First Congregational Church
October 25, 2015
22nd Sunday after Pentecost
“It’s About Freedom"
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
A teacher was going to explain evolution to her class. The teacher asked little Sven: Sven do you see the tree outside? Sven said, “Yes.” Teacher: Sven, do you see the grass outside? Sven: Yes. Teacher: Go outside and look up and see if you can see the sky. Sven: Okay. (He returned a few minutes later) Yes, I saw the sky. Teacher: Did you see God? Sven: No. Teacher: That's my point. We can't see God because God isn't there. God doesn't exist.
Little Lena spoke up and wanted to ask Sven some questions. The teacher agreed and Lena asked: Sven, do you see the tree outside? Sven: Yes. Lena: Sven do you see the grass outside? Sven: Yessssss (getting tired of the questions by this time). Lena: Did you see the sky? Sven: Yessssss Lena: Sven, do you see the teacher? Sven: Yes Lena: Do you see her brain? Sven: No. Lena: Then according to what we were taught today in school, she must not have one!
For those who don’t know, I was not only a teacher for seven years, but I am also Swedish, so I can say that sometimes teachers have their moments of incredulity - which ever way you’d want to take that. This morning’s scripture passage has some similar moments - which ever way you’d want to take them.
Since the last Sunday in August, the lectionary - that prescribed, cyclical list of scripture passages for daily and weekly consideration - has been appointing gospel readings from the book of Mark, primarily chapter 7 to this morning’s conclusion of chapter 10. For whatever it’s worth, next week - being All Saints Sunday - the lectionary sidesteps to the book of John, then back to Mark for two weeks and then the liturgical year ends back in John the Sunday before Advent begins.
But back to the set-up. During those four chapters, Jesus and the disciples traveled throughout Galilee, the Decapolis and Judea. We know those places as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Syria - places of great political unrest, not to mention danger. Without the guns and other modern weapons, that whole area was probably as politically charged as it is today. So it was in those places, against an insane backdrop that Jesus tried to prepare his disciples by predicting his death three times. And we shouldn’t forget that in Hebrew literature, if anything is repeated, it’s important. If it’s a three-peat, you’d best pay attention. So they were going about following and listening to Jesus.
46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus. 51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.” 52 “Go,” said Jesus, “your faith has healed you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.
Thank you, Carolyn. I don’t know how many of you caught it, but I didn’t - on first or second reading. Maybe I’d come across it before, but if I did, I know I forgot. “They came to Jericho.” I bet we could all come up with the last significant Bible action that took place in Jericho - on our first try. The only mention of Jericho in the New Testament relates either to this passage or to the big one in the Old Testament.
And check this out: Mark says that as Jesus was departing Jericho, Bartimaeus shouted. Get it: Jesus is outside of Jericho with a large crowd and someone is shouting.
Sound familiar? Ring any bells? In case you are looking for some light afternoon reading, the Book of Joshua is the place to find the story of the Israelites’ seven-day march around the city. Only on the seventh and decisive day, however, do the Israelites lift up their voices in a mighty shout, bringing down the walls of the fortified city. What follows, of course, is a lot of Old Testament-style carnage as every man, woman, child, and animal are put to the sword and the torch. Not nice stuff, that.
Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary agrees with me - that it isn’t too much of a stretch to suggest that Mark is showing a gospel reversal of all that Joshua mayhem. After all, there was Jesus—the new Joshua—outside the walls of Jericho. A large crowd is with him. And a lone beggar shouts to be heard. When people tell him to shut up, he shouts all the louder.
The writer of Mark even gives us the beggar’s name: Bartimaeus - son of Timaeus. The vast number of those healed by Jesus were anonymous. But we get a name in Mark’s version, to remind us that this was a real, flesh-and-blood human being, not a mere symbol of this or that condition, illness, or disease. Even in all the parables, the only one with a name is Lazarus. So Blind Bartimaeus is a real person - as much a human being and bearer of God’s image as any of us.
Not that it’s news, but not much has changed in the last couple thousand years. When the poor cry out to someone reputed to be important and powerful, society’s first inclination is to hush them up. Maybe the good citizens of Jericho saw this man as a social embarrassment, an eyesore, a blow to civic pride. Letting Jesus see him would make them all look bad. Best to hush him up.
But the unpleasant nature of human pride is on display here, too, In that the moment the man is invited to come over to the VIP in their midst. Now suddenly people flock to him, treat him like he suddenly has collective importance. It’s amazing how quickly we can pivot from avoiding, if not actively dissing, a person - to wanting to cozy up to him or her the moment this person can give us a connection to someone famous. That point probably doesn’t bother us much, unless it were a friend, who has two tickets to a dinner with the president, and you happen to belong to the other side of the president’s political fence.
The gospels show us again and again that Jesus has already called all this world’s disenfranchised, lowly, marginalized, and invisible people to himself. That is the reality in which the Church is supposed to exist. We don’t have to wait to see if Jesus will notice the unnoticed. He already has. What we are to do in response is rather obvious.
This time, at Jericho, the shouting leads to a crumbling of a different set of walls; this time the social barriers/walls that get erected in all societies between the well-to-do and the down-and-outters like Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus shouts in Jericho, but this time the result of all the shouting is not bloody battle and loss of life but a restoration of shalom.
When we choose that place of being at peace with ourselves, doing what we know we are supposed to be doing, should be doing, we are truly acting out of the gift of our free will. The Good News is that we have been graced with freedom to choose if and how we will reach out to those who are shouting for salvation.
I wonder if most of us, when confronted with the loud needs of the world, are quick to fall into silence, worried about offending or hurting feelings or being rejected or whatever. When folks tell us to shut up, we’re all too quick to oblige. But Bartimaeus won’t. He’s free. Free to defy his neighbors. Free to call for help. Free to make his needs known to Jesus. Free. Perhaps he’s suffered enough, or feels like there’s nothing left to lose, or just doesn’t care anymore. Or perhaps he just senses — or, really, sees — that in the presence of Jesus all the rules change and he is no longer “Blind Bartimaeus” but instead “Bartimaeus, Child of God.” Whatever the reason, he knows he is free and seizes his faith and his courage to live into that freedom and Jesus says that’s what made him well.
What if we seized our faith and courage that way? What if we decided that we didn’t have anything to lose any more? What if we were to really leave our chains behind and claim the abundant life and freedom God offers? Guess what? God has already made you free and called you a beloved child.
What if we saw the past for what it is for some - a trap that can remind its prisoners of all their shortcomings and failures and disappointments? I probably shouldn’t say “guess” what, but “remember” what? Jesus has willfully taken care of that which would eternally separate us from God. And then God has willfully forgotten about all that past stuff.
What if we saw the future for what is is for some - a paralyzing illusion of fear and unknowing that imprisons those who need to move ahead or away from their circle-spinning? Even in that place, you are free, although it can be really, really hard to believe. No memory of the past, no memory of sin, no need to yell and shout, the future is open. In God’s eyes, you are already free.
Some of what’s happened to us seems so huge, so important, so all-encompassing. But it only “seems” that way. Not to say that these things don’t matter. They do. Illness, disappointment, hurt, whatever. They matter and they may, in fact, be descriptively true of us. But they do not define us. Nothing we have done or has been done to us captures who we are completely. Only one thing can do that: God, the one who created us and sustains us, who has chosen to call us beloved children, holy and precious in God’s sight. That’s what - and who - defines us.
My sermon guru, David Lose, had this to say about this passage. That’s what all these readings are about, what our whole ministry is about – freedom. So tell them (partner in ministry) they’re free this week. Free from their past, free from regret, free from fear, free from self-limitation, free from old hurts and mistakes. They’re free. And then tell them again. Because it’s hard to believe. And then tell them one more time, because it takes a while to get used to this truth. And then tell them once more yet, because freedom takes some practice. Tell them they’re free, and then tell them to come back next week to hear this same good news, because the world will often try to convince us otherwise and so the freedom that sets you free, well, it takes a little while to sink in.
We’d probably do best by praying. So shall we? Gracious God, it is hard to live into the real gifts you give us. So thank you for the repetitions and reminders, that we might have that shalom peace. Thank you for the grace of freedom and free will, that we can risk and serve and help and care and try and struggle and laugh and all the rest. Thank you, that we are free to love, as you have loved us. Help us to see those things that we need to set down in asking for forgiveness.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.