Sunday, October 25, 2009

What Kind of Crowd are We?

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 25, 2009

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 25
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8
(Hebrews 7:23-28)
Mark 10:46-52

What Kind of Crowd are We?

Although the Gospel of Mark is probably the earliest of the four gospels to be written, that doesn’t mean that it is a simplistic piece of work. Actually, it’s clear that the Evangelist Mark took great care in drawing from earlier traditions and stories about Jesus as he shaped his gospel. The gospel is not a random series of events. Mark offers clear themes that run through the gospel.

The central theme is the Passion of Jesus Christ. For Mark, Jesus’ identity and mission and meaning can only be understood in light of the Cross and the empty tomb.

All of other Mark’s themes are connected to Jesus’ death and resurrection. So, as we’ve seen, over and over the disciples don’t really “get” Jesus. Part of that lack of understanding is probably historical fact, but part of it, for Mark, is the truth that the disciples can’t really “get” Jesus until after his death and resurrection.

We’ve also seen the theme of the so-called “Messianic Secret.” Over and over Jesus warns his followers not to tell anyone about the miraculous things they’ve seen him do. All of this secrecy doesn’t really make sense unless Jesus – and the Evangelist Mark – recognize that only after Jesus’ death and resurrection will we be able to understand who Jesus was and what Jesus was doing.

Finally, we’ve seen the theme of faith in the Gospel of Mark. For Mark, faith is not primarily about agreeing to set of statements about Jesus. Instead, faith is described more as persistence in the face of adversity, trust in Jesus despite all the obstacles that might be in our way.

Probably the best example we’ve seen before Bartimaeus is the Syro-Phoenician woman from a few weeks ago. Remember how persistent she was in asking Jesus to heal her child – how persistent she was even after Jesus seems to spurn her? For Mark, faith is that kind of persistence and trust.

All of Mark’s big themes – the centrality of the Passion, the misunderstanding of the disciples, the Messianic Secret and faith as persistence and trust are drawn together in the wonderful and powerful story we just heard this morning.

The healing of Bartimaeus brings us just about to the end of Jesus’ journey with his disciples to Jerusalem. Mark tells us this healing of the bland man takes place in or near Jericho – which is some seventeen miles from Jerusalem. The journey is coming to an end - the shadow of the Cross is looming ever larger. Along the way Jesus has been trying – with mixed success - to teach his disciples through words and also through acts of healing.

Today’s passage picks up right where we left off last Sunday. Remember, Jesus had once again predicted his suffering, death and resurrection, and James and John – not getting it, as usual – asked if they could have special seats at Jesus’ right and left. Then Jesus tried once again to teach the disciples that the person who is truly great is the person that serves.

That’s still a tough lesson for us, but kids seem to get it. Last week in my homily in the children’s chapel I asked the kids, “What makes somebody really great?” I expected answers like someone with a lot of money, or a fancy car, or being famous. Instead, without missing a beat, one little girl shot up her hand and said, “Being great is when you help people and are nice to people.”

So much for my homily!

Anyway, unlike our kids, the disciples don’t get it. Then we pick up today when Jesus and his disciples come to Jericho. Can you imagine the scene? Notice Mark tells us there’s a large crowd around Jesus – his efforts at secrecy are either no longer working or he’s no longer trying. And then sitting on the roadside is Bartimaeus, a blind beggar. He’s a nobody in a world filled with nobodies. Even his name is not really a name. It literally means “Son of Timaeus.”
Nobody is paying any attention to this beggar, this nobody, when suddenly he shouts, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

This is a big moment – less than twenty miles from Jerusalem for the first time Jesus is publicly declared to be the royal messiah and Jesus does not rebuke Bartimaeus or tell him to keep his identity a secret.

Instead, it’s the crowd, presumably followers of Jesus, who sternly order this nobody, this blind beggar, to be quiet.

But Bartimaeus won’t be silenced. His faith is persistent. He shouts out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Mark tells us Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.”

The crowd quickly changes its tune. “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

Notice Jesus restores Bartimaeus’s sight without even touching him. Instead, Jesus says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Once again Mark reminds us that faith is persistence in the face of adversity, faith is putting our trust in Jesus despite all the obstacles that might be in our way.

Although Jesus tells Bartimaeus to “go” he doesn’t go off by himself. Instead, Mark tells us that this nobody who had a persistent faith in Jesus became a disciple and follows Jesus on the way to Jerusalem and all that awaits him and the other disciples there.

It’s a rich and powerful story. But what does it have to do with us?

There are a lot of possibilities, but as I’ve thought about this story I keep getting drawn back to the crowd and the two different ways they treat Bartimaeus.
At first they dismiss him as a nobody – just another blind beggar in a world filled with suffering, desperate people. But when Jesus shows an interest in him, the crowd quickly changes its tune and treats Bartimaeus with much more respect.
I’ve wondered how I would have behaved in the crowd. I’ve wondered what kind of crowd are we?

Do we ignore the nobodies of the world? Do we turn a deaf ear to the pleas of those who are in need? Do we try to keep Jesus to ourselves and not share the Good News with people who are outside our group?

Or do we say through our words and our actions to the suffering in the world, “Take heart, get up, he is calling you.”

I think if we’re honest we have to admit that our crowd is a mix of both.

At our best, the other day we were the kind of crowd that served over 180 Bartimaeuses at the Community Soup Kitchen in Morristown. And, I might add, apparently for the first time in the history of the soup kitchen it was all men serving the food that day.

At our best, we’re the kind of crowd that spends many hours out on a truck named Bruno accepting donations and delivering furniture for the Bartimaeuses of Northern New Jersey.

At our best we’re the kind of crowd that volunteers much time and energy to the clothing sale and the auction, to strengthen our own community, help our neighbors and to raise money to continue our work.

At our best, even in a tight economy, we’re the kind of crowd that sacrifices many thousands of dollars from our church budget to offer outreach money to support so many organizations that serve the Bartimaeuses of the world.

At our best we’re the kind of crowd that reaches out to the lonely and the ill and frightened and the despairing – the people who feel like Bartimaeus, blind, off on the side of the road calling out to Jesus for mercy. At our best, we pick up the phone just to talk and tell them we care. At our best, we stop by the house or visit them in the hospital or the nursing home – places filled with Bartimaeuses.
At our best, we are the kind of crowd that says to Bartimaeus, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

But, if we’re honest, we have to admit that sometimes we’re the kind of crowd that ignores the nobodies, the kind of crowd that looks out only for itself, the kind of crowd that tries to keep the Good News of Jesus to itself, the kind of crowd that says “Quiet!” when the nobodies cry out for mercy.

The bottom line is we need to be like that crowd around Jesus that day so long ago. Obviously they weren’t perfect but they were following Jesus, listening to his words, and most importantly, following his example.

When Jesus heard the cry of Bartimaeus he stood still and said “Call him here.”

The crowd around Jesus followed his example, noticed the nobody, and said “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”

What kind of crowd are we?