Let Me See Again

Preached on October 25, 2015 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Mark 10:46–52. Keep in mind that these homilies are longer than usual, as they are preached in a non-Eucharistic service:

Well, who doesn’t know or like today’s Gospel story about Bartimaeus, son of old Timaeus.  Bartimaeus has a place in society. His role is that of the blind beggar. As a beggar his job is to remind passers by that they have an obligation to give alms. What Bartimaeus doesn’t have though, is the right to be too obtrusive. Bart may beg, but he may not badger the teacher. After all, we will tolerate the poor as long as they don’t become too demanding.

Bartimaeus oversteps this social rule with his loud appeals. Heart-wrenching and profound: “Son of David have mercy on me!” We are told that these words stop Jesus. He stands still and calls the man to himself. In response Bart does two things which are totally uncharacteristic for a blind beggar. He throws off his cloak and he springs up. Beggars, especially blind ones, do not throw off their cloaks and spring up. Not if they know their place and their craft, or graft. Beggars cower and cringe. The fact that Mark records this unusual behaviour suggests that the transformation of Bartimaeus has already begun.

I wonder sometimes what cloaks and cows us… What is keeping us from approaching Jesus? Our propriety, our lack of trust or our politeness? Do we come to church Sunday after Sunday, cloaked and cowering, watching the liturgical parade go by, sitting through worship untouched, never once letting the prayers and the hymns, the readings and reflections, the love of Jesus, touch our hurt and sorrow, our losses and our wounds? Perhaps we cower and remain silent because we fear others would tell us to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Thank God for this boisterous, blind, beggar, Bartimaeus! He doesn’t think twice about throwing propriety to the wind. He not only stops Jesus in his journey, he also elicits the strangest question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Hello?! Blind beggar! Isn’t it obvious what he wants?

Well perhaps not. Remember the Gospel from last week. In last week’s Gospel text, which precedes today’s, the disciples came off looking rather smug. They thought they had this Jesus all figured out. But not so! While Jesus talks to them about bearing crosses, they argue about who will be the greatest in the kingdom! If anyone is blind and deaf, they are. In both situations, Jesus asks the exact same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” What do James and John answer? “Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Do you hear the arrogance in those words? Do you “hear” the blindness in those words??? So here’s Bart today, and Jesus is not taking any chances; he doesn’t assume nothin’! After the arrogant answer of the disciples, it’s smart thinking to check what it is exactly that Bart wants.

But Bart, uncloaked and springing, unlike the disciples, our Bart wants the real change. He wants more than alms. He wants more than recognition, vain glory or prestige. He wants life!

Did you notice the interesting detail in his request? “My teacher, let me see AGAIN.” Blind Bart it seems had not always been unsighted and benighted. He had seen; he once knew colour, depth and shape. He once knew beauty and love and joy. He wanted it again. So do we, don’t we? And we too, no matter how awful life can be, have once known beauty and love and joy. And illness, physical—emotional—spiritual, can rob of us of all that.

And so Mark includes the sick a lot, and Jesus reaches out to the sick a lot. Because illness marginalizes us still today. When we suffer pain, physical or emotional, it keeps us from being able to participate fully in the life of the community. We can’t climb the steps as well as we used to, can’t drive after dark, can’t get out where we might infect others or be infected.When depression darkens our spirit, we don’t have the energy to invest in relationships or to see anything beautiful in life.

A few chapters earlier, Jesus healed the bleeding woman who touched the hem of his garment. Neither this poor woman nor our beggar Bart had friends to advocate for them. Both were pushed to the edges of society. Both take matters in their own hands. And both were commended by Jesus with the exact same words, “Your faith has made you well.”

The reaction of the crowd to Bart’s cries for help is interesting. First the crowd “sternly ordered” Bartimaeus to be quiet. Are they worried Jesus will be disturbed? Or are they using that as an excuse to quiet him because they are disturbed? Maybe they are disturbed by the reminder that there is pain in the world, they are disturbed by how close that pain has come to them—close enough to reach out and touch them, and they would just as soon not hear about it. They’d rather hear holy words from Jesus than the petitions of a sick man.

Let’s be honest; it’s darn uncomfortable when someone openly shares their need for help. It can be just as uncomfortable to walk past a beggar without reacting. I feel I did just about that a few days ago … and I feel ashamed about that, since I desire to be the face of Jesus in the world. A man walked into the community centre where I work, disheveled, asking for money and a place to stay. Instead of saying to him, take heart, sit down and have coffee, I immediately was on guard, not letting him touch my heart.  I just “tolerated” him while he made phone calls. I confess here this morning that I did not hear this man’s cries, and that I failed him and I failed Jesus.

Thank God Bartimaeus has better luck. He doesn’t keep his pain bottled up inside. He shouts, he cries out to Jesus. Far from avoiding emotional, hurting people, far from my own guarded heart only a few days ago, Jesus responded, called him over and faced the desperate hopes of a man in need.

I see in this Jesus story a human being in pain, who thankfully isn’t afraid to talk about it, and a community that initially is reluctant to hear his pain but eventually is willing to listen and to help. I pray in contrition that I may learn to do this next time.

Here’s a story about someone who was luckier than the man who I encountered a few days ago. Little or nothing in Annie’s life promised a rosy future. She was unschooled, hot tempered, nearly blind from untreated trachoma by age 7. Her mother died when Annie was 8. She and her little brother Jimmie were left with an abusive father and a dilapidated home. Two years later the father abandoned his children. Annie and her brother were sent to the orphanage for the poor.

Her little brother died a short time later. Annie was devastated; her life was lost before she had any, or so it seemed. Blind, poor, no one to help her see. But Annie cried out, just like Bartimaeus, for someone to take note of her. Lo and behold, a state official heard Annie’s plea and began securing some support for the rebellious and contrary teenager. After two unsuccessful eye operations, Annie was allowed to attend a school for the blind.

Her life changed dramatically. Annie quickly learnt to read and write. She also learned to use the manual alphabet in order to communicate with a friend who was deaf as well as blind. That particular skill opened the door to her future and a life of remarkable achievements. Anne eventually had several successful eye operations, which improved her sight significantly. She graduated as valedictorian of her class. A short time later, Anne accepted an offer to tutor a girl of 7, a girl who was spoiled, rebellious, stubborn, blind, deaf, and mute. That girl was Helen Keller, who credited Anne for letting her “see again.” Someone heard Annie’s cry for help, and Anne in turn reached into Helen Keller’s blindness in order to help her see again. And the rest is history, as we say.

“My teacher, let me see again,” Bartimaeus cried out. Whose cry for help do we need to heed? What if we learnt to throw off our cloaks of fear and embarrassment, and dared to talk about our pain? What if we learnt to make space for those who have trouble being heard, for those whose hardships have caused numbness and blindness of heart?

Today’s witness by Jesus summons us to this task. If we become like the disciples, telling folks to “shut up” we have no right to claim the name Christian. But if we become like the crowd, telling the hurting ones among us to “take heart” we may learn today’s lesson. Once we learn to listen and hear each other into loving speech, we will have begun to show one another the mercy and hope of Christ. Then we will exchange the arrogance and blindness of the disciples for the vision of God’s reign in Jesus where all blind beggars and bleeding women, all sinners and tax collectors, deaf and mute people have a place at God’s banquet of heaven. Our faith still has the power to heal us in this way.

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Bearing Witness

Ah, so many times I read another’s words and feel the resonance in my soul … saying what lives in my spirit so much better than I ever could. And so today, I share Sarah Bessey’s holy words — clear and fiery, gentle and ferocious:

Here is a consistency to which I bear witness: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against these things there is no law. I bear witness that we can believe in the “right” things, that we can have all our doctrinal ducks in a row, but if our lives aren’t icons of the incredible abundant and hospitable extravagance of our God, if we aren’t bearing good fruit, if our roots aren’t going down into the artesian wells of renewal and redemption and restoration, well, then, that is something but it is not grace and it isn’t a tree of life.

Here is a consistency to which I bear witness: the ones who lead well are the ones who lead from among the people of God, the ones who are alongside and not above, the ones who point to Jesus as the north star and the real Shepherd, who lay down power and lift up the voices of others, who tear down the boundary markers, who lay down the nit-picking of who is in and who is out, the ones who live as if we’re all in and we all belong. Delight and friendship and joy create room for the Spirit to play.

Read the rest of Sarah’s column

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A Time of Transition

You did not choose me but I chose you
And I appointed you to go and bear fruit,
 fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you
whatever you ask him in my name.
I am giving you these commands
so that you may love one another.
(John 15:16-17)

Many years ago I attended the beautiful celebration of a woman religious taking her final vows.  In his homily the presiding Bishop spoke about the many twists and turns our life path can take; yet God will not rest until we have reached the place prepared for us. Well, God has taken me on quite a journey in life, especially the journey of ecclesial ministry in the past 22+ years.

At various times in those same years I was compelled to step back and take stock, in order to listen intently to the promptings of the Holy Spirit both within my own heart and in the faith community as per my perceived sense of priestly vocation, a vocation not recognized by our beloved Roman Catholic Church. While I have never felt the urge to turn this experience of priestly call into a political cause, I have  been acutely aware of the controversial nature of such a claim. For this reason I have continuously strived to engage discernment with the utmost discretion and integrity, seeking direction through Scripture-based prayer and study, through mentoring conversations with wise and trusted individuals, Roman Catholic and otherwise, ordained and lay, as well as feedback from those on the receiving end of my ministry activities.

I have taken seriously the requirement to make important decisions with an informed conscience, and, I would add, “in community.” While such discernment is deeply personal, it is by no means private. As a baptized member of the Body of Christ, the Church, and as a recognized leader, teacher and mentor in that church, I live and exercise ministry in interdependence and accountability to all the members of Christ’s community of believers. It is my commitment to integrity and accountability that prompts this letter.

Acknowledging a call to priesthood is not an easy matter for a Catholic woman, as the Roman Catholic Church does not deem itself authorized by Christ to ordain women to the priesthood. I have had to face serious obstacles both outside and inside myself. Maybe the fact that I am soon turning sixty is giving a new urgency to the desire to respond more fully to God’s promptings, promptings that have been there for many years and persistently keep circling back into the affective, spiritual and ministerial orbits of my life. The promptings have defied my own resistance, ecclesial boundaries and current church teachings, even while they have been recognized and affirmed by many in the faith community. They have taken me into the sweetest, most intense and most beautiful spiritual and ministerial experiences, as well into the most challenging, most painful and most demanding intimacy with God. The promptings have tenaciously survived my own objections as well as the Church’s dismissal of the same. There is an authenticating power in having lived with this call for more than two decades. I have finally come to realize that this is so because inner promptings of this nature most likely have their origin in God’s dream, a dream that promises fullness of life: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)

In order to facilitate my response to God I have recently begun the process of becoming a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, where I will soon begin a formal discernment on priestly ordination. Already I am being warmly welcomed in this new ecclesial home, a home which, while possessing a distinct and unique ethos, considers itself an integral part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, Christ’s body on earth.

This decision was not taken lightly, however, nor is it motivated by a desire to attack or criticize the Roman Catholic Church. “Mother Church” will always be the womb in which both my faith and my priestly calling were nurtured and grew in maturity and depth. As Pope Francis says in his Encyclical The Joy of the Gospel in the section on Ecumenism: “We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face.” (par. 244)

Even though I am motivated by the desire to choose life there is nevertheless profound grief. Christ may not be divided but the institutional reality of his Church is. While ecumenical dialogue has reaped genuine fruits of profound respect, understanding and affection among the various ecclesial expressions of the Christian faith, my transfer to the Anglican tradition is nevertheless not formally approved by the Catholic hierarchy. Even though such a rejection causes great pain, in Christ’s own resurrection we see that deep suffering does not stop God from infusing our lives with redeeming power, grace and mercy. On this promise I stake my future.

I’m quite aware that not everyone will receive this news in a positive light. I can appreciate this; at times I too struggle to understand and accept choices others make. Allow me to offer a few thoughts in response to such a struggle. First I turn again turn to Pope Francis’ words in The Joy of the Gospel: “How many important things unite us! If we really believe in the abundantly free working of the Holy Spirit, we can learn so much from one another. It is not just about being better informed about others, but rather about reaping what the Spirit has sown in them, which is also meant to be a gift for us. … Through an exchange of gifts, the Spirit can lead us ever more fully into truth and goodness.” (par. 246)

Secondly, I suggest turning to some of the Roman Catholic documents on ecumenism, esp. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism and Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ut Unum Sint (That All May Be One) as well as some of the major agreements from the Anglican—Roman Catholic Dialogues of the past 40 years. These agreements show clearly our shared theology on the Eucharist, substantial mutual recognition of one another’s gifts and the acknowledgement of the action of God’s grace and mercy in both our traditions. Even if my decision stirs disagreement and struggle, can we nevertheless join in increased prayer for the unity of Christians?

While this may be difficult to comprehend, I do not feel I am “leaving.” On the contrary, I take the gifts and graces of my Catholic faith with me, desiring deeply to enrich my new ecclesial home with them. For I wish nothing more than that my personal ecclesial and ministerial journey may serve the quest for Christian Unity in the Body of Christ, a unity so fervently prayed for by Jesus on the final night of his earthly life.

I sincerely wish to thank all who have entrusted various ministries to me over the past 22+ years, in particular the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the people, staff and clergy, together with its past and current Bishops, of the Roman Catholic Dioceses of Prince Albert, Saskatoon and Regina. You have never ceased to affirm the gifts and talents God has given me. Thank you for your trust, encouragement and friendship. With gratitude and affection I take you all with me in my prayers, my heart and my future ministry.

For I am confident in this very thing,
that the one who has begun a good work in you,
will bring it to completion
until the day of Christ Jesus.
Phil. 1:6

(While I share the above freely and publicly,  I have felt strongly about living my experience of priestly call in non-political ways in the church, and I continue to feel this way. Let us grace one another’s paths with mutual respect and affection. Rest assured that my participation in the Catholic conversation on the ordination of women is not ending, merely changing. United in prayer God’s will be done.)

For follow-up reflections pertaining to my experience of this denominational transition, see the subsequent blog entries:

Transition Continued

Transition: The Inside Story

Transition: The Outside Story

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That Ugly Word

In the midst of deliberations in Rome at the Synod on the Family right now, I am reminded of my own homily on Mark 10:2-16, preached quite a few moons ago in a far away pulpit. For what it’s worth, I am sharing it here below:

It was not easy to prepare this sermon. I attended two Bible studies and read a number of commentaries on today’s readings. The Gospel in particular provoked quite a gamut of responses and opinions, such as:
“It is important to speak strongly of the Church’s teaching on divorce.”
“How can we uphold Church teaching when divorce is so prevalent around us?”
“Do not use the text as a whip to punish divorced people.”
“These texts have been used to keep victims in abusive marriages, so preacher beware.”
These thoughts, and more, probably go through our heads too as we hear Jesus’ words today. In the midst of this world, our world, full of broken relationships, we take time to hear Good News in these words of Jesus.

Divorce. The very mention of the word wrings our hearts and wrenches our stomachs. The breaking up of what God intends to be “one flesh” rips through all of our lives. We have all seen and touched the pain — if not in our own situation, we have seen that pain in loved ones whose lives seem permanently scarred by marriage break-up. The private experience of divorce between two people affects the whole community. Because divorce is more than just a marriage break-up.

Divorce is merely the public recognition of a private reality that precedes its necessity. Behind the legal process lies the alienation and separation of a woman and a man. Behind the legal term lies the pain of having lost confidence, dignity and respect.

Sometimes unhealthy behaviours of abuse, power and control violate marriage vows long before divorce is pending. Sometimes a growing apart creeps in over time, driven by over-focusing on individual self-fulfillment or just plain boredom. We stop loving, and the “one flesh” is far to be found. Even if we never seek divorce, every marriage risks falling prey to a daily flatness and drudgery, far from the “one flesh”-union that spells fulfillment for each partner. Even when enjoying a healthy, loving marriage chances are very big that we experience the pain of break-up in other ways with those close to us.

Whether we call it divorce or break-up, we are all prone to get burnt in relationships. We invest ourselves in another, giving and receiving closeness and friendship. But even the best of friendships are tainted with the pain of separation, rejection, alienation. Husband or wife, parent or child, friend or foe, none of us are safe. Within our parish community, within our own selves and even with God, separation hurts and scars. It is not good for us to live alone. It is not good for us live cut off from the human community, cut off even from God.

It is that reality, the sin of human alienation, that Jesus addresses here. It is that reality, more than the law on divorce, that is judged as not part of God’s intent at creation. The Pharisees come to Jesus, asking a question to test him. We too are all ears to hear the answer. Like the Pharisees, we get caught in living our religion, and our relationships, like keeping a balance sheet. If we keep the religious laws, we will earn God’s grace. If we keep the minimum rules of getting along, our marriage will last. Jesus does not buy into that system. Jesus confronts us with both the sinfulness of all separation and with the glorious grace of God’s reconciliation. Legalizing divorce does not take away its sinful character, nor does it alter God’s original intent of joining man and woman into one flesh. Legalizing divorce does not make any broken relationship right,
nor does it take away God’s forgiving and healing action toward us. We suffer from hardness of heart, but God is still the God of forgiving and healing love.

It is not our job to pass judgment on others, nor to bury ourselves in guilt and shame over our sin. It is our job to face our own hardness of heart. We try to be God, in our own life or in someone else’s life — and our heart hardens. We presume, with the Pharisees, that we can earn our way into heaven by keeping religious laws — and our heart cuts itself off from compassion and understanding. We seek only our own gain — and our heart grows cold to the pain we inflict on others. We are obsessed with hiding our woundedness — and our heart buries itself in the illusion of perfection and false humility. We help sustain a culture that promotes individualism and self-gratification — we help grow the collective hardness of heart. We help sustain religious attitudes and practices that contradicts the spirit of community — we collude with the sin of not supporting one another when our marriage feels adrift. One’s marriage is such a private affair, we think. Before we know it, our “non-interfering”, and our inability to seek help grows hardness of heart — wherever we turn. We may not call every break in relationship a divorce. But every time we find ourselves alone, without support, cut off from our partner, alienated from community, we experience the pain of divorce. That is why it is not good for us to be alone.

Jesus levels the playing field. As men and women we are equally free to enter relationships. Once committed, we are equally responsible to grow in God’s love toward one another. Jesus urges us to take the sanctity of relationships, especially marriage, very seriously. Creation may be broken and fallen from God’s original intent. Our culture may be adrift in how to support lasting relationships. But these are not reasons for despair, nor for ignoring Jesus’ answer. Jesus asks us to be responsible for the quality of every relationship in which we find ourselves. As a community of faith we are called to account for the measure of support we offer one another. Far beyond quarreling over the permission to divorce, we are called to change our behaviour — to show more compassion than criticism, to listen more than we talk, to relate to one another as equals before God. Jesus condemns all separation and brokenness as sin. On this level playing field, we all stand wanting.

Before God, we are reminded of the purpose and goodness of creation. Before God, we are all called to become “one flesh” — in the community of marriage, in our parish community, in the world. In the daily routine of living, it is not good to be alone. As followers of Jesus, it is not good for any of us to be alone.

Children know that it is not good to be alone. Children do not hide their need for love. Children are ready to forgive and reconcile, often long before adults are. Children reach out without shame. In the middle of his serious conversation with the Pharisees, Jesus takes the child onto his lap.

In a society where children had no rights or social status, Jesus models before our eyes God’s kingdom of right relation. No matter how painful the separation, or how big the fight, children continue to reach and ask to be held in loving care.
No matter how foolish our questions, how fearful our doubts, how great our shame, God gently reaches out to us and nudges us toward right relation with one another.Despite the sinfulness of separation, as God’s children we may experience the reconciling love of God in Jesus Christ. Held by Jesus, not stopped by anyone, we come to see all our relationships as holy places where God’s own presence and power is at work. That loving power of God in and through Jesus is infinitely greater than any of our sinful separations can ever be.

Jesus draws attention to this realization by welcoming children. Following the lead of today’s Gospel, I too will end with a story featuring children: a girl in elementary school had to do a project for science class. She decided to build a model of the world. So she took a rubber ball for her globe, carefully cut construction paper in the shape of all the continents, and glued them on to the ball. When she finished, she set the project on the table and went outside to play. About this time, her little sister Sally came in and began to play with the globe. She took Africa and tore it off; she began to chew on China; and she took a crayon and coloured all over Europe. Just then, her older sister came back in.
When she saw what had happened, she screamed at the little girl: “Sally, look what you’ve done. You’ve ruined everything. I hate you!” … Well, the little girl was utterly crushed. She ran away in tears. But when her sister realized what she had done, she found her little sister, threw her arms around her and hugged her close, saying: “Sally, you’ve messed up my world, but I still love you.”

You mess up my world, and you mess up relationships, but I still love you, and I continue to create you in my image, male and female, called into one flesh… — says the Lord our God… AMEN

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