(Proper 25. Yr B. Jer.31, 7-9) Mark 10, 46-52)

“What do you want me to do for you?”

The question which Jesus asks of the blind beggar, Bartimeus. Bartimeus calls him “Teacher” and asks to be allowed to see again.

Just before this incident, Jesus has asked the same question of his disciples, James and John. They had been walking behind him on the road to Jerusalem, arguing amongst themselves. Their answer was “When you sit on your throne in your glorious kingdom, we want you to let us sit with you, one at your right and one at your left.”

Jesus’ reaction to this request was not very encouraging. He asked them if they were prepared to suffer with him, and then, when they said they were, replied that it was not for him to choose who would sit with him in heaven. Then he reminded them again that he was not like an earthly king or master, and his fellow rulers would not be like earthy rulers. If they wanted to be first in the kingdom, they would have to become like slaves, the last in line, ready to give their lives to redeem others.

He was much more encouraging to Bartimeus. “Go, he said to him, “Your faith has made you well.” And immediately, Bartimeus was able to see again, and he followed Jesus ‘in the Way’.

When you read these two passages together, you discover that the narrative can be read on two levels. On the surface they are about a discussion between master and disciples, and a simple healing. But underneath, they are about the call to discipleship, and about understanding what that really means.

James and John are already disciples. They are insiders. They have already been called, and they think they know what this means. They think they can see, both physically, and spiritually. They think they are ‘on the way’.

But, in reality, they are blind to the true nature of Jesus’ Messiahship. They think it is about power, and prestige and status. They don’t really understand that the way to the kingdom is through service, humiliation, even death.
They’ve lost their way.

Bartimeus is not yet a disciple. His poverty and his disability mean he is an outsider and powerless. All he has is his faith, but that is strong. Like the woman with the haemorrhage he is prepared to do anything to make contact with Jesus.

So, he shouts – and in spite of discouragement and disapproval from the people on the inside, he keeps on shouting. And Jesus calls him; in verse 49, the verb call is used three times.

When Jesus asks him what he wants, Bartimeus answers that he wants to see again. But, ironically, because he has such faith in Jesus, although he cannot physically see, his spiritual sight is much better than that of the so-called disciples.

Jesus responds with a phrase that, again, can be understood on two levels: “Your faith has made you well” or “Your faith has brought you salvation”. Then the outsider becomes an insider; the beggar becomes a disciple; he throws away his only possession, his coat, leaps up and follows Jesus ‘in the way’ – on one level, the way to Jerusalem – but on another ‘The Way’ of the Christian life.

Every time we come into church, every time we pray, Jesus is asking us, too, “What do you want me to do for you?” What is your answer?

Are you here because you like flower arranging, or church music, or you enjoy the quiet? Are you here to escape from the outside world, to find refuge in something that doesn’t ever change much? Are you here because you can feel someone important in this small community ? None of these things is wrong. Jesus calls us first of all in order to heal us, so that we may be  free to follow in his Way.

But are you here in the hope that it will ensure you get one of the thrones beside Jesus in his kingdom (or at the very least your own cloud and a harp and a halo!)?That was James’ and John’s mistake, for which they were strongly reproved by Jesus. It is not what disciples are called for.

Or are you here to learn about being a disciple, to practise being a servant, to learn what it means to take up your cross and follow Jesus ‘in the Way’? Are you here to have your spiritual in-sight restored, to be strengthened through word and sacrament, to give your life and your time and your talents for other people? Are you here to have your life turned upside down, if that is what God is demanding of you? This is what these stories of discipleship say is Jesus’ purpose when he calls us.

Our new Bishop, Alan Smith, as he began his ministry among us three years ago, gave the diocese three priorities to work on. If we were to ask him “What do you want us to do for you?”, his answer would be: “Go deeper into God; transform your communities; make new disciples”.

Going deeper into God involves placing prayer and worship at the centre of the life of our church, exploring what it means to pray, and ensuring our worship is of the highest quality and attractive to all those who experience it – insiders and outsiders. Worship is important because it transforms us, displaces our own selfish egos, exposes our lust for power and our own self-aggrandisement, and gives us the inner security that enables us to turn outwards.

True, God-centred worship allows us to go out into our communities and transform them in the name of Christ.The faith of the Christians of the Victorian age prompted them to transform their communities in the physical sense. They built schools and hospitals, they struggled for social and political reform. They left a real legacy. What are we going to leave as our legacy? How far is our congregation a blessing to the community we live in? Each church needs to connect prayerfully with the communities in which they are set, and become increasingly open to welcome others to share the journey into God. Just because other people in our communities have different cultures or different religious beliefs, it doesn’t mean we can’t work with them to build up social cohesion and transform our communities into better places for everyone to live in.

Bartimeus was made whole because Jesus called him. Each one of us is here because someone, a parent, or a friend, or a teacher, or a neighbour, called us to come and explore the faith with them; and we have stayed because others have called us to discuss with them when our faith has been challenged. Those people made us ‘new disciples’. How equipped are we to present the faith to other thoughtful educated adults like us? How confident are we to share our faith with our children, and our teenagers, who are constantly challenged to deny their faith in the world outside? How ready are we perhaps to be converted again ourselves (as James and John needed to be converted again) before we are ready to go out and evangelise others?

And if, though God’s grace working through us, we were to become more successful in calling new disciples, how ready will we be to meet their needs? How ready are we to ask those who come though our doors “What do you want us to do for you?”. Will we actually be as disapproving and discouraging as the bystanders were to Bartimeus?

Bishop Alan spoke at some length about the importance of welcoming people properly when they come to church, and gave us some pointers about how to do that. He told us not to assume that everyone wants the same thing of us – or wants what we want. He urged us to be sensitive to the body language of newcomers. Some will come in quietly, and want to leave with just a smile and a handshake, and an expression of interest, especially if they have been bereaved or are going through a personal crisis. Others will want to talk – and be listened to, not talked at! Others come ready to get involved – but we need to train ourselves to distinguish the different needs of different people. He also warned us that new disciples will change our church – and if we don’t want that, we shouldn’t go recruiting them!

In our Old Testament reading we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking words of encouragement from the Lord, proclaiming God’s promise that a time was near when the sad and the sick in body and in mind, the young and the old would return. Could we make that passage part of our inspiration for our efforts to renew and revive this church?

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked his disciples – and they gave him the wrong answer. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked blind Bartimeus – and he was made whole again.

This week, as you say your prayers each day, can you hear Jesus saying to you “What do you want me to do for you?” – and will you give him an answer?

And will you also say to God “What do you want me to do for you?”

And will you be prepared to do what God asks?

Advertisements

Going to the Dogs.

August 14, 2011

Isaiah 56, 1 & 6-8; Matt.15, 10-28

A few days ago I was talking to someone from another Christian congregation about how to manage changes in a church. He said he thought there would be deep differences in his congregation about proposed courses of action, and that “Things would get political, and people would split into parties which is never a good thing in a Christian community”.

We tend to have a rather idealised view of the beginnings of the Christian church, seeing it as a community united in belief and practice.  In reality, it was far from united. One group of Christians, led by the remaining eleven disciples and the family of Jesus, evangelised only Jews, and saw their mission as largely confined to Palestine. For them, the Gospel was essentially a call to reform for Judaism, and Jesus came (as our Gospel reading says) for “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. It was only after the events of Holy Week had shown that most of the Jews rejected Jesus that the message could be taken to Gentiles; and if they wanted to be part of the Christian movement, they had to convert to Judaism, with all that involved in the way of keeping food laws, purity rituals, and circumcision for men. Paul, on the other hand, believed that the message Jesus brought was for all people, and saw himself as the apostle to the Gentiles. At the core of his message was the belief that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave of free, male or female”. (Gal. 3.28).

Our Gospel reading this morning reflects those tensions in the early Church community. In the first part you have Jesus stating that the food and purity laws don’t matter – supporting the Pauline view of his mission. But in the second part, you have him rebuffing the approach of a foreign woman, and stating the Jerusalem church’s line that his mission was primarily to the Jews.

We don’t actually know how much of this story goes back to Jesus. It appears only in Mark and Matthew, and Mark does not have the statement about Jesus’s mission to the lost sheep of Israel only. In Mark the foreign woman is a Greek Syro-Phoenecian; Matthew makes her a Canaanite woman, a member of a race with which the Jews fought for the possession of Palestine. Biblical scholars are divided over whether Jesus did speak and minister to the many foreigners living in Palestine at that time, or whether he preached and ministered only his fellow Jews. Some commentators believe Jesus would not have had any problem speaking and ministering to Gentiles, since he sat very light to the purity rules which demanded separation from non-Jews. Others think his mission was to recall his fellow Jews to their covenant with God, and he would not have involved himself with Gentiles.

Whichever of these was the case, the emerging Christian community struggled with the problems of how to cope with the many Gentiles who were attracted by the Gospel message, as the letters of Paul and the Book of Acts bear witness. Eventually, the problem was solved, as the Jewish Christian Church disappeared following the Jewish revolt, the destruction of Jerusalem and the deaths of the original Jewish apostles. Pauline Christianity became the orthodox view, and the idea that to be a Christian you had to convert to Judaism became so strange that the later editors of John’s Gospel could refer to Jesus’s opponents as ‘the Jews’ without any sense that Jesus himself, and all his early followers were, in fact, Jewish.

Perhaps it’s because we read this story from that perspective that this story is so profoundly shocking. Do we really follow a Saviour who was prepared to reject a woman who came to him asking for help just because she was a foreigner? Can we love a Saviour who called another human being a bitch?

Canaan dog

(Any minister of religion nowadays who used that sort of language to a female parishioner would find himself on the front page of the newspapers the next day!). And what do we make of a Son of God, whose mind about God’s purpose for his life is apparently changed by the witty repartee of an insignificant stranger who he has insulted? The story shows us a more human Jesus, one who is having to learn on the job about the mission his Heavenly Father has for him to do. It is very problematic.

Nowadays it would simply not be acceptable for an educated, civilised person to speak to anyone as Jesus is shown as speaking to this foreigner. Yet the gospel writers seem to have no problems about including this. How can we explain it? The Palestine of Jesus’s day was deeply divided along religious and ethnic lines, as it is still. There was virtually no interaction between different racial and religious groups, and especially not between men and women from different communities. For many Jews, the survival of their faith and their way of life depended on maintaining this separation from the foreigners who had invaded their land and oppressed them. So they felt justified in using this sort of language about them.

But the effect of using this sort of language about  other people is always to diminish our sense of their humanity. If they are ‘dogs’ they cannot be our brothers and sisters, they are not children of God, and we can leave them outside our concern.

This has been brought home to me forcibly this week as I read and watched the coverage of the riots in London and elsewhere. A woman in Ealing, who had watched her shop being trashed and the stock looted, called the perpetrators “feral rats”. A commentator on the Watford Observer website called them “feral scum” and “dog excrement” who should be shot on sight if they are found looting. Max Hastings called them “wild beasts”. While their anger at what happened is understandable to all of us who witnessed what went on, the effect of such name calling is to separate society into ‘them’ and ‘us’, and to deny to ‘them’ the human rights and consideration that underpin both our society and our faith.

But from those who perpetrated the rioting and the looting, there is a parallel dehumanisation of ‘the other side’. Two young women talked about the ‘fun’ they got from ‘getting stuff for free’ and how the riots showed ‘them’ – the rich, the police, the government, the Conservatives – that ‘we can do what we like’. A teacher from Tottenham writes about how a whole generation of youngsters has been inculcated with a distrust and hatred of the police, calling them names like ‘pigs’ ‘bacon’ ‘feds’ and ‘po-po’ that come from American city gang culture. Yet the same teacher said many of them are totally ignorant about the history behind such community attitudes, and have not actually had negative interaction with the police. But generations of mistrust have meant that “large groups of young adults in some cities have created a parallel antisocial community within the community, which operates by different rules.” In this subculture “acquisition of goods through violence is justified, the notion of dog eats dog pervades, and the top dog survives the best”. (Camila Batmanghelidjh http://tinyurl.com/3pjgj3w)

The causes of last week’s riots and looting are complex, and this is not the place to try to analyse them. But those who see the riots as a product of the unique conditions of 21st century British cities ignore a lot of history, and some of the evidence that is already emerging from the courts as the cases of those arrested are heard.

On the historical side, wise commentators have reminded us of the situation in the London of the 1820’s, when a feral underclass terrorised parts of London with street robberies. Or of the fact that looting was rife during the Blitz, the time when the conventional view is that Britain pulled together against a common enemy. An article in The Times yesterday gives an account of mob attacks on shops and businesses in South Wales in 1911, which only ended when the military were sent in. The shops were owned by Jews, and those who were convicted of the attack were respectable working miners and their wives. Others have reminded us that this sort of riots most often happens in the school summer holidays, when it’s hot, and that the end of the rioting might have had something to do with the heavy rain in some cities on Wednesday and Thursday as well as the increased police presence on our streets.

Analysis has shown that the riots took place in some of the most deprived areas of our country, with the highest rates of unemployment and child poverty. But similar areas did not have riots and looting. The court appearances so far have shown that the majority of the rioters were aged under 25, and male; but although many had no occupation, the proportion who were unemployed was no more than the average for these areas. Another interesting statistic is that 70% of those appearing in court came from outside the area which they were destroying or looting.

All ethnic groups appear to have been involved among the rioters and looters – and those who robbed or received looted goods come from across the social spectrum – like the young woman who came from a million pound home accused of driving a getaway car for a gang of looters, or the graduate who wanted to work with children who took a TV from a burnt out store – then handed herself in to the police because her conscience kept her awake. Some of the court cases have shown how easy it is to get caught up in lawlessness when everyone else is doing it.

Family breakdown has been blamed; but while some in court came from broken homes, others were there because their parents marched them down to the police station when they saw them on film of the riots, or found stolen goods in their possession. And while it has been widely asserted that the riots were a symptom of community breakdown, the clean up campaigns that immediately followed, and the moves to collect clothes, money and furniture for those who lost homes or businesses or were robbed, and the way people came together to defend their communities shows that community spirit is still strong in these same areas, even crossing racial and religious boundaries.

There are no easy answers; but there are things to do.

The Archbishop of Canterbury when he spoke in The House of Lords debate on the riots talked about the importance of rebuilding communities through education  based on the values of civic virtue, values which are as much needed among the rich and privileged as among the poor and deprived. This echoes what the Bishop of St Albans said in his address to Diocesan Synod in June about the rebuilding of the sense of community, known in the jargon as ‘social capital’. Bishop Alan emphasised particularly the need to increase not just  ‘bonding social capital’, the sort of community spirit that is so strong in our churches, which prompts people to look after other members of the community in difficulty; but also ‘bridging social capital’ the community spirit that prompts people to reach out to the wider community, to those who are different from themselves, and in particular to the newcomers, the aliens and those who are most vulnerable, and to build a community which includes them all. If we do this it will involve committing ourselves to caring for those who seem unworthy of our care. Caring costs as Jesus showed us, and caring also costs money – but so does rebuilding after riots and looting.

This sort of social capital, this reaching out across the social divides, to create a society which is one integrated community is what we call in religious jargon ‘building the Kingdom of Heaven’. That perfect community has never existed on earth, and perhaps it never will this side of Judgement Day, but it is our calling as Christians to work to build it, no matter how difficult it seems, and how any setbacks we encounter as we do so.

The story of Christ’s meeting with the foreign woman shows how the early Church came to realise that it was God’s will that they should (in Jewish terms) ‘go to the dogs’ and bring them – the Gentiles – fully into their community, the community that Isaiah foresaw, when the Gentiles would worship in the Holy City as part of one dedicated people.

This is what we must be committed to also – in our own time, and with our own ‘them’ – because otherwise our society will ‘go to the dogs’ in the worse sense.