March 13, 2016
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
In case you hadn’t noticed, our country is in the middle of a presidential campaign and over the course of a long campaign it’s easy for candidates to begin to lose their focus. The NY Times last week tallied 49 subjects that have been brought up at least once during the candidates’ debates, topics ranging from income inequality and immigration to hand size.(1) Some of you may remember back in 1992, Bill Clinton’s campaign director James Carville hung a sign in the Little Rock office that said, “The economy, stupid,” to try to keep his staff focused on the central issue he believed should shape Clinton’s candidacy.
Well, politicians are not the only ones who can become distracted from their core focus. The Christian church has, throughout its history, debated issues ranging from the extremely serious to the seemingly trivial. In the trinitarian debates of the 300s, church officials argued over whether Jesus was “of the same substance as God or only of similar substance as God,” and people were exiled and killed if they were on the wrong side of the debate. Martin Luther challenged the Catholic church’s policy of allowing people to buy their way out of purgatory leading to the biggest church schism in the western history. Congregations today argue about music in worship, the proper translation of the Bible, whether to budget money for a new roof, how much authority the minister should have, and whether to collect the offering before or after the sermon. (Seriously — one church split over that issue.) And even when churches sincerely try to address society’s problems, they may tie their faith so strongly to a particular social stance that Jesus gets lost in the politics of the day. It is easy for us as Christians to become distracted from our core focus. And what is our core focus as Christians?
The gospel of Mark would say to us, “It’s the cross, stupid.”
The gospel of Mark presents us with many of the same teachings that we find in the other gospels, and relates the same healings and miracles of Jesus that had been passed along faithfully by those first Christians but he carefully arranges the order of that material to return again and again to the central theme of the cross. As I mentioned in the bulletin, the gospel of Mark is in such a hurry to move Jesus toward Jerusalem that some scholars have called chapters 1-13 just a long prologue to Jesus’ crucifixion, and the closer we come to Jerusalem in the narrative, the more Mark hammers away at the disciples’ refusal to understand that this journey of faith will carry them all the way to Golgotha. In the last couple of chapters, Mark has presented a ping pong-ing conversation between Jesus and the 12 with Jesus over and over again warning them the coming tribulation while they over and over again willfully ignore his words:
Jesus tells the disciples that he will suffer many things and they say, “Hey, don’t worry, Jesus. We won’t let that happen!”
Jesus tells them that he will be treated with contempt and the disciples ask if they can have the best seats in the coming Kingdom.
Jesus tells them that he will be betrayed and they argue about which one of them is getting the “Disciple of the year” award.
Jesus tells them that he will be mocked and spit upon and killed, but they just look at him blankly and say nothing because they refuse to see.
And into their silence breaks the voice of the blind man Bartimaeus, who unlike the disciples, is desperate to see. He wants nothing else but to be healed of his blindness. He calls out to Jesus, “My teacher, let me see again!” He not only pleads with Jesus to give him sight, but he so absolutely confident that Jesus can and will cure his blindness, that he throws off his cloak as he makes his way to Jesus’ side. You know, if you not sure that Jesus’ healing is going to work, you don’t leave your coat lying by the roadside where you might have to feel around for it later.
Bartimaeus, however, knows that he is blind and he is just as certain that Jesus is the one who can heal him, who will heal him, who will make his life whole again. And don’t think that this is just a story about another physical healing: Watch what Bartimaeus does after his eyes are opened. The gospel says, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way [to Jerusalem.]”
It’s the cross, stupid. Bartimaeus’ eyes were open and he could see exactly where all of this was leading. And he followed.
Christians have made Christianity about a lot of things: we have made it about doctrine and we have made it about social justice and we have made it about liturgies and we have made it about institutional structure and those issues are important and necessary to a life of faith, but we should never forget that they are not the starting point of the gospel. At its very core, the gospel — the good news of Jesus Christ — is about the cross. As Paul says, “We preach Christ crucified.” Our Savior didn’t die of old age but knowingly and willingly walked right into Jerusalem, into the teeth of power, where the Roman government and the Temple authorities beat him up, mocked him and whipped him, and then nailed him to a cross between two common criminals as if he were no more than trash. And just to make sure that we don’t hurry over this dark place in Jesus’s story and rush to the resurrection, the gospel of Mark makes short shrift of Easter. He takes two full chapters to describe the crucifixion while he gives the resurrection just 8 short verses.
Because the good news, the gospel declares, is revealed on Golgotha. On that hill, all of the powers of the world and the powers of the cosmos joined forces to try to exterminate this gracious love that Jesus insisted should be the law of humanity. The rulers were filled with fear — fear that if they acknowledged the humanity of the least among us, they would lose their status; fear that if they showed compassion and mercy, their authority might be compromised. They were afraid of all of the same things that we are afraid of today: change, the unknown, the future, people unlike themselves, new ways of thinking, new ways of being together. They were enslaved to the demonic power of fear and fear caused them to bring the hammer down upon Jesus and nail him to the cross.
And they were not the only ones afraid. The disciples were afraid — afraid for their own skins, afraid that they couldn’t manage the life that Jesus asked of them, afraid that if they shared his grace with others there would be less for themselves. And the demonic power of fear led one of those disciples to betray Jesus, and another to deny him in his hour of need, and the other 10 to run and hide like scared rabbits. Oh, the demon fear that possessed them stripped them of their loyalty and their love and their own self-integrity; it stripped them of everything that is the best of being human.
How terrible a thing fear is. It possesses us until we lose ourselves in it. We who would be compassionate loving people are changed by our fears into suspicious nervous nellies. Fear leaves us quick to judge others, quick to shout out in hatred and anger, quick to build walls so that we can hunker down behind them quivering anxiously afraid that even those walls might be breached one day. Our fears are so strong, so demonic, that they literally blind us until we can see nothing but our fear.
In the Wizard of Oz, the Cowardly Lion sings a tribute to the remarkable power of courage, saying:
“What makes a King out of a slave? Courage!
What makes the flag on the mast to wave?…. Courage!
What makes the sphinx the seventh wonder? What makes the dawn come up like thunder? Courage!
What makes the Hottentot so hot? What puts the “ape” in apricot?
What have they got that I ain’t got?”
To which his friends reply, “Courage!”
And the Lion says, “You can say that again!”
And we are right there with the Cowardly Lion, with the disciples, laid low by our fears. Think of all of the things that you do that you know you shouldn’t do because you are afraid. And think of all of the things that you don’t do that you know you should do but you are too afraid. Wouldn’t you like to be free of your fear? Wouldn’t you like to see without having to peer through the darkness of your fear? Wouldn’t you like to be healed of that blindness?
Jesus says, “I can heal you. I can save you. All you have to do is follow me to the cross. There on the cross you will confront your fears and shout out, “Oh demon fear, I trust that my God who is with me is stronger than the strongest fear. I trust that my God who is with me will remain whatever comes and that God’s love will hold me together as the powers do their worst and I will not be destroyed.”
“Follow me,” Jesus said, “right into the very heart of your fear. We will pass over it and through it and I will bring you safe to the other side. And when you turn around to see where we have been, the fear will be gone, because its power over you will have been broken. It will have been nailed to the cross and only love will remain.”
It’s the cross, stupid. On the cross, we are freed from our fears and saved by love to love. That is the heart of the gospel.