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The story of faith begins in darkness. It begins in emptiness. It begins with raw need.
I was 24, a seminary student, steeped in the rational world of systematic theology. I could talk about Jesus. I could think about Jesus, but I did not really know Jesus. And so my faith was a sham. Then one Sunday I stood up to read the morning scripture lesson?and finally my cold heart lit up. Finally, I was feeling something about God. But the something was anger.
You see, the passage that I had been asked to read was from Genesis 3. You remember the story. Since Adam and Eve could not accept God as the boss of the universe, God cursed them and all of us?forever. Women were particularly cursed?punished with excruciating pain in childbirth, punished with eternal subjection to the whim and the power of their husbands. "Hogwash!" my spirit said, as I sat down after reading this text. And, then, for the rest of the service I retreated into a private hell. I painfully rejected this punishing God. I turned away from the God I had carried with me since childhood. Tears streamed down my face, and I scraped out of my heart any vestige of affection or need for the Holy One. Then my anger turned into emptiness. My emptiness turned into grief. And, finally, I was left with blind terror.
But then in the darkness, in the emptiness, in the raw need of that moment, a rich, warm voice spoke silently and personally to me. "If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation, the old is past and gone, and the new has come." And I saw a vision of a new heaven and a new earth?a fresh start in my soul and in the soul of God's world. Punishment was transformed into vocation. Judgment was transformed into grace, and my blind heart was healed.
Today, the story of the blind beggar begins in darkness. In begins in emptiness. It begins in raw need. And as such, this son of honor, which is what the word Bartimaeus means, offers us a portrait of faith, and this is what faith looks like. Faith is needy. Faith is eager. 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, and faith is about us?out of dumbstruck gratitude doing for God what only we can do. Most of all, faith often leads us to places we would just as soon not go.
Now, as usual, the language of Mark's Gospel is lean and muscular. Once again, Mark cuts to the heart of the matter?no fuss, no frills, no fluff. The energy of Mark's text puts us to shame?those of us who are cool, careful Christians. Listen to the words describing Bartimaeus?he begs, he shouts, he shouts even louder, he jumps up, he throws off, and, immediately, he follows. He follows this crazy Jesus all the way to the cross. No, 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 uppity, persistent, honest need, and in offering that need assertively and eagerly to Jesus, Bartimaeus finds purpose. He finds faith. He finds new life.
I've never much liked Bill Gates?the multibillionaire wonder boy who has become the richest man in the world. I've never much liked him because a few years ago he announced that he rarely goes to church because worship is such an inefficient use of his time. But, lately, I've been fascinated by the newfound passion of this very cool man?his passion to improve the health of the world's children. And he's put his money where his mouth his?giving away billions and billions of dollars?far beyond what prudent tax incentives might suggest. Yes, Gates has poured a significant amount of his fortune into AIDS prevention, immunization research, and eradication of preventable childhood diseases. I still don't know if Bill Gates worships, but somehow his eager, assertive vision seems new, as if he has been given a new way of seeing his money and his wealth. Maybe this son of honor has decided to follow the Jesus he first met long ago in a Congregational Sunday School.
The Jesus in today's story is absolutely fascinating to me. When I was a child, it was the Jesus who shooed the adults away so he could play with the children. This was the Jesus who captured my heart. Then when I was a young adult, the Jesus who healed the woman bent over for 18 years?this was the Jesus who spoke to my need, my need to throw off the burdens of a male-dominated church and stand up straight in order to serve God as a pastor. But, at this middle-aged stage of my life, there is another Jesus who most energizes my faith. It is the Jesus in today's text, and instead of just giving me what I want, this Jesus makes me do most of the work. Jesus asks me as he asks Bartimaeus, "What do you want me to do for you?" And in the simple brilliance of that question, I?we?are forced to decide what is really important in our lives. Bartimaeus' answer is the answer of mature faith. "I want to see," he says. "I want to see the way things really are so that I can follow you, Jesus, wherever you may lead me."
Now, before we wax too eloquently about the wonderful miracle of today's healing story, let us be clear about what the text is saying. To see with the healing power of Jesus' touch is to see a real world, a world of pain, a world of sin, a world of evil. It is to see not only the 260 American soldiers who died in Iraq, but also the estimated thousands of Iraqi soldiers and civilians killed by American bombs. It is to see not only the 3,000 innocent victims slaughtered by terrorism on 9/11 in Virginia and Pennsylvania and New York City. It is also to see the 35,000 children of the world who were slaughtered by the terrorism of hunger on that very same September 11th. Yes, to see with the new eyes of Bartimaeus is to see all the beauty and all the wonder and all the grace of God's brilliant and breathtaking creation. And, it is to see the cruelty and the greed and the prejudice that God's recalcitrant children have produced?supposedly in God's holy name.
Once we have seen with the heart, then we need to go where our heart leads us, to the very heart of the Christian faith, which is the gracious, bleeding heart of Jesus who stretched out his arms so that all the world might be one.
Today is Reformation Sunday which?for those of us who embrace the Protestant tradition?is supposed to be a solemn day of remembrance, celebrations and recommitment. Like the early reformers of the 16th century, we are to look carefully at this institution we call the church and then judge just how closely we are embodying the compassionate and graceful heart of Jesus. And because we believe that God is sovereign, that the risen Christ is living, and that the power of the Holy Spirit continues to make all things new, today we are called to be reformed and always reforming. Yes, we affirm that we are being healed again and again to see things in new ways, in fresh ways?that we are constantly being called to jump up, to throw off the comfortable cloaks of the blind past, and to follow Jesus enthusiastically and gratefully into the unknown dangers and the unimaginable opportunities of that which is yet to come.
Will Campbell, a wise, earthy, Baptist preacher, tells a story about his own awakening vision as a follower of Jesus. When he was a teenager growing up in rural Mississippi, he witnessed a classic redneck lynching. A black man was caught stealing at the mayor's house. The upstanding white citizens in the community reacted with gleeful rage. They tied the man to the back of a car and dragged his body along the gravel road, shouting hate and throwing rocks at the despised culprit. Finally, they dumped his body by the white cemetery, leaving his shredded flesh to fester in the blistering sun. Campbell remembers going with the other teenagers in town to shout and to spit insults at this broken body.
It was only years later, when Campbell caught the vision of God's kingdom, that he understood for the first time the justice and compassion and dignity that God intends for all. It was only then that Campbell looked back on that vicious day in Mississippi and with new eyes of faith, he saw the brutality and horror of what he and others had done to another child of God. Yes, my friends, when we ask for a new sight, we must be prepared for changed vision, for letting go of the prejudices, the fears, the myths, that have narrowed our living for too long.
Wendell Berry has suggested that "to treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it." Well, today, eagerly, painfully, obediently, Bartimaeus refuses to give up on the miracle called life, the miracle called faith, the miracle called Jesus. He jumps up and grabs the guts and the grace of the Christian life. And he calls us to do the same.
May it be so?for you and for me.
Let us pray.
God of healing and hope, come to us this day, ask us what we want, touch us with your graceful heart, and become for us new vision for faithful living. All in the name of and for the sake of Jesus Christ, our living Lord. Amen.
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