because not one word of it do I understand.
This from Flann O’Brien, the Irish writer, offered with the reassurance that what I have to say is simply put, more in keeping with the advice of Paul gives to the Corinthians. Today, I feel as if I’m standing in the threshold, that special place in Celtic spirituality – the past is at my back, the future at my face. This is a place all of its own. I want to speak from this place, offer some contribution to the ongoing reflections on NOW-HERE-THIS in the Four Corners Festival. I’ll set out my stall a little first, and then keep the focus on Jesus. Some years ago I listened to her story. Let’s call her Julie, though that is not here name.
She told of the mistakes…the people she hurt….those who hurt her. How she tried to make a better life for herself. How much she wanted to be loved by someone. How terrified she was of trusting again…
I feel tears well up in me, burning the back of my throat. God with us, for sure: God crying too. A small part of me was picking up on a big part of her….the part that wanted to run away, not be here…not now, the part of her that didn’t want to be… this.
It’s not easy getting a glimpse of pain, our own or someone else’s. Notice how you felt listening just now. Comfortable? Uncomfortable? Nothing? While wonderfully life-giving to be attentive to the present moment, such attentiveness invites awareness of the full range of our experience- the full range – the experiences we keep handy and those we’d rather forget. And in Belfast we have plenty of both.
There is great value in attending to the present moment. It reduces stress and helps with the management of anxiety. For those of faith, the relationship with God and others is more open and free, more life-giving. In business, noticing what is really going on now – operationally and emotionally – increases the chances of successful negotiation of change.
It also helps access the thing we hear so often from the mouths of our politicians: “The reality is…” It takes our eyes of the shiny perfect version of ourselves that we think we should be and instead encourages us to see who we really are, what things are really like.
Who we really are: we are a strong people, we have suffered and survived great tragedy. There’s more healing to do.
It’s hard for people who have been hurt to trust again and we are mistaken if we take for granted that we trust God simply because he is God. As this piece unfolds, I want us to see the Jesus who stops and hears Bartimaeus, to appreciate how this crazy beautiful God-man is able to be free enough to do what he does, and how because of it, we are safe with him, NOW-HERE, in THIS place.
…and I want us to pick up clues so that we might recognise where this Jesus is present and at work in us as we go through this week of the festival.
A tale of not stopping: A group of students in the seminary of a leading theological college in the US were asked to prepare sermons on the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who stopped to help. They were told that their sermons would be filmed in another building on the campus. They were given directions and individually sent on their way.
They don’t know that they were part of a carefully designed experiment and were being monitored. On the short trip between the two buildings each one comes across a man (actually an actor) slumped against a doorway, head down, eyes closed, clearly needing assistance. When the trainee minister passes, the actor gives a well-rehearsed groan and two coughs.
More than half of them walked straight past the man. Some of them stepped over him. Using another group of students and adding in the pressure of time – they were told they had to get to the building as soon as possible – the number stopping to help dropped to 10%
When we think about Jesus stopping, it’s easy to forget that he is human and subject to the same daily pressures as his peers. He was coming out of Jericho, with a crowd, and probably with plenty to do. And yet still he stops. He’s done the same thing a few chapters back when a woman touches his gown. He’s on the path to somewhere and he lets himself be diverted. He lets himself be stopped, be present to the NOW-HERE-THIS of another human being, someone who would miss the cut for the wise, powerful or high social standing club Paul highlights for the Corinthians….someone to be stepped over on the way to somewhere more important.
And that word IMMEDIATELY crops up all over Mark’s gospel…the immediacy of Jesus’ presence to people, the urgency of his attention to them, his willingness to be of service to them.
It would be tempting, and possibly a relief, to imagine that when Jesus goes off to be with the Father he practises a series of techniques that make him more available to the present moment. He might have a meditation DVD or a colouring book to keep him grounded. The truth is much simpler than that and much more challenging. Jesus is able to stop in the moment, and to stop with Bartimaeus, because he is operating out of a different set of values to those in the culture. Jesus is living a life that is radically different to those around him.
Jesus walks away from a trade that would have seen him as poor as most Galileans but at least with some chance of income. He’s free to say what he wants about Caesar’s head on a coin because he’s not paying taxes – he’s not earning. He relies on help from others. He doesn’t look for a wife. Odd.
He walks away from a home-place he knows and into the desert…and nothing. Nothing. Whatever happens in there, it’s clear that he has no interest in the kind of power that the movers and shakers at the time think is important. He is not interested in money. He doesn’t care about where his next meal is coming from.
…and he doesn’t care what people think of him. Take a photo at any stage along Jesus’ journey in Mark’s gospel and you’ve got him in the frame with one of the untouchables. Every one of them fits the description Paul holds up as the antidote to the surrounding culture in Corinth – God chose what the world thinks is nothing to destroy what the world thinks is important. The nonsense, the weak, those looked down on….are God’s holy people….are set free….
No ties to money, no concern to please others, no need for status or security. Jesus has the serenity of not caring – not caring about things that don’t matter to God – because he has given up everything and is free to be wildly disturbed by and passionately present and involved in the lives of his people.
This is where we find ourselves challenged in the Four Corners Festival. We are challenged to stop, to listen to the cries of others, to be of genuine service, as Jesus was to Bartimaeus – Jesus treated him as equal, involved him in his own healing – to learn from them, to be present to the moment and all that brings.
But we know that’s not to be had in any technique or talk. That’s a challenge us to live as Jesus did…to live a radically different kind of life
and to risk appearing crazy….
…..just like Jesus…
No trying to impress others
No people pleasing
No clinging on to power
No playing it safe
No fear of those who differ from us
No ache for things than do not lead to God
Free to forgive, free to be helped by the very people we think we’re there to help.
There’s an expression for members of my own tradition…we’re called “practising Catholics”. I think it’s time that Christians stopped practising and got on with doing the real thing. Just look how our churches have managed to survive and do good limping along, not really taking Christianity out of the packaging. John and Charles Wesley lit the touch paper back in the day. I think Pope Frances is doing the same today. Could you imagine what things would be like if we unleashed Jesus’ craziness properly into the world?
To see such in evidence is surely to see where the Risen Jesus stops and dwells in our midst. I invite you spot and celebrate this craziness…encourage it as you go through the festival in the coming days.
And as we stand on the threshold between past and future let’s not fall into the trap of thinking, crazy or not, we move forward under our own steam. Son of David have pity on me. The blind beggar is the teacher in this tale – the need for absolute and desperate dependence on Jesus. All our planning and strategizing mean nothing. Unless we know our need of God. We’re still blind. We just don’t realise it.
I believe that it is vitally important we reconnect with an experience of Jesus of the gospel, especially at this time in our history. The pain and hurt of centuries flow under this land like poisoned streams surfacing and seeping into the soil beneath our feet, in whatever place we stand. I think all of us carry the trauma and the impact of such and while we have dedicated and skilled counsellors we also have people in our society who encourage the telling of stories and the holding of hurts in ways that only serve to re-traumatise rather than heal the wounds inflicted by past violence. We’re still trying to ‘carve tomorrow from a tombstone,’ as Paul Brady sings. It begs the questions: Who benefits from keeping us in the pain? Is this what Jesus wants for us?
The threshold place is a place of waiting. Are we stopped or stuck? Do we feel safe enough to move….together….it seems to me that we need to know not just intellectually but to experience in our hearts the NOWness of this Jesus of the gospels who has walked away from everything society holds dear just so that he can be there for us. When we know we are safe with him – know in our hearts – perhaps we can be a safe place for others.
This is a threshold place,
a place between the past and the future
The Jesus who heard Bartimaeus’ plaintive cry is with you now.
He stops. You have his full attention.
What are you crying out for?
What is he asking you to let go of, to leave behind?
Bartimaeus opens his eyes and the first thing he sees is Jesus gazing at him. How could you look into the eyes of this amazing beautiful God-man Jesus and not want to be with him sharing his crazy life?
He gazes at you, at me now.
This Sermon was preached by Breige O’Hare at the 4 Corners Festival BBC Radio Ulster Sunday morning service on 4 February 2018.