A Meditation on Mark 10:32-52. Sunday, May 13, 2012.
You know how, every once in a while, you stumble upon a book you want all your friends to read? It hits you just that hard. Or it brings you to tears and you want everyone to know why. Well, here’s the book I’m begging you to read. It’s called These Dreams of You by Angelino Steve Erickson. I’ve got fifty copies right here, right now. I want you to think about taking one. I want you to feel this story, then come back, and we’ll talk about it.
The novel traces the story of an American family as they lose their California home to foreclosure. It’s very contemporary. How they doubt themselves and fear their future. How they rage against the money machine that mindlessly eats them whole. At the same time, the story explores the sharp edges of race and racism in America as that same family struggles to raise the very black girl they’ve adopted in a very white world. And it all happens in the weeks and months after the election of America’s first African-American president.
Hope and cynicism seem to wage war across this book’s pages. I don’t know. Does that sound familiar? Hope and cynicism waging war in our hearts? Alexander and Vivian are young, creative, idealistic; and they’re in the process of losing just about everything. Questions abound. Questions around suffering and vocation. Questions around history and redemption. Are we at last defined in America by bank accounts, mortgage statements, the latest and greatest gadgets? Or is ours a higher calling still—a community of compassion where neighbors still risk tenderness and redemption measures success? Here’s a couple in profound distress. And a country coming apart at the seams.
Here’s just a taste, the narrator’s commentary on the summer of what must have been 2009. “At citizens meetings in towns across the country,” he writes, “people are becoming unhinged about...everything. These are people who were not part of the small era of good feelings that followed the election; these are people who held their tongues. The hysteria isn’t really about what’s proposed or opposed or the facts of these things, no more than was the original hysteria. As was the original hysteria, it’s about the president himself and how into a time of tumult and anxiety has come someone that some regard as so alien that now the emotional tenor of every debate is separated from reality. It’s the dark nihilist brethren of the euphoria that greeted the new president’s election, the commensurate response to a hope and promise too uncommon and maybe delusional to last any longer than fleetingly” (Page 191).
Now there’s the language that brought me to tears the first time around. That there might have been, in 2008 and 2009, “a hope and promise too uncommon and maybe delusional to last any longer than fleetingly.” Are we reduced now, in this country, to delusion and hopes that pass fleetingly across our desktop screens? It really hurts to read it again.
And yet, and yet, like a masterful storyteller, Steve Erickson finds—in the midst of all this chaos: foreclosures and displacement and the even the unraveling of a marriage—another story. Another American story.
You’ll have to read for yourself to see how these stories connect, and how, in the end, they redeem one another. But this second story is a story of repentance and conversion, a story of vision and sacrifice. It’s the story, in part, of Bobby Kennedy in the 60s.
Now it’s fictionalized. It’s all part of the writer’s construct, his struggle to understand America in the 21st century. But what Steve Erickson does with the Bobby Kennedy story is tender and provocative. It’s both troubling and inspiring. It’s not just about Bobby Kennedy. It’s about us.
This is a Bobby Kennedy who’s looked at his life and his family and his values and his country—and come to regret the flaunting of power, the rush to violence and the so-called sins of the father. This is a Bobby Kennedy who agonizes over the violence his family knows so well—and makes devastating connections with the violence he can only imagine. Violence in the immigrant camps of California. Violence in the tenements of cities. Violence on Indian reservations. And violence on a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee.
“There’s another sort of murder, he warns...a sort of murder as fatal as the sniper’s gunshot, and that’s the violence of the institution that never sees the poor in their rags or hears the sob of the hungry or feels the touch of the forsaken. This violence shatters the spirit. It not only accepts but advances the premise that this is a country where it’s acceptable to succeed by destroying people’s dreams and breaking their hearts” (Page 180).
You see what I mean about devastating? This violence, he worries, “accepts the premise that this is a country where it’s acceptable to succeed by destroying people’s dreams and breaking their hearts.” I cried there too.
So this Bobby Kennedy listens and listens and listens. He listens to the migrants in their fields. And he listens to the black crowds in their grief. And he listens and he listens and he listens.
And in all that listening, in all that anguish, he turns away from the American mirage and squares up to the American obligation. Again, here’s how the story plays it: “I don’t believe one man changes everything,” he says, “maybe no one man changes anything, least of all me. I’m an accident. But I believe there are times when even men who aren’t great must find a way to try and do great things. People think I’m afraid of nothing when the truth is I’m afraid of everything, and not so long ago I vowed before a God I love and trust a little less than I used to that I would do all the things I’m afraid of, because I do believe anyone can change part of something, and that part of something changes something else, and soon the ripple in the lake is the wave on the beach” (Page 168).
So here’s why I want you to read this book. And here’s why I want you to read it as we dive into these months of study and discernment and visioning.
There is undoubtedly too much violence in this country. The kind of violence that shatters the human spirit. The kind of violence that turns from the poor and sows seeds of fear and ignorance. But we believe—aren’t we a people who believe?—that anyone can change part of something, and that part of something changes something else, and that soon the ripple in the lake is like the wave on the beach. We believe that here. We can be the change we want so desperately to see in the world.
So that’s the task, I think, before us over these next months. What kind of change do we want to see? What kind of ripple do we want to be? What kind of mission lies before us—right here, right now, in our own time and place?
I hope you’ll read the book. It’s a great book. And then come, be a part of the process, be a part of the conversation. You’ll see in your VISION PROGRAM that we’ve already planned a first congregational retreat for Saturday, July 14. Read the book before then. Come with your ideas, some passages circled, some dreams and prayers and passions to share. We dare to believe that God’s ripples become God’s waves. And that’s what this next Vision Process is all about. Making waves. Making waves together.
And finally, let’s appreciate, for just a minute, this story about Bartimaeus on the road out of Jericho (Mark 10).
What Bartimaeus desires (more than anything else), what Bartimaeus wants (enough to make a total nuisance of himself), what Bartimaeus begs of Jesus is vision. He wants to see again. Bartimaeus wants to see again.
From a dusty gutter, on the road out of Jericho, our desperate alter ego cries out for mercy, cries out even more loudly when the disciples move to shut him up. Because that’s what they do: the disciples order Bartimaeus to shut up, keep quiet, quit making such a fuss. But—no such luck. “Have mercy on me!” he demands now. “Have mercy on me! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” There’s nothing Bartimaeus won’t try, nothing he won’t do. He only wants to see again.
And right there, on the road out of town, Jesus just stops. In this cacophony of noise, in this mean maelstrom of dust, Bartimaues crying out, all those disciples fighting back, Jesus just stops. Jesus stands still. And he calls for Bartimaeus.
You know, with all these stories, we have choices as to how we read them and interpret them and make them work in our lives. For example, we can insist on reading this one literally—as a miraculous moment in which Jesus literally heals a blind man and gives him back his sight. Or we can look at it in context, in the ebb and flow of Mark’s gospel, and wonder whether the story’s really about moral vision, spiritual vision; whether it’s about Jesus’ passion for moral vision and his commitment to renewing ours. Our moral vision.
Could it be, is it possible, that this old story is not so much about curing blindness as it is about moral vision? That’s my hunch. My hunch is that Christians told this story over and over to remind one another of the power in Christ, the power capable of renewing moral vision, and inspiring spiritual vision, and restoring the kind of vision that illuminates a community’s path to freedom and wholeness and service. When we turn to God in prayer, when we invite God’s mercy into our lives, ripples become waves. A church becomes a mission. Love becomes a movement.
And that’s what we have in mind for these next six months. A whole community turning to God in prayer. A whole community inviting God’s mercy into its life. We imagine ourselves learning together, studying together, and moving together toward the healing future of God’s love.
In the end, Bartimaeus regains his sight, his vision, his passion. And then what? Remember what happens then? Then he steps into the holy parade and follows the Lord of Love. Disciples on the way. That’s who we are. Disciples on the way. That’s how these little ripples become mighty waves of hope. With Bartimaeus and all kinds of saints in all kinds of places from all walks of life. We see that we might follow.