A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
February 21, 2016
I only made it one verse into this reading before I got stuck this week. We’re told Jesus and the disciples were heading to Jerusalem, which isn’t a surprise. Jesus has been quite clear that it is his final destination and he’s explained multiple times what will happen when they arrive.
Things like arrests, torture, death, resurrection.
So they’re walking, and Jesus is walking ahead of them.
And the disciples were amazed and those who followed were afraid.
Amazed at what? Jesus’ determined demeanor as he heads to his death?
Amazed at the fact that he allowed them to be his disciples and follow him?
Amazed that they were, actually, still following him?
Amazed about what he had just taught them—that salvation is impossible for mortals but that nothing is impossible for God?
The text doesn’t say.
It also says those who followed were afraid.
Now that makes more sense.
It is an uncomfortable reminder that being a follower of Jesus means that sometimes we are afraid.
Being a follower of Jesus doesn’t exempt us from the things in life that scare us.
Jesus doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He doesn’t pretend they are headed to Six Flags or Disney Land. He tells them they are headed to an arrest, a trial, death, and resurrection.
Those who followed him were afraid.
Is it possible they are starting to pay attention? Starting to understand?
And then as soon as he tells them, for the third time in a few chapters, what is to come, the sons of Zebedee ask him something that makes me think they have not had ears to hear.
At my clergy bible study this week, I was trying to come up with some way that James and John’s request to Jesus wasn’t just ridiculous and boneheaded. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
I was wondering if I was missing something culturally. Perhaps as steeped as I am in the Puritanical world view, where asking for glory is about as seemly as asking for money, perhaps I was missing out on a different cultural marker where asking for glory is a fair request.
My colleague suggested there was no good excuse for the sons of thunder, as Jesus names them earlier in the gospel, because by opening their question with the same kind of tactic a 4 year old uses when they are trying to convince their parents to agree with an absurd demand, that even they knew what they wanted of Jesus was ridiculous. “Teacher, before we ask, we want you to promise us you’ll say yes, no matter what. And promise us we won’t get in trouble.”
Jesus is talking about suffering.
They want glory.
Jesus is talking about death and resurrection.
They want fame.
Jesus is talking about being handed over TO power.
They want power for themselves.
The other disciples get wind of what the Sons of Thunder are up to and they get mad. Not because of the question. But because they didn’t ask it first.
“We could have asked for the right hand seat?! I didn’t know that. I totally would have asked if I knew we could. I thought we had to wait until we got to Jerusalem. Dang.”
I know that we’re no different than the disciples. We, too, love glory and honor.
Some of us remember when the church, broadly speaking, was a respected leader in our nation’s discourse. Even as we know those days are past, we remember what that glory and power were like. And we miss it.
What do you want me to do for you?, Jesus asks us.
“Well. If it wouldn’t be too much trouble, we’d love to be back at the right hand of civic power and prestige, with big budgets, big numbers, and big honor. Could you please make the church great again?”
Remember last week, after someone asked Jesus a question that sort of missed the mark, and the text said, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him”.
It doesn’t say that here, but I think we can safely hear it in Jesus’ answer to the disciples. To us.
At least we can hear a “bless their hearts”.
“You know that among the Gentiles, those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”
I bet the rest of the walk that day was quiet.
They came through Jericho, where a large crowd followed him as he made his way through. And if the crowd heard Jesus’ lecture about serving and sacrificing, they don’t seem to connect it in a tangible way in their own lives when they hear Bartimaeus crying out for Jesus. Son of David, have mercy on me!
“Be quiet! Don’t you know how important Jesus is? He doesn’t want to deal with riff raff like you! He’s on his way to Jerusalem. What makes you think he has time for you”?
And Jesus calls for Bartimaeus and the crowd says, “oh yes, Jesus, he’s right here. We were just about to bring him to you because we are good servants and we knew you’d want to meet him. He’s such a good guy.”
Jesus, looking at them, loved them.
And then he turned to Bartimaeus and asked, “what do you want me to do for you?”
It’s the same question he asked James and John.
It’s a very different answer he gets from Bartimaeus.
“My teacher, let me see again.”
“Go. Your faith has made you well”.
And Bartimaeus immediately regains his sight and joins Jesus on the way to Jerusalem. The fear that the rest of the crowd had as they followed Jesus on the way to Jerusalem does not seem to be a problem for Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus stands in contrast to the rich, young man who asked Jesus a question last week and went away sad. Bartimaeus asked to see clearly, and followed Jesus in joy.
What do you want me to do for you?, Jesus asks.
Do we want glory? Or do we want to see clearly?
The story of Bartimaeus is often used to illustrate how having vision is not always the same as ‘having eyes to see’. The disciples may have 20/20 vision when they go to the eye doctor, but boy howdy do they miss seeing Jesus clearly in this passage.
Bartimaeus is legally blind, but he sees who Jesus is, he understands who Jesus is, with great clarity.
Harper Lee, the great author of To Kill a Mockingbird, died this past week. One of the lines from that book that has stayed with me is “People generally see what they look for and hear what they listen for”.
What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asks.
What do we hear in that question? What are we listening for?
Is Jesus asking us what favor he can bestow on us?
Is he asking us how he can help us?
Is he asking us what it is we need?
Is he asking us what it is we want?
While Bartimaeus is an illustration of someone who has ears to hear and eyes to see, I think the story of Bartimaeus is a reminder to the rest of us that in every situation, we need to have ears to hear and eyes to see.
Not just in the important moments when Jesus says “truly I tell you….”.
Not just in the landmark moments of birth, and death, and celebration.
But also when we’re just walking through town on our way to somewhere else, and some blind beggar starts yelling, trying to get our attention.
Jesus tells his disciples that if they want glory, as they think they do, then they need to be servants of all. If we want to drink from the cup that Jesus drinks, we need to be ready to share it with others.
And as soon as he says it, there is someone who needs us to be their servant. Someone who can’t get to Jesus on their own and needs our assistance to join us on the way.
Do we have eyes to see them and to see how our faith calls us to help them?
Do we have ears to hear their cries and to listen to how their voices call us to faithful discipleship?
We tend to refer to people without power or glory in our culture as “voiceless”. Bartimaeus did not have glory or power. But he was not voiceless. He was just told to be quiet by people who did not want to listen.
One of the lowest moments of my ministry, so far, happened early on. It’s a moment I would love to have a “do over” for. I will never forget it. I was a volunteer in mission for the Presbyterian Church, serving as a volunteer for a summer in Palmer and Wasilla, Alaska. I had just graduated from college.
I was sent there to lead a youth ministry program. And one of the first events was a dinner for college aged youth. There weren’t many of them and we had way more food than we were going to be able to eat.
Someone showed up at the church that evening, when the youth and I were the only ones in the building. They were asking for assistance.
I did not know what the church’s plan was for this situation.
I confess I was afraid, a little, of this couple. I had not had much experience with people who had lived a different life than I had lived in all of my 22 years.
I sent them away instead of inviting them to join us for dinner.
Later that night, as I reflected on it, I realized that in addition to sending people away hungry, I had also sold short those youth who had come for the youth group dinner. I could have showed them Jesus. Instead, I showed them I hadn’t fully grasped what it meant to be a servant of all.
And while I do still sometimes drive past people asking for money on the side of the road, if someone walks into this building and asks for help, I do try to help. I can’t always give them what they ask for. But if we’re having a potluck when they show up, I ask them to join us. If they need food, I dig through boxes and cupboards and see what we might have to share.
And the fact that the world’s needs are greater than we, individually, can solve does not excuse us from trying. I’ve shared this quote from the Talmud before, but it still applies. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly with God, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”
What do you want me to do for you?, Jesus is asking us.
Some days we’re going to be more like the disciples in our answer, and other days we’ll be more like Bartimaeus. Either way, notice that at the end of this passage, the disciples and Bartimaeus are all right there, following Jesus, on the way to Jerusalem. As at the beginning of the passage, there is still likely a mix of amazement and fear.
Amazement, perhaps, that Jesus still lets us follow him, even as we get confused and seek the wrong things.
Fear, perhaps, that Jesus still lets us follow him, even as we begin to understand where this journey will take us.
Take heart. Get up. He is calling you. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear. Amen
Here’s the meditation video from today.