Monday, October 26, 2009

Beggars of Mercy

Sermon: Oct. 25, 2009
Text: Mark 10:46-52

I need to begin with a word of thanks to all of you who sent your words of support and offered your prayers for my brother’s surgery – it means a great deal to me. Having been away as much as I have, I return all the more grateful for you, and to you.

My brother came through the surgery very well. He has always been athletic, and at the age of 55 he was healthy and strong before the tumors in his brain showed up. That health is making his recovery much easier. His prognosis, however, is still very sobering. So I thank you for your prayers, and beg you to keep them coming.

The waiting room at Veteran’s General Hospital in Taiwan is not like waiting rooms in the United States. First, it’s not really a room; it’s more like an airport terminal: a large open space with probably 100 or so chairs all facing in one direction, lined-up in rows and bolted to the floor. The walls are high and white; at the front of the area is a large flat-screen TV which, thankfully, never gets turned on. A large sign with lights and numbers on the wall tells you when your loved one is out of surgery, and a very loud voice on a loudspeaker tells you where to go to see him or her.

But in one respect, at least, it is just like every other hospital waiting room anywhere in the world; because it is filled with people praying, almost always silently, privately, and desperately, to whatever God that will listen.
And in that respect it’s no different from this room here, saturated, as it is, with our sometimes desperate prayers.

Over the years, these walls have absorbed countless cries for help. Like Bartimeaus in our gospel reading this morning, we become beggars of God’s mercy: “Son of David,” we cry, “have mercy!”

Over the past two weeks, sitting for hours on end in that hospital, I’ve been reminded, once again, of what it’s like to pray those desperate words. My siblings, my brother’s wife, and my father have all entered into a kind of sober fellowship with other beggars for mercy.

One day while we were waiting to go into the intensive care unit a family came into the hallway – 8 or 10 people, Chinese, of course, at least 3 generations. My father and I stood up to offer them our seats, they politely refused; and we refused to sit down. So we just stood around for awhile, awkwardly staring at the floor and the walls and the empty seats – for a moment it was just like being back in Minnesota, we were all being so polite. After a time we exchanged friendly glances; someone in their group who spoke a tiny amount of English asked me where I was from; I said, “California;” and they all recognized that word and repeated it, and someone said “Surfing!” and everyone laughed. And then, having exhausted our shared vocabulary, we grew silent again. After a few minutes I noticed one of the daughters in the corner, weeping quietly.

That was the sum total of the words we exchanged. I don’t know if they were Christians or Buddhists or what, but in that silence I knew we were sharing the same prayer: “Lord, have mercy!” We could have been monks at that moment; or beggars by the side of the road, who, no matter what was going on around us, kept up that quiet chant, “Lord, have mercy!”

When Bartimeaus, the blind beggar, gets his chance for mercy, he takes it; and he doesn’t take it quietly. He shouts out his chance, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” He has reached that point of desperation; he doesn’t care about propriety; people tell him to pipe down but he shouts it out, all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

And then Jesus stands still, and speaks to one of his disciples, and the disciple comes to him and says, “Take heart, he is calling for you,” and – this is my favorite part - immediately Bartimeaus leaps up, and throws off his cloak, and runs to Jesus.

It is my conviction that this story is given to us as a kind of contrast to the story of the rich young man, which is found earlier in this same chapter of Mark’s gospel. In that story, as you will remember, the rich young man, full of propriety and wearing beautiful clothes, completely confident in his ability to meet any challenge, asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life.

Notice: his language of ownership - as if salvation were just another thing to acquire; and something due him. He doesn’t ask for mercy; he doesn’t need healing of any kind; he is strong and rich and the world is his oyster – just point the way, he says, full of confidence and competency: tell me what to do and I’ll do it.
So when Jesus says, “Take all that you own, and sell it, and give the money to the poor, and follow me,” the rich young man immediately does the opposite of the blind beggar; rather than throwing off his cloak and following Jesus, he clings even more tightly to his cloak; he takes a step back, and withdraws into a life of emptiness.
I have always had a fondness for the rich young man; I imagine his clothes so beautiful, just as they are illustrated in our stained-glass window behind the organ; that beautiful jewel perched on his velvet hat. His dilemma is so poignant and sad. I’ve always imagined that, many years later, after the young man had grown older and wiser, he finds another community of Christians, and this time he doesn’t ask to inherit eternal riches, but rather asks, simply, for mercy.

You see, in the Gospels, wealth is never about money; wealth is about attachments, and pride; wealth is about the ways in which money separates us from God by feeding our illusions. Jesus is constantly pointing out to us the illusions that money brings: the illusion that we own it, rather than that it owns us. What better illustration of that than the rich young man, whose possessions control him so completely as to deny him the ultimate joy?

Money gives us the illusion that we are deserving of our wealth; which is the opposite of gratitude, isn’t it?

The neurosurgeon who operated on my brother’s brain in Taiwan, one of the top neurosurgeons in Taiwan, makes a tiny fraction of the salary an average brain surgeon in the U.S. makes; he works 7 days a week, he gets no vacation time, and he lives in a dormitory next to the hospital. A dormitory! By any professional American standard he is poor and oppressed – and it doesn’t occur to him that there’s anything wrong with that. He is grateful for his work and his life. Meanwhile, his counterpart in the U.S. is richer than God, and strides the earth like a Titan; and for him, gratitude is a nice idea.

The poor have so much to teach us. In our own poverty, whether it’s a poverty of spirit or a material poverty, God is so near.

In the gospels, wealth and poverty are symbols for the spiritual life. And more than symbols: our relationship with money is a living testimony to who we are as people. Someone once said that a checkbook is a moral document. Jesus would agree with that. How we spend our money speaks volumes about our values.

And so you can see how I’m working my way toward Pledge Sunday…

Yes, today is Pledge Sunday and in a moment we’re going to hear Pat and Linelle encourage us to reflect for a moment on our giving to this church. And, I guarantee you, unless we are the greatest of saints, we will all have our little “rich young man” moment. A variety of thoughts will come into our heads. Some of them will be downright cynical: “Oh, here we go again, how much will they want this time?” We will find ourselves clutching our cloaks just a little more tightly and we will instinctively withdraw.

We all do this. “Here comes the preacher with his hand out.” Even I think this! While I’m writing this sermon I’m thinking this: “What’s he gonna ask of me this year?”

And of course, they will ask of us what they ask of us every year, which is to pray over our giving. That might be the hardest thing. They will ask us to reflect on what this church means to us; what our life in God means to us; what our checkbooks say about us. They will ask us to take a breath; and to move beyond the rich young man moment of resistance, into something more closely approximating Bartimeaus, flinging off his cloak and running, unrestrained, unrestricted, with joy in his heart, to the feet of Jesus.

And they will also mention something called proportional giving. This is of a piece with everything else we’ve been talking about. Proportional giving has to do with the ancient practice of acknowledging that everything we have comes from God, and to God we offer the first fruits of our lives. Instead of looking at what we have left at the end of the month after we’ve paid all our bills, proportional giving asks us to think about the whole of our income – whether we’re rich or poor – and dedicating some portion of that to God.

You will notice that they will not suggest to us what portion of the whole to give; whether that be 10% or 1% is entirely up to us; they will not advise us as to whether we should calculate this on pre-tax or after-tax income; they will not even suggest that we give this portion to the church. Indeed, there are many worthy charities begging for our money. They will simply suggest that we consider our giving as our first fruits, acknowledging God as the source of all that we have, resisting the clutches of our possessions on us.

But Pat and Linelle will suggest that the Biblical standard of 10% is a goal worthy of our striving; and they might even suggest that we consider making the commitment to working toward that goal, increasing our giving by 1% each year: so that if I am giving 4% today, I might strive toward 5% next year.

Rose and I have prayed over this, and despite the fact that our income has taken a hit with this recession and we still have a child in college, we will once again, as we have before, increase our giving along that continuum. We do so joyfully, and with deep gratitude for all the riches of this life, and we encourage each of you to do the same.

We give thanks to you; we are grateful for all that you bring to this church and all that you do to the glory of God; and we give thanks to our most generous God, to whose glory we are dedicated.