October 28, 2018

Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22
Mark 10:46-52

“To See or to Be Seen”

Sometimes when I’m reading the Gospel of Mark I start to get discouraged. I know. Reading the Gospel should not be a let-down. But when we’re making our way through Year B of the lectionary, and we get all these stories from Mark’s account of Jesus’ ministry, I sometimes start to wonder if we Christians will ever get it together and live as Jesus intends us to live.

You see, the disciples in Mark’s Gospel stories are rather slow to understand his message, and they keep making silly mistakes.

They argue about which one of them is the greatest.

They get scared when Jesus does miracles like walking on water.

They struggle to cast out an evil spirit, and don’t even think about saying a prayer.

They get upset when Jesus talks about being arrested and killed because they think he’s got to take over leadership by force.

And in last week’s text, they presumptuously demand special seats next to Jesus in the Kingdom of God.

We read these stories about the slow and stupid disciples in Bible study, and we talk about how so often we are just like them.

We also struggle in life, but forget to pray.

We also look for recognition and honour instead of just humbly serving.

We also begin to doubt the wisdom of the Way of God when we see hatred and evil winning out in our world today.

The story of Job that we’ve also been hearing the last few Sundays reminds us that life is not always easy, and life is not always easy to understand.

Job starts off with a great life – a lovely family, good health, honest work, a home and possessions. And then he loses it all.

In the mythic story of Job, it is Satan that arranges for the tragedies that strike him. They are tests to see if Job will remain faithful as a good and upright person, or if he will curse God instead.

As the story of Job unfolds, he struggles to understand what has happened to him. What has he done to deserve this? What could he have done to avoid it? And what does it say about God, and fairness, and the meaning of life itself?

And we ask questions like that too, don’t we? We wonder about why bad things happen to good people. We struggle when we witness natural disasters, terrible accidents, and heinous acts of terrorism, violence or oppression.

A friend of mine posted this on her Facebook page yesterday:

“This morning, my daughter and I snuggled on the couch and watched an episode of Mr. Rogers. He sang about being neighbours, and I admired how very genuine and real he is in his shows. I was also thinking about the fact that here I was, living in the exact neighbourhood where Mr. Rogers himself lived, Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh.

“At the same time, a shooter came to our neighbourhood and opened fire on people who were worshiping G-d, because they were Jewish. I can’t for the life of me think of any way to hold those two things together.”

Eleven people were killed in the shooting yesterday, just one of several horrific incidents this week that might cause us to question God.

But rather than giving up on God, or asking God to come in and smite our enemies, we are called by our Scripture texts today to trust God, and praise God, and wait patiently for God’s help. God may not act when or how we expect, but God will act, we are assured. God will help.

I wonder if people in the Jewish community of Pittsburgh and elsewhere are turning to psalms like the one we read this morning to give them the strength to go on today.

The psalmist writes:
“I will bless the Lord at all times;
God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth…

I sought the Lord, and he answered me,
and delivered me from all my fears…

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord,
and was saved from every trouble.
The angel of the Lord encamps
around those who fear him, and delivers them.
O taste and see that the Lord is good;
happy are those who take refuge in God.

As I mentioned at the beginning, the disciples in Mark’s Gospel provide us with a negative example. They show us what it looks like to be impatient, and selfish, and wrong-headed. But today we also receive two positive examples as well. We hear about two ideal disciples that we can look to, and learn from, and follow.

Of course, there’s Job who endures great suffering and remains faithful. Yes, he struggles. Yes, he questions. Terrible things happen to him and it doesn’t make sense!

But in the end he acknowledges to God that he is just a human being who does not understand everything. He places his trust in God and humbles himself before God’s wisdom. And finally, everything good in his life is restored. He is abundantly blessed, and lives a long and good life.

And in our Gospel story today, we meet Blind Bartimaeus, another ideal disciple whose example we could follow. Perhaps much like Job, Bartimaeus’ life has been a struggle lately. He has lost his sight, and his only way to sustain himself is to sit by the roadside and beg for help from the people going by.

He is fortunate today, in that one of those passersby is going to be Jesus, the Anointed One of God. And Bartimaeus jumps at the opportunity to ask for help from someone who may have some power to do so.

Bartimaeus persists. Even though the people in the crowd tell him to be quiet, he cries out even more loudly, asking Jesus to have mercy on him.

And when Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him, Bart leaps up, throws off his beggar’s cloak, and asks for what he truly needs – to be able to see again.

It’s interesting to notice that the primary theme of this central section of Mark’s Gospel is what it means to “see,” to understand, and to follow Jesus, the Messiah who comes not on a warhorse but as a suffering servant. Three times Jesus explains this, and three times the disciples fail to see.

And now, in this week’s story, to culminate this section, Mark presents Bartimaeus as the ideal disciple: though he is blind, he exceeds the disciples in insight; though he is a poor beggar, he exceeds the rich man in leaving behind his possessions; and though the cross is just around the corner, he does not “Go,” as Jesus tells him to do, but rather follows Jesus “on the Way.”

For Mark, Bartimaeus is nothing less than the model disciple – bold, discerning, humble, and direct. Although Bartimaeus is an “outsider,” he outshines the “insiders” in Jesus’ entourage. And as Mark tells us, he is “the last” disciple to join the fold – and as we heard Jesus say just a few verses ago, “the last will be first…”

A few days ago, before this sermon was actually written, I took the leap of giving it a title (when it was time to print the bulletin on Thursday). I called it “To See or To Be Seen.”

I was thinking about the difference between the failing disciples that get off-track on the journey, and the faithful disciples that we meet in Job and Bartimaeus. And I think that the difference comes down to what these disciples are praying for, to what they answer when Jesus asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Peter and James and John want honour and power and good seats in the Kingdom. They want to BE SEEN by others, and be acknowledged as friends of the Anointed One. In contrast, Bartimaeus just wants TO SEE. Job just wants TO UNDERSTAND.

And I wonder… can we let that prayer become our deepest desire as well?

Rather than praying for great jobs, beautiful families, big homes, many possessions, or even safety and good health…

Rather than praying for growing churches, power and influence in society, or even successful missions and ministries…

Can we pray with all our hearts for the ability TO SEE and TO UNDERSTAND?

To see God in Creation and become stewards of its gifts,
To see God in our neighbours and become agents of love and care for them,
To see God in the least and the lost and the lonely and the outsider, so that we can learn and be led by their example.

Can we sincerely ask God for the ability TO SEE and understand God and God’s will for us?

Can we pray for the courage to throw off our cloaks (or whatever is providing us with some measure of safety and security) and to follow Jesus on his Way?

On this day of remembering the 16th Century Reformation of the Church, we do well to remember that we are a church that is not only Reformed, but continually BEING Reformed according to God’s Word.

In other words, we are not there yet. We are not able to stand up before the world and say, “Look at us! We understand God and we know how to live. And we are good and righteous and just!”

But as Reforming churches, we must be saying, “We want to learn. We want to grow. We want to see and understand more every day, and we want to follow Jesus on the Way.”

Perhaps Job and Bartimaeus can be our inspiration today, as we learn to pray not to be seen, but to see.