1 Samuel 16:1-13
1 Samuel 16:1-13
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
2 Timothy 2:8-15
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
One of the most remarkable ministry moments I’ve had the privilege of witnessing happened last July when seven of us traveled to Detroit for the ELCA Youth Gathering. Over the course of our journey, we were a part of a number of long-scheduled and meticulously planned events, but the moment that sticks out in my mind came out of the blue when our group was walking down East Jefferson Avenue, along the Detroit River and we were approached by a gentleman who looked like he was down on his luck. He was carrying a heavy load, likely because he didn’t have anywhere to store his worldly possessions. As he got closer, he asked for some money, something he was obviously lacking. I think one of two of us handed him a few dollars and got ready to keep going on our way. Before we could step away, the man had one more request: a hug. Most of us don’t make a habit of embracing strangers, but something told us that this was a good time to make an exception. After a few hugs from our group, he continued down the street with a smile on his face, jumping and shouting with joy. It was an image that I’ll never forget, and one that came back to the fore as I pondered the text before us this morning.
As Peter and John went to the temple that afternoon at “the hour of prayer”, I doubt they were expecting to have the kind of experience that would be recorded for posterity. They were going about their business, joining other devout Jews in observing the daily prayers, perhaps spending their trip up the temple mount in preparation, when they encountered someone in need: a man with a physical impairment that made walking impossible. There’s no telling how many times they had walked by this man, who our text tells us was placed there daily so that he could make enough money from begging to support himself. Whatever that answer might have been, on this day something was different, and by the time the prayers began, this man who for years had been consigned to the dusty doorway of the temple was now entering with joy on his own two feet, praising God for the healing that had taken place at Peter’s word.
What makes this story so remarkable? It’s the little things. First, notice what Peter and John do when they get close enough to engage the man lying at the gate: they ‘look intently at him’ (or, put in a slightly different way, they ‘fixed their eyes on him.’ This might seem obvious enough, but think again about how many times Peter and John and countless other people walked by him on a daily basis without noticing him, without seeing him as an individual in need of assistance, without acknowledging that he was a person worthy of all the dignity and respect that is due to someone who was created in the image of God. The ministry of healing that Peter and John carried out wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t somehow been inspired to see this man in his need.
After looking intently on the man, Peter and John do something else that is both astounding and profound: they name their limitations!* As they approach this opportunity to serve in Christ’s name, they acknowledge that they don’t have exactly what the man is looking for – namely, silver and gold – but they are also confident in sharing what they do have to offer – namely, healing in the name of Jesus Christ.
Last – at least in our look at this story – Peter and John accompany the man after his healing, bringing him into the community and helping people to recognize him the same way they did. Put another way, they brought things full circle by making it possible for others to see and affirm the dignity and worth of a man who had likely been part of the background for many of the people who crossed through the Beautiful Gate on a regular basis.
Does the story of a miraculous healing in the Holy City really have parallels with the story of random hugs shared on the streets of the Motor City? Well, yes, it does, and I think that those parallels can help us to see how ministry is possible in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant moments. Think about the man who approached our group that day. He was part of a group of people – the homeless population – who are frequently stereotyped and often ridiculed (when they aren’t outright ignored). Even for people who care to think about the problem of homelessness, that particular man was likely not much more than a statistic or a problem to be solved. Giving that man a hug was a holy thing, because it affirmed him as a brother, a fellow human being, a person with hopes and dreams and feelings and a need for connection with other people. I’m not trying to make our group seem extraordinary; after all, the guy had to ask us for the hugs before we gave them. At the same time, though, something – or someone – led us to push past our normal reactions to that kind of situation and bring a note of grace to a man in a dire situation.
Just like the apostles, we also brought what we had to bear on a situation of need. We certainly weren’t swimming in money at that point in our trip, but we were able to use some of what we had to make a difference in this man’s life, even if only for a few hours or days. More importantly, though, we brought ourselves, and in that simple offering of attention and physical touch, made it possible for that man to experience joy and connection.
These seem like small things, don’t they? Yet they are among the hardest things for us to do. We living in a society that loves making people fit into easily digestible categories so that we can simplify our relationships. These labels are part of how we make sense of a complex world. But when labels become the basis for our life together, you can be sure that the life we share will be shallow and starved for meaning. Where many saw a lame man, Peter and John saw a person; where many saw a homeless man, God led us to see a person in need of both physical and emotional sustenance. In the same way, all of us have opportunities every day to break through the labels and encounter people as individuals with dignity and worth.
Likewise, we live in a society that is driven by our need to hide or deny our weaknesses, our imperfections, our shortcomings. Vulnerability is too often a four-letter word, and the shame associated with admitting that we aren’t perfect can be more damaging than we care to admit. Instead of allowing their lack of money to keep them from bringing healing and wholeness, Peter and John owned their shortcomings and offered their gifts anyway, and by doing so they changed that man’s life forever.
Brothers and sisters, today’s text gives us a glimpse of what makes ministry possible in the ordinary moments of our lives. Sometimes, ministry happens simply by acknowledging other people and making the time and effort to show them that they are worthy of our attention. Sometimes, ministry happens when we stop worrying about what we don’t have and start focusing on what we do have. Sometimes, ministry is nothing more than a process of helping other people to see people and things that are often invisible. At all times, ministry is matter of being present to others and bringing the power and peace of Jesus into places that are starving for meaning, purpose, and connection with others and with God. That might look a little different for each of us, but it is essential to the work that God has called all of us to do in baptism. As we prepare to witness that holy sacrament once more, and to see Violet welcomed into this grace-filled and graceful life of service, let us pray that we might be inspired by the example of Peter and John to see moments for ministry all around us each day, and that we might be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to make the most of those moments, so that all people might know the powerful presence of Jesus in their lives. May it be so among us. Amen.
* Eugene Peterson, Commentary on Acts 3:1-10
+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +
When I was growing up, I remember being in awe of the disciples, particularly the ones Mark refers to as “the Twelve”. I doubt I could have told you why I felt that way at the time, but I recall thinking that there was something remarkable about them. Their images adorned the stained-glass windows around the worship space in my home congregation. Their standards hung around the walls of that same sanctuary. I’ll admit that I always felt a small swell of pride when I walked by the shield that bore the mark of St. Andrew, a silver x-shaped cross on a blue field. As I got older, I came to realize that I was most impressed with their dedication to Jesus, their ability to drop everything at his word and follow behind him into a life of deprivation and uncertainty. I imagined that they were sort of super-disciples, and that I could never hope to be as good as they were.
As we’ve read through Mark over these last couple of months, I’ve found myself at times chuckling at the young me, the one who saw in the disciples an example for following Jesus that lay beyond our ability to emulate. That’s because I’m fairly certain that if I’d ever taken the time to pay attention to the full portrait of the disciples in the gospels in general (and Mark in particular), I’d have quickly realized that they were just as flawed as I was and still am. Today’s reading serves as a great illustration of this fact. As our reading begins, we find Jesus and those disciples again “on the way”, journeying toward Jerusalem for Jesus’ final confrontation with the religious and political authorities who have opposed him and his mission to proclaim the good news. Here, for the third time in the gospel, Jesus pulls the Twelve aside to remind them what awaits them when they arrive in the holy city: betrayal and arrest, condemnation, mocking, insults, scourging, cross, and death. And here, for the third time, the disciples respond to that message by making it abundantly clear that they didn’t understand what he was saying as they proceed to do or say something that directly challenges what he told them about his destiny. Think back with me. At the first prediction, Peter dares to tell Jesus that he’s wrong, and that God would never allow him to suffer or die. After the second prediction, the disciples decide to engage in an argument about which one of them was the greatest in God’s reign. Now, James and John come to Jesus with an outrageous request that sets the other disciples off again and reveals their utter lack of comprehension about “the way” that they were walking with their teacher and Lord. In the span of three chapters, the disciples show themselves to be almost completely incapable of understanding Jesus!
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have no intention of smugly condemning the disciples because I think I’m any great disciple in my own right; God only knows how often I walk off the path that Jesus has set before me in pursuit of some goal that I think is more important or more faithful. But the awe with which I regarded the Twelve as a young man was clearly misplaced. In truth, I would have done much better to spend more time reflecting on the story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar who calls out to Jesus for mercy and healing.
Let’s take a look at his story with a focus on some of the details that can easily be overlooked. Jesus and the disciples arrive in the city of Jericho, where they encounter Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside – or, in keeping with our theme over the last couple of weeks, “sitting beside ‘the way’”. When Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is near, he calls out to him repeatedly, addressing him as “Son of David” and asking him to be merciful. He remains persistent in the face of stern rebuke, calling out more loudly until Jesus calls him over in return. Immediately, Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, jumps to his feet, and approaches Jesus. Bartimaeus repeats his request, Jesus declares that his trust has made him well, and Bartimaeus regains his sight. Then, without hesitation, he began to follow Jesus “on the way”.
What makes this story more worthy of awe than the stories of the Twelve? Well, it’s clear that Bartimaeus faced significant barriers to discipleship, most notably his vision – which had caused him to end up “beside the way” – and the many attempts to silence his cries by the people who knew him best. But beyond the obstacles, notice how Bartimaeus responded to Jesus’ call: even before he received his sight, he threw off his cloak, the garment that likely served as his only source of shelter and his only way of storing the meager income he received from begging – in short, his cloak was his security, a symbol of the life he had lived and which he was prepared to leave behind in an instant. Last, but certainly not least, like the rest of the disciples he immediately follows Jesus, though with a twist: Bartimaeus follows Jesus “on the way”, signaling that in a real sense he understands what he’s getting into in a manner that the other disciples don’t yet.
Perhaps because he regains his sight relatively late in the game, when his newfound vision isn’t obscured by everything else that has surrounded Jesus and caused people to perceive him wrongly, Bartimaeus is able to follow his new teacher “on the way”, even though he hasn’t received the insider information that the disciples have. Again, none of this is intended to cast the disciples in an unfair light. If anything, this fact reveals something about me – and, I suspect, about many of us: that sometimes those of us who should see Jesus most clearly have trouble looking past our own baggage to glimpse the truth about him and about what the life we spend following him is supposed to look like.
British journalist and author Malcolm Muggeridge was a popular commentator on religious and moral matters in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and his commentary was informed by his Christian beliefs. He wrote much about the problems that he saw were besetting society and decried a growing trend toward “Godlessness” in Britain. He claimed a robust faith, and his writing seemed to bear that out, and yet he had an experience late in his life when visiting Mother Theresa’s mission in Kolkata, India, that revealed how much he was missing of God’s presence in the world around him:
Suddenly, almost with a click, like a film coming into sync, everything has meaning, everything is real: and the meaning, the reality, shines out in every shape and sound and movement, in each and every manifestation of life…. How, I ask myself, could I have missed it before? How could I not have understood that the grey-silver light across the water, the cry of the sea gulls and the sweep of their wings, everything on which my eyes rest and my ears hear, is telling me about God?*
Brothers and sisters, God is moving all around us, and if we have eyes to see that movement, we will be truly amazed at what is possible because of God’s power and presence in the world. As we continue through this season of Lent, we may find that our vision is impaired by any number of things: our pre-conceived notions about how God is working in the world (or among whom God’s presence can be found); our own spiritual or emotional baggage that seems impossible to throw aside; the competing images of discipleship that play across our television screens or within our community; or simply the unwillingness to open our eyes to the Spirit’s movement in this and every place. If any of this describes you – the way that, if I’m honest with myself, it describes me – then perhaps we would do well to look to Bartimaeus, to call to Jesus for mercy, to throw aside the things that define us and hold us back, and to follow Jesus on the way with clear eyes and open hearts, trusting in his goodness and grace to bring us through death into abundant life. Let it be so among us. Amen.
*Malcolm Muggeridge, Seeing through the Eye: Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith, ed. Cecil Kuhne (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 10-11; quoted in Karen Chakoian, “Mark 10:46-52: Homiletical Perspective”, Feasting on the Word: Mark, eds. Cynthia A. Jarvis and E. Elizabeth Johnson (Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 336-7.