Nov 1, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
The 19th century biologist Ernst Haekel once proposed that “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny.” In regular English, what he meant was that while you were in your mother’s womb, for a while you looked like an amoeba, then a sea squirt, then a fish, and so on until you finally got looking more or less human. Haekel’s theory was a little simplistic but he was right that as an embryo you once had slits on your neck that looked very much like gills. Imagine if you had been born at that point in your development and by some science fiction miracle were still able to live and function. You’d have been caught between worlds, not really a fish but still not yet entirely a human being, frozen forever in your process of becoming.
The blind man in the story from Mark steps for a moment into this “almost but not yet,” experience. In the only two-stage healing in the gospels, the blind man is brought to Jesus to be healed and yet, after Jesus lays his hands on him, the man can only partially see.
“I can see men,” he says, “but they look like trees walking.” The man is becoming but he has not yet become and this healed-yet-not-quite-healed man captures the state of most of us in our Christian development.
The church is supposed to be a community of saved people — a community of the saints — but we more often feel like the partially healed blind man, stumbling about in the murky fog or to use Haekel’s metaphor, it’s like we got stuck somewhere along the way of our development and and still look pretty fishy around the gills.
Two school children were discussing their parent’s occupations. One little girl said that she was the daughter of a preacher.
“Really?” said the other. “I’m Presbyterian. What abomination do you belong to?”
We are “children of God, yet not-quite children of God,” becoming-but-not quite become, wanting to live fully in God’s realm of compassion, forgiveness, and mercy toward others, but clinging to the past and our old sinner selves.
The story of the healing and re-healing of the blind man in the gospel of Mark is not only a powerful story of our condition as Christians, but it is also a description of why we find ourselves in this condition. Mark has placed this episode smack dab in the very center of his gospel. Before this scene, Jesus has invited the disciples to follow him in proclaiming the Kingdom of God and they have enthusiastically joined him. After all, Jesus is walking around Galilee healing diseases, casting out demons, calming storms, walking on water, and feeding thousands of people with just a bit of bread and fish. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? Anyone with eyes will be able to see that committing ourselves to Jesus can remake our lives. He can heal our wounds, drive out the troubles that plague us, help us to bear the unbearable, and we too will be able to walk on the stormy waves and not drown.
“I’m with you, Lord,” the disciples declare, and when Jesus finishes healing the blind man, Peter can contain himself no longer.
“My Lord,” he exclaims, “you are God’s Messiah. You are the one God has anointed to come and save us and give us life!”
Peter thinks he gets it. He thinks he understands. He thinks that by declaring allegiance to Jesus, Jesus’ power will pour over him and he too will have abilities far beyond those of mortal men! He will be able to change the course of mighty rivers, and bend steal in his bare hands! Nothing will harm him now, Peter thinks— not Romans with swords, not demons with fire, not the turbulence and sufferings of our human world, not even the flu.
“Thanks be to God!” the disciples declare. “You are just what we need! We can see it all now!”
But like the blind man seeing trees walking, the disciples’ sight is incomplete, which becomes evident when Jesus describes exactly what this new life must look like:
“He began to teach them,” Mark says, “that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again….” And then Jesus, who for eight chapters has been wowing the crowds with miracles, now turns his face toward Jerusalem and the cross and calls his disciples to follow him. The disciples struggle with Jesus’ words all the way to Jerusalem, and even ditch him at the end because they don’t understand how the cross could possibly lead to the new life that Jesus has promised.
There’s a cartoon which shows a minister leading a bible study class. He looks at the bible in his hand and says, “Now verse 33 is one of the most difficult and controversial passages in the whole bible… So let’s go on to verse 34.”
We like Jesus’ promise of healing. We like his promise that with him we can make it through whatever life throws at us and that we will know his comfort and peace, but we don’t want to hear the second half of Jesus’ command that to get all of that — to save our lives — we have to lose them. Like the disciples, we struggle to see how giving up life could possibly lead to life.
The problem is that the world has taught us that life is a zero sum game. We started learning this way back in kindergarten: if Dick has one apple and gives that apple to Jane, Dick has no apples left, right? Isn’t that how things works?
If I give my money to someone else, I will have less money for myself.
If I give my time to someone else, I will have less time for myself.
If I give up my pride for the sake of another’s ego, I will have less pride for myself.
If I give up a fight and turn the other cheek, I will have less honor for myself.
If I give, I will have less — it’s just a matter of math, we say.
But Jesus challenges our arithmetic and says, “It is the ones who try to keep everything for themselves who have nothing in the end.” After all, if you take and take and take, gathering everything to yourself, then when you die, everything you lived for goes into the ground with you. You cease to be of any importance to the world and you are done. That’s it; ball game over. But, if during your lifetime, you give and give and give, your life grows way beyond the limits of your mortal self. Your love spreads out in great waves to touch innumerable hearts, and when you die, your spirit remains at work because you have already sent it out before you. And when you give your life to God, you have hitched your heart to the one who has no limits, but extends eternally to the very edges of the universe, into eternity, and there is not a grave anywhere that can hold a love of such dimension.
If you want to save your life, if you want your life and love and spirit to extend beyond the grave and last into eternity, you have to spend your life now on the things that last. This is, after all, what we are declaring on All Saints Day: we are saying thank you to those people in this church and in our lives who were so determined to give their lives for others that we remember them still. They didn’t cease to be on the day of their death but they stepped forth from the grave into new life, into the life they had been working to make throughout their mortal days, and they continue even now among us, living on in the hearts of those they touched, in the continuing work of this church, and in the embrace of the unending God.
Jesus wasn’t commanding his disciples when he said, “Those who would lose their lives will save them;” he was just stating the truth of the way it is. If we want to truly live, we have to give, for every time we give of ourselves to others, we send our lives out to attach ourselves to the hearts of others, and days yet to come, lived out in the never-ending love of God.