Jesus’ Secret Service?
Sermon date 10/25/2015
It’s easy to hear these healing stories as little soundbites. Jesus healed a blind man, Bartimaeus, as he and his followers left Jericho. It’s the kind of story that would make the headlines or the feel good segment on the evening news. But the gospel writer told this story within a larger framework. We find the story at the end of the 10th chapter of Mark’s gospel. (Now, designated chapters are a later additions – not the gospel writer’s division.) For the gospel writer, this is one of the events that happened between the first time Jesus told his disciples that he would be killed and his entry into Jerusalem. Within this framework, we are told again and again that the disciples, that Jesus’ followers, just don’t understand the values of God’s realm. “Who is the greatest?” they argued among themselves. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” Jesus told them. “Welcome a child,” Jesus said. Then they complained about an outsider who was performing good works in Jesus’ name. “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me.” Then Jesus challenged convention when he spoke about divorce – addressing a practice that placed women in vulnerable positions. He blessed the children that the disciples would have kept away from him. He called the rich man to place his trust in something other than his wealth. And when James and John asked for positions of privilege and power Jesus said, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink and or to be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Those around Jesus had been hearing and seeing Jesus’ concern for the sick, for the powerless, for the poor. Over and over he told them that his way would lead to his own death – not to a glorious earthly rule. It was these insiders, the ones who had been with him and heard him, who were clustered around Jesus as he left Jericho.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink said that we should be willing to put ourselves in the Bible stories as all the different characters. It’s easy to encounter a story like the one about Bartimaeus and think of ourselves as the one in need of Jesus’ healing presence. Maybe it’s a little harder to be part of the crowd – insiders even—who are hovering around Jesus – but still don’t get it. They didn’t think Bartimaeus was worth Jesus’ attention. He was, after all, just a blind beggar. He had gotten what he deserved – a limited life on the edges -- here, literally on the edge of the city – where he had to rely on the reluctant generosity of those who might pass by.
Commentator Cynthia Jarvis said, “[Jesus] is buffered by people who want to be identified with him. Mark does not say that they are at his side in order to be healed or taught, only that they are in his company. Often unmindful of what they want Jesus to do for them, they nevertheless want to be numbered among the faithful. Once in that number, those on the ‘inside’ curiously act, time and again, to keep others on the ‘outside.’”
Those on the inside act time and again to keep others on the outside! Have things changed? Not much! A friend posted a list of “25 Really Weird Things Said to Pastors and Other Church Leaders. The author of the list said he had to really work to narrow his list to 25 things. A few of the items on the list reflect this desire to identify who should be on the inside and who should be out.
Now, we may not really look at sanctuaries that way. But, the attitude sneaks in. How many times do we come feeling we have to hide what’s going on in our lives – that it’s not appropriate to let our fears or our sorrows or our struggles show? We strive to protect God/protect Jesus, protect each other, from the embarrassing messiness of who we sometimes are. And if we ourselves can’t be fully present to Jesus, how in the world will we let the rest of the world’s messiness come in?
I think Jimmy Carter was the first modern president to exit the bullet proof limo during the inaugural procession through Washington. The secret service had fits! How could they keep him safe? I heard the same fear expressed when Pope Francis visited and the secret service was charged with keeping him safe. They knew that they wouldn’t be able to prevent him from going out into and among the people – and that, consequently, their job would be difficult.
They knew he could not be kept away from the crowds. Jarvis asks, “What are we to make of Jesus’ response to the crowd, and so of our ministry to the many who may want to be near Jesus while keeping their distance from another in need of healing and succor?....He does not upbraid them for their blindness to human need, nor does he call their faithfulness into question. Rather, in his command to ‘Call him here’ he is also commanding the gathered crowd to become the disciples they would not be without this very specific act of obedience. Given that in Jesus the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, and the lepers are cleansed, those who simply want to be near him will find themselves in the company his love commands them to keep.”
Jesus had invited the rich man to “follow him,” to go where he went, to see those whom Jesus saw. It is the invitation that is always before us, God’s people. If we want to find Jesus, we have to look where he has always been—not locked away in our sacred places, but out “in the company his love keeps.” Jarvis goes on. “The cry of need that caused Bartimaeus to be shunned by many becomes the occasion for their glimpse of God’s final intention for creation in ordinary time.”
The question of evangelism comes up over and over again as the church struggles with shrinking numbers. “We need to convert more people,” is a cry that I hear again and again. “We need to tell them the good news so that they can believe.” This gospel story might tell us something different about evangelism. Yes, Jesus taught the good news over and over again. But he also lived it – and brought people alongside of him to see him living it. To be with Jesus, one had to be willing to go where he was going – to touch the lepers, to see the plight of the poor, the outcast, and the downcast. His disciples, his followers had to learn that any time they drew the circle close and small, any time that protected Jesus from the crowds, from the pleas for mercy, they were demonstrating that they still didn’t understand what Jesus was all about.
Presbyterian Women, at its gathering this past Wednesday, heard from a woman who was sold by her mother’s boyfriend from the time she was ten until she was seventeen. She also spoke about the ministry that the organization she works with has with and for women who are trafficked now, particularly those who work in the strip clubs. “We go in weekly,” she said. They take items that the women will appreciate. They are with them! And, it is in that context, that they share the good news of God’s love for them – and a message that the women can have a different life, a better life.
There is an incredible power in a willingness, on the part of God’s people, to be in the midst of the brokenness. It is a witness that cannot be denied. Years ago, after the war in Bosnia, I remember reading about a Presbyterian ministry that came in and rebuilt the mosques for the Islamic people who had been so victimized in the violence. There was astonishment that Christians would choose to minister to Muslims. Not only the recipients were astonished, many Christians were also stunned. But, would Jesus not have been there?
A few years ago people were sporting those What Would Jesus Do (WWJD) bracelets. Those tended to call people to focus on their own behavior, their own morality. Maybe we could or should ask a different question, Where Would Jesus Be? (WWJB)? As soon as we move into a protective mode, thinking the church or Jesus has to be kept safe from the threats of the world, we cut ourselves off from being “with” Jesus “where” he is.
Jarvis writes, “How easy it is to let the manageable needs of a congregation buffer [us] from those who await word of God’s mercy on the margins… Yet, [Bartimaeus] throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus with great expectation and a disarming clarity… Think of those for whom faith is a matter of life and death rather than a social convention.”
There is something freeing in Jarvis’ observations on this story. Jesus doesn’t ask those around him to understand everything. He asks them to continue the journey with him, to see those whom he sees, to answer his call to notice them and extend God’s care and concern to them. It is a call that the church has answered through the centuries in its varied missions and ministries – in the building of hospitals and clinics, schools and safe-houses, in ministries of compassion to the homeless, to the sick, to the lonely, in its pursuit of justice for the trafficked and the overworked and underpaid. These ministries aren’t secondary. They are the reason we exist. Our institutional life is not merely for our own benefit, but so that we might be equipped to go where Jesus goes, to be where Jesus is. Amen.