Calling for Help: A Sermon

Calling For Help
Text: Mark 10:46-52
Rev. Julie Emery
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
October 25, 2009 Reformation Sunday

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. (Mark 10:46-52)

+++
It was a crisp fall day. A bit like today. The leaves were just starting to turn, so there was crunching beneath our feet when we walked, and the tree line was a mix of green with yellow and orange popping out in bursts on the horizon. Our group was down by the lake – so the view around us was exquisite – the way the trees were reflected in the water, the calm of the morning.

I had been content to hold back a bit and take it all in. It was a teambuilding retreat, and while I am a part of the team and I want to bond with them, it was more important that they bond with each other. So I was happy to be leader and not participant, for the most part. But for this exercise, our leader looked at me and said – “You’re going to do this one too.” And then she handed each of us a blindfold.

We sat waiting for her to set up a course, our eyes covered, sitting at the picnic table. We made jokes in the dark and laughed at each other’s voices. When the course was ready, our leader set us up in a line – each holding on to the next, and led us into the course. We stumbled along, telling the people behind us when we tripped over a stump or a branch: “There’s a big stump right there – watch out!” And then we stopped.

Through the darkness our leader said, “Okay – now figure out how to get out of the maze.” We bumped along, feeling with our hands out in front of us, tripping over uneven ground and rocks, until each of us eventually found the ropes that were tied about as high as our waists. Our hands led us along the ropes – all now tightly in a line – sliding our fingers along the ropes until they hit a tree, then feeling along the trunk until the next rope, sliding again until a tree, then another rope.

It took only a few minutes for us to figure out we were in an enclosed square. There was no exit. There was no entrance. There was no way out. “I thought – okay – I’ve done this kind of stuff before. There’s a trick,” and we started to brainstorm. We try meeting in the middle of the square and sitting down. We try holding hands. We walk around and around and around the square – our hands finding the only security we have in the ropes that enclose us. “What is the trick?” I’m thinking. All the while feeling slightly annoyed and perplexed, but trying to go with it.

I don’t like to be without my sight. I am more comfortable being able to help others and feigning blindness makes me feel vulnerable and sort of stupid. I can’t help the kids, I can’t help myself, and so I feel ineffectual. I don’t like that I can’t see the ground I’m walking on. I don’t like that I am helpless. I don’t like it. At. All…

In our gospel lesson for this morning we meet the blind Bar – timaeus, “son of Timeaus.” Mark doesn’t give names very often in his Gospel so perhaps Bartimaeus is a well-known beggar in Jericho, or perhaps he becomes well known in the Christian community after his meeting with Jesus. Perhaps his name elevates his status alongside Peter and James and John. Whatever the reason, Bartimaeus is known – and he knows Jesus or at least knows of him. He has set up shop, sitting on the side of the road to beg. It is the only thing he can do – so separated from his community by his blindness.

When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus of Nazareth is approaching he begins to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Those around him hush him to be quiet but he shouts all the more, “Jesus Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus is halted. He stands still, and says, “Call him here.” And so Bartimaeus is called – Those who once hushed him call to Bartimaeus, they tell him, “Get up! He is calling you!”

When Bartimaeus stumbles his way to Jesus the question Jesus asks him is ironically the same question he asked his disciples just before in Mark’s gospel, “What do you want me to do for you?” Even more ironic is the stark difference between answers. Blinded by their own quest for power the disciples ask to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus. In contrast, seeing the possibilities of God’s power, Bartimaeus instead says, “My teacher, let me see again.”

The healing Jesus offers is instantaneous – “Go, your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus responds to this healing in the only way he can – by joining those that follow Jesus along the way.

Commentators point out that this moment, this encounter between Bartimaeus and Jesus is the last story in Mark’s gospel before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It is the last story of healing, and some say, the calling of the last disciple. It could be argued both ways – that Bartimaeus did not join the twelve disciples but only the crowd that followed him in to Jerusalem to wave palms and shout Hosanna. But Mark uses the word “call” three times in this short passage – to describe the response of this Jesus son of David to this son of Timaeus. Named, called, healed and sent; Bartimaeus joins all who find themselves transformed by the power of God’s possibility, and responding to God’s grace.

Today is a day of celebration: Reformation Sunday – where we celebrate and lift up our ties to the Reformed tradition of faith. We sing hymns attributed to both Martin Luther, the founder of the reformation, and John Calvin, the founder of the “Reformed” tradition of faith – capital R. We remember today that the Holy Spirit is still at work within us – reforming us ever the more, challenging our traditions, pushing us beyond what has come before toward what God desires for us going forward.

The Reformer John Calvin has been on our hearts and minds a fair bit this last year – as 2009 marks the 500th year since Calvin was born. You may already know that Calvin was trained as a lawyer first, and became a theologian only after his exiled father passed away. Calvin was born in France in the middle of the Reformation – he was twenty six years younger than Martin Luther, and was eight years old when Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg. Calvin found himself swept up in the movement, and while he did not generate the original ideas of the Reformation, Calvin organized them, made them compelling, and embodied them in practical life.

While Calvin thought of himself as a scholar, he was convinced to take up a call as pastor in Geneva, where he lived out the majority of his public life as a Reformer. Calvin was in exile, having been kicked out of France for his beliefs; he was also sickly, and battled through various health issues frequently. All this might have contributed to Calvin’s very thorough doctrine of sin, as well as his doctrine of election or “predestination” which gets him into some hot water with our 21st century sensibilities.

At his most generous and humble, however, Calvin simply believed that we are in every way broken people – tending towards mistakes and mishaps both large and small. He believed we were all blind in some way or another. He believed that we cannot know God’s holiness until we acknowledge our own blindness, but we cannot know our blindness until we recognize God’s holiness. There is no earthly way out of this conundrum; only God can lift us out.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!”

For Calvin there is a distance between us and the divine source that is drastic and unbridgeable by anyone but God. The hope, then, comes in God’s message of Jesus Christ – who bridges the gap to heal us and love us in spite of our messy, broken lives. In spite of our broken messiness, Calvin said that God gives us God’s glory to wear like a golden robe – that we might be covered with God’s grace….”Go, your faith has made you well…”

The hopelessness had just about set in when I started listening. Deprived of my sight I started listening for each member of our group and I realized that there were some voices that I hadn’t heard in awhile. Voices from members of our group who had been quite vocal were suddenly gone. I listened as I heard others of our group shuffling around and around the square maze – asking questions and shouting out of despair and frustration. I heard the wind flow through the trees above us.

As I thought about the voices that were now silent, I remembered something, and called out, “Somebody help me!” And I waited. Within a few moments my blindfold was removed, and I was led out of the maze to join the others who had figured it out.
Our leader shared with us that this game was easy for younger children, who are so accustomed to asking for help that they think of that almost immediately. For adults, or teenagers in our case, it was terribly hard, since we are accustomed to thinking we can and should be able to accomplish all things on our own. “Help me,” was all that was needed to regain our sight. “Help me.”

“Jesus, Son of David, Have mercy on me!”

What happens for Bartimaeus is what Calvin believed happens to all of us when we are confronted with our deepest need and God’s overwhelming Grace. Healed of our brokenness, we are reconciled to God and empowered to live out God’s kingdom. Calvin believed that salvation is not an end in itself. “Calvin’s sense of our election in Christ included the strong conviction that God has chosen us and empowered us to live a different kind of life for the sake of the world.” (Johnson, p 45) He believed that the only response to this grace was a life that gives glory to God – a life that encounters all we meet in this paradigm – seeing all people as robed in God’s glory and therefore deserving of our attention and respect.

It took awhile before we all figured out the trick and got out of the maze. It was a bit harrowing for some. The helplessness can overwhelm when you feel like some have figured it out and you have not. But too the realization that all you have to do is ask – that there were only two words that kept you in the dark, two words that stood between you and sight, empowerment, life…it can be almost too much to comprehend.

We sat around the table again – blindfolds removed, looking at each other with new eyes. The air was crisp, the light a bit brighter, the leaves more colorful. We had experienced both our need to ask for help and our need to help each other. We had bonded in the despair of blindness and found renewed hope in regained sight. By the end of the retreat our surroundings had transformed, at least a little bit, as we began to see the image of God in each other.

We are called, like Bartimaeus, to be healed and sent into the world. Calvin said, “From this [calling] will arise the singular consolation: that no task will be so sordid and base, (provide you obey your calling in it), that it will not shine and be reckoned very precious in God’s sight.” (Inst. 3.10.6) No task too small – be it giving out clean socks or scooping soup into a cup. No task too sordid – be it advocacy and protest for the poor and against exorbitant wealth. No gift too small to offer – be it a smile or a hug. No person who is denied the cloak of God’s glory. No one that we should not imagine covered with the golden robe of God’s glory. No person who is not embraced in God’s love.

Calvin said we are not our own, but God’s and that our call is to live for God’s glory in everything we do. We are not our own, we are God’s. We see through a glass dimly, but in Christ we are given new eyes. New eyes with which to see the world’s suffering and respond with love and compassion. New eyes with which to see our neighbor and to love them as ourselves. New eyes with which to see the possibilities that God might provide if we only ask for help. Amen.

***

Most of my understanding and description of Calvin in this sermon is taken from two sources: William Stacy Johnson’s book, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st century, and three sermons preached by Rev. Dr. Serene Jones at Hudson River Presbytery meeting on September 21, 2009.

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