Mark 10:46-52 James 5:13-20
At his blog “Just off the Map” (www.howieadan.com) Howie Adan writes about a time he was visiting in Spain and broke a molar. You know how when you break a tooth or have a filling done or something you keep running your tongue over it?Adan did that all night. He says he rubbed his tongue raw. Adan talks to some of the locals, gets a recommendation, and goes to see the dentist. I’ll let him tell the story.
“The man seemed enthralled by my mouth. I’ve had a lot of dental work done in my life, in numerous countries, and one by one he queried me exhaustively about each filling and extraction. Memories, mostly bad, filled my mind: my father driving us into a dark evening in an unlit satellite town of Brasilia, Brazil to a cheap dentist one of his employees had told him about; the ‘dentist’ turned out to be an active-duty army sergeant with hands as big as baseball mitts doing dentistry at home in his off hours.
“Back in the chair in Spain, after 20 minutes of exploration, the (local) dentist seemed contented, took his little mirror and poker out of my mouth and laid them down on the side tray.
“So, what’s bothering you?” he said.
“What?!” I said incredulously.
“What do you want me to do for you?’ he persevered.
“Um, well, did you notice the tooth I broke yesterday?’ I queried.
“Yes, of course,’ he replied. “That’s what you want me to fix for you?”
You know who Adan says that dentist reminded him of? Jesus.
Take another look at our gospel reading. Bartimaeus is blind. He’s sitting along the side of the road. He hears Jesus and the disciples and a big crowd of people coming along. It says that Bartimaeus heard that it was Jesus passing by; whether someone specifically told him or whether he overheard the crowd talking about it or something else we don’t know.
What we do know is that Bartimaeus spoke up. He shouted, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” This tells us that Bartimaeus had already heard about Jesus before this somehow. He knows that Jesus is of King David’s royal line, and he knows that Jesus heals people. That’s probably not something he’d picked up just in the time it took for Jesus to walk along, so Bartimaeus had some familiarity with who Jesus was and what he could do before our story begins.
Everyone tries to shush him up, but Bartimaeus refuses to be shushed, and yells again, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stops the procession and says to have Bartimaeus brought to him, and people tell Bartimaeus to take heart, to get up, that Jesus is calling him.” That’s something else that’s kind of interesting, that the people tell Bartimaeus to take heart. From what we’ve read, it looks like Bartimaeus has plenty of heart, plenty of spunk. If any of you are old enough to remember the first episode of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” you’ll remember Mary’s job interview at the TV station with Lou Grant, and she refuses to answer questions about her marital status or her religion. Mr. Grant looks at her and says, “You know what? You’ve got spunk.” Mary starts to be flattered, and then Mr. Grant says, “I hate spunk.”
We think Bartimaeus has spunk, but maybe not. Maybe he’s losing hope, maybe he’s discouraged. After all, the folks around him have to tell him to take heart, don’t give up, buck up, Jesus is calling you! Maybe Bartimaeus was coming to the end of his rope and didn’t want to admit it.
So Bartimaeus gets to his feet and makes his way to Jesus. He probably needs help – after all, there’s a crowd with Jesus and Bartimaeus is blind. He’s probably got a cane or a staff of some sort that he’s waving in front of him and a couple of people guiding him forward until they arrive before Jesus.
And Jesus says to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?’
What a strange question. What do you want me to do for you? Bartimaeus is blind; what do we think he wants Jesus to do?
So we’re back to Howie Aden and his dentist. Aden writes, “My Spanish dentist most likely saw a number of things in my mouth that begged attention. But he needed to hear from me which of those he should address. Likewise, Bartimaeus, being a normal human being as well as a blind man, no doubt experienced more than one area of need and brokenness in his life. His blindness was the most obvious only for those who, like you and me, have a limited vision of the soul.”
When I was last here four Sundays ago, I told you that my sermon focus had changed because of some online feedback I’d received, and I told you that my next sermon after I got back would be about anointing. You heard earlier the passage from James that is the root of the Brethren ordinance of anointing.
When I posted on Facebook that I would be speaking on the ordinance of anointing, one of my friends who is Russian Orthodox asked me why I called it an ordinance. For her, anointing is a sacrament. It’s something that is sacred, something that is holy, something that God is actually, physically, materially present in. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sacraments are instruments of grace “instituted by Christ and entrusted to the Church, by which divine life is dispensed to us.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1131) Divine life comes to us by participating in the sacraments.
The Church of the Brethren, along with all the other Anabaptist groups, rejects the idea of sacraments. We do not believe that anointing, or communion, or those kinds of things impart God’s grace in and of themselves by their very act. Instead, we call them “ordinances” and believe that they are outward expressions of our faith. When we do communion, the bread does not become the literal body of Christ; it’s just bread. Within the service of anointing, the oil that I’ll use isn’t some special oil passed down from Jesus through the disciples to this place today. It’s just olive oil. The power of an ordinance comes not in what we use to do the ordinance; it comes from actually doing it. The Spirit is not present in the oil, or in my finger as I apply the oil. The Spirit is present in the act itself. The power comes from our faith in God. As Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “Your faith has made you well.”
In the Church of the Brethren, we have four ordinances: baptism, the Love Feast, which includes foot washing, the Eucharist, which is the bread and cup of the communion, and anointing. In just a moment I will invite you to come forward if you wish to be anointed here during our worship service. If you’d like to talk more about it first or have a private anointing service, let me know after worship and we can do that.
Why would someone want to be anointed? I don’t know. I’m like the Spanish dentist. I don’t know your life. I don’t want to make assumptions. Sometimes people think that anointing is like the last rites in other faith traditions, but that’s not what it is and that’s not what James says. James talks about people who are suffering in some way, people who are sick, and people who need to have their sins forgiven. The Brethren anoint for the forgiveness of sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for healing and wholeness according to God’s will.
That covers a lot, doesn’t it? We all stand in need of forgiveness, every day of our lives. We all have moments, sometimes extended periods where our faith is weak; and even if my faith isn’t weak right at this moment, that doesn’t mean it couldn’t stand to be strengthened. Healing and wholeness – those mean so many different things in so many different situations. We think first about physical healing, but there can be healing of relationships, healing of emotional traumas, healing of attitudes. Wholeness speaks not just to one part or another of our lives but to all of our lives. Everything that we do or say or think or feel or believe or wish or pray – all of that goes together to make what we call wholeness.
Even as I say that the power is not in the doing of the act but the power is in the faith the act expresses, I know that there is more to it than I understand. When I was anointed before going into the hospital back in 1988 I didn’t get some incredible new burst of faith. There was no spark when Pastor Dick’s hand touched my forehead. There was no outward, visible change.
There was an inward change, though. I felt a sense of peace, of calm. I felt as if I really was forgiven for my sins. I felt different; I can’t say how, I just felt different. I felt God’s presence in a way that I never had before. There’s no magic in what we do or what we say, but there is power there someplace, and it is special.
So what do you think? Is this something that God is calling you to today? Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t. I’ve been to too many revivals where they have an altar call of some kind and you can tell that the preacher isn’t going to stop until someone breaks down and comes forward. That’s not the case here. If you feel called to come forward for anointing, feel free to do so during the last song. If we have several people Jacob will fill in until we’re done. If you feel like you want to talk to me about it after worship first, grab me and we’ll talk. If you don’t think it’s something for you right now, if no one comes forward or speaks to me later that’s fine.
This is it. No big finish. No rousing call to action. No inspirational words about changing the world. Just an opportunity and an invitation to look at your own lives, and to consider your own needs. Is this something that you need?
What will happen now is that I will read some of our passage from James, and I will ask Jacob to begin play some music. I’ll take off my microphone, so if anyone comes forward they don’t have to worry about being overheard by a lot of people. If you come forward I’ll ask you if there is anything you wish to confess or to share, I will offer an assurance of God’s pardon and I will anoint you for the forgiveness of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith, and for healing and wholeness according to God’s grace and wisdom. I’ll offer a short prayer, and if you wish you can either stay up here or go on back to your seat. Are we clear?
Then let us begin….