I Never Knew!

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Mark

Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way. (Mark 10:46-52)

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There is a real irony in today’s Gospel. If you remember from past Sundays, the disciples had been told by Jesus that he was the Messiah, and that he would have to suffer and die, and he had to tell them three times, because they were just  too blind to see. 

Bartimeaus calls out for healing from “Jesus, Son of David,” –  he knows Jesus is  Messiah, and he has enough faith to ask Jesus to restore his sight.

Symbolically, he has cast off his cloak – the same cloak he would lay on the ground to collect the pennies people might throw on to it, showing he grabs onto  of the  new life that comes from following Jesus.

Here was a blind man who could see better than the sighted disciples.

It’s not just a story of a physical healing, though is it?

It’s much  more than that. It had a resonance for the disciples and it has for us too. 

I’ll tell you what I mean.

There is a sad story of a young man, Jerry, brought up in a dissolute family. His father and mother were both alcoholics. He learned nothing about morals or about God, or even such simple things as table manners.

At school, he was rejected by most of his peers, and so he gravitated to the only people who would have anything to do with him, the local hoods.

He learned to shoplift at the early age of eleven. He was into stealing cars by the time he was sixteen. He didn’t care whose property he stole. He didn’t care what laws he broke. In fact, here was a young man living in total darkness, you might say.  And past redemption.

The time came when he would graduate from car theft to burglary. He and a fellow scoundrel took to breaking into big houses when their owners were away, stealing whatever they could find and fencing it for a fraction of its value, but a sum that was still free money to them.

Inevitably, in entering one home they surprised the resident, and there was a violent encounter and the homeowner was injured.

Jerry and his cohort were on the run. It was kind of thrilling at first. Like TV. They split up, and hid out wherever they could. But  soon, Jerry ran out of people who would take the risk of hiding him.

He slept on the streets a few nights, and one Sunday evening, looking for somewhere to shelter, he got caught in a rainfall. He pulled up his collar, and hunched his shoulders against the rain, but soon he was soaked and seeing a large building with lights on he went inside.

It was a church. The first time he had ever been in one.

He slunk into a vacant seat at the back and tried to sleep.

But the music kept him awake. To his surprise he quite liked it. And the minister read the gospel story told by our Lord about the shepherd with ninety-nine safe sheep and one that was lost. And how the shepherd left the ninety nine and went to find the lost little lamb.

The preacher spoke eloquently about how God searches for, and wants his lost ones back in the fold. How God will forgive anyone who sincerely repents and wants to live a new life.

When the service ended, people filed out, shaking the hand of the preacher, and finally  the place was empty except for a couple of men picking up hymn books and generally tidying up.

The minister began to walk down the aisle towards the front of the church when he spotted a figure in the back row, slumped over the pew in front.

A bit alarmed, he went over, saw that it was a young shabbily dressed man, and touched his shoulder.

The young man, Jerry, lifted his face and looked at the minister. His face was wet with tears.

“What is it?” the minister asked.

“ I never knew,” he said. “I never knew about God. Is it true that he loves everybody?”

The minister nodded.

“Even me?”

The minister nodded again. “Come down to the kitchen and I will make you some coffee and find you something to eat, “ he said.

They sat over coffee for a while, and the young man babbled on about his past life, about being on the run, and about how during the service, he had seen clearly for the first time, who and what, he was.

“I must have been blind,” he said.

The minister persuaded Jerry that he should surrender to the police, and next morning they went together to do that.

On  every one of the three days that the trial lasted, the minister was there, and after the young man was sentenced – a relatively light sentence since the judge took into account that he had turned himself in and confessed readily – his friend the minister accompanied him down to the cell where he would await transportation to prison.

Jerry thanked the minister for supporting him, and said, “ They might be locking me up, but I am freer now than I have ever been. Thanks to you, and to Jesus.”

This was a modern-day miracle of someone being given their sight, because during that service, Jerry had come to see things clearly for the first time.

The miracle that Mark relates, of Jesus giving sight to Bartimeaus, contrasts Bartimeaus insights about Jesus with the self centredness of the disciples. 

Mark shows us that Jesus came into the world to give sight to the inly blind as it were, and to show us the way to holiness and to salvation.

Mark shows us that even someone on the fringes, someone pushed away by so-called normal people, is just the sort of lost sheep that Jesus came to bring home to the Father.

Those like Jerry existing on the fringes of our modern society, never knowing peace and happiness, can, even after a lifetime in the darkness, find peace, and love, and vision, through Jesus.

Jesus asked Bartimeaus, ‘What can I do for you?” He asked the same question of the disciples when they came to him.

The blind man wanted to be able to see. The disciples wanted to  sit in places of honour. 

Jerry?

He just wanted to be with his shepherd.

Amen.

We Need to Take Care of One Another

The Gospel  of our Lord Jesus Christ According to Mark

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.”

Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.So Jesus called them and said to them, “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”   (Mark 10:35-45 )

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Some time ago, I  came across a book by  Andrew M. Greeley called ‘White Smoke.’ Andrew, who died in 2013, was a Roman Catholic priest  with an insider’s  knowledge of that church. He wrote many best-selling novels, most of which touch on the church, but are as powerful and dramatic as any you might read.

The novel, ’White Smoke’, is, as you might expect from the title,  about the election of a pope.  The cardinals charged with electing a pope are locked away in conclave, and each day  they cast their ballots until a pope is elected. A two thirds majority plus one is required. The ballots are counted and then burned.

If black smoke rises from the chimney, (straw having been added to the paper ballots, to create the thicker smoke )  then no-one has been elected. When white smoke appears, then a pope has been chosen. 

The novel,  ‘White Smoke,’ published in 1996, is sub-titled ‘A novel about the next papal conclave.’ It was a  timely read,  as there was  daily  speculation about the health of the current pope in the news media at the time. 

The novel tells of behind-the-scenes scheming, horse-trading, politicking, and downright chicanery, as various groups sought to influence the cardinals.     

I thought about the book when I read today’s Gospel, in which Mark tells us John and James, asked Jesus for positions of influence.  

It’s astonishing, isn’t it,  that these two men were so ambitious?   It is true that they had been, along  with Peter, a part of Jesus’ inner circle.   In addition, they were a little better off than the others – their father had been wealthy enough to employ servants  – so perhaps they saw themselves as coming from a higher social strata than the other disciples, and consequently, were  more deserving.

Even so, it’s astonishing that they still haven’t understood Jesus. Just before this incident occurs, Jesus has told them quite openly, and simply, “Look here, all of you. We are going to Jerusalem and the Son of Man is going to be handed over to the chief priests and lawyers, and will be condemned to death. They will hand him over to the Gentiles, and they will make jest of him, spit on him, scourge him, and then they will kill him. And after three days he will rise again.” 

Like hello!!!   Weren’t you listening?

They just didn’t understand, did they? And I don’t blame them. It is a fantastic thing that is about to happen. Who could grasp it?

When they pose their question, Jesus tells  them,  ”You don’t know what you are asking. Are you able to drink from the cup that I must soon drink from, or be baptised as I must be baptised?”
Can you go through the same sort of experience that I am about to go through?

“Yes” they say.

Sure enough they will.

In the days to come they do go through experiences similar to those of their Master.   James was  beheaded by King Herod Agrippa, and though we are not told that John was martyred, he did suffer much for Christ. 

To their credit, they accepted the challenge of their Master, even though they were blind to what that challenge really was.

So James and John, regular human beings like you and me, were  concerned about their well-being. They were  ambitious.  But they were so  blind weren’t they?  

And yet, when tested, they were more than equal to the task.

The church, as Andrew Greeley’s novel sees it,  has within it, many of higher and lower rank who see the church  as a way to power and glory – earthly glory – rather than a means of bringing the love of Christ into the world.

If you read his novel, you will be horrified at the villainous stuff that goes on. You may think it cannot possibly be as bad as that, but Andrew assures us it can.  And is!

However, thank God,  there are cardinals and bishops and priests and lay people who do shine like Christ in this world.  Thank God there are those who with quiet faith and compassion and courage, embody the love of God,  worshipping, and praising and serving Him in sometimes quite awful circumstances.

Even in the depths and violence of war, their love, and courage shines through.

One such person, was a flyer in the Vietnam war, Captain Gerald L Coffee. He was shot down over the China Sea, February 3 1966 and he spent the next seven years in a variety of prison camps.

The years of the Vietnam War were confusing and troubled times for American foreign policy, and for those involved.  In fact, the seeming lack of a definite and legitimate purpose for being there made it worse for all the participants.

The effects of the trauma endured by some, last even  to  today.

Captain  Coffee said that the POW’s  who survived did so by a regimen of physical exercise, prayer, and stubborn communication with each other.

After days of torture on the Vietnamese version of the rack, he finally broke and signed the confession they demanded. Then he was thrown back into his cell to writhe in pain. Even worse was his guilt over having cracked. He was devastated, and alone. 

He didn’t even know if there were other Americans in his cell block. But then he heard a voice, shouting out,  “Man in cell number 6 with broken arm, can you hear me?”

It was Col. Robinson Risner. ”It’s safe to talk. Welcome to Heartbreak Hotel,” he said.

Coffee asked about his navigator. Had anything been heard? 

Col. Risner told him he had no news of the navigator, and went on to say,  “Gerry you must learn to communicate by tapping on the walls. It’s the only dependable link we have to each other.”

Risner had said, ‘we’ so there must be others. “Thank God I am back with the others, “ Coffee thought.

“ Have they tortured you, Jerry?” Risner asked.

“Yes” and I feel terrible that they got anything out of me.”

“Listen,” Risner said, “ Once they decide to break a man, they will do it. The important thing is how you come back. Just follow the code. Resist to the utmost of your ability. If they break you, just don’t stay broken. Lick your wounds and bounce back. Talk to anyone you can. Don’t get down on yourself.

” We need to take care of one another.”

Coffee would be punished for days at a time – stretched on the ropes – merely  for some  minor infraction. His buddy in the next cell would tap on the wall telling him to ‘hang tough’ and that he was praying for him.”

Coffee says, “Then when he was being punished, I would be tapping on the wall doing the same thing for him.”

Coffee says his friends and his faith helped him through.  Every Sunday, the senior officer in each cell block would pass the signal – church call – and every man stood up in his cell.

Then with a semblance of togetherness, they would all recite the Twenty-third Psalm. “Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies, thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”

Coffee says, ”I realised that despite being incarcerated in this terrible place, my cup did run over because someday, somehow, whenever, I would return home to my wife and kid in a beautiful and free country.”

One day he received a letter from his wife, telling him about his daughter Kim and his son Jerry. His eyes filled with tears when he realised that little Jerry, named after him, had been born after his imprisonment.

On Feb 3rd 1973, the seventh anniversary of his capture, the peace treaty was signed, and he was freed.

What was wonderful to me in this story, is that  these men,  even though they couldn’t see each other,  shared each other’s pain, prayed  for, and with each other, and astoundingly, under those conditions, worshipped together.

They weren’t in a grand building. They had no beautiful music. There were no pews, no vestments, no candles. No committees.  No structure.

They embodied the true church.

Huddled and suffering as they were in those prison cells they lived as Jesus instructed us, by serving others.

Jesus  knows what it is like to suffer, and he suffers with us. He taps on the wall – if you like ‘on the wall of our heart’ – to assure us that he is there with us, and for us.  

And if Jesus, Son of God, lives alongside us as brother, not as Lord and Master, then how can we wish to lord it over others?   

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was chosen by God as our High Priest. He accepted, not because he wanted the honor, but out of obedience to God.

He went to the cross out of obedience to God.

As members of the church – His body – we are also called  to obedience to God.    

Over the years leaders have risen, and fallen, flaring like  comets  across the night sky.  Their appeal was to the hearts of men and women, to their needs and desires.

“ Follow me and I will make you great,”  they said.

Jesus says, ‘Follow me and I will show you how to serve.”

“ The Son of Man himself did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who gave his life to save many.”

You Can’t let Go of The Bag!

The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to Mark

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”  ( Mark 10:17-31 )

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What can we do to ensure that we will inherit eternal life?

When that day comes, either with the return of  Jesus or our earthly end, will we be in the line of those going to their glory or will we be sent off somewhere else?

What can we do to guarantee that we will be among the lucky – the blessed – ones?

That’s the question the rich young man asks, isn’t it? “ Good teacher, what can I do to have eternal life?”

Jesus answers that there is one thing he will need to do and that is to get rid of all his wealth.

And you know this is the reading that comes around every year, if not in Mark then in Luke or Matthew, and those of us who think we are poor can sit back knowing that we don’t rank among the rich who can’t get to Heaven.

Well I’ve got news for you, as one of my grandkids is fond of saying.  You are rich!

We are all rich.

You don’t think so?

Do you have a home? Do you have food on the table? Do you have heating and cooling? Do you have transportation? Do you have a job?  Do you have a flush toilet? I phone? TV ? computer?

Do I need to go on?

If you have any of these things you have more than two thirds of the world’s population.

Oh I know we don’t have as much as Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet, or Elon Musk, and maybe our car is not new,  but you can’t get away from the fact that just by virtue of  living in North America, we are richer than three or so billion other people.

Maybe we should all start slimming so we can get through the eye of that needle.

And talking about that needle. Theologians are divided on whether Jesus meant an actual camel, and an actual rich man, and an actual needle – the sort you sew with – or whether he was referring to a narrow gate that a camel carrying a load could not get through; a narrow gate where the load had to be taken off, and the camel pushed through on its knees. 

It really doesn’t matter does it?

If you have a lot of stuff, then you have a problem.  

Now I am going to ease the pressure here a bit. Jesus was speaking out of the culture in which he lived, and preached, and in his own language, Aramaic, and hyperbole – exaggeration – was a common way of making a point.

You remember Jesus saying, “ Anyone who does not hate their mother and father and brother and sister cannot be my disciple.” Or, “if your hand sins, cut if off. If your eye sins, cut it out. If your foot leads you astray, cut it off.” These are all instances quoted in the  gospels where Jesus used the same sort of Aramaic exaggeration to make a point.

And if you remember, Jesus did not ask Zacchaeus, who invited Jesus for lunch,  and who was the richest tax collector in town, to sell all he had and give it to the poor.

Jesus did not ask Joseph of Arimathea, whom the Bible says was rich, to sell all he had and give it to the poor.

Jesus did not ask Nicodemus, the wealthy man from the Jewish Sanhedrin or Senate, to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Nor does Jesus ask us today to sell all we have and give it to the poor.

Jesus was testing the rich young man to see whether he personally and specifically loved God and his neighbor more than he loved money.

Jesus  famously said: “Where your treasure is, that’s where your heart is.”  The rich man’s heart  was in his treasure. It shouldn’t have been and  neither should ours. We are to share  generously , I say again generously, not niggardly – our riches with the poor and hungry of the world.

I recall reading about a church in America that was destroyed in a hurricane, and members of a church in Africa – a church with literally – compared with us —  nothing  – sent what was for them a large sum – a hurting sum – to their American brothers.  In comparison, American churches which gave were not so generous.

So do you think the rich young man in today’s story passed the test?

Well Jesus turned and told his disciples that it was easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to get into Heaven.

And the disciples were shocked at this.

Why? Because they were thinking back to their Scriptures, the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, in which people are seen as being blessed with many riches, because they were favoured by God.

So, they asked, “If a rich man can’t make it into Heaven, who can?”

If someone so blessed by God can’t make it into Heaven, no-one can, Jesus says, basically that no-one can do anything to get themselves into Heaven.

It’s up to God.

The young man had done everything his religion had asked him to do. He had obeyed the commandments, and  had done since he was a boy. For all that he had done however, he still felt empty, bereft, adrift.

In another interesting aspect to this fascinating story, some have said it is a healing story.

The rich young man needed healing of his addiction to his wealth.

That point of view adds a new facet to this story, doesn’t it? It isn’t being rich that prevents us from reaching eternal life, it’s addiction to whatever it is we are stuck on. Money is just one example.

Just think of it like this. You are standing on the heaving deck of a sinking ship, water is washing around your feet, and you can feel the ship going down, and all seems to be lost, when suddenly a helicopter appears in the sky above you and a line is let down with a man attached, and this man, your rescuer, reaches out to you and asks you to stretch out both hands, so he can pull you to safety. 

At your side is your travel bag. And you want to bring it with you. It is full of things you value.

Your rescuer yells. “Give me your hands.”  And you shake your head.” I want to bring along my stuff.” And the rescuer calls out again “ Give me your hands,”  but you can’t let go of your bag.

You can’t let go of the bag!

That’s what this is about.  .

When Jesus calls us to follow him, the promise of eternal life is there. We didn’t have to do anything to earn it. It is offered us free of charge. All we have to do is let go of what is holding us back.

It could be love of money – and you don’t have to have a lot to love it – or it could be  love of self, or love of power, or love of reputation, or love of position, or love of sex, or love of booze, or love of family.

Not that any of those things are inherently sinful. It’s that too much love of any of them can prevent us from seeing the emptiness in our souls.

We have to realise the futility of relying on what we have accomplished, or earned, or done, or been, or own, and know it isn’t in those things that salvation is possible, but that we will only be saved by the God who makes all things possible.

It goes against the grain doesn’t it? To think that we can’t do anything to save ourselves.

If I have climbed Mount Everest, or sailed around the world, or swum across Lake Ontario, or built some great enterprise, or worked hard and long to put bread on the table, and clothes on the backs of my kids, or brought up my children to be model citizens. Can you tell me that there is nothing I could do to save myself?

Sorry to tell you, but yes.

However, we are not asked to repudiate all we have achieved or relinquish all that we have earned,  We just have to put God ahead of it.

And when we put God ahead of it, then it has no hold on us, and we have no hold on it.

We could survive losing it.

Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest, writer, and theologian, who passed away in 1996, put it another way. He said that we should be defined not by what we are – an upright person, a family person, a person of high achievement, even a good person, or what we have, because if that is what defines us and we lose it then we are nothing.

Instead, Nouwen said, we should be defined by God’s love for us – that we are beloved of God.  One of His.

Then we can survive the loss of anything – reputation, money, prestige, even of loved ones.

I had a friend who was very proud of all he had achieved in his business career. He was president of a major company, and enjoyed all the perks that came with the job.   We used to get together a couple of times during the year for lunch and to talk over old times. But there was a long period during which he never called me.

Eventually, I called him and found out that he had lost his job some months before. He said he had been lying low.  He promised we would get together for lunch some time, but he didn’t call for nearly a year, and when he did it was to tell me he now had a job and we could we meet for lunch.

My guess is that not having a job meant he felt like less of a person. Not as important. Not as valuable as a friend. Losing the job meant he lost status, a big part of who he was, and what he was.

The young man who came to see Jesus couldn’t see himself without his wealth, He wouldn’t be the same person.

That’s how we are not to be about anything.

Letting go might even be more than we can do. Just as going through the eye of a needle was more than a camel could do.

Yet with God everything is possible.

In fact,  Jesus died to re-establish our connection with God so that what is possible only with Him can indeed be realised in Him.

How to inherit eternal life? Let go of all that we have or all that we do that gets in the way of that happening.

That He may live in us and us in Him.

Amen.