I remember teaching our oldest to ride a bike. We have a flat stretch in front of our mailbox, but as you get past the house, towards a cul-de-sac, the road slants downhill, so once you get going you can pick up speed, which is a little scary when you’re just getting going. She was on the bike and, even after a few falls, was still a bit more confident than I was. As a parent your job is to help get things moving, and then to run alongside, early on with your hand on the back of the seat, then slowly letting go – sometimes the rider is to notice, sometimes they aren’t, until everyone is stable enough to ride off on their own. It begins with the necessary scrapes and tears, the persistence, then the euphoria…anyone who has helped a child do this knows the feeling…they finally get it, are riding off, and they realize they are doing, the adult back behind them raising their hands in victory! Yes! They did it! They did it!
Here in chapters 9 and 10 Jesus is trying to teach the disciples to ride on their own. They’d been following on dusty roads after they dropped their nets, seen healings, casting out of demons, a young girl restored to life. He walks on water, cures a blind man by the pool at Bethsaida – Jesus spits in his hands and rubs his eyes. “Can you see now?” he asks him with a smile.
After this, he tries THREE TIMES to get to the heart of the matter. At the beginning of chapter 9, then 9:30-37, then 10:32-45, the text we read last Sunday, Jesus, Gary Charles writes, “pulls them aside and tells them something they don’t want to know – that the road ahead leads to suffering and sacrifice, to Jerusalem –… a place where prophets are spit upon, where evil prevails, and where the Son of Man will die.” Yet they don’t get it. The first two times Jesus talks about suffering the disciples argue back with Him, then each other. The confusion reaches a fever pitch in last week’s text, when James and John pull Jesus aside, asking to sit on his right and left hand on glory. Jesus pulls all the disciples together, AGAIN, the great MUST SERVE.
Next they are walking away from Jericho by Bartimaeus. He’s the only person healed by Jesus in Mark whose name we know. Other times it’s ‘a leper,’ ‘a paralytic,’ ‘a man with a withered hand.’ Bar-timaeus – literally son (bar) of Timaeus – in Hebrew means “son of the unclean.” When he heard that it was Jesus, he shouts: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowds order him to be quiet, but he won’t: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Jesus stops: “Call him here.” They do, with the words that have been our theme this month, that come as gift to anyone who is tired and weary and worn. Take heart. Jesus is calling you. Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps up. Face to face, Jesus asks, what do you want me to do for you? Let me see. DONE, Jesus says. Go, head on to whatever you have next, go, your faith has made you well. Bartimaeus SEES – Mark’s readers remember the spit on the eyes and another blind man healed, blindness and vision bracketing this section.
But – here’s the key – he doesn’t GO. Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. Those are the final words in this important two-chapter section on discipleship. Jesus releases Bartimaeus, says he can go. Nevertheless, Charles writes, “he follows Jesus ‘on the way’ – Mark’s shorthand for faithful, self-denying discipleship.” The Way, the name the book of Acts uses for the early church. Bartimaeus seems to get it, to know that healing, that grace in Christ, isn’t something for us to hold and go on our merry way. With that grace comes the call to serve. To follow Christ on the way. To follow Jesus, with courage, no matter, that this CALL pushes us out of our comfort, towards the deep needs of the world.
Follow Jesus on the Way. That’s the call we remember this Reformation Sunday, giving thanks for those who have led us in this messy experiment that is church, from early followers of the Way, to the building blocks of the early Roman Church, to Reformers in the 1500s and 1600s who tried to re-form the system to remind the faithful that discipleship is not about an institution that mediates grace for the people, keeping the keys with the mass in early eras or by selling indulges in the later middle ages. But grace. Only God’s grace come to us to through the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, who came to Bartimaeus on the side of the road, to his stubborn disciples, and to us. To you. He comes in love and hope, calling us to follow.
This is not an easy way. It is not the easy path of simple piety and religious platitudes, not a Jesus who simply affirms our life choices. Jesus calls us to the more difficult way of service, of generosity, of taking time, investing in things that matter, coming back to the table, again and again, listening more than you’d prefer, seeking compassion, hope, welcome, grace in a time of division and anger, when the loudest brash voices carry the day. Follow me on the way, Jesus says, in a life of humble service and gratitude. Humble service and gratitude. To do things that we don’t have time for and are sure we don’t have money for…why? To follow Jesus. And because this work matters. I must say, in this deeply conflicted age – the worst I’ve seen in my short lifetime – with relentless insipid political ads, with cruelty and fear and racism, with language – and everyone’s guilty of this, I’ve surely been – language that demonizes the other, who lives differently or believes differently or loves differently to votes differently – HAS TO STOP. This is NOT of the holy way, the way of Jesus. Mail bombs. A man yesterday who walks into a synagogue and shouts, “All Jews must die,” and begins shooting. My God. My God. What are we doing? And there must, there MUST be communities of people who are committed to building bridges, who are committed to reaching out – in this case calling your Jewish friends and telling them they are loved and supported – who are committed to say this kind of language and hatred is not who we are called to be as Christians, and not as Americans. Communities who are committed to being friends in an age in which so many of us are so lonely. This work, as we teach children, gather with youth, feed the homeless and support local schools and engage in interfaith conversation and build and strengthen partnerships. Places like this, people like you, matter so much, and are so important to what God MUST be doing among us in this difficult season in our nation’s life. This is heartbreaking. But we’ve MUST be about the building of bridges in these days. EVERY single one of us.
“In Mark’s sharpest irony yet,” Charles continues, “the story ends at the entrance to Jerusalem.” The Holy City to which all nations stream, the site of the hurt that was to claim the disciples and Jesus just after this text. Yet they walk, in courage and in faith, knowing that the God who sends disciples then, and now, on a journey, on the WAY – accompanies us, and will never let us go. Will NEVER let us go. What good, good, news that is. All praise be to God. Amen.