28/10/18 Last after Trinity
(Jeremiah 31.7-9) Hebrews 7.23-28 Mark 10.46-52
It’s good to see you all here this morning. It is very wonderful that you have come. These days we often lament the decline in church attendance in this country, but I might rather be amazed at your faith. No-one compels you to come. You are under no contractual obligation. One Sunday I may wait here, only to find you had all woken up to discover that you no longer believed. After all, there are many reasons why you may not believe.
There were many reasons why Bartimaeus might have had no faith. Up to this point in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus has constantly encountered stubborn unbelief, and minds dulled to the glory before them, and a complete failure to get the point of the good news. Like James and John, two of the closest people to Jesus. Just before this story, in last Sunday’s reading, they were angling for the best seats in the kingdom.
Bartimaeus is surrounded by people who don’t believe in Jesus. And he is despised by them. They see him as a blind beggar who is owed nothing. When he calls out from the gutter, they tell him to shut up. You may therefore expect him to be hardened and cynical towards the long line of preachers and healers whom Jericho sees come and go.
Instead, Mark places this man at the central, crucial point in his Gospel, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. As we read on, we will have the way of Jesus revealed to us, the way of the cross. And Bartimaeus is upheld as an example of conversion to Christ, a model of faith, a pattern for what it is to have our eyes opened, to follow Jesus and to become a disciple on the road with him.
Bartimaeus knows his need. He knows he has no claim on Jesus. He can only ask for mercy. He doesn’t yet fully understand the significance of who Jesus is, but he does call him the Son of David. That’s more than almost anyone else has done so far. When he’s told to be quiet, he only shouts louder. And as he hears of Jesus’ call to him, he springs up and casts off his begging cloak. It’s like a resurrection, like a baptism, as the old dying Bartimaeus is thrown aside and a new lively Bartimaeus rises up.
Then Jesus asks him the best of questions. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’
Ruth Gledhill was religious correspondent for The Times for many years and she tells the story from 2002, after George Carey retired, of the speculation about who may be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. She phoned round all the likely candidates and was blocked everywhere by secretaries or junior clergy. Everywhere except one bishop’s house, where a voice answered, ‘Rowan Williams here, how can I help you?’
That’s a gift to any journalist. And the question was certainly a gift to Bartimaeus. It’s a gift to us, if we can believe that Jesus asks us the same, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ ‘How can I help you?’
What would you say in response? Bartimaeus is our example here as well. We may say he points to a very obvious need on his part. ‘Rabbi, I want to see’. But Mark is clearly wanting us to think of more than physical sight. And the action of Bartimaeus shows that he received a gift that allowed him to follow Jesus ‘along the road’. Or ‘in the way’. He is given the gift of living ‘in the way of Jesus’. He had faith enough to call out, and he’s given more faith in return, faith enough to follow.
Such faith doesn’t come naturally to us, and as I hinted at the beginning, we may be surprised at what faith we have, and aware of all the reasons not to believe.
Last Monday we went to see the play Breaking the Code, performed brilliantly by the Nantwich Players. It tells the story of Alan Turing, an outstanding mathematician and a convinced atheist. Yet part way through he had a line which went something like this: ‘No matter how many questions of science we answer, we still don’t know what it means to live and die as a human being’.
It’s comes with being human that our very existence is a mystery, and the prospect of our death only adds to that. We are born restless, not really at home in our own skin, not naturally knowing our place in the world.
That’s a way of speaking of what has traditionally been called sin, or our alienation from God. Faith is the bridge to bring us home, but it’s a narrow way to find.
Science solves many of our practical problems in this world, but for many it still makes faith only harder. First thing yesterday morning there was a brilliantly starry sky, with Orion, which Turing sketched in the play, shining in the south. We look up and we know we occupy just the tiniest fraction of all the largely empty space in the universe, and that can make us feel even further away from knowing our significance.
We live with disappointment and a sense that we are meant to be better than this, as we take a hard look at the selfishness through history and in our society, and if we’re honest, in ourselves. Many live at the receiving end of it, and live with the shame and deep hurt that it can produce.
As humans we’re asked to cope with the hostility of a world where disease and sickness can strike in what feels like the cruellest of ways.
With all that, faith is difficult for many, and sometimes only made harder when the guardians of faith are shown themselves to be failing institutions, where power has been cynically used to exploit others.
The Church can itself be unfaithful, and our corner of it has been in disgrace just this week in the national press. A vicar from Chester Diocese, a charming and effective priest whom I have met a few times, has been barred from ministry for life following a tribunal which upheld the complaint that he had abused a vulnerable teenage girl.
Don’t ever regard safeguarding procedures as a tiresome formality. They are an expression of our faith. Faith that there is a real worth to humanity. Because, in spite of all that might tell us otherwise, in spite of all that might push us towards despair, most people, including those who don’t have any traditional religious practice, still try to live as though there is a real value to life. To live as though the love and truth and beauty we value can’t just be reduced to meaningless chemical equations.
Look at the widespread public appreciation of the poppy cross on the churchyard and the silhouettes in this church, and in the coming weeks, the attendance at the tree of light and at the Remembrance events. People haven’t given up on ritual and symbolism as a way of expressing what we value most.
To express the longing ‘I want to see’ is the most basic human instinct. As we’ve noticed, there’s so much that may suggest it’s a hopeless quest, and we’ve not even thought about all the attractions and distractions which can smother the quest or dull the niggling urge.
So I thank God you’re here, and that I’m here. We have enough faith to want to pray.
And Jesus is asking you to pray. He is saying ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ It would be so easy for us to give him a list of problems to solve. How would that work though if we can’t properly see which are the real problems and which are not?
Let’s make our first prayer like that of Bartimaeus, ‘Lord, I want to see’. And what did Bartimaeus see? He saw Jesus, and he saw what Jesus was seeing. He saw the need of the world. As love had looked on him, so he now could look with love.