November 7, 2012

A Vision of the Future: The Challenge of Possibility


Text: Mark 10:47: “Then Jesus said to him,‘What do you want me to do for you?’ ”

For the second time I want to use the privilege of the pulpit this morning to for us to speak together about the future God is calling us to here at Saint John’s. And to do so I want to draw a little bit of a contrast between two questions, two requests, the request posed in last week’s Gospel reading and the question posed by our old friend Bartimaeus today.

In case you don’t remember, the question last week was posed by the brothers in the company of the disciples, James and John, the sons of old man Zebedee. The last time we saw Zebedee he was in the fishing boat that his sons worked together with him; they were sitting doing the necessary work of fishing, mending the nets, when Jesus called them, and the last picture we have of the poor father is of him sitting alone in the boat as his sons traipse off to follow the wandering preacher.

James and John were in at the beginning, and so perhaps they felt some justification, some claim of authority, on which to base the request that was contained in the question they asked last week. Their request begins in these words: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask you.”

Pretty brazen, don’t you think? They must have believed that Jesus had some sort of authority to hand out heavenly cabinet departments. But I am not sure they would have been nearly so bold in making their request if they actually believed that they were presenting themselves before the very person of God.

So the boldness, the self-directedness of their question cuts the ground out from beneath their feet. They are in it for themselves. Their question begins from the perspective of their own advantage.

Now think about Bartimaeus. He is, to be blunt, a gadfly. He is not part of the in crowd. He is not respectable company. He has not been there from the beginning. He has not seen all the miracles that Jesus has done, for the very simple reason that he is blind.

This is how the disciples obviously regard him. The text says that many of those around are angry with him; they “sternly order” him to quiet down. Which is another way of saying: Stop trying to have a place here. You don’t belong. You’re not worthy. There’s an echo here of a text that Tim Strayer preached on some weeks ago, the eagerness of the disciples to shut down anyone out there who doesn’t quite do things the way they think they should be done.

And Jesus cuts through all the nonsense and all the posing and simply says, Bring him here. Again, Jesus the upsetter of order. Again, Jesus turning upside-down the rankings and the distinctions we so instinctively build.

And then comes the pivot of the whole story. Bartimaeus, shouting, pleading for attention, has been brought forward. He has thrown off his cloak. He is standing before Jesus. And he is there because he began not from the perspective of his own interests, but instead from a deep conviction, a conviction so deep he was willing to shout it out at the cost of ridicule and ostracism, of who Jesus is. Jesus is the God who is love. Jesus is the source of hope in the world that is coming just over the horizon.

And so Bartimaeus gets a very different response than James and John did. James and John came asking Jesus to do whatever they asked. Bartimaeus came saying without embarrassment how important Jesus is to him. And so the tables are turned, and here in the center of the story all of the shouting is quieted, all of the arguing stops, and now Bartimaeus is standing before the very presence of love itself. And he is asked the same question that was asked of James and John: What is it you want me to do for you?

That question is the pivot of the story. In the moment it is asked the whole universe stands still; the angels wait; everything stops.

Now, here is what this means for us. We, we disciples, we sometimes poor in spirit, sometimes worried, sometimes downhearted folk who claim the name of Christians—in this moment, at this hour, in this place, Jesus is standing with us, and posing this question to us.

What is it you want me to do for you?

What is it we want Jesus to do for us? What is it we are asking for at this moment? Do we dare to ask?

•   •   •

You all know that I first came this church twenty-eight years ago as a much younger man with a very different idea of what my life would be about. And you all know that about fifteen years ago or so I left this place to go off on the trail of ordained ministry and to take up the work of that call in other places.

By God’s grace, for more than three years I have been here; and now we are in this moment of discerning the future shape and substance of our ministry together.

But I know that the Saint John’s I have returned to is not the same one I left in the fall of 1997. And I know it is not the same as the church we first arrived in back in 1984.

I have reflected long and hard on the differences I have come to sense between the church then and the church now. I know a great deal happened here that I did not see, and did not hear, and am only dimly aware of.

We are still a place that draws people into the gift of community. We are still a place that accepts all kinds of people, thank God, because it means that I was accepted and you were, too. We are still a place that provides for everyone who comes here a social network—not the virtual kind, but the real kind, of real people who become part of each other’s lives.

But here is what, for me, is by far the most important difference between then, and now. I sense that, for reasons I confess to you I do not fully understand, we are a place with much more fear. We are more afraid now than we were.

We might say, we are being pragmatic. Or we are being realistic. Or we are being business-like. Or careful. All of those are good qualities.

The problem is, none of them involve the quality of faith. Faith is what takes you out beyond the safety of pragmatism. Faith is what gets you out of the dark corner of cynicism.

Fear is what closes down the horizon of possibility. It takes away our confidence that God needs us here right now to do something, to do something together. And worst of all it makes us blind to the fact that whenever we gather, whether here on Sunday morning or at the Vestry table or in the Discernment Committee or in the Book Group or at the Monday Lunch Program, Jesus is standing right here in front of us asking us: What is it you want me to do for you?

So: What do we want Jesus to do for us?

Here is what I believe. The possibilities are endless so long as we ask the question in faith. James and John were asking out of their own fear. They were afraid of being overlooked, of not being recognized, of being in second place, second rank, out of the in crowd.

But Bartimaeus asked out of faith. His whole story begins with him being willing to risk embarrassment at making clear what he believes; and he is willing to do it because it is so important to him.

It is not something incidental about his life that he believes Jesus, this man from Nazareth, is his hope for the future—for everybody’s future. It is not just one of many things about Bartimaeus, this idea he has about Jesus; it’s not there alongside a lot of other interesting facts about Bartimaeus. It is the single most important orienting thing about his whole life. It sets his priorities, it makes him willing to risk ridicule, it gives his life purpose and direction.

His faith calls him, pushes him, demands of him that he does whatever it takes to be given a chance to be in the presence of the one he believes with all his heart holds hope for the future.

And when he gets there, here is the question: What is it you want me to do for you?

Now we are being asked that question. How is it we shall respond?

I know this with all my heart. If we ask out of our faith, whatever faith we can summon, that God is with us and has work for us to do, then we will get an answer. It may not be the answer we want. It may not be an answer we expect.

But this is God’s church. It is God’s work we do here. It is God’s message we are asked to proclaim here.

So what shall we ask of Jesus? Jesus, let us see again. Okay; but let us be prepared to see, really see, the work that God is calling us to do here.

Jesus, let us hear again. Okay; but then don’t be surprised if what we hear is people ridiculing our faith, or labeling us with all the other Christians they can’t stand, or—or—asking us how it is they might find something like the connection we have found here.

Jesus, let us live with confidence again. Take away from us this burden of fear, this fear of the future that keeps our heads down and our hearts hesitant. Well, okay: But then be ready to live as people of faith, people confident that God is actually there, waiting for us, in the future we are being called toward.

This place is meant to be a place of possibility, of God’s possibility. Jesus is now asking us what possibilities we want to have. The best evidence that we will respond to Jesus in faith will be if we ask for something completely, totally, absolutely unreasonable—because then we will be about something that requires faith.

It is good for us to be reasonable people; it is good for us to be reasonable, gentle, gracious, in our life together. But friends, reasonable people don’t change the world. Reasonable people make peace with the world as it is.

God needs us to change the world. God needs us to show that only way mercy and love and compassion will be shown to be the most powerful, most transformative forces in the world will be if we actually live them out here—despite the fact that it is unreasonable.

Fear does nothing but limit our possibilities. Faith does nothing but expand them. God is now calling us into the full realization of our possibilities. Jesus, give us courage, real courage to ask of you this one thing: greater, bolder, eager faith. Amen.