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Sermon: On the Way

October 23, 2009

Mark 10:46-52

The first time I went skiing, I was about eight years old.  It was at Mammoth Mountain, on a cold, overcast day.  We bundled up, rented our skis and hit the slopes.

I remember getting some simple lessons with a bunch of other kids.  I didn’t really catch on very well.  The others seemed a lot more comfortable than I did, and after about 30 minutes of sliding around and falling to my knees again and again, our instructor decided it was time to turn us loose.

She took us to what must have been a beginner’s slope, and that is where I first encountered the T-bar.  Nobody had told me anything about a T-bar or how to use it.  Now, for those of you who aren’t skiers, a T-bar is one of the ways to get you from the base of the slope to the top.  In the movies, everybody always rides in a regular Chair Lift.  You see people sitting on what appears to be a park bench, but they are suspended in the air on cables riding to the top of the mountain.  It looks like a wonderful way to travel, and it is.

A T-bar, however, is a different matter.  The T-bar pulls you or pushes you up the slope, and your skis stay on the ground.  It is an elegantly simple way of getting skiers to the top of the mountain, and I have heard people say that riding on a T-bar lift is very easy.  Those people are wrong.

It certainly looked easy enough.  Everybody else could do it.  But my eight-year-old self had a very, very…very…difficult time.  The first time I tried it, I let the T-bar come up behind me just like everyone else was doing, and then I slid right off and fell face first into the snow.  I untangled my skis and poles, got up, and got back in line.  My second attempt was much more successful.  I probably stayed on the T-bar for an full second before I slid off and fell face first into the snow.

I was a stubborn child, and so I tried again.  This third try was the worst one yet, and I was deposited in a painful, twisted heap.  I tried again, and I tried again.  Finally, after being dumped face first into the snow yet again, I decided I’d had enough.  And so, I just stayed put.  I laid there motionless in the snow for maybe twenty minutes—saying over and over to myself, “I hate skiing”—while people who could ride the T-bar paraded past me one after another on their merry way to the top of the slope.

Because, as I mentioned, I was a stubborn child, I stayed there in that miserable heap in the snow until I became so cold that I couldn’t stand to stay put any longer.  I took off my skis, went into the lodge and sulked until it was time to go home.

As Jesus set out on the last leg of his journey that would take him to Jerusalem and his death, there was a man sitting by the side of the road.  Bartimaeus was not joining Jesus or the other travelers who were going up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebration, because Bartimaeus was blind.  He was begging from those who were passing by.

He heard that one of those passing by was Jesus.  Bartimaeus knew that name.  He must have heard about the exorcisms, the healings, the teaching.  Bartimaeus had seen nothing, but he had heard enough to know who Jesus was.

“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  “Jesus, Son of David”—a messianic title.

Some of the travelers—maybe even some of the other beggars—told the man to be quiet.  “Jesus has places to go.  He can’t bother to stop for the likes of you.”

But the more they tried to keep Bartimaeus quiet, the more he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Jesus heard his call, and he stopped.  And he said, “Ask him to come here.”  Bartimaeus was a blind man sitting alongside a very crowded road.  Wouldn’t it have been easier for Jesus to go to him?  “Call him here.”

Some of the people around Bartimaeus said, with some surprise, “Hey, he’s asking for you.”

And so the blind Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, leapt up, and went right to Jesus.

Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Let me see.”

Jesus said, “Go, your faith has made you well.”  Go.  But instead, after Bartimaeus regained his sight, he followed Jesus on the way.

*     *     *     *     *

For some reason, I could never get the hang of the T-bar.  Everybody else got it, but not me.  I tried, but I couldn’t do it.  So I sat there—no, I was not sitting, but I was crumpled up in a miserable heap of ski boots and poles and wet gloves and a knit cap full of snow, and cold fingers and toes—alongside the ski lift while everybody else ascended to the top, where I imagined they were greeted with praise for being able to master the T-bar and were given a cup of hot cocoa and had a splendid view of the mountains that I would never get to see because I couldn’t use the T-bar.

Ironically, in Mark’s gospel, it was the disciples who could not master the T-bar.  They followed Jesus everywhere, but never figured him out.  Every time he spoke about self-sacrifice and death, every time he discussed the peculiar life of those who seek after the kingdom of God, they didn’t get it.  They slid off the T-bar, face first into the snow, alongside the path up the mountain.

Another man, Bartimaeus, started off alongside the path, what Mark calls “the way.”  He was blind.  He was a beggar.  He couldn’t go anywhere.  But unlike the disciples, he got it.  He knew who Jesus really was.  And he knew when the call came—“ask him to come here”—what needed to be done.  He threw off his cloak, perhaps his only possession, but if you are on the way with Jesus, you travel light because you’re always going to be on the move.

After Jesus healed Bartimaeus, Jesus told him he could go.  He was free to begin a new life, perhaps get a real job, fall in love, get married, raise a family, and grow old, surrounded by his blessings.  But Bartimaeus didn’t go.  He followed.  Specifically, he followed Jesus “on the way.”

Mark is reminding us that there is a difference between “alongside the way” and “on the way.”  When we are alongside the way, we are simply observers.  We observe Jesus, what he says and what he does.  Maybe we even appreciate him.  “That’s a wise man, that Jesus.”  We observe the others who are going up the mountain.  But we keep our distance.  We don’t join them on that path.  To be on the way is to be a participant in the journey.  We are headed somewhere with Jesus and with others.  We are living with the values of the kingdom of God.

There are lots of good reasons why we live our lives alongside the way rather than on it.  I tried to ride on the T-bar several times, but it was hard and I couldn’t do it.  So rather than facing the continuing embarrassment of failure, I simply stopped trying, and I stayed there in the snow.  I knew it would be much more fun to ride to the top of the mountain and then to swoosh down in a cloud of powder with the crisp wind in my face.  But I was afraid to try again.  It didn’t seem like I was making any progress.  No one was helping me.  It was safer in the snow.

Many of us live for years alongside the way.  We come to church.  We listen carefully.  We enjoy the music and the potlucks.  We might even serve on a few committees.  But we avoid actually being on the way.  Some of us do that for years and are content to remain alongside the way forever.  People can do good deeds and live good lives without ever actually being followers of Jesus on the way, without seeking him and seeing him, being in relationship with him that requires traveling light because you never know where he will lead next.

Mark shows us how to move from alongside to on the way.  Bartimaeus was persistent.  No one could stop him from getting to Jesus.  He heard the call and responded.  He threw off anything that might trip him up on his journey toward Jesus.  He leapt up and went to Jesus, unconcerned that he might stumble in his blindness.  He trusted that Jesus would not lead him astray.  And it was that faith in Jesus that made Bartimaeus well.  It was that faith that enabled him to see who Jesus really was, whether or not he could see with his eyes.

There is a difference between being alongside the way and on the way.  There is a difference between being an observer of Jesus and a follower of Jesus.  There is a difference between existing and living just as there is a difference between lying in the snow and riding up the mountain.  And, as always, you and I get to choose.  You can follow or you can watch.

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