I am not preaching today, but if I were, it would likely be something like this.
Today is also Reformation Sunday in the churches of the Lutheran confessions. (And elsewhere, I suppose.) Because I think that to be triumphalist twaddle (yay! we’re dumped the pope! aren’t we just the smartest, cleverest, most bestest people ever!), I’m going to stick with the readings for today in the Revised Common Lectionary.
- Jeremiah 31:7–9
- Psalm 126
- Hebrews 7:23–28
- Mark 10:46–52
46 And they came to Jericho. And as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. 47 And when he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 And many rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 And Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart. Get up; he is calling you.” 50 And throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 And Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” And the blind man said to him, “Rabbi, let me recover my sight.” 52 And Jesus said to him, “Go your way; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46–52 ESV)
I want you all to meet Bethany.
That’s not her real name, of course. I can’t give you her real name — her life is still in danger. And I cannot tell you very much about her except that she’s a young teenager, just barely old enough to start high school.
Her parents … well, I don’t know what happened to them. She told me she was not allowed to say. I do know know she has spent much of her life in foster care, and on the day I met her, she and her brother were in a foster home where the worst you can imagine anyone doing to a child had been done to them.
Regularly and repeatedly.
I’d come to meet Bethany because of an online ministry I started doing earlier this summer, when I discovered an iPhone app called Whisper. It’s mostly used by teenagers and twenty somethings to talk about sex and drugs, but the idea behind Whisper is to speak you deepest, darkest secrets onto the web. Everyone is anonymous. And there is a lot of despair, a lot of loneliness, a lot of hopeless whispered out into the world.
It’s an app I wish I could have had at 15. All I had were the four walls of my room. There was no way for me to tell the whole world I was lonely.
So … I decided to spread a little hope, to be kindness whenever I could. To those wondering if anyone would ever love them, I would respond — yes, wait, hold on, love will find you. Lonely is not all there would ever be in your life. To those who felt they no longer had a reason to live, I would tell them — live anyway. Life will get better.
To those who’d never heard a good word, a tried to be a good word.
Sometimes this would result in conversations, short conversations, usually one-time talks, of encouragement and support. But very occasionally, the talks would last. And we’d take them off Whisper to another place.
And that’s how I met Bethany. A group of kids out west started sharing my phone number and texting me. I had a lot of conversations, and I think — though I cannot be certain — I got something of a reputation as the compassionate adult who actually listens. Because, and let me make this clear, your kids, our kids, are looking for just such adults. They hunger for that, for people who will listen and advise without judging and condemning.
Bethany got my phone number and wrote it down on a gum wrapper. One afternoon, she sent me a message:
“Are you Charles Featherstone? Before you answer, I have to ask you some questions to make sure.”
She’d heard of me. After she was satisfied I was who I said I was, she told me a little about her life — her painful, lonely, difficult life.
“What do you want me to do for you?” I asked her.
I don’t know, she replied. Because she couldn’t ask for the one thing she really wanted — to be rescued. I was far away, across the country, in no position at that point to do much for either my wife or myself, much less a young teenager.
Finally, the situation got so bad she ran away. The night she ran, she texted me from wifi hotspot to wifi hotspot. “I wish you were my dad,” she said.
“I wish I could help you more than I am,” I wrote. “I’m sorry, but I know what it’s like to live knowing help is not going to come.”
“Yeah. Help is not going to come.”
Bethany ended up helping herself, finding a home and sanctuary for herself and her brother. Something no 14 year old should have to do. But she did it. She’s an amazing and extraordinary young woman.
I couldn’t read today’s gospel lesson without thinking of Bethany. Now, I know I’ve just done something I’m not supposed to do, something my preaching professor at seminary — ELCA Bishop Craig Satterlee — told me a preacher should never do. I have put myself in the position of Jesus in this story. Bethany came to me, having heard of me, seeing how my presence in one of her friend’s lives has changed that friend, hoping against hope that I could something for her. Rescue her. Adopt her. Care for her. Love her.
All I have been able to be for her are words on a smartphone screen.
I’m not the hero of this story. I’m a guy who reached out to the world to spread a little kindness and do a little good who suddenly discovered, in waves and torrents, the surging suffering of the world can easily overwhelm. I don’t do much of this online ministry anymore, mostly because I’m already entangled in the lives of half-a-dozen wonderful, lovable, and deeply troubled young people. And that’s about all I can safely handle right now.
I couldn’t save Bethany.
Jesus had crowds. Mobs. Thousands crushing in upon him, looking for healing, wholeness, redemption, rescue, care, and love. He was the Son of God, he healed the multitudes, and yet even with the power of the divine flowing through him, he found it overwhelming.
I love the gospel reading from today. There are so many amazing and wonderful details in this. This is, according to my count, the eighth time Jesus heals someone in the gospel of Mark. (He casts out demons three times as well.) This is the only person Jesus heals who has a name — Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. That’s a big deal. We have a host of lepers and paralytics and men with withered limbs and bleeding women and the deaf. We have Jairus’s dead daughter, who Jesus brings back to life — she kind of has a name, since we could call her Bint Jairus.
But only Bartimaeus has a full and proper name.
Baritmaeus has heard of Jesus (how could he not?!?), knows what he can do, and calls Jesus “Son a David,” a title used by Solomon, a royal title. “Son of David, have mercy upon me!” Bartimaeus cries out. And when the disciples true to silence him, he cries out all the louder.
Later, in Mark’s gospel, Jesus will seemingly refute the title, asking that if David himself acknowledges the anointing one, the Christ, as Lord, how can the Christ be David’s own son?
The disciples, of course, cannot be bothered with the fate of a single blind man, because they’ve got business to attend to, great things to accomplish. They are on the way from Jericho to Jerusalem, to claim the throne and the crown and the kingdom. This blind man, he is simply in their way.
At the time I met Bethany, I’d written a book, was arranging radio interviews, was hoping to get noticed and go on and do great and amazing and wonderful things. To be a famous pastor with lots of followers and lots of buzz and all that went with it. People were going to ask me my opinion and I was going to give it. I was going to be famous and important. This girl, well, she was simply a distraction.
And she didn’t care about may opinion on the great controversies of the day, or my hopes or dreams or aspirations. She just wanted to know — “Do you care enough about me to be here with me and for me? To rescue me, and maybe even care for me?”
In this story, Jesus reminds us — all of us — that no one is in the way. There isn’t anyone who doesn’t matter, who is a distraction or an inconvenience, who prevents us from doing the real business of life. Because in this call to love God and love neighbor, the person in front of you, in need, wanting, hoping, demanding, IS the business of this call. Bethany, and all those like her, ARE the reason Jesus spoke to me in the fire and death of 9/11 and called me to follow.
“Call him” he tells his disciples, who then think it their right to condescend to him. As if simply dismissing him, telling him to go away, was not enough.
Bartimaeus, thankfully, doesn’t listen. Doesn’t take their bait and doesn’t argue. He knows God when he meets God, and he doesn’t really care how God’s people have treated him. He rushes to Jesus with excitement.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks.
Nowhere else does Jesus ask this question. Nowhere else does Jesus ask if someone wants to be made whole, or have their demon cast out, or to be healed. And I suppose Bartimaeus could have answered some other way — make me wealthy, make me ruler of the world. But no, Bartimaeus wants his sight back. He wants to see.
He wants to see.
Jesus heals him. “Go your way. Your faith has made you well.” Your way. Jesus sends him off to live his life. Healed and whole. And what does Bartimaeus do with his newly regained sight? He follows Jesus.
That doesn’t happen anywhere else in Mark either. None of the other people Jesus heals or makes whole, brings to life or casts out their demons, are said to follow Jesus. They are restored to their lives amidst their people, to a place of respect in their communities.
But not Bartimaeus. He goes with Jesus to Jerusalem. We don’t know what happens to him after this, as far as I could tell we have no history or stories about him.
But healed, he follows Jesus.
We know what he follows Jesus into. Jesus enters Jerusalem, the crowds go wild, he does a little teaching,then things go stunningly wrong, he is arrested and convicted and tortured and crucified. He dies. He is buried. And then, and the third day of his death, two of his most important women followers cam to his tomb to discover that Jesus is not there. He has risen, and is going to Galilee to meet Peter and the other disciples.
We don’t know what becomes of Bartimaeus. But we do know what becomes of Jesus. He has risen. He is with us right now. He is in our midst. He is calling us and leading us and guiding us and asking us, “What do you want me to do for you?”
And he is doing it.
We who flee, who follow, who are called, who seek, who ask, who demand, who are swept up, who are simply minding our own business when Jesus walks into our lives. We who meet Jesus directly or only know of him because we’ve heard what others say. All of us, no matter how Jesus meets us or gets to us or finds us. Son of Man and Son of God, we are in him, he is in us, and he is all that matters.
7 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,
‘O Lord, save your people,
the remnant of Israel. ’
8 Behold, I will bring them from the north country
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
the pregnant woman and she who is in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with pleas for mercy I will lead them back,
I will make them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble,
for I am a father to Israel,
and Ephraim is my firstborn.
(Jeremiah 31:7-9 ESV)