Because I’m an obsessive person who cannot bring himself to procrastinate, I prepared my sermon for today before yesterday’s horrific shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue and even before most of the bombs sent to prominent Democrats had been discovered. Because today is an important day in Trinity’s life—not so much because it’s my final Sunday but because it represents the end of a five-year-transitional period in our parish leadership—I have decided to stay with what I had already prepared to say.
But I do want to add a quick thought before I proceed. The escalation of hateful rhetoric coming out of the White House has now produced a climate in which some feel encouraged and even authorized to employ bombs and assault weapons against those who represent a more hopeful, inclusive, and liberating vision of life. If there ever was a time when America needed congregations like Trinity—faith communities that proclaim a vision of love, justice, peace, and which celebrate cultural, racial, ethnic, sexual, and religious diversity—that time is now. The Tree of Life synagogue also housed the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. Trinity is active in the interfaith Immigration Advocacy Collaborative. Of course, we pray for those killed and injured yesterday. And surely many of us in the church will continue to work to stop gun violence. But the best tribute Trinity can make to the shooting victims at Tree of Life will be to redouble its advocacy on behalf of those whom the nation’s fearful haters want to intimidate and exclude.
So much for my thoughts about yesterday. Now to the business at hand.
I spent most of the decade of the 1980s as vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu. (It was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.) On my final Sunday at St. Aidan’s, in April of 1989, a woman who had been in church almost every Sunday during my time there approached me at the coffee hour reception.
“Gary,” she said, “I want you to know I’ve listened carefully every week as you have preached. It’s clear to me that you have three sermons.” She then proceeded to outline, very succinctly and perceptively, the three sermon topics I consistently used. I have to say, as annoyed as I felt, I was impressed with her listening skills. So here’s how I responded.
“You know, you’re right. I do have three basic sermons. But here’s the thing: that’s two more than most clergy have.”
Today is my final Sunday here with you in this interim period at Trinity. A week from today you will welcome Elizabeth Molitors, and I’ll be preaching at the cathedral in Des Moines—a fresh and unsuspecting audience on whom I can unleash one of my three sermons. Later in November I will begin as priest in charge a St. Wilfrid’s in Huntington Beach, a parish similar in size to Trinity but which has gone through the sudden and traumatic exit of its rector. It will be important work, but it will be nothing like Trinity. My time here has been, for me, personally restorative. You are a passionate, faithful, generous group of people, and being with you has been both ennobling and actually fun. I am deeply grateful for this experience.
So on this final Sunday, what can I say that I haven’t already said at least five times? Let’s see what the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus might have to tell us.
My late lifelong friend and mentor, Harvey Guthrie, used to say that one of the subplots of Mark’s gospel concerned the endless thick-headedness of the disciples. They follow Jesus around, listen to him teach, watch him heal, and yet they still seem not to understand what he is doing or why he is doing it. Harvey often said that the big question behind these stories in Mark was, “Are they going to get it?”
“Are they going to get it?” If we listen to today’s gospel, the answer is probably, “Not quite yet”. A blind man, Bartimaeus, hears Jesus approaching and shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The disciples, budding bureaucrats that they are, order him to be quiet. But Jesus calls to him and asks him what he wants. “My teacher,” he says, “let me see again.” Jesus replies, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Mark concludes the story by telling us, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed [Jesus] on the way.”
“Are they going to get it?” At least as far as this story is concerned, the jury is still out. Someone in this story does in fact get it, but he’s not one of the insiders or usual suspects. We might refresh Harvey’s question and ask, “Are WE going to get it?” I have two parting thoughts I would like to share with you.
First: like all the gospel writers, Mark is keenly aware of the irony of the blind man seeing as the sighted ones remain (at least morally) blind. While the people who follow Jesus around can’t seem to help themselves from bickering about their status and shooing outsiders away, it is the person on the margins—in this story a blind beggar sitting by the side of the road—who really understands the implications of what Jesus is up to. In many ways, the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus should be for us in the church a cautionary tale about our constant need to open ourselves to the needs, concerns, and corrections of the world. What family systems psychologists call the “fusion force” that makes groups possible does bind us together, and that’s a good thing. But that same drive to fuse with each other can figuratively blind and deafen us not only to the pains but also to the gifts of those still on the outside.
In this tale of Jesus’s encounter with a blind beggar, Mark wants us to understand that Harvey’s question will always hover over the community that seeks to follow Jesus. Are they going to get it? Are we going to get it? The answer seems to be, yes, we will get it, but only by attending to and serving those who are not yet here. More than most other churches I have served, Trinity opens itself to the needs and critique of the world. But it is vital that we find ongoing and structural ways to listen and respond to the people outside of us. Trinity went through one revolution in the early 1990s and opened itself both missionally and theologically to visions and voices long unheard in the church. Twenty-five years later, where might those outside voices come from and what might they be saying here and now? To be the people authentically following Jesus, we need continually to listen to the people who are not here. Only by hearing and serving and learning from them will we begin to get it.
That’s the first thought. And here is the second. “Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.” The Christian life is a dynamic, not static, experience. Because our encounters with God can be so transformative, our natural tendency is often to make church a museum of our earlier experience rather than a living matrix in which we and God engage each other in the here and now. Jesus gives Bartimaeus, the blind beggar outsider, new sight, and when he gets it, Bartimaeus knows what to do with it. He could have set up a “Bartimaeus Miracle Sight Museum” and charged visitors to listen as he endlessly retold the story of the great thing that happened to him right on this spot. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he uses his new sight to get up and follow Jesus on the way. What Bartimaeus gets, and what you and I need help to keep on getting, is that God has given us all of our gifts--of life and love and community, our skills, our desires, and yes even our struggles and losses—not as ends in themselves but as resources for our primary work, that of following Jesus, becoming who we really are, and transforming the world in the process. Just as we can get stuck being insiders, so we can get stuck in the past and spend our lives constantly trying to recover and recreate it. Bartimaeus celebrates his new sight by using it to follow Jesus on the way. The more you and I center ourselves on following Jesus, the more deeply we will get it.
Many of you know that your next rector and my friend Elizabeth Molitors graduated from Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois and was a student there when I was the dean. She once said to me that a typical Gary Hall sermon consists of three points and a poem. (It seems this sermon critique karma will follow me around forever.) So, as a tip of my hat to your incoming rector, let me leave you with two lines from what many consider the most beautiful poem in the English language, “Lycidas” by John Milton.
“Lycidas” is an elegy, a poem written in response to a death, in this case of one of Milton’s classmates. The central figure in the poem is a shepherd who sings his elegiac lament from dawn to dusk as Milton says “to th’oaks and rills”. As the poem ends, the shepherd puts down his pipe and is now ready to move on:
At last he rose, and twitch'd his mantle blue:
To-morrow to fresh woods, and pastures new.
“Are they going to get it?” The story of Bartimaeus shows us that we will get it if we get up and follow Jesus on the way. And John Milton’s shepherd in “Lycidas” shows us that, having taken account of our wins and losses, our triumphs and our traumas, we live into God’s vision for our lives by moving on into new and unimagined ventures alone or with others, but always under God’s watchful care. Trinity, you have been through a lot, and now you are ready for your next chapter. It has been a joy, an honor, and a privilege to share this part of your journey with you. Thank you for being who you are and our time together. So now, let us get up and follow Jesus, each on our own way. “To-morrow, to fresh woods, and pastures new.” Amen.