Print This Post

Sermon – October 25, 2009: Sympathy

Sermon for Sunday, October 25, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Sympathy

Job 42: 1-6, 10-17; Hebrews 7: 23-28; Mark 10: 46-52

The last little bit of the Book of Job begins like this: “And the Lord restored the

fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends, and the Lord gave Job twice as much

as he had before. Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had

known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they offered him sympathy

and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them

gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.” A cynic might say, “see how nobody comes

to comfort him when he is still in trouble, but they all wait until he’s recovered, and

apparently in God’s favor, and able to set a good table for visitors.” That’s the wrong way

to read it, because the book’s not about Job’s brothers and sisters and neighbors. It’s

about Job, and one of the blessings restored to Job at the end of the book is

companionship, family, and human sympathy.

It also is true that it’s difficult to get a reunion of significant people together until there is

some kind of closure, if it will follow something sad, or some definite event, if it is to

celebrate an occasion. People who meet at funerals and memorial services inevitably

remark that it’s too bad that they don’t see each other more often, without somber duties like

paying respects to the dead to make them do it, but that’s the way it is. Matters of life and

death do impose an agenda on people, and without that, people find themselves

preoccupied with their own business. What happens at the conclusion of Job’s story is that

his troubles are at an end and his normal life resumes, and everyone recognizes that as a

signal that they can join in commiserating with him about the past and offering gestures of

support. They welcome him back to that life which is social and busy, with its eating and

drinking and chatter, its crowds and conviviality.

Suffering always is isolating and alienating. It’s not necessarily that people are afraid

of catching suffering, as if it were contagious–though of course it does make people feel

bad to know someone going through misery. Nor is it entirely a matter of friends feeling

unequal to the task of doing any good to one of their number who is in serious affliction,

though people do feel embarrassed when they imagine how little their kind word or listening

ear can avail against illness or anguish. No; real trouble itself shoves people out of the

routines of common conversation and regular participation in the daily life of their fellows, and

gives them a consciousness of difference and discomfort which their former habits and

assumptions never knew. The dynamic that individuals in difficulty experience, of being a

bit removed from the world shared by everyone else, is a combination of the effect of their

trouble on them and the effect of their trouble on everyone else.

Jesus says of himself that he is a like a fox without a hole in which to lie, that he has

no home. He is identified with the Suffering Servant spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, who

is described as a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. In the end, on the cross, he

feels abandoned even by God. He knows how much it means to have someone show an

interest, for someone to demonstrate that an individual, no matter how removed from the

normal patterns of life, is not forgotten. Every rabbi gathers followers, and makes disciples,

and we usually think of that in terms of what the rabbi gives to those privileged to be close.

Inevitably, though, our nature being what it is, there always is something that having

listeners and companions and friends gives to the rabbi. This is even easier to see in the

case of Paul, whose solitary life is woven emotionally as well as spiritually into the lives of

his companions, helpers, and converts.

When Jesus and Paul teach us to visit the sick and those in prison, they are

acknowledging that there are long stretches when people may not come to resolution about

their status as different, and they need to be supported through those times. It won’t

happen that a banquet will be thrown in the midst of a sentence being served, or a

welcome home party organized while someone is still at the rehab hospital. The sort of

large, community healing ceremony which Job gets when his life is back on track only

comes at the end, but in the meantime there is plenty of room for individual initiative and

attention and small gestures.

Something to remember about small gestures is that they can seem very large from

a different perspective. The person who out of the midst of a full and crowded life takes a

few minutes to put a note in the mail which says nothing, which is the merest of chitchat,

which is only a weak effort to keep in touch, has no idea how large such a piece of mail looks

on the receiving end, where it may be the only contact from the outside world which a

person has had for days. The bereaved and heartbroken know we are not able to undo

their loss, or make sense of death, or remove their pain, so we shouldn’t be embarrassed

to show up and mutely offer a hand, and a nod, or send a card with some sentiment printed

above our signature, because that visit to calling hours and that card will mean a lot. In all

these things there is a great distance being reached across, and the person displaced from

daily life into difficulty will be glad to have the gulf closed, if even for a moment.

The Book of Hebrews focuses on Christ as the caring person who reaches across a

great gap to show us that we matter, that the hard circumstance in which we find ourselves is

something which can be overcome. It’s called the Letter to the Hebrews because it argues

for the heavenly nature and achievement of Jesus in terms of Jewish religion and history.

One main motif developed is Jesus as eternal High Priest. That was in last week’s reading

and it is in this week’s. God appoints priests to bridge the distance between heaven and

humans, and Jesus is the ultimate such intercessor, forever restoring us to relationship with

God.

Christ is all-sufficient, but we play our part. The Book of Hebrews concludes with the

reminder, “Let mutual love continue.” We are urged to be hospitable, to remember those

in prison, to respect the boundaries of marriage, to shun greed. The result of Christ’s

achievement is to be a holier humanity, freed from the burden of sin and guilt to enjoy a

community of caring. Jesus is the catalyst for such transformation.

The story of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho, has all these themes. At the

onset he is marked by his disability and his difference. He deliberately lives at the margin

of everyone else’s life, just enough a part of their daily walk to be noticed, pitied, and

supported. He is not shunned, nor is he invited in. His blindness is one of those afflictions

which distance him from everyone else, and his neighbors have grown accustomed to his

being in that place.

The promise of Jesus, however, makes him bold. Desperation drives him to dare

to call out, just as Job called out to God from his trouble. At first the other people there are

like Job’s comforters, who were more careful to keep God in the right than to try to change

Job’s circumstances. Here they feel the man should leave Jesus, the holy man, the

honored visitor, alone. Here they feel that the little bit of attention they might get from this

passing celebrity is being diverted by this poor wretch, whose suffering, because they

have learned to accept it, they have decided must be acceptable.

When he first cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”, they tell him to

be quiet. They shush him like you or I might try to silence anyone shouting out for the ear

and eye of a celebrity participant in one of our town’s parades. We don’t want people to

make scenes, we don’t want what seems broken or pathetic to intrude on an atmosphere of

festivity.

The people there, however, aren’t against the beggar as such. They are ready to

become more hospitable, more caring, when Christ shows that it’s okay. Jesus stops and

tells the man to come, and those closer to the action realize it, and they send back the word,

“Take heart, he is calling to you.” These people aren’t saints, they’re not even reflexively

sympathetic, but they have ordinary decency. That’s all God needs, in order for someone

who needs help to hear the word that Christ is calling. God just needs normal people who

can see, when someone else can’t, that Christ is interested in that person’s problem.

This is as close to a big, friendly party that the blind man gets in the story. He is

encouraged by the people around him. They must get out of his way, or lend him a hand,

as he makes his way to Jesus. They know Jesus’ reputation, too. They may be hoping for

a miracle themselves, just to see something great, just to be reassured that God still is there

and God still makes a difference.

There’s a further community, however, to which the man is delivered: not just the

world of people who can see, but the world of the followers of Christ. He goes from the

solitude of suffering to the community of hope. The lesson for us is neither to forget what

Jesus does to give people hope, nor what ordinary people do to give others hope.