Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 25 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Ps 34:1-8; Heb 7:23-28; Mk 10:46-52

I was talking to my father, as I sometimes do, about the readings that I’d be preaching on today, and he said to me, “So, do they call this Pay-Off Sunday?” And, sadly, this really is the most common interpretation of today’s readings. The story of Bartimaeus, in particular, tends to be used an example of how you just have to pray long and hard—and, ideally, loudly and in public—and God will eventually come through with the goods.

There are some obvious problems with this approach. First of all, it tries to turn our relationship with God into a market transaction, with prayer as price of purchase, and that’s inherently problematic; but also, as our own life experience tell us, it just doesn’t work, at least not the way we want it to work. We may pray for healing, for wholeness, for an end to pain or abuse, for good and right things, and we may not in any apparent way receive them. We are left feeling, all too often, that we are somehow at fault, that we’ve done something for which God is punishing us, that we haven’t had enough faith, that if we’d prayed that bit harder it would have been different.

This, of course, is exactly what Job’s friends spend a very long time telling him, and what Job spends a very long time denying. The book of Job, as I said last week, is a magnificent, profound and complex story, which opens up great questions and persistently leaves them lying open. It is the story of a man in great affliction who holds his ground against God and insists on the truth of his experience, his being, his needs and desires; who knows he is mortal and that his body will decay in the earth, but still believes his integrity matters, both to himself and to God. A book in which God explodes into the narrative to speak to this man, and yet doesn’t address any of his demands or questions but launches into an extraordinary poetic evocation of the strangeness and wild power of creation, as if this were an answer, or perhaps as if the act of speech, the glory of the language, was in itself the answer.

And then, quite suddenly, this unruly, difficult, enigmatic book is wrapped up in a tidy package of money and livestock, and new and improved children who apparently make up for the loss of Job’s original children. It is all rather disconcerting.But the people who put the lectionary together have done something which makes it even more disconcerting, because they’ve left out a substantial section of the conclusion, and it’s a section which changes the meaning of the book as a whole. In the edited version we just heard, the narrative moves directly from Job’s expression of repentance to God’s delivery of money and camels. It reads as if Job had simply been wrong all along, and when he finally gets it right, he gets the pay-off. And this is not how that last chapter actually goes.

In the omitted section, a couple of important things happen. First, God has a stern word with Job’s friends, and informs them that they’ve been dealing out some very bad theology and he’s very upset with them about it. This tells us something important. It says that Job was right to stand his ground, right to insist that his suffering was not the result of sin or wrongdoing on his part. The speech we just heard from him, in today’s reading, is not an admission of wrongdoing but pure and simple awe, the astonishment of a man who has spoken face to face with the living God who made the morning stars.

But God has more to say to the friends. What is going to turn away his anger at them, he says, is that Job will pray for them. The most common rabbinic interpretation of the ending of Job, in fact, is that this is the heart of the whole text. Job’s situation can only change when he can get his mind off his own troubles, and even when he can look beyond his extraordinary dialogue with God, and pray for someone else. Pray for his silly, pompous, terribly well-meaning friends.

In the end, this is a story about relationship. It is a story about love. It is a story which says that the crucial outcome of Job’s encounter with God was that he was able to turn in compassion towards the others near to him, to care for their pain above his own, and that this is what really changed things. The encounter with the Lord in the whirlwind opens Job up to relationship, even in his own suffering. And in this is the restoration that is awkwardly represented by money and camels.

The story of Bartimaeus is a bit different, but we may find it touching some of the same themes. It is not wrong, I think, to see it as a story which tells us something about prayer; and of course the cry of Bartimaeus is, precisely, the foundation of the Jesus prayer, used by so many Christians for so many centuries, used in our own meditation group every week. And it is an interesting cry, in part because it is open to interpretation.

Bartimaeus asks, at first, not for healing as such; he asks Jesus to “have mercy” upon him. It’s a complex and layered Greek verb, which could mean many different things. It could be a request for spare change. It could be a request for forgiveness. It is not necessarily a request for healing. I suppose if a blind man turns up in front of someone known for miraculous healing, we tend to make the obvious assumption that he wants his sight restored. But Jesus refuses, as usual, to make the obvious assumption. He asks this man to define his own need; to claim his desire clearly. Like Job, Bartimaeus needs to express his particular truth. He needs to stand in front of this strange suffering Messiah and speak his desire out loud. Part of prayer, part of meditation, is exactly that honesty about our own desires, reaching that honesty, even within our selves. We must be quiet enough, get down deep enough, to know what it is we’re asking for, and why, before we can even begin to move forward.

There is, of course, as I said earlier, the very real risk that we will know and claim what it is that we want, and not receive it, not even if it is a right and good thing to have. The world is what it is, and God has never promised to take all the pain away, but only to walk with us in the darkness. But there is the risk, too, that we will admit what it is that we want and we will receive it, or at least receive the possibility; because sometimes that is even more fearful. Sometimes it is easier to go on pretending that everything is okay as it is, that we do not ever need to follow the voice of that calling into new and dangerous places, that we do not ever have to stand in front of God and say, yes, okay, I will walk into a new life, a more complicated life, a harder one maybe, because that is a truth of my self. I will change, I will accept change. I will do that.

It is the experience of gay and lesbian and trans people claiming and declaring the right to live and to love, knowing that parts of society, and, even more, many parts of the church, will reject this claim. Of racialized peple taking the risk, the sometime very great risk, of asserting their full humanity. It is the experience of people with disabilities, mental illness, obvious difference, insisting that society make space, make time, open up the doors. And it is also what we all experience when we realize that we cannot be content with the world as it is, with injustice and hunger and oppression, that we are called by love into action, into the often exhausting work of caring for the little ones and of making change in the world, called to live differently ourselves, called to sacrifice and to risk. To be broken open by the pain of others, and to walk onto the demanding, necessary road of addressing that pain. We turn to the world as Job turns to his friends, in recognition, in care, and the story is changed.

And that is what Bartimaeus walks into, through the crowd of voices which would prevent him. It is much more, perhaps, than he expected. But he rises to that challenge. “I want to see,” he says. And Jesus gives him his sight back, and he sees what is standing in front of him as if for the first time. Sees the world as it is, beautiful and broken. Then Jesus tells him, as he has told others, to go, to go back to his old life. But Bartimaeus, and this is where he is truly unusual, does not go back. Bartimaeus, alone among the people who are healed in Mark’s Gospel, goes forward instead. He has seen, and he cannot unsee; he has entered a relationship he will not foresake. He follows Jesus right into this last, darkest, most critical passage of his ministry, which will pass through the cross and end at the unimaginable empty tomb. We do not hear about him again, at least not by name. But it seems that the pay-off for Bartimaeus, finally, is to be one of the scattered, terrified and astonished disciples, one of the followers of the Crucified. Called into confusion, and new life, and even greater risk, into trouble and beauty. Walking forward, blind and seeing, on God’s amazing and unpredictable road.