A reflection on Luke 21:25-36 for the community of St. David of Wales Episcopal Church, Shelton, WA. First Sunday of Advent, November 28, 2021.
Everybody is ready for Christmas. The Thanksgiving leftovers that crowd our refrigerators are almost all gone. Radio stations are playing Christmas songs 24 hours a day. Stores have been stocked with holiday décor and gifts since Halloween. Black Friday sales flooded our email inboxes this weekend. Neighbors are stringing up lights and inflating super-sized Santas.
Everybody is ready to celebrate, except us. We who worship Christ and follow the church calendar have flipped the page to the first day of a new year that begins not with decorations, celebratory champagne, and countdowns, but with weeks of waiting. And what a strange sort of waiting it is. We wait for what was promised and what has already occurred. We wait for a sign that God is with us. We wait for God to break into human history with the birth of Jesus. And we wait for what was promised but has yet to be fulfilled. We wait for the final redemption of humanity and all of creation. We wait for peace and justice to prevail throughout the earth. We wait for the Son of Man to come again in power and glory.
In today’s gospel, Jesus said, “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
Jesus was speaking about the turmoil that beset the church and the people at that time. And the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish worship and authority, was destroyed twenty years later never to be rebuilt. Luke wrote his gospel shortly after the Temple’s destruction to people still reeling from that loss. There have been so many dark periods of human history since then, times when it seemed as though the end must surely be at hand. And the signs are still all around us today. As New Testament professor Audrey West says in her commentary on this scripture written for Luther Seminary:
Jesus speaks in the language of apocalyptic, or revelation. Vivid images—the heavens being shaken, the Son of Humanity appearing in the clouds—depend on the metaphors’ capacity to express a community’s trauma while also offering powerful hope in the midst of those experiences.
When the present reality includes wars and political tumult (distress among nations), climate catastrophe (signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars), global pandemic (breathless from fear and foreboding), unemployment, hate crimes, racist ideologies, death-dealing illness, displacement by terror, or anything else that traps people in fear or despair (weighs down hearts), it is then that we look for the coming of the Son of Humanity, the Christ whose promised future makes all the difference for today.”
Growing up outside a faith tradition in a family that was fractured by divorce multiple times, I was terrified of being abandoned. Both my stepparents disappeared from my life without saying goodbye, and when I encountered scripture passages like those in today’s Gospel on my own before I found a church, it seemed as though a lasting relationship with God was impossible for someone like me and that could disappear from my life without warning.
Even when I became a Christian, it was the mid-1980s at the height of the Cold War, and I lived in fear that nuclear war and the end times were a moment away. I worried that I would never be vigilant enough to be saved, after all I had to sleep. I would never be clever enough to interpret the signs. Was the USSR that President Reagan called “The Evil Empire” the Antichrist or just our biggest nuclear threat? And I was sure I would fail to recognize The Messiah at the second coming, convinced that I would fall for a false prophet instead and be one of those forever separated from Jesus.
From the Left Behind books, to The Da Vinci Code, to the cults that have set dates for the destruction of the earth and Jesus’ second coming, it’s clear I’m not the only who worried about how and when redemption would come. But time has changed me. I’ve been in a relationship with my husband for 40 years, and no longer worry about abrupt and unexpected endings to marriage. I’ve been a Christ follower for 35 years, which isn’t very long compared to many of you, but it’s been long enough to help me relax into my faith, and to find hope, rather than fear in waiting.
When I was training to become a United Methodist lay pastor in California in the late 1990s, my Bible teacher said something about God’s salvation never being narrow. That God’s invitation is wide open and accessible to anyone who will say yes. He said that believing salvation is available only to those who correctly decipher Biblical codes, or believe a specific selection of Bible verses, is bad doctrine, and that those who preach bad doctrine are false prophets who misrepresent the true nature of God and the Good News offered in Christ.
I also learned the distinction between our human concept of time, Kronos, and God’s time, Kairos. Markey Makridakis, in her book, Creating Time, explains it like this:
Kronos (from which we take our word chronology) is sequential time. Kronos is the time of clocks and calendars; it can be quantified and measured. Kronos is linear, moving inexorably out of the determinate past toward the determined future, and has no freedom. Kairos is numinous time. Kairos…cannot be controlled or possessed. Kairos is circular, dancing back and forth, here and there, without beginning or ending and knows no boundaries.
In our personal lives, we get a glimpse of Kairos and the unbound nature of time when memories and dreams transport us back in time to people and places that no longer exist in the physical world but are alive in our imaginations. The idea and experience of Kairos helps us understand our Advent experience, waiting for the birth of Jesus, a past, present, and future indwelling of God with us.
But Kairos time is harder to apply to the external world we live in, bound by chronology where we see worrisome signs of destruction and ending all around us.
The season of Advent begins with the opportunity to ask ourselves how we deal with fear and anxiety, how we cope with tragedy and injustice. Do we hide, ignore, or deny? Jesus warns us to "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life.”
Weighed down by the worries of this life, I don’t indulge in drunkenness, but I am extremely skilled in dissipation, which can be defined as wasting by misuse, mental distraction, amusement, and diversion. When I’m overwhelmed by world and family events, I binge-watch: Fixer-Upper, The Great British Baking Show, Top Chef, America’s Got Talent. It’s a waste of time, but I’m here to say that God can redeem even our dissipated time.
The week before last, I was brought low by the common cold. Too exhausted to go to work, or to work at home I binged Dancing with the Stars. In one of the last episodes of this season, the TV personality Amanda Kloots and her partner danced to Live Your Life, a song by Nick Cordero, Amanda’s late husband who died in 2020 after a drawn-out battle against COVID. The performance was haunting and beautiful, a journey through love, loss, and grief and ultimately to hope shared with millions of viewers. A moment of transcendence through a medium we often disdain.
How do we bear loss, grief, anxiety, and fear? How do we cope with tragedy and injustice, both personal and global? How do we wait and wait for God’s righting of the world that seems so long in coming?
As co-creators with God, we tell our stories in art, music, and words, transforming pain into healing, bringing the light of hope to the dark of despair. As a community bound by faith, we engage in worship and prayer, in stewardship and fellowship as testimony to our belief in the redeeming power of Christ and the promise of God’s salvation.
Today’s gospel passage closes with Jesus’ exhortation: “Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.”
But there is no escape from being human in this world. There is no escape from illness, loss, and death. No escape from hurricanes, fire, or floods. No escape from the ravages of war, inflation, and unemployment. No escape from the consequences of the decisions we’ve made as individuals and as a species that impact all creatures on earth, and the land, water, and air upon which our lives depend.
There is an escape from believing that what we see is all there is. And there is an escape from believing that we have the power to control others—even when we want to use that power to help. And there is an escape from believing the political, economic, and religious powers of the world are the ultimate powers and arbiters of our faith.
Our escape lies in faith. Our escape lies in hope. Our escape lies in prayer—God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. Our escape lies in staying alert, in noticing, seeing, dreaming, speaking, and empowering the coming and current reign of Christ. Our escape lies in standing before the Son of Man, who has come, who is here, who will come again, whose existence is God’s bequest to us. Our escape lies in receiving the gift Christmas will bring us: Radical never-ending, ever-present love.
A reflection on Mark 10:46-52 for the community of St. David of Wales, Shelton, WA, October 23, 2021.
In this morning’s Gospel passage, Jesus is in Jericho with his disciples surrounded by scores of people. Everywhere he goes, Jesus has been attracting attention with his healing and teaching, and now it’s a parade-like atmosphere, with Jesus as the featured attraction as he and his followers, and many of the faithful leave the city to make their way to Jerusalem to observe the Passover. Jesus will leave this city never to return. He will enter Jerusalem and the sweep of events in the coming days will lead the throngs from celebrating his power and popularity to witnessing his execution.
Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, appears in the commotion. The fact that he is named, unlike so many whom Jesus has healed, is significant. Bartimaeus, or his father Timaeus, may have been well known in the community before the encounter, or Bartimaeus may have been recognized later as part of the new church formed after Jesus’ death. And the story of Blind Bartimaeus is familiar to many of us, one enacted gleefully by blindfolded Sunday school students, who leap and stumble, hands extended, crashing into their friends as they grope toward Jesus.
When the story opens, we find Bartimaeus alongside the road with his cloak spread around him like a tablecloth to receive the coins the faithful toss to him. In his day and age, begging is an accepted and expected ongoing activity for those who cannot find other means of support. And community members are charitable in their response, giving alms to the poor and disabled as a part of their religious practice. It’s more like placing a $20 in the offering plate, or mailing a contribution to the United Way, than handing cash to someone with a cardboard sign at a freeway onramp.
A day like today with crowds afoot would’ve been lucrative for Bartimaeus, providing much needed financial support. Some biblical commentators suggest that others in Bartimaeus’s circumstances would be content with their lot and would not have risked their income by leaving their posts. They say that though blind, his was not a situation of desperation.
By the request he makes of Jesus, “let me see again,” we can assume that Bartimaeus was not born blind, that he once had sight and longs for its return, knowing what he has missed. Though he might not have sight, it’s clear that he possesses insight. When he calls out to Jesus using the words, “Jesus, son of David,” he is the first person in Mark’s gospel to recognize Jesus’s divinity and claim it aloud.
Jesus, who up until now has been shushing those who guess his true identity, does not deny the title. This will be the first time Jesus embraces his identity publicly and the last time he heals another person before his death.
Like the children who clamored to meet Jesus and are met with rebukes from the disciples earlier in Mark’s gospel, many in the crowd “sternly ordered” Bartimaeus to be quiet. I think those voices most likely belonged to the Pharisees and other religious authorities—who else would feel they had the license to silence the blind beggar? Maybe some very bossy neighbors. And how does Bartimaeus react to being told to shut up? By crying out again, only louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This time his voice pierces through the noise of the crowd and Jesus hears him. He stands still, and looks for Bartimaeus, but who can find a man seated on the ground in the middle of a crowd?
So, Jesus enlists the crowd’s help and asks those he can see to, “call him here,” and word travels through the throng, who are now speaking kindly, “Take heart; get up, Jesus is calling you.”
At the invitation, Bartimaeus’s response is immediate. He doesn’t take time to don his cloak and pocket the coins. He springs up, abandoning his cloak and his money, confident that he no longer has need of them.
Like James and John, fishermen who left their nets behind to follow Jesus, Bartimaeus, too, leaves everything behind when he responds to Jesus’s call. He makes his way through the crowd, relying on the hands of strangers to lead him to Jesus. And when he comes close Jesus doesn’t immediately heal him, instead he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?”
He answers, “My teacher, let me see again.” My teacher—How is it that Jesus is his teacher? It seems that in the days and months leading up to this encounter he has been listening to the stories about Jesus, and has possibly been in Jesus’ presence before, just one blind beggar in a crowded place hoping to receive alms who received the good news Jesus offered as well. Or maybe he’d made his way to listen in the crowds before, and today he finally has the courage to speak.
In the passage just before this, which was our gospel reading last Sunday, James and John approach Jesus with a request. They’ve been following Jesus since the beginning, and they want something in return: status and honor. They want to be Jesus’s right- and left-hand men when he comes into his glory. A request that Jesus finds ridiculous, since he knows that his glory is coming only through death. Then Jesus tells James and John that to be great, they must become servants.
In today’s passage, even as he sets his foot toward Jerusalem, Jesus demonstrates that he is a servant, willing and able to grant requests that align with God’s purposes. When Bartimaeus asks, “let me see again,” Jesus performs an act of service: he restores Bartimaeus’s sight saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.”
And where does Bartimaeus go? He goes with the disciples and the crowds following Jesus. He does not go back through the throng to his place at the side of the road. He does not retrieve his cloak or his coins. He follows on “the way.” The way to Jerusalem. The way to the cross. The way to the resurrection. They way to a faith that exists beyond the body.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the story of Bartimaeus in the 35 years I’ve been a churchgoer, but it’s often enough that I’m in danger of it becoming so familiar that I think I know the point of the story and the lessons I’m supposed to take from it, the lessons I passed on to my Sunday school students years ago: Be bold like Bartimaeus. Don’t let your limitations hold you back. Be brave enough to ask Jesus for what you want, and you’ll be rewarded.
As a new believer at age 25, it was easy to accept the seemingly simple takeaway of the story: that our faith makes us well. Becoming a Christian, a follower of Jesus, healed the God-shaped hole that I’d felt my entire life. But as time went on, I noticed that my own faith didn’t remove my fear of abandonment, or my anxiety over not being in control of my life. I wasn’t cured of my faults and personality. And I assumed I was struggling because my faith wasn’t strong enough. But when I looked around to the pillars of my church community, men and women of deep faith, I saw that faith didn’t spare some them from suffering and death, loss and grief.
Faith restored Bartimaeus’s sight, but faith didn’t prevent Jesus’s death. It led him to it.
When I think of being made well, I think of being healthy, of being cured. But what does it mean when faith doesn’t cure us? Does it mean that Jesus chooses not to heal us? That he wants us to suffer? I wish I had easy answers, ones that I could share with you. I’d like to say “your faith has made you well” with the certainty of a second grade Jesus acting out a Sunday school skit.
Part of my struggle comes with the limits of language itself, especially as we try to describe the mystery of spiritual experience. And the gospels, especially Mark’s just the facts version, leave so much to the imagination. What happens inside a person’s body, mind, and spirit when these miraculous healings take place? Surely there’s a shift that no one can see, something that is healed and moved beyond the scope of affliction and disease.
Sometimes “your faith has made you well,” is translated as, “your faith has made you whole.” For me that’s a shift from a cure to a way of being. One definition of “whole” that resonates for me is “undivided.” In troubling times of illness or emotional turmoil, my mind is often divided, fighting between what the situation is and what I want it to be. When I can allow myself to remember that Jesus is with me in all circumstances, and to really feel that knowledge in my mind, body, and spirit, then I can let go of my need for what I want and come to a place of acceptance and peace about what is, even when what is a hard and painful reality that I wish were different. When I come to a place of deep knowing, I am no longer divided. I become whole in Christ’s presence with me, even when I have not been cured, even when nothing in the external situation has changed. I don’t often leap up and embrace possibility like Bartimaeus, I’m more often dragged to it, clinging by my fingernails until I finally surrender.
I do well to hear the story of Bartimaeus over again with new ears.
“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus cries on the streets of Jericho.
“Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. A sinner,” we cry today in the words of the Orthodox church’s Jesus prayer.
All of us wonder if our faith is strong enough. We wonder if we have the courage to speak our truth not only to ourselves, but in front of a crowd. We wonder if we’ll allow others to silence us with their rules. We wonder if we’ll risk making a scene to ask for our heart’s desire, or if we’ll allow possibility to pass us by. In the midst of illness, pandemic, loss and grief, we wonder how we’re going to make it through another day.
“Let me see again,” Bartimaeus asks.
Jesus, when we doubt ourselves, when we doubt you, when we struggle with our own self-worth, when we struggle with our faith, when the state of the world knocks us low, when we’re blind to your presence with us, let us see again, and again, and again. Amen.
I began blogging about "This or Something Better" in 2011 when my husband and I were discerning what came next in our lives, which turned out to be relocating to Puget Sound from our Native California. My older posts can be found here.