Mark 10:46-521 Corinthians 4:1-5
Who’s in and who’s out?
It was Mrs. Leeds’ fifth grade class. Several friends and I formed a club: the Weird Kids Klub – that’s Klub with a “K” to show just how weird we were. We formed special initiation rites, secret handshakes, even a separate table at lunchtime for member only. Within a few weeks, though, we discovered something quite distressing: there was another group of kids in our fifth grade class also calling themselves the Weird Kids Klub, also cleverly using the “K” to good effect, and claiming that they had started using the name first!
Now they were weird, I’ll give them that. But they weren’t our kind of weird. We were disturbed. We drafted a back-dated letter “proving” that we were the older organization, getting it notarized by Jon Shapiro, a class non-partisan, even going to the extent of crumpling it up and burning the edges of the document to show how old it was. We finally changed our name to “Weirdos United,” which we found clever because we could call it “Triple U.” But in the end, we all lost interest and the two weirdo divisions of Mrs. Leeds’ fifth grade class were lost to the realms of childhood cliques.
Who’s in and who’s out? It’s a familiar pastime: the “No Gurls Allowed” tree house of Calvin and Hobbes; secret societies; even country clubs; alumni organizations; professional associations; lines of citizenship or status. At best, these groups represent a collection of people with similar ideals and agreeing to a common set of values, finding comfort with our peers in a world that seems full of conflict, contempt, uncertainty. At a basic level, I am sure, they stem from a basic desire we have to feel included. But if we’re going to be on the inside, it seems, it is true by definition that others will be on the outside.
When Christianity emerged, it did so in the context of a world where religious practices were shrouded in mystery and secrecy. The most well-known of these were the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were centered on the mythical story of Persephone. Persephone had been promised to Hades, god of the dead. She was very unhappy and wanted to return to the surface of the earth. Hades let her go, but first offered her a pomegranate. She ate four seeds, meaning that she was forced to return to Hades four months of the year. During these four months, Demeter, her mother, the goddess of agriculture, would grieve; thus the yearly bleakness of winter.
The Eleusinian cult that sprang up welcomed Persephone back from the underworld and thus the dawning of spring. They began their annual pilgrimage in Athens, bathing in the sea and sacrificing a piglet in the Athenian cemetery. They then started the twenty mile trek to Elefsis where they would initiate new converts. They would shout obscenities along the journey so as to make Demeter smile. Once in Elefsis, they entered the special hall where secret and sacred relics of Demeter were held. The new initiates would be brought in at nighttime. Torches were lit, symbolizing the movement from the darkness of ignorance into the light of knowledge of these secret and mysterious truths. To speak of these practices outside of the cult meant death.
In Greek, it was the word “mystery” that became associated with such religions. At its root, the word “mystery” means a closing: a closing of the group to outsiders, a closing of the eyes in darkness as the initiation ritual began, a closing of the mouth to hold the secrets within those precious few lucky enough to be included.
It was this language of “mystery” which began to be adopted by the early church. At first, the secrecy was needed because of the violent persecution early Christians faced. They used secret symbols such as the fish and the chi-rho cross. The word “sacrament,” which we use to describe baptism and communion, is simply a Latin translation of the Greek word “mystery.” There was something about that early community where something sacred was hidden, then revealed, then hidden again.
Even with these very real threats from the outside to that first century community of Christ’s followers, it was clear very early on that something was different about this mystery. In our lesson from the gospel of Mark, we find Christ on the road to Jerusalem, passing by Jericho on his way with the disciples and the crowds to celebrate the Passover feast. As this festive multitude makes their way, they pass by a blind man begging by the side of the road. Bartimaeus would have been, by anybody’s definition, on the outside. And as he hears that Jesus is passing by, and he calls out to him, the crowd makes it clear where he stands in regard to them. They silence him; his kind is not welcome; he is an unwelcome intruder on their celebratory parade.
And yet, this is not the end of the story. Christ does not continue on to Jerusalem uninterrupted; he does not buy into the wisdom of the crowd, excluding Bartimaeus and leaving him on the fringes of the conversation. Instead, Christ tells them to bring Bartimaeus to him. From the edge of the side of the road, Bartimaeus is brought to the center of attention as he speaks with Christ. The beggar is given dignity; the blind man is given sight. The elusive mysteries of inclusion have been breached. The mysterious world of sight has been revealed. What was once closed to Bartimaeus is now opened. And unlike those rituals of Elefsis, of the celebrations of Demeter and Persephone, blind begging Bartimaeus has been permanently and publicly transformed by his encounter with Christ. His eyes and mouth are not closed, but as he heads out from there, he likely shouts God’s praises at the top of his lungs.
How is the Church today? Are we like Bartimaeus, sharing the profound joy of our encounter with Christ and growing relationship with God with those around us? Are we like the crowd, intentionally or unintentionally shutting out those on the margins in need of healing and inclusion? Or do we follow in the footsteps of Christ, bringing those outcasts into our presence, hearing what they want and responding in kind?
Last weekend, Marilyn Peatman, Cortlandt Minnich, and I attended an evangelism conference at Columbia Seminary. Anna Coulter and Mike Lopata heard him speak a few years ago. Andy Weeks is a lay Episcopalian and now a full-time practical evangelist who shared the story of his entry into the community of faith. He had grown up in the Catholic Church, had grown skeptical, and had wandered away.
There was something about the little Episcopal church around the corner from his place in Rhode Island that beckoned to him. One Sunday morning, he finally attended the worship service there. At the door of the church, he was met by an elderly man who welcomed him, showed him how to follow along with the service, and promised to chat with him after the service. The man had grown up in the church; in fact, he was the third generation of his family to be baptized there. They shared a pleasant conversation for a while. “And when I left,” Weeks said, “he told me, ‘I am honored that you have come to my church today.’”
Do we do that? Do we feel honored by those who wander into our midst on a Sunday morning, or any day or time of the week for that matter? Do we do what we can to welcome others not only into our midst but into those incredible, life-transforming encounters with Christ that open us up to those hidden mysteries of hope and healing?
As Weeks told us about that wonderful little Episcopal church in Rhode Island, he also pointed out the stumbling blocks they unintentionally throw up in front of the outsider. And not only his church, but churches throughout the world have this tendency to become secret societies holding onto precious mysteries without sharing them with the world. We use secret language and code words: “the pastor is in the narthex.” The who is in the what now? We recite prayers and songs that are deeply familiar to us and often unknown to the community around us. Our building signs tend to point the way for those who are already here, not for those to whom we are called to reach. We might as well write our sermon titles in Greek.
Friends, what we have in this place is a precious gift. And it has been entrusted to our care. But the worst thing that we can do with it is to keep it to ourselves. This is not Elefsis, and we are not shouting obscenities at Demeter. We are not the Weird Kids Klub or Weirdos United. This is the Church, the body of Christ. We are, as Paul reminds us in our second lesson, stewards of God’s mysteries. We cannot hoard.
What does it mean to be stewards of God’s mysteries? We can get our minds around stewardship of time, setting aside moments each day and each week for worship and prayer. We know what stewardship of our talents and abilities means, using what we are good at for the sake of the greater good. And we can understand the stewardship of our resources, being generous with what we have received; the incredible response to the purchase and installation of this organ less than a year ago is an example of that kind of stewardship. But the stewardship of God’s mysteries? How bizarrely abstract; how hard to pin down.
There are things about the Christian faith that are hard to pin down. There are times, I am sure, where many of us are hemmed in by doubt, not certainty, about this faith we proclaim in baptism and communion. And then there are moments when those mists of uncertainty give way to a certain clarity of purpose and vision, glimpses and hints of God’s presence and the Church at work in the world. When Charles Carl Roberts, IV, gunned down five Amish girls just three weeks ago, the world ached for this curious, separate, mysterious Amish community in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. But what stood out about this story was how that community modeled their Christian faith and, even more powerfully, the seriousness with which they take Christ’s message of forgiveness and reconciliation. Roberts’ family was invited to the girls’ funerals. Members of the Amish attended Roberts’ funeral. A closed community, in a very profound way, opened themselves just enough to let us see a glimpse of these precious mysteries entrusted to our care. As one journalist put it, “the least technological people in America have proven to be extraordinarily effective at communicating what they believe.”
Friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ, it is this same mystery that has been entrusted to us: the utterly unfathomable concept that God became human in Christ. And in Christ, we have come to know God’s character in an intimate way. It is a character of mercy, grace, love, forgiveness, and reconciliation in the midst a broken, fearful, and hurting world. It is a mystery that is open to all. May we be good stewards.