Rev. Dean Myers
46 They came to Jericho. As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 48Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ 49Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ 50So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ 52Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
I want you to know that I considered changing my sermon plans this morning to address the acts of violence and near-violence that dominated the news during the week just ended. I decided not to do that, in part because I suspect I would be preaching to the choir. I believe we are all horrified not only by what happened and nearly happened, frustrated by our unwillingness to address gun violence, disturbed by the spirit of acrimony, hatred, and division that is running wild in our land, encouraged at the very least indirectly by the attitudes and words of many in positions of authority.
I hope you will hear in what I have prepared an invitation to a renewed commitment to a more perfect way, the way of Jesus, the way of love.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
I mean for you…you, right here, right now…worshipping God in Christ Episcopal Church, Shaker Heights, Ohio, on Sunday, October 28, 2018.
And I mean Jesus…what do you want Jesus to do for you?
My question to you and me this morning is a variation on the very question Jesus himself asks of the blind beggar Bartimaeus in Mark 10: What do you want me [Jesus] to do for you [Bartimaeus].”
As we take a closer look at the event itself, I hope you will be able to hold that question in your consciousness during my sermon, through our celebration of the Eucharist, and into the world as you leave the sanctuary. For it is, perhaps, the most important question you can ever ask.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
On the surface, Mark’s story of the restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight looks like so many of the other healing stories in the gospels that we are tempted not to give it close attention. You know, you hear one healing story, you hear them all. I admit, that’s what I first thought when I realized it was the gospel text for today. We’ve heard so many such stories in recent weeks, what’s one more?
Our Wednesday morning Bible study group discovered that there’s far more going on than is immediately apparent, and some of it must surely be quite intentional on Mark’s part. I’ll try to give you a brief rundown…but don’t forget the question I’ve asked you to remember! And please, feel free to look at the text of Mark 10 printed in your Sunday bulletin as I speak about it. I will not suspect you of nodding off to sleep!
First off, the core words of dialogue in this story appear in all three of the synoptic gospels; that is, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. In each of the three, this is the last healing Jesus performs before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what the church calls Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday begins the final and decisive week of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the week of his death leading to his resurrection on the first day of the following week, on Easter Sunday.
In addition, in Matthew and Mark the story of Bartimaeus is the last recorded event of any kind before Palm Sunday. Although Luke inserts the story of Zacchaeus and the parable of the talents between the two events, it is clear that this healing occupies a special place in the minds of the gospel writers.
Mark offers another clue to the story’s significance in a choice of words, a choice that is obscured by the Revised Standard Version of the Bible and many other translations and versions. Verse 46 says that blind Bartimaeus “was sitting by the roadside,” calling for mercy from Jesus. Verse 52 tells us that seeing Bartimaeus “followed Jesus on the way.” “Roadside” in verse 46 and “way” in verse 52 are the same Greek word. Mark’s telling of the healing of Bartimaeus is bracketed between two appearances of the single word.
That is significant, because the earliest followers of Jesus were sometimes called “people of the way.” They were seen as people who followed Jesus on his way, speaking, acting and living according to his example. Followers were not “believers” only–in the sense of someone willing to give intellectual assent of some kind about Jesus–but they were doers. They walked as he walked, in his way. And the story of Bartimaeus, which begins with him, poor and blind, sitting by the way, concludes with him sighted, and apparently up and about, following Jesus on the way.
Those things in mind–the place of the story just before Palm Sunday, and the dual use of the word for “way”–let’s run through the story itself, remembering that the question for us today is the one Jesus asks Bartimaeus: What do you want me to do for you?
Jesus and his disciples are leaving Jericho accompanied by a large crowd. The blind beggar, Bartimaeus, knowing Jesus has been in town, sits by the road shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This may be his last chance. He is so desperate that he ignores those who tell him to shut up and cries out ever more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Bartimaeus is using one of the most exalted titles available to identify Jesus. The “Son of David” is the heir to the throne of David, Israel’s greatest king. He is to return to earth and lead an army to restore Israel to its rightful dominant place among the nations. From such a powerful and commanding king one like Bartimaeus can only beg for mercy.
Jesus hears Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy, and asks someone to call him. Someone from the crowd that had been trying to silence him apparently sees an opportunity here for Bartimaeus, and urges him to “take heart”–to have courage–because Jesus is willing to meet him. Bartimaeus excitedly throws off his cloak, springs up, and makes his way to Jesus, probably knocking over things and bumping into people along the path.
And then, before Jesus himself, he must answer one question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?”
Stop here. What would you have said?
Our answer may seem obvious because we know how Bartimaeus answered. But what if we didn’t know that? I confess some broad contours of the kinds of things I might have said: Thank you for asking, Jesus. Please make people who pass by me more generous in their giving to me. (Better yet, give me a large inheritance from great aunt Sarah!) Please make people pay attention to me, and not always silence and ignore me. Help my muscles not get so stiff and sore from sitting on the side of the road all day. Please provide white canes and service dogs for blind folks right now; we shouldn’t have to wait thousands of years for such things, should we?
I think I’d have been too polite to ask Jesus for what I really lacked and wanted. After all, it would put him to the test, in front of his admiring crowd. Jesus might not think restoring sight to a guy like me was worth his effort; he might treat me like the fool I don’t ever want to seem to be…a fool for asking, a fool for believing, and a fool for trusting.
Besides, what would I do if I did get my sight back? If I were suddenly able to fend for myself, and not be dependent as I am now on others? I’d have to get a job, be productive, make a difference, and maybe care for someone else. I am not sure I want to go there and do that! I kind of like my personal Egypt, after all; it’s comfortable, it’s known.
When Jesus asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?” we better be ready to give an honest answer, a courageous answer, an answer from the heart.
The blind man says, “My teacher, let me see again.”
“Son of David” has become “my teacher.” Bartimaeus’s new title for Jesus seems to make the playing field they are both on a little more even. The exalted king has become, somehow in his mind, a personal instructor, mentor, teacher, trainer. Bartimaeus casts himself as Jesus’s disciple, his follower. He is a disciple, at least a would-be one, even as he asks Jesus for his sight!
Bartimaeus simply asks his teacher that he see again. Jesus invites Bartimaeus to go, for his faith has made him well. Bartimaeus own faith in Jesus his teacher gives him sight, and though Jesus bids him to leave, he instead follows Jesus “on the way.”
Bartimaeus’s request in response to Jesus’s question is specific, it is clear, it is verifiable. So, let me see again risks failure, risks change, risks disappointment. It is a request that does not wander into theories, get lost in abstractions, or wallow in what-ifs and maybes.
Jesus does exactly what Bartimaeus has asked, freeing the once-blind man to see and to choose to follow him. The story of the restoration of Bartimaeus’s sight is a story of his initiation into Jesus’ discipleship.
Which will have its ups and downs, and they will begin at once. The “big up” of Palm Sunday will be followed by the deep down of Good Friday will be followed by the really “big up” of Easter Sunday. All along the way, there will be opposition, danger, and resistance. Discipleship is not easy, and we have no knowledge of how long or how faithfully Bartimaeus followed Jesus’s way. We just know he made a start; we all know that making a start is the first thing we must be willing to do.
Is a positive response a sure thing when we ask Jesus directly for what we want and need? I wish I could promise that. Is a positive response such as Bartimaeus got from Jesus necessary in order to be a faithful disciple of Jesus? I hope that is not the case. Do we have to get exactly what we want if we are to follow him?
Although there is no instance in the gospels in which Jesus does not heal when asked, we know that, going back as far as Paul and his “thorn in the flesh,” not all approaches to Jesus for healing since then have come out as hoped. In fact, many have not.
Here is a take on the problem of unfulfilled expectations, of unanswered prayers, based on the example of Bartimaeus: Ask of Jesus what you truly want and need, but make every request in the context of your desire to follow him and to travel his way, knowing his way may not be your way.
We may pray to win the lottery if we want (and perhaps we will win!) but the more important question is, How will I employ whatever resources I have to walk the way of Jesus? And surely pray to Jesus for healing from illness or release from pain, but hold this question in your heart as well, Whether or not I receive the exact response I want, am I determined to live as Jesus lived for as long as I am able.
When we look beyond our seemingly immediate needs and wants to our desire to live the way of Jesus, our understanding of what we need will be modified, and however our wants are addressed, we will be satisfied. We will know we are traveling the way of Jesus, and that his way is the way of life, even in the face of death and disappointment.
This morning, in the face of horrible bloodshed in a house of worship and violence threatened and real throughout our land, we affirm again that the way of Jesus is the way of peace, of compassion, of healing, of forgiveness, and of change achieved by non-violent and respectful means. The way he did it.
What do you want Jesus to do for you?
However we answer that question in this community today, may we answer it in the full assurance that we are and desire forever to be Jesus’s faithful disciples. We are always walking his way…the way that Bartimaeus saw to walk.
Rev. Peter Faass
Oh my gosh! This Gospel story is not what I needed to hear this week. The world is so filled with bombastic braggadocio these days that encountering the arrogance and hot air of James and John just about undid me. We experience so much unrelenting pride, egotism and self-importance assaulting us daily, that we hope to find some respite in church. But that’s not the case today. “Oh please, not the disciples too!” I thought, when I read this passage in Mark.
James and John, AKA the sons of thunder - that alone should tell us something about their personalities - sure had high opinions of themselves. That thunder moniker is revealing; it indicates they were big Type A extroverts with lots of bravura and bluster. They were the kind of people who suck the air out of a room as their inflated egos shove everyone else up against the walls. People who waste no opportunity to let you know how smart, savvy, well-connected, and rich they are. They certainly don’t miss any opportunity to take care of themselves. You know the type: Two scoops of ice cream for them, one for everybody else.
“’Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ (Now there’s a red flag statement, if ever there was one) And [Jesus] said to them, ‘What is it you want me to do for you?’ And they said to him, ‘Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.’”
These two guys are schemers. They must have been on a coffee run at Starbucks when Jesus preached the Sermon on the Mount. You remember, right? “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” No meekness here. As Jesus speaks of his kingdom, these guys see an opportunity to jockey for positions of great power and authority in the new Jesus administration. They want first dibs on being Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, acquiring all the power and benefits that accrue to these positions. Worse yet, they do it behind the backs of their other ten colleagues. You may have run into people like this in the workplace, or your family or – heaven forbid – the Church!
James and John were prepared to throw the other disciples under the bus to get what they wanted – wealth, possessions, power and status. They wanted the government planes and expense accounts. They wanted the glory and all its trappings they believed Jesus would deliver, and they were hell bent to get it, regardless of how that impacted others.
Things haven’t changed much from the first century to the 21st. Encountering the tidal wave of arrogance, hubris and greed that washes over us these days is not only appalling, it’s exhausting. It’s a trail to read or listen to the news anymore. I really need a good dose of humility right now. I think we all do. I crave quiet and unassuming, not loud and arrogant.
The truth is, I think people who are quiet, thoughtful, self-effacing and humble have the most to offer. And I think this is true because they are of God, because these qualities are incarnated in Jesus. “The last shall be first,” he said. Don’t rush for the place of honor at the head of the table at a banquet.
“The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve.” (Mt.20:28) “He poured water into a basin, washed the disciples' feet.” Jesus is all about humility and becoming the servant of all. So when I say I want more humility, I’m saying I want more Jesus. I want more Jesus-like behavior.
Following Jesus is about service to others. He literally exhausts himself trying to drill that message into his disciples. Following Jesus is about taking the lower seat at the banquet, not the one flanking the host. It is about caring for the least of those among us, not sucking up to the well-connected and the powerful. It is about loving our neighbors as ourselves. Not trampling over others to get what we want.
This servanthood roll is our prime directive from God. We should hold adherence to it as a yardstick by which we measure not only the moral quality of our own lives, but of those running for elected office in all levels of government, and of CEO’s, CFO’s, stockholders, bishops, priests, deacons, and all who lead in the Church (in other words, of all people).
What the world needs now is humility, compassion and love. Despite how many believe, these qualities of humility, compassion and love are not signs of weakness – of being a so-called snowflake – they are signs of moral strength. Of ethical strength. Of Jesus’ strength.
We've experienced this Jesus strength when we serve others. These are moments where we have put someone else's needs first and ours last. This isn’t because we want something in return, but solely from the sheer delight of serving, as Jesus calls us to.
Those are moments when we volunteer for St. Herman’s, or helped a friend in need, or comforted and encouraged someone in despair, or lent a hand to someone who is ill by cooking a meal or running an errand. When we do these things, we experience the joy of giving ourselves to another person. When we do these things, we make ourselves vulnerable to the needs of others – we don’t jockey to get the best for ourselves. In these compassionate acts of putting others first, we have been rewarded not simply by the gratitude of the recipient but by our own increased sense of purpose, fulfillment, courage, and – hopefully, as Christians - of building up God’s reign.
My appeal to you in these days of an often savagely unsympathetic, selfish, arrogant, and mean-spirited culture is to build on these experiences. Heaven knows there is no dearth of opportunities to do these things in this congregation. The good stewardship of time and talent is equally as important as our treasure.
When you give of yourself to others, Jesus is at work in you - and he will continue to do good works through you if you desire. Make Jesus’ humility and compassion for all God’s children the context of your life, this church, our communities and this nation in which we live.
In so doing you will be Jesus’ hands at work in the world. And this work has the power to heal the cancer of arrogance, greed and “MeFirst-ism” that is assaulting us. Let it be so.
Mark 10: 2-16
The Rev. Peter Faass
Oh, isn’t this just lovely! Today we have the confluence of two topics that create the perfect homiletical storm: Jesus’ challenging declaration about divorce, and the beginning of the parish’s annual stewardship campaign! Divorce and money. What preacher doesn’t pray for the opportunity to preach on these two topics, together no less. Not!
I don’t want to be flip; divorce is a painful subject that impacts all too many of us. After all, we proclaim when we marry two persons, “Those whom God has joined together let no one put asunder.” That’s a serious statement with the potential, if we violate it, of putting us in conflict with God. So, arriving at the point in a marriage when it is clear that there is no other option left but to dissolve the relationship, is no small thing. That is not a decision to be taken lightly. Regardless of the circumstances, divorce always causes pain and suffering to someone; to the couple, children, their families, and the couple’s support communities. Divorce hurts everyone.
Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He replies by saying, no. To do so is to commit adultery. He uses the Biblical passage we use in the nuptial blessing to justify this: “the two shall become one flesh,’” He says. “So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
These words can be devasting to people of faith who may be contemplating a divorce, or who have gone through one. They can drive people away from the One who we believe, “stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace.” That anti-divorce pronouncement can seem more of a driving away than an embrace during one of life’s most traumatic events, just when people most need that saving embrace.
Two things about Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees:
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, John the Baptist had been arrested and executed by King Herod over the issue of divorce. John had railed against King Herod because he had married his brother Philip’s wife, Herodias, who had divorced Philip in order to marry Herod. Is your head spinning yet?
John rejected the Mosaic law that allowed a man to divorce a woman by simply writing a certificate of divorce and putting her out of the house. It is important to note that the Herodian household was both Jewish and Gentile, and Gentiles allowed both a man and a woman this avenue for an easy divorce, ergo Herodias initiating her divorce from Philip. John was no less amused by this Gentile practice than the Jewish one: he saw both as contrary to God’s intent. His speaking out about it got him killed.
Jesus is aware of this and of the Pharisees’ malice - yet he doesn’t dodge the question. Yet, he undergirds John’s position on divorce, even though doing so places him in a precarious theological and political position, threatening his own life. Why does he do this?
According to Mosaic Law, a woman could be divorced because, “she does not please [her husband] because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house.” (Deut. 24:1)
What options did a divorced woman have? Not many:
Talk about being cast into the direst of vulnerable states! Jesus will have none of it.
Neither will the Episcopal Church, which allows for a divorce and remarriage, because we understand that there are times when to stay in a marriage creates a situation of dire emotional, spiritual and even physical vulnerability for one (or both) of the married couple. The truth is, Jesus is concerned with the vulnerability, dignity, health and well-being of people - not the act of divorce itself.
In chapters nine and ten of Mark, Jesus cites children (3 times) – the most vulnerable of the vulnerable – as those who we must become like in order to truly follow him. “Let the little children come to me;” he tells the disciples. “Do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Ultimately, this passage on divorce is about stewardship: Stewardship of those most vulnerable in our society. In this case, women who are imperiled and abused by a harsh patriarchal culture, and children whom that culture sees as non-persons. The Gospel and the entire canon of the Bible is about God’s call to us to exercise good stewardship over the entire creation and all its inhabitants.
In Genesis, God calls us to rule over Creation. “To rule” doesn’t mean to abuse, dominate, take advantage of, or even destroy Creation; it indicates we are partners with God in the care of Creation.
Everything in the Hebrew and Christian texts calls to:
To be human – to be made in the image of God – is a call to practice good stewardship.
As faithful followers of Jesus, stewardship is something we are supposed to do every day. For better or worse, the church primarily focuses on stewardship in the autumn as an annual stewardship campaign. To the point of being cringeworthy, almost everyone associates the annual stewardship campaign with money. It’s all about the coin.
Truth be told, it is about the coin. The coin – and our giving generously of it – not only engages in good stewardship of our money, but it allows us as a congregation to engage and promote all the other ways God calls us to be good stewards. That is critical work.
In a world that is increasingly uncaring about the exercise of good stewardship (not only for the most vulnerable but for just about everything we are called to be good stewards of), the Church remains a beacon of hope in role modeling a better way of life for all people.
So yes, the annual stewardship campaign is about the coin, because the coin allows us to do all this and more. I pray you give from abundance, not meagerness, to this stewardship campaign. Doing so enables us to continue role-modeling and live into the stewardship for all the Creation and its inhabitants that have been given into our care.
The Reverend Peter Faass
The Reverend Peter Faass was born in Delft, Netherlands. He is a graduate of the General Theological Seminary in New York City and has been at Christ Church since 2006.