Need, Gratitude, Loyalty

Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)

Scripture: Mark 10:32-52

Our black cat Amos loves to be high up off the ground. There’s something about height that’s reassuring to him. When he was a kitten he used to climb up our bookshelves, the higher the better. We finally broke that habit, but he’s still frequently on top of the table, desk, or file cabinet, no matter how much we try to discourage him otherwise. Recently he’s discovered that I’ll permit him on my shoulders, because I made the mistake of doing that once, and now he can’t think of anything else. So now every morning he has a routine when I’m getting ready for the day: he hops up onto the nightstand, then to the back of the bed, and carefully balances there waiting for an opportunity when I’m walking by to leap onto my shoulders. It wouldn’t be so bad, except he has a full set of claws and he knows how to use them. Still, I indulge it often enough, because there’s nothing like having a soft, warm and purring mantle of fur on your neck in the wintertime. And besides, it’s hard to discourage him when this is his natural inclination. Amos instinctively seeks out the high places of comfort and security. Maybe cats are more like people than we realize.

Clawing our way up is part of everyday human experience too, isn’t it? As children we fight to be first in line or first to the dining table. Our achievements in school are measured by how close we are to 100% perfection. In the workplace we are expected to advance positions and “climb the corporate ladder.” Penthouse apartments are always the most expensive, literally on top of everyone else. Our election contests are all about who has the highest favorability rating, highest fundraising, and highest vote counts. There doesn’t seem to be any part of society not measured or ranked according to status. We are constantly measuring ourselves against others, to see who comes out on top. Humans—like cats—seek out all the high places, because we believe that’s where we’ll find greater comfort and security.

“But it is not so among you,” Jesus says to his disciples. Instead of seeking out the high places, cherish the opportunities to be a servant to others. This is the way to true greatness: setting one’s own comfort and security aside in order to be of service to others. In this teaching, which is at the very core of Christian ethics, Jesus is putting words to what his life has already preached. God’s own child came into the world not to seek his own glory, but to give his life in service and love for all. That is the way of salvation. By his own actions and life, our Savior set an otherworldly example that the Body of Christ has been trying to follow ever since. On the way, we must be healed of what is appropriately called “blind ambition”.

Ironically, in this morning’s gospel story it is Bartimaeus (not the disciples) who truly sees and follows the way of Jesus. Bartimaeus is a blind beggar, sitting by the side of the road, waiting for merciful travelers to toss their coins into his cloak. He is already at the bottom of the social totem pole, isn’t he? Maybe that’s what gives him the freedom to cast off conventional social modesty, becoming a nuisance to those around him in his ardent calls for healing. By this point in the gospel, Jesus is fixated on going to Jerusalem. He knows something of the costly suffering that awaits him there, but he is resolutely determined to go there anyway, out of loyalty to God’s call. Yet when he hears Bartimaeus crying for mercy, Jesus interrupts his journey. Calling the blind man to him, Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Bartimaeus answers, Jesus speaks the words of healing, and the encounter is over. Yet that’s just the beginning for this one who was blind, but now can see. The Gospel says that he followed Jesus on the way, which is to say, the way of hardships willingly undertaken for the sake of service. Bartimaeus shows us what the walk of faith looks like for those who would follow Jesus.

The wise Scottish preacher William Barclay says of Bartimaeus: “He began with need, went on to gratitude, and finished with loyalty—and that is a perfect summary of the stages of discipleship.”[1] In our countercultural seeking to serve rather than be served, we first come to God aware of all the places where we need comfort or healing. Yet rather than trying to climb our way to the top and assure our own salvation, we lay it before Christ, who asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” When that need is answered (sometimes in miraculous ways we would never expect) gratitude is our natural response. But it doesn’t stop there—like Bartimaeus, gratitude for being healed leads us on down the road with Jesus, loyal followers even in the face of challenging times. In other words, as UCC preacher Michael Piazza likes to say, the Christian journey begins by being fed as a child, but then more mature disciples take off the bib and put on the apron of service. Need, gratitude, and loyalty.

I’m in a privileged place to see in your examples what this true discipleship looks like. It is a “costly pouring out of one’s life for another, whether it be an aging parent, a difficult spouse, a special child, another member of the Christian fellowship who has unusual needs, or any person whose situation elicits neighborly service at personal cost.”[2] I am constantly humbled to see what you give (and give away) for each other.

I’ve also seen this form of discipleship in our church’s common life. Our Open and Affirming stance as a congregation is just one example. Prior to my time here, when there were no openly LGBT people in the church, you felt called to address the need of folks who had been turned away from church because of who they were or who they loved. The process was not easy or unanimous—it cost you some members and invited hostility from some in the neighborhood. But Community UCC discomforted itself in order to serve a need. Because of your willingness to follow the call of the gospel, I and many other same-gender-loving people have felt deep gratitude at the invitation of your love. That gratitude has become loyalty in the life of the church today, through the leadership of LGBT people with their families, most of whom have joined and supported this community in the years since. Need—gratitude—loyalty.

There are many other examples of how this discipleship way takes form among us. Kids@Community, Social Seniors, Church Choir, Worship Team—each involves the generous commitment of time and service on behalf of others. ALL our ministries are possible only because we see a need and are willing to discomfort ourselves in healing that need. Then, by the grace of God, we see the effects of this healing, which may lead to more mature discipleship of gratitude and loyalty.

I’m not sure what things are calling out most persuasively to you these days. Like Bartimaus, we may cry out for urgent healing of needs like mental illness, the bullying of transgender youth, the depression that too frequently accompanies old age, the festering alienation between races, or something else altogether.  What I am sure of is that healing will come as disciples of Jesus choose the way of self-giving service, rather than scratching and clawing our way to the top. Sorry, Amos!

Let us pray: God of mercy, thank you for the gift of Jesus, who heals our every need. Hear the cries of all who call out to you still, and send us out to be disciples of your healing, servant path. Amen.

[1] William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark, revised ed. in The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 262.

[2] Lamar Williamson, Jr. Mark in the Interpretation bible commentary series (Atlanta: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983), 195.

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