Proper 24, Year C, 2016

I was an uptight little girl. I liked order. I liked to know what was happening. I was never totally convinced my very competent parents had everything under control. And so, one of the refrains I heard over and over again as a little girl was, “Sarah, stop NAGGING.”

To nag, I learned was unattractive, annoying, and pushed people away.

What a delight, then, to find a parable in which Jesus is telling his male disciples that faith sometimes looks like a nagging woman.

In the world of the parable, there is a man in power that is so disconnected from God and God’s justice that he even says, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. He owns that he is not a good guy, certainly not interested in helping a widow. But this widow, a vulnerable woman, has been wronged. And she is not going to give up. She comes to this unjust judge over and over and over again. She nags him unrelentingly. And so, finally, he gives in. She wears him down and she wins justice.

And if you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament carefully, you’ll see this is how Biblical women operate. Women in the Bible don’t have a lot of political or social power. They can’t own property, they can’t decide where they move, their stories are dictated by the men in their lives. People without power are not always able to get things done directly. People without power have to manipulate and subvert power in unexpected ways. Biblical women working behind the scenes, on the margins, brought to bear our faith story the way we know it.

My favorite example of this is how Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau, manipulates her sons and her husband into making sure her favorite child, Jacob, gets the birthright. Do you remember the story? Esau is the very hairy firstborn who gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. And then Rebekah convinces Jacob to put on a goatskin to trick his blind father into thinking smooth skinned Jacob is hairy Esau. She is incredibly pushy—and God uses her to get the heir with whom he wants to work. Jacob is the chosen one, and God uses Rebekeh to make that happen.

Rebekah is not the only example. In one of the weirder stories in the Bible, God comes to kill Moses, but his wife Zipporah, intervenes by touching a piece of their son’s foreskin to Moses’ feet. Mysteriously, this makes God relent and Moses continues his work. I do not recommend trying this at home.

Years later, when the Israelites are trying to move into the Promised Land, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to check things out. They get discovered and prostitute named Rahab hides them on a roof under some stalks of flax.

Over and over again, women in the Old Testament use their cunning to do the work of God. Biblical women are not passive or compliant. Biblical women and tough and smart and very, very creative

And Jesus holds us this kind of nagging persistence as a model of how to pray. He says, “and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

When life gets hard or scary, when you’re not in control of a situation, sometimes it can be tempting to give up. But Jesus wants his followers to hold on and and keep asking for what they need. Jesus wants us to nag God in our prayers. Jesus wants us to tell God when we know something isn’t right, when we face injustice, when everything seems out of whack.

We can get the idea that to be a Christian woman means to keep our mouths shut, to be helpful, to be compliant. There are parts of the Epistles that can be read as an instruction for women not to teach or speak up in church.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree with that interpretation. Jesus surrounds himself with faithful men and women. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew there is a great story of a Canaanite woman who pesters Jesus and is so good at arguing that he finally gives in and heals her daughter even though she is not Jewish. Jesus is dear friends with sisters Mary and Martha. And in all the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Jesus honors women and relates to them as individuals. Jesus knows they are an important part of God’s Kingdom.

God is still using nagging women to do his work. Mother Teresa was a notorious pain in the neck. She would berate officials until they gave her the permits or money she needed to do her work. In Ireland, working behind the scenes, mothers led the way in the peace treaty that stopped IRA violence. They persisted in building relationships across religious lines when no one thought it possible. Women in Chicago began movements to set themselves up on street corners after violent episodes to offer hugs and love to young people in order to stop cycles of violence.

These courageous women remind us that lives of faith sometimes look fierce. These women remind us that sometimes seeking God’s justice on earth can turn you into an annoying nag. Or, as the writer Rachel Held Evans would say, “A Woman of Valor.” And these women of valor are role models for each of us, whether we are men or women, to never give up on the idea that our world can look more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows that faith is going to be difficult for his disciples. He knows faith is difficult for us. He wants us to hang on, to stay invested, to stay in communication with God even if we are frustrated or want to give up.

So, hang in there. Keep nagging God. Keep knocking on his door. God is listening.

Amen.

Proper 25, Year B, 2006

What does it mean to see?

The couple that led my high school youth group were an affectionate couple in their 40s who had been in love with each other since high school.  Their loving relationship spilled over to their relationships with their kids and even further to all of us in their youth group.  Deena, the wife, had always had blurred vision, but by the time I graduated from their program, her vision was becoming progressively worse.  Over the next four years, her vision became so bad that even corrective lenses could not fix the problem.  She saw double, and eventually triple, and was declared legally blind.  Despite not being allowed to drive or do many of the things she loved, Deena continued her life without complaint.  Friends of hers urged her speak with an eye surgeon in her congregation.  She felt guilty asking for the favor, but eventually did work up the courage to speak with him.  He referred her to another doctor, who immediately diagnosed her with juvenile cataracts-a condition completely treatable with an easy surgery.  Deena visited him in September and the surgery was scheduled for late November. 

Bartimaeus was also blind, and had been for a long time.  He could not work as a blind person, so made his living by begging.  He is one of many healed by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark and one of two blind men Jesus heals.  So what makes Bartimaeus special?

Bartimaeus’s healing story is the end of what Biblical scholars call an inclusio.  An inclusio is a literary devise wherein a writer tells a certain kind of story-say a healing, then goes on with the narrative, then tells a very similar kind of story.  These inclusios are meant to draw our attention to the similarities and differences between the stories and always teach us something about God. 

In the first healing of a blind man in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is not able to heal the man the first time. The man can see a little bit better, but his vision is incredibly blurry.  To correct this, Jesus ends up having to spit in some dirt and smear it on the man’s eyes to heal him fully.  In the Bartimaeus story, by contrast, Jesus is able to heal Bartimaeus completely and perfectly the first time, without any need for a dirt compress.

Why the difference?  Before we go into that, let me tell you the rest of Deena’s story.  She and Jim spent the fall excitedly anticipating her surgery.  They day dreamed about her being able to drive again, to see his face perfectly again.  They also celebrated their 28th anniversary that fall.  On November 23rd of that year, a week before the surgery, Jim died suddenly of a heart attack.  Deena went ahead with the scheduled surgery, and could see perfectly, but now her vision was clouded by grief.  She’s come to understand that there are many kinds of seeing, not all of which involve the eyes.  She told me recently that it is just within the last couple of months, seven years after his death, that she has felt able to see the world through something other than her grief. 

Sight is not always about the eyes. . .The way we see the world can be influenced by grief, by misunderstanding, by hopefulness, by greed, by any number of things.

Jesus knew about these different ways of seeing.  Some scholars believe the difference in the blind healing stories points to a difference in the way the disciples, and we, see and understand Jesus.  Immediately after the first blind healing story, Jesus asks his disciples “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples told him what they had overheard and the answers were all over the place.  Some people thought he was a prophet, others thought he was a reincarnated John the Baptist or Elijah.  Only Peter thought Jesus was the Christ.  Just like the first blind man, the disciples’ vision was blurred.  Although they spent every day with Jesus, they did not fully understand who Jesus was.  Like the first blind man, after the first part of his healing, they could only see and understand Jesus in a kind of blurry haze.

The second healing of a blind man takes place immediately before Jesus and the Disciples go to Jerusalem.  Soon, the disciples will learn exactly who Jesus is.  They will see him crucified and then rise again.  Their eyes will be open and they will fully understand that Jesus is God.  Like the healed blind man, their vision is totally clear.

We too, can wear filters that affect how we experience Jesus.  When I’m not careful, I can wear jaded, pessimistic filters.  I am very comfortable with a Jesus who suffers alongside us when we suffer, but less comfortable with a victorious Jesus who answers all our prayers.  You can imagine the shock my filters have had the last year as I have gotten to know Chuck.  Being around someone who is so optimistic and so convinced of Jesus and the Holy Spirit’s work in this world, has forced me to re-examine the way I see Jesus. 

Before I got to Emmanuel, my filters said, “Oh, here I go, embarking on the lonely single life of ministry.  I will work hard in a parish that won’t appreciate me and probably embark on a time of the spiritual desert.  I’m sure my boss will be unfair and mean and I’ll be a deeply lonely person, suffering for Jesus.”

(Deep sigh.)

Well, as you know I’ve had a wonderful experience of ministry and met and became engaged to the man of my dreams.  This does not square with my expectations about how the world and God works.  I have had to recalibrate my filters as I experience God as a loving, giving, generous God, rather than a suffering God who is helpless in this world.

How do you see Jesus?  What filters are you wearing?

Do you see Jesus as a prayer-order catalogue?  Whatever you want, you pray for, but don’t tend to pray otherwise?  Do you see Jesus as a tradition that’s nice, but not relevant?  Do you see Jesus only as the suffering Christ on the Cross?  Do you, like Will Farrell in Talledega Nights only like to think about the sweet baby Jesus? 

Just like in any relationship, Jesus longs to be known for who he really is.  Jesus wants us to see him as clearly as possible.  When we stop learning about Jesus, when we hold onto our Sunday School image of Jesus, we’re letting our vision be limited.

We can remove our filters and have our vision widened if we continue to engage with Jesus as adults.  We can learn about Jesus from the Bible, from books, from Adult Forum.  And we can encounter Jesus through prayer. 

One kind of vision Deena never lost, was her clear vision about God.  Through her blindness, through her grief, she knew that God loved her, was with her and was still worth worshipping.  The last line of her email to me was that every day she can still see God’s hands at work in her life.  May we be so blessed.