The eighth chapter of the First Book of Samuel tells the story of an old man who sees a train-wreck coming. He even describes to anyone who’ll listen exactly what that train-wreck will be like. But no one seems interested. The old man is Samuel. He is the man we heard Amelia preaching about last week; the man who when he was a baby his mother Hannah lent back to the Lord.
Samuel is the very last of the judges of Israel. He has an ear to the ground – as a good judge should – and has heard the people muttering and complaining. They are saying that all of the really top-notch, top shelf countries, the countries that command attention and respect are the ones with a king. So, the people say, we want a king too. Look at the Assyrians and the Egyptians, they say, look at their royal court, their awe-inspiring military parades, and look at the palaces and their king dressed in gold and jewels. Look how people fall down before them in awe and wonder at their greatness. Their kings are like gods on earth.
And what have we got?, the people complain, an old man who disputes garden-variety family squabbles and disagreements. Certainly nothing very impressive about that; not something those other great nations stand up and take notice of. ‘We want a king!’, they shout, ‘a real king with real kingly power. Someone who’ll show those other nations that we’re not just some kind of third-rate nation’.
Today we are celebrating the great feast of All Saints on this All Saints Sunday. It is the day we remember all those who have gone before us in the faith of the Church. They are people – our mothers and fathers, our husbands and wives, our children and our friends – who were so deeply a part of our lives and made us into who we are today. And they are people we didn’t know, but know about and draw strength from their example. And they are people stretching back generations, millennia even, whom no living soul remembers at all. But God does. Every one of them.
And in Christ, we belong to them, and they belong to us still, in the great Communion of Saints. And the story of each of their lives, and our lives, whether great or small, known or unknown, are a part of the great story of God’s loving purposes to heal the world and make the whole creation new again.
Know this, dear friends, you in your life, we in our lives together – on this great All Saints Sunday – know that we, that you are a part of much greater life. We belong to a family of faith that goes far beyond this day or the circumstances of this day or this year or this decade or this era. Remember, that all of our sisters and brothers, great and small, who have gone before us, crowd in beside us in a great cloud of witnesses to encourage us in our lives, to cheer us on; they are beside us now to strengthen us to bear forward the cause of Christ and his Kingdom in our own day.
These brief few verses from the gospel reading this morning occupy a ‘place of honor’ in Mark’s telling of the story of Jesus. This small story of the restoration of sight to a blind man is the last thing we hear of Jesus before he enters Jerusalem for what will be his very the last time. Mark wants this story to be in our minds on our way to the cross with Jesus. So I want to try to take us inside this little story and hear why Mark might’ve given it such a place of prominence.
We begin on the west side of Jericho along the road leading to Jerusalem, where beggars line the streets. It is a golden time of the year, because today the road is teeming with religious pilgrims on the way to Jerusalem for the feast of Passover—it’s like Christmas time with a Salvation Army kettle and bell clanging on every corner. This time of the year, people with their hearts turned towards the things of God may be easier pickings than at other times of the year.
Lining the road are clusters and knots of people who this world sees as good for nothing other than begging. Sorry to say that, but that’s just the way it is. Blind men, blind women. People with missing limbs. Paralyzed. Drunks. And mixed in, thieves and robbers preying on the beggars or gullible travelers. It’s a dangerous place. Jesus knew that well enough, and chose this stretch of road for the setting of his famous story about the Good Samaritan.
A gaggle of beggars are squatted on the dusty roadside like a pack of crows. Legs crossed, dark cloaks wrapped around creating a fabric alms plate in their laps to catch tossed coins. They might as well be crows for all anybody notices that they have human faces.
In among the crowing beggars is a man with a name we know now. Probably no one there did. No one there is too concerned about names. They are beggars, not real people. But now we know, this man was old Timaeus’ son. Bar-Timaeus, the son of his father. A father’s son. Maybe, long ago, his father walked home from the fields with his small son’s hand in his hand after a days work. But that’s long ago. A faded memory. Who knows where the father is now. Dead, or just dead to the son. Bartimeus, now spends his days crowing like a grackle, his small hands replaced by claws scrabbling for left-overs.
The young man who comes to Jesus today is one of the most beguiling and attractive characters in all of the Gospels. His wealth could easily have led to pursue a less noble life than the one he describes. He’s a good man who has learned the commandments of God and lived by them since he was a youth. There’s nothing about him that sounds like a stick in the mud moralist – you know the kind of person who is overly interested in the speck in your eye while blissfully indifferent to the log in their own eye. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity when he says he has kept the commandments faithfully since he was a boy. He certainly doesn’t strike Jesus as a self-righteous braggart. No, Jesus looks at him—a young man, just coming into his own as a person wanting to set his compass to point him towards that which is of most, towards those things which will abide, eternal things. And Jesus looks on him and loves him. The Lord didn’t use words, but whoever was there and remembered what happened that day and passed on the memory saw it in the Lord’s face—he loved him. And no words were needed.
But the young man’s first question to Jesus—what must I do to inherit eternal life?—shows that he is on the wrong path. An inheritance—money, property, your name even—con only be given. You can’t do anything to force an inheritance. You can’t force your mother to re-write her will so that you will inherit her wedding ring and your sister will not. Oh, I suppose one could contrive a scheme to set that in motion. But supposing you succeeded? It would never be a freely given gift, a blessing, an inheritance. How could that wedding ring every really sparkle on your finger after acquiring it that way?
An inheritance is a gift given: a legacy of loving loyalty.
In the three-year pilgrimage we make through the Bible with the readings assigned for Sunday mornings, the Book of Esther is heard from exactly one time. So, unless your church attendance hits just right, it’s possible that you may never have heard this reading or been introduced to this strange and beautiful story.
Esther has perplexed both Jewish and Christian commentators for at least two millennia. For example, you may have noticed that there is no mention of God in the reading we just heard. In fact, God is not mentioned at all in the entirety of the ten chapters. Not once. The great rabbis who translated the Hebrew into Greek in the late 3rd century before the birth of Jesus took dubious notice of this as well and tried to make it into a more specifically ‘religious’ book by adding to the original text. They inserted mention of prayer and fasting and religious observances in their translation in the hope of polishing up its religious credentials a bit.
I suppose that’s understandable, but it’s possible that God was content to inspire the writing of this book with no thought of including his own name for a reason. Perhaps God doesn’t have to always be in the business of ‘taking the credit’ (or the blame!) for this or that human experience of blessing or curse. I had a classmate in seminary who became a good friend but who also had this habit of taking my words and thoughts and treating them a little like the rabbis who translated the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek: he had to ‘religious up’ my thoughts. ‘Do you see how the Holy Spirit was leading you, David?’ ‘There the Lord’s hand was all over what you just said!’, or, ‘do you see what my prayer for you has done?!’ He was a good and faithful man who spoke entirely in earnest exclamation points. But honestly, sometimes I thought his piety must surely be grating to the Lord God Almighty who might rather that we take some responsibility too for living our lives.
Rather than ‘religious-ing up’ this text by shoe-horning it into the tale of a godly woman’s travail and victory or layer onto it our own expectations of what the Bible is supposed to sound like, maybe it would be better to simply let the story of Esther have its say.