A sermon on Job 42:1-6; 10-17 and Mark 10:46-52 preached Sunday, October 28, 2012 at Peakland United Methodist Church.
It had become a tradition in the last church I was at to host the homeless for two weeks in November through a ministry called CARITAS in Richmond. The whole church was transformed into a homeless shelter. Thanksgiving day always fell during this time and we started holding a worship service on Thanksgiving with our guests.
Last year in the worship service we sang the hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” The second verse of the hymn says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by thy help I come.” I had a bowl of water set out with small stones in the bottom. I explained that an Ebenezer was a stone of help and it was often used in the Old Testament to monument where God had helped the people, such as in 1Samuel 7:12.
I invited those worshiping to come up and to remember their baptism – the waters of grace -as they plunged their hand into the water to get an Ebenezer. I told them to hang on to their Ebenezer and let it remind them that God is with them; God is their help in trouble; and God will set them free. I remember saying, “Let this Ebenezer, that was drenched in the waters of grace, represent for you a new beginning.”
Bartimaeus was in need of a new beginning. Mark does not tell us how long Bartimaeus begged on this corner just outside Jericho. But we can imagine that it was probably a long time. He was a blind man, a man of the street, an outsider. And as such, it wasn’t like he had a lot of chances. Day by day he laid his cloak out on the street and chatted up any passerby for the hopes of a few coins.
N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham in the Church of England, is a New Testament scholar and has been named one of the top five theologians of our time. Thinking about Bartimaeus, Wright tells the story how how an adult son tried desperately to get his ailing and depressed mother into a home where she would be cared for. His own life was being swamped by her needs and demands, and he didn’t have much of a private life. The son came to Wright for assistance. They looked at several options, including nursing homes, sheltered housing, communities of all sizes. But the mother didn’t budge. There was always something wrong with one of the facilities. After about an hour or so, Wright reports, of looking at different homes, the mother turns to her son and with victory in her eyes says, “See, I told you he (Bishop Wright) couldn’t do anything for us.”
The truth is Bishop Wright was helping them. But the mother wasn’t ready for change. She wasn’t willing to see the potential in the different homes and facilities they visited. She wasn’t ready to help herself.
Jesus’ encounter with Bartimaeus in Mark is a very different encounter than we usually see from Jesus in a healing narrative. Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” is really Jesus asking, as Wright points out, “Are you, Bartimaues, ready to give up begging?” “Are you ready for a new beginning?” “Are you ready to make a change?”
Maybe Jesus is asking us the same question: Are you ready for a new beginning in your life? Are you ready to make a change? Or, Jesus could be asking that question to us the Church? Are we the Church ready for a new beginning? Are we the Church ready to make a change?
Change happens. It was built into the very fiber of creation, and (somewhat ironically) it is built in the very fiber of the Church. Just as the crowd shouted at Bartimaeus to be quiet, we are distracted by the voices yelling at us whenever we speak or think of change. Voices of consumerism. Voices of power and popularity. Voices of influence.
With so many voices trying to get our attention it can be difficult to see things the way they are. Our vision becomes cloudy at best. It becomes difficult to see the pain and hurting around us – maybe even in the same pew. It becomes difficult to see the suffering in our community. And sometimes the loudest voice of all is our own voice, shouting that things are fine the way they are; shouting that if so-and-so hadn’t done us wrong, it wouldn’t be this way; shouting that someone else can do it.
And with all this shouting, it becomes difficult to see as God sees.
So, how can we improve our vision? What does a spiritual eye exam look like? Before Bartimaeus ever asks to be healed of his blindness, he yells out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is an unexpected messianic greeting. On the outskirts of Jericho on the way to Jerusalem, by a blind begger. The irony is not lost on Mark. As we have discussed in our Mark Bible study this fall, Mark draws a direct connection between “seeing” and “knowing.” The contrast that Mark draws is that those who have seen, like the disciples, still struggle with knowing, while those who cannot see, like Bartimaeus, know and understand. Despite his blindness, Bartimaeus has vision and knows when he hears that Jesus is coming down the street, that Jesus is the Messiah, the one who can save, the one who can forgive.
We’ve been reading parts of Job’s story the last few weeks, and if you have never read Job I encourage you to take a look, its one of the greatest books. Chapter 42 is the last chapter, bringing the saga to a close. In the verses we read this morning, the turning point is in verse 6. Different Bibles have different translations ranging from “I repent” to “I humble myself” to “I submit.” Did the sight of God and the weight of God’s words humble Job, or did Job just decide it was better to give in and go on with life? When we face troubles in our lives or the life of the Church, do we humble ourselves before God, or do we mime the motions and thought processes of humility to somehow muddle our way through while mutely maintaining that we have been wronged?
Job, like Bartimaeus, seeks mercy from the Lord. When we seek mercy, forgiveness, it is not about who is right or who is wrong. Those things don’t matter anymore. Both Job and Bartimaues serve as a model for us as to what it means to humble ourselves in a way that says we are ready. Repenting, humbling yourself, or submitting to God, means that you are turning away from the things that have separated you or distracted you from God in the first place. It’s turning away from the voices that demand our attention elsewhere, and putting our full attention on God.
Jacob Albright was a preacher in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. After several of his children died, Albright went through a bit of a religious crisis. A new beginning was needed. He attended a Methodist class meeting (what we would call a small group) that met in a home and through that experience felt called to preach to the German-speaking immigrants to Pennsylvania. In 1790 he converted to Methodism and would later be the founder of the Evangelical Association, one of the denominations that would later become The United Methodist Church. It was through the small group ministry that was so essential to early Methodists, that Albright gained sight for change in his life.
In the Christian Church, today is Reformation Sunday. Martin Luther, the German monk, was filled with remorse over the direction the Church was headed. He compiled a list – The 95 Theses – of ways in which the Church needed to be reformed. In 1517 he nailed this list to the doors of the church. Though the Roman Catholic church would excommunicate him and he would be named an outlaw by the Emperor, Luther would start the Reformation, which would lead to Protestant denominations like Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. Luther had gained sight for change in the church and ignored the voices yelling at him to not take a stand, to do so.
Albright gained sight and vision to change his spiritual life. Luther gained sight and vision to change his church. Understanding what we really need is necessary for change. If Bartimaeus was not ready to put an end to his life on the street, than seeking change was not going to be beneficial. When Jesus asked him What do you want me to do for you?, Bartimaeus could have asked for money, a warm meal, or even a place to stay.
People in need have been conditioned to ask for things that will alleviate, but not eliminate their troubles. This is at the heart of the United Methodist Church’s emphasis on ministry with the poor verses ministry to the poor. Bartimaeus’ request of Jesus was to eliminate his trouble, and he could ask this because he was ready to take that step, to make that stand, to seek change.
This past Mother’s Day, Megan and I went with my mom and another family to serve a meal at Freedom House’s Community Shelter in Richmond. The Community Shelter offers more than just shelter and food to the 40 residents. The program is open to those homeless individuals who show signs of readiness for change in their lives and prepares them for that change during the 12-month program.
As we gathered to offer a blessing before the meal, there was an African-American woman that looked very familiar to me. But I could not place her. After a few minutes of trying to figure it out, I let it go and we served the meal and ate with the residents.
When the dining area had cleared out and us volunteers were starting to clean up, the woman came back into the dining space. She hesitated for a moment, and then looked at me and said, “I know you. You’re from that church in Hanover. You gave my my Ebenezer.” As soon as she said this, it finally clicked with me. She was a part of CARITAS and was living in our church for two weeks and was at the Thanksgiving day worship service. When I acknowledged that I remembered her, her face lit up as she remembered that day and she began to dance right there in the kitchen.
She even pulled her Ebenezer stone out of her pocket to show it to me. It had become for her a symbol for her readiness to change her life and her vision for a new beginning.
It is time for us to do the same. It is time for us to recognize our need. It is time for us to humble ourselves before Christ. It is time for us to change. Amen.