(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!