Texts: Hebrews 9, Mark 10
Today’s farewell to our Music Director, Gord Allgieier, defined our worship service in musical celebration and mourning. The preludes by Elgar and Handel would have sounded different, yet the same with Gord’s touch on the old organ, or the remaining grand piano. The introit lyrics sang about the ‘voice of music’, bigger than any one choir or director. We are left with the echoes.
Gord also chose to read the Hebrews lesson. The lectionary assigns readings last week and today naming Jesus as a ‘priest after the order of Melchizedek’. Last week I tried to remind you of the story from Genesis. This week we needed a bit of orientation to the temple priesthood from Leviticus. That’s hard slogging for a United Church congregation in this century!
Six kings fought seven kings from the cities of plain, and Avram’s nephew Lot chose the wrong side. Avram ransomed Lot from captivity, and returned him home to Sodom and Gomorrah. The priest-king of Salem, Melchizedek, greeted them with a ritual meal to seal a peace beyond those deep divisions. We know the peace won’t hold, and God will soon smite the cities with brimstone!
So who calls their kid Melchizedek? Why the repetition in Hebrews? In what way is the ‘order of Mechizedek more original, wider, bridging across more specific priesthoods like the levitical or Aaronic – but not necessarily better? After 49 years a church musician in many congregations, a sort of mercenary, like choral scholars or minister, Gord seeks the ‘voice of music’ – among many.
I am not Melchizedek. My name William Ernest Bruce claims continuity beyond my family to wide roots and broad aspirations. The surname claims a Scottish king beating the English in 1300, and the laird in the colonial 1800’s, Governor General Lord Elgin. The Christian name comes from King William of Orange, Dutch king succeeding to the thrones of England, Ireland and Scotland, a Calvinist Protestant battling a Roman Catholic opponent, the Orangeman’s hero.
‘King Billy’ won the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. At Culloden in 1746, the Presbyterian clans beat the Jacobite Catholics and Bonnie Prince Charlie in Scotland. What followed were Highland Clearances in Scotland and Potato Famine in Ireland, driving my ancestors to North America backwoods. They called their sons ‘William Robert, William Joseph, William John” also known as ‘Billie Bob, Billie Joe, or Billie Jack’: ‘hillbillies’, before WASPs or ‘old stock’.
The ‘Wars of Religion’ did not replace one imperial state religion of universal truth for a common humanity with a new one through Reformation and Counter-Reformation. The old model of one true and orthodox church, with all others being wrong and heretical, could not fit Protestants and Catholics concurrently. A century ago, Marx, Weber Troeltsch, and Durkheim invented sociology of religion, and new categories of religious organizations and roles.
If no one imperial true church can attain universal power, the competing organizations, ideas and experiences can be called ‘denominations’ and coexist and influence states. Sects can demand less secular influence, but clearer subjective choice by members. Cults offer alternative authoritarian tyrannies. That taxonomy served us through the global wars of the 20th century, to construe or make sense of the role of religion in the public political sphere.
In this century, Hans Küng wrote a magisterial set of histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, developing Thomas Kuhn’s work ‘The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ and adapting ‘paradigm shifts’ to religious traditions. Charles Taylor acknowledges that we while we can’t be fully immersed and embedded in one imperial true church culture now, ‘Paleo-Durkheimian’ worldviews remain, along with Neo- and Post-Durkheimian re-visions.
Somehow, in the last century and this one, we have been forced, however unwilling, to acknowledge the penultimacy and concurrence of any religion with others, after nearly 2 millennia of ‘Christendom’. We are closer now to the earliest Christians, the writers of Christian scriptures, in describing our place among competing or complementary religions and priesthoods.
Hebrews addresses the law and Levitical priesthood soon after the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in response to the Jewish Wars of insurrection against the empire. When Hebrews says the law and Levitical priesthood could not be perfect, the meaning of ‘perfection’ is ‘catholicity’, ‘universality’, ‘unity across diversity’ – not superior excellence in all features.
Hebrews argues that the purpose of Israel all along was to be a light to nations, to re-present a covenant with God to the world. The goal was never to convert everybody else to be Jewish, to win all wars with our kings against theirs. Remembering Avram, Lot, and Mechizedek, a deeper level of tradition than the priesthoods of the First or Second Temples, is not relativism, but contextuality, in the face of the traumatic loss of Jerusalem and the temple cult. A Christian church was a wider covenant, not a better one.
Christ’s offer, according to Hebrews, looks like a new paradigm, reform or revolution. We are offered not many, but one priest, or rather every Christian sharing priesthood of all believers through one Christ in one body. Talmud is written concurrently with Christian scripture, creating Rabbinic Judaism, a parallel new religious movement after Temple Judaism. Stupid Christians distort Christianity into a 'new, improved, better' faith - and are anti-Semitic. We paused today to mourn the murder in Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Matthew and Mark tell this story of a blind beggar – but only Mark calls him by name: Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. You recognized the naming: Donald McDonald, Connor O’Connor, John Johnson, David Davidovich, Young Im Im:
Bar-timaeus, son of Timaeus. The blind beggar takes his name from his father.
He is his father’s son. Mark thinks that’s important. Mark is shortest, bluntest, most succinct of gospels. If he adds a word, it matters.
Bar-Timaeus – son of Timaeus, is defined by his dad, for better or for worse. This father’s name is not an ethnic Hebrew, biblical one. It’s likely Greek or Roman. But the patronymic, ‘Bar’, is Hebraism. Jacques Derrida focuses this question of the preservation of names, or paleonymy:
“Why should an old name… be retained? Why should the effects of a new meaning, concept, or object be damped by memory? .... To put the old names to work, or even just to leave them in circulation, will always, of course, involve some risk: the risk of settling down or of regressing into the system that has been, or is in the process of being,deconstructed.”
Listen now to what Bartimaeus calls Jesus, and how it matches the pattern:
Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!
Mark has no Christmas story, and no geneology, as Luke and Matthew have, to link up to David. Nevertheless, Mark wants us to know that Jesus answered to ‘son of David.’ This is the end of the ‘Messianic Secret’ of the first half of Mark’s gospel, telling disciples not to tell. To a stranger, in public, Jesus ‘comes out’.
For an oppressed people to identify with once-proud triumphs is subversive – like Africans appealing to Nubian glories, Shaka Zulu standing up to European colonists, or Asians to ancient Sun Tsu, The Art of War, while Causasians were still savages in the woods.
So Mark emphasizes the humiliation of being named as underdog: Bar-Timaeus
and the revolutionary potential of claiming powerful past narratives and names:
‘son of David’ – Bar-David. We can be empowered by our roots, encouraged or inspired by heroes and role models and despite current humiliations.
Mark calls Bartimaeus by name, and by his patronymic. Bartimaeus calls Jesus by name, and by his association with David. One is a tie to a limiting perspective and parochial tradition – blind. The other is a claim of dynastic roots with political overtones in an occupied state – appealing to past glories
in the face of present humiliations.
Do your Protestant roots blind you, or give you vision? Do they limit you to perpetuate a brittle form of 20th century Protestant religion? Do they encourage and inspire you to imagine asking great things from God, and doing great things for God? That’s one challenge implicit in the simple naming of Mark’s story of Blind Bartimaeus.
We all by now know the TV show ‘The Simpsons’. Too often the church feels like Principal Skinners and Ned Flanders – with Reverend Lovejoy at the front, and Bart exquisitely out of place. It is as if the disciples had won, successfully silenced the blind beggar – excluded the children, and all the other bad things
the disciples in Mark try to do.
Jesus loved Bart, crude and rude, blunt and in his face, ignorant but not stupid, blind but not dumb. Jesus might even love us.
Jesus said to Bart: What do you want me to do for you? In last week’s sermon, it was the same question. Jesus asked the same thing of James and John: what do you want? If we could frame who is the ‘we’ and what is the ‘ask’ – the hard work is already done. However, if we can’t yet say what ‘we’ is doing what ‘ask’, neither Jesus nor others can help.
So Bartimaeus’ response makes perfect sense, and comes bluntly without qualification: My teacher, make me see again.
Augustine was a bishop in today’s Algeria, as the Vandals beat the Romans, which would leave the Coptic churches outside the shrinking and later divided empire and church. He saw the difference between what God created, and what God promised, and what was around him. He wrote of the City of God and the Earthly City, and his own Confessions. One of his lines was this:
Hope has two beautiful daughters:
Anger and Courage
at the way things are,
to see that they do not remain
as they are
I invited you to imagine yourselves as ‘protest-ant fan-atics’ today, Reformation Sunday. What do you protest, about what is? What part of ‘normal’ is no longer working? For whom are you a fan? If our brand of Christianity were a crime, could you get arrested, let alone convicted?
Our names are given – but also chosen. We are informed by our name, and express our names, and embody and change their meaning. What’s your own name? What’s our name together as ‘Trinity on Church’? We don’t need to be perfect in the sense of excellent and superior, or even in the sense of catholic and universal. We just need to do a faithful job of being what God made us to be and to do – to see what we are being shown.