If you had the chance to come before someone who you believed actually could do for you whatever you asked, what would you ask? If you’re like me, you may not have spent too much time thinking about it. After all, it’s one thing to fantasize about what you would do if you won the Publishers’ Clearinghouse sweepstakes or the lottery, and quite another thing to contemplate, even to acknowledge, your deepest, truest desire.
Last week we heard two of Jesus’ disciples’ request, as James and John pulled Jesus aside and asked him to do for them whatever they asked of him. And when he asked them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” they answered, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
In today’s passage which Nora just read for us, Bartimaeus–the son of Timaeus who was also a blind beggar–was sitting by the side of the road outside of Jericho when he heard that Jesus was coming by. He began to “shout out”–the word is really more like “squawked”–”Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Even though the crowd tried to hush him, he wouldn’t be shushed, and when Jesus heard him, he called him over. “It’s your lucky day,” the crowd told him. Throwing off his begging cloak, Bartimaeus jumped up and came to Jesus, who then asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” Sound familiar? “The blind man said, “Rabbouni, my teacher, let me see again.”
Sitting right next to the one you believe is the Messiah in his glory, or having your sight restored? “What is it you want me to do for you?” Jesus was able to offer James and John only the same suffering and costly outpouring of self that were about to come his way, but he couldn’t grant them the seating positions they wanted in glory. He said that was God’s–not his–to grant. But to “blind” Bartimaeus, Jesus said, “Go; your faith has made you well.” “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
The difference between the two is striking. Already daily companions of Jesus, James and John merely pulled him aside and made their request to get a piece of his glory. Confined to a spot on the roadside, sitting on a cloak that signaled his need, Bartimaeus literally leaped at the chance to come before Jesus, refusing to be turned away. And when Jesus called him, he threw off the only worldly possession he had, that not only signaled his condition but kept him warm, and came to Jesus. He was all in, risking everything.
It is not the critic who counts [President Theodore Roosevelt said in a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris in April, 1910]; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiently; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.
Bartimaeus was in the arena, and he dared greatly. He wasn’t just “lucky”–he was in the game.
“What is it that you want me to do for you?” Dare we contemplate an answer to that question for ourselves or for us as a church? Just as Jesus said to James and John last week, “Be careful what you ask for,” we would do well to consider what we truly want, what we are willing to step up for, what we are willing to dare greatly for.
“I want to see again,” Bartimaeus answered. See again, he said, so he must not have been blind for his whole life. Blindness due to things like glaucoma or diseases due to poor hygiene were common in the ancient world, so it’s quite possible Bartimaeus developed his blindness later in life. “I want to see again.” Those of you who’ve had cataract operations know the thrill of vision and vividness restored, the ability to see distances and faces without glasses.
But we also know there are a number of ways to see. “I want to see you again, Jesus. I want to believe or trust in God again,” not necessarily the way I did when I was a child–I’ve seen too much, know too much, been hurt too much for that to be possible; but maybe as philosopher Paul Ricoeur talks about, maybe I could see or believe with a “second naivete,” knowing all the reasons why it doesn’t make sense, maybe knowing enough about the Bible and people who claim to be Christians to know it’s not what it looks like, but “I want to trust you again, God. I want to ‘believe,’ to ‘see’ you in the world, in my life.” What is it you want me to do for you?
Or maybe I want to see to see my partner, my spouse, my parents, my children, even myself, again, see them/me with love again, not just with bitterness, or anger, or worry, or regret. “I want to see again.”
“What is it you want me to do for you?” “We want to see our church alive and meaningful and relevant and an agent for transformation again, engaging children and youth, as well as adults, full of energy and passion.” We know the story, the “narrative,” if you will. We’re all getting older. The number of children and youth is shrinking. We pass deficit budgets and draw down our endowment. The darn sound system seems to have a mind of its own.
Well, as John Dorhauer, the President of the United Church of Christ, told the UCC Board of Directors last week, “Today the narrative shifts…Today the United Church of Christ [including Second Congregational Church ion Bennington, VT] focuses on what the Holy Spirit envisions for its future….the best days are ahead. What we are called to do matters; and lives will be transformed because of it.” (Ucc.org) It is time to dare greatly, time to step up and step into the future God intends for us. “Step up and step in,” in fact, is the theme of our stewardship campaign this year, which you’ll be hearing about in a couple of weeks.
This daring greatly is a challenge especially to those of us who feel relatively secure and comfortable, but for the majority of Christians in the world today, faith is a matter of life and death. We may not be facing prison cells or firing squads, but, my sisters and brothers, there are people dying around us everyday, sometimes inch by inch, drink by drink, cutting comment by cutting comment, loss after loss. We do have something to offer our community close by and far away. “What we are called to do matters,” as President Dorhauer says, “and lives will be transformed because of it.”
Of course daring greatly carries risks. But as sociologist Brene Brown writes, “Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face everyday are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. [Will we step up or not?] Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.” [Brown, Daring Greatly, p. 2]
In laying out his 5-step initiative to the Board of Directors, President Dorhauer concluded, “I want to create a culture of risk-taking and innovation and ingenuity.” Those are not qualities that most people associate with a church, but those are the qualities we must nurture and develop if we too are going to focus on what the Holy Spirit envisions for our future.
“What is it you want me to do for you?” Dare we ask? “Son of David, Christ Jesus, fill us with your holy Spirit. Help us to dare greatly, to risk boldly, to reach out our hands to those that others have tried to keep down. Dream your dreams through us. Restore our sight. Walk beside us every step of the way.” May that be our prayer today, and in all the days to come. Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark