The Rev’d Matthew D. Larsen
Christ Church, New Haven, Connecticut
Year B, Proper 25
October 25th, 2015
“And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As a fledgling New Testament scholar, I do research on the Gospel according to Mark. I argue that we should think of Mark, in its original 1st century historical context, not so much as a book with an author but as textual raw material or notes. For instance, the word used to describe Mark by several of its earliest readers is the same word that you might elsewhere translate as rough draft. This also fits with Mark’s less than stellar grammar and lack of clarity and conciseness (even though Mark is the shortest Gospel, his versions of stories are often the most longwinded of the Synoptic Gospels). It also supports that idea that Mark doesn’t have the unified authorial vision holding the whole narrative together, like we might expect of a modern novel. Or, as one prominent scholar on the Gospel of Mark put it to me once, “Out of all the Gospels, I like Mark the best because he doesn’t tell me what to do.”
In the ancient world, someone producing a text would often collect their notes into clusters of topics or key-words. We see the same organization in Mark, and today’s reading comes at a critical place in one of those clusters of notes. In our passage today, we meet a beggar named Bartimaeus. He is blind and sitting “along the way.” What way is that, you might ask? The cluster is bookended by two stories of Jesus healing a blind man, and throughout the cluster of stories the phrase “on the way” is repeated over and over again. The way in reference is the way of the Lord to Jerusalem to suffer and to die.
The other blind healing is quite different. The first healing of a blind person back in chapter 8 in its most natural reading looks like Jesus really botches the healing. He spits in his eyes, lays his hands upon, and then says, “Ta-dah! Now, tell the good folks here what you see.” Then the blind man, shockingly, says, “I see people, but they look like trees walking,” Then Jesus doubles back, re-juices his healing powers, and give it another go. He lays hands on him again and then he saw everything clearly.
For the next two and a half chapters Jesus marches toward his death in Jerusalem, and tells his disciples: Follow me. Half a dozen times Jesus and his disciples are described as “on the way” to Jerusalem to die. Then in stunning brevity, in our Gospel reading it says, “And immediately [blind Bartimaeus] received his sight [and here’s the key difference] and followed him on the way” to Jerusalem, to the cross. Full sight, follows immediately.
The point is we are all called to follow Jesus on the way of the cross, the way of self-offering, and to find that, paradoxically, the way of the cross is none other than the way of life and peace.
When we follow Jesus without walking the way of the cross, not offering everything we have, then we don’t really see clearly. We see people who still look like trees walking, which, by the way, still leaves us legally blind. If we are never pushed, challenged, confused, bothered, even disturbed, then we might need to get our vision checked, because full sight means full self-offering.
What does it look like for us to see Jesus clearly? I mention money now not only because we are in a stewardship campaign, but also because I sincerely believe that, in our society in which free-market capitalism controls our lives to a profound extent, in which the way money moves and works controls much of the modern American culture, in which monetary gain is the closest thing to a deity most American worship, [I believe that] the way we handle our money reflects deeply on how we see, how we follow. Money either controls us, or we control it. Our possessions possess us, or we possess them and use them as God’s wise stewards.
Few of us will be asked to give up everything we own. But one spiritual practice the church has used for a long time to keep our things from controlling us is to voluntarily give a portion of them away to remind us that, for some of us, we already have more than we need. A tithe, 10% is a good start, but it is not to be taken legalistically. For some of us, 10% is simply impossible. For others, 10% will be far too little. For others, a few dollars may be a extremely sacrificial self-offering. But either way, don’t think of financial giving as a yucky non-spiritual necessity. Think of it as a spiritual formation issue. Don’t think of a priest merely asking you to help keep the doors open. Think of a priest asking you to give for the sake of your own soul. We give not just because the parish needs it. We give because we need it: to maintain control of money, lest, as so often happens in a capitalistic society, our possessions possess us. Don’t give until it hurts. Give until you feel cheerful, until you feel free. There is a percentage we could give that would make us feel resentful. And there is also an amount that we could give that would make us feel joyful—and the cross-shaped surprise is that the amount that makes us feel joyful might actually be more.
This next week we will be asked to commit. In many Episcopal churches, people are asked to give just to keep the lights on, and that is a perfectly fine reason to give. But I believe most people give in order to see something transformative happen.
Christ Church is strategically located. For a many decades it was believed that to reach the unchurched, especially the next generation, a parish had to move down the candlestick, lose the smells and bells, maybe add a service with guitars and drums. But I just don’t believe that’s entirely true. In a world were so much has become mundane, where so much has become uprooted from the past, our Anglo-Catholic heritage has something to offer. Many look for grounding, for mystery, for a way to believe in the midst of all their doubts. Our compline service has done some remarkable things for just such people. Our St. Hilda’s program has had a tremendous impact, all with limited resources. Imagine what could be done with more resources. What if we had resources to build and to further their missions, not just to keep the doors open?
Christ Church is also strategically located in a part of New Haven that would allow us to be leaders in the church in the area of social justice. Most suburban parish want to a ministry to children, while urban parishes want to have a ministry to the poor. Here we have both! We have a truly remarkable ministry to the homeless of our city through our Community Soup Kitchen. What if we had more resources to partner with our neighborhood to take it further? What else could we be a part of beyond offering daily food? What new ways could be embody Jesus call to stand with the least of these and to continue our proud Anglo-Catholic heritage of going to the margins and relentlessly serving the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten?
We are in an exciting time. Before too long we will put a new budget together, we will call a new rector—we will start a new chapter. When we worship Jesus in a way that doesn’t change us, surprise us, bother us, or maybe sometimes confuse us, we see people who look like trees walking. When we offer our whole selves, even our pocketbooks, then we begin to see everything clearly. What if we, for our own good, for the church, and for world, looked within ourselves, and offered not until it brought resentment, but until it caused joy, new excitement, and new vision?
What if we chose to give, happily, freely, joyfully, offering our whole selves, our souls and bodies, for our own good, for our parish, and for the life of the world?