Sermon 10.21.18 "Fact and Faith"

Scripture:  Mark 10:46-52

Pastor:  Rev. Kim P. Wells

The quintessential American writer and social commentator of the 19th century, Mark Twain, had this to say:  “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”  It doesn’t take much discernment to see that there are many in our country today whose imaginations are way out of focus.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. would say it, we have guided missiles and misguided men.  Our species has made enormous strides in science and in understanding the world around us and beyond.  We have achieved tremendous technological advances, so much so, that it almost seems as if we are living in a sci-fi movie from the 50’s or 60’s.  

And Albert Einstein observed, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”  So, I am wondering about our capacity to imagine humans living in balance with Earth in a way that sustains both.  I am wondering about the will to imagine human communities that are just:  Free of racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, ageism, and all of the other attitudes that judge and therefore diminish people.  I am thinking about our capacity for imagining economic arrangements that profit the common good.  I am wondering about imagining peace.  Many of us joined hundreds of others to do just that yesterday at Circus McGurkis and what a glorious celebration it was! 

It seems there is boundless imagination for schemes of amassing power and wealth at any expense.  There seem to be no limits to the imagination when it comes to inflicting pain and inventing weaponry.  But what about imagination for the good?

Since the dawn of human consciousness, the human mind has used imagination in service to religious expression.  Humanity has used imaginative pictures and stories and rituals and monuments to shape community, consciousness and meaning.  Humans do not live by bread alone, as scripture tells us.  We need stories and images which form narratives that help us to understand and make meaning out of our experience.  Religious expression is part of that.  Religion is a response to mystery, awe, and wonder.  Religion helps us to understand the world around us and the world within us.  Religion invites exploration of our motivations, influences, and values.  It helps us to figure out who we are, why we are here, and what matters.  

Religion, Christianity included, relies largely upon story in this process.  Jesus did not deliver well thought out, well documented treatises about human behavior.  He told stories.  The stories of our religious traditions, folk tales, myths, and lore, these stories all help us to see who we are, shape who we are, and help us to understand ourselves and the world.  Narratives define us.   

In Mexican lore, there is a creation story about people being created from corn.  Corn was growing prolifically.  And a divine figure turns the tall, erect corn stalks into people.  And this is how people came into the world.  Of course this is not science.  But we know that.  We see that this is a story that helps to shape a culture in which corn is the most important food.  Corn makes life possible.  The story gives people a sense of their core connection to the corn, the land, and the love that sustains them. 

Story is an important part of religion.  Stories help us to see who we are and find meaning in our experience.  We see this in the story that we listened to from the gospel of Mark this morning.  We are told that Jesus is walking along through a town called Jericho, accompanied by a large crowd. So this is a public circumstance.  As they are leaving Jericho, on the outskirts of town, they encounter a person who is on the outskirts of society – someone on the fringe, the edge, marginalized.  We’re told about a physically blind person who, when he finds out that Jesus is going by, cries out for mercy.  The blind person, who cannot see, seems to see who Jesus really is and what he is capable of.  And, remember, from stories in the Hebrew Bible, the people knew that that the messiah was supposed to give sight to the blind.  So this blind man’s expectations are in line with the teachings of his religion.  He is giving Jesus the opportunity to show the crowds who he is.  But the crowds, including the disciples, don’t see this.  They are forgetting their stories and they tell the blind man to be quiet; stop making a scene.  But in the story, Jesus sees what is going on.  This is an opportunity for him to fulfill his role as messiah, messiah not only to the respectable people, but messiah to those on the outskirts of society.  So we are told that Jesus calls out to the man.  Well, the crowd immediately responds and calls the man to Jesus.  The man throws off his cloak, perhaps his only possession,  and goes to Jesus.  He gets rid of anything that gets in the way.  He is willing to give up whatever he has to because he sees who Jesus is and values whatever Jesus will give him above all else.  This is in contrast to the disciples who just verses before are wondering why they have left home and family and job to follow Jesus and if it will be worth it.  And there is also the story of the wealthy person who cannot give his wealth to the poor to follow Jesus.  The blind man may only have one possession, but even this he will gladly cast aside for he trusts Jesus. 

Next in the story, Jesus asks this man, “What do you want me to do for you?”  What does he want?  It’s almost like a genie and three wishes.  But you can’t ask for three more wishes.  What do you want me to do for you?  Again, just a few verses earlier, the disciples have come to Jesus with a request:  To sit at his right hand and left hand in the realm of God.  They want favored status, recognition,  and privilege.  This brings to mind the observation of Helen Keller, a person who was physically blind and deaf: “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.”   What does this blind man want?  “My teacher, let me see again.”  See.  This man wants understanding.  Insight.  Meaning.  That is what he asks for which also tells us what he does not ask for:  wealth, power, status and prestige.  There are lots of things that he does not ask for.  The one thing he wants is sight.  True vision.   

In the story, Jesus tells him, “Your faith has made you well,” or saved you, or made you whole, or cured you, depending on how the word is translated.  But the man’s inner sight, his trust, his awareness, has led him to Jesus, to desiring what is true, to letting nothing stand in the way of his quest.   And he is rewarded. 

And what is the first thing he does once he can see?  Does he look in a mirror?  Does he count the coins he has collected begging?  Does he take a swing at someone nasty in the crowd that has taunted him?  No.  We are told, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”  He sees with validity and the value of this alternative world that Jesus is offering to people.  He sees the commonwealth of God in Jesus and his way.  He sees the truth that our highest good is found in living for others.  

We have touched on just a few of the many meanings and insights in this story that help us to see truth and to see ourselves more clearly.  This story has much to offer in helping us to examine ourselves and better understand ourselves and the nature of the world around us.  

Now, the touchy topic.  Did Jesus heal the man?  Did Jesus actually physically heal this man or anyone?  Is this a miracle?  Is it an occurrence that is beyond the bounds of scientifically provable experience?  Is this story to be looked at literally to show that Jesus is the Messiah?  

If the Bible is taken literally, then there are many claims that are in direct conflict with scientific fact.  Some of these can be accounted for by the less advanced state of knowledge at the time the documents are written.  But some of the stories are specifically intended to contradict scientific fact to show the power of the Divine.  But these stories were not originally taken literally, as we understand that term.  In ancient times, there was not the delineation between scientifically provable fact and fiction that we understand today.  Stories were considered true because of what they conveyed about human experience that resonated with the listeners and their experience.   Strict Biblical literalism as we know it is a relatively recent development, really since the 19th century.  And the problem with this new Biblical literalism is that it puts religion at odds with science and creates a false choice between science and religion.  And a consequence of this false choice is that religion with its potentially powerful influence for good loses much of its authority and validity and respect.  

Our religious tradition is rich in stories that help us to understand ourselves, see our choices, choose our reality, make moral judgments, create community, and pursue justice.  The stories of Jesus have much to offer the world to address the many challenges and problems that we are facing.  And we know that stories have the power to shape our consciousness.  Narrative creates our reality.  The power of our Christian stories is being lost to this blind insistence on literalism.  

We’ll take a moment to look at how this is the case with two important images associated with Christianity.  First, heaven and hell.  Seen as metaphors, symbolic images, the concepts of heaven and hell have much to offer.  On Earth as it is in heaven.  Creating communities, societies and culture that respect the dignity and value of every human being.  That’s heaven.  Living in harmony with the physical creation.  That’s heaven.  Living the path of love and forgiveness and generosity.  That’s heaven.  Living for others and serving others.  That’s heaven.  Creating peace through justice.  That’s heaven.  That’s what we are told about the way of Divine Love in the Bible.  These are visions of God’s way.  And we can image that as heaven.  

And what is hell?  Hell is life that is not lived from the foundation of Divine Love.  Hell is when we do not love our neighbor as ourselves.  When we do not love our enemy.  When we do not see the needs of others.  When we live from our own selfishness and greed.  This creates suffering and separation and pain and violence.  This can be imaged as hell.  

To insist that heaven and hell are only actual places that you go after you die distorts and limits the potential constructive power of these images.  

Another example is the powerful image of resurrection.  The story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection is a story that tells of the human capacity for evil and violence.  It tells of the power of greed and lust for power and control.  It tells of human resistance to the way of love.  It is also a story of the ultimate triumph of love.  Of resilience.  Of the power for new life that is beyond our wildest imaginings and dreams.  Think of Nelson Mandela becoming the president of South Africa.  Think of the European Union forged from peoples who were at war with each other off and on for hundreds of years.  Think of the parents who keep going, one more day, after the tragic death of a child.  Resurrection is all around us.  It is always possible within us.  To limit this concept only to something literal that happened to Jesus and will happen to us after we die is to rob this symbol of its power.  Symbols and stories by their very nature are not limited in power and scope.  To insist on literalism when it comes to the Bible is to limit its power.  

Now I have a wand here, an exact replica of the wand used by Daniel Ratcliffe in the Harry Potter movies.  This wand was custom made for Malcolm Wells by his father, Jefferson Wells.  Now, if I point the wand at the altar and utter the spell, wingardium leviosa, what will happen?  Will the altar rise?  Levitate?  Of course not.  But that does not diminish the power of the story of Harry Potter in which we see the battle between good and evil.  And we see the extreme loyalty that marks true friendship.  And we see evidence of sacrificial love as a mother places her body between her child and a deadly curse, giving up her life to save the life of her child.

If we ask to have our sight restored, we will see that the perceived conflict between science and religion, between verifiable fact and religious truth, is illusion.  We will see that the way of Jesus, a way of love, service, reconciliation, and valuing the worth of every person and all of Creation, is life-giving.  And we will choose that way.

The blind man in the story threw down his cloak and gave up life as he knew it to embrace a new life following Jesus.  There is a loud cry coming from our society, from our communities, from our neighborhoods, and from ourselves for healing and hope.  Our faith tradition is rich with stories that help us to see our circumstances, the implications of our choices, and the meaning of our lives.  May we be willing to abandon the dogma and theology and tradition that prevent us from following Jesus and finding new life.  May our plea be, “Let me see.”  Amen.  

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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