(a sermon for October 18, 2020, the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 10:46-52)
The grade was a C minus! And honestly, that was charitable; the only reason it wasn’t a D or worse was that the professor had given me partial credit for a couple of lame answers I’d desperately scribbled on the exam at the last minute! So it could well have been worse, but since this particular exam counted for 40 percent of my grade, I was feeling like I was sinking fast! Looking back on it now, I know it was just one test amongst many, but back then as a college freshman the whole thing sent me into a major panic.
So with both heart and exam in hand I dragged myself to the professor’s office to ask for help. Understand, this was not something I wanted to do; this teacher had intimidated me from day one, and I knew he was going to lay into me about my shoddy work, if not berate me for having the gall to take his class in the first place! Even as I knocked on his office door, I was convinced that this meeting could not possibly end well!
But as it turned out, the professor couldn’t have been nicer: warmly inviting me sit down and have a cup of coffee while he took a second look at my exam. There were a couple of agonizing minutes as he went over my work: “Mmm hmm… OK… mmm hmm… Ohhhh… Uh-oh…” but when it was all over, he looked up with a smile and said, “Actually, you’re not too far off here; you’re just going about this the wrong way. I think we can get your grade up.” And to this, all I could say, in a voice that expressed a combination of fear, relief and utter amazement, was, “No way.” To which he replied, “Oh, sure. The only people who end up doing poorly in my class are the one who won’t come and ask for help.”
I ended up getting a B in that class – not too bad, considering – but I realize now this wasn’t because I was such a stellar student; mostly it was because I’d set aside my fear and my pride to ask for help. It turned out to be a good lesson for what was to come in my college and seminary career; I’ve also come to realize over the years that it’s a pretty good life lesson as well!
The fact is that we all have times when we have to ask for help; moments of challenge and struggle in which if we are in any way to move forward, we need to turn to someone else – a family member, a friend or neighbor, maybe even a stranger – for our aid. And if we’re being honest about it, that’s not always an easy thing to do; in fact, most of us have a laundry list of excuses for not asking for help: we don’t wish to be a bother or a burden; we don’t want to come off as appearing needy; we don’t want to be “beholden” to others; or maybe we’re like the stereotypical male who, on principle, refuses to ask for directions under any circumstance (which, as I and just every other man can tell you, is because we’re men and we don’t need no stinkin’ directions!). But whatever it is, what it all amounts to is simply not wanting to ever admit we actually need help!
Bottom line; is all too often for us, this very basic human act of reaching out to others for help turns out to be just about one of the hardest things we ever have to do; and if that’s true on a personal level, on a spiritual level it can seem almost impossible! Yes, again if we’re being honest, for many of us even asking for help from God seems to go against the grain of our independent, pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps, self-sufficient sensibilities; even in those horrible moments of life when it’s clear that all we have left is to cry out to God!
And why is that? Why is it so difficult for us to ask for help, particularly from God? Well, for one thing, it’s humiliating; at least in the sense that it requires from us some humility. In other words, it’s humbling to acknowledge our need, and in the process, our utter weakness. It’s hard for us to confess that no, we can’t do it all for ourselves, and then to put ourselves and our own brokenness out there on display in order to get the help we need. To put this still another way, asking for help requires from us a change of heart; but the good news is that if we’ll just let that happen, not only do we get what we need, but we end up with much more than we were ever expecting.
It’s a change of heart that leads to a change of life…
…and if you want another word for that, it’s FAITH.
Now, I know this runs headlong into this notion that so many of us cling to that faith means our having everything together and living with absolute certainty about… everything. But that’s really not faith at all: I actually love what the Rev. Susan Andrews says about this: “This is what faith looks like,” she writes. “Faith is needy. Faith is eager. Faith is assertive. Faith is hopeful. Faith is impetuous and persistent and risky and raw. Faith is personal and relational. Faith ends something and faith begins something. Faith is about God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves, and [in the end] faith is about us out of dumbstruck gratitude doing for God what only we can do.”
We have a supreme example of all this in Mark’s story of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar crying out for all he’s worth for Jesus to help him. Now here was a man who’d not only lived most of his life in darkness, but also in poverty and outside the periphery of society, having long since been reduced to begging to passersby for any loose coins and leftover food in order to survive. So Bartimaeus had a need that was raw and profound and immediate, and frankly, most people in his situation would have given up long ago on ever having that need answered.
But not Bartimaeus; he’s not at all afraid to ask for what he needs! In fact, he’s persistent about it to the point of becoming a bit obnoxious (!): we’re told in Mark that even though “many sternly ordered him to be quiet,” Bartimaeus wasn’t about to be quiet; when they shush him, he just shouts for Jesus all the more loudly, until finally, this heart of crazy bold eagerness gets a response and Jesus does answer.
And did you notice – that after they call Bartimaeus, and he throws off his cloak, fairly well leaping to where Jesus is – how Jesus answers? It’s “what do you want me to do for you?” What is it that you need? “My teacher, let me see again,” says Bartimaeus, and to this Jesus says simply, “Go; your faith has made you well.” And immediately, because he had the faith to ask, Bartimaeus gets the help, the healing that he needs. To quote Andrews once again, there’s nothing “proper or pious or proud” about this, just “uppity, persistent, honest need, and,” listen to this: “in offering that need assertively and eagerly to Jesus, Bartimaeus finds purpose. He finds faith. He finds new life.”
Isn’t it interesting how often in the gospels, when someone asks for, and receives what they need from Jesus, their first response is to follow Jesus; it’s the changed heart that leads to a changed life! And that does make sense; after all, just as I wouldn’t have gotten a B in that class had I not made use of the help I’d gotten from the teacher, Bartimaeus regaining his sight would ultimately have meant very little if he’d continued living in a way that was disconnected to the world and to God! For Bartimaeus, his new sight led to change in his vision for living. And that’s the thing, you see; you not only gave to have the faith to ask, you also have to have the faith to follow.
I remember a piece I read several years back about a group of young people who, though they’d been essentially blind since their birth, underwent an advanced type of laser eye surgery and were enabled to see for the first time in their lives! Think about that for a moment; what it must have been like for them to actually see a flower, or a sunset, the fall foliage or the people they loved for the very first time?
But in fact, for many of them, it was literally an overwhelming experience. One young woman said she was so stunned by the incredible beauty of it all that all she could do in response was to immediately shut her eyes and refuse to open them again for two weeks. Others spoke of how difficult it was for them to get around: before, they’d been able to maneuver in the dark, but now in the light, they’d bang into furniture, and reach out for things, only to misjudge where they were and knock them to the floor! Another even felt like he was going mad, so much there was for him to absorb! Turned out that for a lot of them, it was much easier to remain in the darkness than to face having vision, because having vision meant a life so radically different than before.
There’s a parable there for us, I think; and it’s that if you’re going to ask for sight, then you had best prepare for a change in your vision. Because if you have the faith to ask God will give you what you need, but getting what you need will often lead you down a different pathway than the one you were on before, and you’ll need the faith to follow. The story of Bartimaeus is a reminder to us that where Jesus is concerned, the miracle is just the beginning; and what follows is most certainly the glory of the journey ahead!
Beloved, let me share with you this morning a truth of faith that I’m learning and relearning every day of my life, most especially over the past six months or so: that the good news of the gospel is that there is no situation in life and living so bad, so convoluted and without hope that we cannot go to God in Jesus Christ, ask for help, and not receive the help that we need. Now, understand that how we’re answered and what we receive might not always be in the manner that we expect; but make no mistake, what we are given will be healing and transformative and life-changing. This is what new, abundant life is all about, and it is what we’re promised: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you…” (Matthew 7:7) that we might get the help we need and be set free; free to follow him where he leads.
Even now, his voice is asking: “What do you want me to do for you?” How can I help you? What help do you need?
His help is there before us, and beloved, we must never be afraid to ask for it. What that professor wisely said to me so many years ago, offers equal wisdom to you and me as we walk through this journey of life and faith… that ultimately, the ones who do poorly are the ones who won’t ask for help.
May we have the the faith to ask and the faith to follow, dear friends; and may our thanks be unto God.
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2020 Rev. Michael W. Lowry. All Rights Reserved.