Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on October 28, 2012: Mark 10:46-52 (Proper 25B)
Last week we heard a fine sermon from our guest, the Rev. Phyllis Jackson, who is a registered nurse doing community outreach with the Finger Lakes Health Systems Agency. She spoke passionately about the care of our physical bodies as a spiritual issue, an issue of stewardship. Wellness, in the broadest sense of that term, is something with which all people of faith ought to be concerned.
I got wondering this week about how these thoughts might apply to something else we call “the body,” that is, the community of faith. How do we maintain wellness as a community? This seems especially important to me as we are in the midst of a difficult conversation about removing a goodly number of the pews in this space and replacing them with chairs. We are bound in this conversation to disagree. How do we do this and maintain our wellness?
Before I grapple with those questions, a quick look at the Gospel reading for this morning. The story of Bartimaeus is a very important story in Mark’s Gospel. It comes as a kind of pivot point between the story of Jesus’ ministry before it, and the story of Jesus in Jerusalem that follows it. One of the ways you can tell this story is important to Mark is that it is the last of the many healing stories he tells and the person who is healed is named. This is the only time in any of the gospels that a person who is healed is given a name.
People want to keep Bartimaeus away from Jesus; one assumes the disciples are among them. Remember how we heard just a couple weeks ago how they tried to keep the children from him. The disciples have this strange impression that they have to protect Jesus, especially from those on the margins, without power or authority.
Like with the children, Jesus brushes their concern aside and asks for Bartimaeus to be brought to him. He asks a simple question, “What do you want me to do for you?” He could have asked for alms, after all, it was said he was a beggar. Money would have been the natural thing for which to ask. But Bartimaeus wants something much more than money and with this man he has heard he can ask for it, and he himself senses that is true.
“My teacher,” Bartimaeus says, “let me see again.” Jesus asks no further questions; he does not need any more information. “God,” he says, “your faith has made you well.”
Jesus often makes the connection between faith and wellness. We have to be really careful here, because the connection is a very particular one, and it is easy to misunderstand it. When Jesus makes this connection between faith and wellness, he is not saying that if we have faith we will be made well. It is not a matter of cause and effect. Jesus is not promoting magical thinking.
However, he knows that faithfulness and wellness are virtually the same thing. They almost always show up together. Neither necessarily signals physical health. It is quite possible for someone who is dying to be perfectly faithful and well, in the fullest sense of that word. Jesus is saying that when we have faith, we are well.
What does it mean to “have faith?” It does not mean any one thing. It is not as simple as believing in the statements of the Creed. Faith is bigger, deeper and wider. How does Bartimaeus show faith? By reaching out to Jesus, being persistent when faced with discouragement, and being honest about his need. His faith was that if he had an encounter with Jesus he could be whole again. “Having faith” almost always means the willingness to be in relationship, which is always a risk.
Faith has nothing to do with belief in a set of propositions. Faith has to do with risking relationship.
OK, so what does this have to do with maintaining the wellness of a community like this one? What does it have to do with having a difficult conversation that may produce disagreements?
Our faith will make us and keep us well. Our relationships with each other, grounded in our relationship with Jesus, will keep us well.
When we undertake a conversation like this one, that involves the possibility of significant change, we have to be very, very intentional about it. It has to be an intentionally faithful conversation. That is to say that it has to be a conversation whose basis is our relationship with one another. We keep a conversation about pews and chairs faithful by remembering that it is not primarily a conversation about pews and chairs. It is a conversation about us. It is a conversation we begin in relationship, have in relationship, and end in relationship.
What does that look like? Well, biblically, what mostly gets in our relationship with God? Sin, yes, but which sin? Idolatry. If we let this conversation, for example, become about pews or chairs, we will have made idols out of one or the other, and when we make idols of things like pews or chairs, they become more important than our relationships with one another (and even with God) and we give them the power to harm or even destroy our relationships.
How do we keep this from happening? First let me say it is difficult. It is difficult because we often have emotional attachments to things, and emotional attachments are an invitation to idolatry. And we live in a culture where winning an argument, sticking to your guns, being a man or woman of your convictions, is highly valued. But Jesus does not value any of those things. He is not against convictions. He had some and he asks us to as well.
In Jesus’ world, however, convictions never trump relationships. They may transform them, but they never trump them. And we are called never to weaponize our convictions, turning them into ways we beat other people up or assert our dominance over them.
Here are three simple things we can do to stay in faithful conversation with one another and preserve our wellness even when we disagree.
First of all, we must commit to the priority of listening. There is no greater skill for faithful conversation. Listen, listen, listen. A faithful conversation is not a debate, and the hardest thing for me when I am trying to have one is to listen to someone so intently that I refrain from formulating my response to them while they are still talking.
Second, is simple honesty and directness. When you do speak say what you mean and say it simply and completely. Withholding from the group is never helpful, particularly if you are going to unload what you really think in the parking lot, in an e-mail, or even in a sidebar conversation while the real conversation is going on.
Third, and this is the hardest. Hold your convictions, but hold them lightly. Offer them to another with open hands, rather than delivering them with a closed fist. The most important thing my friend and mentor Verna Dozier taught people was not about the Bible or about the Ministry of the laity, the two things for which she was most noted as a teacher. It was rather about faith. Faith means, she would often say, to take a risk in committing yourself to something you could be wrong about. “You are not God,” she would say, “and the most difficult thing that means is that there is absolutely nothing you might not be wrong about, nothing about which you could not change your mind.”
I chafed at that for a long time. But when I realized she was right, I understood the freedom of Jesus’ good news like I never had before. I still struggle with it, because there are many things I am very sure I am right about.
But being in relationship with you is more important than that. Let us remember that as we have this hard conversation, and the many others we will have in the future. Our faithfulness will keep us well.