Sermon for October 24, 2021

Pentecost 22/Lectionary 30B, Mark 10:46-52

“Go; your faith has made you well.” We hear such words from Jesus recorded again and again in the gospels. Your faith has made you well.

Note that it’s not Jesus saying, “I have made you well,” or even, “God has made you well.” No, it’s your faith has made you well.

Alas, this phrase and ones like it have been mis-used and abused by so-called faith healers, ones, for example, we see on TV. When I served in Pittsburgh, friends and I took a field trip to visit a Friday evening faith healing event at Earnest Angley Ministries. Angley died this year at age 99. His operation was located in northeastern Ohio, not far from Pittsburgh.

Angley was a classic TV faith healer, often parodied by satirists. When we visited, it was actually moving to see the infirm and others seeking healing gather in the auditorium space. I felt the pathos and had empathy for those prayerfully gathering in silence. But then the show began. After a good bit of music to amp up the crowd, Angley appeared on stage, and this is what he said: “Tonight, you’re going to see an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that exceeds even that of the first Pentecost. There will be healings and miracles tonight like you’ve never seen before. But God has no time for back-sliding doubters and those weak in faith. In fact, God will bulldoze you doubters over if you don’t believe and if your faith is not sufficient….”

For those who went home that night without experiencing a miracle cure, I wonder how they felt after hearing the threat that God would bulldoze over those weak in faith.

Abusive faith healers seem to blame the victims when their healing efforts don’t result in miracles. The implication is that because one’s faith is weak, one doesn’t receive the miracle one desires. This makes faith into a kind of work that depends on us and our natural capacities. This is not what Lutherans believe and teach about faith.

But how are we to regard our faith, its strength and endurance? Faith, in its essence, is trust in God and God’s promises. But we know from our own experience that faith, our capacities to trust, wax and wane. Sometimes we’re more trusting. Other times not so much.

In today’s story from Mark’s gospel, it seems that blind Bartimaeus, judging by his behavior, had in that moment of encounter with Jesus a pretty enthusiastic, energetic, robust faith. Mark reports that he was shouting out after Jesus – “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” – and when told by others to shut up, he cried out all the more. When invited to approach Jesus, Bartimaeus threw off his cloak and sprang up to meet Jesus. This behavior seems to point to a faith full of enthusiasm, full of trusting expectation in what Jesus might do.

But was it the extent of faith and its exuberance that made Bartimaeus well? Is it a kind of math equation that the more faith you have the more miracles you’ll enjoy? Or was gaining sight – or insight – the result of just a bit of faith existing at all?

Because if healing and coming to see depend on the extent of our capacities for faith, we’re all potentially lost. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Again, we know that our faith waxes and wanes. Sometimes it burns brightly. On other occasions and in differing seasons of our life, faith can seem just like a flicker.

I confess to you that I am currently experiencing something close to a crisis of faith, much more so than I have ever known in my adult life. My son’s near fatal stroke, the second anniversary of which was this past Friday, his ongoing struggles with recovery alongside the upheavals of adolescence and the seemingly endless crisis of the pandemic along with all of the other troubles of nation and world – all of this occurring at the same time has pushed me close to the edge of a diminished life of faith. Perhaps this is what they call a dark night of the soul.

So, my cry these days is more in keeping with that of the father whose son was possessed by an unclean spirit recorded earlier in the gospel of Mark. When the father encountered Jesus, seeking his son’s deliverance, he said, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (cf. Mark 9:14-29). Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.

What about you? How is it with your journey of faith these days?

Quite helpfully and definitively, Jesus spoke elsewhere in the gospels of faith the size of a mustard seed. A mustard seed is the smallest of seeds and yet it produces the abundance of a great bush, we are told by Jesus, which gives shelter and shade (cf. Matthew 13:31-32 and Matthew 17:20).

Here’s the thing: The seed of faith doesn’t exist within ourselves; it does not occur within our nature. Faith comes from outside of ourselves. Lutherans teach that faith itself is a gift, a gift that is planted in us by the Holy Spirit active in word and sacraments. Faith is provoked or evoked, called forth.

And all the while, as the Spirit is doing her work, Christ, our high priest, continues to this day to intercede for us. For as the author of the Letter to the Hebrews states in our second reading for today, “Jesus holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently [Jesus] is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (Hebrews 7:25) Jesus’ ceaseless intercession for us also does its part in calling forth our faith under the direction of the Spirit.

Today we celebrate a First Communion, that of Ethan Kramer. In a few minutes, he will come forward with his mother and grandfather to receive for the very first time the gift of Christ’s very self, Christ’s real presence given in bread and wine.

A little tiny piece of bread is like a mustard seed planted in Ethan and in us for growth in faith. Such that we are given the gift of sight and insight to know that we taste and see that the Lord is good.

Then we, like the formerly blind Bartimaeus, can cry out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on [us]!” echoing the shouts of the ancient Israelites as we heard in today’s first reading from Jeremiah: “Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.” (Jeremiah 31:7b)

Again, I am moved to make a similar point that the prayerful cry to Jesus did not well up in Bartimaeus of his own accord. No, it was Jesus’ presence in the vicinity that provoked and evoked the prayerful plea, “Jesus, have mercy on me.” Jesus’ physical proximity called forth the cry of faith. In short, Jesus called forth the faith, the trust.

Thus it was then. So it is now. Jesus’ real presence known in word and sacraments evokes our faith.

So, we are freed by Christ from the burden of thinking that the strength and extent of our faith depends on us and our efforts, blaming ourselves for any apparent lack of faith.

Trying to measure the extent of our faith matters not and ultimately makes no sense. When it’s all said and done, it doesn’t matter how I feel about my faith. Of course, our subjective sense of faith comes and goes; it blows hot and cold. That doesn’t finally matter. What matters is the source of faith in the first place, that is, Christ’s presence and the Spirit calling faith forth in word and sacrament. Christ, therefore, is the constant. That’s the objective, bedrock truth, which cannot be altered by our doubts and misgivings and fears of having too weak a faith. Thanks be to God.
I wish the people who attended Earnest Angley’s Friday night faith healing extravaganza years ago knew this truth that faith comes from outside of ourselves as a gift, and that a tiny seed planted by the Spirit goes a long way in giving growth and ultimately making us well in Christ, even if we are not healed in the precise ways we seek.

Thus, Ethan and all of you will soon come forward to gather ‘round this table to receive into yourselves the seed of Christ’s presence that makes for faith. And we will leave this table and this place to go back into our world which cries out for healing, for sight, for insight and wisdom, with the words of our wonderful, seasonal prayer after communion on our lips, in our hearts, and in our words and deeds:

Lord of life,
in the gift of your body and blood
you turn the crumbs of our faith into a feast of salvation.
Send us forth into the world with shouts of joy,
bearing witness to the abundance of your love
in Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.