The sermon for week October 28, 2012
An Ohio farmer traveled to Australia and found that the cattle were not fenced in at all. The farmer was completely shocked.
"How is it that they don't all run off?" he asked the Australian farmer.
The Australian farmer explained, "We don’t have as much water as you, so we just dig a well and they never wander too far from it."
Fences and wells. One keeps people in. The other draws people to it.
Last week, I spoke about how churches are often acting like James and John, confident insiders angling for position and status, when the church should act like Jesus, humbly serving one another here in the local community and in the world. Acting like Jesus draws people in. Service is extremely important, and yet it is often the first ministry cut when churches face budget trouble.
The next church ministry that falls to the wayside? Faith Formation. Things like Bible study, book groups, discussion groups, retreats, and hosting speakers and taking trips to hear them.
It’s the one hour a week thing again. I don’t believe that our tradition, our religion, and the teachings of Jesus are so simple that we can show up for an hour every week or every month and think we can get a handle on it. Part of being a disciple is service, and another part is faith formation.
James and John thought they had Jesus figured out. They knew all about what Jesus was going to do. So they asked as they were on the way to Jerusalem, “Hey Jesus, when you come into glory, how about we get the best seats?” They assumed that top-down leadership. They assumed that the messiah is the military leader who will come and re-establish the monarchy that David founded. They wanted to fence Jesus in and keep him where they want him.
Instead, Jesus taught them and taught them and showed them that he’s the messiah, but not that messiah. Jesus cannot be fenced in, cannot be boxed. He is the living water that attracts, not an ideology that boxes in. James and John were blind to who Jesus is and what he’s about. They thought they had the answers so James and John stopped forming their faith. Yet in today’s passage, it’s Bartimaeus a blind man who truly saw Jesus.
Jesus came into Jericho; he was surrounded by his disciples and a large crowd. Self-identified insiders surrounded Jesus and buffered him. Mark does not say that they were at his side in order to be healed or taught, only that they were in his company. Often unmindful of what Jesus taught and did for them, they just wanted to be numbered among the faithful (Jarvis, 212).
A few times in Jesus’ ministry those insiders acted to keep others on the outside. Whether it was keeping the children from rushing to Jesus (Mark 10:13-16), wanting to send the crowds away so they could eat (Mark 6:36), or keeping this Bartimaeus guy away from Jesus. Mark reports that “many” sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet. Maybe the “many” where the disciples.
Brian McLaren is one of my many favorite theologians. He states that many people won’t choose a church because they feel that their only two options are “emotion on fire or intellect on ice.” The emotion on fire would be the evangelical churches with the rock bands, the hands in the air and the people openly crying during the sermon. The intellect on ice would be us. The calm tone, the educational programs and book groups, the razor sharp and theologically deep sermons (pat yourself on the back). I can see why “emotion on fire” can be really attractive to many. You know what the conservative churches are about, the message is simple, and they passionately hit it time and time again. The music is really inspiring. The facilities are top-notch, the sound and the video production, the whole she-bang is really integrated and on point. Yet many find these churches shallow, intellectually unsatisfying, and rather rigid in their thinking.
The intellectual churches though have strong traditions that can be their greatest strengths or their biggest curses. These traditions can attract many, but they can just as easily serve as a fence that keeps people from joining or anything from changing. Our wide thinking and concern for justice are great things. But sometimes we forget why we are so concerned about justice (here’s a hint: Jesus), and we’re so nuanced in thought, people can get confused.
Now, I have been in the church all of my life. Doing some math, let’s see, 52 Sundays in a normal year, factoring in that I would go 2-3 times a month; we’ll do 2 times for modesty’s sake that’s 26, minus college (3) plus youth group and seminary which adds more time at church (9), that’d be times 36. All of this factors out to 936 days in church. I’ve spent 2 1/2 years of my life at church by age 30. That doesn’t factor in the books I've read, that’s just Bible Study and church attendance. Around 10% of my life has been spent in church.
All that time and can I say why? Can I stand here and give you a reason in 30 seconds or less? No. But those who are in a mega-church can. For our faith, we don't have an elevator speech, we have an entire floor. Bartimaeus has an elevator speech.
Bartimaeus knows who Jesus is. You see, Bart’s name means “son of honor,” and he gives Jesus a lot of honor here. He calls Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, Son of David, and teacher. Bart knows Jesus’ hometown, that he’s the messiah, and that he’s a teacher like no other. He sees Jesus unlike anyone else. And he has a need. He NEEDS Jesus.
Can James and John answer that question? Can we? What titles do we place on Jesus? Are they accurate?
UCC-native Anthony Robinson really pushes these questions too. The central chapter in his book Changing the Conversation is titled "Why are we here?" Clarity of purpose helps us know what we’re about. That mega-church I visited recently, The Church of the Resurrection, they have this visitor-connecting program that focuses on being clear on 3 questions: Why do people need Jesus?
Why do people need the church?
Why do people need THIS church?
Why do people NEED Jesus? Not would like, not "gee it would be nice to have him over for coffee" but NEED him.
Why do people need the church? There's plenty of other groups out there one could join that require less than we do, less than 10%. There's also the option of sleeping in.
Why do people need THIS church? This congregation here in Sylvania, Ohio?
I would love to know how you would answer these questions. I would love to have a lot of deep conversations about these super important questions. Talk to me, email me, post on my blog (associatedluke.blogspot.com)! These questions are important and here’s why:
When you first meet someone, your future partner, your favorite author or musician, your favorite theologian, whoever, you’re initially star-struck. But over time, you get used to them. Accustomed. We humans are easily conditioned into ritual. We end up doing things that we no longer realize we do. We do this individually and corporately.
Having spent 10% of my life in that crowd surrounding Jesus, I admit that I often don’t see what the big deal is. At the mega church people were holding their hands up, openly sobbing during parts of the sermon, and like every other word out of the mouths of the members of a mega-church is often “God” or “Jesus” whether it’s needed or not. What is their deal? Are they just hyper-emotional people? Maybe. Maybe they are more like Bart than I care to admit. Maybe they see Jesus in a new way that I might not see, or that I overlook. I need to work on my faith formation and make sure that I’m continually checking myself here. I mean when you want to reignite passion or interest in a person or a subject, you spend time with them or it. You read about it, you study the person. I find that when I talk about how much I love my wife Kate, I find I love her more! Just talking about my love for her helps me love her more.
Corporately, in the church, we have stewardship messages to deliver, sermons to give, programs to get up and running, and a building to keep in repair. Maybe we’ve become accustomed to Jesus and the passion has faded. Maybe like James and John, we forget who he really his and why we started following him in the first place. Yet today we meet Bartimaeus who throws off his cloak, quite possibly his only possession and shelter, springs up, and comes running to Jesus with great expectation and disarming clarity. “Teacher, let me see again” he pleads.
Think of those for whom faith is a matter of life and death rather than social convention. When our ministry is marked by encounters with the blind who want to see, the lame who want to walk, the leper who wants to be cleansed, we get a glimpse of what it means to come close to Jesus (Jarvis 216). Through our service, through our educational programming, we can help people see again. See their faith in a new light, Jesus and God in a new way, think differently. And in doing so, we can too! It's not a one-way street.
Are we doing the work on our faith formation to speak words of hope to them? Is our faith formed enough to reach out in compassion and serve them and work with them? Can we see our own need for Jesus and remember why we started following him? Can we do so with the same passion and clarity of Bart and those like him?
Faith formation and service are linked. Our service can attract people but our faith formation states why we do what we do. One without the other isn't the gospel, isn't what Jesus did. He did both. His faith informed his actions, his actions allowed his faith to shine through.
Now many in the emotion on fire churches focus their faith formation in getting the truth of the gospel and the Bible right, explaining it and defending it. And our faith formation can often be shaking our heads at those crazy evangelicals wondering how they can take such a simplistic view of such complex matters. Neither one is better than the other,a fuller definition is needed. Faith formation is not about taking the Christian life into a laboratory and dissecting it to figure out what makes it tick, but enter into God's action of creation and salvation that is going on all around us all the time, and PARTICIPATING in it. To put it in an elevator speech: It's not about getting it right, it's about getting it lived (Peterson 90). The best way is to do you work both in doing service and outreach as well as getting into a small group: a bible study, the prayer shawl ministry, a contemplative prayer group, a 9:20 class offering.
The church is still attractive to many out there, and a church like ours where we have strong outreach and faith formation, hey! We're doing a great job. However, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't remind us to keep on keeping on. Let’s make sure we’re taking down fences and letting the Living Water be the attraction. Let’s have the best of both worlds: intellect on fire! Programs that teach and preach the Good News of Jesus Christ, that make disciples in his name who know the great tradition and heritage we have and are excited, absolutely on fire and passionate to share it. Service that is active and doing the things Jesus would have us do. Disciples do these things. And we shall continue because that is what we are. Amen.
Jarvis, Cynthia. Mark 10:46-52, Pastoral Perspective. Feasting on the Word, year B, Volume 4. Pages 212-216.
McLaren, Brian. Interview for the Animate Series. Animate DVD Extras.
Peterson, Eugene. The Pastor: a memoir. Harper One, 2011. Page 90.