Sermon Seeds: Take Heart
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 25
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8 [19-22]
Sermon Seeds Year C from The Pilgrim Press – Order now
Note: For preaching resources on texts that include people with disabilities, contact United Church of Christ Disabilities Ministries at http://uccdm.org/. Also, a helpful resource is Kathy Black’s book, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Abingdon Press, 1996).
Additional justice-themed reflection on Mark 10:46-52 by Edith (Edie) Rasell, Ph.D.
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
At first glance, or taken out of context, this story about a blind beggar having his sight restored may appear to be simply another miracle story in the ministry of Jesus the healer. Encountering it within the larger narrative, however, we hear more clearly how God is speaking to our hearts today through this simple story of mercy, healing, and faith.
Jesus and the disciples are approaching the end of their travels. They’re at Jericho, on the edge of Jerusalem, on the edge of suffering and death for Jesus. As they’ve traveled along, the disciples have been busy figuring out where they want to sit when their dreams of triumph and success come to realization. Somehow, much of what has gone before, much of what Jesus has said and done, much of who Jesus is, has gone right past them; they have failed to recognize what was right in front of them.
The cluelessness of the disciples is a theme one perceives when reading the short Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels) from beginning to end, a helpful exercise for feeling its movement and hearing its message more clearly. Not long after the disciples have been bickering over their places in glory, a blind man by the side of the road, hindered rather than helped by those around him, instantly recognizes Jesus for who he is. Not long after Jesus tells his followers that the last shall be first in his way of doing things, the disciples don’t seem to object to a beggar being pushed to the edge of the scene, to the end of the line of people waiting to receive mercy from Jesus: Cynthia Jarvis observes that not one of the disciples speaks up for Bartimaeus when the crowd hushes him (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). We wonder, is anyone paying attention here?
Trouble brewing and a dangerous ministry
The setting for this healing story is important, despite Mark’s rather odd, even abrupt account: “They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…” (10:46a). We’re not told what happened while Jesus and his disciples were in Jericho, but we could safely assume that Jesus’ words and works were as dramatic, as compelling, as his past teachings and healings, or there wouldn’t be a large crowd following him out of town. Just outside Jericho is a good place for an impressive and important event: André Resner, Jr., reminds us that this was the same place where God worked an earlier miracle, in the story about Joshua and the walls that came tumbling down (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Perhaps that miracle is a promising sign of what’s about to happen. But Megan McKenna adds contemporary details about Jericho, describing it as a dangerous, even violent, place, filled with bandits but also with those who were fighting the Roman Empire (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross). Mark has provided these last ten chapters as a prelude to the long and central account of Jesus’ passion and death in Jerusalem, another place of intrigue and revolutionary groups seething with anger at Rome. Jesus’ journey, then, was not a sudden departure from a life of peaceful preaching in the countryside to the wild and dangerous ways of the city. There has been trouble brewing for some time now, and not just in Jerusalem.
Inspiring a blessing
Here, then, on the outer edge of a significant and turbulent city, we witness an even more significant and graced event. Despite the crowds that try to hush him, Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly. Lincoln Galloway writes that Bartimaeus understands himself, of course, as much more than simply “a blind beggar,” and he resists the disciples’ attempts to dismiss him or to speak for Jesus in this situation. Bartimaeus is an agent in the story because his “persistence,” unlike the disciples’ impatience, inspires “a wave of mercy, blessing, and change” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).
Don’t we often define a person by some characteristic, by an adjective, rather than recognizing them as children of God, just like everyone else? Fortunately, unlike many others in the Gospels (especially women), Bartimaeus is actually named. In a way, it seems to give him more individuality, more personality, more character. Isn’t it nicely symmetrical that his name identifies him as someone’s son, “the son of Timaeus,” since he addresses Jesus as “son of David”?
Recognizing David’s heir
While most scholars acknowledge the symmetry of two stories of men being restored to sight that bracket the long teachings about discipleship for the struggling, clueless followers of Jesus, they also find great significance in that title Bartimaeus uses in addressing Jesus. The crowd may describe Jesus by his birthplace, Nazareth, but Bartimaeus knows better who Jesus is, and how to describe him: not only as King David’s descendant (and, in a way, his heir), but also as the long-awaited Messiah, for whom his people hoped and waited (Dianne Bergant, Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). A.K.M. Adam actually finds this title, “Son of David,” a more important factor in this story than the man’s physical disability (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4).
Bartimaeus introduces this new recognition, this new perception of Jesus by acknowledging him as a descendant of both David and Solomon, who is known, David Watson notes, for his generosity and his healing powers (New Proclamation Year B 2009). The very next thing that happens in Mark’s Gospel is the entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds greet Jesus’ arrival with the words, “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!” (11:10a). Surely, then, this is no accidental introduction of the title, “Son of David,” and Mark’s timing is excellent.
The margins of mercy
Jesus, of course, notices the man on the margins and hears his cry for help. Ironically, he asks the man the same question he asked James and John, when their minds were on their own power and glory. From the margins, Bartimaeus not only knows what to ask for, he also grasps more fully who this man is who stands before him, and shows the insider-disciples how they should have acted themselves. Remember the rich man two weeks ago who could not give up everything and follow Jesus? While Bartimaeus doesn’t possess much, the little that he has, his humble cloak, is something that he needs to survive, and casting it aside is a sign of his complete trust, his whole-life faith in Jesus. He knows that he won’t need it again; he’s confident that he won’t be returning to his spot by the side of the road, begging in order to live. Resner describes this beautifully: “Faith sits, leaning forward, ready to leap at the opportunity to answer God’s call…” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
Jesus at the end of his travels, and his healing ministry as well, as Mark tells the story. This is the last account of a healing in Mark, and it goes much more easily than the last time Jesus healed a blind man (8:22). This time, Jesus restores sight with just a word, and frees the man, a beggar formerly consigned to sitting by the side of the road, the margins of all that went on around him; Jesus tells him, “go on your way.” Ironically, the man’s response is not to go but to follow, an interesting contrast to Jesus’ invitation earlier in the same chapter to the rich man, to “come, follow me.”
A story of call and response
In fact, many scholars claim this is just as much a call story as a healing one. One man, the rich one, is explicitly invited to let go of what holds him back, and to follow Jesus, but he declines, with great sadness. The other man, poor but in a deeper sense, spiritually rich, is freed of what holds him down or keeps him out, and he decides, presumably with great joy and gratitude, to “come, follow” Jesus, even on the way to the suffering and death that will come before the glory. An interesting contrast in invitation and acceptance!
Bartimaeus chooses to follow what he has spiritually embraced, this teacher Jesus, on the way, no longer sitting alone by the side of the road but traveling on it with a band of companions. In Mark’s Gospel, he is the only one of the people healed by Jesus who then followed him on that way (A.K.M. Adam, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). Again, this must be more than mere coincidence.
A story of servanthood, between the lines
Between the lines of this story is the theme of servanthood. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same haunting question he earlier asked the disciples, “What is it that you want me to do for you?” (v. 51). The answer could have been the same in both cases, for the disciples really needed help with recognizing the truth standing right before them, and where it would lead them. Instead of “Give us glory,” they could have said, “Give us hearts to see and follow.” That would take a miracle, too, it seems: the miracle of Resurrection, followed by Pentecost. The disciples, in their own time, would have to travel the road to the cross, too. Jesus, living out the things he’s been teaching his followers about true discipleship, “serves” the needs of a man on the margins, and the disciples will eventually “get it,” too, that is, except for one.
Where are the places and situations in your own life where God is at work, even if you don’t recognize it? What is the connection between healing and faith? What are the things that keep us from perceiving the presence of God or God at work in our lives? Would we recognize Jesus if we encountered him? “When Bartimaeus adds ‘son of David’ to his naming of Jesus, you get the impression that he sees quite a lot for a blind man,” Richard Swanson observes (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). It makes one wonder about the people on the margins of our churches and our communities who grasp the truth more than we in the center of church life do. How much time do we spend either jockeying for position, or blocking the path of healing for those in need?
Whom are we missing?
Megan McKenna suggests that we check our own perception and attention, to consider whom we might not be acknowledging, or on whom we might prefer not to focus, or whose voices we may be silencing, in faraway lands and right under our noses, or better, “under our radar” (On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross). Out of sight, out of mind, and despite our modern communications and news reports, we can distract ourselves with the “more important” matters of our own lives.
Ironically, the things that keep us busiest may actually be what we think are marks of faithfulness, the busy-ness of church and family life, and our own good behavior. Walter Brueggemann observes that the church may have “lost its way” because it’s preoccupied with “rules…morality…members and dollars…culture wars and church splits…[and]imposing our way on others in order to get everyone in the right on morality or doctrine or piety or liturgy…all as though we have not received mercy” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann). I’m reminded of words I saw recently by Richard Rohr: “We clergy became angry guards instead of happy guides, low level policemen instead of proclaimers of a Great Gift and Surprise both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed at the heart of all creation.” What would it look and feel like for the church to “take heart,” as Jesus commanded Bartimaeus?
Faith as a matter of life and death
Cynthia Jarvis challenges Christians who are secure and even comfortable to consider “those for whom faith is a matter of life and death” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4); we might say that they, like Bartimaeus, have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Bartimaeus didn’t care what people thought, and didn’t let anything deter him from reaching Jesus. For him, following Jesus wasn’t just a good idea, a fad, or a nice self-improvement program. It wasn’t “the thing to do,” or a good habit to form. For Bartimaeus, as for so many others, trusting that Jesus cares about them and wills good for them is indeed a matter of life and death.
If this is a story about values, as all stories of discipleship might be described (see David Watson, New Proclamation Year B 2009), then finding our place in this story means asking ourselves what we truly value, and for what we would be willing to leave everything behind. What’s the cloak we need to abandon? Who, or better, what is keeping us from reaching Jesus?
Walter Brueggemann’s beautiful words on this text emphasize the theme of God’s mercy, which did not begin with Jesus, although he calls Jesus “God’s mercy among us.” Instead, Brueggemann reminds us that this “wave of mercy” in Jesus continues the movement of God’s mercy and grace as we have heard it told in the Old Testament. Here, at the end of a long journey full of healing and teaching, at the edge of what is to come – suffering, death, and resurrection – we remember that the suffering and death of Jesus were “a continuing act of mercy. And those who received mercy are formed into a new community.”
We have received mercy
That community would be us, in the church, a community of people who have received mercy and now have the opportunity, the responsibility, the call to extend mercy to all of God’s children in need, to extend “that strange transformative reach from a center of strength to a center of need that changes everything and makes all things new.” Mercy makes all the difference in the world, whether the world knows it or not, but still, the world, Brueggemann says, waits for this tender mercy, even as it “falls apart in greed and anger and anxiety” (Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann).
Writers and thinkers can argue all they want about the existence of God (check out the bestseller list), but the naysayers themselves may be transformed by the mercy of God, a mercy extended by those who have already received it themselves, extended and shared and multiplied right before their own eyes, our own eyes, a miracle, a great wonder to behold. Will our hearts be open to see?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Mark Twain, 19th century
“You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”
Antoine de Saint Exupery, 20th century
“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Thomas Fuller, 17th century
“Seeing’s believing, but feeling’s the truth.”
Tennessee Williams, 20th century
“There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people. Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other’s hearts…nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see …each other in life.”
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”
Sebastian Barry, 21st century
“Because it strikes me there is something greater than judgement. I think it is called mercy.”
Plato, 4th century b.c.e.
“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last, 21st century
“If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay.”
Additional justice-themed reflection by Edith (Edie) Rasell, Ph.D.:
Bartimaeus is sitting beside the road when he learns that Jesus is walking by. He calls out, asking Jesus for mercy. But the crowd knows this blind beggar. They have seen him every day. He might have asked them for assistance many times. They have little patience or even sympathy for him. They “sternly order” him to be quiet. But Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly until Jesus, hearing him, invites him to come over.
People who had never before seen Bartimaeus could have probably guessed his affliction. But Jesus, who on first meeting someone often seems to know more about them than they know themselves, makes no assumptions. Instead he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus doesn’t assume he knows; he does not even try to guess.
And Bartimaeus does not hold back. He doesn’t ask for alms, a place to live, or a companion to help him get around. He asks for his sight. He doesn’t want some small improvement in his life. He wants to be made whole. He wants to see.
Our communities, our nation, and our world, are filled with people who are in poor health, hungry, homeless, poor, and afflicted in many other ways. We often get tired of hearing their pleas. When we do decide to help, we seldom start by asking them what they want. Instead, we usually begin by asking ourselves what we want to do for them, or what we think we can do for them. And what we usually want to do is some half-way measure: a dollar bill instead of a job, more homeless shelters instead of affordable housing, a food pantry instead of living wages. It makes us feel better – we have done something. And they are slightly better off. But they have not become fully participating members of society. They are not “whole.”
So what do the poor and others on the margins want? We could ask them. We could find out what they are struggling to obtain and then support them in that struggle.
• Today, low wage workers are in the streets demanding higher wages. Find out about the organizations they have created to achieve their goals http://www.ucc.org/justice_worker-justice_stand-with-workers
• The National Low Income Housing Coalition http://nlihc.org/ is “dedicated solely to achieving socially just public policy that assures people with the lowest incomes in the United States have affordable and decent homes.” Note they are not asking for more or better shelters.
• People are seeking freedom from excessive force used by the police through local organizations like Black Lives Matter.
These are just some of the many ways that people on the margins are trying to improve their lives. These are just some of the struggles we could support. Let us ask God to open our eyes and soften our hard hearts. Let us be attentive to the calls of our sisters and brothers, even if we have heard them many times before. Let’s engage in a conversation, find out what they seek. Then, like Jesus, let’s help them get it.
Edith (Edie) Rasell, Ph.D., serves as Minister for Economic Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.
Psalm 34:1-8 [19-22]
I will bless God at all times;
God’s praise shall continually be
in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in God;
let the humble hear and be glad.
O magnify God with me,
and let us exalt God’s name together.
I sought God, and God answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears.
Look to God, and be radiant;
so your faces shall never be ashamed.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by God,
and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of God encamps around those who fear God;
God’s angel delivers them.
O taste and see that God is good;
happy are those who take refuge in God.
[Many are the afflictions of the righteous,
but God rescues them from them all.
God keeps all their bones;
not one of them will be broken.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous
will be condemned.
God redeems the life of those who serve God;
none of those who take refuge in God
will be condemned.]
For thus says the Lord: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north, and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here. With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
When God restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“God has done great things for them.”
God has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O God,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 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.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.