Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
We have a story today about a guy named Bartimaeus. He lives in Jericho, in a box, on a one square inch piece of real estate. I’m not sure if that is really how much space he occupies…probably a bit more, even if he was a small man, but I use the image because I heard life described that way once and the powerful visual stuck with me. So there Bartimaeus sits on the side of the road, confined to a box made from the limitations of his body and the prejudices of his society.
So, let’s take a look at the box by imagining this scenario…One day a stranger is walking down the main street of Jericho. It is a hot summer afternoon, and no one is out and about. He stops in front of Bartimaeus, plops down, and asks, “Who are you?” To which Bartimaeus replies: “Bartimaeus.” And the stranger asks: “Is that who you are, or is that your name?” “Well, it is really just my name,” Bartimaeus replies, “because I could change my name, and still be me.” “True. So, who then are you?” the stranger asks again.
“I am the son of Timeaus,” Bartimaeus answers. “Now, if Timeaus disowns you, are you still the son of Timeaus? If Timeaus dies are you still the son of Timeaus?” Bartimaeus has to think. “Am I who I am just because of the relationships I am in? No. I’m more than that.” So, he says to the stranger, “I am a blind man. I am blind Bartimaeus.” To which the stranger wonders: “So Bartimaeus, if you could see who would you be then?”
Are we defined by our physical limitations and physiological descriptions? Are we who we are because of our relationships defined as: son, mother, husband, or daughter? Are we who we are based on our work: beggar, doctor, teacher, programmer? Or our political affiliations?
Who are we? Who are you? This question of identity tells us something about the box in which we live. The identity markers of name, family, work, body function, wealth, to name a few, create the walls of our box. Intuitively we know we are more than this, don’t we? Which is why Christians a long time ago began asking one another: “How goes it with your soul?” The answer to this question vaults us out of the one inch box we are smushed into. To not escape the box, or worse yet, not to believe we are in a box, is to sentence us to the illness of violence, anger, fear, and murder.
To be people who do not believe in the soul, or know what the soul is, or whether or not the soul is healthy, or even how the soul works is to be blind to the nature of our humanity and the reality of our relationship with God. I wonder if the sickness that is ripping apart of our country today isn’t, in some way, the legacy of a people who deny their own souls, and in doing so, clog the soul’s conduit to the power and love of God.
So, today I’m going to teach about the soul by telling you a few stories, because when we talk about the soul, we don’t analyze data, we unfold narrative…we tell stories because every soul has a unique story about their relationship with God.
Right before I arrived at seminary a boy there named Matthew died. He was seventeen years old. No one expected him to live that long. They thought he would die at birth, because he was born without a brain. He was the son of my mentor, Bishop Mark Dyer. Because of his physiology Matthew needed constant attention. He needed to be fed and changed and rolled over. He was entirely in need of care for his existence. And so, a fleet of volunteers attended to Matthew day and night.
One of those volunteers was Desmond Tutu. He was good friend of Bishop Mark’s and when he was at the seminary, he would always take his turn attending to Matthew. I was told by Bishop Mark that Archbishop Tutu insisted on this because, he said: “Sitting with Matthew was soul to soul time.” Matthew’s identity was grounded, first and foremost, in his soul.
It is what he led with. When there is nothing else; when physical, relational, and occupational identity is gone; stripped away, or unknown, the soul endures… in fact the soul thrives. And what the soul is, is that part of the person that directly routes to God. It is our portal connecting to God. It is our wormhole to the divine. It is our IP address to the Cat5 cable. Someone described it to me once as the 1’s and 0’s of the human operating system. The health of the soul is measured by the connection speed to God. Matthew’s was super high, which is why Archbishop Tutu valued their time together. No blockage; no box; no real estate; just pure connection to the love of God.
We have a soul. It is our portal to God. The question is: “How goes it with your soul?”
I met a soul teacher the other day. Her name was Rose Mary and she drove for Lyft. I was in Charlotte speaking at a church conference and staying a few miles away at an old house made into a hotel. I ordered a Lyft and jumped in when it arrived. After greeting the driver (Rose Mary) I asked, “Are you a Christian?” It is a question I’d recommend you ask. I ask it every once in a while and it provokes interesting responses. When you ask someone if they are a Christian, they are going to talk. It releases an energy, and their response will bless you, irrespective of what they say.
So, I asked Rose Mary if she was a Christian, and the energy popped like a struck match. She started praising God, she started talking about her life, and what the Lord had done for her. And here’s the thing, it didn’t sound like the Lord was doing all that much for her. She was driving a beat up Corolla, and the stories she told sounded more like the stuff you’d want to forget more than remember. But in these stories, she was finding glory upon glory upon glory, to the point of tears, to the point of my tears.
So, there I am in the back of the Lyft Corolla arriving at Christ Church, only 12 minutes after leaving the hotel with tears streaming down my face, as Rose Mary is telling me how people at her church pray for her, how they are a praying community, and how they love the Lord and praise what God does in their lives. “And God has magnified my life,” she proclaimed. “God has infused it with love and power and goodness. God has magnified my soul.”
WOW!, I’m thinking, me the priest coming to teach about God, and all I want in that moment is to know the God Rose Mary knows.
And I don’t know if I ever will (now I’m going to say something that is a little uncomfortable). I don’t know if I ever will because I have so much money and authority and power and privilege, and as Jesus said in the Gospel: it’s harder for me to pass through the eye of a needle than a camel. That verse was running through my mind as I listened to Rose Mary from the back of her Corolla.
You see, the box the world put me in is pretty big. When I stretch out my arms I can’t touch the edges, and so it is easy for me to live with the illusion, of my own power and control. I don’t live in my box the way Rose Mary lives in her box, and yet, paradoxically, she was one free woman, much freer than I am. She has figured out what real freedom and real power and real love are, even as the world has tried to mush in the sides of her box.
As I got out of the car, I asked Rose Mary the name of her church, and she handed me a card: “Here you go son. I carry these with me in case someone like you asks. Come see us when you’re next in Charlotte,” she said apologetically as she wiped tears of joy from her cheeks. I asked her to pray for me, and I am sure she will.
Rose Mary, how goes it with your soul? It wasn’t even a question I needed to ask because I could see that her soul was so big and robust and healthy that she was just the right size to walk with head held high through the eye of the needle.
The question that came to mind as I walked into Christ Church was: What are the walls of this box that I am living in? And that is the question I’ll ask you: What are the walls of this box that you are living in?
We are all in some box, with walls that pen in the glory of our souls. It may be an illness, or a loveless marriage, or a difficult child, or a job title, or an inheritance, or too much work, or too little work, or too much money, or too little money, or a scarred history of some sort. We all have a box. To be liberated from it we must put our hands on the walls, and name them, and bless them to the glory of the Lord.
It is what we hear happening in the Psalm today. “Bless the Lord at all times! Let us exalt God’s name together! Look to God and be radiant! O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34 para)
All you people glorify the Lord. Let us together glorify the Lord. Shout for the gloriy of the Lord.
Right size the limitations of your life, so you can walk up-right, soul first straight through the eye of the needle.
“How goes it with your soul?” Here is my invitation: Take Psalm 34 home with you. Read it before you go to bed and when you wake up. Do it for a week. Memorize it… it may be the pole that vaults you out of your box, or propels your soul through the eye of the needle.