A sermon preached by The Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts,
on 28 October 2018 [Proper 4]:
Jeremiah 31:7-9; Hebrews 7::23-28; Mark 10:46-52
Miles to go
Please allow me to begin this sermon with a bit of personal sentimentality. I ask this because it was 45 years ago that I preached for the very first time, and the gospel lesson for that day was the one we heard this morning. I chuckle (and also shudder a bit) at the memory of being such a raw, inexperienced seminarian, who two months into my preparations as a parish intern, was given the chance to preach before a congregation. (I suspect that most of them have now completed their recovery therapy.) Nonetheless, that I am still preaching either indicates that I am a very slow learner or that I am onto something that matters and chose to continue to pursue it. (Perhaps both things are true.) If I knew then what I know now, would I be standing before you today? The answer, of course, is that it was impossible for me to know then what I know now; and that was a good thing because I wasn’t ready then for what I know now. Then, I required a lot of ripening so that what I needed to learn would not overwhelm me and cause me to run away to live in the blindness of fear. And, truth to tell, that pilgrimage pattern continues to unfold to this day. Even at this stage in life, I still need ripening, but I am also still traveling on the way. In this vein, I think of Robert Frost’s brief poem, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” The poem’s telling last lines go like this: But I have promises to keep, And miles to go before I sleep, And miles to go before I sleep. We all have promises to keep precisely for the reason that those promises speak of what we need. By definition, our promises exceed our ability –and even our willingness — to live them. For Christian people – for those who in some form or fashion claim God’s Christ – the promises we have to keep lie in our baptismal vows – vows (by the way) you and I will renew next Sunday, on the Sunday after All Saints Day. In those vows we have promised God always and everywhere to R.S.V.P. to the Holy One. These promises mean that we intend to Lord waits for us and beckons us onward toward his presence with unrelenting love. God stirs our hearts to know that we need more than what we can offer ourselves. God gives us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves: life; redemption; forgiveness; hope; creative purpose. And so, as Frost reminds us in his poem, we have “miles to go before we sleep.” So it is that in our clumsy, inconsistent ways we call “our life of faith,” we try to keep moving toward the call of our promises, until – one day – we shall gladly and with great relief reach out and fully be able to take in the God-life we need and that God has always tenderly provided in Christ Jesus. So, why is it that after all these years and all the miles that I have traveled, I still wonder at Bartimaeus, the blind beggar in Mark’s gospel story? Why did he yell out to Jesus? What propelled him to jump up and accept Jesus’ invitation to come to him? Moreover, what is it about Bartimaeus that depicts my own life, my own faith, my own blindness? What is it about Bartimaeus that reflect this about your life and your faith? The stories we encounter in the gospel always run deep. In addition to the narrative action they depict, their setting also conveys a context of meaning. For instance, this gospel occurs on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. I’m told that it is always hot and dusty in Jericho. The route that links Jerusalem to Jericho is about 15 miles long, but it traverses a demanding topography. Jericho is 825 feet below sea level; Jerusalem is 2500 feet above sea level; and the connecting way is a circuitous path through ravines, by which brigands frequently poached on vulnerable travelers. (Think of the story of the “Good Samaritan” and the poor soul who was attacked and left for dead on this same route.) [Luke 10:30-37] In the context of the gospel lesson’s setting, we see that Jesus himself was using this demanding road to get to Jerusalem to begin his final days. Literally and figuratively, the setting of this route that Jesus takes is a hard road and a demanding way. And we want to follow him? Amidst the commotion and the dust of a gathered Jericho crowd, suddenly someone along the side of the road began to yell at Jesus. It was the blind beggar, Bartimaeus, someone the locals were used to seeing, doing his begging shtick whenever there was a public opportunity to do so. While it made absolute sense that the blind beggar was doing his thing at the occasion of a parade, nonetheless, his yelling at the leader of the parade was on one level annoying. What if everyone shouted for a selfish and an autograph? On another level, this carrying on was embarrassing, something the Chamber of Commerce hoped to avoid. So, the crowd around Bartimaeus shushed him to stop; but the blind beggar continued to yell all the louder, calling Jesus “Son of God” and “Son of David” and asking (rather strangely) not for money but for mercy. The cynics nearby wondered in what denomination Bartimaeus’ “mercy” would come, but Jesus suddenly stopped walking and told his accompanying disciples to bring the man to him. Once it appeared that Bartimaeus had suddenly won the lottery, the crowed that had tried to shut him up now encouraged him to respond to Jesus’ invitation. Leaping from his prime begging spot and leaving his cloak behind, blind Bartimaeus allowed himself to be led to Jesus, where our Lord greeted him with a simple question: “What can I do for you?” [Message] Without hesitation, the town beggar, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, replied: “Rabbi, I want to see [again].” Without hesitation, Jesus simply said: “Go; your faith has made you well.” And breath-takingly, that was that. Mark tersely concludes the stunning scene by mentioning that “immediately,” without hesitation, Bartimaeus regained his sight and with that new sight followed the One whom his new eyes saw. Bartimaeus followed Jesus (as Mark so succinctly puts it) “on the way.” So, here’s the issue: To what extent does the example of Bartimaeus describe us in our striving to keep the promises we have made to God-in-Christ? In what ways is Bartimaeus a model for us in the life of faith? “What do you want me to do for you?” In the reality of your life, in the midst of all you face, have you dared to hear Jesus asking you this question? First, know that Jesus has asked all of us this question. Look at the cross and listen. Second, what’s your answer? I think the real question that Jesus raises with Bartimaeus and, therefore, with all of us is this: What is getting in the way of your being what God wants you, wants me – wants all of us — to be? The staggering thing for me about Bartimaeus is that he was willing to give up his begging. Mark quietly informs us that when Jesus called Bartimaeus to him, the blind beggar “sprang to his feet, throwing his cloak off.” Now, yes, Bartimaeus’ cloak kept him warm, but in reality he used it as a target so that passersbys could flip coins to him in response to his begging. Leaping up and discarding his cloak, I believe, is an outward sign of Bartimaeus’ faith: namely, that he was ready and willing to embrace a new life. He was ready to leave begging behind and lay hold of the life of following Jesus. That’s a big deal! I know that I am not alone in describing my faith’s discipleship in terms of managing a hedge fund. I can’t help it, and I’m not proud of it in the least, but I tend to hedge my bets in following Jesus. Changing the metaphor, the painful truth is that I only want to be a little bit pregnant, when it comes to keeping my baptismal promises. But Bartimaeus leaps at the chance for new life. He wants to see again. And the curious thing is that the first thing he sees with his newly restored sight is the Lord: the impact of which compels him to follow Jesus along the way – the way to Jerusalem and to the cross. This reminds me of an apocryphal story that is also about a blind beggar. The story occurs in the immediate aftermath of the Pentecost event, when followers of Jesus received the Holy Spirit. Peter and John were entering Jerusalem by one of the city’s gates, when a blind beggar, his finely tuned radar alerted to opportunity, raised his voice and begged them for alms. Peter, his own life having been transformed by Jesus death, resurrection, and the coming of the Spirit, stopped and turned to the beggar and said: “Sir, I have no gold or silver to give to you; but what I do have I readily share. In the Name of the risen Jesus,” at which point Peter laid his hands on the man’s darkened eyes, “may you receive your sight.” The beggar blubbered and fussed, rubbing his eyes and shaking his head as if to clear a fog. Then, with open eyes, he realized that he could see, at which a look of terror overshadowed his face. In a near panic, the healed blind man raised his two thumbs and plucked his eyeballs from their sockets and returned to his begging. “What can I do for you?” is Jesus’ question. It is the question of new life, of ripening into fruitfulness, but this new life, this Easter life, also entails transformation, change. The new life of Christ spells the end of what we’re familiar and even comfortable with. It is the end of life on our terms. This raises the cutting question: Are we willing to have life on God’s terms? to see it? to receive it? to live it? “What do you want me to do for you?” My dear, fellow hedge fund managers: We have “miles and miles to go before we sleep.” And we will only accomplish the journey of all those miles, if we strive to keep our promises in mind. Our promises beckon us to moving along “the way.” The hard news we all feel is that we are not near our destination. We do have so many miles to go before we sleep; but the Good News at the heart of the hard news of our slow, inconsistent pace is that Jesus has reached the end of “the way.” And he calls us to stand with him in his victory by continuing to stay on the way and becoming step by step more and more of what Jesus is. I will close by quoting Maya Angelou, the late poet, singer, civil rights activist, and public grown-up, who said this: I am always amazed … when people walk up to me and say,” I’m a Christian!” I always think, “Already?” You’ve already got it? My goodness, you’re fast.” “What do you want me to do for you?” Help me keep my promises so that I might keep walking. Amen.