"A Deeper Connection with God"
Scripture - Mark 10:46-52
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, June 9, 2013
In last week's sermon, we delved into the three anxieties identified by theologian Paul Tillich: the anxiety of death, the anxiety of guilt and condemnation, and the anxiety of meaninglessness. As these are by-products of human existence, everyone experiences each of these to some degree. However, the one that seems most prevalent in 21st century North America is the anxiety of meaninglessness. Many people wonder if life is a colossal accident or if there is a point to human existence. Many question the purpose of their lives.
At the conclusion of last week's sermon you may remember three actions that can help us secure a meaningful life: forge a deeper connection with God, realign our priorities with God's priorities and commit to new ways of living. This morning let us focus on forging a deeper connection with God.
Many people experience frustration because they spend much of their lives pursuing the wrong goal. What's their mistake? They seek what will make them feel happy. What's wrong with that? Being happy is not as rewarding as being on the right path.
Going to a party with friends can make you happy. Receiving a nice gift or earning a bonus can make your heart sing. Cheering for your team when they win the championship, watching a terrific movie and buying a new piece of jewelry can all give you a thrill.
That's great. Happiness in life is essential; each of us needs moments when we smile and laugh and feel elated because life dishes up more than enough frustration, disappointment and sorrow. However, if our primary goal is happiness, we are not aiming high enough. We are mental, physical and spiritual beings and our soul cries out for more than happiness. Our soul craves a sense of purpose and a feeling of well-being.
Regardless of the path we pursue, we experience moments of both happiness and sadness because no matter our direction, life brings both triumphs and losses. However, not every path will bring us deep peace - the feeling that we are in harmony with the Soul of the universe.
In the fifth century, Augustine wrote words that have resonated with people of faith down through the centuries - "Our heart is restless until it rests in God."
Human beings cannot live as isolated individuals. We crave connections. We begin life, physically connected to our birth mothers, and throughout our lives we long for loving ties that bind us to others. Augustine's point is that we experience a similar longing for God. We yearn for an ever deepening connection. That is, we want a strong and satisfying faith.
Now, the word "faith" is tricky, because for some time, it seems that the church equated faith with believing certain theological statements. Certainly, one piece of faith has to do with giving intellectual assent to particular religious notions. However, faith is much more than ideas we affirm. Foremost, faith is trust. It's more a knowledge of the heart than the head. Faith is when we know in our heart that God cherishes us and wants the best for us. Faith is the assurance that we are forgiven when we fall short of God's expectations. Faith is the belief that when life is hard, God suffers with us and gives us the grit to endure. Faith is the hope that no matter how dark the present, God can pierce the darkness with light.
A deeper connection with God can quell the restlessness within us. It can give us the assurance that we are loved and forgiven, and it can give us the strength, guidance and hope we need when life is difficult. But ask yourself if you honestly want to get closer to God; because getting closer to God is risky. It's risky because, as you know, God will not leave you exactly as you are.
I suspect that a good many of us are hesitant to get too close to God because we know that God will mess with us and we feel pretty contented just the way we are. But, God sees through our disguises, our smoke screens and our excuses. It's clear to God that none of us is perfect. And you know what business God is in: refurbishing, revamping and revitalizing. Are you up for that?
Can we face the fact that we are too self-focused? Do we really want to forgive our co-worker for spreading gossip about us? Are we ready to make the required sacrifices to become a generous person? I think many of us hesitate to get too close to God because we fear that God will want more from us than we're willing to give. I urge you to let go of that fear. If you risk getting closer to God, you will experience a richer life.
Risk underlies any journey into the unknown and God is always calling us to something new, something better. Not unlike this morning's passage, in which a man named Bartimaeus takes the risk to get closer to Jesus and the result is a new path and a more complete life.
If you are well acquainted with the Gospel of Mark, and the literary techniques the author employs, you know that there is often another layer to a story. On one level, our passage sounds like a typical gospel miracle story. Jesus encounters a blind man; he heals him and the man can see. Thanks be to God. However, on close inspection, this story seems to imply more.
The passage says that Jesus and a large crowd of followers were leaving Jericho, the oldest city on earth, and as they are exiting, by the side of the road sat a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. Somehow Bartimaeus got wind that Jesus was at the head of this entourage and so Bartimaeus began shouting, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Many in the crowd tried to muzzle him. "Bartimaeus, keep it down!"
But he was not to be denied. He sensed that this was his opportune moment, so when people tried to shush him, he screamed all the louder, determined to seize attention. And it worked. Jesus stopped. The entire procession ground to a halt. All eyes fixed on Jesus, who simply said, "Call him here."
And just like that, the tone of the crowd immediately changed. There was no more "Be quiet, Bartimaeus!" Now people began shouting encouraging words. "Take heart, man; get up, he is calling you." And the text says that Bartimaeus leapt to his feet and went to Jesus.
In what appears at first to be the all-time rhetorical question, Jesus said, "What do you want me to do for you?"
Bartimaeus answered, "Let me see again."
Jesus replied, "Go; your faith has made you well."
The final verse reads: "Immediately he regained his sight and followed (Jesus) on the way."
As I mentioned, on one level this is a healing story; but to the perceptive eye, there is more. The author of Mark has a habit of connecting stories to convey a broader message. If we look at the story that immediately precedes this one, we find the disciples, James and John angling for positions of privilege.
Remember the rhetorical question in the Bartimaeus story? Jesus says, "What do you want me to do for you?" The gospel writer uses that question to connect the Bartimaeus story to the one that precedes it. Jesus put the identical question to James and John: "What do you want me to do for you?" Except that the disciples failed the test. They have not yet understood what it means to follow Jesus. They reply, "We want seats of privilege."
To which Jesus responds, "Not going to happen. Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all."
Then, immediately after this story of the disciples totally misunderstanding what it means to follow Jesus, there is a story of Jesus opening the eyes of a blind man so that he can see. Is it possible that God wants to open your eyes? In what ways might you be blind? That may be an unfair question because when you're blind, you do not really see what you are missing. Maybe you're not totally blind, just focused on things that are lightweight.
Recently I read a brief story about self-storage units. You can rent units - often by the month - to store whatever you cannot fit into your home. I learned that there are 58,000 storage unit facilities in the world, and almost all of them are in the United States.
An author had a conversation with the manager of one of these operations. The manager said, "People need a place to store the camper and the boat and the trail bikes and all the secondhand stuff they're saving to put in a summer home they haven't bought yet, but will buy someday. And for all the stuff they don't want around their house, but don't want to give away because someday they might need it."
"There's also all the stuff they are going to fix someday - but not now. So they rent a storage unit and fill it up. Most people start with a small unit and then move up to a larger one. Next thing you know, they need a second one. One guy rents five, he fills one every year."
"What is this extra stuff? Check your attic, basement, garage and closets. That stuff! The stuff that just appears. The stuff that crawls into your life that you don't even notice."
"The manager of the mini-storage told a story about one of his customers, a middle-aged man who filled up one of the largest storage units one summer. His wife came by the following spring with a station-wagon loaded with stuff, but there was no room left, so she drove away mad."
"The next day the man came back. Only this time, he was followed by a Goodwill truck. He told the Goodwill crew to take everything in the unit. They cleaned it out. And, you know what? That man drove away with a very contented look on his face."1
The story is reportedly true. But I think more importantly, it's a parable. It's a parable about the many things that clutter our lives. Could God be urging you to get rid of some of the non-essentials in your life so that you can see what's genuinely important?
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