Sermon for the 20th Sunday After Pentecost

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There are two elements that leap out from this story. The less important element, of course, is that fickle crowd. At one moment it wanted Bartimaeus to shut up. At the next moment they were relaying Jesus' invitation to him as though they were the best of buddies.

Whatever else this passage is about, it certainly tells us that when it comes to your relationship with Jesus, the crowd is never more than about 50% reliable. More about that crowd later. But the more serious element in this account is an instruction on faith. Bartimaeus is the embodiment, he's the quintessence of faith--not belief--but faith. And there's a single detail in this story that speaks that louder than any other.

No, it's not his calling after Jesus. It's not even his calling out even louder in spite of the crowd. It's the fact that when Jesus summoned him, he leapt up in obedience and he left his cloak on the ground where he'd been sitting. That abandoned cloak is a detail that's easy for us to miss or to fail to grasp, but the original heroes of this gospel knew exactly what that detail meant. So important was a person's cloak that if Jesus had not healed his eyesight, he would have lost his most important possession. If he could have found his way back to that same spot, it was unlikely that the cloak was going to be there waiting for him. It would be like you leaving your car running in a crowd in some inner city while you ducked into a shop. In effect, if Jesus didn't heal Bartimaeus, Bartimaeus was ruined. Bartimaeus had the belief that Jesus knew how to heal him. He had the faith that Jesus would.

When I last addressed you, I mentioned the computer program that I use that searches the Bible for you, going after key words. If your computer has such a program or if you have the sort of book we call a concordance, run a word search on the term "cloak," "mantle," and "robe." You'll learn quite a lot from the many verses that refer to outer garments. For example, your cloak kept you warm at night. It hid your head and face from bad weather and, if need be, from recognition. In the Book of Ruth, there's some suggestion that throwing your cloak over somebody was a way of taking possession of them. A cloak could serve as a surety for a loan, but your creditor had to return it to you at night to serve you as your bedding. Your cloak's decoration signaled your social importance to other people. Various ornaments on it if you were Jewish displayed how religious you were.

Somehow your cloak contained your personal potency. For example, when Elisha wanted the portion of the Spirit that had animated Elijah, it came on him when he caught the cloak as it wafted down from the ascending chariot. Elisha beat on the Jordan with it, and the waters parted for him just as they had for Elijah.

No biblical passage says this, but in that culture a cloak would have retained its owner's smell, strongly invoking that presence just hanging on a coat peg.

So when the crowd told Bartimaeus that Jesus wanted him front and center and he abandoned his cloak, he was committing himself in faith to be healed. He had nothing in the budget for failure. Oddly, Jesus did not answer Bartimaeus' request for healing by promising to perform it or even by praying for it. He declared instead that Bartimaeus' own faith had done the job. What do you imagine Jesus meant by Bartimaeus' faith? Do you think Jesus meant with all my insight into the human heart, I've searched the furniture of your mind, Bartimaeus, and I like the religious opinions I find stored there. Do you think Jesus knew that Bartimaeus could recite the Nicene Creed without crossing his fingers and that God was so pleased with him for that, God wanted to heal him for a reward?

No, that's belief, that's not faith. Bartimaeus' faith--his reliance, his trust--was that Jesus is who he says he is. The friend of the marginalized, like blind people. It was personal trust, not some religious opinion.

Much religious discussion in our day suggests that something like Bartimaeus holding correct beliefs is what people think this account is about. One of the reasons we associate in groups--religious groups included--is the hope that group membership enhances our survival chances. Virtually every group I can think of--from college fraternities to fan clubs to churches--make that claim in some way, that this group has the power to extend life. One of the ways groups seek to extend life is to make sure that members meet group standards, and those standards usually include beliefs associated with the group. The safety of correct belief and the danger of incorrect belief can feel like life or death issues, and, in fact, at times in church history they have been life or death issues simply because we've made them so.

For reasons I don't entirely understand, when the church took leave of the synagogue, we also abandoned the Jewish conversational, dialogical manner of addressing beliefs. The discussion we find recorded in Talmud where Jews for thousands of years have addressed conflicts and belief by saving, "Mmmm, that's interesting, let's discuss it." Christians have tended to cry, "Ai, yi, yi, that's scary! Let's pin it down definitively in a creed. When I can feel confident that I'm right and others are wrong, it feels like God must be on my side. My life chances just improved." And the result is a "them-us" opposition with the very authority of Christianity behind it. Do I need to mention what a terrible irony this is, that the one who was so confident in the potency of the seed of his word that he'd cast it onto any kind of soil expecting a bumper crop, that that one is claimed as the authority for people criticizing each other's belief systems. The yearning to be right is an expression of our abiding fear of death. How obscene that the one who overcame death in the grave should have his name so misemployed.

I do wish that in place of all the talk in and between our churches about right belief we'd engage some discussion of the deep question and challenge that Jesus poses wherever you look in the Gospels. Those latter are issues of faith in contrast to belief. All through the Gospels, Jesus is searching for people who are willing to repose trust in him, who are willing to play their ace. Jesus is on the lookout for people willing to cash in their hidden bank accounts, to commit the whole of their lives to him. The New Testament gets translated so as to call that posture "faith." Since we nowadays use the word faith to mean the content of our beliefs, a more accurate translation would call it trust or personal reliance. It is not a correct collection of opinions. It's more like the determination that if Jesus drops you, you're going to fall because you have no "Plan B."

There are many examples of this in the New Testament, negative and positive. When the rich Pharisee wanted eternal life, Jesus told him he couldn't have it unless he abandoned the stuff he'd reposed his trust on--his money and his possessions. The man found he couldn't. His money had become his embalming fluid. Some people decided not to follow Jesus when they found he had no steady headquarters. A snug place to live was so important to them that they couldn't risk it for the adventure of their lives. Another man's real faith was tied up in the respectability structure of his father's family. He couldn't leave home, he said, until he'd given the speech at his father's funeral and seen it in the newspaper. Jesus pronounced all that whole system "dead on arrival." It was too late for a funeral. Life had passed them all by.

In the Acts of the Apostles a couple is described--Ananias and Sapphira--who tried to fake that total commitment by making a gift of what they declared as their total possessions but withholding part of it clandestinely. So unsuited were they for real life after their contrivance that their organic lives leaked out on the spot.

One of my favorite positive examples is of the poor widow who cast the two small coins, the last she possessed, into the temple coffers, earning Jesus' admiration in the bargain. I'd always pictured her as a stooped, tubercular, little dried arrangement, all hunched over under her shawl miserably shuffling up to the coffer to drop in her two pence and then shuffling back off to her obscure misery with Jesus tut-tutting about how sweet and sentimental the sight was. A friend of mine set me straight on all that. He said, "I bet she was big and brassy. I bet she elbowed the other people out of line so she could cast her pence into the tub as noisily as possible and then she raised her face to heaven and shouted, 'Hey, God, I did it! I'm poor. Whatcha gonna do for me?' And Jesus would have stood there delighted saying, 'I love it. I love it. I love it!'"

Notice how little any of that has to do with what the individuals believed. For all we're told, the rich Pharisee may have been perfectly orthodox in his beliefs. He'd simply reposed his faith, his trust, his reliance in the wrong stuff. The poor widow may have been as heterodox as the Syro-Phoenecian woman whose daughter Jesus healed without imposing a catechism class on her, by the way. But Jesus was a lot more interested in her faith than in her beliefs. The same with the Roman soldier who was possibly an early Mithraist rather than a Jew whom Jesus used as a good example of faith.

I think we probably each have a cloak, something we're tempted to clutch as an alternative to trusting Jesus with our lives, and you can't tell what my cloak is just by asking me what I believe this week. Each of us guards an ace-in-the-hole. Pastoral counselors tell me that most of their clients come to them already knowing what they need to do. So why do they come to a counselor? They come in the hopes that some counselor can offer them a less costly alternative. That's why.

I said we'd return to that fickle crowd. Judging from my own life, I suspect that the most fruitful place to begin in committing my full life to Jesus is with the crowd's esteem. We all know that fear of the crowd keeps us from doing evangelism. We may be slower to recognize that fear of the crowd makes us tolerant of injustice. As much as any force that stresses belief over faith, the crowd seems to be our enemy.

Now, are you having trouble identifying your "Plan B" that you need to abandon like Bartimaeus' cloak? See how many ways you can end the following sentence fragment: "If Jesus disappoints me, I can always...." Whatever occurs to you is probably worth your critical scrutiny because it's getting in the way of your full life. And being able to get through the creed with nary a quibble may have some benefits, but it won't break that logjam. What will break that logjam? Faith, real faith. So, how do I get faith? A friend of my keeps insisting to me that faith is not my gift to God. Faith is God's gift to me.

Let me tell you an important secret to the spiritual life. Make as much of your spiritual life God's problem as you possibly can. You'll be in good company--with Bartimaeus, with the impoverished widow. That's what I have to do with my stuckness to reliance on the crowd's favor. My reliance on my stuff or my family's connections, on my abilities, even on my correct beliefs. I have to call out to Jesus from my caughtness and say with the anguished father of the epileptic boy not "I believe, help my unbelief," but more accurately, "I do trust you, Lord; help me with my distrust."

Something in that honest self-commitment not only seems to free our Lord to operate on our behalf, but it also sometimes seems to show Jesus that the need for his intervention is past.

This passage urges us to appeal to God as the real source of our trust and reliance--not to our own goodness or to our religious training or even to our own willpower.

Faith is received. It's not contrived. Ask for faith. Ask for the capacity to trust; ask for the ability to rely on Jesus' personal presence, even if it costs you your cloak, even if it costs losing your hole card.

People who've requested and receive faith report that it's worth any price. And, of course, belief will take care of itself.


Let us pray.

God, give us grace to recognize you as the source of all our spiritual awareness, to recognize you as the object of all of our beliefs, most especially to recognize our Lord Jesus as the only proper object of our faith and reliance. Give us the humility to receive faith as a gift and to repose in all circumstances in Jesus' reliability. We ask this in the company of the great saints who taught this to us and we ask it in our Lord's name and for his pleasure.

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