A Midtown Homily

*Given at Midtown Christian Community, Sept. 16, 2006*

Isaiah 50:4-9
James 2:1-5,8-10,14-18
Mark 8:27-38
Psalm 116

When we read the stories of the Bible that involve good and bad characters, we pretty much always associate ourselves with the good characters.  It’s easy to do this, since, even if we have a fairly low image of ourselves, our default setting is to imagine that we’re better than we actually are.  Surely the people who are condemned in Bible stories are other people, because we know that they’re not us. 

We’re the good people, obviously . . . because . . . , well, we just are!  And who are the bad people, the Pharisees and sinners?  Well, obviously, they’re the people we don’t like.  The Pharisees who are condemned by Jesus are those who question our motives and who give us a hard time, maybe a pesky neighbor or our roommate.  And “the Scribes” and “the Jews” that Jesus rebukes are obviously either Democrats or “the media” or probably those Hollywood-types.

This is fairly typical, which is why quite often those who tell the stories in the Bible need to then turn the corner and actually give the correct interpretation of the story.  Remember Nathan the prophet who came to David after he sinned with Bathsheba?  He told David a story about a wealthy man who owned many sheep.  When a visitor came by and stayed with this wealthy man, it was the responsibility of Mr. Moneybags to set before him a meal.  But instead of slaughtering one of his own sheep, he stole from a poor man his only sheep and used that to feed the visiting traveler.  And what was David’s response?  He did what any one of us would have done—he recognized the obvious transgression of the wealthy man and called for justice to be done. 

In fact, he responds to Nathan in spectacular fashion, rhetorically rising to the occasion in an impressive display of righteous fury, no doubt causing quite a stir in the royal court, inviting nods of approval from various officials and all the rest of those gathered.

You can just see David, in his righteous posturing, fantasizing about how amazingly regal yet so godly he appears.  He imagines the thoughts of the royal attendants: “Ah yes,” all the little people must be thinking, “isn’t Israel blessed to have such a wise and discerning king, knowing good from evil, courageously acting with just judgment, taking vengeance upon those who exploit the weak and innocent?  Just look at him as he moves with lightning speed to restore shalom by punishing the guilty!  Not only is he swift to judge evil but he’s so ahead of the latest fashions!  Is that robe from T.J. Max Steinberg’s fall line?”  He’s confident he’s left them breathless . . .

Nathan, as the reader of this episode knows, is having none of it.  He rebukes David for his textual ineptitude, his narrative blindness.  David has wrongly identified the characters in the story.  He is not the neutral observer in this little tale, and he is definitely not the innocent man who has been robbed.  He is the one who has acted with outrageous injustice, with high-handed wickedness; he is the one who has stolen from the poor man—Uriah, in this case, the honorable husband of Bathsheba, whose murder David had arranged.

So, David got a little lesson from Nathan, in this instance, in how to read texts—how to come to grips with stories.  We need to identify the various actors and players in biblical dramas and make note of the actions they perform and the consequences that follow. 

And then, we try each one on for size.  Which ones are we?  Are we the innocent person in the story?  The one being healed by Jesus?  The prodigal son returning?  The man born blind who confounds the Pharisees with his humility and courage?  Or are we the one whose actions are worthy of judgment?  Are we the angry older brother?  The unforgiving Pharisees?  The one who has stolen from the innocent?

Our texts for this week reveal some interesting dramatic lines in the Bible’s narrative—a few surprising turns in the Scriptural logic.  The two Old Testament passages have to do with the Lord’s help, and the passages that follow from the New Testament have to do with preferential treatment for beautiful people and Jesus’ paradox of losing your life in order to gain it.  What’s going on here?  Let’s take a look and try to discern some of the dramatic roles that are available and see which ones we are supposed to play.

When we read these OT passages having to do with the Lord’s being our help and our rescuer, we immediately are excited with hope.  Yes, the Lord is our help, our salvation, our place of refuge!  We like that, because we know we need it.  We are tired, worn out, abused, harried, hassled, stressed.  We have bills to pay and we don’t know how we’re going to pay them.  We are in relationships that are frayed and apparently disintegrating and we feel, quite often, as if the very fabric of reality itself is coming apart.  The Lord is our help… “Yes, indeed.  What great news. . . , now, how do we go about getting this help?  How do we begin feeling this rescue?”

Well, with our biblical texts arranged in the way that they are for this week, Brother James responds quite abruptly by drawing us up short—almost rudely.  “Wrong question,” says James.  “You’re confusing roles.  Your imagination is too limited, for there are more parts to be played in this drama than you realize.  The Lord is our help and our rescue, indeed, but what about those among you who are weak and poor and perhaps more needy than yourselves?”

It seems to me that James is inviting us to ask, “what part do we play in the Lord being a helper, a rescuer, to others?”  What if we expanded the horizons of our imagination so that we thought along these lines: “The Lord is a helper and rescuer, so how we see to it that others receive the help and rescue of the Lord?”

Like I said, we tend to imagine ourselves wrongly in Biblical stories.  Obviously, we aren’t showing partiality—that’s what other people do.  But is it the case that by failing to “try on” all of the dramatic roles available, we’re missing out a bit on the fullness of the biblical drama, keeping the rescue and grace of God from reaching to those who need it most?

What if we are the Lord’s help—the agents of his love and grace and supply of need in the lives of others?  What if we are the answers to the prayers of the needy? 

I don’t know if there are prayers going up to God from this neighborhood, but surely there are cries for help.  There is pain and desperation.  Perhaps there are desperate moments in the lives of many who are trapped in degradation and addiction and exploitation and oppression and who find themselves at extremely low points, who cry out to God for help . . . , and perhaps we are the answer.

A problem with all of this might be that we know our own lives very well.  We’re all busy.  We’re all stressed.  We are harried, hassled, and harassed, pulled in so many directions.  We all have so little wiggle room in our lives, so it seems that we just don’t have time to meet needs—we want OUR needs met.

Well, is this where our Mark text comes in?  Jesus says, “If you want to save your life, to find your life, then lose it.  Give up the middle-class rat race and actually find your life.”  Might it be that—for us—our finding the help, the rescue and the aid of the Lord will happen as we lose our lives as we have imagined them to this point, and as we find them more and more in this place—this neighborhood where, to the eyes of the flesh, there is no life, only decay.  Might it be the case that when we assume our roles as the agents of the love and grace of God to this place, we will experience and know the rest, the aid, the help and rescue—the love and grace of God.

I have no idea if any of this will resonate with you, if what I’m saying hits us in any way.  But it seems to me that what we must do if we are to be faithful to Jesus is to try on different roles in the biblical drama—to always be hearing Scripture in new ways so that its word of transformation and promise can be heard afresh.  We must examine our lives with discernment and wisdom and examine biblical characters and ask ourselves, who are we?  Where are we?  Do we need to be helped?  Do we need to help?

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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