Sunday, October 28, 2012

Open Your Mouth to See



Text:  Mark 10: 46-52

Today’s Gospel reading may seem to be a story about a man receiving his sight. 

We might come to realize it’s also a story about a man using his voice.   

Let’s begin by using our powers of observation to place the story of Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, in the context of Mark’s entire Gospel.  Unfortunately, reading just a few verses from Mark each Sunday as we progress through this Gospel over many months can prevent us from observing the overall sweep of a well-crafted work of literature. Like Jesus’s clueless disciples, we might miss the point.  So let’s spend a moment seeing how the various parts of the larger narrative have been intentionally arranged by the writer of Mark.  

It’s helpful to know, for instance, that key ideas in scripture are sometimes highlighted by placing them in between parallel points.  Different cultures have different ways of arranging and underscoring main ideas in writings.  In modern Western writings, for instance, the main idea is usually presented first. Journalists put the most important point in an article’s first sentence, and the least important details at the end of the article with other details in between in descending order of importance. Essayists usually start paragraphs with topic sentences that signal the main idea of that paragraph and place supporting points after.  But other cultures employ others conventions to help the reader follow the main ideas. 

For instance, Biblical writers often used what is called a chiastic structure.  Chi is the Greek letter that looks like our letter X.  A careful writer from Jesus’s world might organize a story by placing the central idea in the center of a story.  In a sense, X does mark the spot, or highlight the point, in some writings. On either side of a core statement would be parallel ideas that frame that main idea.  And sometimes there would be, surrounding those two parallel statements, two other pairs of ideas that offer another level of framing, creating sometimes several layers of frames, all constructed to point the reader to the main idea. This literary device was common in the ancient world.  The Iliad and the Odyssey, for instance, as well as Hebrew and New Testament scriptures, sometimes used chiastic structure. 

I mention this literary device because students of the Bible can see what it’s saying more clearly when we understand these devices.  I mention this particular technique because over the last few months you and I have journeyed halfway through the book of Mark to its center, so we should expect something very important here.  Chapters 8-10 are considered to be the core of Mark. Chapter 8, the literal center of this 16-chapter Gospel, includes the first of two accounts of Jesus healing a blind man.  In between these two healings, Jesus predicts he will soon suffer, be rejected, killed, and raised from the dead.  Over the next 2 chapters, Jesus makes this passion prediction a total of three times, the last prediction occurring in last Sunday’s passage when Jesus tells James and John, fighting over who’s his right hand man, that he will soon face suffering and death.  Though Jesus continues to talk about serving others and suffering, James and John continue dreaming of their privileged roles in his coming kingdom they’ve misunderstood.   

Today’s passage from Mark near the end of chapter 10 bookends this set of three passion predictions with a second story of the healing of another blind man, Bartimaeus. This event occurs just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, the seat of power where Jesus will indeed, as he predicted, draw the anger of the powers that be.  The stories of Jesus healing two blind men—one in Bethsaida and one in Jericho near Jerusalem—frame the heart of Mark’s Gospel.  (See last page of bulletin.)  If we realize how the original readers or hearers of Mark would have noticed the arrangement of this story, we can better see the writer’s main point, which is the point that the disciples did not see, the point the original readers surely did see.

Mark’s thesis, made most explicit in the meat sandwiched between the two stories of blind men, is this: Jesus’s way was one of service and, when necessary, suffering, not of self-advancement. Ironically, in this final story of healing and teaching just before Jesus enters Jerusalem to challenge the political and religious establishmen, blind beggar Bartimaeus sees Jesus’s purpose more clearly than the disciples can. 

And we, as readers of this carefully constructed story, have the chance to see, with Bartimaeus, that the Jesus Way is not (as James and John thought) about gaining power. Nor is the Jesus Way about acquiring wealth (which the rich young ruler would not give up). Instead, the Jesus Way is a life of serving and being willing to give up one’s life for others.  The Jesus Way is not a militant march against Rome but an even more daring if peaceful march into Jerusalem.  It’s not about jockeying for status, as blind disciples James and John were doing according to last Sunday’s reading.  Jesus’s way is about risking everything to raise a hue and cry on behalf of folks like Bartimaeus. That way takes us to the cross, where Jesus will at last cry, “It is finished.”

So this is a story not only about restored sight but also about a raised voice.  Bartimaeus may be blind, but he’s not mute. This is a tale that urges us to speak up, especially when the crowds would try to silence an inconvenient or unpopular voice. 

Look at verses 47 and 48 again. Bartimaeus, a blind beggar stationed along the road leading out of Jericho, learns that the commotion he’s hearing comes from a crowd jostling to see Jesus.  Desperate for healing, he shouts, “Have mercy on me, Jesus!”  But the crowd tries to silence him.  The text says, “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” Think about the desperate ones in our culture:  the family who has lost their home and is living on the streets; the single mother trying to raise her children in a violent neighborhood with substandard schools; the taunted teenager who knows he’s gay and believes, as his church has taught him, that he’s going to hell.  Think about the way culture tries to silence them.  But some in our world do dare to raise their voices.  Think about 14-year-old Malala of Pakistan who dared to shout, in effect: “Have mercy on me and on other girls who deserve an education!” Even the Taliban’s bullets did not silence her.  Blind beggars and young girls speak up.  We can help amplify their voices. And the powers that terrorize then lose a little bit of their control.  We as individuals and as a congregation are challenged by the Gospel to speak up on behalf of “the least of these.”

Notice that to speak up, we must be able to name what we need.  Common both to today’s story and last Sunday’s Gospel narrative is a question posed by Jesus.  To James and John, who brashly tell Jesus they want him to do whatever they ask, Jesus responds, “What is it you want me to do for you?”  Jesus uses those identical words in today’s response to Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy: “What is it you want me to do for you?”

In our own individual journeys, this seemingly simple question may be key to our ongoing spiritual growth.  What is it exactly that you want Jesus to do for you?  Answering this question is not as easy we might assume.  But the Gospel of Mark suggests that our very salvation may hinge on our ability to name our need. Jesus does not ask for our bucket list.  Or our Christmas list.  He’s not asking for your personal mission statement or your 5-year plan or your 10-year goals.  He’s not asking what you think will make your life a little easier or will distract you from your real needs or numb your from real pain.  What is your deep down need?  Do you even know? If you think you know, are you certain?

James and John said what they needed was to be at Jesus’s side.  What they really meant was that they wanted status, to be first.  But what being beside Jesus turned out to mean—was to be crucified with him, and indeed two men were crucified with Jesus, one on the right side and one on the left, but they were two thieves. All the disciples by then had fled in fear. What it means to stand with Jesus is perhaps to die . . . die to the false self that needs status or wealth or external means of defining the self or ways of avoiding the tough stuff.

In contrast to the disciples, Bartimaeus sees what he needs.  He needs to see.  In contrast with the rich man who refused to sell all his possessions and give his wealth to the poor, beggar Bartimaeus tosses aside his cloak, his only possession, and follows Jesus.  As the original hearers of Mark understood, Bartimaeus would be following Jesus to his death and not his coronation. Bartimaeus sees with a clarity the disciples lack.  He sees with the eyes of faith that allow him to discard his last earthly possession, the beggar’s cloak, to follow Jesus into dangerous territory.  Mark presents blind beggar Bart as the true disciple.  He knew what he needed: the ability to see a way toward the really real.  

The sons of Zebedee ask Jesus for status.
The son of Timaeus asks Jesus for sight.

And so, my friends, I encourage you to shout, shriek, call, cry out, and scream.  But say what you need.  Which means know what you need.

About this time every year my wonderful mother-in-law starts her Christmas shopping by asking me for gift ideas for my family and for myself.  I want to help make her Christmas shopping easier.  But it’s hard to come up with ideas for my husband and daughter and son-in-law.  Even harder to suggest something for myself.  Harder still when someone’s asking us about a life list rather than a gift list.

What do I really want?  There may be many things on your secret wish list/envy list:  Wealth.  Talent.  Recognition.  Beauty. Popularity. Ease.  Even noble desires.

But what is it we really need?  Underneath those desires are the true needs of our hearts and of our world.

Some of us think we know what we need, but we’ve not been honest with ourselves.  We think that the answer is the right job, the right relationship, the perfect home, the end to emotional or physical pain.   But will any of that put us, like blind Bartimaeus, on the path to God? What is it that Jesus might be able to give to us?

Jesus never coerced a single person he met.  Always it was up to the rich young ruler or the clueless disciples or the blind man to name the need—which in itself was saving.  
What is it that we need to shed like a cloak that we think is our only protection but really is no longer essential if we’re to follow the path of service and love?  What keeps us from speaking out on behalf of others or keeps us from naming our own needs before God?  To continue in the spiritual journey, we must open our mouths to name these social and spiritual needs.  

Today’s Gospel reading may seem to be a story about a man receiving his sight.

Maybe by now we see it’s also a story about a man using his voice.   
And it’s a story for us about finding and using our voices to cry out for justice for others and name the needs in our own lives.

“What is it you want me to do for you?” we can almost hear Jesus asking us, through this story.  Our challenge is to find a way to answer that question. Then, like Bartimaeus who at last can see, we, too, can follow Jesus on his way.  We can follow Jesus to the cross where a false self dies and a new and truer self is born.

PRAYER:   Week after week, O God, we name needs.  We pray for health and plead for friends.  And that is good and right to do.  But how often do we pray for the insight to know what is our deepest need?  In this stillness, we simply speak in our hearts to you of the need to encounter you, Divine Guide, on the way to our destinations of love and service. Amen.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Guided Meditation: Just Who Do You Think You Are?





LECTIONARY TEXTS: Job 38: 38:1-7, 34-38; Psalm 104; Mark 10: 35-45



REFLECTIONS ON TWO ANCIENT POEMS (Job 38 and Psalm 104)

In response to Job’s pitiable pleas, the thundering voice of God might sound to us like “the great and powerful” Oz addressing Dorothy. I can almost hear the voice of the God-Behind-The-Curtains booming back at Job: “What gives you the right to question your lot in life? ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’ Have you forgotten who I am?”

Maybe Job has.  Maybe we have.  Maybe the writer of Job has forgotten God’s tender compassion.

Or maybe the ancient storyteller is simply describing a very human moment when shallow theology built on fairy tales, really, has left us unprepared for the terrible parts of life.

Maybe you and I come to God expecting a magical wizard who can send us home to a safe place—but terrible times have no simple solutions.  And sometimes we may need to work through still unresolved childhood or young adulthood issues of self-identity and self-acceptance. But we expect God to hand out wisdom, love, and courage as if they are items on a shelf. Instead, back into the scary world God sends us, sniveling like a cowardly lion, feeling as loveless as a tin man, as clueless as a scarecrow. We find ourselves in dark regions far off the beaten yellow brick path to face our lacks and losses, to learn who we are, to give up what we thought mattered.  We’re not in Kansas anymore. Before we can “ease on down the road" into adult faith, before we can make the journey into what Richard Rohr calls “the second half of life,”[i] we may need to think of  God as something other than a cheap magician and approach prayer as something other than a plea to a good wizard.

“Have you forgotten who I am?” God asks me.  Like Job, I, too, often name God as Creator, although I understand the basic scientific principles of evolution.  I still see the primary works of the Spirit as ongoing creation and connection—creation meaning life; connection meaning love. 

Life and love are risky enterprises. If constancy were the prevailing law of the universe, there would be nothing new created, there could be no life. 

So if God is that creative, life-giving force, then there must also be within the life of God some element of randomness and freedom, because both constancy and surprise must exist for life to continue.  Without risk and unpredictability, nothing new could happen. Without the accident of genetic mutations, for instance, humans could not have evolved.  Without chance there can be no change.  The very “laws” of science, it turns out, are not without exceptions.[ii]

I don’t imagine Creator God to be the designer of a fixed road without dangers, but more like the force that imbues us with and lures us on in love and growth.  Although God does not create the pitfalls, God’s creative and loving spirit can redeem those falls, making it possible for us to transcend the terrors and hurts and move into a deeper spiritual realm.  Christianity, at its core, affirms that death leads to rebirth.

Each of us finds a way—sometimes various ways—sometimes mutually conflicting theories—to understand how a loving and powerful God can allow suffering.   The theodicy question is not, for me, entirely resolvable. But the God I serve neither causes suffering nor leave us alone in our pain.  I believe that ordinary or extraordinary healings and rescues occur.  But even when they don’t, the loving and life-giving Spirit keeps moving through the universe through a persistent agenda of life and love.  

Annie Dillard also believes God “does not direct the universe” but “underlies it.” She offers: “The more we wake to holiness, the more of it we give birth to, the more we introduce, expand and multiple it on earth, the more God is ‘on the field’.”  But Dillard has given up on the God who is “that tasking and antiquated figure . . . who sits on the throne of judgment frowning and figuring, and who with the strength of his arm dishes out human fates, in the form of cancer or cash, to 5.9 billion people—to teach, dazzle, rebuke, or try us, one by one, and to punish or reward us, day by day, for our thoughts, words, and deeds.”[iii]  Most of us would agree.  Though our prayer life may suggest otherwise.  

I’m glad the Bible shows God can take our complaints, the stern rebuff from Job’s god notwithstanding.  In fact, the Psalms are full of complaints lifted up to God in faith that God is willing and able to hear all that.  Last Sunday’s Psalm, you’ll remember, began with “My God, my God, why have you forsaken?”  The very words Jesus quoted from the cross.  And words we can imagine coming from Job.

But the lectionary has fittingly paired today’s reading from Job with a praise Psalm that uses the same imagery but a joyful tone in counterpoint to Job’s bitterness.  In our Psalm it is not God who has to assert God’s creative power but the human Psalmist who celebrates it.

So while complaining to God is a legitimate form of prayer, praise is also necessary and equally unstoppable.  We cannot keep from expressing gratitude and awe, even in dire moments, if we gaze upon creation, if we join in the force for love and life. 

I’m not a “Praise the Lord” Christian.  When I hear religious clich├ęs, I imagine folks lifting up the communion cup and toasting their good fortunes, forgetting the chalice holds both joy and sorrow.   

But praise—and its cousin, gratitude, —are important spiritual practices. Praise is an ego-denying practice.  I do need to praise God.  I need to express joy and awe and thanks for this world.  I need to recognize that I am not the center of the universe.  I need to acknowledge The More that is beyond me and yet is sustaining me--because of who I am and because of who God is.  The Eucharistic liturgy says it well:  “It is right to give our thanks and praise.” 

With the words from Job and the Psalmist fresh in our ears, words of complaint and praise, we prepare now to express our petitions and thanks. 

PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE . . .



[i] Rohr, Richard.  Falling Upward: A Spirituality of the Second Half of Life.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011.
[ii] These general ideas are influenced by John F. Haught, who sees God as vulnerable love luring us into the future rather than as an intelligent designer. Thus, evolutionary biology is compatible with Christianity. See Haught’s God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Westview Press, 2007.
[iii] Kathryn Huey (http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/october-21-2012.html) quotes from "Holy Sparks: A Prayer for the Silent God" in the collection, Best Spiritual Writing 2000.


GUIDED REFLECTION ON THE GOSPEL LESSON: 

Having heard today’s Gospel Reading, I invite you to hear the story again as a guided prayer.  I’ll reread the scripture, pausing at 3 different points to allow for reflection.

1.    James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to [Jesus] and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."

Let this simple stunning demand speak to you about your own prayer life.  Jesus might well have responded to their question with: "Who do you think you are?" or "Who do you think I am?"  He did not, as we'll see in the next verse.  For now, let's reflect on the way we tend to approach God in prayer.  (SILENCE.)  Let’s quietly rest in God’s presence for the next few moments: no agenda, no demands.

SILENCE

2.    And Jesus said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."

Reflect now on what you really ask of God.  Is it possible we don’t know what we are asking?  In the Bible the cup and baptism can mean both blessing and hardship.  With blessing there is challenge.  Are we willing to accept both?

SILENCE


3.    When the [other] ten [disciples] heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."

Once again Jesus reverses the world’s ways and says that to be great we must serve.  If it is comfortable for you to do so, you might pull down the kneeler in front of you to get into that traditional prayer posture, the posture of a servant.  With bowed head or bent knee, reflect on Jesus’s way of leading by serving.  How might we at Open Table do a better job of enacting that visionary and focused yet humbly serving model of leadership?   (silence) How can we as individuals measure our lives by Jesus’s standard of greatness? Consider how we as individuals sometimes, for instance, expect others to do things to accommodate our preferences, to ‘serve’ us?  Isilence) Now think about people you might be serving.  How might you as a family member, as a neighbor, as a responsible voter consider “the least” and serve their interests in the name of Jesus?

SILENCE




Sunday, October 14, 2012

A Broadly Narrow Way



 Text: Mark 10: 17-31

A slightly bawdy and belittling song from the musical South Pacific begins this way:

My doll is as dainty as a sparrow,
Her figure is somethin' to applaud.
Where she's narrow she's as narrow as an arrow,
And she's broad where a broad should be broad.

I hope the tune of "Honey Bun" will not be looping through your brain during the rest of the sermon.  What's been replaying in my brain this week is the question of where should we be broad--and where narrow.  I have been wondering, thanks to today's Gospel reading, about the places where the Jesus Way is narrow and where it is broad. Some scriptures emphasize Jesus's broad invitation to all people to follow him along an expansive, limitless journey: Samaritans, poor people, children, all.  Other scriptures suggest we follow Jesus on a path that is as “narrow as an arrow”--to use Oscar and Hammerstein's simile--or, to use Jesus's phrase, we approach the realm of God through an opening as narrow as "the eye of a needle.”  

If we had to choose between those two adjectives to describe our congregation, we would probably choose broad over narrow.  We at Open Table tend to think of ourselves as broadminded, meaning we think we have made room in our minds for some new ideas that we did not inherit from our families or receive unquestioningly from the majority culture. Some of these departures from the ideological and theological "straight and narrow" have been liberating and healing.  But today's Gospel reading reminds me that Jesus taught that God's way is both inclusive and in some sense restrictive. 

Today's Gospel story focuses on Jesus's warning to a good man that the path to God is too narrow to travel with riches in tow.  To keep moving toward God, this man needed to give all his possessions to the poor, according to Jesus.  And the good man, unwilling to give up such wealth, went away very sad.  For him, the journey with Jesus was too rigorous, too narrow.  Like this good man, we can get only so far along the Jesus Way with our encumbrances.

There are times when you and I need to reaffirm the breadth of God's love, captured so well in the words of a favorite hymn:
There's a wideness in God's mercy, like the wideness of the sea.   
There's a kindness in God's justice that is more than liberty.
For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind.
And the love of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.

A church like ours knows how to sing those broad words.

But today we are mining a particular Gospel story.  So I want challenge you, as I challenge myself, to be broadminded enough to consider the possibility that we might be making the Gospel into a broader way than Jesus intended.  For today, let’s imagine Jesus’s Way as a narrow spiritual path.

One way progressive Christians can make Jesus's way too broad is by accepting the false dichotomy that a person or society either conforms to an ethic based on strict authoritarianism or gives in to runaway moral relativism. Because progressives doubt that Christian ethics can be based simply and solely on literal interpretations of biblical commandments and edicts from religious leaders, we must take extra care not to sound as if we're endorsing an "anything goes" ethic of self-indulgent individualism.  Wary of being judgmental, we sometimes fail to articulate our own values and teach them to our children.  We might, for instance, be so committed to affirming the wide range of healthy human sexual expressions that we fail to develop guidelines for healthy sexuality.  It's easy to come up with a list of dos and don'ts.  It's hard to create processes to determine what is ethical in a rapidly changing culture.  Living in the freedom of Christ is not a license to behave however we wish. The Jesus Way of love is not so broad that it includes harmful behavior. Let's be guided by an ethic of love and integrity that is narrow enough to be truly loving and just.

Our emphasis on the breadth of the Gospel also has the potential to weaken our personal commitment to the Way of Jesus. Sometimes people enter congregations like ours after hurtful experiences in past churches.  They are gun shy, which is to say they are Bible shy and Jesus shy, since both the Bible and Jesus have been aimed at them.  So we try to make it easy to participate here to whatever degree feels comfortable.  We even have joked about people being embarrassed to tell their friends they are attending a church so we allow them to be “in the closet"--the “Christian closet."  But even the majority of us who are “out” Christians certainly don’t want to shove our religion down someone’s throat.

Eventually, of course, many of us find we can’t help sharing in natural conversations about our church family, about ways we are being shaped here, about the deepening of our spiritual lives that comes from following Jesus’s generous but hard way.  We won’t let others’ pushy proselytizing prevent us from sharing about a way that has been strengthening for us.

Jesus is said to have warned, "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the kingdom" (Matt. 7:21).  To me that was not a threat of hell but a simple statement of fact that not everyone who says they are a follower of the Jesus Way is actually committed to that difficult but healing way.  We at Open Table have opened up membership to all who wish to follow in Jesus's ways of love, spiritual and social transformation, radical hospitality, grace-filled inclusion, and joyful encounters with the Holy.  There is not, in other words, a doctrinal test for membership.  Our members do not have to attest to any particular beliefs.  We can mean different things when we talk about following in the way of Jesus.

If that seems a lax standard for membership, ask yourself which is easier: to sign off on certain statements about Jesus that no one can fully fathom and parrot a creed regularly or to try earnestly to align one's life with Jesus’s life and teachings as we try to love God and love neighbor as we love ourselves? Some might see us creating too broad a category for legitimate church membership. I believe ours is a more exacting commitment. 

But it’s possible for us to forget our commitments. For instance, we, on the congregational level, can let a handful of congregational leaders do most of the work.  We can fail to hold all members responsible for regular and even sacrificial contributions of time and skills and financial resources. Because some of us have been burned out by churchy demands in the past or are already committed to good work elsewhere, we can be afraid to ask too much of our members and participants. Which means we fail to call out the giftedness of everyone.  Which means we fail to flourish as fully as we might.

Clarence Jordan, who helped Millard Fuller found Habitat for Humanity, told about meeting a country preacher in the Deep South in the 1960s who was leading a relatively large and amazingly integrated congregation of black and white and rich and poor people.[i]  When asked how the church had achieved such a beautiful mixture of people, the preacher explained that on his first Sunday as pastor he preached from the book of Galatians, reading "For as many of you as have been baptized into Jesus, there are no longer Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, males or females, because you are one in Jesus."  He closed the Bible and declared, "If you is one with Jesus, you is one with all kind of folks.  And if you aint, well, you aint." 

Jordan asked what happened after that. "Well," the preacher said, "the deacons took me into the back room and told me they didn't want to hear that kind of preaching no more." 

The preacher persisted and soon the deacons left the church.

"Then what happened?" asked Jordan. 

"Well," said the country preacher, "I preached that church down to four people.  Not long after that, it started growing.  And it grew.  And I found out that revival sometimes don't mean bringin' people in but gettin' people out that don't dare to love Jesus."

My aim is certainly not to preach our numbers down!  But that country preacher was right about this: Jesus's way is too narrow to contain prejudice or meanness or ego or privilege.  We cheapen the way of Jesus when we downplay the cost of followship.

Which leads me to a final way we might make the Jesus way too broad.  I believe we can inadvertently, in the name of freedom of thought, permit theological laziness. I ask that we continue to honor wide-ranging views here, but let’s also expect theological rigor of one another. Not all theological positions can be equally valid. Not all claims about God or the way of Jesus can be equally true.  We certainly appreciate ambiguity and paradox. We admit the Bible itself speaks variously on topics so Christian theologies bump up against one another.  So let’s not settle for flimsy answers—even if it means our deepest questions are never completely answered.

For instance, when we wonder about the reasons for human suffering, a predominant biblical theme expressed in today's Psalm and the Hebrew Bible reading, we are challenged to structure a framework to hold our tough questions. We realize that the belief in a God who orders or allows every action in this universe collides with the idea that humans have choice (free will) as well as the belief that God's ways are always loving. Even if we were to say that God chastens us for a time so that suffering can serve some ultimate good, we would still have to confront a God who causes short- term pain--which gives us a God who is cruel some of the time. We, just like the Psalmist and like Job, might feel as if God is causing or allowing pain or injustice in our life or in the world.  That's how it feels.  And we, like Job and the Psalmist, might pray to God to relent.  But if we believe in a loving God, then we have logical limits on any understanding that God is the author of suffering. So our theologizing gets complicated. We all have theological positions that shape us. As a congregation that regularly tries to do theological reflection together, let’s give space for diverse theologies even as we cultivate both disciplined spirits and disciplined minds. 

But staying in our heads is another danger for broadminded Progressives.  We bring to the public sphere an ability to expose root causes rather than simply apply band aid solutions to social problems, and we are pretty good at advocating and educating and creating new solutions, but we are prone to talking about issues rather than doing something.  We read and study and debate but sometimes fail to get around to doing. We are challenged to narrow the possible courses of action and then to pour our energies into that narrow, well-focused plan.

Likewise, we want to remain clear about Open Table’s mission and identity.  We can welcome everyone without pretending to the best place or path for everyone.  Our language and liturgy and symbols can stretch and accommodate—but not infinitely. We cannot be all things to all people. People may visit us and find we're not the best fit for them.  And we should be happy they figured that out.  People may be active with us for some time and then realize the path they are on no longer coincides with the path we are traveling.  And we can bless them as they make the next part of their journey with another group of sojourners.  We have the capacity to bless folks in their comings ad going with grateful hearts.

Here is our challenge, dear friends: to be broad in our welcome and our love; to be narrow in our focus, in our theological rigor, in our commitment, and in our ethical conduct.

PRAYER: Lead us, Jesus, in your way.  Where it broadens, expand our hearts.  Where it narrows, let us shed what is not essential.  Where it darkens, let us see by your light.  Amen


[i] http://day1.org/1473-the_peril_and_the_promise_of_being_met_by_jesus  Will Willimon tells this story in “The Peril and the Promise of of Being met By Jesus”