Friday, November 23, 2012

Sermon: "Faith, Hope, and Clarity"

Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
October 28, 2012
Mark 10:46-52

“Faith, Hope, and Clarity”

Bartimaeus and I go way back.
This story of the blind man who regains his sight by simply having faith has followed me for most of my life.
His passion-filled cry of, “Teacher, let me see again” and Jesus’ immediate response, “Go, your faith has made you well” are forever woven into my faith journey because call it coincidence or call it divine intervention, God keeps dropping Bartimaeus in my lap.

As a child, I often had questions about the beliefs we adhere to as Christians, and I wondered how we could truly have faith in God when our knowledge and experience of God, and our ability to feel the presence of God, are so limited.
When I was 14-years-old I brought these questions to one of the nuns at the Catholic school I attended and she told me the story of Bartimaeus.
“Bartimaeus didn’t question Jesus’ ability to heal him,” she said.
He simply asked to be healed, and he was.
He believed it would be true, and his faith made him well.

As a skeptical teenager, I was not about to place all of my trust in miraculous healings or blind faith, especially when the faith I was told I should have didn’t leave room for doubt, didn’t leave room for diversity, and ultimately didn’t leave room for me.

I concluded that Bartimaeus was a relic from another time…and I dismissed him, his unquestioning faith, and organized religion as a whole, and threw it in a box labeled, “Things that are no longer relevant or meaningful in my life.”

But as I grew older, I discovered that God would not stay in that box.

Twelve years ago on a late October day very much like this one, I stepped into a UCC church for the very first time….because God would not stay in that box, and I was searching for a way to define, describe, and share in community the many ways in which God was emerging in my life.

On that October Sunday, the lectionary text was the same gospel reading that we heard this morning, the story of Bartimaeus.
“My Teacher, let me see again!” Bartimaeus cried, and Jesus said to him, “Go, your faith has made you well.”

I remember cringing as I heard these words yet again.
As a lapsed Catholic, I came to the United Church of Christ with the hope that it would be a different kind of church -
one that encouraged hands-on service and critical thinking, rather than belief in miraculous healings and blind unquestioning faith.
But there was Bartimaeus once again, running up to Jesus and regaining his sight without so much as a wave of the hand, simply because he believed.

But my fear that that I was treading on familiar ground was eased somewhat by the pastor’s sermon that morning.
He spoke of how the image of the blind being healed was often used in the bible as a metaphor for those who lack not sight, but insight.
The man may not have been literally blind, but rather he lacked the ability to understand the message of Jesus…the message that we are all loved by God, we are all saved by grace, and that through Jesus, God was calling us to do something truly amazing and radically new in this world.
When Bartimaeus encountered Jesus in the flesh, something deep inside of him recognized that Jesus was the one whom God had sent to heal not just him, but the entire world….and his eyes were opened.

As I pondered this, my eyes began to open as well, but only slightly.
I was drawn to the idea that God loves us all fully and equally and that we are called to do something new in this world, but I still did not understand what it meant to have faith …and I still could not fathom that one needed to believe IN Jesus, as the only true savior and son of God, in order to be accepted into God’s embrace.
The language of Christianity continued to act as a barrier for me, as did all that I had previously learned about what one needed to believe and do in order to be considered a true person of faith.

My eyes were opening but I was seeing only shadows, so I resumed my spiritual wandering and four more years passed before I found my way back into a Christian church again.
That second time I tried a different UCC church, thinking that perhaps not all UCC churches were the same, but inexplicably the text the preacher had chosen for that day was the story of Bartimaeus.  
I could not get away from this guy.

But this time, as Bartimaeus was calling up the road after Jesus saying,
“My teacher, let me see again!” I was right there with him.
I had done my wandering, and I was ready to come home.
In my wandering, I was drawn to a path that was God centered, justice seeking, and inclusive of all, and it led me right back to Jesus.
Right back to that first century Jewish itinerate preacher and teacher who challenged the people of his time to open their minds and their hearts to the life changing love that God offers to each and every one of us.

He challenged them, and us, to love our neighbor as ourselves, to forgive our enemies, to care for those who are the least among us.
He challenges us not just to have faith, but to live out our faith in the world.
Because if our faith in God is true, it can’t help but flow through us and back into the world in the form of compassionate love and action.

Bartimaeus had been chasing me for most of my life, and he’d finally caught up with me. Through him, and the UCC church that I found him in, I came to recognize what it means to have faith, and what it meant to be a follower of Christ.
So imagine my surprise when I sat down earlier this week and looked at the lectionary texts for today, knowing that this is the Sunday that I will be officially installed as the Associate Pastor of this wonderful church.  
On this Sunday that marks a milestone moment on my own journey, my old friend Bartimaeus is making himself known yet again.
Faith is a journey.
It grows over time and shifts and changes as we shift and change.
When Bartimaeus heard Jesus coming down the road, at that moment in time it all clicked into to place for him. His eyes were opened.
But we don’t know how long it took him to get there and we don’t know where he ended up after that.
He became a follower of Jesus but did he follow him to the end?
Was he one of the few who stayed with him as he hung on the cross?
Or was he long gone by then? …and can we fault him if he was?

Jesus own disciples had varying degrees of faith, despite having the living, breathing man right in front of them.
They were not certain that he was the one who would release them from the captivity of fear, scarcity, and oppression.
And they had trouble grasping the message that he carried of an all-loving and forgiving God who was calling them to change themselves and the world.
So much of what Jesus said and did contradicted what they had been taught, or come to believe by observing the way the world worked around them.
The meek shall inherit the earth?
The poor are blessed?
How much faith did it take to believe this to be true?

We can’t say the disciples were lacking in faith; they believed in God and they believed that Jesus was doing something different in their lives.
They believed enough to leave their families and livelihoods behind and follow him. They had faith, they just had trouble understanding what it meant to live as a people of faith.

And so do we.
Which is why we can’t agree on what it means to be a Christian in today’s world, and we argue over which form of Christianity, which ideology, and which political party, best reflects the teachings of Christ.

We seem driven to hold up a yardstick to measure our own faith and that of others, and judge who is deserving of God’s healing and who is not.
I do wonder how much of our uncertainty about faith and its true power traces back to this text about Bartimaeus.
Jesus said to him, “Your faith has made you well.”

Regardless of whether we believe Bartimaeus had his sight restored in a literal or figurative sense, the text tells us that Jesus pronounced him healed because he had faith.
Does this mean that we will also find healing, simply because we have faith?

A few years ago I attended a worship service where members of the congregation performed what is known as a Cardboard Testimonial.  One by one, each participant walked out on stage, holding a hand-written cardboard sign naming a struggle or affliction that once overwhelmed them  – “Diagnosed with Cancer at Age 40,” “Unemployed for 17 months,” “Addicted to Cocaine.”

As they reached the edge of the stage they flipped over their cardboard sign to reveal the healing they had received from God - “Cancer Free at age 45,” “New Job for Higher Pay,” “Total Life Transformation.”
The congregation applauded after each reveal and it was a very powerful ritual because it carried the message that healing is found in God’s presence regardless of how dire one’s circumstances seem. 

But what about those who haven’t been healed?
This is where Faith and Hope often become intertwined.
We may have faith that God will be there for us when we’ve hit rock bottom.
But we may not have faith that God’s presence in our life will result in what we would call a positive outcome – a physical healing, a transformation, a new beginning – We can hope for such an outcome but we can’t be sure that it will happen.

As powerful as those cardboard testimonials were, and as much as I stood and clapped as each person triumphantly revealed the healing that had entered their lives ….. I couldn’t help but think of those who have hope, who have faith, and yet DO NOT feel touched by God’s healing hand.

What about the man who has been out of work for more than 17 months and has not yet found a job – is his faith not strong enough for God to reward him with work?

What about the woman struggling with addictions who hasn’t yet garnered the strength to seek help – is her faith too small for God to notice that she is in need of a transformation?

What about the 40-year-old who is diagnosed with cancer and does not live to see her 45th birthday – was her faith too meager, too inadequate, for God’s healing Spirit to descend upon her?

Testimonials are wonderful. They help us to feel hopeful that if someone else has overcome a hardship that is similar to our own then maybe we can too.
But what if we can’t overcome it?

When our struggles seem to out number our joys, we may say that God has a plan that we can’t yet see, or that God doesn’t give us any more than we can handle…but let’s be honest, sometimes life does give us more than we can handle.
In this case faith is not found in hoping for miracles or in making sure that we live and act as faithful Christians so God will reward us with healing and prosperity.
Faith is found in the knowing that we have in the core of our being that God is with us no matter what.
God is with us in our pain, and in our suffering.
We may HOPE for a desired outcome but we must have FAITH that regardless of the outcome God is still with us.

Faith is not a journey towards God, because God is right there with us even when we’ve hit rock bottom and we feel as if God has abandoned us.
What faith does is open our eyes to the presence of God that is already there.

Bartimaeus was healed in the moment he sensed Jesus entering his space.
He called out from the spot on the side of that busy road where he had sat begging for who knows how many years.
He called out over the noise of the crowd and despite the efforts that others made to silence him he would not give up.
And Jesus, who always hears the cries of those on the margins, did not overlook him.
He saw the divine recognition on the man’s face and heard it in his voice and he pronounced him well.
By acknowledging God’s loving and merciful presence in his life the man had healed himself.
“Your eyes have been opened, your faith has made you well.”

This is not blind faith.
This is eyes-wide-open faith.
The kind of faith that recognizes that we live in a world full of brokenness. Where people lose their jobs, battle addictions, and die of diseases that have no cure.
But we also live in a world full of miraculous healing.
Where people reach out to another in their suffering and their pain and walk together, acting as conduits for God’s love, mercy, and grace.

I have a feeling that this is not the last time Bartimaeus will make an appearance in my life.
My hope is that he will continue to make an appearance in your life as well.
That you will see him in every person that you pass on the street, and that you will be the presence of God that they need to see.

And I hope that you will see him every time you’re seeking the presence of God in your own life, as you cry out “Teacher, let me see again.”
…and you too will hear Jesus say, “Go, your faith has made you well.”


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