Sermon for Sunday 28 October 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
"Have mercy on us."
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
|Julia Stankova (Bulgarian, 1954–), Christ and Bartimaeus, 2017. Painting on wooden panel, 36 × 45 cm.|
One could say the story of Bartimaeus is about how sometimes outsiders see the truth more clearly than insiders. It’s also one place we find the roots of the Kyrie in our liturgy, heard in Bartimaeus’s confession, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” It’s a story about the calling of a new disciple, one who seems to “get it” a lot quicker than the disciples who have been following Jesus already for some time. But above all, this is a miracle story—in fact, the last healing miracle in Mark’s Gospel. Bartimaeus was blind, and now he sees. Thanks be to God! Amen.
However, it seems to me there is another miracle here, and it takes place before Bartimaeus regains his sight. It’s that moment when Scripture tells us, “Jesus stood still.”
Jesus stood still. Keep in mind, Jesus was leaving Jericho followed by a large crowd (I’m imagining not a very quiet one, either) so it can’t have been easy to hear one small voice calling from the street. It can’t have been easy to stop the momentum of the mob behind him and around him, and yet we read “Jesus stood still.”
“Call him here” Jesus said, and then the crowd (who had only moments before tried to silence the man) said to Bartimaeus, “Take heart, get up! He is calling you.” And that is what he did. Bartimaeus, who could not see Jesus, who could not see the crowd, who could not see where he was going, threw off his cloak—his only possession—and ran towards the one who gave his full attention. He ran towards hope. He ran towards his miracle.
Indeed, it’s a miracle whenever someone gives us their full attention.
Because I moved a lot as a kid, I spent many days feeling lost in crowds of unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar school hallways. It was easy to feel lost there, unseen and unheard, mostly insignificant to the already-formed cliques of friends at each new school.
But then: there was my weekly piano lesson. No matter where we lived, or how lonely I felt at my new school, I could count on this hour in the week when I was the center of everything. My music, my hard work, my ideas—they were what mattered there. Of course, we didn’t just play piano music in those lessons. We talked about school, and the books I was reading, and what my little brother had done to aggravate me that week. We talked about what I would do when I grew up (I promise “be the Lutheran pastor in Jerusalem” was never on the list!). Mrs. Zimmerman, Ms. Ruth, Ms. Judy, Melody, and Thora—they heard me. They saw me. For one hour, my piano teacher gave me her full attention.
And it felt good.
It felt – miraculous.
When Jesus stood still and gave his full attention to a blind beggar calling out his name (and not even by the proper Messianic title—for “Son of David” is a title Jesus himself repudiated soon after in the temple) it must have felt miraculous to Bartimaeus, too.
After all, how many others had passed by him before? How many had ignored his pleas for food, for shelter, for a little money?
How many beggars on the streets of the Old City do we pass by each day? How many voices from the street do we routinely ignore? I know that I rarely look up when people call to me from the streets outside Damascus Gate. Granted, most of them are yelling “Taxi” or “Tel Aviv, Tel Aviv”, but still…it’s easy to imagine how Bartimaeus was accustomed to most people passing right by, no matter what he called out from the side of the road.
But not Jesus. Jesus stood still. Jesus gave blind Bartimaeus his full attention, and he called him closer, to better understand what he wanted. “What do you want me to do for you?” he asked.
And this really is a miracle, because there were so many others who could have garnered Jesus’ attention. There were so many others in the crowd around him, those who probably thought they deserved his attention – Jericho city officials, perhaps. Religious authorities. Movers and shakers. The disciples, his close friends. And especially the ones who tried to silence Bartimaeus a few moments earlier (in fact, trying to silence him in the same way Jesus often silenced demons).
But in that moment, Jesus doesn’t give his attention to any of those seemingly worthy ones. His ear is tuned to the one on the side of the road, the one on the margins. His body turns immediately toward the one whose voice shakes a bit, the one who doesn’t even call him by the proper name, the one who has nothing to lose.
And Jesus stands still.
The story of Bartimaeus makes me think about the voices we routinely ignore today, the confessions we so often deem unworthy to be heard.
The Sabeel Liberation Theology Center recently published an entire issue of their “Cornerstone” magazine on sexual harassment and violence in Palestinian society. It’s no secret that this is an issue in this culture—as it is in nearly every culture around the world. The “MeToo” movement in the US has done much to raise awareness in the past year. But an interesting thing happened when Sabeel friends started talking about the topic in this context. While nearly everyone acknowledged the problem, many resisted, saying, “Why do we have to talk about this now? Let’s achieve human rights, and then we can talk about women’s rights. Also, let’s not air our dirty laundry to everyone. We can hear these stories when the occupation is ended.”
But the Rev. Naim Ateek, the founder of Sabeel, insisted that this issue go forward, with the reminder that while not all may be ready to hear it, Jesus always hears the cries of the oppressed, and desires liberation for every human being. For this reason, Christians in Palestine and beyond are called to stand still and listen to the voices of women and all survivors of sexual assault today.
There are so many other voices our ears are trained to tune out: The disabled. The homeless. The mentally ill. Any and all who don’t fit in the crowd, those who sit on the margins or choose to live out of bounds, and perhaps especially those who call out to God in a way we don’t recognize or understand—these, like blind Bartimaeus, we too often pass by, or even sternly order to be quiet.
Sadly, the church is often the worst offender. All too often, we are the crowd sternly ordering prophets and troublemakers to be quiet. We are the crowd passing by blind Bartimaeus, so busy following in the footsteps of Jesus that we don’t see what he’s actually doing now. We can become so focused on walking in “the Way” that we don’t notice Jesus has stopped in the middle of the road, that his attention is not on our Christmas program or evangelism strategy or capital campaign at all, but on the one lonely voice crying out from the street. If we’re not careful, we may even blow right past him on the road to Jerusalem—or at least on the road to whatever ecclesiastical success we think there is to achieve—while Jesus stands still, listening to one voice crying “have mercy on me.”
On Wednesday, as we commemorate Reformation Day and remember German monk Martin Luther’s famous “Here I stand” declaration, the church would do well to consider where exactly we stand today. Perhaps the reformation the church needs today is to worry less about producing a product called “church”, and to instead spend some time standing still—giving full attention to those who call out from the margins, that we may better hear, better understand, and better love those Jesus loves.
Dear ones, here ends the sermon I wrote on Friday, the sermon I created and edited and called good by late yesterday afternoon. But then, of course, the world kept turning and things kept happening and human beings remained broken and by the time I looked at the news again, 11 people had been murdered during prayer at Tree of Life Synagogue in the city of Pittsburgh.
What in the world do we do with that this morning? Where is Jesus’ attention, I want to cry out, if it isn’t on Pittsburgh? On Gaza? On Yemen?
Sometime in the night, my dear friend who is an Episcopal priest in the US sent me this note, about her struggle to write her own sermon:
“WTF. I have nothing to say to anyone tomorrow. Not to the 5 old white people at the 8 am service, not the 50 Latinx folks at 10, not my earnest young adults at 5:30 p.m. We buried Matthew Shepherd, but he’s still dead. Some guy shot two black folks in a Kroger because he couldn’t get into a black church down the road. Racist, xenophobic misogynists still believe that the bombs that were sent were false flags. And 11 people are dead who had gathered for a bris. Donald Trump is still president and Mitch McConnell is still in the Senate. I’ve said all I have to say right now. I am empty.”
By the time I read it this message, she was asleep, so I don’t know what she ended up with for a sermon today. But when I read her note, I thought, “there’s your sermon, friend…and maybe the ending of mine.” I mean, how is her cry any different from Bartimaeus, crying out to Jesus from the side of the road? He was lost, too. He couldn’t see the path forward, either. He didn’t even know how to call out to Jesus, so he said the best thing he could think of (“Son of David, have mercy on me!”) which, in fact, was offensive to both the religious authorities and the political regime.
This is where many of us are these days—feeling blind, unable to see the way forward for the world, not even sure what name to call out, only hoping that someone will hear us if we do.
Trust me, preachers are there, too. It can be hard to preach on miracles when it seems the world needs a really big one.
But this is still the message I have for you today, the message I cling to myself:
When we are lost, when we can’t see the way forward,
when the church or society or family and friends pass us by,
when people are awful, when our own brokenness overwhelms us,
when we don’t even know how to pray, so we just call out -- "Have mercy on us!"--
Jesus stands still.
Jesus hears, and gives full attention to our pain, our doubts, our questions, our loneliness, our need.
I know it seems impossible to believe—that’s how miracles are—but Jesus, the crucified and risen One, is giving us his full attention today, right now. He is fully present with us this day, in the midst of our grief and confusion and anger.
In a few moments, you are invited to the table, to know Christ’s presence in bread and in wine, and our eyes will once again be opened—not to see all that lies ahead, or to understand somehow the terrible brokenness of our world—but to taste and see that the Lord is good. Taste and see that in him there is healing, wholeness, and love beyond measure.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.