Bishop Mariann gave this homily at the 2021 fall Clergy Conference.
They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
As our time together draws to a close, we thank Dr. Margaret Benefiel for her wisdom, whole-hearted presence, and confidence in us that we would bring our full selves to the work of discernment. But the choice to do so was yours. Thank you for the ways you have been present to one another and to God.
At our first session, Margaret asked us to offer one word to describe what we hoped to receive from our time together. Do you remember your word? I wonder if you have received what you asked for, in full or in part? Are there other gifts you didn’t think to ask for that you have also received?
Among all the things we can say about our Lord and Savior, surely this is true: when Jesus of Nazareth walked this earth, he was a one-person itinerant clearness committee. Sometimes you’ll see a bumper sticker or billboard that says “Jesus is the Answer.” It would be more accurate to say that Jesus is the Question. In fact, that’s the title of a book by Martin Copenhaver with the subtitle, The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and the 3 He Answered. Equally as striking as all the questions Jesus asked, Copenhaver points out, is the fact that he rarely directly answered the 183 questions he was asked. Most of the time he responded either with a story to make people think for themselves, or with a question in return.
Imagine sitting in a small group circle reflecting on the questions that Jesus asked. That’s what Copenhaver invited the members of the UCC congregation he served to do. He compiled a list of 150 of Jesus’ questions. Each group began by taking turns reading all 150 questions around the circle–without commentary, without context, without citation.
Of the experience, he writes:
Some of the questions were as familiar as our own names, and other questions felt like we were hearing them for the first time… the experience of hearing one question after another–a shower of questions, a tide of questions, helped us hear them anew in a new way that was powerful. It was as if spending time with the questions, so central to Jesus’ ministry, was a way to spend time with Jesus, and we wanted to linger there for a time.1
Sometimes our lives depend on finding the right question. Certainly that’s true in the life of faith. Whatever else it might mean to follow Jesus, we are to live with Jesus’ questions as our own, and allow them to guide our lives.
So hear again some of the questions that Jesus asked. As you listen, consider the questions you find yourself drawn to, or the one you want to run away from. Which one do you want to take with you as we take our leave this morning?
What are you looking for?
Who do people say that I am? But who do you say that I am?
Why do you see the splinter that is in your sibling’s eye but don’t notice the log in your own eye?
Do you want to get well?
What is your name?
Do you see this person?
What do you think? Which one of these was a neighbor to the mane who encountered thieves?
Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
Which one is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves at the table?
How much bread do you have?
Where is your faith?
Why are you afraid?
Does this offend you?
Do you also wish to go away?
What do you want?
What do you want me to do for you?
What do you want me to do for you? Jesus’ question to Bartimaeus takes center stage in this Sunday’s worship. It was the same question we heard Jesus ask his disciples James and John asked last week. What do you want me to do for you?
Bartimaeus knew what he wanted. Do you know what you want? Imagine Jesus asking you that question. And allow me to channel my colleague Robert Phillips here and suggest that after you give Jesus your first answer, imagine him asking you in return, Is there more? For as Robert reminds us, there is always more. What else do you want? And what else? Allow your desires to go from surface to depth, or to touch upon every part of your life.
In 2007-09, when Michele Morgan and I were both in the Diocese of Minnesota, we served on a group that was called the Bishop’s Commission on Mission Strategy. It was one of the most challenging and important growth experiences of my life. One of the first things we did was collect and face all the hard data that told a story of the precipitous decline in many of our congregations, the lack of focus and coherent vision as to what it meant to be the Episcopal Church, and no unifying sense of identity as a diocese. It was a hard and scary process. I vividly remember one afternoon when we were all gathered at some church, and during a break Michele and I went for a walk in the parking lot. I confided in her what I had been thinking for several weeks: ““I’m not sure that it matters to God if the Episcopal Church survives.” The mission of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit was not in question in my mind, only the relevance of our church in that work.
This was right around the time when Barbara Brown Taylor–one of the most influential Episcopal priests in the country, wrote her book Leaving Church. Like what’s happening in light of the pandemic, it was as if Taylor gave a whole generation of clergy permission to leave their congregations for the sake of their souls. It felt as if everyone wanted to leave.
But Michele said something in the parking lot that day that I’ve carried with me ever since: “It matters to me. This is the church that welcomed me.” Suddenly I thought of all the other people I loved who were part of our church, both in the congregation I served and beyond, and I knew that I wasn’t going to leave, and I wasn’t going to give up. In fact, I would dedicate my vocational life to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of our church.
That’s also when I said to God that if I were ever called to be bishop, I would give my whole heart to the work. I’m not one of those people who resisted the call to ministry–I always ran toward it. I wanted to be a priest. That day, I realized that I wanted to be a bishop.
In the ten years I have been with you, I have come to love you, and I love the people in our congregations. I hold you in my heart. If we’re going down as a denomination, like a captain on a sinking ship, I’m going down with it. But I’m betting we won’t go down, because of the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Jesus, and all of you.
It is a privilege to serve Christ alongside you.
1 Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question, Kindle Version, 2014, p. 119.