Sun beams through the window of the Memorial Church. The Rev. Teddy Hickman-Maynard, Associate Dean for Ministry Studies, Harvard Divinity School, preaches the Sunday sermon, on Oct. 24, 2021. File photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications
By the Rev. Teddy Hickman-Maynard
Associate Dean for Ministry Studies
Harvard Divinity School
(The following is a transcript from the service audio)
Good Morning. It's good to be in this place. I give honor to God, to the spirit of Christ that is in this place. Certainly want to thank my friend and brother, Rev. Dr. Matt Potts, for this invitation to this auspicious pulpit. So wonderful has been the hospitality and the welcome. I'm really overwhelmed with the reception that I've been given. So just want to say thank you all for having me, it's good to be here.
Scripture was read in your hearing from the gospel according to Mark, and I just want to read a small portion of it again, from chapter 10, verse 46. "They 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. They came to Jericho." For a few moments. We want to think on the subject following without faith. Let us pray.
God, we thank you for your presence in this place. We thank you for the way that you have moved throughout this worship experience. We pray God that you would once again take control of this human vessel, that these human words might somehow, through the magnificent wonder of your holy spirit, be received by your hearers as a divine word that would inspire and empower and lift us up. In Jesus name, I pray. Amen.
My son is an atheist. One of my sons to be clear. I have three sons, one daughter, and my oldest son, who is 15 years old, proclaimed himself to be an atheist around the age of eight. At the time, I didn't take him seriously because, after all, what could an eight year old know of atheism, but he was very clear about where he stood on the question of God. Over the years, I've come to realize that his conviction was not unwarranted. It was not a adolescence. It was not the wrongheaded opinion of an eight year old who didn't know any better. It was in fact his belief that he had no belief in God. And since he was eight years old, his atheism has bothered me. Can I confess to you? It has bothered me.
I grew up with a theology that would have damned him to hell for his lack of belief in Jesus Christ and God. I've long since left that theology behind and have friends in my life who are atheists. And I have no problems with them at all. I have friends of many beliefs, and none at all who are moral and upright, and standing people who have convictions about the world, and how it should be, who live lives of love and laughter, of justice and compassion. And I have no problems with them at all. So why does it bother me that my son is an atheist?
Kenda Creasy Dean, in a book called Almost Christian, What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church. She says in Almost Christian, after participating in a long study with Christian Smith and Melinda Linquis and others, the national study on youth and religion, a decade-long study of young people and what they believe about God, and how they practice their religion. They determined that the real religion of American teenagers is not Christianity, but a new religion, an amalgam of different ideas and practices that they dubbed moralistic therapeutic deism. You may have heard of this. Moralistic therapeutic deism is American teenager's way of saying, when it comes to all that religion stuff, eh.
And people are quite disturbed that these teenagers don't have the language to articulate exactly what their religious traditions would articulate to them as being the substance of their faith. They have no deep rootedness in the doctrines or histories. They have no theological frameworks with which to make sense of the world. And they're wondering what's wrong with these teenagers. Why have they strayed from the faith of their parents?
Dr. Dean says, in her book, "Our teenagers are not rejecting our faith. They are simply reflecting, in a more honest and forthright manner, the faith we are actually living before them." I reflected on this for many years and realized, my problem with my son was not that he was an atheist, my problem with my son was that he was revealing to me that I was an atheist, that despite my profession of faith, and my professions as both a preacher and a theologian, I am functionally atheist. That is, I was living a life before him as if Jesus is not the Christ.
Regardless of what I said out of my mouth, I had constructed a life that had demonstrated that I really no longer believe that Jesus was who he said he was. I was living as if Jesus could no longer heal the sick, or raise the dead. As if Jesus cannot feed multitudes, and cast out evil spirits. As if Jesus had not raised from the grave. As if death actually does have the final word. As if Jesus was not the Messiah sent from God, as if Jesus can no longer change lives and transform the world.
Indeed, when I look at the world, and the mess we've made of it, I lament that I am not optimistic about the cause of love and justice. My heart is overwhelmed at the intractability of injustice. I'm frankly in awe at its facility, at its nimbleness. How the power of evil can shapeshift into so many forms, and show up through so many faces, in so many places, over such a long time. But I'm a follower of Jesus, I'm supposed to believe in the transformational power of God's love. I'm supposed to have faith in the spirit of Christ to overcome the powers. And yet, if I'm honest, I don't have any faith that things will get better.
I used to be a news junkie. I've stopped watching the news because, with every story, it only makes my hurt worse at yet another problem, yet another example of human suffering, yet another instance of systems and structures of oppression, pressing down on people's necks. And I don't believe that we can change it. I don't believe God can change it. But what's even worse than that is that I have lost faith that God can change me. I'm a person with public gifts and private weaknesses. I know what I struggle with, so does my family, but I happen to have gifts that show up in public.
And so, I spend my life swinging between the praise of people that benefit from these public gifts, and the private anxiety of knowing that I'm still wrestling with demons that showed up from my very earliest childhood years, things that I can't seem to change about myself. I resonate so deeply with the Apostle Paul, when he talks about the thorn in the side of his flesh, that he asks God to take away, and it just won't go away. There it is, reminding him every day that he is in fact human.
But I'm a follower of Jesus. I have the spirit of Christ. I'm supposed to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. I'm supposed to be able to overcome the power of the enemy. I'm supposed to be able to put on the full armor of God. And yet, when you find yourself wrapped up in cycles, some days I'm better, some days I think I've made it, some days I think I've overcome, some days I think I'm a new person, only to find myself having the same old struggles. And I think to myself, "How can I follow if I don't have faith?"
This struggle inside of me is the reason why characters like Bartimaeus just annoy me. I mean, Bartimaeus is one of these super Christians. Bartimaeus is one of these people that makes it look like I can never, ever be a follower of Christ, if this is the kind of faith that it takes to be a follower of Jesus, I have no shot. Here he is, Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, who was blind, which of course on its own is nothing to be upset about or ashamed about. Folks who cannot see live full and wonderful lives. They have gifts just like everybody else. That's not a deficiency. It's simply a fact of his life.
But because of this fact of his life, society had decided to restrict his movement. Society had decided that, because he could not see that he was less than fully human and could not participate in the fullness of society, "Sit right there, Bartimaeus. That's your spot. That's where you belong. Blind folks are not allowed to traverse the city and participate in its fullness. No, you sit right there in that spot. That's where you belong. You can never aspire to anything more than begging for scraps. And when we decide you're worthy of it, we'll toss you a penny. Otherwise, sit there, be quiet, and wait for somebody to give you some charity."
Bartimaeus lived his life under that kind of oppression, under that kind of stress and pressure, and that kind of dehumanizing, if anybody deserve to not have any faith in humanity, to not have faith in God, to not have faith in Jesus, it should have been Bartimaeus. And yet when he heard that Jesus was passing through, Bartimaeus rose up from all within and shouted, "Jesus, son of David. Have mercy on me." Son of David, in the gospel according to Mark, this is the first time that Jesus is described with this tidal of royalty, with this messianic language, with this acknowledgement of the power and the true legacy of what Jesus, his presence in humanity meant. Bartimaeus not only had faith that Jesus could change him, but Bartimaeus had the faith to see who Jesus really was, and that Jesus was the one sent from God to change the world.
"Son of David." Bartimaeus says. I know who you are. I know the fullness of your promise. I believe everything that the scriptures say about you. I believe all of God's promise. All of God's love. All of God's wisdom. All of God's hope. All of God's peace. All of God's goodness is wrapped up inside of you and your ministry. I have that kind of faith. So Jesus, if you are who you say you are, you can do something with me, and sure enough, even after others told him to be quiet, he cried out even more. So strong was his faith. Jesus told them to get Bartimaeus and tell him, "Come here, Bartimaeus." Hearing Jesus's call, throws off his cloak, Springs up from the place he was relegated to by society, breaks all conventions, and runs to his freedom.
"What do you want me to do for you?" Bartimaeus says, "My teacher, let me see again." And Jesus, Jesus doesn't just heal him. Jesus gives him the secret behind his healing. He says "Go. Your faith has made you well." And immediately, Bartimaeus regained his sight, and followed him on the way. Now, that's a follower of Jesus. Someone full of faith. So much faith that Jesus says, "I'm compelled to grant your healing because of the faith you have." That's what a follower looks like.
So how can there be any hope for me? But the passage doesn't actually begin with Bartimaeus. It begins with this amorphous group, simply labeled as they. They came to Jericho. They, this pile of people who are following Jesus from town to town, this pack of people, the Bible says, "Made up of disciples and a large crowd." They. The whole group was following Jesus. They. And among this they included another group called many, and the many sternly ordered Bartimaeus to be quiet, when he called out for Jesus. This group called the many said to Bartimaeus, "Be quiet, stop calling out that name." This any did not understand what Bartimaeus was saying, and to whom Bartimaeus was calling for. They did not know the fullness of who Jesus was, and did not know that this was a moment of healing right in their midst. This many did not have the faith of Bartimaeus.
This many included disciples who just, the previous verses before, showed that they did not have the faith to understand Jesus's actual identity for when Jesus said, "What do you want from James and John?" They said, "We want to sit on your right and on your left, when you rise to your glory." And Jesus had to instruct them, "That's not who I am. You don't even understand who I am." These are disciples followers of Jesus who did not understand what Jesus was all about. These same disciples, who just a little while before, the chief among them, Peter, would actually chastise Jesus, saying, "Surely, Jesus, you are not to suffer." And Jesus had to chastise him in return. Why? Because he didn't have the faith to know what Jesus was all about.
This many included people who wanted healing from Jesus, and would acknowledge openly they didn't even have the faith for that. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief. This many includes people who did not have that kind of faith. And yet, these people without faith were followers of Jesus. These people who, over and over again, showed themselves to be insufficiently faithful, were among the number of those following Jesus. Sometimes Jesus would point out their failures, but Jesus never told them to go away. Sometimes Jesus would correct their mistakes and tell them, "You aren't thinking right. You aren't seeing properly. You don't have a good concept of what God is up to, and what God is capable of." Sometimes Jesus had to tell them, but Jesus never told them they couldn't follow.
The passage begins with this nameless, faceless crowd, who are following Jesus without faith. All what hope there is for us, who find ourselves following the way of Jesus, and looking over at Bartimaeus, who was following with such great faith. All what hope there is for us, this morning. For when I look in this passage, Bartimaeus is outnumbered by many, many, many, many other people who can't even hold a candle to his faith, and who Jesus yet did not throw away. Oh, what hope there is for me, for all of the people in that crowd who didn't have the faith to be healed, who didn't have the faith to understand, who didn't have the faith to believe change was possible, but yet found something powerful enough about following Jesus, that they kept pressing their way into the crowd, from city to city to city. They just kept showing up, and Jesus kept welcoming them.
I grew up with a theology that said I was to make Jesus my personal Lord and savior, but I'm so grateful that the Bible never actually says that. Jesus did not come and establish individual relationships with individually-faithful people. Jesus came and grew a crowd around him. Jesus came to build a community of followers, a community that had people in it, who were strong and people who were weak, a community that had people who were faithful and people who were without faith, a community of people who got healed, and people who left their whole lives, waiting on their healing, and it never came. A community of people who would follow all at the same time. Some were right, some were wrong, and yet they were able to follow Jesus.
Anyway, thank God for the church, because it means I can belong to the number of those that get to be in Jesus' presence, even when I don't believe. Thank God I get to follow Jesus, and learn about this way that they talk about, even when I don't feel I'm following that way perfectly. And here's the real good news. This many, this crowd of unfaithful people, not only were they able to follow Jesus, be in his presence, but when it came time for the miracle, Jesus didn't even speak to Bartimaeus directly at first. It says, "Jesus told them," That crowd of people full of faithless people who told Bartimaeus to shut up, Jesus told them, "Hey, you go tell Bartimaeus that I said come here." And they told Bartimaeus, "Hey, you. Take heart, for Jesus is calling you."
Not only do they get to follow Jesus without faith, but Jesus still allows them to participate in a miracle they didn't even have the faith to see. "Shut up." They told Bartimaeus. Surely their lack of faith should have disqualified them from partnership with Jesus. And yet Jesus says, "Yes, you. The ones who were discouraging him five minutes ago. I want you to be the one to go tell him that he's going to be healed today, so that you can participate in my work, even though you don't believe in it."
So many of us find ourselves following without faith, wondering, "Is it okay that I'm still here even though, in my heart, sometimes I don't believe? Is it okay that I still try to read scripture, even though I know that it's full of all these problems and inconsistencies, and all of this injustice is rooted in certain interpretations of this book? Is it okay that I come here and worship, even though, in my mind, I'm not sure that we're praising and worshiping any entity that is resembling anything real? Is it okay that I still pursue a way of love and justice, even though I don't believe that justice will have the last word?" The good news of the gospel this morning is, not only is it okay to follow without faith, but it is imperative that you keep following, especially when you don't have faith.
So keep on following the love of Jesus. This way of love and justice, even when you don't have faith, that it'll make a difference. Keep on loving your enemy, even when you don't think it's going to change their heart. Keep on forgiving your enemies, even when you don't have faith that war will ever be overcome. Keep on trying to make peace, even if you don't believe that the oppressor will ever let their grip go of the oppressed. Keep on fighting for those who are re oppressed, even when you don't believe that the systems and structures will ever change. Keep on being a voice for the voiceless, even when you don't believe that anything will ever make a difference. Keep on feeding the hungry. Keep on speaking for those who are incarcerated. Keep on befriending the friendless. Keep on praying to a God who you're not sure is listening. Keep on singing the songs of praises in the continents of the assembly of God.
Keep on worshiping in the assembly. Keep on following Jesus. And in the following, some way, somehow, by the miracle of the holy spirit, God will use you to bless somebody else, and you will be able to see that, in spite of your lack of faith, you can still partner with God in making this world look more like the beauty of God's creation. Even if you are not faithful, you can still follow. Amen.