Sunday, October 28, 2012

Seeing Jesus Again for the Very First Time (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 28, 2012)

Sometimes what the Bible does not say is as interesting as what it does say.  For example, how many gallons of ink have been spilled in wondering about what Jesus was doing in the twenty or so years before he began his public ministry.  The public ministry of Jesus began (Luke tells us) when he was “about thirty years old” (Luke 3.23).  The next earliest story we have of Jesus (also from Luke) is his visit to the Temple when he was about twelve years old (Luke 2.42).  Twenty years of Jesus’ life pass in silence.  Did he spend the time quietly working as a carpenter in Nazareth?  Did he travel beyond Palestine?  Was he abducted by aliens?  But the New Testament leaves with nothing but silence.


I’m even more intrigued by the story of the woman caught in adultery.  When she is brought before Jesus, he stoops to the ground and writes in the dirt with his finger.  (John 8.6)  It’s the only account the Bible gives us of Jesus writing.  What do you suppose he wrote?  One preacher suggested that Jesus wrote the names of the men in the crowd who had committed adultery themselves!


Today’s gospel also leaves us with an intriguing silence.  “Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"


Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples arrived in Jericho and that they left, but tells us nothing of what happened in between.  How long were they there?  Did Jesus teach and preach?  Did he weave any new tales of prodigal sons and good Samaritans?  Of lost sheep and priceless pearls?  And above all, I wonder, did he work any miracles?  But undoubtedly something happened while Jesus and the disciples were in Jericho.


But before we get to what might have happened in Jericho, consider the significance of Jericho itself.  Jericho, now as then, is an important town.  It is situated in an oasis in the desolate wasteland between Jerusalem and the Jordan River.  It is about 15 miles east of Jerusalem, just on the other side of the hills that stand between Jerusalem and the Jordan.  It was an important commercial center and trading post on the principal road that connected Jerusalem with the Jordan Valley and points east.  But its religious significance outweighed even its commercial significance.  Jericho was the point at which the Israelites had entered the Promised Land.  Jericho symbolized God’s fulfillment of the divine promise to Israel that they would enter and possess a land flowing with milk and honey. 


Thus Jesus’ choice of routes into Jerusalem was full of significance.  He could have traveled from Nazareth to Jerusalem via the flat coastal plain, passing along near the sites of modern-day Haifa and Tel Aviv.  But instead he chose the rougher, more arid interior route of the Jordan Valley.  Jesus’ journey recapitulated Israel’s journey.  But there was a difference:  Israel journeyed from the wilderness to the promised land, but Jesus journeyed from the promised land to the cross.  However, each went via Jericho.


So, what do you supposed happened between the first and second sentences of today’s gospel reading?  Between “they came to Jericho” and “as he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving”?  That something happened is beyond doubt.  Something happened that came to the attention of blind Bartimaeus. 


Imagine Bartimaeus’ world.  Marks tells us that Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Let me see again”.  Bartimaeus is different from the blind man whose healing is recounted in the 9th chapter of John’s gospel who was blind from birth.  Bartimaeus had once had sight but had lost it.  I imagine that Bartimaeus’ desire for healing was greater, much greater, than the blind man in John’s gospel.  He had had something precious and had lost it.  The loss of sight must cause inconceivable anguish.  I imagine that Bartimaeus had had to struggle with bitterness because of his enormous loss.


It is somewhat redundant to refer to Bartimaeus as a “blind beggar”.  He was blind, so of course, he was a beggar.  He had no alternative.  He sat beside the road and begged for spare change.  However, Mark portrays Bartimaeus as a man of decisiveness and action, not as a passive victim.  Rather than passively accept his fate, Bartimaeus refuses to be ignored.  He shouts.  He makes a scene.  He shouts Jesus’ name.  The crowd hushes him.  “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet…”  But Mark tells us that Bartimaeus “cried out even more loudly” and shouted Jesus’ name again. 


A detail I find especially poignant is that when Jesus notices Bartimaeus and calls for him to come to him, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak.  What do you suppose that cloak represented to Bartimaeus?  Just how many cloaks would a blind beggar of the first century possess?  Perhaps he had a begging bowl and a staff, but I doubt he would have much else.  That cloak may have represented anywhere from 25% to 50% of Bartimaeus’ possessions.  It is even more powerful when we think of the story of the rich man who came to Jesus earlier in the tenth chapter of Mark’s gospel.  When Jesus told him to sell all that he had and give the money to the poor, he “went away grieving, for he had many possessions”.  What a contrast with Bartimaeus who, with joyful abandon throws away his cloak, perhaps his most expensive possession!


As a sightless man Bartimaeus’ only way of learning about the world was via his other senses, mainly his sense of hearing.  What Bartimaeus knew about Jesus he would have learned by listening.  So whatever Jesus did during his visit to Jericho, Bartimaeus must have learned about it by listening to the buzz of the crowds.  He could not observe directly. 


From the few remarks of Bartimaeus that Mark records, it is plain to me that Bartimaeus knew two things about Jesus.  First, he believed that Jesus was the Messiah.  As Jesus is leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  “Son of David” is a messianic title.  The Messiah was thought of as the heir of the throne of David, the one who would re-establish a united kingdom of Israel and Judah, as David had.  Secondly, Bartimaeus knew that Jesus could heal.  When he and Jesus come face to face, Bartimaeus poignantly says, “My teacher, let me see again”. 


So much for what Bartimaeus knew about Jesus.  What do you suppose Jesus knew about Bartimaeus?   Again, we don’t know how long Jesus had been in Jericho or what he had done there.  Perhaps he had taught extensively.  Undoubtedly, he had healed.  Otherwise, why would Bartimaeus have begged Jesus to heal him?  More than likely, Jesus was tired.  But most importantly, Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to his death.  There must have been much on his mind and heart.  And then suddenly, as he was leaving Jericho, faintly, from the edge of the crowd that thronged around him closely, he heard a noise, some kind of disturbance.  And then it came again, and the second time, he could make out the words, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus told the crowd to bring to him the man who was calling out for him.


Perhaps the most powerful detail in this story is the question that Jesus asks Bartimaeus:  “What do you want me to do for you?”  It is powerful because it is almost word-for-word what Jesus had said to James and John in the story immediately preceding the healing of Bartimaeus.  “James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ And he said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’” (Mark 10.35-37)


What a contrast!  James and John had wanted glory, power, fame, and perhaps riches.  They had wanted the choicest seats in the Kingdom of God.  In contemporary terms, they had wanted Jesus to choose them as his running mates!  But Bartimaeus had only wanted his sight; he only wanted Jesus to restore the ability he had once had to see the orange sunset, the petals of a daisy, the smile of a loved one. 


Mark forces us to ask the questions:  Who was really blind?  And who really received their sight?  Plainly, the rich man whose great wealth had kept him from “inheriting eternal life” was blind when he came to Jesus and blind when he left.  Bartimaeus, on the other hand, threw away the greatest part of his worldly possessions.  Can you see his cloak flying from his hand as he runs toward Jesus as fast as his blindness would permit him?


James and John were at least as blind as the rich man who could not part with his great possessions.  They understood the kingdom of God in terms of power and status; for them the kingdom was about who was in and who was out; who had front row seats and who was in the “nosebleed” section.  In contrast, Bartimaeus asked for nothing more (and nothing less) than God’s first creation and gift to the world:  light. 


How do we know that Bartimaeus was healed?  That’s obvious, isn’t it?  Mark says that “immediately, he regained his sight…”  Nothing could be clearer.  However, there is more, much more.  Bartimaeus could have regained his sight and remained blind. 


Mark has placed the story of Bartimaeus’  healing in a very significant place.  It takes place immediately before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It takes place just before the last week of Jesus’ earthly life.  Jesus, as I said earlier, is on his way to Jerusalem, to the cross, to death.  Everything in Mark’s gospel leads up to this point.  Although Mark tells us of only one other blind man that Jesus heals, it could be argued that virtually everyone in Mark’s gospel is blind, especially the disciples.  The disciples consistently fail to understand what Jesus is all about.  Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah but is horrified when Jesus foretells his death on the cross.  James and John ask Jesus to give them preferential treatment. 


Blind Bartimaeus is one of the few people in Mark’s gospel who really see.  And we know this by the last five words in chapter ten.  “Immediately he regained his sight, and followed him on the way”.


Mark presents us with a stark choice:  Will we be like the rich man and let our possessions or accomplishments come between Jesus and us?  Will we be like James and John and think of the service of God as a means for self-advancement?  Or will we be like Bartimaeus?  Will we let nothing keep us from crying out in prayer to God?  Will we toss aside whatever gets in our way and run as fast as we can toward Jesus?  And above all, will we “follow him on the way”, even though we know that it is the way of the cross?




Sunday, October 21, 2012

Beautiful and tragic or dull and safe? (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 21, 2012)

The audience was in place. The red lights on the cameras were blinking. The moderator took her seat. And the candidates came on stage, shook hands, and went to their respective podiums.
The moderator said, “A coin toss determines that Gov. Thwackum will receive the first question. Governor, during your campaign you said that a tax increase would be the best way to control the national debt. Why did you say that?”
“I’m glad you asked me that question, Susan. And may I call you Susan? I’ve always admired you as a journalist. Your series on the problems of baby seals was the best I’ve ever seen. You know, my opponent has been a complete failure. If you stacked up all the dollars in the debts she has run up, the stack would reach to… well, it would reach a long way. And I look forward to reducing that stack when I’m elected. Thank you.”
In other words, Gov. Thwackum didn’t say a darn thing. He didn’t answer the question at all. But that’s the way it is in political debates, isn’t it? And presidential candidates are Olympic champions in the sport of avoiding the question.
Now, let’s imagine a different debate. The candidate on the spot is none other than God, the Holy One, the Almighty, Creator of the Heavens and the Earth and All Things Visible and Invisible. The moderator asks, “Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper?” And the Candidate replies,
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements-- surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
I can just imagine the New York Times’ editorial the next morning: “In last evening’s debate, the Incumbent (that is, God) showed incredible, one might say omnipotent, skill in avoiding the questions…”
But isn’t that exactly what God does when Job questions God’s justice? Doesn’t God just avoid the question? It seems as though God is trying to deflect Job’s attention by asking a series of questions that have nothing to do with the topic at hand: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined its measurements? Did you hear the morning stars sing and the angels shout for joy when I created the heavens and the earth?”
Surely Job said, “That’s all very well and good, but can you explain something to me in one syllable words: Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper?”
The Book of Job is a long meditation on the problem of suffering. How can you reconcile the fact that God is all powerful and all good and yet allows terrible suffering to take place?
I don’t have too much of a problem with suffering caused by human agents. We have free will. We can choose between right and wrong. So the Holocaust, the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews, plus millions of others, is not too much of a problem for me. Although that was an unimaginable evil, it was the result of actions by evil men.
But the suffering that seems to come from nowhere, the suffering that seems to be woven into the fabric of the universe, that is something else all together.
Why is there cancer? What is the point of earthquakes and hurricanes?
The German philosopher Leibniz said that religious people have to reconcile three seemingly irreconcilable facts: God is all powerful; God is perfectly good; and yet evil exists.
To solve that problem, we usually have to fudge one of those facts. Leibniz solved it by asserting that evil only seemed to exist - even apparently enormous evil produced good results in the end.
I imagine that at one time or another, maybe even this morning, all of us would like to confront God in a debate. We would like to make God answer our questions. Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper? OK, we might even let the wicked prosper, but we’d like to know why we aren’t prospering just a little.
Job is not alone in his questions. He has friends. A friend by the name of Elihu tells Job that he is wrong. He says that Job is not only wrong, but he doesn’t even know enough to ask the right question.
“Teach us what we shall say to him; we cannot draw up our case because of darkness.”
“We cannot draw up our case because of darkness…” In other words, not only do we not have all the facts, we don’t know what the facts are or where to find them. We stumble around in the dark.
Furthermore, who are we to confront God with these question? “Should he be told that I want to speak? Did anyone ever wish to be swallowed up?”
In effect, Elihu tells Job that if he were to speak to God, he would be swallowed up – the divine glory would overwhelm him, in a moment Job would be reduced to a few ashes.
I have a lot of sympathy for Job. I also want answers for those questions, and I’d like to be able to give you those answers.
But I think that Job’s friend Elihu was partly right and partly wrong. Elihu was right in telling Job that he “cannot draw up his case because of darkness.”
This is pretty much what God tells Job, too. “Who is that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”In other words, you don’t even know enough to ask the question, much less understand the answer.
But Elihu was partly wrong, too. He told Job that if he were to confront God with his angry questions, that God would swallow him up. God would just zap him like we would zap a bug on the front porch on a hot summer night.
But that’s not what happened. When Job has asked all his questions, when Job has worn himself out with his angry questions, and worn out his friends, and maybe even worn out God, then God comes to Job. God hears Job and replies to him.
God does not answer Job’s questions. God implies that Elihu was right, that Job was asking questions to which there are no answers, at least no answers that he could understand. But God does not avoid Job.
And God does not avoid us. Instead, God chooses to be in relationship to God and chooses to be in relationship to us.
But we still have questions. We still want to know why the good suffer and the wicked prosper. And maybe there’s a kind of answer in the questions that God asks Job.
Presbyterian pastor, Scott Johnston, compares God’s questions to the questions of someone who couldn’t believe that he had never visited Montreat, the beautiful Presbyterian retreat center in the mountains of North Carolina.[1]
"How can you not have been to Montreat before?… Have you been up to Lookout Rock? Isn' t the view from there marvelous? Do you like the way the air smells? Have you seen the swan? Do you know that his mate died this past spring? Isn't it wonderful how things cool down at night?"
In other words, God sounds a lot like a man who can’t believe that you have never seen a place as beautiful as this one, a world as beautiful as the world he has created. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of a world that I love so deeply that I am aware of every little thing that happens, from waves crashing on the shore to mountain goats giving birth?”
God doesn’t answer Job’s question. God doesn’t answer most of our questions. But these questions that God asks Job tell us something profound about God. They tell us that God cares deeply about every single creature that God has made. Even God seems to be a little impressed with the beauty and intricacy of the world that God has created.
Years ago I heard someone explain why there are so many earthquakes in California. The speaker pointed out that earthquakes are more likely in places where there are very sharp, high mountains, such as California’s Sierra Nevadas. In other words, the more interesting and beautiful the landscape, the more like there are to be earthquakes.
And maybe that’s at least a little bit of an answer to Job’s questions and our questions. God has created an incredibly beautiful and varied world. And maybe the suffering is just the price we pay for living in God’s beautiful world. Perhaps God could have created a world without suffering, but imagine how flat and dull that world would have been. But God created a world in which there is risk and adventure and beauty… but also pain and suffering and tragedy.
But in such a world as this we have the opportunity to work together with God. God invites us to work with him in healing the sick, feeding the hungry, helping those who suffer. We live in a world that forces us to ask question, but we also worship a God who listens to us and invites us to ask questions. And maybe that’s better… a lot better… than to be in a perfectly safe but dull world.

[1] Scott Johnston, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”, Journal for Preachers.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

The hokey pokey is not what it's all about (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 14, 2012)

Here he comes again… the man who asks questions that none of us want to hear…


No, I’m not talking about Jesus. We see him all the time, and we’ve gotten used to him. We know what he’s going to say, and like an old friend or a husband or wife we’ve been married to for umpteen years, sometimes we no longer even hear what he is saying.


I’m talking about the man in the reading from Mark’s gospel who asks Jesus what he has to do to “inherit eternal life.” We don’t see him every Sunday, and when the lectionary gives him his turn in the spotlight, he makes us uncomfortable.


We call him the “rich young man” or “rich young ruler” although Mark simply refers to him as a man. We know that he was rich because Mark says that he had “great possessions.” But Matthew adds the fact that he was young and Luke tells us he was a ruler.


But I wonder if he was like those figures in cartoons who are seeking the meaning of life and climb to the tops of mountains to consult holy men and women.


A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a man gasping for breath as he finally pulls himself to the top of a high mountain where a wise man sits in the lotus position. “What is the meaning of life?” the man asks. “What’s it all about?” The wise man looks at him and says, “You do the hokey pokey and you turn yourself around. That’s what it’s all about!”


It’s not as common in the deep South as in some other parts of the country, but there are people who seem to find a new cause or new spiritual guru every other week or so in their quest to find “the meaning of life.” Perhaps you know someone like that.


I don’t want to dismiss such people. They may be motivated by a profound spiritual hunger. They may be trying to fill a deep place of spiritual emptiness.


I’m certain that the man in the reading from Mark’s gospel was sincere. Not only does the reading tell us that Jesus loved him but it tells us that when Jesus told him to sell all that he owns and give it to the poor, he goes away “shocked and grieving”. He may have decided not to follow Jesus, but at least he really understood what it would cost to be a disciple. He knew he couldn’t do it “on the cheap.”


But I wonder what he was really asking for. Mark tells us that he asks Jesus what he must do “to inherit eternal life.” But “eternal life” is not a Jewish concept. At least, it is not something that human beings possess. In the Old Testament the only idea of life after death was a kind of shadowy half-life. God possesses eternal life; human beings do not.


If we were to read all of today’s psalm – Psalm 90- then we would read the marvelous phrase that says that a thousand years in God’s sight are “like yesterday… like a watch in the night.” In other words, to God a thousand years are just like the blink of an eye or the snap of a finger. On the other hand, we humans, “fade like the grass”. We live perhaps 70 or 80 years, but that’s it.


Perhaps the man in today’s reading from Mark was asking something else. Maybe he was asking Jesus, “What is the meaning or secret of life?”


But perhaps there’s another possibility.


Keep in mind that Mark tells us that he had “many possessions.” There are people of great wealth who seem to think that they can buy anything. They collect old cars. They may own several houses. They may be interested in French Impressionism and have a wonderful collection of paintings. As the saying goes, they may know the price of everything, but they know the value of nothing.


Did this man think he could add “eternal life” to his collection? Did he think it was just something else he could purchase?


Please don’t think of this as a criticism of wealthy people. It is not only the wealthy who have this attitude. The wealthy are not the only ones who collect things.


There are other people, people of great accomplishment, who master languages, who accumulate degrees, who run marathons, who travel to foreign countries, and who think they can do anything to which they set their minds.


Is that what this man was thinking? Was he thinking, “Well, I know Greek and Latin and Hebrew… I’ve traveled to Rome and Gaul and Persia… I’ve studied at the feet of the rabbis and even learned Greek philosophy… maybe I’ll see what this Jesus has to offer…”


Did he think that “eternal life” was something he could add to his store of intellectual treasures?


Again, I don’t want to be dismissive of this man. Regardless of his motivation, Jesus seems to have regarded him as sincere because Mark tells us that Jesus loved him.


But Jesus also seems to have realized that the man did not understand what he was asking for. The man seems to have believed that “eternal life” was something he could have in addition to everything else.


Notice exactly what Jesus says to this man: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." 


“You lack one thing…” But Jesus tells him to do three things: sell what you own… give the money to the poor… then come, follow me.”


In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul reminds us that “if I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” And Jesus tells this man that it is not enough to sell that he has and give it to the poor; in addition to that, he must follow Jesus.


Now, we are moving into stewardship season. And it would be easy for me to tell you that this story from Mark’s gospel presents us with a stark choice: that we can either have treasure on earth or treasure in heaven and that stewardship gives you an opportunity to build up a little credit in the First Bank of Heavenly Rest.


But that would be crude and you are theologically and biblically literate enough to know that that is not true anyway. We don’t know whether or not the man in this story from Mark thought that eternal life was something he could purchase, but you and I know better.


Eternal life is a gift. It is not something we can purchase or achieve. It is not an accomplishment.


The lesson I’d like you take away from today’s gospel reading is this: Jesus extends an invitation to us. He invites us to follow him. But he tells us that there are things in our life that get in the way and keep us from following him and we need to get rid of them.


We sometimes hear that invitation as a threat, because every single one of us (including me) is like the man in Mark’s gospel. We have many possessions and we don’t want to get rid of them.


But I’d like you to hear Jesus’ statement as a blessing rather than a curse, as an invitation not a threat.


Think about the things that you really want to get rid of, the things that you need to get rid of.


Many of us need to get rid of anger. Sometimes I’m one of them. Sometimes I get so angry at someone that it almost seems to consume me. I’d love to get rid of that.


Maybe there is a profound sadness that seems to swallow us up. But it can be difficult to get rid of sadness. Sometimes sadness almost defines us. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to let go of it?


And maybe if we begin to get rid of our anger and pride and sadness, then maybe we can start to give away other things. Because don’t we accumulate things to fill up the spiritual emptiness in our lives? I know I do.


Mark’s gospel presents us with a paradox. Jesus offers to fill up the spiritual emptiness in our heart, but we have filled that emptiness with all kinds of stuff – with anger and sadness and pride and maybe even money and cars and houses and all kinds of possessions.


If we let go of the anger and pride and sadness in our hearts, then it might be easier to loosen our hold on our money and possessions.


Treasure on earth is no less a gift than treasure in heaven. I don’t mean to dismiss the hard work that anyone has done to make a living. But we can only work hard because God has given us life and health. Being born in this country is an incredible gift, and it is a huge advantage to be born in one of the wealthiest countries in the world rather than in one of the poorest countries.


Our riches, whether they are financial riches or intellectual riches or some other kind of wealth are God’s gift. We are stewards of them. We hold them in trust. And God invites us to give them away, to give them to those who have less.


He does not invite us to be irresponsible. Jesus asked only one person, the man in today’s gospel reading, to sell all that he owned and give it to the poor. But I believe that Jesus asks all of us to practice stewardship.


I say PRACTICE stewardship because it is something that none of us ever completely masters. And keep in mind something else that Jesus says in Mark’s gospel: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible."

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 7, 2012)

Who are we? Why are we here?  Where are we going? These are the fundamental questions that we all ask. When sleep simply will not come, and we lie wide awake in our beds…when we get out of our cities, away from the traffic and the street lights and stare up at the stars… when we look out from the top of a high mountain into the valley beneath… or when our ship sails far from shore and we look at the vastness of the ocean, these questions come to us.


Three writers epitomize the modern world’s answer to these questions: Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx.


Although Darwin lost his faith, he retained a profound reverence for the beauty and mystery of nature. So although Darwin himself might not have put it this way, Darwinists would answer our three questions this way: We are predatory animals, the combination of enlarged brains and carnivorous appetites, who have been more successful than most animals in reproducing and feeding ourselves.


Freud would say that we are motivated by unconscious motives that are most irrational. Some of our motivations are inherited from our parents and other ancestors. Some of our motives are pure appetite, and reason tries to adjudicate among these conflicting motivations.


Marx would say that we are the unconscious agents of history that will realize itself through us whether we like it or not, that economic forces beyond our control move us about like pawns.


But there is another conversation and other answers to these questions.


You have often heard me said that we are part of a great conversation. None of us has ever prayed alone or read the Bible alone. Our prayers are part of the prayers of the saints that are always rising to God’s heavenly court. And whenever we read the Bible, we read it in conversation with every minister, Sunday School teacher, or Bible study leader that we have ever heard.


Today’s readings add several voices to that conversation.


The Psalmist tells us:


When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,


What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?


You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;


You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet:


And according to the author of Genesis:


The LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."


Then, the author of Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…”


Mark’s gospel is also part of the conversation, but I will return to Mark.


What answers do these three authors gives to the questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?


The Psalmist tells us that we are powerful but finite. God made us “lower than the angels,” but adorned “with glory and honor.” We have mastery over the works” of God’s hands and God has “put all things under his feet.”


In other words, the psalmist answers our questions in a vertical way. Our status, our dignity, is primarily dependent on our relationship with God. If you will, we are part of a divine chain of command, a celestial flow chart, or as the ancients expressed it, the great chain of being. First God, then the heavenly beings, then human beings, then animals.


But notice that the psalmist does not ask the question in the abstract. She does not way “Who are we?” She says, “What is man that you should be mindful of him?” IN other words, the psalmist askes some ONE this question. Specifically, she asks God.


Genesis also adds a voice to our conversation.


God said, “Let there be light and there was light… God said let the earth bring forth living things… God made the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night…”


The first chapter of Genesis is a litany. God speaks… and the invisible chorus sings, “It is good… it is good… it is very good.”


But at last we are told that something was NOT good – It is NOT good for man to be alone.


To our questions – Who are we? Why are here? Where are we going? – Genesis answers us horizontally: Humans are social creatures. Humans are a we, not an I. It is not good for us to be alone.


The author of the letter to the Hebrews also speaks:


“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…”


Who are we? We are beings addressed by God. God does not merely speak to us, God does not just send us messengers. God sends his Son, his heir, the very agent of creation itself.


Finally, the gospel of Mark speaks:


Some Pharisees asked Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?...Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." And Jesus replied, “What God has joined together, let no one separate…. Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."


At first glance, Mark does not seem to be addressing our three questions, but I think there is an implied answer.


First, let me observe that this is one of Jesus’ so-called “hard sayings.” In Mark, Jesus prohibits all divorce. Period. This is not just hard for us. It was also hard for the early church. Mark was the first gospel written. A few years later, Matthew’s gospel was written and records Jesus’ teaching on divorce differently. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”


In other words, the Spirit guided the early church to a broader understanding of divorce. And I believe the Spirit continues to guide us.


But think again of our questions  - who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?


The answer implied in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is also a horizontal answer to our questions. We exist in a network of mutual obligation. We have responsibilities to others and they have responsibilities to us.


In Mark, Jesus was answering the question about divorce in a way that was favorable to women. In his time, a divorced woman would likely have no way to protect herself and no one to protect her, so the prohibition of divorce was Jesus way of standing up and speaking out for the rights of women.


We live in a culture that does not want to hear the Bible’s answers to these questions.


Our culture wants to reduce us to individual social atoms floating in a vacuum. Culture wants to tell us that all of our relationships are voluntary, that we do not have obligations to others, obligations that we cannot shirk or can only shirk at our peril.


And above all our culture does not want us to believe that we are addressed by a voice from beyond, a voice that says, “You did not create yourselves. You have obligations beyond yourself to others.”


When Harvard University built Emerson Hall in 1900 and named it after distinguished Harvard grad Ralph Waldo Emerson, they asked the faculty for a suitable inscription for the building. The faculty suggested, “Man is the measure of all things,” but Pres. Eliot chose instead, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”


This question, the psalmist’s question, “What is man…” is not asked in a vacuum. It begins and ends with a word of praise. “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name…” That is the King James’ translation. I can’t stand the way it is translated in our prayer books, “O Lord, our governor, how excellent is thy name…” because I do not know any governors who have excellent names.


But what I am saying and what I think the psalmist is saying is that the only way to ask and answer these questions correctly is to do so in the context of worship.


Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?


To ask and answer these questions well, we must begin and end with the worship of God.


O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth.