In the name of God- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Taste and see that the Lord is good. Happy are they who trust in him.” That verse from today’s Psalm is well known and is fitting for our final Sunday of our financial stewardship campaign. This month has been a great one in terms of community involvement in the mission and ministries of St. Francis. We have heard stories of ways that pledging enables ministry and we have read inspiring testimonies in the bulletins. I want to thank you all for participating in being a blessing through your financial stewardship. And of course, I want to thank the Stewardship Committee for its wonderful leadership in putting such a strong program together. They’ve really worked to frame stewardship not as a fundraising campaign, but rather as a way of responding to God’s blessings bestowed up on us. And in this sermon, I’d like to build upon that idea, suggesting that filling out your pledge card, while being important in following Jesus, is just one step in that journey.
This morning I’d like to consider the first verse of our Psalm in detail- “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall ever be in my mouth.” Notice what the Psalmist doesn’t say. They did not say “I will bless the Lord when I feel good, or when I am happy, or when I remember to, or when I can make time in my busy schedule.” It seems rather easy, rather cliché. The WWJD?, or what would Jesus do?, movement became popular in the 1990s. Followers of Jesus could wear a bracelet. For centuries, people have worn cross necklaces are reminders of their discipleship. Even the latest polling data suggests that many Americans self-identify as Christians. It seems that we have a lot of people who would check off the box next to “do you bless the Lord at all times?”
But you and I know that isn’t the truth. For a country full of people who say that we are One Body in Christ, we seem to have a division that runs right down the middle. According to estimates, there are nearly 2,000 homeless children in Greensboro. Racism, though it is supposedly illegal, still runs through our civil discourse. Our government spends more on war and defense than it does on healthcare and education. That doesn’t sound like a group of people who follow the Prince of Peace to me.
The point is this: it’s really easy to say that you’re a follower of Jesus, but it’s another thing to be a racial disciple who does it. The problem is the emergence of cultural Christianity, which in itself is an oxymoron since everything about Jesus was counter-cultural. In the same way that when you meet someone who is Jewish, it is acceptable to wonder if they are practicing or simply ethnically Jewish, Christianity has moved into that realm. And this isn’t about judging people or condemning them by saying that they’re not really a Christian, but it is about Christian accountability, or as St. Paul puts it “speaking the truth in love.”
We have perverted the meaning of discipleship, we’ve lost sight of Jesus on the road, and we have confused the meaning of the word “believe.” Today, if I ask if you believe in God, you probably think that I’m asking you where you stand on the intellectual proposition of there being a creative force in the universe. Ask a Christian if they believe in Jesus and they’ll say yes, while holding social views which are simply unchristian. How does this happen?
The word “believe” historically has always connoted dedication, love, and trust. Belief has very little to do with the brain, and much to do with the heart and hands. But in our reversal of these meanings, we’ve lost a sense of following Jesus and instead are too comfortable with just thinking about him. And this is really what stewardship is about, this is why pledging is such a sign of faith. It isn’t just saying that you go to St. Francis and support our ministry, it is, rather literally, putting your money where your mouth is.
At clergy conference earlier this month we had a speaker who has a powerful story. Her name is the Rev. Sarah Jobe, a Baptism minister. She told the story of being at Duke Divinity School with a passion for Jesus. But she, like many of us, lived a busy life. Her schedule was full, but her passion for the Gospel drove her to do some church work. And she made it clear that this wasn’t just a few hours a week, she was at church several days a week, serving those in need. And one day she realized how tiring it was to be a Christian.
And I think we can all sympathize with this. Between work, the gym, cooking dinner, getting kids ready at night, maybe a few church meetings, and swim meets, there really isn’t much time left for doing anything else. Even if we think feeding the hungry is important, when do we find the time to do it? I’m sure we’d all like to read Scripture daily, but not if it’s stressful just to make the time for it.
Then one day, she had an epiphany. She realized that she didn’t have time to be a Christian in her spare time anymore; there simply weren’t enough hours in the day. So she decided to be a Christian all the time. She asked herself, what difference does it make that I’m a Christian in my life? What difference does it make to my family? To my community? To my church? To my bank account? She couldn’t find time to do 20 hours a week of church volunteering, but there was plenty of time to be a Christian 24x7. And in being a Christian first and foremost instead of in her spare time, she found it easier to reorient her life. Daily practices of prayer and Scripture reading weren’t hard to fit in because she had a Christian life, not a life and then put other stuff in as able. She commented that she doesn’t do ministry, but she lives a life. It just so happens that she does a lot of ministry in her life.
Let’s turn to Bartimaeus and today’s gospel reading, as he gets it. So he’s a blind beggar, and somehow he’s heard the legend of Jesus, that he restores sight to the blind. So when Jesus passes by, he screams out. People tell him to be quiet, so he screams louder. You might say that praise was ever in his mouth. Jesus calls him over, and he immediately gets up and throws off his cloak, which as a bold move. He knew that something special was about to happen because if he still expected to be a blind beggar after encountering Jesus, he would have needed his only cloak to keep warm. But he casts it aside, confident that Jesus will help him. And it plays out the way he hoped for, he can see again. But then the important part of the story, “and then he followed Jesus on the way.”
“The way” was a termed used to describe those who followed Jesus in the years after his crucifixion. To be a member of The Way was to be a disciple. And think back to the past few Sundays in Mark. Jesus has been talking for several weeks about the last being first and taking up our crosses and his impending execution. Everyone knows where Jesus is going and where his way will lead, but Bartimaeus believes in Jesus, he loves him, trusts him, is dedicated to him. So he follows him to Jerusalem, the place where Jesus will die. The Bible doesn’t ever again mention Bartimaeus, but I’d bet my bottom dollar that he was active in the early church.
His actions recall the tone of that great spiritual hymn: “I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back, no turning back.” It’s about following Jesus all the way, about going all-in, about blessing the Lord at all times. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes from one of my favorite books. In The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis tells the story of a demon who is coaching another demon on how to tempt humans and lead them to hell. The teacher says, “If you can get him to the point of thinking ‘religion is all very well up to a point,’ you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all- and more amusing.”
It’s a trap that we all fall into, thinking that “Christianity is all good up to a point.” We rationalize tough texts telling ourselves, “surely Jesus didn’t really tell that man to sell all of his possession. Jesus doesn’t really want me to take up my cross, I’m too important doing his work. If I go crazy for Jesus, people will discredit me, and then I won’t be an effective witness in the world, so I better stay in the middle.” But Bartimaeus didn’t seem to say these things, neither did Jesus, nor the Psalmist.
The solution to cultural Christianity, the way to fill that void in our hearts, the means to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven is in the simple to understand but challenging to live words of our psalm- “I will bless the Lord at all times.” Yes, this is radical, it might seem uncomfortable and even crazy, yet we follow a Messiah who was executed for being too far off the deep end. The way for the vine to grow the strongest is to have its roots grow deep within us. It is the call of our Baptisms, and it is our hope for the world. Reconciliation, redemption, and salvation come when we fling the doors of our hearts and lives open to God.
As I sat there, being inspired by Sarah’s testimony of following Jesus, I felt a really strong desire to deepen my own discipleship. But I honestly had no clue where to start. Part of me really toyed with the idea of selling it all, or at least most of it. So I talked to one of the other presenters who had a similar story. And he reminded me of that wonderful psalm that says “your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The thing about this metaphor is that a lamp only illuminates a few steps in front of you. If we are to be like Bartimaeus, following Jesus, we don’t necessarily need to know where we end up, but we simply need to believe, or trust, that that Jesus will be with us along the journey. We don’t need a map, just faith.
There is a comic strip that runs online called “Coffee with Jesus,” and about a week ago there was a good one where a man says to Jesus “I like being a believer in you, Jesus. You’re a good friend.” Jesus says “And I like that you’re a believer, but I’d prefer you be a disciple.” The man replies “What’s the difference?” And Jesus says “discipline.” The way to following Jesus, the means to praise God at all times isn’t in having some grand plan, it isn’t in being as virtuous as St. Francis, but it is in the thousands of decisions we make every day and how we practice discipline.
How will I react to that slow waitress? Do I flip off that driver that cut me off? Do I tell the clerk that they gave me a $10 bill instead of $5? After as stressful day at work, do I take it out on my spouse by having a short temper? Do I practice stewardship by giving some of God’s blessings to those in need? Do I lend a helping hand to my coworker in need? Do I comfort those who mourn, or do I ignore them? Do I stand up for those without of voice, or do I remain polite and not talk about religion or politics? Do I tell the bullies to leave that other kid alone, or do I laugh at him? How do I handle adversity, with hope or with despair? Do I have the discipline of living into my Baptismal vow to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers? Do I love God? Do I trust God? Do I dedicate all of my life and being to God’s Kingdom?
It takes discipline to make all of these small decisions, but they add up to a life of discipleship. It has become too common to equate Christianity with belief in facts about God instead of living a life fully dedicated to God. Focusing on the blessing of discipleship has been our focus for this stewardship campaign, but it won’t end today. Stewardship is a lifestyle. Like Bartimaeus, may we be confident in Jesus and follow him on the way of life, one step at a time. Let us take the words of Psalm 34 with us, that we might bless the Lord at all times, with God’s praise ever being in our mouths. Let our prayer today be in the wonderful words of the classic hymn, God of grace and God of glory: Save us from weak resignation, to the evils we deplore. Let the search for thy salvation, be our glory evermore. Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, serving thee whom we adore. Amen.