“Called to Faith”

Those of you who are fans of TV series – like Downtown Abby or The Good Wife– know they are single broadcasts of an event or dilemma in the lives of the characters, but they also build upon prior episodes. Without some recap of prior episodes, review of major interactions, you miss out on the meaning a writer has embedded which can shape your opinion of the true character of the individuals.

The same is true in our reading from Mark, one of the four Gospels, which scholars argue was not written as a biography but rather to persuade believers about the nature of faith and discipleship.

I realize for many of you the Gospel of Mark is as familiar as, say, comfortable bedroom slippers. You may know the uniqueness of Mark’s resurrection account, or that it is believed to be the first gospel, and the writing style is not known for being eloquent…no it is rather blunt and jolting.  What sets Mark apart from the other gospels is the framework used, juxtaposing one event amidst others, to communicate a rich story.  To you, I ask for patience while I offer a review of prior episodes that directly relate to our reading.

At this point in the gospel, Jesus has called twelve disciples and gathered a wide following.  They witnessed the healing of a blind man, feasted along with thousands from mere crumbs, saw Jesus meet Moses and Elijah on the mountain, and heard long, private teaching.  These disciples were intimately exposed to Jesus day upon day.  But, in Mark’s account, Jesus continually complains….you don’t seem to understand.     Just before we pick up our reading for today, Jesus was traveling with an arguing James and John, and when he asked “what do you want me to do for you,” they asked for places of glory above others.

Now, in the midst of this tension we come to our reading for today; a fundamental pivot in Mark reveals about the Jesus and us.

The Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, versus 46-52…

Each year at Halloween I am amazed at the home decorations in Lincoln Park.  Perhaps I am not driving in enough neighborhoods on the north shore, but in the city, so many homes are over the top with decorations.  Perhaps the density of the homes and esprit de corps, or competitive spirit, compels residents to new levels of creativity that can overwhelm anyone on the sidewalk.

However whimsical in the light of day at Home Depot they may appear, these decorations come to life at 5:30 in morning’s darkness as skeletons move and heads moan on my morning walk with the pup.  Our routine is disrupted when I smell smoke, see spiders and hear ghouls emerge in the darkness, all controlled by motion detectors. But, this shock also prompts me to look at the homes with fresh eyes.  This routine makes it easy to become immune to the nuances in each home – I see what I expect to see and need to be shaken up.  There was a huge spider web hanging from the third floor, but it hung from an intricately wrought balcony terrace. Oak branches held broom’ed witches and leaves that turned brilliant colors in a matter of days.  My beast of a black lab puppy was the one who noticed the fake gravestones concealed a nest of bunnies.

Needless to say, I’ve thought about our text during my morning walks and it has shaped my experiences.  The reading is about discovering something that had been hidden in plain sight and completely changed a life.

Reading about Bartimaeus also reminded me of a favorite quote from Anais Nin I’d learned more than twenty years ago. “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”  I used to wonder, if I don’t see things as they are, what are they. Or, what is it about me that can get in the way of really perceiving another?  Nin challenged the claim “seeing is believing” when in fact, culture shapes how we interpret what we see and believe. And, what we believe animates what we do.

Not only is our reading prescribed from today’s lectionary, it is also appropriate as we welcome new members and ask them to consider what they believe and will do as members of this church and what we, as members, will commit to them in fellowship and as the body of Christ.  Those 150 or so words were steeped with Mark’s lesson on both theology, a belief about God, and ethics, the shape of correct actions in this world.

In my long introduction to the scripture, I hoped to contrast the disciples’ inability to grasp what had been revealed to them, time and time again, about Jesus against a single encounter that changed not only Bartimaeus’ life, but speaks to us today as sharply as it did to the early followers of Jesus.

Jesus had called the disciples to follow him and learn.  Although he spoke to the crowds in parables about a mustard seed, a lamp under a bushel, or of the type of soil to grow seeds, these stories could be difficult to grasp.  But, Mark tells us that Jesus explained all of these parables to the disciples in private.  The disciples also witnessed Jesus restore hearing, paralysis, feed thousands, walk on water and welcome society’s outcasts, events and experiences that transcend our common life, and point to a divine power.  Jesus had told them to welcome children, the lowest in society, and to serve rather than expect or demand to be served.  Yet, whenever the disciples had an opportunity to express what they had learned from Jesus or demonstrate why they were following him, they blew it.  When asked by Jesus “what do you want me to do for you,” James and John argued for places of honor. Were these truly disciples we would want to emulate?

University of Chicago New Testament scholar and Dean of the Divinity School Margret Mitchell is a rock star in the academy.  Commanding fluency in not only four or five common languages, she is recognized for her expertise in most of the dead languages of the ancient Near East and her ability to interpret ancient texts.  With such a command of languages, she seared Mark’s portrayal of the disciples in my mind with the single word description of “dunderheads.”

Bartimaeus on the other hand was a poverty-stricken, blind beggar.  But, despite his social exclusion and physical challenges, he was persistent.  He knew of Jesus’ divinity, calling him “Son of David” and “my teacher,” and threw off his only possession when offered the chance to speak directly to Jesus.  As with all the other miracles, Jesus did not negotiate, condemn or shame, or extract a promise from him.  Jesus asked a simple question, “what do you want me to do for you” and for Bartimaeus it was to see and rejoin society.  As theologian Rudolph Bultmann describes, miracles are events that bring people from darkness into light; they are not powerful, but instead point to God who is revealed.  Miracles turn our attention to what matters in life and death.

When granted mercy, Bartimaeus stood face-to-face with Jesus, and did an amazing thing with his newly- found freedom, he did not return to society or the village; he followed Jesus, setting an example for the disciples, the other followers who witnessed the miracle and for us.  Discipleship, in Mark’s gospel, is living beyond culture and personal prestige, living a grateful life with your heart set on God.

As a preacher, I always try to avoid personal pronouns – any use of the word “I” – as a way to focus on the task at hand, proclaiming the Gospel, and not slip into personal reflections.  But at KUC I’ve fielded everything from sly curiosities, surveys of my bookshelf, to candidly blunt questions about my “call to ministry.” I suspect others also may wonder, “who is she.” Please allow me this digression.

Throughout my life, I was attentive to faith practices and church.  Growing up in Iowa, we gathered for church potlucks with casseroles and every imaginable color of Jell-O salad.  Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, and Christmas pageants; church was woven into the fabric of my life.

Although I was not raised on a farm, my parents and extended family had been farmers and modeled the disciplines of summer chores to tend a garden and “put up” 100’s of Mason jars of tomatoes or other canned produce.  Despite the labor to plant, weed, and water, there was also the task of waiting and praying for good weather so that by the time the Big Boy tomatoes were picked, any pride was also accompanied by a deep gratitude knowing that the harvest was a blessing from God and not the solo act of the gardener.  As I look back, I know this shaped my understanding of faith.

When I was on my own, like so many other young adults, Sunday worship competed with work, working out or sleeping late.  I moved to a variety of cities in the south and northeast and would settle into a church community, but also began to honestly wonder if I were an imposter, sitting shoulder to shoulder with so many others who seemed to confidently glide through the liturgies, scripture readings and sacraments without questioning.  As a young consultant, I was taught to honor an intellectual curiosity to always ask “why” and make fact-based decisions.  (Or so we tried.)  I envied others who seemed to hold within them a deep, palpable faith.  I had faith but also nagging doubts that caused me to wonder if my faith were sufficient or legitimate. How much faith is necessary?

It was only when I heard a variety of voices from the pulpit, and particularly one minister who confided her struggles with doubt, was I able to grasp how unique everyone’s experience of God, personal faith, and call in life will be.  Why such a simple truth had eluded me for so long, I’ll never know.  The gospels differ in their depiction of Christ and call to become a follower.  Paul and Peter did not see eye-to-eye on the “requirements” to be included in the early Christian community.  Even in Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets, books of wisdom and histories hold varying glimpses of God.

The day I was given the permission to hold up my faith AND claim my doubts, discovering their positive and inextricable relationship, I was free to lean into doubt, and stopped searching for certitude or “reason” my way to faith.  The freedom to walk in whatever amount of faith I could muster gave me life.

This discovery might have been my “ah-ha” moment, but Divinity School taught me of the great masters who have held together faith and doubt throughout the ages.  Augustine’s Confessions.  Nicholas of Cusa’s On Learned Ignorance. Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle. They became my friends.  20th century theologian Paul Tillich said, “If doubt appears, it should not be considered as the negation of faith, but as an element, which was always, and will always be present in the act of faith.”

One of the statements from Søren Kierkegaard, which makes sense to me, is his notion of a “the leap of faith.” Intellect and reason are limited.

I learned the tension between faith and doubt exists for many, but what matters most, is this is my faith journey, my ability and handicap to grasp hold of the kingdom of God in my life.

My leap of faith has actually been a series of small steps, which have led me to seek ordination in the Presbyterian Church.  (Don’t worry; I don’t think it is contagious.)  The past six years challenged me intellectually, exposed new doubts, some about my sanity with committee questioning, and have been filled with exams.  Next month I have the privilege of publicly defending my statement of faith, a one-page, single-spaced in 11-pt font with each line numbered.  I know Andrew endured this process.  Sarah had a similar vetting and any candidate for our senior pastor will have as well.

However tedious or stressful this process has been, I will candidly say, it was liberating to put pen to paper and thoughtfully, prayerfully learn to describe my faith, noting what words resonated, the shape of my theology as well as what I excluded.  The more I edit it over the years, the shorter it becomes.

I know we ask our confirmands to write a faith statement.  We asked our new members to commit to faithfully participate in the life of this congregation.

I wonder how many of you have written a statement of faith, rejected a creed, or have thoughtfully discerned what faith animates the way you live Monday through Friday.

My month-long tenure at KUC has taught me that as a non-denominational, non-creedal congregation you honor a variety of faith traditions, gathering the collective ideas of and desires to worship God.  I’ve also witnessed your non-denominational stance does not seek to relativize faith to a watered-down, Kool-Aid that is palatable by all but nourishes none. Instead, this freedom creates the responsibility to thoughtfully and wholeheartedly consider what you believe about God, Jesus Christ and yourself.

I am reminded of something an eye surgeon pointed out; we do not see well in grey and beige, in constant bright lights, or total darkness.  We see most clearly a variety of colors, with both light and dark.  Contrasts help us focus.  So too can our varying conceptions of faith and their underlying theologies teach us about God and our lives in God’s world.

Discerning God and God’s call to each of us can be also frustrating in a community.  Not often do Biblical literalists mix so freely with others who prefer to read the gospel as written in nature.  I imagine some members may inspire you, and some ideas may be so uncomfortable that you say “no, not for me,” but in the process, you will see more clearly what you believe. The absence of rigid doctrines or ecclesiastical guidance at KUC gives us the privilege to discern how to individually and collectively become a community of followers.

The four gospels differ in their portrayal of Christ’s death and resurrection, reminding us, the ground was level at the foot of the cross.  It is up to each of us to hear our personal call and follow in faith.