Mistaken Identity

I guess you heard about the guy who was heading downtown and realized that another fellow was tailgating him.  As the two men approached a traffic light, it turned yellow.  The first man did the cautious thing and stopped at the crosswalk, even though he probably could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.  The tailgating fellow behind him hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as he missed his chance to get through the intersection.

getting a ticket

Still cursing and making not-very-nice hand gestures, the tailgater heard a tap on his window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer.  The officer asked for the man’s driver’s license.  He frowned as he examined it, and then he took it back to his squad car, saying to the driver, “You stay right here.”  The officer stayed in his car for a long time before returning to the driver’s open window.

“I’m very sorry for the delay,” the officer said. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. But then I noticed your ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ bumper sticker, the “God is my co-pilot” sign hanging from your rearview mirror, and the chrome-plated Jesus fish on your trunk.  Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car.”

Mistaken identity.  That’s one major theme in the crucial central section of Mark’s Gospel, which we enter today and through which we will continue to move for the next several weeks.  Today’s Gospel reading turns on a question of identity.  Jesus asks his twelve closest followers, “Who do people say that I am?”  That question sets in motion a number of things, including the most heated argument Jesus ever gets into with one of his friends.  But to understand what happens here, first we have to look at the strange passage that comes just before today’s reading, which our lectionary frustratingly leaves out.

This earlier passage is the only place in Scripture where it takes Jesus two attempts to heal someone.  At the village of Bethsaida, a blind man is brought to Jesus.  Jesus puts saliva in the man’s eyes, lays his hands upon him, and asks, “Can you see anything?”

And the man, opening his eyes replies, “I can see people, but they look like trees walking.”  In other words, the man is just beginning to see.  New light has begun to shine in his eyes, but as yet his sight is still fuzzy.  So Jesus lays his hands on the man again, and then we are told, “The man looked intently and his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly.”

trees like men walking

Most likely this story is built around an actual healing, but the import of the story is more than literal.  This passage sets the stage for the entire central section of Mark, and the point is this: Like the blind man at Bethsaida, the disciples risk mistaking the identities of Jesus and everything around them if they trust their eyes when they have only begun to see the world in the light of Christ.  New, clear vision does not come in an instant.  Only if they—and we—stay with Jesus, only if we look intently at and through him, will we clearly see.

And so, today Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  And people aren’t sure.  They know Jesus is compelling.  They follow him around the countryside and bring their friends who are sick in body and sick in soul to him.  They claim he is a prophet, Elijah or John the Baptist, reborn.  They see him, but he is like a tree walking, a wondrous but fuzzy character in their eyes.

I feel sure the disciples hope Jesus will end the conversation with this initial question and let their own blurred vision off the hook, but Jesus does not.  Next he asks them, “Who do you say that I am?”

And for a split second we think that maybe their vision is clear.  Peter responds, “You are the Messiah.”

But Jesus, like an optometrist with a letter chart, tests that sight.  He talks of his unavoidable Passion.  He talks about sacrifice and the necessity for any who claim him to take up their own cross.  He holds up before Peter and the others the truth of what it means to be the Christ, and what it means to be a follower of the Christ.  It means dying.  It means giving up one’s life and claiming new life on the Way of Jesus himself.

But what does that look like?  To those of us with still-blurry vision, the metaphor is confusing.  It can be helpful to consider those who have experienced actual death.  Those who have had near-death experiences, experiences that took them to the very brink of the grave and back again, often share an outlook that is essential to the death Jesus commends.  They return to new life having drawn close to a love that surrounds them and infuses them, and when they come back they can’t help but view the whole world through the prism of that love.  Their lives are reoriented, and the world from then on has a kind of afterglow.  Their attachments in the world are loosened or let go entirely, and their very reason for living and breathing ceases to be what they have, or can obtain, or strive to achieve.  New life is rendered infinitely more valuable than anything in the old life, because of the love they know and now have the gift to pass on.  In dying, all the old attachments, cares, and priorities are sacrificed, and in their place the priority of God’s love reigns.

Well, that’s not a prism through which Peter wants to see.  “Shut up!” Peter says to Jesus (which is the force we can take from Scripture’s use of the word rebuke).  “Don’t tell me that,” Peter says, “Don’t show me that.  Things are fine right now.  We’re doing well.  People are following you.  Everything we’re about is gaining steam.  We’re about to arrive!  Why would you talk about sacrifice?  Why would you talk about giving everything away?  Why would you talk about dying?”

The text gives the sense that, were Jesus to lay his hands on Peter at this point, it wouldn’t be to heal, but to slug him across the jaw.  “Get away from me,” Jesus says, “You’re the devil.”

get behind me satan

Those are strong words to say about one who is arguably Jesus’ best friend.  Strong words, because Peter presents Jesus with strong temptation.  You see, there is nothing more intoxicating than walking through the world with fuzzy vision.  Nothing feels better than understanding the truth, the good, the claim of God upon us just enough (but no more) to convince ourselves that we are being faithful.  What is it like to walk through life with such fuzzy, partial vision?

Partial vision allows us to forward inspirational e-mails and champion prayer in schools, without actually leaving the computer to seek out those who are hurting or work with school children who lack a stable home.

Partial vision allows us to put Christian bumper stickers on our cars and claim Jesus as our own without defining ourselves by the things that defined Jesus, like peace when others cry violence, compassion when others look cynically and callously at those under society’s boot, generosity when others counsel us to cling to what’s ours.

Partial vision fools us into believing that we are already living new life when in truth we have not yet died to the attachments of the world.

You see, Jesus’ question about who he is, is also always a question about who we are.  If we mistake his identity and make of him a slogan or a fetish or a cipher for the lives we’re already living and don’t want to give up, then we mistake ourselves for disciples when, in Jesus’ own words to Peter, we may look to those with clear vision like those who walk the tempting way of the devil.

Jesus has laid his hands upon us, and where we were blind we are now just beginning to see.  With our new but blurry vision we catch glimpses of Jesus here every week in the Gospel and the Eucharist and in countless other places as well.  And it’s wonderful!  The glimpse alone reveals that no matter how broken we have been we walk through the world as people bathed in love!  But even as refreshing as this is, we mustn’t mistake faint glimmers for clear sight.  When Jesus asks us who we believe him to be, the deepest desire of his heart is that we will proclaim, unabashedly and without shame, that he is our salvation and God’s hope for the world.  But to say these words with clarity requires that we understand and embrace what they mean.  They mean our own essential identities must change irrevocably.  They mean we must die.  We must die to self and to the world.  And though this happens most momentously when we make that first decision for Christ, smaller dyings are required everyday.  Everyday we must take up the cross and walk alongside Jesus, defining our new lives by the things that define his.  When we, like the blind man in Bethsaida, keep our eyes on Jesus, looking intently at the Way of the Cross, then our sight will clear.  The blind man will be gone, and the whole world will appear to us differently.  We will discover that death truly leads to life abundant.  We will become disciples, following in faith.

Whoever is not against us is for us

Friends, when the preacher is ready and geared up to write the annual stewardship sermon for the kick-off of the Every Member Canvass, he opens the lectionary with great anticipation.  He hopes, of course, for a word of hope and uplifting grace, something that will inspire the hearts of cheerful givers to support the work of the Cathedral in the coming year.  Maybe the Beatitudes, or some image of the heavenly banquet, or a story about Jesus playing with a bunch of beagle puppies.  Could there be anything better than that?  (That’s in the Gospels, right?)  Imagine then, if you will, my countenance a week ago on Sunday afternoon when I opened my bible and read the Gospel for today [Ahem]: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off, it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.”

Fantastic.  Nothing inspires generosity more than a little hellfire and brimstone.  But wait…Blessedly, the Episcopal Church is not among those that pulls a single verse off the page and reads it in a vacuum.  We always consider Holy Scripture in its context, and so we must investigate, rather than guess or assume, what Jesus is talking about here when he mentions “stumbling blocks.”

But before we define what stumbling blocks might be, we need to back up a little more, and ask a further contextual question: “Why is Jesus giving this warning in the first place?  What race, so to speak, is he preparing the twelve disciples for, in which they might stumble and fall?”

stumbling block

Let’s address this latter question first.  You may recall that two weeks ago we entered into my favorite portion of the Gospels, the central section of Mark.  It’s here that the whiz-bang, miracle working Jesus—the exorcist of demons and stiller of storms—turns contemplative and begins preparing the disciples for their ultimate trip to Jerusalem, where Jesus knows confrontation will occur, and where Jesus knows that the Roman price for insurrection is the cross.  Jesus explains three times that they—he and the disciples—are to be about the work of salvation.  The disciples are to be witnesses to Jesus’ death and resurrection, when he tears the temple curtain in two from top to bottom and inaugurates the kingdom of God for all people.  And then, the disciples are to proclaim that Good News to a despairing world.

This is the work.  This is the race.  This is where, if the disciples misunderstand the goal and the stakes, they might stumble and fall.  And so, we return to the first question: Exactly what is the stumbling block so concerning to Jesus that he warns the disciples against it by invoking the very fires of hell (which is, we should note, something Jesus very rarely does)?  We don’t have to guess.  The verses about the stumbling block follow immediately upon these verses.  Hear them again:

“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’ But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us. For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.’”

This is the stumbling block so worrisome to Jesus, the thing that can cause his followers to lose their balance and their way, to trip up so violently that they fall headlong into the dirt, if not into hellfire.

Like William Barrett Travis’ line in the sand at the Alamo, everybody had to stand on one side or the other.

Like William Barrett Travis’ line in the sand at the Alamo, everybody had to stand on one side or the other.

Whoever is not against us is for us.  Could there be a phrase more counterintuitive or countercultural?  Whoever is not against us is for us.  In Jesus’ world people were increasingly defined by their interest groups.  Narrower and narrower became the things that defined who was with you and who was against you.  Like William Barrett Travis’ line in the sand at the Alamo, everybody had to stand on one side or the other.  The Herodians sneered at the Saducees.  The Saducees would not truck with the Pharisees (except to conspire against Jesus, that is).  The Romans disregarded everyone.

None of these separations were casual.  They were vicious.  People wouldn’t even break bread with one another.  They spit venom and used dehumanizing rhetoric.  There was no generous allowance for difference.  If you disagreed, it meant you didn’t love God, you didn’t love country, you didn’t love your fellow man.  Each group believed—deeply—that if you weren’t for them, you were against them.  In other words, in this respect their world was a whole lot like ours.

As the followers of Jesus coalesce into a defined group all their own, the disciples fall into this same way of thinking.  So when they hear of someone else going around invoking the name of Jesus—someone whose beliefs and social positions they have not vetted—they confront him and try to shut him up.  I imagine the encounter was ugly and mean.  They then return to Jesus with puffed up chests, expecting their teacher to applaud their purity and attempt to control the Gospel message, but Jesus surprises them.  “Don’t stop him,” the Lord says, “Whoever is not against us is for us.  For I tell you, whoever gives a cup of water to drink in my name will by no means lose the reward.”

Once again, as has happened so many times before and will happen again, the disciples receive a perspective-shifting, earth-shattering word that expands the bounds of grace.  The defining characteristics of a follower of Jesus, Jesus says, are not exclusive.  The lines that denote who is inside and who is outside the group are not narrow.  Value is not placed on things that divide, rather, value is imputed to anyone who seeks to meet the yearning needs of the world in the name of Jesus.  Anyone who is not against us is for us.  Jesus’ definition is generous.  It is steeped in the abundance of grace, not its pretended scarcity.  If the disciples misunderstand this—if they think the Gospel is about narrow truth and purity, and exclusive, brokered membership—they will stumble and cause others to stumble.

Meeting the yearning needs of the world in the abundance of grace.  Ah!  There’s a stewardship sermon in here after all.  We do, in fact, kick off the 2016 Every Member Canvass this day.  Tonight at the EMC dinner here at the Cathedral, we’ll enjoy good food, good music, and good cheer, and the room will be filled with people who have a wide variety of theological opinions, liturgical preferences, and social and political views.  From the outside looking in, the world would claim we are an odd duck.  We don’t fit the mold.  We don’t fall into easily divided categories formed by deep lines in the sand.  Even among Christians, we refuse to circumscribe what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, because grace is not scarce, it is abundant, and the world is in desperate need.  Indeed, the sub-theme for this year’s EMC speaks to this.  Hear these words from 2nd Corinthians: “God blesses you abundantly, so that in all things at all times…you can share in every good work.”

diversity

God is calling us not to be like the twelve disciples in today’s reading, preoccupied with questions of who is in and who is out, who is right and who is wrong, who is pure and who is tainted.  God is calling us to be like that outlier, that fellow who doesn’t have time for such questions because he’s busy healing and feeding and sowing seeds of grace abundantly in the name of Jesus.  How do we ensure, as Christ Church Cathedral, that we are like that guy, that disciple?  How do we be people of abundance who share the grace of Jesus abundantly?  As we move into this all-important EMC campaign, it’s worth remembering what the beloved author Parker Palmer says about abundance:

“Abundance does not happen automatically. It is created when we have the sense to choose community, to come together to celebrate and share our common store. Whether the scarce resource is money or love or power or words, the true law of life is that we generate more of whatever seems scarce by trusting its supply and passing it around. Authentic abundance does not lie in secured stockpiles of food or cash or influence or affection but in belonging to a community where we can give those goods to others who need them—and receive them from others when we are in need.”

This is what we are about at Christ Church Cathedral.  We are disciples of Jesus, participants in grace, people of abundance.  And now is the season when we are asked—called—to share that abundance for the work of the Gospel in this place.  Your vestry has joined in the race, and they have not stumbled.  On this first day of the EMC, they have already each pledged to the campaign.  I, too, have pledged.  I have tithed, committing ten percent of my income to the instruments of the Church for 2016.  EMC packets have arrived at your door, and there are pledge cards in the pews even today.

Let’s not stumble.  Let’s not draw lines that the Lord Jesus does not draw.  We, as Christian witnesses in a despairing world, as the cathedral church of this great diocese, are called to define ourselves and our community not against the other, but with generosity.  Any who do not stand against grace, in fact, stand for it, and we—a people of abundance—are given the privilege of being disciples.

Gun violence, mental illness, and common ground measures

I have been heartened by the response to yesterday’s blog post on gun violence and gun control.  The conversations that have arisen have been, for the most part, respectful and constructive.  In the course of those conversations, many respondents have cited the connection between gun violence and mental illness.  I agree that this connection is a vitally important component of the conversation.  Especially so, because in our nation and particularly in the State of Texas, we face a critical lack of mental health resources.

On a recent mental health resources report card, the National Alliance of Mental Health gave both the United States and Texas a grade of “D”.  With regard to Texas, the report states, “Lack of community services in Texas results in significantly overcrowded emergency rooms and inappropriate use of prisons as warehouses for people with mental illness.”  Indeed, the Harris County Jail is, by default, the largest mental health facility in Texas.  The lack of mental health resources is particularly acute in East Texas.  Whereas in Austin, there is one professional therapist per 1500 residents, in East Texas there is 1 therapist for every 10,000 residents.  It is an untenable situation.

In the absence of sufficient governmental funding for mental healthcare, two institutions on whose boards I’m proud to serve are making a difference.

  • The Beacon, through its Cathedral Clinic, serves the homeless and also intercepts mentally ill inmates as they are released from jail to provide psychiatric treatment and mental health counseling.
  • The Bishop Dena Harrison Fellows Program, launched just last night by the The Seminary of the Southwest and underwritten by a $3 million gift from the Episcopal Health Foundation, funds three-year internships for new licensed professional counselors (who train at the seminary) to serve in rural East Texas.

I encourage anyone interested in contributing to tangible, positive social change to support either (or both!) of these very worthy causes.

Turning specifically to the connection between mental illness and gun violence, in a 2014 interview Duke University professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Jeffrey Swanson offers this:

“People with serious mental illness are 3 to 4 times more likely to be violent than those who aren’t. But the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent and never will be.  Most violence in society is caused by other things.  Even if we had a perfect mental health care system, that is not going to solve our gun violence problem. If we were able to magically cure schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and major depression, that would be wonderful, but overall violence would go down by only about 4 percent.

A 2001 study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male. 70 percent were described as a loner. 61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse. 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons. 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind ― which means 3 out of 4 did not.”

Clearly the perpetrators of these crimes were mentally disturbed, but the challenge is that the vast majority were not diagnosably mentally ill.  Is there, then, no way to identify those at greatest risk of committing acts of violence using firearms?  Swanson says there actually is:

“If someone has a history of any kind of violent or assaultive behavior, that’s actually a better predictor of future violence than having a mental health diagnosis. If someone has a conviction for a violent misdemeanor…there’s evidence, they ought to be prohibited [from owning guns.] Things like a history of two DUI or DWI convictions, being subject to a temporary domestic violence restraining order, or convicted of two or more misdemeanor crimes involving a controlled substance in a five-year period.”

Shannon Frattaroli, an associate professor of health policy and management at the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins University, agrees with Swanson. “Substantial research finds that the strongest predictor of future violence is past violent behavior,” she explains.  Beth McGinty, also a Johns Hopkins professor, adds another predictor: “Drug and alcohol abuse are also associated with increased risk of violence toward self and others.”

Swanson, Frattaroli, and McGinty are all members of the Consortium of Risk-Based Firearm Policy. The Consortium released a study in 2013 which addresses the risk factors for gun violence comprehensively.  Based upon their research, the Consortium also offers a set of recommendations for gun policy:

“The report calls for strengthening current policies banning access to firearms for people with histories of involuntary treatment for mental illness…[and] offers a new “risk-based” paradigm to supercede the long-established model of gun rights restrictions focused on mental health. The report calls for temporary restrictions of up to five years on the purchase and possession of firearms by individuals convicted of violent misdemeanors, domestic violence, or more than one drug or alcohol conviction within a certain period – all of which are behaviors that demonstrate an elevated risk of violence, even when not accompanied by a record of mental illness…In all instances of temporary restrictions, there should be a process for individuals to have their rights restored when they no longer pose a significant risk of harming themselves or others.”

It seems to me this is a good place to start.  The recommendations call for restricting firearms from those who demonstrably have shown a propensity toward violence, who, in fact, have broken the law.  People of good will disagree on many proposed gun control measures, but these recommendations provide a space for common ground that could appreciably reduce gun violence in our society.