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The Faith to Ask

(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.

 
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Posted by on October 18, 2020 in Faith, Jesus, Life, Sermon

 

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Encounters on the Way: Bartimaeus and the Rich Young Ruler

“Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hoffmann

(a sermon for March 8, 2020, the 2nd Sunday in Lent; second in a series, based on Mark 10:17-22, 46-52)

Here’s a question for you to ponder this morning:   What would you do if failure didn’t matter?

And by that, I mean, what is it you would be willing to do even if you knew going in that in doing so you were likely not to succeed?  And I’m not talking here about something that holds little or no consequence so it doesn’t matter whether you do the thing or not; what I’m asking about is doing that which is of so great a consequence that ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you succeed or not, just that you do it!

I’m thinking, for instance, of Nik Wallenda, the man who walked on tightrope across the opening of an active volcano on live television this past week: did he accept that challenge thinking that it didn’t matter if he failed at keeping his balance and walking the whole way across that hot flowing lava, just that he made the attempt? (Apparently it did matter, because it came out the next day that though he did make it across the top of the volcano, Wallenda had been rigged up with all manner of safety harnesses, so the only real risk was that of embarrassment; but I digress!) Or, for that matter, what about those men or women who decide to go for the great romantic gesture and opt to propose marriage to their partners at a football game while everyone is watching on the jumbotron; I mean, aren’t they the least bit terrified that he or she will say “no?”  Nope, they’ll tell you, for them true love is worth the risk of rejection; the possibility of failure simply didn’t enter into their decision, so… it’s “go big or go home!”

I ask you again:  what would you do, what would you be willing to endeavor, dare or try if the attempt itself was worth it whether it succeeded or not?  Maybe for you the answer does come down to love; or maybe it would be for the sake of a long-held and much cherished dream, or for standing strong for a cause that is just.  The point is that there are there are things we might choose do in this life where failure is not merely an option but a probability; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.  As David Lose has written, in life “there will be failure.  There just will.  And if we only dream of doing things we can accomplish without failure, we will either be sorely disappointed, or realizing the naivete of the question, never try.”  Or to put another way: sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do… no matter what happens.

We actually have a supreme example of all this in one of our two texts for this morning, the story of Jesus’ encounter “on the way” with a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus, “sitting by the roadside” and crying out for Jesus to come and “have mercy upon [him].”  Now, we need to understand that this was a man who in his blindness had not only lived most of his life in literal darkness, but also had existed in poverty and far outside the periphery of society. Bartimaeus had long since been reduced to begging to passersby for any loose coins and leftover food they might offer in order to survive, and the fact of the matter that most people in his situation would have given up long ago on ever getting any kind of help; because, quite frankly, this was an effort doomed to failure!  But here he is, “Old Blind Bartimaeus,” all in on the attempt and crying out for all he’s worth even as the people around him were trying to shush him into silence!  He was determined, to say the least – truly, a man on a mission – and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought about its chance for success.  To quote David Lose again, “could it be that Bartimaeus was so used to failure and disappointment that he saw no reason not to try one more time?”  Or maybe it was that Bartimaeus had faith; faith such that you could – and should – always ask for the impossible?

I love what Susan Andrews, as pastor and leader in the Presbyterian Church has said 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, Andrews concludes, is about going wholly and eagerly and assertively to God, and it’s about “God doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.”  I love that; it’s exactly that kind of faith that describes Bartimaeus “to a tee” and as it turns out it’s the whole reason why all his crazy, bold, impetuous shouting finally gets a response and Jesus does answer… and why – again on the basis of Bartimaeus’ faith – “immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”  Because isn’t it interesting that almost always in the gospels when someone has gone “all in” to ask for what they truly need from Jesus, once they’ve received it their first response is to follow Jesus? 

 You see, this story of Bartimaeus is a reminder to us that in faith we are free “to risk, to dare, to love, to live, to work, to dream, and to struggle… whether what we attempt seems great or small, likely or nearly impossible…because we have God’s promise that there is no small gesture and there is no impossible deed,” (David Lose, again) and that even in our failed efforts – because there will be failures and oftentimes things will not turn out the way we had hoped – God will also bring all things to a good end.  Bartimaeus reminds us that where our faith is concerned we are meant to “go big or go home,” but knowing as we do that however things turn out, all will be well and our lives will be never be the same.  At the end of the day, it comes down to whether we’re willing to take the risk.

Which brings us to our other text for this morning, the story of the rich young ruler…

Earlier in this tenth chapter of Mark, you see, we learn of another encounter Jesus had “on the way,” this time with a man who comes running up to Jesus, asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Now, it should be pointed out here that actually, as Mark tells the story, we really don’t know if he is truly a “rich young ruler.”  Matthew’s version of this story speaks of him as “young,” (19:20) and it’s Luke that refers to him as “ruler.”  (18:18)Truthfully, Mark says is that he’s simply a man, albeit one with “many possessions;” but he’s someone who has come to Jesus really wanting, needing and yearning to know conclusively what it takes, what one has to do to receive that life that would last forever.

So understand this was no empty or casual inquiry on the man’s part; and also that though he was certainly no blind beggar, the effort of this “rich young ruler” to get to Jesus and find out exactly what he needed to know was no less relentless and certainly just as determined as that of Bartimaeus.  First of all, Mark tells us that he “ran up and knelt before [Jesus],” which in and of itself was a stance of humility and great respect, that as a student unto a teacher; and he does refer to Jesus as “Good Teacher,” a title that Jesus immediately refutes, saying that “no one is good but God alone.”  Moreover, as they continue to talk it becomes clear that this man knows the rudiments of his faith: he understands the commandments, and what’s more, he keeps them just as he always done from the time of his youth; so he’s not  come into this discussion “cold,” as it were.  He is what those of his time and culture (and ours, for that matter) would consider to be a faithful, sincere and righteous man; so far, so good!  But then comes the kicker; and you’ll notice, by the way, that what Jesus says next is not said unkindly, nor as a taunt, but it’s spoken with love: “Jesus looked him hard in the eye – and loved him,” as The Message translates it. “He said, ‘There’s one thing left: Go sell whatever you own and give it to the poor.  All your wealth will then be heavenly wealth. And come follow me.”

And that, of course, hit the “rich young ruler” very hard; we’re told that he was “shocked” by this, and with nary a word, “went away grieving.”  Think about this for a moment; with all that he is, this man has run up to Jesus to get the answers he’s been seeking so fervently, and not only has he met Jesus and not only has Jesus honored his faith but he’s also invited him to be a disciple (!), and yet… he immediately and purposefully heads in the opposite direction!  And the reason, as all three gospels telling this story make very clear, is because of the money; because “he had many possessions.” Simply put, there was just too much – too many possessions, too much property, too much stuff – for him to let go, even if letting go would bring him the eternal life he was so yearning for.  This was the thing this man would have seemingly risked everything for regardless of the consequence; yet, unlike Bartimaeus, at the end of the day, he was unwilling or unable to take the risk to divest himself of all his possessions and so, as The Message puts it, “he walk[s] away with a heavy heart.”

Two different encounters with two different men coming out of vastly different situations, but asking for pretty much the same thing: life.  But only one received all that he’d been yearning for… and what was the difference?  Faith.  The same faith that frees us to risk and to dare and to love and to live is the faith that opens up the future before us with all its possibilities… but only if we’re bold enough to go “all in,” trusting in God’s leading to bring us there, no matter what else happens along the way.

The great C.S. Lewis had it right, you know: he said that one of the great enemies of discipleship is our great desire for a relationship with God that is moderate and not too extreme; one that is cautious, calculating and careful.  In other words, living the attitude that “religion is all very well up to a point,” while continuing to place our trust in everything else, just in case.  A moderated religion, wrote Lewis,  ends up being as good for us as no religion at all.  Because what Jesus asks of us in calling us to follow him is never to be in moderation; Jesus asks for the extreme, for nothing less than our lives, our selves, our all.  Jesus calls us to let go of everything else on which we put our trust and our devotion, no matter how great or how little that might be, and put that trust and devotion in him instead. The so-called rich young ruler couldn’t do it, so he went away grieving… but Bartimaeus, knowing full well he had nothing else but Jesus, was made well.

So then, let me rephrase my earlier question: What would you be willing to do if failure didn’t matter; or more to the point, what would you be willing to do for the sake of faith?  How extreme are willing to go when it comes to following Jesus? Are you a “rich young ruler,” so to speak, or a Bartimaeus?

It’s a good question for any of us to be asking ourselves, especially in a world and a predominant culture that just seems to thrive on wanting us to take our faith and be quiet about it, “shushing” us so not to upset the status quo; be that in the way we stand up and speak out against the injustices of the world, or simply in how we’re seeking as a church in this time and place to be bold regarding the presence and power of God in Jesus Christ.  Because it is my firm belief, dear friends, that our future as the church – not only as a congregation here on Mountain Road, mind you, but as the whole church of Jesus – is dependent on our being “all in” as persons and people of faith even at the risk of failure, because we know that God will bring us to a good end… and to life.

After all, if I might quote the words of one Walter Elias Disney, “A person should set his goals as early as he can and devote all his energy and talent to getting there. With enough effort, he may achieve it. Or he may find something that is even more rewarding. But in the end, no matter what the outcome, he will know he has been alive.”

Beloved, in faith and by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, may it be said of each and every one of us that we made the choice to be… alive!

Thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

 
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Posted by on March 8, 2020 in Faith, Jesus, Lent, Life, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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