[A sermon preached on Mark 10:46-52 for Reformation Sunday at Hermon Presbyterian Church.]
The word “missional” has become somewhat trendy in church circles lately. We hear about “missional communities,” “missional leaders,” “missional worship,” even “missional seating,” and “missional coffee.” It seems like everyone wants to be missional these days! While I agree with this perspective to some degree –mission certainly has its place – I’m also aware that mission work raises its own difficulties.
Take, for instance, the experience of Pippa Biddle. In her book, Ours to Explore: Privilege, Power and The Paradox of Voluntourism, she writes about her experience during a high school mission trip to Tanzania. The goal of the trip was for the students to build a library for a local orphanage.
But as it turned out, this group of highly-educated, private boarding school students was so bad at the most basic construction work that each night local African men would take down the structurally unsound bricks they had laid that day and completely rebuild the structure. Every day, the students would mix cement and lay bricks for 6 or more hours, then after sunset, the men would undo their work, relay the bricks, and act as if nothing had happened so that the students would not be aware of their failure.
It would have been more cost-effective, more beneficial to the local economy, and more efficient for the orphanage to take the same money and hire locals to do the work. So, if the school was concerned about helping people and making a difference, then why didn’t they take that approach?
You see, this is a persistent challenge for short-term mission projects. Often, our methodology and approach reveal our mixed motives. We don’t just want the orphans of Tanzania to have a library; we want the privileged, American students to feel good about themselves while giving their college applications a boost.
In his book Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help, Robert Lupton explains that our desire to help is well-intentioned, but if we don’t carefully examine our intentions and methodology, we could be doing more harm than good. Effective mission, he asserts, has to begin with deep listening. Though we’re often eager to roll up our sleeves and get to work, if we jump into action without first listening to the needs and perspectives of those we’re serving, we won’t accomplish very much. Before we can be of service, we must first be in relationship.
I wonder what would have happened had Pippa’s group taken this approach. I wonder what might have been different had they first met with the directors of the orphanage and asked them how they could help. Rather than assuming that they knew the best approach, maybe they could have asked the Tanzanian leaders what solutions had already been tried or what strategies they thought might be most successful.
Had the local leaders been empowered in these ways, perhaps they could have redirected the students’ energy and resources to projects that better suited their skillsets. Can you imagine how much more these students could have learned, how much more of an impact they could have had, if they hadn’t seen themselves as all-knowing, self-righteous saviors? Surely, there was a better way!
In our Scripture reading this morning, Jesus shows us the key to effective mission work. The first thing that Jesus does when he’s face to face with someone in need is to stop. He pauses long enough to listen to this man, to hear Bartimaeus’ own assessment of his situation.
In a classic rabbi move, he begins with a question: “What do you want me to do for you?” I don’t hear sternness or frustration in Jesus’ question (e.g. “What do you WANT?”). I don’t hear condescension (i.e. “What do you want me to do for you?”) I here genuineness, humility, and a real desire to help: “What do you want me to do?” “What do you need?” “How can I help?”
Jesus doesn’t assume he knows what Bartimaeus is going to say. He doesn’t impose his own ideas about what Bartimaeus needs. He doesn’t take a paternalistic approach to service. He dignifies and empowers Bartimaeus by allowing him to define his own struggle, encouraging him to share his concerns in his own voice. Jesus knows that ministry begins with deep listening. Though the desire to help is well-intentioned, ultimately, it’s insufficient without first hearing directly from those in need.
I imagine this must have irritated the disciples. After all, they had a job to do. They’re so laser-focused on getting Jesus from one place to another, pushing through the crowds, and coordinating Jesus’ travel itinerary, that they ignore the man in need on the roadside. They have many more important things to do and no time to stop, so ironically, in leading the way for Jesus, they themselves lose their way.
Though many ignore Bartimaeus and rebuke him, telling him to be quiet, to move out of the way, to stop making a scene, to know his place, Scripture tells us that he “shouted all the more.”
Unlike the disciples and the crowd, the point isn’t lost on him. He’s not just shouting nonsense or yelling obscenities or causing a commotion; he’s making a faith claim. Where those around him refer to Christ as “Jesus of Nazareth,” Bartimaeus identifies him as “Jesus, Son of David.” As it turns out, the blind beggar has caught a vision of the truth. His heart discerns what his eyes are incapable of seeing: this Jesus is the Messiah.
While Christian tradition dubs Bartimaeus “the blind beggar,” I propose that we think of him as “the faithful seer.” Bartimaeus has eyes to see and ears to hear and words to proclaim. He knows that this Jesus is worth making a fuss over, worth speaking up about, even worth throwing aside his cloak, one of his only worldly possessions, if it means a chance to meet Jesus face to face.
The miracle here isn’t that Jesus restores sight to the blind; the miracle is that the marginalized refuse to be ignored, that they refuse to be silenced, that they align themselves with Christ, claiming their place in the community of faith. The miracle is that Bartimaeus shouts all the more.
When Jesus says, “Your faith has healed you,” it doesn’t mean that Bartimaeus prayed hard enough or recited the sinner’s prayer or believed the right creeds. When Jesus says “your faith has healed you” it’s as if he’s saying that Bartimaeus believed that there could be more, that things could be different.
Bartimaeus didn’t just settle for the way things were. He didn’t give in to cynicism or the belief that his plight was inevitable. He didn’t shrug his shoulders and say to himself, “I’m a blind beggar. I guess that’s just how it is. Tough luck.” His ability to imagine a better future propelled him to action.
Despite all the naysayers, despite all those telling him to shut up, he “shouted all the more.” He demanded something more, something different, something better, even if it meant being disruptive or causing a scene. He had the audacity to believe in the One who Scripture tells us is “able to do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine.”
I have to admit, I don’t always feel this way. It’s easy to feel hopeless when we read headlines of yet another mass shooting, yet another act of senseless violence, yet another preventable tragedy. It’s hard to imagine that things could be different, that things could change, that a better future may be on the horizon.
It seems impossible to throw off the cloak of despair weighing us down. It feels as if our cries for mercy have fallen on deaf ears, as if our shouts for reform have been silenced by refrains of “thoughts and prayers.” If you’re anything like me, you’re weary of shouting. Perhaps you’ve been yelling so loud and so long that you’re about to lose your voice. Maybe you wonder if one little voice can make any real difference in a noisy crowd.
Presbyterians often bandy-about the phrase “reformed and always reforming,” without giving it much thought. Always reforming? Always imagining a better future? Always open to more faithful ways of being the church together? Always listening for the whispers of God’s Spirit, the unlikely voice calling out from the crowd?
On this Reformation Sunday, we celebrate the hope that undergirds our conviction that change and growth and transformation are always possible. God is always at work within us, opening our eyes and clarifying our vision.
When Luther nailed his 95 these on the doors of Castle Church in Wittenberg, he dared to keep shouting for change. Just as Bartimaeus pressed on despite the rebuke of the crowd, Luther remained steadfast in his convictions and undaunted in his demands for ecclesial reform, even in the face of great pressure and risk.
When the emperor called him before the Diet of Worms, accusing him of heresy and demanding that he recant his charges, Luther boldly declared, “Here I stand, I can do no other.” And just like that, one little voice sparked a movement. One person’s refusal to be silenced changed the course of history. One faithful witness inspired new vision within the church. The miracle was that he shouted all the more.
The faith that heals Bartimaeus, the faith that inspired the Protestant Reformation, is noisy and bold and disruptive. It’s a faith that’s lost all its manners, a faith that cares not for convention, a faith that defies societal expectations and challenges our deeply-held assumptions. It’s a faith that turns the world on its head. It’s a faith born of a stubborn hope that God isn’t finished with us yet.
Emboldened by our forefathers and foremothers in the faith, may we have the courage to raise our voices, the vulnerability to cry out for healing, the audacity to demand reform, and the strength to persist in our witness. May we shout all the more. Amen.