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Reformation Sunday | October 28, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Psalm 34:1–8, 19–22
For Bartimaeus to ask for his sight would mean not only having the faith that Jesus could and would do it. It would mean having the faith that he could set off on a whole new life.
N. T. Wright
When you stand in the pulpit at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, if you look down you see a little gold plaque nailed to the wooden surface in just the right place so that only the preacher can see it and no one else. Inscribed on it are words from the Gospel of John: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” And though it is no longer only “sirs” who step into that seminary pulpit anymore, the implication is still the same. Somehow, through imperfect preaching and usually a good dose of nervousness, the preacher’s task is to help her congregation see the risen Lord in the stories of scripture and in the stories of their lives. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Does that desire have a hold on your hearts? I imagine it must, otherwise why else would you be in this space today? Out of your bed, out of your home, through the cold, away from the Sunday newspaper and your cup of coffee, away from the Sunday morning talk shows and political pundits. You have come here today, into this sanctuary on pledge dedication Sunday no less, to gather with this particular group of people for worship.
Perhaps for some of you it is a routine. Perhaps for some of you it is because you want to raise your children in church. Perhaps for some of you it is because someone invited you and you could not figure out how to politely say no. Perhaps for some of you it is because you are visiting Chicago and wanted to see this glorious space and hear the music. And perhaps for some of you, after all the violence that has unfolded this week, especially in both the Kroger’s in Louisville and the synagogue in Pittsburgh, you could not imagine not being here in a house of prayer on the Lord’s Day.
Yet added to all of those reasons, I also believe that for most of us, if not all of us, we have come here, to this place, to gather with this particular group of people, hoping to see Jesus. Hoping to see our risen Lord through the stories of scripture. Hoping that encounter might help us to see our risen Lord in the stories of our everyday lives, in this complicated and broken world. Hoping, praying, that we might see Jesus and be changed by what we see—healed, maybe. Transformed, definitely. “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”
Bartimaeus, the person who was blind and begging in our text, longed to see Jesus too. I actually doubt the verb longed fully captures his desire, his need, his hope. We only know about him through the eyes of Mark, which shows us that Bartimaeus sat on the side of the road, his cloak wrapped around him, blind, probably destitute and dependent on the kindness of others for his own physical survival. His situation as depicted by Mark is why I make an assumption that he longed to see Jesus. It might have been that he just wanted to be near to Jesus, to hear his voice, to feel his touch on his shoulder. But I think there was more to it than that. Seeing Jesus seemed to be quite important to Bartimeaus.
We make that conclusion due to the urgency Bartimaeus exhibited. As soon as he heard the crowd approaching, this man who was blind and who had nothing but the cloak on his back and whatever coins got tossed his way started to shout and carry on, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” His shouting embarrassed all those who had gathered around Jesus, and they rebuked Bartimaeus and tried to shut him up. Yet Bartimaeus would have none of it. He refused to be silenced by all of those seeing people. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
I am not sure how you feel, but I find myself rather startled by Bartimaeus’s fearlessness. What inside him made him know he could claim his voice? What was it in his own personhood that refused to listen to everyone around him who was trying to keep him quiet, put him in his place, clamp down on his own expression of agency? How did he get to be so fearless? Did it come from his parents, the teachings of his faith community, a small group of friends?
We may not know how he came to be that way, but we do know that his fearlessness caught Jesus’ attention. In response to Bartimaeus’s tenacious refusal to keep quiet, Jesus stopped dead in his tracks. I love that detail of this story. Jesus stood still, Mark writes. Now for Mark to halt the action means something of substance is happening, for as you might remember, Mark’s favorite word in the whole world is the adverb immediately. Everything happens immediately in Mark. The whole Gospel feels like it is rushing forward towards Jerusalem at top speed. So for Mark to report that Jesus, after hearing Bartimaeus’s cry for mercy, stood still—it’s like Mark took a yellow highlighter and wrote “Pay attention here” in the margins.
Indeed, Jesus’ response to Bartimaeus’s crying out is noteworthy. “Call him here,” he responded. This act of calling hearkens back to what happened each time Jesus called the first disciples. When Jesus saw Peter and Andrew, James and John, he called out to them to come and follow. In response, they immediately left behind their fishing nets—the symbols of their old way of life—and became his disciples. We see the same thing here with Bartimaeus. Jesus told his disciples to issue the call, and as soon as Bartimaeus heard it, he, like those first disciples, immediately threw off his cloak—the symbol of his own old way of life—stood up and made his way to Jesus. Again, he was absolutely fearless in his resistance to being told what he was unable to do or to be. He claimed his own power and responded to Jesus in his own way.
Susan Andrews, former moderator of our denomination, posits that Bartimaeus’s fearlessness is actually a “portrait of faith.” He is what faith looks like. “Faith is needy. Faith is eager,” she writes. “Faith is assertive. Faith is hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky and raw. Faith is personal and relational. Faith ends something and faith begins something. Faith is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves” (Susan Andrews, the sermon “How Eager Are You?” www.day1.org, 26 October 2003). Bartimaeus is a living, breathing picture of what faith looks like.
Just listen to the words Mark used to describe Bartimaeus, says Susan Andrews: “He begs, he shouts, he shouts even louder, he jumps up, he throws off, and, immediately, he follows. . . . There is nothing cool or careful about Bartimaeus. There is nothing proper or pious or proud. There is no mirage of self-sufficiency to distance him from Jesus. There is just persistent, honest need and in offering that need assertively and eagerly to Jesus, Bartimaeus ends up finding his purpose. He finds his faith. He finds new life” (Susan Andrews, “How Eager Are You?”)
Once Bartimaeus reached Jesus, we are given a powerful description of how God has chosen to be our God. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. Jesus showed him such respect and honor with that question. He did not presume to know what Bartimaeus wanted. Nor did he force healing upon him. This one question is a beautiful example of how our God regularly shows God’s profound respect for human freedom. Jesus asked Bartimaeus to be the one to give voice to his deepest longing, his deepest need. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked.
Friends, what might happen if we imagined Jesus asking that question of us this day? As I proposed in the beginning, we have come to this place, choosing to gather here with this particular group of people for worship, because at some level, many, if not most of us, long to see Jesus. We desire to have a better sense of his presence in our lives.
We want to remember who it is that gives us our hope, what it feels like to practice God’s alternative reality of compassion and nonviolence and welcome. So what if today we imagine that, as we see him, Jesus asks us that question: “What do you want me to do for you?” What would your answer be?
Biblical scholar Frederick Dale Bruner suggests
that Jesus [is actually always] ask[ing] us to articulate our real need, our real desire. . . . [Yet sometimes our response is only to ask Jesus] for a little of this and a little of that to make our lives more comfortable, less burdensome. [But why is that? Why do we not ask] for something only Jesus can give, the healing of our deepest wounds, our most insidious sins? [After all, when Jesus asked this question of Bartimaeus, when he asks it of us,] Jesus [is] point[ing] us to the real meaning of discipleship. “What are you really after?” [Jesus wants to know]. (quoted by Leonard VanderZee, in “The Lectionary Gospel” on Mark 10:46–52 posted on cep.calvinseminary.edu)
What do you want Jesus to do for you? What are you really after? Why are you here? These are big questions, important questions, questions that poke and prod our souls into candor and vulnerability, questions that might wake us up at night, questions that demand a response. Now, Bartimaeus knew what he wanted. “Rabouni, my teacher,” he replied, “I want to see again.” He wanted to be healed physically. He wanted to be restored socially. Yet that wasn’t all. As soon as he was healed, as soon as he was restored, he then wanted to be a disciple immediately, ignoring Jesus’ command to go and instead fearlessly substituting his own deep desire to follow.
That was what Bartimaeus wanted, and that is what he received. But what do you want Jesus to do for you? What are you really after? Why are you here? Since I have been wrestling with this text all week I suppose it is only fair that I tell you my responses first (not because they are all that great or holy, but to give you the space to consider your own). But I have to also tell you that my responses have changed and been made more clear due to the events of violence over the last few days. Frankly, right now, I want Jesus to heal me like he healed Bartimaeus. But I want to be healed of my cowardice, my sense of helplessness, and my cynicism that anything will ever really change in our country and in our world.
I want to be healed of all of those things—cowardice, helplessness, cynicism—because in the end, they end up just being excuses for me to keep living life as is and hoping the storms pass. Those excuses prevent me from working on my own white fragility that keeps me quiet in the face of expressions of racism. Those excuses keep me from daily challenging the hateful rhetoric exploding in our own country—a rhetoric that is poisoning us; that somehow makes space for people to accept an idea that an act of domestic terrorism is somehow the result of a partisan conspiracy; that somehow makes space for a white man to think it is OK to walk into a Kroger’s supermarket and kill two African Americans simply because they were black and for a shooter to walk into a synagogue in Pittsburgh during a baby naming ceremony and let loose while yelling hate.
“Son of David, have mercy on me,” I find myself wanting to yell alongside my brother Bartimaeus. “Heal me from my fear. Heal me from my easy helplessness. Heal me from my cynicism that keeps my eyes down and ears closed. Have mercy.” What do I want Jesus to do for me? What am I after? My testimony to you today is that I want him to give me the faith of Bartimaeus. I want him to give me a faith that is needy and eager. A faith that is assertive and full of tough, resilient hope. I want him to give me a faith that is impetuous and persistent and risky and raw. A faith that is personal and relational. A faith that does indeed end my old way of just shrugging my shoulders and begins a new way of fearlessly following Jesus into being a new creation. That is what I want Jesus to do for me. I want to be healed. I want to be transformed. That’s why I am here.
What about you, companions on the Way? You’ve now heard my unvarnished testimony, which I offer knowing full well not everyone in this sanctuary will like the way I phrase things. I promise you I am not trying to back anyone into a corner. Your own reasons for being here might be very different and are just as valid. You might need Jesus to do something quite different for you than I need him to do for me. Your healing might look nothing like mine.
Yet that question still hangs out there—spoken by Jesus, first to Bartimaeus and then to each of us: “What do you want me to do for you,” Jesus asks. “What are you after? Why are you here?” Our invitation on this Lord’s Day is to dig deep and to have the courage to lay our souls bare, to borrow some of Bartimaeus’s fearlessness so we, too, might be healed, so that we, too, might immediately follow and never look back. Amen.