Monday, October 26, 2009

"What Do You Want...?"

Sheepscott Community Church October 25, 2009

Job 42: 1-6; 10-17

Hebrews 7: 23-28

Mark 10: 46-52

“What Do You Want...?”

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks blind Bartimaeus in this morning’s gospel. If you recall, he asked the same question of the apostles James and John in last week’s gospel. I dare say, he asks us the same question as well: “What do you want me to do for you?” That’s a big question, a big issue right at the outset of this message, but so be it. Time is of the essence, and we have to deal with what our options are. Here our option is Jesus’ question and what our answer might be.

If we were to answer this question honestly, we would have to go through a period of self-examination, whether that would be a few minutes of the examination of conscience, a concept some of us learned at our parents’ knee, or a matter of years of struggle to become our authentic selves. Whatever the period of self-examination, and whatever the form that self-examination might take, we could then stand before Jesus and say, This, this is what I want from you.

Like Bartimaeus did. There was no question about what he was after. He wanted his sight. His response to Jesus was immediate and enthusiastic. He was up like a shot when Jesus called for him, and the reason Jesus did call for him was his noisy perseverance, shouting at the passing parade from where he sat. Those around Jesus and Bartimaeus were trying to quiet him because they wanted to hear what Jesus had to say. Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for Passover, and at this point was in Jericho, about 15 miles from the city. It was a common practice for renowned teachers, or rabbis of the period to teach as they walked. Their followers, and all those who had gathered along the road to wish the Jerusalem-bound pilgrims godspeed––picture the Boston Marathon, especially Heartbreak Hill––would be hanging on the rabbi’s words, so it’s not hard to imagine how annoyed they would be with Bartimaeus’s persistent hollering that would make it difficult to hear the rabbi’s words.

But as I say, it was just that hollering that got Jesus’s attention, and so Bartimaeus ran to Jesus when Jesus called for him. He was persistent and immediately responsive. And he knew exactly what he wanted. His was not some vague sentimental wish but a clear, urgent desire: “Rabbi, I want to see.” There was no exclamation point in the text, but I could feel one. If, when we respond to Jesus’ question about what we want of him, if we are as focused and single-minded, as passionately desirous of what we want as Bartimaeus was, things will happen.

What happened with Bartimaeus was based on his faith. Like James and John last week, his theology was off kilter when he addressed Jesus as Son of David. That title carries the weight of the dynasty of the great King David, from whose line Jesus was descended, as we can read in the first chapter of Matthew. It is a messianic title, but it conjures a messiah who would lead Israel in a military sense––like David––to national greatness by freeing them from the Roman yoke. Like James and John, this blind man in the countryside was looking for that kind of a messiah and had not a clue what the messiah would be like, even though that very one was standing there before him with healing in his wings.

But that healing is and was based not on Bartimaeus’s politics or theology, but on his faith in Jesus, as with James and John last week. If you recall, even though their conception of Jesus as a conquering messiah on whose left and right hands they asked to be seated when he came into his kingdom, even with that, as with Bartimaeus, their faith, his faith, was great. His heart, their hearts were in the right place. They recognized Jesus but not the full meaning of why he had come or who he was. How could they? How can we? We need the inoculation of our imaginations by nothing and no one less than the Spirit of God, who provides an infusion of understanding about the things of God, the life of God, as revealed in Jesus the Christ.

“What do you want of me? What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus continually asks us. His life as he lived it on earth and his life as he continues to live it now is always asking the same thing because he chose to lay down that life for the fulfillment of God’s purposes. If you recall, last week I talked about the meaning of atonement and asked us to consider, not to think in terms of a god who demands every bit of blood from the body of Jesus in order to satisfy a justice that is steeped in blood for its meaning, but to think in terms of a God who lays himself down, makes himself a bridge to pass over. While the cross is the focus of the sacrifice, I plead in that same court of justice for that different, or wider understanding, for a different, other image of the God Jesus called Father. We do know that Jesus freely chose––not happily, but freely––to go through with what had become inevitable, given his earlier choices. In last week’s reading from Hebrews, Jan read that “During the days of Jesus’s life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered.”

I can imagine those loud cries and tears in Gethsemane. I know they were tired, but it still surprises me that Peter, James and John were able to sleep through it. But we know from today’s reading from Hebrews, that though his cries and tears were heard, a supernatural rescue was not in the offing, and Jesus acquiesced to the inevitable outcome. As it is written, “He sacrificed for their sins once and for all when he offered himself.” In other words, he said, Okay, I’ll do it, but not before he had pled that it be otherwise.

The suffering is reminiscent of Job’s story, which we’ve been hearing for the past weeks, the last installment today. While Job was immersed in suffering, his friends gathered around him, wisely silent for a period of time. But then all began to hold forth about what Job had done to deserve this or what he should do to get out from under it. With friends like this, etcetera. But here at the end of the book of Job, after his encounter with God, after he has seen God, viz., understood who he himself, Job, was before God, he repented in dust and ashes. Then God called for a sacrifice from the friends and a prayer for them from Job, considering their unacceptable understanding of who God is, their “folly” as God calls it. So Job did pray for his friends and God accepted his prayer...

...even as Jesus prayed for those who were actually killing him. In Luke it is written that he asked God to forgive them as they did not know what they were doing. Certainly that includes us as we bumble and bluster along. Jesus, our high priest, as he is titled in Hebrews, intercedes for us at all times through all time eloquently, embodying in himself the full free offering of his life to God on our behalf. I can’t overemphasize that: that he gave the gift of his life freely, and he invites us to do the same. I remind you, I remind us, as I did last week, that the magnitude of our sacrifice will not be so great as that of Jesus, but that whatever we have to offer back to God, in union with Jesus in his sacrificial offering, will be acceptable to God because of him, just as the prayers of Job, who had seen God, just as his prayers were acceptable to God on behalf of his friends.

One contemporary example of a life offered is that of Jerzy Popieluszko. He was a Polish priest who gave his life for the Polish workers of the Solidarity movement in 1984, when he was just 39 years of age. Some of you may remember the event. This past week marked the 25th anniversary of his death. Like most Poles, Father P., as I’ll call him, had a disdain for the communist system under which the country operated, but he had never been a political activist. When the Gdansk shipworkers went on strike in August 1980, the steelworkers in Warsaw joined them in solidarity. They asked for a priest to come and celebrate Mass for them, and Father P. volunteered.

He had an epiphany at that Mass, when he realized that the workers’ struggle for justice and freedom was truly a spiritual struggle. He subsequently became a chaplain to the striking workers. The government declared martial law and thousands of Solidarity workers and their supporters were arrested. Father P. was harassed, threatened, and interrogated over and over. His response when a bomb was hurled into his apartment was, “The only thing we should fear is the betrayal of Christ for a few silver pieces of meaningless peace.”

Father P. understood the risks in what he was doing and chose to stay with the workers rather than leave for the safety of a country in the West. In the early morning hours of October 20, 1984, three men, acting for the government that wanted to silence the priest, abducted Father P. beat him, tied him up, and weighted his body with stones before throwing him alive into a reservoir. Five years later the first free postwar elections were held in Poland, and the people voted out the communist regime and elected a Solidarity government.

I find it interesting that in this context two men––the worker/politician/activist Lech Valensa, and the priest Jerzy Popieluszko––both responded to the call for justice in their time in their home country. They laid down their gifts, which were part and parcel with their lives, for a cause greater than their individual selves. The shipworker Valensa became the first freely elected president of Poland, and the other––not by his wish for it but by his willingness to be it––became an actual martyr for the cause. There are many such examples of self-sacrifice in Christianity.

As I have earlier noted, most likely we will not be asked to sacrifice on such a grand scale, that is, to give up our actual physical lives, but we are challenged to sacrifice on a scale that is commensurate with the lives we live.

Let us return to today’s gospel for a few minutes, to the story of blind Bartimaeus. Jesus’s response to him is an open and full one. Speaking out of himself as a man, all of who he was and had come to know himself to be, Jesus asked Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus did not presume anything. He honored his interlocutor with complete freedom to respond. His honoring of the man’s will opened a way for the man’s faith to be the foundation of what happened. But he was asking the question out of the knowledge of who he, Jesus was, and what was possible for the one who had faith in him. How exciting is that. What a moment. And each of us can stand in the place of Bartimaeus and imagine Jesus saying to us: “What do you want me to do for you?”

We all know that major block or little niggling habit or thing that never goes away. Sometimes we have a wave of longing to be rid of a habit, to purify our life of some wrong thing, to give ourselves more completely to Jesus. But we do not act on it in the moment and the chance is gone. Remember Bartimaeus jumping up and casting off his cloak so it didn’t hinder him in his rushing to get to Jesus. Let us remember him and his full-hearted and immediate response to Jesus’ call.

Some of us have medical conditions that we accept but in which we wish we had less pain, perhaps, or less fear around our mortality. We have children we sometimes agonize about, even though we know they are independent and have their own lives and can make their own choices. But love suffers with. Others of us have younger children we are responsible for and wonder how we can provide for them with all their needs, especially their emotional needs when we’re so busy trying to provide food and clothing and educational opportunities. Some of us have parents or partners for whom we are responsible and for the fulfillment of which responsibilities we sometimes feel inadequate to the task. Some of us have lost family and friends to death through illness or accident or suicide, and we just can’t seem to get past our sorrow. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed.

So we stand before Jesus who can make a complete difference in these situations. I can’t predict how, but I know, not just believe, I know that there will be a difference if we ask him for what we want in relation to these or other situations when we ask with our whole heart. Again, think of Bartimaeus. The man was blind! He said what he wanted and said it clearly: I want to see. And he saw. Notably, in that miraculous moment, Bartimaeus gave us a model of how to respond––with gratitude. He didn’t just go on his way, having gotten what he wanted. He followed Jesus up the road toward Jerusalem. He began with a need––I want to see––followed by gratitude when he did see, and finishing with loyalty: a perfect summary of the stages of discipleship.

Let him, let her who has ears, hear. Amen.

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