I am at at Lake Mahopac UMC this Sunday, the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost (B); the Scripture readings for today are Job 42: 1 – 6, 10 – 17; Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; and Mark 10: 46 – 52. Services start at 10 and you are welcome to attend.
As perhaps some of you know, I am from Memphis, Tennessee, and I went to college in Missouri and Iowa. Now, I will admit that, even though I have lived in quite a number of different places throughout the years, at times my knowledge of specific local areas can be quite limited.
It was that way when I first began college at Truman State University, or as it was known back then, Northeast Missouri State Teachers College. If someone were to ask me where I was from, I automatically assumed that they knew that when I said Memphis, they knew that it was Memphis, Tennessee. I quickly found out that, for many individuals in the northeast section of Missouri, that when one said they were from Memphis, they were referring to Memphis, Missouri, a town about 4o miles from Kirksville, and not necessarily the home (not home town) of Elvis.
Now, as it happens, Kirksville and Memphis are both in the Mark Twain District of the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, just as Mahopac and Beacon are parts of the New York/Connecticut District of the New York Annual Conference. And Hannibal, Missouri, the home of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer is also in this district.
And here is where it may get confusing. While Hannibal may be the home of Mark Twain, it is not where Samuel Clemens was born. Samuel Clemens was born, not in Hannibal, but in Florida, Missouri, a few miles outside Hannibal. You can imagine what I think every time I drive over to the Warwick area across the river to preach at one of the churches in that area and I have to pass through Florida, New York.
Samuel Clemens was born on November 30, 1835, and he would move to Hannibal when he was about five. Clemens’ birth was during a visit to our Solar System by Halley’s Comet and he often said that he would die when it again visited this solar system. In 1909, Twain is quoted as saying:
“I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet. The Almighty has said, no doubt: ‘Now here are these two unaccountable freaks; they came in together, they must go out together.” (From Wikipedia)
He died of a heart attack on April 21, 1910, the day after this most famous interplanetary visitor passed by the earth. Each year, at this time, we are reminded of this by the Orionid meteor shower, an event that occurs when the earth passes through the debris left by Halley’s comet against a backdrop of the constellation Orion. No doubt Mr. Clemens smiles as we are reminded of his actual death and not those occasions where others said that he had died.
It was that line in Job that we read this morning where Job speaks of only knowing God as a rumor that prompted me to think of Mr. Clemens, his life and the reports of his death, both real and rumored. Twice in his life people thought that he had died, which lead him to state “the report of my death was an exaggeration.” After the second of these instances when it was thought that he had again died, he wrote that he would make an exhaustive investigation of the report and he would let the people know if there was any truth to it.
Now, it is entirely possible that I could have gone to school in Kirksville and never learned about Samuel Clemens or Mark Twain. It would have been a little bit difficult, I suspect, for the simple reason that I spent almost eight years in that particular part of Missouri and a better part of my life traveling up and down the Mississippi from its headwaters in Minnesota to the Arkansas and Mississippi delta around Memphis making it somewhat difficult to ignore the history and literature of that area.
If someone were to ask me how I would characterize my education at Truman, I would say that part of it was formal and in the classroom and part of it was informal and outside the classroom. But what I learned in the classroom often times gave me the skills and abilities to learn and understand what was outside the classroom. Too many times, we limit our education to a particular time and place and we are quite willing to stop learning when we are not in those formal settings.
In his own way, Samuel Clemens wrote about the nature of humanity, sometimes with wit, sometimes with sarcasm and sometimes with sorrow. Some of Clemens’ works have been severely criticized in today’s society for their lack of political correctness and I know that I would have difficulty repeating some of that language but Clemens wrote about what he saw. And I grew up in a culture that hadn’t changed much in the 100 years or so after Clemens wrote his stories. So I understood why he wrote what he did. I think that those who object to his writing often times have little knowledge or appreciation for other times and other places; I also know that there are many individuals who stopped learning after their formal education ended and it sometimes shows in their knowledge of the world and what transpires today. And sadly, that includes the church today.
Clemens objected to a society that put material well-being over substance of character. So it should not surprise you that Samuel Clemens, who made his mark on American literature with his observations and writings about our society, would have a few choice, and not so kind, words about American Christianity.
There is no doubt that Clemens believed in God but many of the things that drive people away from the church today were things that bothered Twain as well. He would write in an autobiography that was published in 2010, 100 years after his death,
There is one notable thing about our Christianity: bad, bloody, merciless, money-grabbing, and predatory as it is–in our country particularly and in all other Christian countries in a somewhat modified degree–it is still a hundred times better than the Christianity of the Bible, with its prodigious crime–the invention of Hell. Measured by our Christianity of to-day, bad as it is, hypocritical as it is, empty and hollow as it is, neither the Deity nor his Son is a Christian, nor qualified for that moderately high place. Ours is a terrible religion. The fleets of the world could swim in spacious comfort in the innocent blood it has spilled.
It would be interesting to delve into why Mr. Clemens characterized the Christianity of the Bible as he did. But that is a topic for another time and place.
But I know that there are many people who see Christianity, the church, and God in much the same way today. They see a vengeful God, willing to strike down any and all who incur His wrath. They see God as one would allow His people to enslave and persecute others in His name. They see a church that closes its doors to all those who seek God, who seek hope and promise in times of strife and need.
They are hard pressed to see God as a loving and caring God who sent His son to save us from being enslaved to sin and death. They cannot see Christ as the one who leads us to a path of peace in a sometimes often violent world.
And they often times back up their beliefs with the notion that what they believe is in the Bible. But they cannot identify where in the Bible it is or they take a particular statement and apply it out of context. Someone said that ours is a society that is so in love with the Bible that we are afraid to open it for fear of damaging it.
And there are those today who say that Jesus Christ was, at the minimum, a rumor, and at the most, a myth. In fact, there are many today who would deny the existence of any god (lower case) or supreme being simply because there is so much death and destruction on earth. What god would allow this to happen, especially if it is a god that professes to love his children.
The vengeful, wrathful God is often the picture presented in the Old Testament but when we say that we are Christians we are saying that we are a people of the New Testament as well and we have to know the difference.
We live in a time when many people hold to the view that we need to return to the Bible and enact laws based on the Bible. But if we are to return to a style of life that is outlined in the Old Testament, what are we to do with the New Testament, the very basis for us being Christian?
Is Christ a myth, a rumor, the product of some vast two-thousand year old conspiracy in which we have been misled and confused? If it is, how is it that we have gotten this far? How is it that this faith has lasted this long? There has to have been some degree of truth to what is said today, otherwise how can we even begin to think about being here?
And that is our problem, we can’t even begin to think of a God that would knowingly and willingly send His Son to live among us and show us a new path, a new life. We are not willing to see among the destruction, the death, the violence, and the hatred that God would love us completely and unconditionally. Unless we are willing to change our lives, it is almost impossible to see beyond the moment; unless we are willing to delve into the material in such a way that it becomes part of our lives, the words of the Bible will only be words and nothing more.
The Old Testament reading for today concludes a four-week study of the Book of Job. It is a part of the Wisdom section of the Old Testament and serves as a transition from the historical and law sections of the Old Testament to the writings of the prophets. It can be a tough book to read and study for it often challenges us to think beyond our own limits. It asks the question, “Is God a remote and omnipotent being who cares little for his children or is He a loving and caring God that will see that no trouble befalls his children?”
Job is identified as the richest man in the country and one who is without sin. Now, some preachers today would say that Job’s riches are the results of his righteousness. Were this the case then the premise of the story, that the loss of one’s material well-being and health would cause one to denounce God, might have some validity. In fact, it is the basis for many of the arguments put forth by Job’s friends.
Throughout the Book of Job, Job’s friends counsel him to either denounce God for all the suffering and pain that he has endured or at least acknowledge that he, Job, must have done something extremely terrible or wrong to receive such punishment. If you stop and think about it, these are often the very responses that so many people today would offer.
But against this backdrop of illness, death, destruction, abandonment, and the taunts of his friends, Job only asks to hear from God why this is all happening. In the reading from last week, God does speak to Job and now Job says to God, “I admit I once lived by rumors of you; now I have it all firsthand—from my own eyes and ears!”
There is a difference between the experience Job has with God and the experience of Job’s friends. They can only speak about God. Their knowledge of God was limited to what they had learned in school but never applied. They spoke in correct and beautiful terms but they were often words without meaning simply because they were simply words from a book, not from the heart and mind.
God will rebuke Job’s friends for their persistent argument against Job that God always blesses the righteous and punishes the wicked, and that to question this was to question the justice of God, and so to add sin to the obvious heinous sin Job must have already committed to be in the state he was in. This would have been understood as mainstream, everyday, normal theology. God rejects that theology here. He calls it “what is not right” (“right” in the sense here of grounded in fact), while what Job has said is right.
Two things come from this. First, understand that John Wesley rejected this argument when he began his work among the poor and lower classes of 18th century England. Yet, even today, there are people who believe that wealth is a sign of righteousness and poverty the result of sin.
Second, we have to realize that Job’s understanding of God has gone from a routine understanding to a deeper, more personal understanding of God. In a time when many people would rather we not question God, our reading of Job tells us that to question God helps to bring a deeper understanding of faith. Now Job will tell you, as he does in the story, that because he now knows God more personally, he is even more aware of how much he does not know. It reflects a statement about any sort of research that one does, the answer to one question often leads to two or more new questions.
The reading from Hebrews (Hebrews 7: 23 – 28; for those who are interested, here is a link to reading from Hebrews for today) further reflects the personal nature of knowing God. There is a distinct difference between knowing about God and knowing God personally.
I recognize that each person starts off only knowing about God. It is part of the learning process. It is why we have Sunday school and Bible classes. We have to start somewhere. But we must continue the learning or we will find ourselves in very difficult situations. It is like speaking of Memphis, Tennessee, when the other person is thinking of Memphis, Missouri.
I have never had any doubt in my mind, my heart, or my soul that Jesus Christ was and is real and that He died on the Cross to set me free from enslavement to sin and death. As I mentioned last week at the First United Methodist Church of Round Hill (“In Search of Excellence in the Church Today”), it was my mother, who through her insistence that my brothers and sister go to Sunday school every week, that put me on the path to Christ. But it is a path that I had to walk alone, though often in the company of others headed in the same direction. And the path that I walked lead me to 1st Evangelical United Brethren Church (now 1st United Methodist Church) of Aurora, Colorado, where I found a community that would nurture me on my journey.
The Gospel lesson for today tells us of the healing of the blind man, Bartimaeus. This is the second such healing in Mark and it is a story that is also told in Matthew and Luke. Matthew says that two blind men were healed and the story ends with their healing; Luke wrote that one man was healed but he does not identify the man. Luke does point out that the man, whomever he was, followed Jesus after the healing.
Each of the four Gospel writers has a reason for telling their stories. Each of the reasons is played out in how those stories are told. We do know that the Gospel of Mark is the oldest of the gospels. Mark may very well be the young man introduced to us in the Easter story. And there is evidence to suggest that Mark accompanied Peter to Rome and that he compiled the stories and doings of Jesus while he was in the Galilee. It is quite easy to see Mark listening to Peter as Peter preached to the people and then questioning him for more details about Jesus and what transpired.
As Robin Griffith-Jones writes in his book, The Four Witnessess,
We certainly should not assume that Mark was the first to tell the story of Jesus’ work “from beginning to end.” Mark’s narrative may very well have grown out of regular recitation at church gatherings. Fewer people in those days were taught to read, and far more instruction was passed on by word of mouth.
That Mark would identify the blind man who was healed and then followed Jesus would suggest that he, Bartimaeus, became a disciple of note and that he was well known in the early church.
The early church, the church before Constantine and its formal organization, was built upon the stories that people told about Jesus. But it was more than the stories; it was about how the people who told the stories had been changed by Jesus. The stories were more than words; they were a continuation of the Good News and what the Good News meant to individuals. There was an acknowledgment that something had happened to them and it changed their lives.
In today’s society, there are those, like Bartimaeus, who seek Christ. And we will be the ones who they will ask. “Is it true what they say about Jesus, that He came to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked and bring freedom to the oppressed?”
Some, like the disciples did with Bartimaeus and others before him, will rebuke those who seek. But Jesus always told them to let them come to Him; this time, they understood through Bartimaeus’ cry that he truly sought Jesus and they let him come. How many times have we rejected someone because we felt they were not worthy to be in the church?
Too many others will quote the words of the Bible, saying that you have to know about God and Christ before you can be saved. But words alone will not feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked or bring freedom to the oppressed.
We know what Christ has done for us and it is important that we tell the story, not just to those who will listen but to those who will not as well.
The difference is that we will also show that the words are true, through our thoughts, deeds, and actions. If we speak with words that are hollow, we run the risk of making the story of Jesus Christ truly a myth and his life only a rumor. But if we tell the story as others have, as the encounter each one of us has had, people will know that it is not a rumor and it is not a myth.
That is the way the early church began, telling the story in not only words but in the way lives were changed. The story was told one person at a time. But others heard the story and they saw the changes in the lives and they began to ask why and how.
So we proclaim that Jesus Christ is alive and well, living in each of us. The challenge we face is to know the story, not just in our minds, but in our thoughts, words, and deeds. If you came today seeking Christ, you will find Him here. You are invited to open your hearts and minds. If you came today seeking to know more, you will gain that knowledge. All one has to do is open your heart and mind to the Holy Spirit.
So, just as the meteors that showered the evening skies last week remain us of Mark Twain, so too does that warm feeling that we have in hearts remind us that Christ is alive and living in us this day and for the days to come.