil arises from the way we can distort humanity and mistreat one another. Even in Hook, Peter Pan must struggle to find the resources to save his family by fighting an evil that he didn't want to acknowledge existed. Maybe I'm forcing too much through this new-found lens? (Terminal must be about Spielberg's own ability to destroy brain cells?)

But Munich is as pessimistic as War of the Worlds is, though less cynical. What he is afraid of is that we've lost our moral center. In fact, I think he's struggling with the very idea that we even have access to one.

Though there are glimpses that he does retain his belief in morality, heroism, and a small grain of hope. These moments break through the pessimism of the film, even though at times they really seem out of place. In fact, our best hope that Spielberg isn't becoming a complete cynic is in the fact that just like many of his films in the last ten years, he overdoes it. The film is about as finely put together as one can be until the third act. He's had a tendency for years now to go too long, to not be disciplined to cutting the film. And this one commits that error again. So his lack of discipline in the third acts of this film and War of the Worlds shows that he lacks the conviction to carry out a fully cynical message, even if he doesn't know how to resurrect these plots with a convicing "Spielberg ending."

My favourite performance, by the way, was the woman playing Golda Meir. Worthy of an Oscar nomination, in my opinion.

4 film reels
3 popcorn kernels

Sometimes You Can't Go On

I tried reading Boswell's Life of Johnson, the 18th century biography that is a literary classic. My copy was a 650 page edition that was abridged. I thought I'd give it a try and see why the book was considered significant. Well, I enjoyed aspects of it, particularly some of the language which was funny to me (though I'm sure it wasn't intended that way). This was much less stilted and easier to read than most 18th century stuff, which may be why it was an important and much read book at one point. But after fifty pages or so, I just tired of it and the prospect of 600 more pages was too much. Sure, there are probably some good things in there, but I wasn't up to the work. Maybe when I'm retired and can sit by the shore and read or something?

Writing Last Sunday's Sermon

Sermon writing is such an intriguing enterprise. I've written about it before on this blog. But last week was a unique experience.

Early in the week I sat down and began my research. Three years ago I had preached on the same text, so looking back at that sermon is a good place to start. That particular sermon was my last at Rolling Hills, so it had a lot that was specific to that context. But, there were some good elements to it. In this sermon I first worked out the theology behind the journey metaphor and it the virtues of adventure and courage that became central elements of my theological thinking, practice, and ministry in subsequent years. So, there were elements to rescue from that sermon.

It was also MLK weekend, so I wanted to discuss him in some way. It ended up that I fit a discussion of MLK into part of the rubric of the old sermon. I wrote a new sermon with some structure suggested by the old one, but with a lot of new content. Got it done relatively early in the week. Sunday morning I ran back through it and tweaked it.

This Sunday I went to church with Mom & Revis to hear Dr. Mack Roark, one of my mentors and favourite preachers. Mack preached on a completely different text and theme, but during the sermon my mind wandered to my own sermon and I realized that it wouldn't work. It wouldn't communicate. It was a well-structured manuscript, but not a sermon.

So, I began with a blank screen about 2 p.m. on Sunday. I've not done that before. Of course some excerpts from the previous draft found its way into the new sermon, but much of the content was new and the structure was completely different. And, yes, this one preached.

Time Fulfilled

Time Fulfilled
Mark 1:14-28
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
2nd Sunday after the Epiphany
15 January 2006

One of the most powerful memories from my childhood is waking up at my mother’s parents, the Nixons. I called them Mammoo and Pappoo. My sister and younger cousin Gretchen also called them that. That’s the power and privilege of being the oldest cousin. My rebellious youngest cousin, Tyler, who is thirteen years younger than I am, invented his own names. That was quite disrespectful.

As a child, our annual New Year’s Eve tradition was to spend the night at the Nixons’. My sister Kelli, my cousin Gretchen, and I would bring all our latest Christmas toys and spend the night playing games and stuff with our grandparents. At the time we thought we were the ones getting to do the something special. Later in life I realized that this was merely babysitting so that our parents could go out with their friends. But it was still special nonetheless.

Our tradition was to watch the ball drop at midnight and then run around the house banging pots and pans. As a teenager I realized that all these years Mammoo and Pappoo had been lying to us. We were really celebrating 11 p.m., midnight in New York. They took me into their secret and asked that I not tell the younger ones because they really wanted to go on to bed. Of course I was a respectful, obedient child at that time.

But the most powerful memory is how I was always awaken the next morning. My first experience of almost every new year of my childhood. Grandma would awaken first and she would go downstairs and start cooking breakfast. What would wake you up wasn’t someone shaking you or calling your name. It wasn’t the sunlight streaming through the windows. What would always end up waking you up was the smell of bacon. And, let me tell you, there is no better way to wake up then with the smell of bacon.

For me, these memories mark a sacred time. These memories are set apart and distinct, holy in a way.

Time fulfilled. What could that possibly mean?

If we were in a different setting, this is one of those moments when I’d pass out construction paper and crayons or finger paints and invite you to draw or paint an image of what it would be like if your deepest, most powerful dreams for yourself and for the world came true. But I’d ask you to pay attention to small details. What would your image look like?

Mine would be a green hillside with tall trees and blue skies and a clear lake. Aslan the Lion would be there. His breath would be warm on my neck. My Dad would be there, and we’d have our first conversation as adults. I’d feel loved and love would flow forth from me to everyone around. I’d be rested and centered, lacking in anxiety and guilt. I’d be free of fear and anger. There’d be family present -- friends and blood relatives, children and grandchildren. There would be someone to share it all with. And there’d be the smell of bacon to awaken me in the mornings.

I preach a lot about the kingdom or rule or reign or whatever metaphor you want to choose of God. I talk a lot about the big ideas of justice, peace, compassion, liberation, etc. But I wonder if sometimes those concepts are so large and grand that they are unimaginable.

Now there is some danger in trying to overpersonalize the message of Jesus. Evangelicals have done that to horrendous consequences for minorities, the environment, the poor, etc. But just this once I want you to dream with me about what it would mean for you if time was truly fulfilled. What would your image of that future be?

In some sense it must have been like that for those who first heard this message from Jesus. “The time is now!” he was saying. All those hopes and dreams and grand visions you’ve had, well I’ve got great news. It is near.

Of course Jesus wasn’t talking about fulfilling every need and wish of his listeners. Nor was he overlooking the extreme sacrifice that many would make in order to begin a radical change in society. But what he was doing was giving them an ultimate ideal that would draw them on to something better. He was exciting the possibility that maybe, if true repentance and commitment occurred, then something new and exciting and wonderful would happen. They were given these moments of incredible grace. Moments that were sacred and holy. These were moments to draw on for hope and courage in the journey ahead.

I’ve been asked when I was going to talk about Brokeback Mountain. You all knew I couldn’t resist. Well, now’s the time. I hadn’t originally planned to talk about it this week, in fact, it didn’t find its place in this sermon until today. It is such a great film partially in that it spurs lots of reflection and conversation and feeling. And as I’ve thought about it more and more, I realize that it speaks to the issues I was wanting to discuss tonight.

There is a sacredness about time that inhabits Jack & Ennis’ moments together. A sacredness that is lost in the regular, domestic moments of their lives. Part of their struggle is what to do with those sacred moments, how should they relate to the other moments of their lives? Jack would gladly give up the rest of his life to inhabit the sacred time with Ennis. Ennis is incapable of that. Overwhelmed by fear, Ennis cannot act to save himself or those he cares for. For him these fishing trips becomes moments of escape from life instead of using those moments to animate and bring hope to the rest of his existence.

Ennis lacks courage. It takes courage to live the life of hope. I think that it is easy to be a cynic in our world. It is easy to see the negative, to focus on the bad, to become overwhelmed by evil and suffering. And it is understandable, because the world is not always a wonderful place. Sometimes it is difficult to find truth, goodness, and beauty. But they are there. And we’ve had moments, like Mammoo’s bacon, that are gifts to tell us that goodness, truth, and beauty do exist. I think that for us to live as positive people of hope takes courage. The world around us wants us to be cynical, skeptical, and ironic. It is courage that compels us to look beyond the bad things in our own lives and the bad things in the world around us to find what is hopeful. We cannot create the kingdom of God without hope. The task is too difficult. Negativity will destroy God’s work.

Ennis’s lack of courage means that he cannot be a person of hope. He is unable to live into the possibility that life can change, that there is good news, that maybe, just maybe time can be fulfilled. Maybe, just maybe, the sacred moments will break into the mundane and redeem them.

Going to see this film was itself one of those moments. Opening night here in Oklahoma City, many went to the premiere showing that Hard News Online sponsored at AMC Quail Springs. There were two simultaneous showings of the film, so hundreds and hundreds of GLBT people showed up before the movie. I was there three hours ahead of time to stand in line. It was fun watching everyone arrive, and there was the diversity of the gay community. I chatted with elderly lesbians and saw numbers of gay teenagers that I don’t usually see. It was like a party scene in the theatre hallway as we greeted friends and made tacky humourous comments. The most fun was watching middle-aged heterosexual couples arriving at the theatre for their Friday night date night and have to navigate through a sea of gay people. Some of them looked a little distraught. One group of folk was walking between the lines and clearly was confused what movie was eliciting such excitement, until one person yelled out at them, “It’s the gay cowboy movie.” They curious people hurried past.

Why was waiting in line three hours for this event so special? Because it was a glimpse. It was a moment when some of our dreams break into the real world. Here were hundreds of gay people of all stripes intermingling and having fun at the mall, in the cinema. Not at the Pride Festival or at the clubs, but just out in front of all the world. And we were going to see the big film of the season, the one winning all the awards, the one that captures powerfully one aspect of our story and doing it in such a way that more people than ever before will learn something about us. It truly is one of those moments when time is fulfilled.

In the Gospel of Mark, the heavens have ripped open and God is set loose in the world. In these early chapters Jesus is pulling back the curtain to allow the people to see wonderful things. He casts out demons and heals people. He teaches with astonishing power. Here is your glimpse of what the world can be like. But Jesus also calls for those who see and hear the signs and wonders to follow.

We Christians, then are people empowered by a vision and filled with the courage to redeem the novel processes of our world. We must stand as the agents of positive change, change that leads to creating God’s world in our own.

Our opening hymn ["Lift Every Voice and Sing"] expresses these ideas. The first verse ends with the words, “facing the rising sun of our new day begun, let us march on till victory is won.” This hymn was written by the acclaimed poet James Weldon Johnson with the music composed by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. They composed this piece in 1921 to express the concerns of African-Americans in their struggle for civil rights. It talks of the “stony road we trod” “in the days when hope unborn had died.” The hymn views the present moment as one of brightness and light compared with the “gloomy past.” And that was 1921. There were still many more “weary years” to endure and “silent tears” to shed before the aims of the African-American civil rights movement were achieved. The brothers know this; even though this moment is an improvement upon the past, there is still a journey ahead, which is why they pray to be kept “forever in the path.”

It is a powerful hymn because it reveals how our image and vision of what it means for time to be fulfilled animates us with hope. How that vision gives us the resources to make it through the present darkness. This hymn, which became known as the African-American National Anthem, testifies to the power of the Christian good news. Animated by their hope that their vision based upon God’s rule could be realized, African-Americans struggled for liberation and justice.

This is most evident in the life that we commemorate this weekend, that of our martyred brother, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King stands as a recent example of this passage in Mark. His vision was that America should more closely resemble the rule of God. His Christian faith led him to believe that unjust laws must be disobeyed, primarily the laws that oppressed. He preached that God’s reign was one of liberation, a beloved community that included everyone. Like Jesus he proclaims that the “time is fulfilled.” Repeatedly King rebuked the notion that African-Americans must wait for the rights they demanded. He said they had waited long enough. And he modeled a Christian discipleship that understood that Jesus was calling us to leave the status quo, the easy life, and to join up in a revolutionary new way of living.

Dr. King declared:

Let us make our intentions crystal clear. We must and we will be free. We want freedom now. We want the right to vote now. We do not want freedom fed to us in teaspoons over another 150 years. Under God we were born free. Misguided men robbed us of our freedom. We want it back; we would keep it forever. This is not idle chatter, for we know that sacrifice is involved, that brutality will be faced, that savage conduct will need to be endured, that slick trickery will need to be overcome, but we are resolutely prepared for all of this. We are prepared to meet whatever comes with love, with firmness and with unyielding nonviolence. We are prepared to press on unceasingly and persistently, to obtain our birthright and to hand it down to our children and to their children’s children.

Don’t you hear the conviction in these words? A conviction that will not waiver despite arrests and beatings. Despite having water canons, dogs, and tear gas turned on you. Despite having friends and colleagues killed. Clearly this is not “idle chatter.” Clearly here is a witness to firmness and persistence that ever keeps his vision and goal in mind – the rule of God that is the ultimate ideal drawing us on to something better.

Despite the struggle. Despite the evil and suffering. Despite the temptations to skepticism or cynicism, Dr. King and all those heroes of the Civil Rights Movement kept at it with courage. What does it mean for a Christian to be courageous? It takes courage to have faith. When we become a Christian, we make the ultimate commitment. We place our very lives at stake. We risk everything else for our relationship with God. This type of commitment is risky precisely because we do not have certainty regarding our commitment. As Kierkegaard said, ours is “an enthusiastic venture in uncertainty.” Commitment in the face of uncertainty is the definition of faith.

And, it takes courage to love and to act in loving ways to other people. We may all intellectually affirm loving one another, but we might lack the will power to act it out in the world around us. King wrote that the motive force behind the civil rights movement was Christian love. He wrote, “It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love.” The creative weapon of love was, in point of fact, the method of nonviolent resistance. Why did thousands of what appeared to be everyday African-Americans endure the humiliations, the beatings, the dogs, the tear gas, and the arrests? Over and over again King wrote that it was because of love. Love that was attempting not only to gain African-American civil rights but to create a “beloved community” where all were joined in “friendship and understanding.” If this was the goal, then the methods of violence and force had to be repudiated, because these would not create a beloved community. King quotes Gandhi, “Rivers of blood may have to flow before we gain our freedom, but it must be our blood.” King goes on to describe the “redemptive” power of “unearned suffering” that “had tremendous educational and transforming possibilities.” He writes, “the best way to assure one-self that love is disinterested is to have love for the enemy-neighbor from whom you can expect no good in return, but only hostility and persecution.” As King’s example bears witness, genuine Christian love requires courage.

This Gospel was written not simply to tell the story of Jesus, but to encourage generations of listeners and readers to join in the journey like the first disciples. The vision of the rule of God continues to draw us on. It continues to awaken us from the status quo and fill us with the power of God’s Spirit. We too can participate in bringing this world a little closer to God’s world. That’s what Dr. King and all the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement did. Their example of Christian discipleship is a witness to all of us of what we can do if we commit ourselves to the cause of Christ. We must feel the force of our convictions, embrace our goal with our deepest passions, and move ahead into this radically new world with courage. It is courage that guides our acts of love, courage that allows us to hope, and courage that takes the leap of faith.

The alternative is a life dominated by fear and lacking in genuine faith, hope, and love. Ennis was crippled by his inability to live courageously and hopefully, drawing upon his dreams and visions. He was unable to take those moments when the sacred invaded the profane and use those to truly animate his life.

And in the news lately we’ve seen the disastrous consequences that can result from a life of fear and shame. As I wrote about the arrest of the Rev. Lonnie Latham,

Living a repressed, secret life seems to make it more likely that one would get caught in a situation like this. Living as an out and proud gay man one would have the chance at a healthy life.

My own story is that in many ways life became far more difficult once I came out. But it also became fabulous. And I wouldn’t trade the one for the other.

We also see it in the life of this church. If we keep waiting until we have more money or more people or our own building before we do all the things we want to do, then I’m afraid we’ll never get the chance. Instead, we have taken bold steps and called for commitment and sacrifice and slowly, but surely, we are getting closer and closer to our goals.

So, let’s go back to those images I asked you to virtually draw or paint back at the beginning of this sermon. If time was fulfilled for you, what would that look like? Now there are parts of that dream that you have no control over. There are aspects of it that no matter what you do might not change. But what about your life or your world can you change? Is it really that your vision is impossible or is it that you lack the hope and the courage?

In life we are granted these sacred moments, they are blessings that arrive like gifts. They tear open the veil and allow us to see something wonderful. But if they become only memories and not ideals that compel us forward, then they are given in vain.

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

Further Thoughts on Brokeback Mountain

Of course this week the film has dominated discussions in my circle. I saw it for the second time last night. Both the discussions and the second viewing compel me to make further comments.

Ang Lee may be the best director currently working. I thought that as I watched last night. Just take three of his films -- Sense and Sensibility, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Brokeback Mountain -- each one respectfully grasps the culture in which it is set while still conveying Lee's unique filmmaking style (a style that is filled with restraint). Each has a powerful screenplay that the director also shows deference to. And in each he draws out incredible performances. In Brokeback none of the four main actors has ever performed anything close to the level they do in this film. In the scene where Ann Hathaway is on the phone with Ennis, she is superb, as fine an example of acting as anything I've seen. I was so impressed with every facet of Lee's direction, but especially with his ability to grasp certain nuances of the American West in the late 20th century, from small town life to the power structures. I love the scene at the banquet in Texas when the one woman is talking non-stop. Being a Dallas-ite for two years, there are things about Texas and Dallas culture that are captured in that scene that you don't expect a Chinese director to understand. Either he does or was respectful of the screenplay that did or both. It is a stunning directoral achievement and adds to what may be the most impressive body of work of the last decade.

Another thing many of us are discussing is how there are nuances of the film misunderstood by straight audiences who even like the movie. We are all talking about how there are folk who get up and leave after the first sex scene. Some of these are clearly the odd people who go to movies not knowing anything about the movies they go to. But last night there was a couple that stayed for awhile, but eventually left when the wife said she couldn't take it anymore. I actually think they probably had some clue as to what the movie was about, but may be so used to the antiseptic, nonsexual way that gay people are generally presented in the mainstream media that she wasn't prepared for the reality in the film.

The Gazette had an appreciative review of the film. It got some things right. For instance:

Adapted from Annie Proulx's short story by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, this most radical of revisionist Westerns strips away the suppositions and lays bare the implied homoeroticism obliquely referenced within the narratives of most modern oat operas -- you didn't think all that testosterone-fueled machismo and exclusively male bonding was devoid of subtext, did you?

But, I believe the review also got a handful of things wrong that really irked me. For instance,

Jack and Ennis form a deep bond that culminates in a drunken, brutal night of passion.

Three things wrong with that sentence. First, the bond doesn't culminate in that first night of passion. It moves to a new stage, but far from a "culmination." Secondly, I don't think the moment of passion occurred while drunk. Yes, they were drunk earlier in the evening, but by the time the encounter occurs, clearly hours later after lying in the cold, I just don't think it was drunken. And the implication here is somewhat insulting. Finally it was not "brutal." It was powerful and passionate, but brutal is the wrong word. The scene is explosive and shockingly comes out of nowhere, probably even moreso for the straight people in the audience. They've probably never seen anything like this. But this is not brutality. It isn't even rough sex. The reviewer's opinions here reveal how a lack of general understanding and familiarity with gay life can lead to misunderstanding something as simple, straightforward, common, and powerful as this scene is. The reviewer also furthers the misunderstanding of Jack's character that seems rampant in the commentary on this film (Gene Shalit being the worst), but I have discussed that already in the comments to the previous post.

Finally it is a testimony to the power of a film that it spurs the kind of discussion that this one is. Just one more reason that it is winning almost every Best Picture prize out there and seems headed to snag the Oscar.