February 9, 2018 – The 187th Convention of the Diocese of AL
Opening Eucharist – For Social Service
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
We gather this afternoon as the assembled Diocese of Alabama, our particular stem on this particular branch of the Jesus Movement, and, even though we gather as a unified diocesan family, there are cracks running through the body of Christ. Some of them are hairline fractures that are too small for us to see. Others are deep rifts that feel like they could break us apart at any moment. But don’t lose heart: the body of Christ has been broken before, and that hasn’t ever gotten in the way of what God is doing in the world.
Where are the fissures and cracks that we bring with us today? What fractures do we embody by our very existence? What brokennesses have we papered over, like a couple desperate to sell their house, hoping that no one will notice what’s behind a fresh coat of paint or under the new carpet? What chasms do we hold out proudly in front of us for anyone and everyone to see like wounds that we choose to define us?
There are rectors who have angered their biggest pledgers by preaching about guns and gays and #BlackLivesMatter and whose vestries have begun to meet without them—not in an official capacity, of course, but just to talk about the situation. There are parishioners who resent the preferential treatment that others always seem to get—the newcomers who are allowed to sit wherever they want, the altar guild chair to whom everyone is expected to make obeisance, the ushers whose not-so-secret society is more selective than Skull and Bones, and the kitchen ladies who never seem to need any help because the same eight people always have every job covered. Then, there are the individuals and parishes and sometimes dioceses who decide to take a stand on whatever issue has ruffled their feathers this week, and there’s the rest of us who wonder why they care so much about the latest controversy when the “real problem” (in our not-so-humble opinion) is the work of the gospel however it is that we understand it. And, of course, there are the bishops who, depending on your perspective, aren’t doing enough about it or are getting too involved and who, as a result, are responsible for the whole mess.
Perhaps, as we gather together as the leaders of our diocese—bishop, priests, deacons, delegates, spouses, seminarians, and guests—it is important for us to remember that Jesus would have made a terrible rector, that no one would have ever elected him to a vestry, that the altar guild and ushers would have kicked him out long ago, and that, as a bishop, he would have been remembered as a dismal failure. Yet, even though Jesus never would have been accepted in any of those roles, he is still the hope of all of them—of all of us to whom he calls out, “Come, follow me.” And his call is the only thing that can bring us back together and reconcile us to God and to one another.
This gospel lesson from Mark 10 begins at a moment of real brokenness among the disciples of Jesus. As is so often the case in our own contexts, the cause of that estrangement is hidden from us—a part of the story not recounted in this abbreviated narrative. A few verses before our passage begins, James and John, while walking with the others on their way toward Jerusalem, caught up with Jesus, who was walking ahead of them, to ask him a favor. “Teacher,” they said to him coyly, “we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” We remember how that part of the gospel story plays out. James and John revealed their ignorance and their arrogance by asking their master if they might be granted the privilege of sitting next to him—one on his right and one on his left—when he came into his kingdom. To us, it seems like a ridiculous power-grab, and to the ten disciples who overheard them, it was a galling request that threatened to break their fellowship apart.
How could those brothers be so naïve? How could they travel this far with the Son of Man and not understand what he was all about? And, to make things worse, Jesus didn’t rebuke them the way that he had said to Peter so harshly, “Get behind me, Satan!” Nor did he reject their request outright just as he had sent away the rich young man a few verses earlier because that man had refused to sell all of his possessions. Any one of the other ten disciples happily would have traded the comforts that come with having a rich colleague like that would-be disciple for the empty arrogance of James or John. Mark tells us that the ten were indignant at them, and, as today’s gospel lesson picks up the story, we aren’t sure how this rift between the disciples could possibly be healed.
So what did Jesus do? “Jesus called them to himself.” He called the ten together along with James and John, and, right away, their hearts and the anger burning within them began to soften. Jesus called them together and reminded them that “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” None of them had been chosen by Jesus because of his accomplishments or his abilities or his particular brand of holiness. They had been chosen because of their willingness to follow him—to stand at the back of the line and follow the example of their master and become a servant of all. When Jesus calls you like that—calls you because of who he is and not because of who you are—it becomes easy to let the differences and disagreements that separate us fall away…at least at first.
But even those of us who walk in the back of the line behind Jesus have a tendency to forget how we got there. A few verses later, as the disciples and Jesus made their way through Jericho, a blind beggar heard who was passing through. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he cried out. Unable to see whether Jesus was near enough to hear him, the beggar sat on the side of the road, yelling out his request over and over, hoping that the famous rabbi would stop. But “many rebuked him, ordering him to be quiet.” They knew that Jesus didn’t have time to stop. By this point in his ministry, he was finished with miracles. His face was set firmly on Jerusalem. The work ahead of him was too important to allow for any distractions. If Jesus didn’t have time for a rich young man, he certainly didn’t have time for a blind beggar. But, to everyone’s surprise, Jesus stopped, and he said, “Call him.” And, when he did, something happened.
Yes, Bartimaeus, the last recipient of a healing miracle in Mark and the only one whose name is recorded for us, had his sight restored, but he wasn’t the only one whose blindness was cured that day. Notice what happened to the crowd when they heard Jesus call Bartimaeus: those who rebuked him became the very ones who said, “Take heart; he is calling you!” No longer was Bartimaeus seen as a distraction, an unworthy diversion that threatened to take Jesus and his disciples away from their mission. When the people heard that Jesus was calling the blind beggar, everything came back into focus, and they saw that, because of the master’s call, Bartimaeus was just like them, another disciple waiting to follow Jesus.
Something happens inside of us when we hear Jesus’ call. And something else happens inside of us when we hear him call those people who, in our judgment, don’t belong in his company. No one likes the Bartimaeus of our day. No one wants the important work of the church to have to stop and turn aside to address the cries of one blind beggar, one angry protestor, one radical diocese, one cause-happy parishioner or rector or bishop. But the call that Jesus issues to us is the same call that he speaks to them. None of us is called because of who she is but because of who Jesus is and because of who God is. God is the one who loves us with no regard for who we are or what we think or how we act. That is the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is the nature of his call. And, when we hear it, spoken both to us and to those whom we find most threatening, we discover that, in Christ, covered by God’s unconditional love, we are all one.