The True Compass

Sermon on Mark 10:46-52 offered to the people of the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

Lincoln_2012_Teaser_PosterIn 2012, Dreamworks released Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s film about our sixteenth president and his struggle to move the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through the House of Representatives. Though Lincoln is at the height of his popularity during the period portrayed in the movie, he is hounded by people on both sides of the ideological spectrum. Southern sympathizers in Congress consider the President an abolitionist tyrant, describing him melodramatically as the “Great Usurping Caesar.” Meanwhile, the more radical members of Lincoln’s own party accuse him of being uninterested in abolishing slavery, calling him an “inveterate dawdler” and a “capitulating compromiser.” In one memorable scene, Lincoln is discussing this discordant position with Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Congressman from Pennsylvania. Stevens lambastes the President for his apparent timidity and naive willingness to trust that the American people will vote to abolish slavery. “You know that the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, North and South, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery,” he charges. With remarkable calm, Lincoln challenges the Congressman’s assumption that a compass is the only tool needed to direct our actions. “A compass,” he observes, “[will] point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing True North?” This rhetorical question highlights not only Lincoln’s political philosophy, but also his sense of what it means to lead. Those who follow have the luxury of inhabiting the extremes; those who lead are required to move slowly and deliberately, sometimes to the point that they appear to be standing completely still.

Without question, the most conspicuous feature of Mark’s gospel is its astounding pace. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus hits the ground running at his baptism and then sprints through the Galilee at breakneck speed. Mark’s favorite word is “immediately” for good reason; the narrative gives us precious little time to ponder what has happened. This is particularly true when Mark describes a healing or exorcism. Each of those stories follows the same breathless formula: a supplicant asks Jesus for help, Jesus heals, the crowd is amazed, Jesus sternly orders the people to tell no one, and then he moves on to the next location. At first glance, the story of blind Bartimaeus seems to follow the brisk pace of Mark’s narrative. Mark even tell us that Jesus enters and leaves Jericho in the space of one verse, as if to remind us that this Messiah is on the move. Yet there is a striking difference between this and the other healing stories. Throughout most of Mark’s gospel, the crowds are usually dumbfounded when they encounter Jesus. In this story, however, they can’t stop talking: they go from angrily telling Bartimaeus to keep his mouth shut, to essentially patting him on the back and saying, “Don’t just sit there; get up! He’s calling you!” In the meantime, Jesus, who normally has quite a lot to say, is fairly reticent in this passage. Indeed, Mark tells us that when he hears Bartimaeus’ supplication, Jesus stand still. While this may not seem significant, it is the first time that Jesus stands still in the whole of Mark’s gospel. In this gospel of perpetual motion, in other words, this is the first time Jesus stops.

The significance of this is revealed in the crowd’s response to Bartimaeus. When Bartimaeus shouts “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Mark tells us that those around him “sternly order him to be quiet.” This happens to be exactly what Jesus generally says to those he heals. The implication is that the crowds finally get it, that they finally understand how they are supposed to respond to the presence of Jesus among them. When Jesus confounds their expectations by calling out to Bartimaeus, the people in the crowd have an immediate and dramatic change of heart. Like sycophants, they quickly race to the opposite extreme, terrified that they will end up on the wrong side of things. size1The crowd is capricious, uncertain where to stand. Jesus, however, is unaffected by this fickle response. In the midst of ambivalence and uncertainty, Jesus stands still, animated only by a profound sense of his mission. In many ways, this passage functions as a powerful prologue to the passion narrative, where those who greet Jesus with “Hosannas” as he enters Jerusalem are the same people who clamor for his crucifixion before Pilate. In the face of these extremes, Jesus stands still, unaffected by accolade or condemnation. Jesus moves deliberately and inexorably toward his fate, despite the fact that those around him cannot understand what he is doing. Unlike the political and religious authorities, Jesus does not inhabit extremes, he inhabits the kingdom of God.

Ask pretty much any political pundit, and they will tell you that, for better or worse, our politics have become increasingly polarized over the last several decades. Gone are the days when political parties worked together and compromised, or so the narrative goes. The reality, however, is not that our positions have become any more extreme (just look at the fight over the passage of the 13th amendment in 1865); it is that the popular attitude toward moderation has shifted. We no longer celebrate the collaborators; instead, we admire the principled partisans, those who are willing to defend their principles regardless of the consequences. Moderation, in other words, has fallen out of fashion. This is no surprise and probably necessary, if we think of moderation as a desperate attempt to be as inoffensive as possible. What the gospel reveals to us, however, is moderation at its best: a deliberate and powerful articulation of a truth that is neither fickle nor inflexible. imgresAs Anglicans, we embrace this middle way “not as a compromise for the sake of peace,” as the Collect for the commemoration of Anglican divine Richard Hooker puts it, “but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.” The gospel is neither nostalgic nor novel, it is neither liberal nor conservative; the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ transcend all these binary categories because they are the fullest expression of love the world has ever known. Love does not inhabit extremes; it is an enduring center, it is a place where we can be perfectly still, indeed, it is an unfailing compass that can shape the direction of our lives. Everything we do: our worship, the stewardship of our resources, the ordering of our life, all of this is a response to the immeasurable love made known to us in Jesus Christ. When we make that love our compass, it leads us into a place where we can live not as inhabitants of this fickle world of extremes, but as citizens and inheritors of God’s kingdom.

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