All Bartimaeus

(sermon 10/24/21)

Mark 10:46-52

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, the son of Timaeus, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then 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.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

He sat there along the side of the road that day just as he did most days, calling out to people as they traveled from there in Jericho to Jerusalem, or from Jerusalem to Jericho and beyond. There was a bit of irony in his situation. He was Bartimaeus – Bar-Timaeus, literally, “son of Timaeus,” his father’s name, which was a variation of a word combining concepts of worth, value, wealth, inheritance; and here he was – broke, considered worthless, cast aside, presumably being punished by God with blindness for some sinfulness in his life, relegated to begging for spare change from people as they passed by just in order to survive, but most days getting more scorn than shekels as most of them tried to ignore him as awkwardly and unsuccessfully as when we might try to ignore the panhandler waving at us while we’re stopped at a red light.

Some days were better for business, as it were, than others. This was one of the better days, as traffic had picked up on the road as large numbers of people were flooding into Jerusalem to observe the Passover. On this particular day the numbers seemed even a little bigger, and based on the conversations he was overhearing it was because Jesus, the itinerant rabbi was passing through town on his way to Jerusalem and a large crowd was following him independent of the Passover festival.

Bartimaeus apparently knew a bit about Jesus – that he was wise, insightful, maybe sometimes even annoyingly so; and having an ability to heal the lame and the sick. Some were even saying that he was the long-awaited messiah. For his own part, Bartimaeus may or may not have thought Jesus was the messiah as he sat there along the dusty road, but at very least he believed that Jesus was able to heal his blindness, and in the process, exorcising several of the social demons, if not literal ones, that were plaguing him. So when Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was near, he began to call out to him for help. “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

It was a cry that could have been a reference to Jesus being the messiah; or, it could have been an association of Jesus with Solomon, the literal “son of David” who was widely believed to not only be wise, but also to have been able to heal the sick and cast out demons. Either way, Bartimaeus’ bases were covered, and the double meaning of that term might have pleased him.

As he was calling out, we heard that the people in the crowd told him to be quiet, he was being a bother, annoying; with all of Bartimaeus’ yelling and wailing, they could barely hear what Jesus was saying as he was walking and talking. It was just rude of him to be so disruptive.

But Bartimaeus didn’t care. As far as he was concerned, this was his moment; maybe a once-in-a-lifetime chance, so he just kept yelling and crying out even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” On that day, Bartimaeus had the unenviable but real freedom of having nothing left to lose by upsetting the polite civility and conventions around him in order to be heard, and to maybe cause some improvement to his lot in life.

When the people told him that Jesus had heard him and was calling him over, the text says that he jumped up and cast off his… well, something, we’re not totally sure what, because the Greek word used here in the text is ambiguous. It could mean just his outer garment, or it could mean all of his clothing in their entirety; and while the story would still work with either meaning, maybe it would be even more profound, more powerful. if Mark meant the latter. Bartimaeus coming forward to encounter Jesus, naked, completely open and honest, without pretense or cover or camouflage; just as I am without one plea, son of David, have mercy on me.

And in doing what he did, the supposedly sinful and punished Bartimaeus was just one in a long line of people who had exercised that same hard-earned freedom. Job did it before him, as we’ve been hearing in our First Readings the past several weeks. And long after, the supposedly sinful Protestant Reformers did the same, and long after them, supposedly sinful blacks and supposedly sinful women, and supposedly sinful LGBTQ folk, all of them cast off convention and false civility, refusing to be silenced, seeking confirmation of God’s blessing as equal children of God, and seeking betterment of their place in society.

So there stood Bartimaeus, in front of Jesus, waiting. Jesus looked at him, eyes intent, and simply asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus told him. I want to see. He may not have known whether Jesus was the messiah, or just what being a messiah might actually entail; he didn’t understand anything about the fine points of Trinitarian theology or the dual nature of Jesus’ being; he certainly didn’t know anything remotely like any kind of Christian atonement theory. All he knew was that he believed Jesus could help him, in a way that maybe no one else could.

That probably wouldn’t be a sufficiently well-developed statement of faith to get him membership in a lot of churches, maybe most churches, but according to Jesus, it was enough. It was faith sufficient to receive what he’d asked for, and more. He received his sight, yes, but he actually received so much more. He’d been made well, in the deepest sense of the word. In fact, what Jesus actually says here is that Bartimaeus’ faith, his trust, had rescued him, liberated him, healed him – had saved him.

In short, what Jesus did was to make him aware that in fact, he was truly “Bar-Timaeus” – son of value, of worth, of inheritance.

In some way or another, maybe even multiple ways, we’ve all found ourselves sitting in the dust along the roadside of life as all the rest of the world, intentionally or unintentionally, ignores our suffering, our deepest need, however we define that. Maybe they’ll feel sorry for us, maybe some of them will blame us as the cause of our own suffering, but most of them probably just oblivious to us as they go on, wrapped up in their own lives, priorities, destinations. Yes, more than half of us find ourselves in some category of humanity that’s historically had to reject polite rules of engagement, as Bartimaeus did, in order for our voices to be heard and for any real progress to be made. But even if you aren’t in one or another of of those groups, you can still end up sitting in the dust of the roadside, too. The world just keeps going while you struggle with the death of a spouse, a parent, a child. You deal with the stresses of caring for a family member who has special needs, maybe with little or no help from others. Or you deal with uncertain finances, discord in family relationships, or health problems of your own. So many things can put you, put us, in places of suffering as profound as Bartimaeus’. Son of David, have mercy on me.

Frankly, hearing stories like Bartimaeus’ can lead us to consider some really disturbing things: why are other people’s prayers answered but not mine? Does God care more about them than about me? Is God punishing me for something, or rewarding them for something? Does God care about me at all? What was so special about Bartimaeus? Because there were thousands of sick, lame, blind, who Jesus walked past day after day and didn’t heal, and there are countless people who suffer today while others don’t. Truly, Bartimaeus received a gift that very few people do.

But we do have something that Bartimaeus didn’t. He had to wait for Jesus to come along to hear him and save him. We don’t. We don’t have to sit and wait for Jesus to come walking by some day and maybe hear our suffering. For us, Jesus is always with us, when we’re walking down the road, and especially when we’re in the dust alongside it. So with faith – imperfect, sometimes with questions, sometimes doubting, sometimes not fully understanding, but still faith – we still call out to God with our deepest longings, just as Bartimaeus did. And we do still have the great gospel truth that even if we do have to endure suffering, or problems, or neglect, or injustice, or scorn, then God will endure it all along with us. God hears us, loves us, accepts us, even when no one else does. Just as he did with Bartimaeus, Jesus has truly rescued us, liberated us, healed us, saved us. He has literally made us all Bartimaeus – sons of value, daughters of worth, children of inheritance; today, tomorrow, and forever.

Thanks be to God.

And the Votes Are In…

(sermon 10/17/21)

Mark 10:35-45

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he 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.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

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This past week, I saw that LEO Weekly came out with their “Readers’ Choice Awards,” their annual Best of Louisville roundup where readers vote for their favorite choice in a long list of categories – Best Movie Theater, Best Farmers’ Market, Best Chocolate Shop, and so on. As I looked through the listings, I agreed with a lot of the winners. Keeping away from categories that people might consider politically partisan, or the even more contentious categories like Best Place for Pizza, and just looking at some of the creative categories, I was delighted to see three incredibly talented people get top honors on the list: Jon Cherry for Best Photographer, Kyle Gordon for Best Videographer, and Hannah Drake for Best Local Writer. There were some other choices that I disagreed with, too. I suppose it’s possible that some of those disagreements were just a result of my particular age – I’d have likely voted differently for Best Local Radio Station than most 20 year-olds, for example. And I know that with each trip around the sun that you make, the relevance of certain categories changes. I mean, even if the answers varied, people of any age would have an opinion on the Best Place for a Romantic Dinner, but over time, the odds are that you might be less interested in categories like Best Body Piercing, Best Head Shop, and Best Twitter Feed, and more interested in seeing categories like Best Urologist, Best Orthopedic Surgeon, and Best Place to Buy Sensible Shoes. I’m not entirely there yet, but still, I’m just sayin’…

The LEO list does identify some of the best in our city; people, places, and events that help to make our city great and that really deserve recognition and the glory of being name to the list. But it is a bit subjective, of course, and it will always be more a popularity poll than any kind of scientific, objective determination of the “best of” some particular thing. So while it would definitely be fun to have year-long bragging rights if Springdale Presbyterian was voted Best Place to Worship – we weren’t – I’m not exactly going to lie awake at nights worrying about it.

It’s also definitely true that lists like this one can be subject to distortion by vote-casting campaigns, lobbying efforts on the part of some in order to beat out their competition and get top billing in their particular category.

As we heard today’s gospel text, we were peeking in on a similar kind of lobbying attempt to gain a place of honor and glory. Admittedly, in the case of the apostles James and John asking to be seated at Jesus’ right hand and left hand when Jesus had come into his glory – basically, being named Best Apostles – the stakes were a lot more serious than getting named in the LEO list, but there’s a similar human emotion and motivation involved. We heard that the other ten apostles took a dim view of the brothers’ efforts, and for the most part, biblical commentators and two thousand years’ worth of preachers have, too. It was presumptuous, self-serving, and frankly, just plain tacky. I’ve preached this text that way multiple times in the past, and I probably will again in the future. This time around, though, as I let their words dwell and simmer in my brain, I heard them with a slight bit more grace.

As Mark points out in his lead-in by reminding us of James and John’s father, Zebedee, these two bothers have given up a lot to be there on the road with Jesus that day – family, friends, community, business, a steady income and social respectability – all to follow Jesus, the homeless, wandering preacher and maybe-messiah, relying on charity to survive and undoubtedly being looked down upon by more polite society for it. Keeping that in mind, and granting that their request was self-serving, I can still imagine that at its core was something much more respectable and valid – the basic, existential human need that we all have to know that our efforts, our sacrifices made in order to do what we think is right, was ultimately worth it – put another way, the deep existential need to know that our lives actually mattered.  

Maybe it was with that more palatable way of understanding the brothers’ request that Jesus offered them his answer – that paired along with the need for a childlike nature that we heard about a couple of weeks ago, to be truly great in God’s estimation, in God’s realm, a person needs to be a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and not in a grudging or transactional sense, as if we were trying to buy their way into heaven, but rather, recognizing that we’ve already been redeemed; that we and God have already been reconciled. And recognizing the depths to which Christ became a servant to all, we’re grateful, and with God’s help, now we can, and need to, reflect and offer that same servant nature to others, by offering them love and compassion and acceptance and assistance. Jesus didn’t put it quite this way, but maybe we could say that exhibiting that servant nature is the best evidence possible that a person has really, truly grasped the core truth of the gospel, and *that’s* what makes them great, and worthy or real glory, in God’s eyes.

In our Presbyterian tradition, our form of governance and leadership rests on this exact principle. We have a carefully thought-out balance of sharing congregational leadership responsibilities. Certain duties are reserved for the pastor, a Minister of Word and Sacrament, also sometimes known as a Teaching Elder. Other leadership duties are reserved for the Session, made up of the installed pastor – or pastors, if there are more than one – and  Ruling Elders, who are elected and ordained by the congregation. Being elected a Ruling Elder isn’t a small thing. It isn’t the same as being elected to the Board of some social club or organization. It’s something very serious. A person being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder first prayerfully seeks discernment from God whether this kind of leadership is something that God is calling them to; and to consider that the call will require them to share their talents, their time, their imagination. And whether we’re talking about Minsters of Word and Sacrament or Ruling Elders, it isn’t a kind of leadership that “lords it over” people, as Jesus says, and our own Book of Order echoes, but rather, to exhibit what compassionate servant leadership looks like as a spiritual discipline.

We believe that the congregation is an equally important part of this discernment process, to correctly sense God’s will. Voting for someone to be ordained and serve as a Ruling Elder isn’t just a vote of expediency in order to just fill a slot. It’s far more meaningful than being voted to a “Best of” slot on the LEO list. In their vote, the congregation is validating the person’s sense that God may be calling the to this particular kind of servant leadership. It’s community affirmation that they’ve carefully, prayerfully considered the person, and in them, they recognize not only an abiding love of God and a strong, mature Christian faith, but also particular gifts for this kind of leadership of the congregation in ways that keep it on the path that God is leading it on. The vote is confirmation that in this person, the congregation recognizes the servant nature that Jesus talks about.

So as a member of the congregation, recognize that every single one of us who drinks of the same cup as Jesus, and who is baptized in the same baptism as him – every single one of us – is called in some way or another to be a leader, by being a servant to all. To have a servant’s heart, and a servant’s way of living the gospel. As a member of the congregation, when we vote on servant leaders for Session and other positions next month, remember what it really represents. And if you yourself end up being asked to consider becoming a Ruling Elder, and if, as you’re considering it, you wonder and worry if it’s worth the effort – remember this particular gospel text, and that in it, Jesus has already cast his vote that most definitely it is.

Thanks be to God.

A Place at the Table

(sermon 10/11/21)

Photo by Anna Shvets at pexels.com

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Then Job answered: “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!

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Hebrews 4:12-16  

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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How many of you have heard of Eliphaz the Temanite? Does anyone here know who he was? Anyone? How about a quick show of hands; who here has ever heard of Eliphaz the Temanite?… Right, (almost) no one. Well, Eliphaz was one of the so-called friends of Job, who came to him in his time of intense distress and suffering, and who give Job pretty much universally bad advice and incorrectly tell Job that his suffering is his own fault; that it’s God’s response to something wrong that Job is doing in his own life. For his part, Eliphaz accuses Job of some apparently hidden “great wickedness” in his life, and that he needs to “return” to God by getting his life right.

The passage from Job that we heard today is part of Job’s reply to Eliphaz. Later in his answer, Job points out that the specific accusations that Eliphaz made are untrue. But first, Job offers what we heard today – that yes, he definitely feels estranged from God, and that he would certainly turn to God, but he can’t actually find God. No matter where Job turns, God doesn’t seem anywhere to be found. God seems to have completely abandoned Job, and Job can’t understand why.

The Book of Job is one of the most fascinating, complex, thought-provoking books in the Bible. The issues, the emotions, and the theological questions it raises are things that we’ve all wrestled with in our own lives. As we develop our own personal theologies regarding theodicy – why there’s pain and suffering in a world created and sustained by an all-loving God. About whether God inflicts suffering on us in order to teach us something. Even whether God is the kind of God who would actually be willing to destroy our lives as a game, over a bet with Satan, a bet just as callous and meaningless as the one made by the horrible Duke brothers in the movie “Trading Places.” Beyond those deep theological questions, Job’s suffering, his emotions, simply resonate with us. We feel them in our bones as fellow children of suffering in the universe. We all hear and understand and connect with Job in our own particular ways.

One of those ways is particularly significant today. With National Coming Out Day being tomorrow, I think it can be helpful to consider how Job’s words might be heard by a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer person in our society today. Centuries of anti-gay bigotry and hatred, and most of it being directly and indirectly instilled in people’s minds through the teachings of the Church, have caused damage, suffering, and death to literally millions of people over the last two thousand years, on an overall scale that makes Job’s suffering look like hardly more than a hangnail by comparison.

In 1960, the year that I was born, gay men were considered sinful by the church, criminals by the courts, and mentally ill by the medical profession. We were thrown out of our jobs, out of our homes, out of our churches. We were thrown into jails and mental institutions. We were subjected to high-strength electroshock torture that was euphemistically called therapy, we were lobotomized, and chemically and physically castrated for being gay. A person could murder a gay man and be judged not guilty based on the “gay panic” defense that the gay man had asked his killer out on a date, and it so enraged the man that it made him temporarily insane and not accountable for his actions. Now, in 2021, we know that things are better than they were in 1960, but we also know that there’s still a lot of anti-gay hatred and violence in our society, in our churches, in our neighborhoods and in our families.

That’s why coming out as LGBTQ is still possibly the scariest, and riskiest, of things a person may ever have to do in their lives. Coming out can still cost someone their job, their family, their church; virtually every aspect of their life is suddenly, unpredictably at risk as a result of coming out. And in the midst of it, because of harmful anti-gay teachings from the church, the person often feels as rejected and punished and abandoned by God as Job did in this passage as they wrestle with the emotions surrounding their sexuality and coming out. Make no mistake: even now, with all of our social advances, coming out is still white-knuckle terrifying for most people. And in analyzing the potential losses that could happen, many LGBTQ+ people wait until a later, safer date to come out. Some never do. While that in itself is a tragedy, it’s also sometimes a necessity, and as part of recognizing National Coming Out Day, we need to respect and honor, and commit to protect any person who decides that coming out just isn’t possible for them, at least not right now.

Obviously though, many LGBTQ+ people do still come out, despite the risks, in order to live their true, authentic lives as God created them. And the more that happens, the better it will be for them, and for our society, too. Every year, more and more people discover that they know and love someone who is LGBTQ+, and who has had to go through the agonizing, terrifying process of coming out. It’s a fear that’s been faced by two of your pastors in recent years. At least one of your pastor’s children, and children of staffers. Several of your seminary interns. In fact, let’s have another show of hands: who here today has an LGBTQ+ friend? A child or other family member of a friend?… A member of your own extended family?…. A member of your own immediate family?…. Is there anyone else here today who has come out themselves? Yes, virtually all of us here today are connected, in relationship with, someone who has come out as LGBTQ+.

This morning, as the Church – as one of the primary sources that helped make coming out so difficult and so dangerous, we need to do two things:

First, we need to acknowledge our own role, our complicity in causing harm, often irreparable harm, to so many people, even people close to us. We need to acknowledge that our own past actions have driven people away from God, away from Christ, away from the Church, away from the faith. We’ve acted as the obstacle, the stumbling block that Jesus spoke so harshly about. We need to acknowledge this reality, and apologize for it, and truly repent for it.

That repentance is the second thing that we, the Church, need to do. Repentance means turning away from one thing, and turning toward something else. We need to commit ourselves to work for full LGBTQ+ equality and for equal protection under the law in our society; and to create a church that honors and celebrates sexual and gender diversity as a blessed and good and beautiful part of God’s creation. We need to continually affirm theologies, and doctrines, and scriptural interpretations that affirm that reality, and to strongly, unambiguously reject the ones that don’t.

We need to hear the good news – the gospel – found in today’s reading from Hebrews. That to God, no one is hidden. No one is in the closet. That through Christ, we have someone who understands our fears, our suffering, our temptations, our weaknesses – and who understands that our sexuality isn’t one of those weaknesses, but rather, is one of our greatest gifts.

So to anyone who is LGBTQ+ who might not be out and who might be considering coming out; and who might be struggling with where God, and the Church, and faith, is in the midst of all that, and who may even be feeling abandoned by God, I just say this:

Dear child of God, even in the midst of all that you’re going through – all your fears, all your questions, all the risks and all the possible feelings that God has abandoned you, I promise you – God has never abandoned you, and God never will. God has never left your side. You are known by name and are precious in God’s sight. God does not condemn you or judge you based on your sexuality or gender, and neither will we. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by God, created in love, to love who you choose, and to be loved by one who chooses you. You have been created in God’s very image, and that includes your sexuality.

And so if it’s time for you, beloved, to come out, then come out. God loves you, we love you, I love you. You have a place in the reign of God, a place in this church, a place at this font and a place at this Table. And if you decide that this isn’t the time to come out, then don’t come out. Stay in the closet. God will be with you there in the closet and will even guard the door. God loves you, we love you, I love you. Because really, truly, all of this – the faith, the church, the universe, humanity, life, God – what it all boils down to is that it’s all about love. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re as wrong as Eliphaz the Temanite.

Thanks be to God.