Text: Mark 10:46-52
Every life needs one; every Bob Hope and Bing Crosby movie depended on one, and every college student dreams of one. What am I talking about? An epic road trip, of course.
In 2007 your pastors took an epic road trip together to visit our sister church in the Republic of Georgia. I knew the trip was going to have some anxious moments when sitting on the tarmac at RDU I saw Rev. Petty rubbing her prayer beads together so hard I was afraid that a fire might break out. Then I noticed the young man next to her who seemed to be in far worse shape than Nancy. It turns out this was his first plane trip ever and he was terrified. When he asked Nancy what the beads were that she was rubbing, she explained they were prayer beads. Then the guy asked, “You wouldn’t happen to have any more of those would you?” And Nancy, who would have made a great Boy Scout, said: “I sure do.” And for the rest of the flight the two of them rubbed their prayer beads until we landed.
The “epicness” of this trip would take me hours to detail, so let me break it down into a few short descriptive sentences. We arrived in Tbilisi at 3:00 a.m. because of a missed connection and a few hours later a lovely but psychotic Bishop named Malkhaz was trying to kill us by having us climb a mountain to an outdoor worship service. Malkhaz trying to kill us on mountains would become a theme of our journey. Our luggage was lost and didn’t show up for days, so I took to wearing a monk’s robe and was even on national television in Georgia wearing my humble garment. We took a two-day trip to visit a house church in the countryside that did not have indoor plumbing, and in a feat of incredible intestinal fortitude, Nancy refused to use the bathroom for two days. We saw amazing sites, met wonderful new friends, and spent most waking hours wondering what insane activity Bishop Malkhaz had in store for us next. Yes, it was epic in all the best and worst ways a trip can be.
The story of Jesus and his disciples includes an epic road trip. At the end of his three years of ministry in the region of Galilee, Jesus decides it is time to go south to Jerusalem for a great showdown with the religious leaders. This trip is so fraught with danger that Peter tries to talk him out of it; Thomas famously declares that they should go with him so they could “die with him,” and all along the way Jesus’ mood and declarations grow darker as he speaks candidly about the death he is certain to experience at the conclusion of the journey. And then they come to Jericho.
In Jericho the trip takes an interesting turn. Crowds of people start to join with Jesus and his disciples. People are excited about what Jesus is doing and speculation is rampant about what great things he might accomplish in Jerusalem. And if you were one of the disciples, try to imagine what impact this enthusiastic crowd would have on you. You have been traveling for days assuming you were walking into a death sentence, and now you encounter people who want to embrace you, not kill you. This blend of anxiety and excitement must have made it difficult for the disciples to keep their equilibrium.
The one thing that we can say for sure about this epic road trip Jesus and his followers find themselves on is that the focus is squarely on the near future. In just a couple of days they will arrive in Jerusalem, and whatever is going to happen will happen quickly. All of their momentum, all of their thoughts, and all of their anxiety and hopes are attached to what is coming.
Do you know this feeling? The feeling of having one foot already in tomorrow? The feeling that what is truly important is not what is happening now, but what is about to happen? I think that is the feeling our church is experiencing these days.
One of the pastors has resigned (he who shall not be named) and we are wondering about the future leadership of the congregation. The recession has hit us just like everyone else and we are struggling to fund what we want to do. We’ve had a difficult conversation about staffing and budgets, and we have more in front of us. All the questions and concerns that we are having as a church right now seem to be about what is next. The near future has us captivated to the point of distraction.
So maybe it would be wise for us to observe what Jesus does on his road trip that goes through Jericho. In the midst of all the anxiety and excitement, a parade of sorts has formed as he moves through the town. This could be the messiah, or it could be a dead man walking, but either way it was enough to generate a big crowd. And in the midst of all that drama, and momentum, and chaos, we are told that a blind beggar named Bartimaeus starts calling from the side of the road to get Jesus’ attention. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And everyone tells the old man to shut up. Jesus is heading to Jerusalem. He’s got something to do and somewhere to be. He doesn’t have time today for blind beggars. But Bartimaeus won’t be denied. “Son of David, have mercy on me.” And what Jesus does in response to Bartimaeus’s pleas makes me love Jesus more than almost anything else written about him. The text says, “Jesus stood still…”
It wouldn’t be hard to stand still if we were walking down Hillsborough Street by ourselves and someone started yelling our name and asking us to stop. But if we were going down Hillsborough Street headed for the Capitol, surrounded by thousands of people who wanted to make us governor, then I imagine a single beggar on the side of the road couldn’t stop that parade no matter what he said to us. But that’s exactly what Jesus does in this story. With all the momentum directed toward Jerusalem, with all the anxiety and excitement focused on what was about to happen, Jesus stops. Bartimaeus represents the here and now, and his need for healing is more important in that moment than anything that is about to happen. I love this story, and I love what it says about Jesus, not because of the miraculous element; I love the human element. Jesus stood still long enough to notice what was important.
In just a few minutes we are going to make our pledges to the church for the coming year. Now I recognize the irony of the resigning pastor asking you to be sacrificial in your commitment. It’s akin to your personal trainer putting on thirty pounds and yelling in your face to “feel the burn.” Something just doesn’t add up there. So, all I want us to do before we make our pledges is what Jesus did in this story. In the midst of our wonderings and anxieties about the near future of our church, I want us to stand still long enough to notice what is happening right now.
We are doing important work with the Bartimaeuses of our community. The Hope Center at Pullen is a dream come true for many us. While there will always be a hundred more needs for every one we meet, every person who finds hope in the Hope Center is a healing miracle of its own kind. We have just completed a capital campaign where we exceeded our most optimistic goal by three hundred thousand dollars. The next time you wonder how generous this congregation is, remember that fact. Pullen’s staff and lay leadership are not only capable of leading this church through the transition to come, but they are gifted ministers who have demonstrated their gifts for many years. You are in good hands. And the thing that has really made me stand still and notice since I announced my resignation is the number of non-Pullen people who have contacted me to say, “I love your church because it represents something important in our community and world.” The next time you find yourself in a three-hour congregational meeting, and you start to despair about what is happening inside these walls, just remember that outside these walls are thousands of people who find inspiration from this band of dysfunctional believers. Lord knows we are far from perfect, but there are moments when what this church stands for is as perfect as anything I have seen in this life. Before we make our pledges today, let us stand still long enough to notice these truly important things.
Two years ago, on the last Sunday of our epic road trip to the Republic of Georgia, Nancy and I helped lead worship at the packed cathedral in Tbilisi. There was standing room only, and though it lasted almost three hours, no one left early. The British Ambassador spoke; a cross of nails from Coventry Cathedral like the one in the back of our church was presented; bishops were consecrated; in other words, it was a full service. Then, at the end, Nancy preached and Malkhaz translated. When the service was over, we went to the back of the church to shake hands with people as they departed. And the most wonderful thing started to happen. The women of the church, especially the older women, started coming to Nancy with tears in their eyes to hug and kiss her. She must have seemed like a miracle to these ladies who grew up in a traditional, patriarchal culture, and they needed to touch her to make sure she was real. I’m not sure the white guys in Europe who started the Reformation 500 years ago could have imagined it would lead to a Baptist lesbian inspiring old women in the Republic of Georgia, but sure enough that’s where it had led that day. And I stood off to the side and watched this unfold with true gratitude for the privilege of being there in that moment. All of the anxieties I had felt on that trip, all the worries of which mountain Malkhaz would kill me on, disappeared. I just stopped and took it in, and knew in my heart it had all been worth it.
What is to come will come. What is to be will be. For what is here now, in this place we call Pullen, let us stand still, and notice, and give thanks.