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Sunday, February 25, 2018 | 8:00, 9:30, and 11:00 a.m.
Lenten Sermon Series: Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark
Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.
John Newton, “Amazing Grace”
I’m sure you saw the images of high-school students walking out of school this week in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last week. It happened here—in Schaumburg, Oak Park, St. Charles, Elk Grove, River Forest, Buffalo Grove, and Wheeling, just to name a few local schools.
It also happened in New Jersey, Montana, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Pennsylvania, Texas, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and a bunch of other places, including, of course, Florida, where young men and women still in grief over the deaths of their classmates and friends marched and chanted and, through their tears, questioned legislators.
These young people are walking a hard road. Many people have supported and encouraged them, but many people have also condemned them, spread conspiracy theories about them, even threatened them. These young people are taking their convictions on the road, putting them out in public, in front of news cameras, in front of their parents and teachers. There is amazement in their posture. There is also fear.
It’s a hard road that many others have been unwilling—or unable—to take.
Your vision for how the world ought to be isn’t just tested in the classroom. The real test comes when you take that vision on the road.
Of course the road is where we find Jesus in our reading from Mark’s Gospel today.
It’s one of Mark’s favorite Gospel expressions: “The road” or “The way.” He uses it fourteen times in his Gospel, so it ought to make our ears perk up.
Jesus is walking a road here in Mark 10. It’s a real road; it’s not a metaphor. For the first time in his Gospel, Mark tells us where that road is leading: Jerusalem. Jesus knows full well what awaits him at the end of the road: betrayal, condemnation, mockery, beating, and death.
This isn’t a road trip. You need to know that if you’re one of the people following Jesus on this road. And be advised that this road isn’t for everyone. In the story just before this one, somebody went away in grief because Jesus told him he couldn’t bring all his many possessions on this road.
Some are unable—or unwilling—to walk the road of discipleship behind Jesus.
Some of us who are willing to follow Jesus don’t count ourselves able to, though.
I remember the first time I ever taught a confirmation class to ninth graders. Everything went great. The students got along well; we had really committed adult mentors for each of them; we enjoyed a really fun retreat together. It went better than I could have hoped.
So we’re having one of our last gatherings before the end of the process, just a week or two prior to these students’ sharing their professions of faith with the Session and becoming active members of the church, as several students from Fourth Church will do here in May.
I’m ending the curriculum with a discussion of church membership. Specifically, I’m having them read the section of our Book of Order that describes church membership. In a section numbered G–1.0304 and titled “The Ministry of Members,” you read that involvement in Christ’s church involves (and I’m having them read these in turn):
Proclaiming the good news in word and deed
Taking part in the common life and worship of a congregation
Lifting one another up in prayer, mutual concern, and active support
Studying scripture and the issues of Christian faith and life
Supporting the ministry of the church through the giving of money,
time, and talents
Demonstrating a new quality of life within and through the church
Responding to God’s activity in the world through service to others
Living responsibly in the personal, family, vocational, political,
cultural, and social relationships of life
Working in the world for peace, justice, freedom,
and human fulfillment
Caring for God’s creation
Participating in the governing responsibilities of the church
Reviewing and evaluating regularly the integrity of one’s membership
and considering ways in which one’s participation in the worship
and service of the church may be increased and made more
We got to the end of the list, and it was like the color had drained out of all their faces. I asked, “Which of these things particularly excite you?” There was silence. Finally one of them spoke up.
“We have to do all of that?”
“Well, yeah. I mean no. Not all of it, but—I mean you’re already doing some of it. It’s not a checklist; it’s a description. So . . . which one of those things particularly excites you?”
He wasn’t deterred. “But I have volleyball practice, like, every day.”
“Yeah,” added another. “And I’m going to be in the IB program. There’s twice as much homework.”
This went on for several more minutes, with each student narrating the many demands on their time that made that description of church membership profoundly dispiriting to them. What I’d hoped would be an eager exploration of their future grown-up roles in the church prompted a panic attack.
They clearly did not believe they were able to participate responsibly in the life of the church.
Can you relate to that? I can.
You take stock of your commitments and responsibilities and you think, “This is for people with more time than I have right now.”
You remember some of the mistakes you’ve made in your life and you think, “This is for people who don’t have the past I have.”
You listen to someone pray and you think, “This is for people who can pray in a way that I can’t. This is for people who know the Bible better than I do, who have fewer doubts than I have, who can say every line of the Apostles’ Creed when it’s recited in worship.”
If we’re honest, I think all of us doubt our ability to follow Jesus.
And so we should. The world has had 2,000 years to observe the moral failures of the church. We are acutely aware of them. Here at the end of Black History Month in the United States we have to own the role that the church played in establishing and perpetuating the institution of slavery, of Jim Crow, and of the racism that continues to stalk our national life. We are repeatedly unable to follow Jesus.
John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace,”and even the author of that beloved hymn of conversion was unable to follow Jesus in the face of slavery.
His biography has been the subject of books and films: a profane and Godless youth who drank too much and swore even more who attempted to abandon his post in the British Navy, a man so intolerable to his fellow crew members that they left him in West Africa.
When he finally returned to England, his ship got caught in a violent storm off the coast of Ireland, and Newton prayed for mercy to the God he didn’t believe in. He survived and became a follower of Jesus on the way.
But he continued in the slave trade. He captained three separate slave trading expeditions after his conversion, and when he suffered a stroke and retired, he continued to invest in the slave trade.
He was even ordained as a priest and wrote the words to “Amazing Grace,” yet it would be sixteen more years before he would finally renounce the slave trade. As a disciple, the author of “Amazing Grace” was not able to follow Jesus.
We see people who call themselves Christians acting in very unchristian ways, both in history and today. We see that, and we rightly call it hypocrisy. We resolve to not be like that. We conclude that neither are we able to follow Jesus.
James and John sure weren’t. Jesus puts it to them straight: “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”
Cup means suffering. Baptism means drowning. They have to know that. Still, though everybody just heard them clamoring for status and position, they answer, “We are able.”
Of course they’re wrong. They’re not able. None of the disciples are. They flee the scene and abandon their teacher when his predictions materialize. When Jesus’ compassion and acceptance and truth-telling start to snag the gears of religiosity and imperial politics and Jesus ran out of road, his friends scurry to the ditches.
They are so not able. I think some of us are afraid we aren’t either.
John Newton was able to follow Jesus in the end, though. The pamphlet he wrote late in his life, “Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade,” was a powerful instrument in the abolition of that institution in the British Empire. It was mailed to every member of Parliament, including William Wilberforce.
“It will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me,” the pamphlet reads, “that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
I once was blind but now I see.
The inability of disciples is not the end of the story—not John Newton’s, not James’ and John’s in this story, and not ours. The trajectory of the gospel is toward redemption and renewal.
That’s why I think “We are able” is ultimately the right and faithful thing for us to say. Think of the first readers of Mark’s Gospel. They’re the church. That they can gather at all and hear Mark’s story is all the evidence we need that the disciples were indeed able, ultimately, to take up Jesus’ way. James, according to the book of Acts, was martyred by King Herod.
The inability of disciples to follow Jesus faithfully in all walks of life is indisputable. We know that. But it is not the end of the story. Discipleship does not depend only on our ability. We trust the promise of Jesus that he is with us, that the Spirit supports us. The persistent existence of the church urges women and men like you and me to continue to profess with James and John, in the face of everything we know about the world and ourselves, “Yes. We are able.”
The witness of the church is that disciples, despite all of our blind spots, with God’s help are able to follow Jesus. You are able to be baptized. You are able to drink the cup. You are able to serve. You are able to give. I know you are. I see you do it all the time. Maybe not as often as you think you should or as well as you think other people do, but still you are able. You are so able.
You know who the most able disciple in this story is? Perhaps the most able disciple in Mark’s entire Gospel? Bartimaeus. That’s right, the blind beggar.
That’s the gospel for you.
Bartimaeus is actually a disciple before Jesus says a single word to him. He is on the road (there’s that word again—and it’s the same Greek word for “road” that is used earlier in talking about Jesus and the disciples).
He’s named. That’s weird. Bartimaeus is the only person in a healing story who is given a name. And not just a name, but a title: just as James and John, two of Jesus’ inner circle, are referenced as “sons of Zebedee,” Bartimaeus is called “Son of Timaeus.” Bartimaeus is a disciple.
He calls to Jesus. He even uses the messianic title “Son of David,” which makes him only the second person in Mark’s Gospel, after Peter, to address Jesus with such a title. And when Bartimaeus calls, he calls for mercy, not money. He already trusts Jesus. Bartimaeus is a disciple.
Jesus calls him. Like, calls him calls him. In the exact same way as he calls the first disciples in chapter one, the way he calls all the women and men who are his disciples, Jesus calls Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus is a disciple.
Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. It’s the only thing he has. It’s how he collects money. How’s he going to find it again? He’s blind. Doesn’t matter. Peter and Andrew left their nets; James and John left their boat. Bartimaeus leaves his cloak. Bartimaeus is a disciple.
And then there is the question Jesus asks him: “What do you want me to do for you?” You caught that, right? It’s the exact same question he asked James and John, the one they answered inappropriately with a desire for position and status. What do you want me to do for you? The same question. Bartimaeus is a disciple.
His answer, “My teacher,” is intimate. In fact, it’s only used one other time in the entire New Testament. In John’s Gospel, when Mary encounters the risen Jesus at the tomb, she embraces him and calls him “Rabbouni”—“my teacher.” It’s the same word Bartimaeus uses. Bartimaeus is a disciple.
Healed—saved!— Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way, the road. Yes if we haven’t figured it out yet, Mark makes it very, very plan with the words follow and way. Bartimaeus is a disciple.
And not just any disciple. Bartimaeus, who can’t see the road he’s walking, is our model to walk behind.
It is something of a pattern in Mark’s Gospel to feature a person who is not a disciple, who instead is marginalized by society in some way, and to hold them up as what following Jesus is all about. There is the man with a demon, the Syrophoenecian woman, the synagogue leader, the children, the woman who had been bleeding for twelve years: all of these people show up for a single interaction with Jesus, are lauded as examples of faith, and then disappear into the crowd. Bartimaeus is the same.
Bartimaeus is the most able disciple in the story.
We are able to follow Jesus. And so we join disciples past and present in singing confidently this hymn of “Amazing Grace” that found us—and continues to find us.
Thanks be to God.