Sunday, October 25, 2009

A Pre-Existing Condition

Mark 10: 46-52
******** United Church of Christ
October 25, 2009

If it’s one thing we’ve been hearing a great deal of in the news, it’s health care reform. The debate, the wrangling, the angry outbursts—all this resistance has been carrying on for months. Finally, the Senate has agreed to include a public option in their health care reform bill, but they’re not as altruistic as they sound. It’s more of a political wedge, really. Democrats want Republicans to be the bad guys when they are forced to vote against a public option that right now enjoys a slim majority in most recent polls.

It seems no one is really considering the real lives that this bill will affect. Take for instance Dawn Smith of Atlanta, Georgia. Four years ago Dawn was diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that causes electric shock head pain. Recently her health insurance company doubled her premium from $350 to over $700. She had been paying a co-pay of $10 for a particular pain medication, but then she was informed that the cost of this medication had gone over $3000, raising that co-pay to over $1100! Dawn was told she would have to find another medication.

She was denied coverage of tests and treatment from an out-of-network epilepsy center. After fruitless months of persistent letters to her representatives in Washington, she caught the attention of the political action committee,, who sent her story to their massive email list. Her health care company was then forced to cover the tests and treatments at the Cleveland Clinic. Later she was also told that her doctor made a clerical error regarding her extremely overpriced medication.

Dawn also faces a conundrum that most folks like her face: because of her health condition Dawn is unable to do her work as a freelance writer, thus unable to earn an income that would help pay for expensive premiums, costly medication, treatments and tests. She has used up all her savings. Mostly she has benefited from the mercy of strangers who contribute to on her behalf. She is one of so many who have been forced to choose between making a living and living a sustainable life.

The cries of Bartimaeus in this morning’s reading from the gospel of Mark could be the cries of Dawn Smith and all those like her: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Bartimaeus was blind and thus, he had to beg for his living. He too had to rely on the mercy of strangers in order to have some money to live on.

Beggary was a life one was consigned to. There was no hope of any other kind of life, for even if one was healed by a miracle, there was no other occupation to fall back on, no other way to earn a living. Even though beggary is not enviable, in Jesus’ time it was a just-barely sustainable lifestyle, because observant Jews were obligated to be generous to those who were less fortunate, what we now call noblesse oblige. Bartimaeus could trust that on any given day a few coins would land on his cloak, enough to keep him from starving. So though his income was meager, it was also a steady stream he could depend on. Kind of like Social Security.

Yet when he hears that Jesus is passing through town (we can assume that being on a public road he must have heard the local scuttlebutt), Bartimaeus is willing to give up what is familiar to him for a life lived in the unknown. More than a story of healing, this is a story of call: Jesus’ call to servanthood and one poor beggar’s response.

Bartimaeus cries out to Jesus in a loud voice, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Here, Bartimaeus makes use of and trusts with his life the highest form of noblesse oblige. When a king passes by in procession and a subject cries out for mercy, the king, by virtue of his nobility, is obliged to stop the procession and attend to the needs of that subject. The title “Son of David”, used for here for the first in Mark’s gospel, reveals that Bartimaeus not only recognizes Jesus’ kingship but that he is also the Promised One, the Messiah who would bring about a new world order, both spiritually and politically.

"Sight to the Blind - Gene Tierney" from Hymn to Her by Karen Whitehill

But notice how this title is used. First, there is the contrast between “son of Timaeus” and “Son of David”, that the Son of David, this king, this messiah came for those humble ones such as Bartimaeus. And then there is the timing of this title. Mark places this call story right before Jesus is to enter Jerusalem for the last time. This new world order will come about not by a coronation or by revolution but by an innocent man being put to death. And this is when Bartimaeus decides he is ready to give up his meager but safe existence for the Way of Jesus, that way that leads to the cross.

Michael Moore, in his latest movie Capitalism: A Love Story, sardonically subverts some of Jesus’ teaching and turns them into profit-making slogans. In one scene Jesus refuses to heal a sick man because of the man’s “pre-existing condition”.

Bartimaeus’ pre-existing condition is on two levels. On the surface, yes, he is blind and poor, making him humble and willing to surrender but more importantly, under all that, he trusts that Jesus, this Son of David, will indeed have mercy on him. And so he is persistent in his cries, trusting that he will be heard and that Jesus will do for him whatever he asks.

I’m going to make a leap of understanding here and suggest that perhaps one reason you chose to call me as your interim pastor is that we have a pre-existing condition. We are acquainted with one another from three years ago; something that I thought could possibly be an obstacle to an effective interim time. But it seems that this previous relationship has provided us with a baseline of trust upon which we have been able to build.

But again I ask, how much further are you willing to go? Do you trust yourselves and each other to surrender what is for what can be? Do you trust that God is calling you to a reformation of your life together? Do you trust the future? Do you trust the call of Jesus to follow him on the Way? Being a part of a church means that as we move closer to Jesus, inevitably we will move closer to the cross.

Our nation is in a time of transition. President Obama is endeavoring to lead us through a time between what was and what will be. There are tremendous opportunities for real change before us. There is uncertainty but also a new hope on the rise. The same is true for this church. The interim time is a crucial period when a congregation is called to trust that the way of the cross is the way of transformation.

The first definition of the word ‘faith’ has nothing to do with belief or doctrine but with loyalty and trust. Bartimaeus trusted Jesus: he had faith that Jesus would indeed have mercy and do whatever was asked of him. Our pre-existing condition, that has been in our hearts since God first loved us, is faith: that trust and loyalty that we give to God and extend to one another, that has the power to heal and to spur us to follow Jesus, wherever he may lead. Amen.

No comments: