28 October 2012
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Last week, for the 36th time, we made our annual commitment to Seekers Church. We spoke our commitment aloud; we stood up and came forward to sign the book; and after our time here in worship, many of us stayed together for a while to reflect on the experience. I was deeply moved to be part of this body as we made this commitment to be on the Way together.
Today we turn our attention toward a new focus in our life together. Our theme for these five weeks before the beginning of Advent is “Faith in a Dark Time.” We chose that theme in part because the days are getting shorter and shorter. Winter is coming, even if the thermometer did hit 84 degrees last Wednesday. And, this time before the beginning of Advent we always have Scripture lessons that focus on end-times. So, in Celebration Circle, we thought it might help us take a fresh look at Thanksgiving and our season of Jubilee if we contemplated “Faith in a Dark Time.”
The Gospel lesson for this week offers us an interesting perspective. The story of Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus has always seemed to me pretty straightforward: someone who is ill comes to Jesus and asks to be healed. Jesus asks him what he wants, then assures him that his faith has made him whole. End of story.
This time, though, I looked a bit deeper, and as I did I saw this healing story as an interesting example of God’s call and our response. It describes three steps that seem to me to be a key part of the cycle of call that Marjory has taught us over the years, although the short version that we read in the Gospel of Mark really looks at only three of the six stages she identifies in Call to the Soul. Reading the story of Bartinmaeus I see:
Call to the Soul Stage 3: Revelation – Here I call it “Wake Up!”
Call to the Soul Stage 4: Risk – or “Stand Up!”
Stage 5: Relate – or “Join Up!”
I want to share some insights about how this story of Jesus healing a blind beggar might help us build community here, as we’re on the Way with Christ.
As we enter the story, Baritmaeus has learned that Jesus is leaving Jericho, heading for Jerusalem. He hears that Jesus is getting close and cries out for help. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” No surprise here: everywhere Jesus went those days, people who were sick, or disabled, or wounded cried out to him for help. In fact, he was in such demand that it may have been out of a sense of respect for his time and energy that those around Bartimaeus told him to quiet down.
But the cry gets to Jesus, and he invites Bartimaeus to come to him. This seems to be the wake-up call for Bartimaeus. As a professional beggar he was used to asking for help. He had his spot, there on the roadside on the way out of town. My guess is that he’d probably worked himself into a place where it would be easy for merchants who were leaving the Jericho market to see him and drop a coin or two on his cloak, which was spread out before him to catch the coins they tossed his way. I think of him as a well-established member of the begging class in Jericho. Maybe that’s another part of the reason those around him urged him to be quiet. They might have wanted him to stay as he was rather than make a scene and raise the possibility of losing his place as a successful beggar.
In The Call to the Soul, Marjory’s book on the spiral journey of responding to life’s deepest questions, she describes six stages in the cycle. As I read the story of blind Bartimaeus it seemed to me that as he woke up to his ne
Stage Three opens the future like a night sky full of stars. In this third stage some event or insight draws the curtain back, for an instant, between temporal and eternal reality, between chromos and kairos time. We glimpse another dimension where possibility abounds And fear is, for the moment, overtaken. we are transported into another realism. Stars fall, a rainbow appears, a bush burns without being consumed … the future opens, and suddenly we feel the euphoria of Eden if only for a moment.
Led to cry out to Jesus for mercy, he was in Stage 3: Revelation. Marjory opens her description of Revelation with a description that might well have been the story of Bartimaeus:
It is the moment to respond to God’s call, to step out in faith. And as Marjory describes so clearly in Call to the Soul, it is, more often than not, an opportunity dismissed, as we fall back into old, familiar patterns.
This wake-up call is a familiar part of the healing pattern that Alcoholics Anonymous offers to those who suffer from addictions. As I reflected on the story of Bartimaeus and his healing I wondered how the pattern might fit with the Twelve Steps of AA. I worked those steps here in a class in our School of Christian Living titled “AA for Other Folks,” taught by Jacqie Wallen, so I had some memory of the twelve steps. But I was surprised by how closely they tracked the story of the healing of Bartimaeus.
Watching Bartimaeus decide to call out to Jesus, I could see steps 1 through 3, right there in between the lines:
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
When I substituted “blindness” for “alcohol” and “sight” for “sanity,” there it was, that pattern of waking up to the revelation that God has something different in mind for me.
Just this week I had a tender conversation with one of us who is coming to understand that reactions today to the challenging comments of others are often dominated by the way siblings treated us when we were children. It’s a wakeup call to the reality that lifelong learning is more than just a facile reference to Elderhostel experiences.
Recognition is essential, but a call without a response doesn’t go very far. We need to stand up in order to receive the healing we need and take the next step. Are you ready to wake up when Jesus calls? Would it help to have someone nearby to help you recognize that call when it comes?
When he gets the word that Jesus has called him, Bartimaeus responds by abandoning his place as a beggar.
Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” the blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.”
The energy in this response feels particularly significant. In throwing off his cloak it seems to me that Bartimaeus is symbolically letting go of his current means of support. His cloak was how he collected the coins others tossed in his direction. Without the cloak he was without his security blanket.
Like those other disciples who were fishermen, he set down his net when Jesus called. In a sense, by standing up in response to Jesus’ invitation, Bartimaeus risks losing his old identity before the new was safely in hand.
Bravo Bartimaeus! Would that each of us might be so bold as to cast off what has been our security blanket in order to receive with open arms the new life Jesus calls us to embrace.
Sometimes standing up like this doesn’t seem so monumental. I’m aware that three of us are currently exploring the call to be part of different mission groups that organize and support the life of Seekers Church, choosing to be more visible parts of our life together. I still remember how it felt to join Celebration Circle and take on part of the responsibility for structuring our worship life. When I heard the call I was moved to say “Yes,” even though I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I know my joining up with Celebration Circle has meant 30 years of growth for me, and I welcome those who are beginning to explore belonging to our mission groups, and look forward to their exploration.
At some point, responding to God’s call takes that kind of decisive action. In her Call to the Soul Marjory speaks of the necessity of crossing the “Poison River” between private spirituality and public action in order to respond to call. In describing Stage 4: Risk Marjory says:
External commitment to an internal call feels risky because it requires that we move from an old framework of values into a new one that may not be very coherent at this point. New actions do not automatically bring other people into alignment with our dreams or drives.
If the first step in this response to call is to wake up, this decisive step is to stand up:
Stand up TO what has been – confront the old, unhealthy patterns. The examples that come to mind here are our efforts to support the New Jim Crow conversations, as well as our support for Covenant Christian Community’s Thanksgiving Care baskets (300 this year).
Stand up FOR a new vision, like the people who have stood with our Care Pack Team, filling over 350 care packs so far, and the Carroll Café support team, faithfully making that folk music ministry available to the community every month.
Not big, perhaps, but solid examples of “faith in a dark time!”
All of these examples lead directly into the third point that I took from the story of Bartimaeus: “Join Up!”
Our Gospel lesson ends with a simple statement:
Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
As soon as he could see again, Bartimaeus joined up and was on the Way with Jesus.
For me, this is an important element of what makes this story about the healing of blind Bartimaeus a story about responding to God’s call. After he woke up to his own need to be healed, and after he stood up and went to Jesus to receive what he asked for, when he was healed, Bartimaeus stepped out in faith and joined Jesus on the Way.
It’s easy to see that it wouldn’t make much sense for Bartimaeus to go back to begging. I can hear his friends and family muttering something like, “Now that he can see Bart ought to get a job and earn his living like anyone else, right?” But we all know how easy it can be to slip back into old ways of seeing – and doing.
But Bartimaeus sets off on the Way, heading to Jerusalem with Jesus and the others, facing into that unimaginable dark time of betrayal, sacrifice, and hope that ushered in our new age. I can imagine Bartimaeus, a wide-eyed, enthusiastic disciple, faithfully helping wherever he could as Jesus and the disciples threaded their way through the city on their way to Golgotha and the beginning of a new world.
In Call to the Soul Marjory names this stage “Relate.” It’s a time to nurture healthy, supportive relationships, relationships guided by the call that has just been released into the wider community.
In AA, steps 9 through 12 seem to fit this stage as well. They include making direct amends where possible and healthful, continued self-examination and confession, following spiritual practices to deepen the connection with God, and helping others find and follow the healing path.
This new path for someone living the 12 steps seems as radically different as the image of Bartimaeus looking back over his shoulder at someone else claiming his spot and spreading his former cloak while he heads out of town with Jesus. It’s a path marked by community and compassion. It’s the image of following this new path that grabbed me as I started working with this lesson, because it held up a mirror to part of my own journey.
For Bartimaeus, his disability was a window onto something new. That idea led me back to The Wounded Healer, that classic study by Henri Nouwen of the importance of acknowledging, living with, and learning from our wounded nature.
When I hear references to being a “wounded healer” around here, it is often an encouragement to offer what you can even though it may not be perfect. That’s good advice in a community that tries hard to help each member find and occupy a place of leadership.
But when I went back to Nouwen’s text, I found another, more subtle idea: that once we wake up to the nature of our own wounds they can help us practice a kind of hospitality that helps us be at home in our own community while creating a “free and fearless place for the unexpected visitor.” (The Wounded Healer, pg. 91)
This hospitality is built on concentrating attention to the guest (rather than focusing on who I am or what I have to offer). This helps the guest to know that they have been welcomed into a safe place. And, it helps us make space within the community for guests to be who they are, rather than expecting them to fit into our already existing patterns for belonging.
This is NOT easy work! I confess that I have a hard time accepting everyone just as they are. But re-reading Henri Nouwen did help me wake up to this little “wounded healer” problem. And it is leading me into an area of new understanding, as I “stand up” to the internal challenge of how I relate to those whose humor seems like sarcasm to me. (I’m trying, but my spiritual director and others have plenty of evidence that I have a ways to go.)
For me, this is a very recent wakeup, stand-up experience, but last week, along with almost 60 of us, I did make a commitment to Christ and this community, to keep on learning, so I’m on the Way. Keep praying …
The story of Jesus healing Bartimaeus as he left Jericho on his way to Jerusalem has given me an interesting opportunity to look at faith in a dark time. Beneath the surface story – someone who is ill comes to Jesus and asks to be healed and Jesus does it – there is an interesting example of how we respond to God’s call when we finally realize that it is time to say “Yes.”
Bartimaeus was ready. When he heard that Jesus was coming he woke up to the opportunity; he stood up when Jesus called him, and as soon as he could see, he joined up with Jesus and the others on the way to Jerusalem.
Each of us is being called by God to some form of healing. I may see mine as this relational scab. Yours might be some other persistent sore. But each of us has the opportunity to wake up to the opportunity for change. We have the opportunity to stand up when Jesus calls – whether directly or through someone on the way with you. And once we’ve stood up to the current call, we may have a chance to learn from our wounds some new ways to offer others the focus and welcoming hospitality that is
And all of us are invited to join up and help us be on the Way with Christ together, even in dark times. The life of Seekers Church is based on the belief that God calls each person to minister to some place of need in God’s Creation. This call to love and serve God’s Creation may take root in workplace, community or family.
Thank God we’re in this together.