Monday, March 10, 2008

The Vision Thing

Mark 10:46-52

‘Watch where you’re going!’ is a familiar phrase to parents, to drivers, and to anyone else who has to negotiate this busy city. ‘Watch where you’re going’ is what we say to our kids, to people on the Tube or sidewalks or anywhere else we try to squeeze too many bodies into too little space. It’s a phrase we use for people who are moving but not paying attention to where they’re going.

Last week I read that in Brick Lane, one of the narrowest busy streets in London, thousands of people each year are injured by walking into lampposts while texting. Apparently the situation is so serious that the local government was asked to come up with a solution, so here’s what they decided to do.

They put pads on the lampposts.

Really. The solution to this problem of inattention—of people not watching where they’re going—wasn’t to remind them to pay attention, or to let them whack their heads until they learned, or even to tax them for each attention-deficit-impact. They decided to cushion the obstacles so that people wouldn’t have to change their behavior at all.

46Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city, a blind man, Bartimaeus (that is, the Son of Timaeus), was sitting by the roadside begging. 47When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
48Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
49Jesus stopped and said, "Call him." So they called to the blind man, "Cheer up! On your feet! He's calling you." 50Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
51"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him.
The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see."
52"Go," said Jesus, "your faith has healed you." Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus along the road.

So Mark is continuing his rapid fire story of Jesus’ ministry—Jesus is going places, constantly, moving from town to town as he taught and healed and announced the message of the Kingdom of God. Our story today wraps up a transitional section just before Jesus enters Jerusalem. He’s been preparing his disciples for his death, and typically they haven’t done a very good job of understanding what it means to be a disciple. Just before our story, James and John sparked a full-scale argument among the Twelve over who would get to sit next to Jesus in heaven. Think about that. And yes, you’re right, that’s just about the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard.

Jesus' response was to remind them being great in the values of the Kingdom meant being, well, small. The way of the slave was the way of greatness in the Kingdom, and just to make his point, Jesus told them that even he came not to be served but to serve and to be a ransom for many.

In our story Jesus is moving in and out of Jericho with his disciples and the crowds. Bartimaeus would have been a familiar sight back then—blind, poor, begging by the side of a busy road. He was truly helpless and vulnerable—I looked up services for the blind just here in the Greater London area, and found more than I could count. But there was nothing for Bartimaeus back then—the only way he could survive was to beg, and so that’s where we find him in our text.

Bartimaeus uses some important code language in our text. He calls Jesus the ‘Son of David’, showing that he believed Jesus to be the promised Messiah. He says ‘Have mercy on me’, which was a line lifted right out of the Psalms, and he calls Jesus ‘Rabboni’ instead of simply ‘Rabbi’. It was the difference between calling him ‘teacher’ and calling him ‘Lord and master’.

The crowd in our story plays a part here as well. They must have thought they were pretty important—led by the disciples who were still quibbling about who got to sit next to Jesus, they were on their way to take over Jerusalem, they thought, and they didn’t have time for any beggars—for any people in need. Even after Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come, the crowd taunts him and basically dares him to go and meet Jesus.

But still, Bartimaeus isn’t going to be denied his chance to meet Jesus. And when he comes face-to-face with the one who he believes to be the Messiah, he makes a simple request: ‘Master’, he said, ‘I want to see.’

Now this may sound strange, but Bartimaeus has a few things in common with Indiana Jones. Jones is the hero of a series of movies where a dashing archaeologist (there’s a combination of words you don’t hear very often)—an archaeologist goes off in search of various artifacts and treasures. Now I realize this is an unlikely comparison—Indiana Jones is strong while Bartimaeus is the very essence of weakness and vulnerability. Jones is an action hero, while the man in our story is sitting by the side of the road.

But there are some similarities that matter for us today. In the third film Jones is looking for the Holy Grail, the cup that Jesus used at the Last Supper, because it was supposed to have healing powers. Like most people on a quest, he was devoted to finding what he was looking for. He also had a book of clues to guide him along the way. Finally, in order to find what he was looking for he had to make a leap of faith—at one point he comes to a steep cliff and has to step out in faith to make a bridge appear.

Bartimaeus—blind or not—had spent his life looking for the Messiah. The Hebrew scriptures, with their prophecies and promises, acted as his book of clues. And in the end, in order to meet the one he’d been waiting for, he had to stand up and push his way through an angry crowd he couldn’t see—a true leap of faith.

The key point in our text is found in the two phrases that act as bookends here. First we see Bartimaeus ‘sitting by the side of the way’, and at the end he joins Jesus ‘on the way.’ What made the difference?

The difference was vision, both literally and in a deeper, more important sense.

Being able and willing to see Jesus and his call on our lives is a turning point for each one of us. Seeing who Christ is and where we’re going because of that is one of the most important things we can do—the most important gift we can receive.

That’s where Brick Lane has it backwards. Putting cushions on lampposts doesn’t help anyone do a better job of seeing where they’re going. It just masks the problem without offering anything in the way of a solution. The life of discipleship is about seeing: about seeing who we serve, and about seeing where we’re going because of him.

So what does this mean for us?

For individuals and for churches, true vision—focusing on Christ and on the calling he puts on our lives—true vision is the engine of faithful discipleship. That’s the meaning of Jesus in this passage. It was more than just a physical healing, which was great just by itself, especially for Bartimaeus. But it was more than that. It was about seeing Jesus for who he really is, and being willing to let that change the way we live: the way we treat people, the way we spend our money, the way we pray, and the way we give our time. Faithful discipleship is driven by clear vision—that’s the point of this message today.

How do we get that vision, or improve our sense of vision both as individuals and as a community of faith?

First, there’s no getting around the value of study and reflection here. Spending time reading, studying, and talking about the Bible is an important part of growing into spiritual maturity. Learning to see Christ in the Scriptures, in each other, and working in our lives is how we grow as disciples. At this church we have been wrestling with important questions about how our faith interacts with other religion in our adult Sunday School class every morning at 9:45. This Thursday we’ll complete a four-week study of what the Bible has to say about social justice. There are some great resources available on the church’s website to help in the process of deepening our knowledge and our experience of the Christian faith.

Second, after the service today we’re going to elect a new group of Council members. The Council here is tasked with working with me to develop and implement a vision for ministry at this church. It’s a very challenging and important job, because it provides the administrative foundation for the work we do together in this place. The outgoing Council members deserve an enormous debt of gratitude from all of us for managing this church during several years of transition, and the new Council members coming in will build on that to set the course for what the American Church can be going forward.

Finally, as we all enter into this adventure of developing a sense of vision for our individual lives and as a community of faith, I believe that we find that most clearly and deeply through service. We get a sense of who Christ is when we act as his Body in small ways and large ways. This church is the Body of Christ for this time and place, and we experience that through learning new ways to serve each other and this community.

Just to close: As we develop our ability to see the world and our place in it through Christ’s eyes, some things become clear.

First, a new sense of focus on Christ will change some things. Having a new vision without letting it change how we plan and what we do wouldn’t be worth the effort. I’m looking forward to seeing how a new sense of focus on Christ will set a new direction for us as individuals and as a church.

Second, it’ll be important to remember that in the real world there aren’t any pads on the lampposts—you have to watch where you’re going. We’re going to step out in faith and try some new things over the coming year, but they’re not all going to work. Sometimes we’ll bump into things, but the answer to that is not to strap little pillows to things so we can avoid any pain. The answer is to learn from our mistakes and move on with faith and wisdom and do it better the next time.

Finally, as we continue the process of trying to be Christ’s church, with Christ’s vision for what that can be, we can always fall back on Micah 6:8 if we’re at a loss for what to do. People came to Micah and asked him what they should be doing to demonstrate their faith and sense of vision, and he gave them three things to focus on: the do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.

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