Today I’m going to ask you to use your imaginations. If it helps to close your eyes, feel free to do so…just no napping.
Let’s start with some basics. It’s the early morning. There’s still a chill in the air because the sun hasn’t come into the high point of the sky. You’re sitting on the ground. It’s cold and hard and dusty. Around you there are the sounds of other early morning risers. In the distance you hear a dog bark. The smell of bread wafts by your nose. Your stomach growls…you can’t remember the last time you had fresh bread.
As you awaken, you remove your wool blanket from around your body. Standing, you shake out your blanket, hopefully getting the dirt off of it. Your mother gave it to you when you were very young. Carefully, you lay the blanket on the ground, making it a smooth as possible. It is your most prized possession; in fact, it’s your only possession. Hopefully, a few coins will be tossed on it today so that you can have a little something to eat tonight. You miss your home, but you couldn’t burden your parents any longer. Being born blind meant you had no way of contributing to the household. You couldn’t be a farmer or a shepherd because you couldn’t watch the weather signs in the sky or notice a wolf stalking the herd behind rocks. You couldn’t be a salesman in the market because you couldn’t spot a pickpocket or someone stealing from you. Even though you were named “Son of Honor” you felt as if you’d only brought shame to your family, and so you left.
Leaning against the stone wall, sitting on your blanket, offering passerby’s greetings and blessings when they tossed you a coin, you notice a sound coming toward you. There is excitement, loud voices, cheers and the name “Jesus” being shouted. You’ve heard of this Jesus. He had been feeding people who were hungry. He had healed a little girl. Among the other beggars, you had heard that even women were allowed to hear him preach. As the voices and cheers grew louder, you feel an overwhelming sense of joy and wonder come over you. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” you call out. Where did these words come from? Why would you call him “Son of David”?
A voice responds “Be quiet! Go away!”
But you can’t help yourself. You call out again “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me”.
Suddenly, everything becomes quiet. There is a sense of calm in the air. Another voice says “Call him here.”
The voice that had told you to be quiet is suddenly in your face, mocking you, “Take heart; get up, he is call you.”
Jesus is calling you. What will you say? Will you be bold enough to touch his face? In a moment of excitement, trepidation and joy, you stand up from your wool blanket and walk toward the calm, comforting voice. You don’t reach for your wool blanket; you just leave it there. Approaching Jesus, he takes your hands in his. They are warm and calloused. Even though you can’t see his face, you can feel him looking at you. “What do you want me to do for you?”
“My teacher, let me see again” are the words that pour from your lips. It is your deepest desire. If only you could see again, you could return home. If you could see again, you could live up to your name “Son of Honor” and instead of being a burden to your parents you could learn a trade or a skill to help support them. If only you could see again.
Gently, Jesus places his hand on your head and whispers to you, “Go, your faith has made you well”. As if the heavens had suddenly opened up, you see the crowd circled around you and Jesus standing before you. The sky is a clear blue. The dirt is gritty and brown. People around you are wearing grey, white and brown tunics. You can see their faces, and what you see there is amazement. You can see the face of Jesus, and what you see there is hope, love and forgiveness.
As the crowd begins to move on, you go…right along with them. You have been made well. Your faith in God was strong before, but now you know your purpose…to tell others about the wonderful healing power of Jesus, Son of David.
You leave your wool blanket behind.
I’ve read the story of Bartimaeus what feels like a thousand times. As a priest, I sometimes struggle with “what new do I have to say about the gospel” and that’s exactly how it felt this time. Lately I think we’ve all been feeling a bit of anxiety and worry. The election is only days away, and the future of our country is unknown. The holiday season is upon us, while that means parties, shopping and lots of yummy food, it can also be a time of high expectations and anxiety. And our stewardship campaign is happening too…can we rise to the call to give of our time, talent and treasure? When we feel anxious, we often retreat to our “safe spaces”, our “wool blankets” if you will. It is in these spaces that we know who we are and what is expected of us. In our safe spaces, things might not always be easy, but there is a sense of routine, there is no anxiety.
Bartimaeus serves not just as an example of physical healing, but also as a model of spiritual and emotional healing. Yes, he is able to see Jesus and the crowd around him, but instead of returning to his wool blanket, he follows Jesus to Jerusalem. He gives up his safe space. He gives up returning home. Instead, he becomes a companion of Jesus and an evangelist to all who will listen to his story.
And so today this gospel invites us all to wonder, what is our wool blanket, or safe space, and are we willing to leave it behind and follow Jesus.
I want to begin this morning with a prayer that our Wednesday healing service opens with:
Rejoice now, Mother Church, with all creation, for God has sent the Holy Spirit into our hearts to call us out of darkness into light;
The Holy Spirit, who moved over the waters in the darkness of eternal night before the Creation, comes with fire to illuminate our darkness;
The Holy Spirit, who spoke through the prophets to condemn injustice and give hope to the oppressed, comes with fire to purge our world;
The Holy Spirit, who descended at the baptism of Jesus to proclaim him as God’s anointed one, comes with fire to reveal God’s love;
The Holy Spirit, who came upon the apostles at Pentecost to send them out into all the world and to proclaim the gospel to all people, comes with fire to renew and inspire the Church.
Come, Holy Spirit, come and fill us.
This prayer was used at this summer’s General Convention Integrity Eucharist. Every time I read or hear this prayer, I get goose bumps because it is both a prayer of thanksgiving for the gifting of the Holy Spirit, and also an invitation to be filled with the transformative power of the Spirit. So be careful what you ask for!
As I read the text for today, two ways of understanding the conversation between James, John and Jesus came up for me. The first was an understanding of how ironic this conversation must have felt for Jesus, and the second was an understanding of how fearful and often confused the disciples must have been in their following of Jesus.
In exploring the ironic meaning of the passage, we have simply to consider the crucifixion. Jesus and the disciples are heading back to Jerusalem, and at this point in Mark’s story, Jesus has now predicted his death three times. So for James and John to by vying for a place of power with Jesus is one of those “be careful what you ask for” moments…a place of power next to Jesus will only lead to death. If we fast forward to the crucifixion, we see that those at the right and left hand of Jesus are criminals, and it’s not a place of power, privilege or esteem. With this understanding of the text, we walk away with the idea that it’s not good to be ambitious and vain, and shame on James and John.
But if we can suspend our judgment of James and John for a moment and consider instead the fear, confusion and sense of ambiguity that the disciples might have felt as they head back to Jerusalem with Jesus, we might be more sympathetic.
What is there to be fearful of? Since the beginning of Mark, Jesus has been engaged in a ministry that is turning the Jewish community upside down. He has been healing and touching the unclean, he’s been teaching a new understanding about the Kingdom of God, he’s fed the hungry, he’s welcomed children and women into his circles, and he has a lot of people on edge. To be a disciple is dangerous business. There is a lot of uncertainty in it, and Jesus repeatedly tells his followers that discipleship comes at a cost.
At the vestry retreat back in early March, Chris asked me what I thought the future of the church looked like, and I said that honestly, I didn’t know, but that what we’re doing now wouldn’t work for much longer…that in the next 10-20 years, the church would be radically different. I’m not the only one who thinks this way. It’s been the topic of diocesan conventions all across the country and the General Convention since about the year 2000. For many, that’s a very scary proposition. And in an attempt to feel less ambiguous and fearful about change, we try to hold on to “the way it’s always been”. Why not? It’s worked this long! But it won’t in the future.
I share this with you because in a lot of ways, the church and the disciples aren’t that different. We want to keep doing what’s always been done because it means that we can try to relive and recapture the glory days of being the biggest, most influential, most “cheeks in the seats” game in town. And when we think about change, about the church transforming, it gets scary.
Jesus calls us to a new way. Like the disciples, he invites us into a new understanding of ministry and the building up of the Kingdom. Like Jesus, we are called to service and transformation. As disciples, we are empowered with the Holy Spirit to servant leadership and mutual ministry…not to focus on the “law” but rather the “spirit”.
Now these terms “servant leadership” and “mutual ministry” are catch phrases used by the church, so what do I mean by them? To me, servant leadership is about compassion. It’s about being in the world, engaging the community, and offering a witness to the grace of God. It’s about taking care of each other. It’s about our lives outside of these four walls. It’s not about being the most impressive, most powerful or most elite. And for me, mutual ministry goes hand in hand with servant leadership. Mutual ministry is about recognizing the gifts that we all bring to the table and finding ways to put those gifts to work. Mutual ministry holds each of us accountable to include, invite and welcome others. Mutual ministry is an exploration of the possibilities, the “what ifs” and the “just imagines”. It’s a new way of doing “church” that is Spirit driven.
If we can consider the possibility of Jesus’ invitation to the disciples—to be baptized as he was, to drink of the cup as he did—then we quickly realize that means not sitting at the right or left hand of Jesus, but rather to be servants to others. Are we ready to be disciples?
At the beginning of September, I read for you the words to the song “Draw the circle wide”. You may or may not remember that I preached on the Syrophenician woman. I concluded that sermon with these thoughts: my prayer is that when we open ourselves up to drawing the circle wide, standing side by side, we can all experience the creative and powerful force that is God’s love, healing and forgiving grace.
The next Sunday, I taught you the song “The ocean refuses no river” and we celebrated with the youth as they began their Journey to Adulthood Program. In case your memory is a little fuzzy, I preached about losing your old life to gain new life…the cost of discipleship.
Then the next Sunday, we sang again. This time it was “Jesus loves me” and I talked about welcoming all of God’s children. And last week, we looked at our Baptismal Covenant and the importance of continuing our journey of discipleship with God’s help. Next week, the Gospel lesson is about the rich young man asking Jesus what he must do to enter the Kingdom of God, and Beth will be talking to you about the new FISH food bank.
So what do these sermons have in common with Jesus talking about divorce? At first glance, absolutely nothing. But if we look again, we’ll see that all of these lessons are about wholeness. The hymn “Day by Day” says that we pray for three things: to see God more clearly, to love God more dearly, and to follow God more nearly. Why would we want to pray for these three things? Because God wants us to be whole, and wholeness means being in right relationship—seeing, loving and following God through our relationships with one another.
Let’s look again at those earlier sermons based on the teachings found in Mark’s gospel. When Jesus is tested by the Pharisees or questioned by his disciples, a couple of things are happening. First, Jesus has been behaving in a way that is drawing attention to himself. Typically, he’s doing something that’s against the cultural norm. So part of the testing and questioning is to explore why he’s doing things differently, and with what authority he’s doing them. For the Pharisees, and even the disciples, the established cultural norms, traditions and laws are comfortable and stable; they provide structure; “it’s the way we’ve always done it”. But Jesus wants to move beyond the law…it’s not the law that gets folks into heaven, but how we treat each other.
Another thing that’s going on in these stories is that Jesus is pointing out the human brokenness, which is most evident in relationships. Whether it’s the disciples trying to “shoo away” children or other “undesirables” from gathering near Jesus, or in today’s gospel, when Jesus reminds the Pharisees that it is because of their “hardness of heart” that a law about divorce had to be created; he is illustrating that we have broken down what God wanted for us, which is wholeness…seeing, loving and following God by serving one another.
The final thing that happens in these stories of Mark is that there is almost always a blessing. In one story, Jesus heals a man who is deaf and mute. In another story, he blesses the disciples by inviting them to lose their life to follow him. In another story, he blesses the disciples by inviting them to be last and to welcome all. And in today’s gospel, he blesses a child that has come near him. Now it may seem strange to call some of these events “blessings” but they are because they are given by Jesus as a sign of God’s grace; not because the disciples or those receiving healing are perfect in any way. When we experience healing, when we are invited into a relationship with God, when we are shown how to love even “the least” of God’s children, we are blessed.
Jesus’ teaching about divorce challenges us. For many of us, myself included, it strikes a nerve that makes us question if we’ll be acceptable enough to enter the Kingdom of God. We get tripped up by the Pharisees. However, if we understand that we are part of a broken world, and if we, as broken and imperfect as we are, are willing to accept the blessing of Jesus, then we are made whole again.
Yes, dear God, I do pray to see you more clearly in my neighbors, to love you more dearly by serving others, and follow you more nearly through my relationships. And I pray that I am blessed with wholeness in this journey.
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.