While looking through past sermons to see what I’ve preached before regarding an upcoming Gospel lesson, I discovered a sermon on my favorite story in the Gospel according to Mark (10:46-52) that I have no memory of preaching. Ever. But there it is, written in all its glory.
It’s interesting to look back, over nine years now, to see what I was thinking and saying then, and reflect on whether I still feel that way. In October 2000, I was into the first eight weeks or so as rector at my former parish, St. James Episcopal Church, in Greenville, SC. It seems to me I had all these sermons in me waiting to burst out, and feeling that I wanting to be liked, loved and respected, I was pulling out all the stops. In one way or another, all of us fall into that in new situations. How great when we can finally relax into our gifts and be fully present to others and their needs.
But the Gospel of Mark had been my regular food at that time, as you will see, and I remember being smitten by Mark’s version of the Gospel. I still am. So with passion and enthusiasm, I wanted to convey to people the message that I felt, using an off-the-wall way of grabbing the listener’s attention. What a list of examples!
Anyway, I think this sermon still stands up well, especially as it brings me face to face once again with that pivotal question Jesus asks each of us to answer. Enjoy!
Proper 25B 29 October 2000
Isa 59: 9-19; Ps 13;
Heb 5:12-6:1, 9-12
The Exodus, the World Series, the Wizard of Oz, Christopher Columbus, the California Gold Rush, Sport Utility vehicles, Super Mario brothers, the “Toy Story” movies, the Appalachian Trail, D-Day and the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four all share a common thread with Saint Mark’s Gospel for today. It is a thread that runs throughout human history and human story-telling, and along with the circle as the central symbol of human artistic religious expression, this thread may well serve as the central metaphor of human life and experience.
Whether it’s passing through the Red Sea or marching through a 162 game season to the division and league championships series, following the Yellow Brick Road, finding the New World, or setting out for ‘San Francisco or Bust,’ owning an ‘Explorer,’ ‘Navigator,’ ‘Voyager’ or ‘Expedition,’ gaining access to the final level or finding your way back to Woody’s house and Andy’s room, crossing America through the mountains, crossing the beaches of Normandy, or traveling the Road to Indianapolis, the human story is punctuated and highlighted by experiences of journey more than anything else. Think of all the examples of “journey” that I’ve left out: Magellan’s voyage around the world, Apollo 11 on the moon, the railroads, Route 66, Hannibal, Napoleon, Lewis and Clark, Lindberg, the Trail of Tears and Bull Run, the Flight into Egypt, Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, the Donner Party and the voyage of the Titanic.
What is it about us human beings that we get an idea and we want to go there? And for many of us, we will do whatever it takes to accomplish the journey to our desired destination. That we can apply the journey metaphor in so many ways, and in so many different situations, shows us its universality and usefulness. This has not gone unnoticed by the Gospel of Mark, either.
Today we see Jesus, his disciples, and what Mark describes as “a large crowd,” leaving Jericho for Jerusalem. Though the lesson doesn’t say Jerusalem specifically, Jesus had mentioned Jerusalem as their destination earlier in the tenth chapter. In the same breath that Jesus mentioned their destination, he also mentioned the outcome of that trip: that the Son of Man will be handed over to the authorities, he will be mocked, spit upon, flogged, and killed, and after three days he will rise again. His disciples didn’t want to hear any of this, so James and John try the distraction of asking Jesus to do something for them—the story we heard last week. These “insiders,” Jesus’ closest followers, are blind to the reality that in Jerusalem Jesus will fail miserably. They don’t want to see that at all.
Yet on the way, on the journey from Jericho to Jerusalem, an outsider, a man who is blind and begging, disabled and poor—-not like one of us—-this man recognizes Jesus of Nazareth, and he cries out for him “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The people tried to shut him up, but he cried out the more “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus, hearing his cry, stops, and summons him. “Take heart,” they said, “get up, he is calling you.”
Now look at this in your mind’s eye: a poor beggar, who cannot see, one who literally sits on the edges of his world, casts off his one possession that Mark mentions—his cloak—and rushes to Jesus. Yes, the one thing he does own, he willingly sheds for the chance to be with Jesus. Can you imagine how the man with great possessions would have felt had he seen this? And when blind Bartimaeus reaches Jesus, Jesus says to him: “What do you want me to do for you?” Can you imagine how James and John felt watching this; “What do you want me to do for you?” They must have been stunned. What James and John wanted, positions of power and privilege, Jesus could not give; what poor Bartimaeus wants, his sense of vision, Jesus can give.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. “Teacher, let me see again.” During the last four years, I have had the joy of carefully reading and exploring the Gospel of Mark with high school students as part of a course I taught at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School. Every year and right up to this day I have learned something new in that study of Mark. And in the entirety of the Gospel itself, this story of Bartimaeus has to be my favorite, because it speaks to me so personally. This exchange between Jesus and Bartimaeus is really between Jesus and each of us. In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus does not only ask of the reader, “Who do you say that I am?” and means for us to answer for ourselves (albeit with Peter’s help–‘You are the Christ!’), Jesus also asks us here, point blank: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus means this question. This is a defining moment for us as Christians, because it represents a choice between following our agenda and desires, our Will, and following God’s Will as God allows it to play out, whether we like it or agree with it at the moment, or not. We do well to listen to Bartimaeus, our prompter: “Teacher, let me see again.” It sounds like a prayer, really.
Restore my vision, Jesus. Let me see again what it is that you have called me to do; restore my sight to enable me to follow you on the way. Once I saw clearly, lately I have had trouble seeing. And when I cannot see where I’m going, I have trouble following you. I don’t want riches, or power, or fame; I just want to see. Let me see again.
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” In the Greek, pistis sesowkein; pistis “your faith” has sesowkein, “has healed you; has saved you; has restored you; has made you well.” Immediately, he regained his sight and followed him on the way. This is the response to regaining our vision; that we follow Jesus on the way. In Mark, ‘the way’ meant suffering and death, and for many first century Christians, that proved all too true. Following Jesus still does not release us from facing our own suffering and hardships. But like Bartimaeus, the gift of faith can heal us, the gift of faith can restore us, the gift of faith can make us well, and God freely gives us all the gift of faith. Yet some people do not see that, and hence, live in darkness.
When we cry out to Jesus in our darkness, in our aloneness, even when people try to shout us down for doing so, Jesus still calls to us. Jesus still asks of us “What do you want me to do for you?” Faith takes vision; we have to be able to see in order to follow. Jesus still restores sight, and will do so for us as well. “Teacher, let me see again,” still serves us well as our prayer.
We all journey through life. Some moments of our journeys have been hard or painful, filled with loneliness, bitterness or despair. Other times have been joyful and rewarding, if not blessed. Some who claim wisdom say, ‘Life is all about how you look at it.’ How about that? Our journey through life is intimately tied up with our vision, with how we see things.
Misperceptions can kill us. “Missed perceptions” can hurt us, too. Things we failed to see can cause us much pain until our vision is restored, until we see things with new eyes. This is why clear vision, the ability to see, helps us on our journey. It enables us to follow Jesus on the way. And we know where he is going: to God the Father, the destination of our journey in Christ.
We also journey with each other. The church is a community of pilgrims on the journey. We sing, we hear the old story told again and again, we break the bread and share the cup. Clearly, it is far easier to travel with companions than to travel alone. And we reach out to others along the way. So many people with no sight sit alongside the road, crying out to be heard, surrounded by darkness and begging for help. Some people would rather shout them down and shut them out. It shall not be so among us, let us extend our hand and lift them up, too.
For this is the Gospel story. Any one of us can tell it to another, teach it to another, explain it to another. It doesn’t require a master’s degree or a class in theological instruction. It only requires that we recognize the journey that we are one, and can tell others about it. It doesn’t require that we know all the answers to every potential question anyone inquiring might have. Jesus didn’t call us to have the answers; Jesus calls us to follow him. For it is in the journey of life that answers appear to many of the question we carry. Some questions we may carry for a long time before the answer appears, and some answers may not appear to us in time, before our journey comes to an end.
All of us could tell another person the story of blind Bartimaeus that you’ve heard today, for it is the story of our lives, a story that we must pass on, especially to our children. Christian formation is about shaping our lives for the journey of following Christ to God. To recognize the journey in our life, and whose path we follow, can easily be explained to anyone. St. James needs people right now who will willingly share the story of our journey into Christ for people of all ages; you already are qualified, because you already tread that path.
If we do not take care to recognize our own journey and the path we follow, we might stray off on any path that looks good, or fun, or exciting, or leads to anything that will not remind us of our final destination. One of the best ways to learn something is to try to explain it immediately to someone else. Which essentially makes all of us teachers.
While each of us could teach by ourselves, having one or two partners makes it easier and more enjoyable for all. Every age group at St. James has Christian formation needs, some more than others. But your fellow pilgrims on this journey with you need you. We need each other, to encourage one another, to inspire one another, to listen to one another. If you feel called to share in this task of sharing the journey of faith and exploring life’s questions with others, then by all means speak to me. Let us help you find your ministry to Christ’s body in this place, a gathering of pilgrims, a community of grace.
For we are the crowd that follows Jesus and his disciples in Mark’s Gospel; we are the one without sight begging by the side of life’s road, wishing to see again. And we know that Jesus will pass by, Jesus who hears our cries for help. Lest you forget, soon he shall be here with us, in the bread and in the cup. ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’
And how will you answer, fellow pilgrim, when he says, “What do you want me to do for you?”