29 October 2006

Sermon, Proper 25 (B)

Texts: Isaiah 59: 9-19, Psalm 13, Mark 10:46-52

How would we respond if Jesus were passing by on the way to Jerusalem?

On his journey, Jesus is passing through Jericho, not far from Jerusalem itself. The disciples had just been reminded of what discipleship means: graciousness, generosity, and service for others rather than for self-centered ambition.

As he is passing through Jericho, he also passes by Bar-timaeus, a blind beggar, who hears the crowd and cries out to Jesus.

Bar-timaeus is rebuked by the crowd following Jesus for several reasons. First, he is on the margins of Jewish society, both figuratively and literally, and although Jesus welcomed and healed those excluded because of their afflictions, the crowd doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. They don’t approve of the ruckus he is making, assuming that it distracts from what Jesus is about. Further, Bar-timaeus calls Jesus ‘Son of David’, a title which implies kingship over Israel in a time when Israel is under Roman control. This is extraordinarily risky; Bar-timaeus is making a radical claim for Jesus only 13 miles from the center of religious and political power and the remembered prominence of David’s rule.

But in the face of their rebuke, Bar-timaeus yells out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And in response to his cry, Jesus stopped, stood still, and summons Bar-timaeus to him.

In asking for the restoration of his sight, Bar-timaeus calls Jesus rabbi. He believes in the person of Jesus as Son of David and in his message as a teacher. It is clear from Jesus’s words that Bar-timaeus’ faith has brought about his restoration.

It is his faith that allows the power of God to work in him. It is his faith that makes him well, brings him to wholeness, and restores his sight. It is his faith that effects the miraculous. In contrast to the disciples, Bar-timaeus has faith which is not compromised by ambition and aspirations of personal prominence. And unlike the crowd, he is willing to take risks, to proclaim Jesus as the Son of David, and to follow him.

For immediately, able to see clearly, Bar-timaeus followed Jesus

on the way to Jerusalem,
on his journey to the trials that culminated in his death on the cross,
on the way to resurrection.

We are blinded in many ways, and not all of them are as obvious as the blindness that Bar-timaeus experienced. But all of us know different kinds of blindness, which keep us from engaging with the world in an authentic way. There are, for each one of us, times when our lives and our relationships with God and with those around us have been out of focus, alienated, and damaged.

But we are especially blinded to the needs of others. When I first came to Harvard Square, I was shocked at the presence of homeless men and women begging in the street. I felt assailed by how much need there was, by the hopelessness I felt in response. And over time, I’ve become immune to it, out of self-protection. If I thought about it, I might become paralyzed by guilt and the inability to relieve the desperate needs around me. And so I go on with my life as if nothing is wrong. I have chosen to be blind.

What if I chose to cry out to Jesus in hope and faith? What if I chose to see the world around me in a new way? Would I be ready to follow Jesus, even if I have to leave behind my family and friends like the apostles, even if I have to leave behind my comfort and my success like the rich young man?

The message that Jesus proclaimed in his life and death is this: discipleship requires generosity and service for others rather than for oneself. Following Jesus, for Bar-timaeus and for us, means listening deeply to the Word of God, in the person of Jesus and in the Scriptures that we read. It means learning to walk a road that is difficult and perilous. It means seeing with painful clarity that the world and our own lives are disconsonant with the vision that God has for us, who are made in his image.

Regaining our sight seems like an impossible task, but it is actually quite simple: recognize Jesus, let the grace of God work in the world through us, and cry out, as Bar-timaeus did, for mercy. And when we are restored to wholeness, to our sight, through faith, what will we do?

Will we be distracted by all the things of our lives that demand our attention: papers to be written, friendships to embark on, problem sets to be completed, relationships to be maintained, meetings to go to, laundry to be done? The demands are endless. I’m not arguing that you forget about your work, your connections with friends and family, or – God forbid – your laundry. What I am saying, though, is that these things cannot be the center of your life.

If these responsibilities fill all the space at the center of your life, there will be no room left for God. You will become consumed by the demands they place on your time, your mind, and your heart, and there will be nothing left for your relationship with God. But if we place God at the center, if we see clearly and keep God as the focus of our vision, then all the other things will fall into harmony. It is terrible, if not impossible, to see the truth of a discordant and fractured world, a world out of harmony with the vision of God, if that same lack of harmony afflicts your life.

Keeping God as the center of our lives is not for our own gain. It isn’t the end of our story. Its purpose is to allow us – you and I – to follow Jesus more fully. And following Jesus does not mean that we’re going to have an easy and comfortable time, singing Kumbaya around the campfire. Following Jesus makes demands on us, ones that are not always easy to respond to. When our sight is brought into focus, we see a world, disordered and alienated from the hope that God has for us. Our responsibility, as followers of Jesus and members of his Church, is to restore all people to unity with God and with one another, trusting in the mercy of God, who is our creator, our redeemer, and our sanctifier.

This responsibility, and our trust in God’s mercy, however, does not mean that we just come to church, read the Bible, and imagine that one day things will be put right. God works in and through us. We are the mediators of God’s grace in the world. It is all too easy to become immune again to the things that we see, to ‘wait for brightness, but walk in gloom’. Following Jesus demands that we do not wait, but that we bring about the kingdom of God.

My hope, for myself and for you, is that we follow Jesus together, as brothers and sisters in Christ, knowing that to see clearly is also to feel assailed by the needs of the world and by our inability to meet all of them.

We do not live in first century Judea, but we can and should respond to Jesus’s message and call, here and now. Let us, then, choose to be restored to the fullness of God’s image, to see clearly the discordant world in which we find ourselves. Let us choose keep God at the center. And, most importantly, let us choose to follow Jesus and to embody the Gospel, ‘not only with our lips, but in our lives’.