Sunday, October 25, 2015

What Do You Want Me To Do For You?

Mark 10: 46-52
October 25, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

We continue today with the final reading from the tenth chapter of the gospel of Mark. The central figure in the reading is a blind man. He cannot see, but he has a vision of being healed, and is willing to cry out for mercy to Jesus. The folk around want him to be quiet, but he won’t keep quiet. It is Bartimaeus’ initiative that opens the story, and Jesus respects him in this: “What do you want me to do for you?” he asks.

Bartimaeus: Reader’s Theater on Mark 10:46-52

Narrator: They came to Jericho.

People: Sound effects – crowd noises, a busy roadway, talking, horses, murmuring

Narrator: As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say,

Bart: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Narrator: Many sternly ordered him to be quiet

People: Hush! Be quiet! Bartimaeus, shut your yap! Stop shouting!

Narrator: but he cried out even more loudly,

Bart: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Narrator: Jesus stood still and said,

Jesus: Call him here.

Narrator: And they called the blind man, saying to him,

People: Take heart! Get up, he is calling you! Bartimaus, Jesus is calling you!

Narrator: So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.

Jesus: What do you want me to do for you?:

Bart: My teacher, let me see again.

Jesus: Go; your faith has made you well.

Narrator: Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

People: Sounds of amazement, ooh, ahh

This is the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

We heard it last week, when the two disciples approached Jesus, looking for a favor – to be the favorites, to be special. We hear it in similar form when we walk into a retail establishment – What can I do for you? How can I help you?

But I’ve jumped ahead, haven’t I – to the middle of the story.
Let’s start back at the beginning. We have been walking along with Jesus on his way to Jerusalem. He has been on the way throughout the last several chapters of Mark, and on the way he has told the disciples three times that when they get there, he will be arrested and executed, but will rise again on the third day. And all along the way the disciples have been unable to see what he is showing them. They are annoyingly blind to his identity and to his purpose.

We who are watching from afar, having already read the end of the story, we can see what is going to happen. But they have not yet gotten there. Jesus knows where he is going and what he is doing but those who are traveling with him cannot see it.

They have come through the town of Jericho, a town famous in Biblical history for the battle that was won there. The battle of Jericho was the first conquest made in the land of Canaan. The armies of Israel were told to surround the city and march around it with the ark of the covenant, blowing trumpets, six times for six days in a row. On the seventh day, they were told, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city.” And when they did, the walls came tumbling down.

The blind man outside the walls of Jericho had no such restrictions. He began to shout as soon as he heard Jesus come near. He was not the least bit shy about yelling loudly, even though the people around him tried to silence him. In his shouting, for the first time in this gospel Jesus is identified as the “son of David,” the promised one of Israel. The blind son of Timaeus somehow can see that this is the son of David.

Bartimaeus knows what he wants – and loudly says so:
“Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

While those around him may believe, may recognize Jesus, for some reason they want Bartimaeus to keep quiet. But he will not – this blind man sees his chance, and he is going to speak out loudly! At least, after Jesus notices and hears him, the crowd encourages the blind beggar. It doesn’t take much – Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, comes to Jesus.

He throws off his cloak, which is the one thing he owns that has any value, and he leaves his old life behind. He is not reluctant – he springs up! and comes to Jesus. If ever there was an enthusiastic participant in a come to Jesus meeting, Bartimaeus is it!

His faith gives him confidence to come to Jesus. He gives voice to his hope, and Jesus responds. Bartimaeus’ shouting and calling out for mercy, however unpopular it is with the people around him, is an act of faith, a statement of belief.

Jesus, of course, has the vision to truly see this blind man,
and in his mercy and love, asks him:
“What do you want me to do for you?”

The blind man answers simply, “My teacher, let me see again.”

And as you heard, Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.”

The blind man regained his sight, but he did not go – he followed Jesus on the way. On the way, of course, to Jerusalem, where others would call out to the son of David, and throw their cloaks down in front of him as he rode into the city on the back of a donkey.

Today is the day in the church year when we observe Reformation Day.
The actual date is October 31, All Hallows Eve, 1517, and it is the date on which Martin Luther gave voice to his faith and began what became the Protestant Reformation. The date – October 31, 1517, is one of the few that I insist our confirmation students memorize. It is the date when Martin Luther is believed to have nailed his 95 theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg.

Martin Luther was loudly protesting the practice of selling indulgences – offering forgiveness of sins for a price – so a person of wealth could give money to the church in exchange for forgiveness of sins. The money was going for a good cause – to renovate St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But while it was a good cause, it was not a good practice. The equivalent modern practice would be to promise people that their financial gifts to a capital campaign would mean the purchase of their salvation.

It seems obvious to us now, that God’s intent for us is to repent, and that God’s salvation for us comes by grace through faith. But when Martin Luther said it, nearly five hundred years ago, the people around him wanted to hush him up. The Roman Catholic church declared him a heretic and commanded him to be silent. But he would not stop speaking, and because Luther was willing to shout out, the Reformation began and the Protestant church was born. The very foundation of that change was one person speaking out, willing to claim God’s grace, even though others objected.

The saddest part of his story is that Martin Luther’s last sermon was attended by about five people, and he died believing he had failed. The final events of his life blinded him to the message of grace and faith he had so boldly and loudly declared.[1]

In mercy and grace, Jesus asked the blind man, and asks us, “What do you want me to do for you?"

Like the crowd on the road to Jericho, 
we need to be healed of our attempts to silence those who cry out.

Like the blind man, each one of us needs to be healed. We need to be healed of our blindness to the plight of others; we need to be healed of our lack of vision; we need to be healed of our hesitance to speak.

The good news of the gospel is that the teacher, the son of David, coming down the road toward us, and he wants to heal us, to lead us, and to transform and re-form our hearts.

The good news is that there are those around us who will say “Get up! Take heart! He is calling you!”

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus continues to call us to him, asking us “What do you want me to do for you?” It is entirely a question of grace, from the one who reaches out to us with healing, the son of David, who calls us along the way and who promises us and that our faith can make us whole.

When we have known that grace, when we have been reformed by that grace,
we joyfully, willingly, and gratefully turn to Jesus and ask him, with humble hearts,

“Jesus, Teacher, what do you now want us to do for you?”


[1] David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, October 21, 2012

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Left and Right

Mark 10:35-45
October 18, 2015
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

Some of you may be aware that much of the time, our scripture selections follow a list of suggested readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. That is a three year cycle of readings selected by an international committee called “The Consultation on Common Texts.” This cycle of readings allows for a church that follows it to cover most of the Bible over a three year period. Sometimes, the readings pair up an Old Testament reading with a gospel reading, and other times there are readings from the epistles. Every week there is a Psalm. Many churches that follow the lectionary use all of the readings every Sunday. In our worship, when we are following the lectionary, we generally use only one or two of the readings.

We tend to follow the lectionary during the school year, because in Christian Education the children and youth can then be studying and learning from the same scripture lessons we use in worship. It literally keeps us all on the same page. In today’s reading we are continuing with the Gospel of Mark, and we are in the 10th chapter AGAIN as we have been for several weeks and as we will be again next week! But for some reason, the framers of the Revised Common Lectionary chose to leave out the verses that come between last week’s reading and this one! I’m going to include them, because with them, this story makes a lot more sense.

If you remember, all through this tenth chapter, Jesus has been on the road with the disciples. What you may not know or remember is that they are on the road to Jerusalem. If you read the entire Gospel of Mark in one sitting, the tenth chapter would be the place where you begin to get a deep sense of foreboding. This tenth chapter would be the place where you would begin to realize that this journey to Jerusalem will be the last trip Jesus makes. In the very next chapter, chapter eleven, Jesus and the twelve disciples have arrived in Jerusalem, and they are untying a donkey and he is getting ready to ride into town in a parade. If that sounds like Palm Sunday, that’s because it is.

So they have been making their way to Jerusalem, and they’ve stopped a time or two for some controversy with the religious leaders, and they’ve done some preaching and healing.

And what is crucial about the part that gets left out, the part I’m going to read to you,
is that this is the THIRD time Jesus has told them this, in Mark 10:32-34

"They were on the road, going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid. He took the twelve aside again and began to tell them what was to happen to him, saying, "See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be handed over to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death; then they will hand him over to the Gentiles; they will mock him, and spit upon him, and flog him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise again."

This little episode is called a “passion prediction” -- the THIRD one.
Each of the prior two times, they have responded with an argument! This is important, for reasons that will become clear shortly. Listen now, for God’s word to you, in today’s gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary, Mark 10:35-45.

James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to him and said to him,
“Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”
And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?”
And they said to him,
“Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”
But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking.
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink,
or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”
They replied, “We are able.”
Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink;
and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized;
but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant,
but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.
So Jesus called them and said to them,
“You know that among the Gentiles
those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them,
and their great ones are tyrants over them.
But it is not so among you;
but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant,
and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.
For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve,
and to give his life a ransom for many.”

The word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.

You can see why tempers would start to fray at this point. The tension has been building for a while now. They have been traveling – walking, mind you –for several days. They have left homes, families, familiar routines, daily occupations. They have given up everything to follow Jesus, which is what they said when they protested in last week’s story. Twice before, Jesus has told them that he is going to be arrested, beaten, and killed, and that after three days, he will rise again.

The first time he told them was in Mark, chapter eight. Jesus had just fed four thousand people with seven loaves of bread. He told them quite openly that he would be arrested and killed, but after three days he would rise again. Peter didn’t like this -- tried to get him to hush. Jesus answered and said “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”

The second time Jesus made this prediction, they were passing through Galilee, right after the transfiguration on the mountaintop, and after another miraculous healing. This time, the disciples respond by getting into an argument. They argue among themselves about who is the greatest. That was when Jesus answered them saying “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And then he set a little child among them and said “whoever welcomes this child welcomes me.” That was in chapter nine.

So, now, I’m getting really exasperated with them, because here in chapter ten, he has told them a third time, and they STILL DON’T GET IT! I don’t know how much time elapses between chapters eight, nine, and the last part of chapter ten, but it can’t have taken them years and years to pass through Galilee and across the Jordan into Judea and up to Jerusalem. Seriously – how many times does he have to tell them this?

What must have been infuriating for Jesus is that once again, after he tells them this awful and wonderful future, they start arguing about who is the top dog! I mean, REALLY!

And they are like children, asking a parent – “Will you give us what we ask?”
Jesus isn’t falling for that! He asks them, “What do you want me to do for you?”
(Spoiler alert – he is going to ask the blind man the same thing, next week.)

What do you want me to do for you?

Do they want a double portion of his spirit?
Do they want him to bless them?
Do they need a clarification on a fine point of the law?
Do they need a stone turned to bread, or loved one to be healed?

They want to know, “Jesus, when you are in your glory, can we be on your right and your left?” Do we get places of honor, like prime minister and secretary of state?

Can you imagine that scene? Makes me want to scream at them: “Are you not listening?”
Jesus, however he may have been feeling, does not yell at them. Instead, he asks them if they think they can drink from the cup he is about to receive. Yes, sure, yep, oh yeah, Jesus, we are SO up for that. You betcha.

In my less noble moments, I wish Jesus had answered them “Yes! As a matter of fact, after we get to Jerusalem and I get taken to the palace, you can certainly be on my right and my left.” Because you know who ended up on the right side and the left side of Jesus, when he came into his glory. But Jesus is not angry. He is able to explain it to them once again.

The other ten disciples, however, are angry, thinking that James and John have budged the line, and tried to get ahead of them. If only they had been listening! Who would crowd ahead of someone else in order to be persecuted, in order to be flogged and spit on, and crucified? Nobody wants to be at the head of that line! Nobody even wants to be IN that line!

But with infinite love, and endless patience, Jesus tries again to make them understand, tries again a third time to let them know what it would mean to be on the right and the left of him: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Well, that doesn’t sound like much fun at all, does it?
Who would want to be on the right and left of that?

In the run up to the 2016 election, we’ve been hearing an awful lot about the right and left.
Conservative, right-leaning Christians would have you believe that there is no such thing as a liberal Christian. And liberal, left-leaning Christians would shout just as loudly that the conservative, right-wing Christians are not Christian at all.

But in Jesus’ definition, right and left mean something else altogether. In the life of a disciple of Jesus, it all ends up at Golgotha. So whether you want to be on the right or the left, following Jesus means that somehow, you end up on a cross.

Most of us have a long way to go before we would have the courage to die with him.
For most of us, the cruciform life is more about the other things within us that need to die –selfishness, arrogance, pride, ambition, greed. If our politics are informed by our faith, by following Jesus, the meaning of left and right will change. If we are listening to Jesus, and not what someone says the Bible says (even if that someone is me) we’ll have different definitions of glory and honor.

In Jesus’ definition, to be his disciple means that you aren’t on the right or left, but right there in the center, with him. Following him is a cruciform life – that is, life in the shape of a cross. Following Jesus is not about climbing to the top of the mountain, and looking down on everyone else from your pinnacle of success. Following Jesus is about climbing up the hill called Golgotha, and giving your very life as a sacrifice.

Drinking from the cup he offers, that cup of the new covenant, is to care more about loving than being loved, to be concerned more about forgiving than being forgiven. To be baptized with him is to be willing to die with him, and to be raised with him. To live like him is to serve like him. When we follow Jesus, we walk with him to the cross at calvary, serve like him to the least of all,
share like him,
give like him,
love like him.

Whether your politics lean left or right, your life belongs to Jesus,
the one who is at the center, who came not to be served, but to serve.
Thanks be to God.


Sunday, October 4, 2015


Mark 10:2-16
October 4, 2015, World Communion Sunday
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

This scripture is actually two stories in three scenes: controversy, at home, and blessing the children. Jesus has left Caparnaum and crossed the Jordan into Judea. The Pharisees, teachers of the law, confront him and ask him to answer question regarding divorce. They try to put him in a corner by asking him to interpret scripture and say something that will create trouble for him. If he answers one way, he is in conflict with Jewish laws on divorce; if he answers another way, he is in conflict with Roman laws on divorce. Either way, it is just three chapters back that Jesus learned of the execution by beheading of his cousin John the Baptist. John’s crime was criticism of Herod for marrying Herodias, who had divorced Herod’s brother in order to marry Herod. In any case, the teachers challenge Jesus, and instead of debating, he turns the conversation on end. Then at home, he discusses the matter with the disciples. Perhaps the disciples were still upset about what they had heard, when they turned the children away – but Jesus will not permit it. He indignantly insists that they let the children come. Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Mark 10:2-16.

Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There’s an old joke about a guy who asks a rabbi,
“Rabbi, why do Jews always answer a question with another question?”
The rabbi says, “Why do you ask?”
The rabbi Jesus is doing just that at the outset of this story.
The Pharisees ask a question about divorce, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
and Jesus answers with another question – “What did Moses command?”
They know the law, so they recite it. Of course, Jesus knows the law, too.
And everyone on the scene knows that the Pharisees are not asking Jesus
for information about the law of Moses.
They know it and he knows they know it.

Jesus won’t take the bait. Instead, he turns the conversation around. They want to talk about the law, and he starts talking about their hearts. They want to address a matter of interpretation of the law; he wants to talk about God’s deepest desire for humans – loving, covenant relationship. And that is what he is getting at later, in the second conversation, at home with the disciples. The disciples have asked about the subject, and Jesus again turns to the matter of covenant. He is not making new laws about marriage and divorce; he is talking about the effects of a broken covenant on the human heart.

In both Jewish and Roman law of the time, the men had most of the power.
For Jewish couples, only the man could file for divorce.
He did so by presenting a document to his wife notifying her of the divorce.
He could do so for just about any reason.

For Roman couples, marriage and divorce alike were simply a matter of making a statement in front of seven witnesses. You say you are married, you’re married – or, more likely, your parents would say you are getting married, at least for the first marriage.

Marriages were arranged to consolidate wealth and improve status. Roman women were generally married off in their early teens. Roman men usually married the first time in their mid-twenties. For Roman citizens - and only citizens could marry – to get a divorce, you just said it was so. No paperwork involved, no lawsuits. Women had slightly more independence, but only if they had money.

In both cases, Jewish or Roman, women and children were vulnerable. In Roman households, a newborn had to be accepted by the father. If he did not claim the child, it was left to die of exposure. In Jewish households, the relationship was not so harsh, but the high mortality rate of young children was such that parents did not get terribly attached to infants.

In either culture, children could be given away, or sold as servants or slaves.
There were no custody battles – children belonged to their fathers, and wives belonged to their husbands. A divorce would leave both wives and children in extremely precarious situations.

So, typical of Jesus, he privileges relationship and humanity over law and rules.
He declines to enter into a squabble about the interpretation of the law.
He is not attempting to anticipate modern jurisprudence,
nor is he making a blanket pronouncement about who may or may not marry.
Above all, this is not a proof-text for what some people call “biblical divorce.”

Instead, Jesus addresses God’s intention for marriage –
to establish a loving, intimate covenant that offers shelter, safety, security and joy
for both people, and their children, if they have them.
It is a covenant of love that protects the most vulnerable.
In taking this view of marriage,
Jesus goes outside the lines once again,
taking the discussion outside of the realm of the Mosaic law,
and moving it into the heart of the matter –
intimate relationships grounded in the creative love of God.

In our culture nowadays, there are many voices speaking about marriage. There are many who claim to have the absolute correct interpretation of scripture; they speak with the authority of one who is God’s own prophet. Often, those loud voices want to confine their discussion to the marriages of other people, not to their OWN choices about relationships.

And all too often, those voices raised with such volume and self-appointed authority have very little to say about divorce, or about troubled marriages, or those made vulnerable in a divorce.

Jesus understood that when a marriage comes apart, things get broken.
Hearts are broken, homes are broken, promises are broken.
In many cases, crockery is broken.
And in some cases, bones get broken.

People are broken. Jesus knew that.

And so he speaks not to the law, which was broken as well, but to the hearts of men and women. Intimate relationships are grounded in the creative love of God. The family is created in order to shelter and nurture that love.

It is only natural, then, that in the next scene, Jesus reaches out to the children.
Parents are bringing their children to him. They want their children to be blessed.
The disciples, who never quite seem to catch on in Mark’s gospel,
try to stop them – they tell them to go away.

Did you see any of the videos of the children coming up to Pope Francis,
on his recent visit? how the security guards tried to stop them,
but Francis reached out to them, took them in his arms, and blessed them?
It was like that, only better.

Because Jesus knows that we are broken people,
and so he takes us into his loving hands, and blesses us.
On this World Communion Sunday, Jesus sees also
that the world is broken, broken and in need of blessing.
He knows that even in our best efforts at loving relationship,
we fall short –
we struggle to love as we ought,
we lose sight of our promises,
we fail to be partners who are kind, patient, and faithful.

Jesus sees how we fail to bless children –
how children around our broken world
are left alone, hungry, begging, enslaved.
Jesus sees children kidnapped and turned into child soldiers or child brides.
He sees children shot down in their school rooms,
and grieving at the gravesides of their parents.

Jesus sees children who have been abandoned or abused,
and he sees their broken hearts and broken dreams.
It makes him indignant.

He grieves with them; he grieves with us.
But he does not merely grieve, he is not merely outraged.
His heart breaks too.

So he reaches out to us, to welcome us, to take us in his arms and bless us.
He reaches out to welcome us to his table. For this is where Jesus binds up the brokenhearted. This is where Jesus takes what is broken – our world, our relationships, our lives, our promises, and our covenants.

Jesus invites us to this table, and when we come,
all of us, from north and south and east and west, to join the joyful feast,
he takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to us. 
What is broken becomes whole.
He pours out the cup, and in it we drink of the new covenant.
The stranger becomes the welcome guest. The many become one.
The saints gather here, the sinners gather here,
and in this breaking, blessing and giving
we are renewed and restored,
our brokenness healed in the bread that is broken,
our emptiness filled by the cup that is poured,
in the blessing that is freely given –
for you, for me, for all of us,
for the world, for all time.