For October 28, 2018 (Proper 25, Year B): Nevertheless, They Persisted

[This is actually a sermon preached at All Saints Episcopal Church, Indianapolis.] 

Mark 10:46-52 (below): Our hearts are broken today. We are grieving. We are angry. We want more than hollow-sounding assurances of thoughts and prayers, however well intended. My reflections on this week’s Gospel were mostly written before I turned on the news yesterday. They do address where we are today, though I think the tone would have been very different. So bear with me as we reflect on this lesson together.

What do the beggar Bartimaeus and Elizabeth Warren have in common? Hint: it has nothing to do with anybody’s ancestry. Try this: “Many sternly ordered [Bartimaeus] to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly.” “[Senator Warren] was warned … Nevertheless, she persisted.” They both persisted. They both persisted nevertheless.

Senator Warren was silenced for speaking out, for being critical of the appointment of Jeff Sessions as Attorney General—mind you, not nearly as critical of him as our very own President has become, but critical enough for the majority in power to invoke a little known and seldom observed rule to put a stop to her objections. “She was warned,” said Mitch McConnell, “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

To Senator McConnell’s chagrin, that phrase, “Nevertheless, she persisted,” has now become a rallying cry for women who continue to experience efforts to silence them when they speak out. It doesn’t just describe a speech—a speech delivered in a mostly empty chamber that might have gone unnoticed if simply allowed to continue. It describes the efforts of centuries of women who refused to be silenced: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton—the usual suspects—or more recently Rosa Parks, or even more recently, the Me Too Movement, or in the Bible, Tamar, the Canaanite woman, “the persistent widow,” Mary Magdalen, or in our own church, the Philadelphia Eleven, ordained priests before we made it legal, or in our own diocese, Jackie Means, the first woman legally priested on this very spot in 1977. All of them were pressured to quiet down, to stay in their place. Even Jackie was pressured, though if you know Jackie you know that most people didn’t try that with her more than once. Nevertheless, they persisted.

Today our Gospel lesson focuses on another who persisted. He persisted, nevertheless. Bartimaeus also knew what it was like to be shoved to the margins, this time because of a physical disability, forced to beg, and pressured to keep quiet about it. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’”

And this Son of David stopped what he was doing, invited Bartimaeus to come near, asked him what he wanted, and then, perhaps most surprisingly, declared that he already had what he wanted because of his faith. “Go, your faith has made you well.”

“Your faith has made you well.” Nowadays, we hear that that word “faith,” and we’re tempted to think Jesus is talking about something going on inside our heads. Some have even turned it into that victim-blaming, mind-over-matter Law of Attraction: what you believe either creates or allows everything that happens to you—everything (http://jackcanfield.com/blog/take-100-responsibility-for-your-life-starting-today/). So on that reading I guess Bartimaeus’ beliefs must have created his own blindness, only now his new beliefs must have cured it.

But Jesus isn’t talking about what goes on inside our heads. He’s not talking about beliefs. He’s using the word “faith” the way his own Bible, the Hebrew Bible, uses it. Jesus is talking about the faith of Abraham. There’s a phrase from Genesis (15:6) that the New Testament quotes whenever faith gets mentioned. Usually it’s translated, “Abraham believed God” (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). But that’s not quite what Genesis actually says. First of all, the word for “God” is “YHWH,” which by Jesus’ time, in Jewish ears, had come to mean “the One Who Will Be No Matter What,” or right now we could shorten that to “the Ever-Persisting One.” So that’s God, the Ever-Persisting One. And then the word that’s usually translated as “believed” (he’emin) is more accurately translated as “persisted with.” Abraham persisted with the Ever-Persisting One. Abraham echoed in his own life who God is in every life, the Ever-Persisting One, the One Who Persists No Matter What—the One Who Persists ... Nevertheless.

And so did Bartimaeus. When Bartimaeus refused to be silenced, when he nevertheless persisted, he echoed in his own life the God who is in every life, the One Who Persists Nevertheless, persists no matter what. And that, Jesus says, is what made him well, what has already made him well before he began to see again—his echoing the Life of all lives who also refuses to be silenced.

Of course, Bartimaeus did begin to see again—immediately, we’re told—so I wonder if he noticed what Jesus had just said. Your persisting, your echo of God’s persisting, has already made you well.

It was another version of Jesus’ favorite sermon. You’ve heard it. “The kingdom of God has come near,” the beloved community of justice, peace and wellbeing has begun to arrive right now. Sometimes its arrival brings remarkable moments of healing and celebration—just ask Bartemaus. But sometimes it looks like nothing will ever be better. Bartimaeus may be well, but the Romans are still here; rejection, persecutions, even executions are still going to happen. Jesus can see that, and soon his followers will see it too. In fact, the way Mark tells it, it’s only about one more week before Jesus is dead and all his followers have deserted him in fear. Nevertheless, Jesus preached this unlikely sounding message: God’s reign has already come near. It’s already taken root and can’t be weeded out. It’s persisting, nevertheless, no matter what.

No matter what. These days it may feel as if there’s a whole lot of “what” that’s threatening to drown out even a glimpse of God’s beloved community. I asked one of my sons the other day about whether he felt encouraged by the changes that might happen with the upcoming elections. (He was a political science major in college, so I always consider him more of an expert about politics than I am.) He said the outlook still looked pretty bleak to him, no matter who has control of the House or Senate. No matter who wins, the level of mutual hostility and suspicion seems to be growing. This week alone attacks on trans identities are legally sanctioned. Public figures receive pipe bombs in the mail from a political opponent. A synagogue is attacked, faithful worshipers slain, while our President blames the synagogue for not arming itself. Whole populations are refusing to believe well-attested facts. And despite our efforts to get out the vote, many of the most vulnerable among us will be under-represented at the polls. Sometimes it looks like nothing will ever get better.

Nevertheless, no matter how ridiculous it may look, we gather here to celebrate the longed-for beloved community that has already arrived, that began to arrive even as Jesus headed for Jerusalem to face his own execution, that began to arrive even when it looked like nothing would ever get better. We gather here not just to hear Jesus’ message but to taste and see it in broken bread and poured-out wine. Maybe it looks foolish, but in all of this God is still speaking to us in Jesus’ voice: Your persisting, your echo of my persisting, has already made you well. It’s joined you to the One who will never give up, no matter what, and that is where you will find of the wholeness all of us seek.

Bartimaeus persisted, Jesus persisted, his followers persisted, Jackie Means persisted, Senator Warren persisted, Christine Blasey Ford persisted. Tree of Life Synagogue is persisting. Seemingly insurmountable forces conspired and still conspire to silence them. Nevertheless, they persisted. And despite all that’s happened to counter their efforts, their persistence has made them well, and us well, already. And so will ours today. Believe. Persist. Amen.

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 Mark 10:46-52: Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho. 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, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.