Wednesday, November 04, 2009

the agenda of the holy spirit (mark 10)

The Stewards of our church, chaired by Mike Maloney, have led us down the path of thinking about “becoming disciples through stewardship”. They have reflected on what “becoming” means—none of us has arrived. They have defined what it means to be a disciple, a learner, a student. And they have unpacked this word, stewardship.

Stewardship is a word that we resist, for many good reasons. There is something deep within us that wants to conserve and preserve what we have; maybe it is buried deep within our genetic code, and has helped us to survive. And so the idea of giving some of that away implies risk and uncertainty. There is also something going on in our culture, a culture of fear, which began maybe on 9/11 and has continued through the meltdown of Wall Street a year ago. It is not accidental that Jesus so often contrasted fear and faith. And there is something about the very word itself that goes against our grain, the basic idea that all that we have really does not belong to us, it is a gift, we are simply entrusted to it, for a time. That is easier to say than it is to live.

Stewardship in the church has come to mean a time of year when we ask you for money, money that will support the church. Of course, we know that stewardship is much more than this---there is ongoing education in most every Sunday School class about stewardship of the environment. There are also ongoing classes related to the SHAPE of our lives----our time and talents, our spiritual gifts.

But stewardship is also about money, and one of the ways we are becoming disciples is through the stewardship of money. I have friends in the ministry, I am thinking of people I consider to do this work really well, who hate this part of the job. They want to get it over as quickly as possible, to be done with it. They feel like they need to manipulate those who are listening to a sermon or reading a letter. It is all about the search for a sentimental story, or a really good joke, or some compelling personal experience. They also know that in our communities this is one message, one appeal among a steady stream of others---all for worthy causes.

I did not go into the ministry thinking about any of this. I felt a call to do this kind of work and not something else, not an audible voice but a sense of guiding in this direction. I did not give much thought to the question of how a church functioned economically---when the offering plate came by it never crossed my mind.

In high school and college I worked in a grocery store—I unloaded trucks, I put up stock, and I cleaned the meat market. In a simple way money was always a part of my spiritual life. After I had become a Christian I tithed my part-time salary, as a teenager. If I made seventy dollars in a week, I gave seven; if I made fifty dollars a week, I gave five. I lost touch with this habit as a young adult, and in the early years of our marriage we did not tithe. It would, however, become a part of our journey of becoming a disciple through stewardship. Over time we began to give five percent of our income, and then it became seven, and now it is ten percent, and that is after taxes. Maybe a part of our journey down the road is ten percent before taxes, but my rationale is that I don’t receive that money anyway. Someday I will receive a portion of it back, maybe, but then I will pay taxes on it, and tithe it then.

I am blessed that my wife Pam is very much in this with me, and so this has not been a struggle in our marriage. The money we give to the church does many good things, and I see them every day. It is a blessing. I will also confess that, in our marriage, Pam is a much more compassionate person that I am. She has taught me in this area; it could be that we grew up in different environments. It has been a journey of becoming a disciple through stewardship.

I share some of the specifics of my story this morning not because I am so important---I am not…and not because I unique---I am not. I share the specifics because the gospel is never a generalization, an abstraction. It is always about real people and real places, it is about the encounter with Jesus in the places where we really live. In the gospel we find ourselves transported from Charlotte, a real place, to Jericho, also a real place. I have actually been to Jericho. It is one of the lowest places in the world. It is a valley. Valleys are places of flood and overwhelming, but they are also contexts for growth and fertility…I remember the farmland in Yadkin County and the corn that grew down near the river bottom.

Well, they come to the Jericho, Jesus, the disciples and the crowds. Someone has called it a traveling seminar, Jesus taking on most every question and subject: marriage and divorce, wealth and possessions, leadership and influence. Shorthand: sex, money, power. It is no wonder that he drew a crowd! On the way they encounter a blind beggar. Although he is unable to see, his other senses are perhaps heightened, and he hears something: an authentic voice, a word that he needs to hear. “Faith comes by hearing” , Paul wrote to the Romans. He calls out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”.

Be quiet, someone says. But no, his voice will not be suppressed. He calls out more loudly: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me”. Jesus says, “bring him to me”. The blind beggar had two strikes against him; some thought illness was caused by sin (John 9) and others reckoned poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor. Does Jesus separate himself from the blind beggar? No. A physician goes to those who are sick, Jesus commented on another occasion.

The blind beggar senses that this may be a gift of grace; he leaves behind his cloak---symbolic of our leaving behind all that has attached itself to us, that has weighed upon us---and moves toward Jesus.

Jesus asks a question: what do you want me to do for you? He responds, “teacher, let me see!” Jesus says, your faith has made you well; go.

This is the last healing miracle in the Gospel of Mark. The passage comes as a part of a longer section of scripture that begins with Mark 8. 22, both stories like bookends about the giving of sight, and in between there is a longer narrative about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. The recovery of sight is symbolic of a growing ability to see the truth of who Jesus really is.

The point is a simple one: if people see Jesus for who he really is, they will follow him. There is, in the gospel of Mark, an emerging sense of who Jesus really is. He is a Holy One, a teacher, a rabbi. But he is also a compassionate one, a servant, a healer.

The blind beggar regains his sight and he is given a new perspective. This passage of scripture was the inspiration for one of the great spiritual classics, entitled The Way of a Pilgrim, written by an anonymous Russian mystic, most likely in the 18th century. In The Way of a Pilgrim, a seeker hears a sermon on the teaching of Paul in II Thessalonians 5, to “pray without ceasing”. His quest becomes how to pray without ceasing. He asks first one spiritual teacher and then another, but none of the guidance or advice really helps.

Finally he comes upon a teacher who gives him this spiritual practice:

Sit down in silence. Lower your head, shut your eyes, breathe out gently, and imagine yourself looking into your own heart. Carry your mind, that is, your thoughts, from your head to your heart. As you breathe out, say, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." Say it moving your lips gently, or simply say it in your mind. Try to put all other thoughts aside. Be calm, be patient, and repeat the process very frequently.”

This phrase, taken from our gospel passage 18 centuries earlier, becomes known as the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy”. In some traditions it is lengthened or shortened, and in some traditions it is related to a person’s breathing, inhaling and exhaling, the idea being that prayer is as natural as breathing, and this is rooted in the Hebrew connection between breath and spirit and the last psalm, “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

The guidance of the teacher in The Way of a Pilgrim is simple and yet profound: it is the journey, the teacher says, from the head to the heart, from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus, from the stereotype of who you think Jesus is, to the reality of the One whose holiness and compassion intersect with our lives. Lord Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. The pilgrim would say thesewords five times a day, ten times a day, one hundred times a day, one thousand times a day until they became a mantra. In these simple words, someone has said, is the fullness of the gospel: the Lordship of Christ, the holiness and otherness of God, and the awareness of our imperfection, our flaws, our sin, and what connects them? Mercy, compassion, healing, grace.

Lord Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me, a sinner. The Jesus prayer moves us beyond reducing Christianity to an intellectual construct, or set of ideas. The Jesus prayer moves us beyond flattening Christianity to a series of moral rules or codes. The Jesus prayer moves us beyond confining Christianity to a collection of feelings or emotions. Christianity does have intellectual, moral and emotional aspects. But Christianity, which is really Jesus, engages all of life. He is the Lord of all of life, what we think, how we treat other people, how we process what is going on inside of ourselves, and how we spend not only 10% of our money but 100% of it. We encounter him by faith, and when we say the words of the Jesus Prayer he honors these words, and asks each of us, “what do you want me to do for you?”

Perhaps someone is here today, and for you it is a valley, in the geography of the spirit it is perhaps the lowest place. The valley can be a place of overwhelming, but it can also be a place of growth, because we are receptive to the mercy and grace of God.

In one season of my adult life I spent a great deal of time leading retreats. These were retreats for churches, retreats for pastors, retreats for Christians of different denominations. On a retreat a person gives up a day or a weekend, they leave everything behind and they seek something, some new perspective, some new way of looking at the world. Because of the intentions of those who go on retreats, and because of the environment of many of these settings, and because of the grace of God, transformation sometimes occurs. Today we might even call this healing.

I remember hearing a conversation in which we were asked to say, in simplest terms, who Jesus is for us? And then to write down, what is my greatest need? Who is Jesus for you? What is your greatest need? The answers to these two questions is, for you, the agenda of the Holy Spirit. Jesus asks us, what do you want me to do for you? We think we are doing something for God, doing something for Jesus, doing something for the church, doing something for other people. And then we discover that, actually, Jesus wants to do something for us.

Source: The Way of a Pilgrim.


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