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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Trusting and Shouting: A Sermon

Trusting and Shouting
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee

October 25th, 2009
Reformation Sunday

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Mark 10:46-52

Be quiet!

Shut up!

No one wants to hear you!

You are disturbing our peace!

Go back in the closet!

You are the reason the church is losing members!

You are embarrassing us!

Just be patient, and be quiet while you’re patient!

But Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly,

‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’


We don’t use the word mercy that much anymore. It is one of those words that sounds like a Bible word. It sounds like a church word or a religious word. A more modern sounding word that means the same thing is compassion.

You can imagine Bartimaeus shouting:

“Son of David, how about little compassion here!”

Or,

“Son of David! What do you say? Have a heart!”

Or even,

“Son of David! A little help, huh?”

Or simply,

“Son of David! I need justice!”

Whether we say mercy, compassion, heart, help, justice or something else, it is what we are about as human beings. We even project all of these characteristics on the symbol “God,” because these virtues are that important.

The measure of the human life is to have a heart.

We are always in danger of losing our heart, as individuals or as a society.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us:

A society, any society, will be judged not by
the net worth of its wealthiest citizens,
the height of its skyscrapers,
the choices in its supermarkets,
or the size of its military,
but by how it treats its most vulnerable citizens.

It will be judged--we will be judged--by those who follow us as to whether or not we had a heart.

When we are danger of losing our heart, we lose our humanity. When we look through human history in those times that were the darkest and in those regimes that were the most oppressive, we find that they shared a common characteristic. They lacked heart. They lacked compassion, justice, and mercy.

We lose our heart when we replace it with some kind of ideology or economy or political theory or just plain greed and indifference. We are in danger of losing our heart today.

This story about Jesus in the gospel of Mark is about heart. It is the last healing miracle by Jesus. Following this story, Mark moves into Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem. This story can be seen as a judgment on a society that has lost its heart.

On the side of the road is a vulnerable person. Blind and without resources. So he begs. He hears Jesus coming and he calls out to him. The people order him to be quiet.

“Sternly” is the word in English. It was used just a few verses earlier when people brought children to him and his disciples spoke “sternly” to them. Jesus rebuked the disciples and said bring the children to me.

We shouldn’t get romantic about children here. This isn’t a gathering for the children’s sermon. The word for child is the same for slave. The sense of Jesus blessing the children is Jesus blessing the vulnerable. To be “like a child” is to be vulnerable, without resources.

We meet a society that wants to keep the vulnerable hidden. Quiet and out of the way. Then we can say, “Nothing wrong here. We are the greatest nation in the world.” Not only do we keep the vulnerable unseen and quiet, we keep our own vulnerability hidden. “Nothing wrong with me. I am just fine.”

That is what we find throughout the Gospel of Mark. Jesus gathers and blesses the vulnerable. Again and again. Those with nothing, those on the margins, and those who are willing to be with those on the margins, are those who follow Jesus.

But unlike those who sternly tell Bartimaeus to be quiet, Jesus calls him. He asks Bartimaeus what he wants. He says he wants to see again. Jesus says to him: “Your trust has made you well.” He immediately regains his sight and “he followed him on the way.”

This is a happy story, isn’t it? Bartimaeus is a happy guy. He doesn’t have anything. No possessions. He is happy. He is “well” which is another word for saved or whole.

A couple of weeks ago we talked about the story of the guy who had lots of possessions. By the way, that guy doesn’t have a name. The Gospels do that. The rich guy whose name everyone would know doesn’t get a name in the Gospel account. The guy who normally would be nameless, the blind beggar on the side of the road, has a name, in this case, Bartimaeus.

It is a subtle way the gospels communicate importance and value. Who is first in Jesus’ upside down kingdom? Each of the gospels, each in its own way, is about criticizing the values of Empire and turning upside down and inside out that what we think is important.

The rich guy comes to Jesus and wants to know how to be happy, fulfilled, whatever. Jesus tells him to unload the stuff and follow him. He cannot do that. He leaves sad because he has too much stuff.

He is sad and has stuff. Bartimaeus has nothing and he is happy. The rich guy cannot follow. Bartimaeus does follow. Sad rich guy. Happy poor guy. I don’t know what the lesson is. That is just what the story says.

I think the story says more. It isn’t simply a critique of class. It isn’t about wealth and poverty as much as what wealth and poverty mean. It is about honor and shame.

This is how the story can touch us.

Bartimaeus lives in darkness. If anything symbolizes the via negativa it is a blind man sitting alone outside the gates of the city, begging, in the dark. To make matters worse, he wasn’t blind from birth. He once had sight. He lost it. Now he is vulnerable. He is broken. He knows shame.

In Matthew Fox’s latest book, The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for the Sacred Masculine, he writes a lot about shame. At one point he does an interview with psychiatrist John Conger. This is what John Conger writes about shame:
When I teach my introductory class and tell my students they might risk themselves, I tell them that there is no growth without shame. Shame is about self-awareness, so you grow and look back at yourself and say, “O my God, I did that!” and you feel ashamed. Shame has this double edge—it can attack and destroy the self. You feel so horrible about yourself that you feel you are going crazy; it can destroy your sense of self if your sense of self is weak….it is part of growth to find out how to manage your shame….and not hide it or disclaim it….Jesus represents the embodiment of shame into the human spirit. It’s like God is made present in shame….Jesus gives shame a good name, and it makes it part of one’s brokenness rather than one’s honor, and this leads to one’s development.” Pp. 100-1
Shame is a key to reading this story.

First we have the rich man who cannot give up his possessions, his ego. He cannot risk the vulnerability. He will not let loose of the protection that he has built around himself to keep down the shame. He has done everything right. He is a good citizen. Why does he bother coming to Jesus in the first place? Obviously something is missing. He knows he wants to grow.

How do I grow is what he is asking Jesus. Jesus tells him to become vulnerable. Be vulnerable. Go through it. Enter it. Grieve. Weep. Face the loss. Face what it means to be human. Embrace your pain. Don’t bury it under the trappings of success. The human being underneath all the stuff is loved. You need to love that person.

But he cannot.

The promise of Jesus is that there is life after brokenness. You can find your soul. There is crucifixion then resurrection. Through the brokenness, you can find yourself. You can grow through the shame. In fact, you cannot grow without shame. You cannot grow without the via negativa.

Second we have Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus has faced the darkness. He is in it. But he is not through it. How does he get through it? He does the very thing that makes us cringe. He brings further shame on himself by calling attention to himself.

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

Everyone tells him,

“Be quiet! You are embarrassing yourself! You’re shaming yourself. You are shaming us! Hide your shame! Don’t display it! Suffer in silence, like you are supposed to. Have you no pride?”

That is a funny phrase isn’t it? Have you no pride? Pride in an honor/shame society means to suffer in silence as if that is a virtue. That is what society has been telling him. That is what it means to live in an honor/shame society. You are ashamed and you are ashamed of being ashamed. You are quiet about it. You stay hidden so you don’t shame the rest of the world who is supposedly better than you.

What does beautiful Bartimaeus do?

“But he cried out even more loudly.”

He calls further attention to himself. He lets go of the last thing he has left, any sense of pride, as pride has been defined in a honor/shame system. He has learned in his darkness that he is not interested in suffering in silence any longer. He is vulnerable and he calls attention to his own vulnerability.

As such Bartimaeus is our hero, because he calls attention to the vulnerability of society itself. He calls to question all of our values, our honor our shame.

He comes out of his closet, so to speak, and risks all the ridicule and all the uncertainty, and says, no he shouts:

“How about a little compassion, here? How about a little justice, here?”

Jesus praises it. Jesus praises breaking the silence. He asks him what he wants and Bartimaeus says he wants to see again. And Jesus says,

“Your faith/your trust has made you well.”

The story on a symbolic level has to do with Bartimaeus healing himself, getting insight, sight from blindness. The way of letting go, the via negativa is not about nursing our pain or wallowing in our pain, or ignoring our pain. It is about embracing it so we get through it.

Then Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way.

The story of Mark’s Gospel and particularly the story of Bartimaeus, as seen through the way of letting go, is the story of being able to sit in the darkness, to grieve, to know the emptiness, to embrace our own shame, to befriend our vulnerability, and then to name it, to call it out. To shout it out.

Bartimaeus is our hero. He represents the courage and the love of self that is so powerful that it trusts and hopes enough to shout.
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