Readings for this Sunday:
Job 42:1-6, 10-17 | Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22 | Hebrews 7:23-28 | Marks 10:46-52
Mark is careful in the story to make it clear that the blind Bartimaeus is being compared here to the rich man who went away sad. We remember him, right?—as much as we might prefer to forget!
After running to Jesus to ask what he needed to do to inherit eternal life, he got an answer he didn’t expect, and couldn’t afford. Give it all away, Jesus tells him. Then you’ll be ready to follow me.[i]
Bartimaeus is able to do what the rich man couldn’t. He casts aside everything he has—which, funny story, it turns out is only his cloak, which is what he used to beg. And he springs up; he explodes through the eye of that needle and he sees again. But my favorite part is his selective hearing. He seems to hear everything except Jesus’ instructions to go. He follows Jesus on the way, instead.
He becomes a disciple.
In between these two stories of Bartimaeus and the rich man are those two disciples who are following Jesus on the way, even as it becomes clear they don’t yet get it.
Jesus has for a third and most specific time taught them the catechism—and don’t be alarmed by that word—it’s simply the church’s word for the lesson, the curriculum. And this is the catechism for we who would be catechumens: that Jesus will be betrayed, will be put on trial, condemned to death and handed over, he will be tortured, executed, and after three days he will rise.
I imagine this isn’t exactly the curriculum you students and teachers have encountered in public schools. But there it is.
If you want to be great you will serve, you will become a servant—and there’s that word that keeps showing up: a deacon to all. And in the next breath we see that James and John are still looking to that sweet spot on Jesus’ right and left—to power and position as the way to “be something,” as a way of saving their own lives rather than giving themselves to faith. Stuck between the rich man and the beggar, they just can’t bring themselves to trust that God will take care of it, that, in fact, this high priest who is constantly praying for us, is the only one who saves.
But the good news here is that they are in the game. James and John are engaged. They have taken the initiative of faith. They are still showing up—drawn by whatever power—to Jesus and the promises he embodies in word and action. They keep at it, knowing that conversion is not so much a onetime thing, but a day-to-day and week-to-week and season-to-season thing. They are there to see the rich man walk away. And they are there to see as Bartimaeus leads by example. They put themselves in a place where they are exposed to this catechism, this good news story, again and again so that it has the opportunity to “take.” They are exposed to what gives life with the promise that as they stick around they will be changed and share in that resurrection, that new life that is here and now and future.
It is a good goal for us too, I suspect. To put ourselves in a life-giving and life-changing place. Location, location, location! To give ourselves the possibility of something better than we currently have, of being able to figure it out over time—fertile soil, if you prefer that metaphor. Or if you’re a sports fan or a doctor--practice. So that when the moment and the spirit are right, drawn on the mountain of experiences and the 10,000 hours we’ve given ourselves to a thing, we too can spring up with that energy and commitment and pure joy that we’ve all known, I suspect, at one point or another, when everything fits, when all that doesn’t matter falls away, like baptismal water off a catechumen’s head, when hope and history rhyme. I know I’ve had those moments, but the other stuff, those other values that compete for our attention—they are pretty sticky too, and I know I need help. I need practice.
That’s where the crowd comes in, after all.
Did you notice the roles that the crowd plays in this story of Bartimaeus? First of all, they try to quiet this one who cries out in his suffering. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” And they shout him down: “He’s got no time for you!”
But it’s almost as if Bartimaeus came prepared to be saved, having read the Old Testament curriculum for this morning. Who knows? He may have even taken a look at the Aftertalk page on the website this week! He could do worse!
Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob,
and raise shouts for the chief of the nations;
proclaim, give praise, and say,
“Save, O LORD, your people…”
See, I am going to bring them [home]
among them the blind and the lame …[ii]
It turns out no crowd can drown out that kind of hope. And this one surely doesn’t. But it gets even better because then Jesus flips that crowd head over heels, commissioning them and their lovely feet as the ones who bring good news, announcing peace, proclaiming news of happiness…
“Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”[iii]
Do you hear that you who come broken to this day? Can you hear him calling you?
I wonder who the crowd is in our story? Is it fair to compare the crowd to the church? Perhaps. It is certainly true that we need each other, that on some days we come into this place with little to no faith of our own, relying on the community to do that work for us, looking to them to proclaim what we so want to believe, but just can’t seem to bring ourselves to it on a given day.
Or the crowd may be those other voices that call us to look elsewhere in society to the impermanent and fleeting for our understanding and being—to those lessons that lead to a spike in domestic violence when the local football team loses, for example, or to a growing divide between the rich and poor, or an environment of non-stop gun violence, or a fear of the other when the data shows it is the immigrant that works as hard as anyone to make a life and build a society. And it is the stranger that usually saves the day in a crisis. And it is the poor man alongside the road, or the young kid in a home in Honduras who may understand more about salvation than I do.
My point here is that we should feel free to cast aside the emotion-driven decision making that fear controls, and pay attention to the data that demonstrates a pretty clear connection between living peacefully and justly with others and our well-being. My point is that our faith doesn’t call us to lose our heads, but to use them in seeking our salvation and looking to that mystery that is bigger than any one of us.
I mean, look around. Isn’t that on display today, in this assembly? Why are we here, after all? Why are you here? And what about the person next to you? Is it just our good looks? Or is there something else that draws us to this place?
What do you want him to do for you?
It is a particularly live question for us these days in this new reformation we are experiencing. Surely our existence is rooted in some bigger ideal than simply to “draw a crowd.”
What is the goal? Is it to increase our numbers? Retain the constituencies we still have? Increase social respect and public influence? To look for what that rich man was looking to? Is it to exhibit as vividly and authentically as possible the appeal and promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Is it all of these? None of them?
The author Ron Byars asks these questions as he worries that too many churches today are content to play “in the shallow end of the pool,”[iv] mirroring conventional platitudes about spirituality, boosting self-esteem, self-fulfillment “as though these were the point of the gospel rather than possible side effects.” [v]
Who are we? What is a Christian community? What is a pastor called to do? That’s the question I’m trying to ask in the project I’m currently working on. And I’m grateful to your generosity in allowing me some weeks over these next months to do so. And I’m grateful to our leadership here for the ways they offer their own gifts in my absence.
One thing we know, I think, is that the church is the gift God has given us to try to figure out this discipleship thing, to be catechumens, to ask the questions, to confess to our unknowing and unbelieving, to try again and again for the hope that springs us through the eye of that needle on our way to salvation.
If we want to save our lives, we are going to need to lose them. That, by itself, seems pretty clear. The challenge, of course, is to translate that into what it looks like in our hearts and on the ground. That’s the work that takes time. But the road is long, and the Spirit of Jesus walks with us.
You see, even blind Bartimaeus, the hero of our story today, doesn’t get it quite right. In just a few chapters, Jesus is going to reject this notion that the Messiah is the Son of David, the servant of a political movement to restore David’s Jerusalem.[vi] No the Messiah has better work to do, bigger fish to fry. But that’s for another time. The point here is that even Bartimaeus, with eyes wide open, and a new jump in his step, still has some road to travel on his way to the new life Jesus, our High Priest who has given of himself, offers. And so do we! And that, is as it should be.
Thanks be to God.
[i] Mark 10:17.
[ii] Jeremiah 31:7-9.
[iii] Mark 10:49.
[iv] Byars, Ronald P. (2015-04-26). Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism (p. 7). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
[v] Byars, Ronald P. (2015-04-26). Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism (p. 7). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Mark 12:35. Cf., Ched Myers. Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 319.
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