What Do You Want From Me?

Passage: Exodus 20:1-17
Date: October 25, 2009
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Mark 10:36-43
“What Do You Want From Me?"

Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines in within us; let not our doubts nor our darkness speak to us;
Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us.  Let our hearts always welcome your love!”

    My family teases me about how “blind” I am without my glasses.  I suspect that if I’d been born in a more primitive time, without vision correction, I’d not have survived long.

    Ever since the fourth grade, when we discovered that I was nearsighted, I’ve longed to have “normal” vision back.  Yes, I am very grateful for glasses that help me to see pretty well.  But there are so many down-sides: They get blurry in the rain and fogged up in the cold.  They slip off and pinch the nose.  I can’t wear them swimming or snorkeling.   Besides all that, there is my vanity: I always feel more attractive without them.  I can tolerate contact lenses, but only in short periods.    So a few years back, When Lasik eye surgery became more common, safe and affordable,    I gradually began to trust that this was the answer for me.  Though the thought of having surgery seemed radical, I was ready to leap into it!  I wanted so badly to have new eyesight. 
     I had been saving money for travel, but the possibility of restored sight was far more important to me.  I wanted the money in hand, before I met with the OHSU doctor.   So, over two years, I was saving and praying.  After  giving up the dream of France, and saving monthly, I’d finally saved enough.  The date on the calendar with the eye surgeon became a date that I yearned for.  I was counting down the weeks until I would be glasses-free.   When we did meet,  that experienced surgeon looked at my eyes and told me that I was not a good candidate for the surgery.  The operation could actually make my eyes worse.  I was deeply  disappointed.  The way was closed.  
    What have you longed for?    What yearning has nested in your heart?

   In the ancient world there was a very close relationship between the eyes and the heart, so that when the eyes were shut the heart was unable to understand.  This is seen throughout the Gospel and other new testament writings.    In Cicero we read that the eyes were the way to the heart,  a belief that can also be found in the Old Testament.  In the 20th century Antoine de Saint Exupery wrote:
     “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

    Bartimaeus, the blind beggar had a deep yearning for restored sight.  But beyond that, he had many layers of need to be met.   Not only was he blind.  (Not born that way, since we’re told that he “regained” his sight.)  But he was forced to the edges of his community, sitting by the road, begging for his livelihood.  He wasn’t  allowed to call out for Jesus.  Despite his “outsider” status, Bartimaeus shouted the louder, seizing the opportunity, crying for what he needed.
The healing of Bartimaeus is about recovery of sight, but also about calling into community.  We’re told at the end of the story that he followed Jesus “on the way.”    “The Way” is code word in the gospels for Christianity.   He was  restored to sight, and to community.
   In the story of Bartimaeus, we have a blind man with  20/20 spiritual vision.
    In this passage, it is the literally  blind who leads the spiritually blind.
 Though he is physically blind, Bartimaeus  “sees” Jesus as one who will free him. 

       Jesus asked Bartimaeus the same question he’d asked James and John, earlier in Mark: “What do you want from me?”    Their answer?  “We want to sit with you in power and glory.”     Bartimaeus showed the disciples  what they should have asked for.  Bartimaeus knew his blindness.  The disciples didn’t.
There is much in the passage.   Remember earlier in Mark,  the man  with many possessions-- who could not give everything up and follow Jesus?  Bartimaeus stands in contrast to him.   As a beggar, he didn’t  own much.  But the little that he had, his cloak, he threw aside to run to Jesus.  Casting it off,  showed his faith in Jesus. He knew that he wouldn’t need it again.  He was confident that he wouldn’t  be returning to his spot by the side of the road.  Andre Resner, professor of homiletics, says it eloquently:

   “Faith sits, leaning forward, ready to leap at the opportunity to answer God’s call whenever it might come, and shows itself willing to shed whatever holds it back from the journey.”

     When have you been ready to leap?        
    Unlike my own story of hope for recovered sight, the story of Bartimaeus wasn’t about vanity or self-improvement.   Bartimaeus didn't care what people thought, and didn't let anything keep him from reaching Jesus.  For him, following Jesus wasn't just a good idea  or  a good habit to form.  For Bartimaeus, trusting Jesus isn’t a social convention.  For him,  trusting that Jesus cares and wants good for him  is a matter of life and death.    Finding our place in the story should make us ask:
     What's the cloak we need to abandon?
    What do we need to be freed from? 
    What holds you down or keeps you out?
    What’s  keeping us from seeing, and following, Jesus?

    Today we celebrate Reformation Sunday.  It is also the 500th year of John Calvin’s birthday, a primary figure in the reformed tradition.  Today many congregations are willing to celebrate the Protestant Reformation  with pride and pomp.
    But “re-forming” can be a source of conflict.  Reorganizing, restructuring, renovating -- these  words mean that something will be changed. And change is often heard as  "loss." 
    Lutheran pastor, Mary W. Anderson wrote: “We disciples of Jesus often have vision problems. Most worrisome is the inherited blindness of each generation, which so often assumes it is the best generation of all, with no lessons left to learn, only an inheritance to enjoy. This arrogance is the root of our blindness. What corners of the church, of society need serious reformation in this 21st century? Where are our blind spots? What do we allow to go unchallenged today that will one day cause our grandchildren to shake their heads at how blind we were to the gospel? ”          As a pastor in 2009, I hear many conversations turn to the question of what the church will look like 50, 20 or even 10 years from now.  Congregations are struggling to keep enough membership to maintain their mission and buildings.  Beautiful, older, tall steeple churches like Westminster, across the nation, are wondering: How will we stop the decline in our membership, as the congregation ages?  As we in this congregation look toward new pastoral leadership, we are asking: Where are the younger people who will lead future generations? How do we recognize and support their faith journey in this community?

     Walter Brueggemann provided a jarring assessment of where we are in the church: "I think much of the church has lost its way. We worry about members and dollars, worry about culture wars and church splits, worry about 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. . . . God is not a hypothesis or a good idea, but an agent who turns what was into what will be. The good news is the new act of mercy God is always doing."
      “Faith sits, leaning forward, ready to leap at the opportunity to answer God’s call whenever it might come, and shows itself willing to shed whatever holds it back from the journey.”
          It is only with the heart one can see rightly.

    Where are the places and situations in your own life where God is at work, and you don't recognize it?   Would we recognize Jesus if we "saw" him?  When Bartimaeus recognized Jesus as the  'son of David', we get the impression that he saw quite a lot for a blind man. Who on the margins of our church and our community,  can see the truth more clearly than we in the center of church life?
            What's the cloak we need to abandon?    
Mark Twain said, “You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

    Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes a chapter called the “gift of new eyes.”  A friend of hers, who was a philanthropist, gave her $20,000 to give away in a year, in any way that she saw best.  This task quickly changed the way Dr. Remen saw things.  She began to notice the places where things were trying to move forward around her.  Groups of people whose vision, if nurtured, could lead to a better world.  These groups had been there before, it was just that she had not thought of herself as personally having any thing to do with them.  But now she could see them–all around.

    One evening, she was eating in a local restaurant with a friend.  At the table next to them, two men were dining.  Through the course of the evening, she became aware of the conversation at the next table.  One of the men was describing a program that he was involved in, as a volunteer.  The program had a series of support groups for poverty-level Spanish-speaking families who had lost children to illness, accident or violence.  In three years, over a hundred couples had been helped to preserve their marriages torn open by grief and blame.  These couples had been helped to parent their remaining children.  But now many of the city’s hospitals--which had been the source of support to the small staff –had merged or gone out of business.  The man said that he and his colleagues had desperately tried to raise money to continue the work, but they had not been successful.  They had raised only $500.  The friend asked, “How much do you need to keep things going, Steve?”  By now, Dr. Remen was eavesdropping shamelessly.  “I need a great deal of money, more than we could ever raise–$4,000,” he said.
    Dr. Remen reached across the few feet between them, touched Steve lightly on the arm and said, “You got it.”  She pulled out the checkbook and gave him the money.
    Over the year that she gave the money away, an odd thing happened. Even though she no longer has the money to give away, she still notices the growing edge of things, and she still responds.  “I give away my time, my skills, my network of friends, my life experience.  You do not need money to be a philanthropist.  We all have assets.   You can befriend life with your bare hands.”   Poet Mary Oliver writes:
    “Look, and look again my  friend. This world is not just a little thrill for the eyes. It’s more than bones. It’s more than the delicate wrist with its personal pulse. It’s more than the beating of the single heart. It’s praising.  It’s giving until the giving feels like receiving. You have a life-- just imagine that! You have this day, and maybe another, and maybe still another.”
     What do we need to see with new eyes?
     What in the church needs casting aside to follow Christ?
   What would the world be like if we opened our hearts to faith, ready to leap at the opportunity to answer God’s call?  What would we be like, then?