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I want you to know
that I am stuck
with a particular way
of reading this story from Mark.
You see, in May or June of 1980
I graduated from seminary
in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
and the Dean of my seminary
gave the graduation sermon.
He delivered a point so surgically,
that resonated with me so strongly,
I have never forgotten it
and can’t see beyond it
when I read this story from Mark.
Oh, don’t get me wrong.
I have violated it’s conclusion
any number of times
but remember it always, I do.
Now you might say
that the tale I just read from Mark,
and that was read at our graduation ceremony,
does not have much of a bark
let alone a bite.
It is just a homely little story
told in ten sentences.
Yet, as the Dean pointed out,
those ten sentences are the hinge
upon which the Gospel of Mark swings.
Here is what I mean.
It takes Mark ten chapters
to tell us about three years of Jesus’ adult life.
Then he spends six chapters
telling us about the last week.
Ten chapters for three years
and six chapters for one week.
That pretty much sums up
the emphasis of Christian theology too.
More’s the pity.
Remember, Mark does not bother
to include all that mythology
surrounding Jesus’ birth.
He may not have even heard of it.
Instead, Mark begins with a fully-grown
and mature Jesus
who is suddenly swept up
into an amazing spiritual awakening
at his baptism.
It starts with a big bang –
all of a sudden, one day a spectacular
event changes Jesus’ life
and the history of the world going forward.
For ten chapters, Mark tells stories
that lead up to Jesus’ fateful decision
to take his Galilean road show to Jerusalem.
to tell us about three years.
Then, the next six chapters
describe the last week of Jesus’ life.
The hinge between these two episodes
is the story of Blind Bartimaeus.
That is the first point our Dean
made certain we understood
if we hadn’t learned it already.
This ten-sentence story is a microcosm
in the ten chapters leading up to it;
and it is a foretelling
that will be told in the next six chapters.
Here are the pertinent bones on this skeleton.
First, the story of Blind Bartimaeus
takes place on a stage dripping with drama.
Jericho was an incredibly opulent resort city.
It was, in Jesus’ day,
home to the summer palace for King Herod.
We have descriptions of several palaces
in Jericho, where even just some of the homes
had magnificent sunken gardens.
It is no accident that the hinge
upon which the big story swings
takes place in Jericho.
Jericho was the intersection of the world
in those parts.
Literally. I am not kidding.
two Roman roads
met like cross hairs in a sniper’s scope.
There were only a few roads in the world
that could host chariots
and heavy traffic,
not like today
when we need GPS
just to decipher which varicose vein
will take us where we need to go.
At Jericho, one road
went straight to Jerusalem and Damascus,
while the other road
went all the way to Rome.
It was the point of decision –
for Jesus and his followers.
It was the very moment
that split past and present,
safety and danger,
control and vulnerability.
Turn back, and they could go home —
to the people
and places they knew best.
Back to the smaller villages and towns
where Jesus’ rural images
and down-home zingers
aimed at the principalities and powers
would take them to the people
he was popular and well loved.
It would be safer and wiser.
But if he turned the parade toward Jerusalem,
that urban citadel of Roman occupation
and religious authority,
it was unclear what might happen.
In that cauldron of political and religious power,
Jesus would be viewed with suspicion,
and it would be dangerous
because trouble-makers and agitators
were rubbed out like bugs on a picnic table.
So, the stage could not have been
more dramatic or evocative
than the intersection
of those two roads.
An opulent playground of military
and political power
where past and future intersected
The Dean said it was the very moment
where time stood still.
He, like many theologians,
liked to talk about chronos and kairos
or linear vs. vertical dimensions of time.
I don’t know about all of that,
but it was a big moment.
There are such moments
in human history,
those with a longer hang-time
in which momentous events seem to stand still
just a little longer,
and just a little more pulsating
than the moments surrounding them.
Though we do not have any real-time record of it,
Blind Bartimaeus and Jericho
was that kind of a moment.
I don’t think the Dean mentioned this,
but at that huge moment on the stage
of human history,
Bartimaeus threw off his coat!
That may not seem like a big deal to you and me
because we have multiple coats
for multiple seasons,
but that man had one possession, one.
That was true for many thousands
of indigent people in Jesus’ day.
You had one possession: your coat,
and it was what kept you warm at night,
what you sat on in the day,
and unless you also had a staff,
was likely all you had.
His one possession
and he throws it away.
He is blind, remember,
so finding something he threw away
is not like you and me
tossing something to the side
we can get later.
It was a huge risk.
He was in the midst of a crowd
and he threw off his coat
and moves toward the voice
In the cold calculus of life
trading a coat for the ability to see
may look reasonable.
But what made him so certain
that the moment would end
with him being able to see?
That is half of this story.
The other half is that Jesus stopped.
“To be held by the light” in the fashion of a tree,
and to receive that light
and take it in
as a tree drinks it
and sends it down
into the tunnels of its roots —
winter, summer, autumn, or spring —
and reaches into the unfurled leaves
and feeds the substance of its core.
To be held by light and drink it in.
Jesus stops at the procession
of time and history
on a stage so consequential
we could say the the history of the world
balanced on it.
To have a huge celebrity,
someone everyone else wants to see and hear
and touch and know, stop —
stop everything — and focus on you,
is to feel held by light.
When someone is important
or important and busy doing important things,
but they stop and look at us anyway —
stop and touch us, hold us —
it feels like being held by light.
The first part of the story
is that Bartimaeus risks the only thing he has
in hopes of having his life changed,
and Jesus stops everything and everyone
for the sake of a blind beggar.
You see, that is a very big story
even if it is only ten sentences.
Now what it has to do with us is
pretty stark and simple too.
First, if we want our life to change
then we have to take risks.
There is no way around it.
I don’t know why it is that way,
I only know that it is that way.
Want something to change?
There’s a risk for that.
Secondly, if Jesus can stop
the procession of time and history
for a beggar everyone else wanted to silence,
then we can stop our bandwagon
for the needs of those around us.
I mean really, what makes us so special
that we can’t stop what we are doing
and listen or tend to the needs of someone
who is at the margins of our attention?
So Mark is a dang good story-teller.
Ten sentences that speak volumes
and remind us of two profound bits of wisdom:
1) Want change? Take a risk.
2) Want to be like Jesus? Stop.
Just stop what we’re doing
and listen for who needs us.
Thanks Dean Harvey Guthrie.