Vision for Ministry
Sometime in the last generation, no small thanks to Judy Collins and Joan Baez, “Amazing Grace” entered the list of top ten hymns. People who rarely ever go to church know at least the first verse. Some say it is the most popular hymn in the English language, and it has been translated into a score of others. “I once was lost but now and found, was blind but now I see.”
Blind, but now I see. Blindness is, of course, not only a physical condition but a psychological and spiritual one. We may not be physically blind, but we know we can be blind to reality, blind to truth, blind to conditions, blind to dangers, blind to what is obvious to everyone else. In Mark’s gospel there are two accounts of Jesus’ healing the blind. Interestingly, they are not the major examples of blindness for Mark. No, the real blind people in Mark’s gospel are the disciples! They put to rest once and for all the silly notion that if you could just be with Jesus and see for yourself what he did you would have a better crack at being faithful or at least understanding Jesus better than somef us living in the 21st century. The disciples just don’t get it. They do not understand the nature of real hunger, and so miss the point of the feeding of the five thousand and later the four thousand. They do not understand the nature of messiahship, and so try to talk Jesus out of the notion that he is to suffer and die. They shoo away the children, when in fact it is to such that the kingdom of heaven belongs. They fail to stick around at the crucifixion and they don’t show up for the resurrection. They miss the point of Jesus’ ministry, which is not about performing miracles as much as it is about spreading the Good News that God has intervened in history. Mark does not call them “blind” in so many words; but clearly that is what they are. Once when Jesus is talking to them, he points out that his habit of talking in parables is to have them understand the secret of God’s reign, while others will look and not perceive. But the more we encounter the disciples the more we suspect that it is the disciples who look and do not perceive.
Along they come to Jericho, the last stop in the Jordan valley before Jesus begins the long, steep climb to Jerusalem and death. As they are leaving, a blind beggar, Bartimaeus, finds out that Jesus is passing by. He calls out, “Jesus! Son of David! Have mercy on me!” The crowds try to shut him up. He shouts out all the louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Son of David. Bartimaeus is blind, but somehow he has the insight to see that Jesus is more than an ordinary rabbi. This is a messianic title, and the use of it is quite possibly dangerous, and might explain why the crowds want him to quiet down. Jesus calls him. Throwing off his beggar’s cloak, he springs up and comes.
“What do you want me to do for you?” asks Jesus.
He replies, “My teacher, let me see again.” Let me see again. Bartimaeus had not always been blind apparently. He had lost his sight. He wants to be able to see again.
With words that he frequently uses when he heals, Jesus says, “Go. Your faith has made you well.”
Mark places the story at a climactic and transitional moment. Bartimaeus not only recognizes and confesses Jesus as Messiah, in effect, but, once healed, he follows him on the way. And that way is tough. The road is not easy to walk, especially if one has been sitting for long hours and days begging, and especially not easy if one is old—as Bartimaeus might have been. But none of those things is exactly what Mark has in mind. Disciples who make bold to call Jesus “Teacher” follow him. They follow his example, his leadership, his life. They make it their own.
In Mark’s story, Bartimaeus stands in contrast to the rich young man who shortly before had come to Jesus asking what he needed to do. When he heard the answer—the call—to come follow, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. Bartimaeus has nothing but his old cloak, and he even leaves that behind when he comes to Jesus. He does what the rich young man does not do. He leaves it all in Jericho and follows Jesus.
So Bartimaeus becomes in some ways the model of discipleship in this gospel. In order to do the ministry of Jesus, we need vision. Or more precisely, we need to regain our vision. We once could see but now are blind, Mark might be saying to us. It is the story of the Church. There is another story of a blind man in another gospel. The religious authorities, scandalized because the healing takes place on the Sabbath, say to Jesus, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus answers them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Which is to say that the worst blindness is the one that does not recognize itself. We can amble along in the darkness not seeing, not believing, not recognizing the opportunities for service, not noticing the hungry and thirsty of the world, unaware of our own potential and of our limitations, and we can perhaps do a bit of good here and there despite our blindness. But in order to do the ministry of Jesus we need vision.
“Without vision,” says a verse in Proverbs, “without vision the people perish.” But exactly what vision do we need and can we have? I have been doing some work, as some of you know, with your rector and vestry, assessing where St. Dunstan’s is and where you might be being led in the next year or two. Several Sundays ago, we had a conversation after church in the parish hall and I asked folks to name one or two dreams they had for this church and what it would look like for those dreams to come true. Many of you were there and answered the question. But even if you weren’t, you probably know what people said. Some dream of expanded outreach. Some dream of a larger, grander music ministry. Others dream of a parish that grows in numbers and spiritual depth. These are examples of visions that quite possibly can shape and tune ministry for the next decade.
But we have to be careful. For not just any vision will do. Sometimes our memories of a bygone era pass for vision. It never works. No one ever moved into the future by successfully replicating the past, because it simply is never possible. More likely in suburban American (I have spent most of my ministry right where you are in suburbia), what passes for vision is whatever is popular or trendy. When we begin asking, “What do people want?” it is almost a sure sign that our vision is beclouded by the notion that it we could just deliver consumers their goods we would we doing good ministry. It is not that there are not people with real needs. And it is not that we should not try to meet them. But that is not the vision that the gospel both calls us to and supplies us with.
The vision that the gospel makes possible is the vision of a world where healing is possible, where people actually work for peace, and where reconciliation, forgiveness, respect and kindness govern the way we behave towards those who are closest to us as well as towards those who are most unlike us. I have a Facebook acquaintance who recently wrote a note describing the dissonance he feels between his head and his heart.
“At this stage in my life, my mind (politics) and my heart (faith) are really coming into conflict with each other. As I wrote a few months back on this blog, my position on the death penalty changed when my belief that everyone should receive a New Testament forgiveness (heart) superceded - after much internal debate - my desire for harsh, Old Testament punishment (mind). Many of my friends and I have debated the current health care reform efforts in Congress, and I am torn between my belief that everyone should have health care coverage (heart) with the belief that the government shouldn't be the body responsible for running the program (mind). I am conflicted about the fact that something should be done to end world hunger, disease, and poverty (heart) versus the thought that we shouldn't leave it up to organizations like the United Nations (mind).” My friend is honestly struggling with vision. What he describes as a conflict between heart and mind is what I see as the struggle between two competing narratives, each with a distinctive vision of reality and of the future. One is the narrative that I would name “American Self-reliance” and the other is a narrative that I would call “Christian compassion and justice.” What my friend is discovering is that these are two very distinct visions. The two may be reconcilable, or they may not be. Sometimes we simply have to say, “You know, I really feel like the rich young man who went away from Jesus sad, but still committed to protecting his own self-interest; but instead I am going to spring for new vision. I am going to take my cue from Bartimaeus and go after a new vision. And I am going to let the new vision set me on a path of following Jesus wherever that road might lead.” Individuals can say that. So can parishes.
Does it cost? Of course it does! The pull of the familiar is incredibly strong. It won’t be long before Bartimaeus finds that following Jesus is not all it is cracked up to be, because, like other disciples who have known and followed Jesus, he will most likely want to run as fast and as far as he can from the suffering and death that ministry sometimes entails. Will he miss his old life of begging? Very likely. Will he even lament the loss of his blindness? Well, it is hard to imagine, but stranger things have happened. Our forefather and foremothers of Israel, once they were in the desert wandering around with scorpions and snakes and hunger and enemies and nothing but quail and manna to eat for days on end, began to think about how good the old slavery in Egypt had been. Vision is wonderful, but it does not necessarily make life a bed of roses. In 2006, the U-2 rock star Bono, addressing the National Prayer Breakfast, said,
“A number of years ago, I met a wise man who changed my life. In countless ways, large and small, I was always seeking the Lord's blessing. I was saying, you know, I have a new song, look after it… I have a family, please look after them… I have this crazy idea… And this wise man said: stop. He said, stop asking God to bless what you're doing. Get involved in what God is doing—because it's already blessed.”
What will happen when St. Dunstan’s begins to say, “We want to see again? We want a vision of the Kingdom of God that will transform us, beginning with the oldest and running through us till it has touched everybody to the youngest in this whole place. We want to go where God is acting in the world? We want a vision that will send us to the poor that are playing house in cardboard boxes under bridges or where elderly people are tired of living and scared of dying?”
It is interesting that Jesus asks Bartimaeus what he wants. Jesus could have easily guessed. But he gives Bartimaeus the chance to say for himself, “I want to see again.” And he gives today to you and your parish the chance to say, “I want vision of what it would be like to follow you, Lord. With my money, with my time, with my talent, with my body, with my energy, with my soul: I want to join what you are doing in the world. I want to follow you on the way.