Sunday, October 25, 2015

Blind Bartimaeus

Filling in at Christ Church, Fitchburg today. The readings for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost can be found here.

Six weeks ago our gospel reading came from the eighth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. There we heard Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. He responds to the question being asked by his friend, Jesus. Who do you say that I am? by saying, “You are the Christ.”

Now that’s a long time ago, I admit. I can’t remember what I did six days ago! But Mark’s Gospel has been cruising along ever since then. That declaration in Caesarea Philippi represented a key turning point in Mark’s Gospel, and from that moment until today’s reading from the tenth chapter of Mark, we have been “on the way” to Jerusalem.

The total distance between Galilee and Jerusalem is about 120 miles, roughly the same distance as Stockbridge to Boston. It would have taken Jesus and the disciples around six days or so to make this journey, covering about twenty miles or so a day. (That’s about the same pace our bishop took when he walked this diocese, including Worcester County last fall when he walked from Trinity, Milford to here.)

That pace leaves a lot of time to talk along the way. So the stuff we’ve been hearing about over these past six weeks is what Mark remembers as the highlights of that pilgrimage. Today we reach the suburbs of Jericho, only about fifteen miles from the city limits of Jerusalem. It’s the last leg of the journey. In liturgical time it’s almost Palm Sunday, just hours before Jesus will enter the city on a donkey as the crowds shout “Hosanna” and lay down their palm branches before him.

While Peter’s eyes were opened in that moment at Caesarea Philippi, it’s been clear ever since that the disciples had the experience but missed the meaning. Jesus has been talking along the way about the meaning of the Cross he is headed towards: he has put a child in their midst, he’s told them that the last will be first, he has insisted that they must be servants of all. But they are slow learners. Just last week we heard the sons of Zebedee jockeying for positions in Jesus’ cabinet after he installs a new government in Jerusalem. They still don’t get it!

Jesus and his disciples were neither the first Galileans nor the last to travel to Jerusalem. In fact, this religious pilgrimage was undertaken by faithful Jews as many as three times a year and especially to celebrate high holy days like Passover, which is what Jesus and the disciples have come to do. Jerusalem’s whole economy was built on religious tourism and the temple. So the route the disciples have been taking is the AAA recommended one. Along the way there are beggars because beggars are smart; they don’t hang out where there aren’t any people. They like places like Harvard Square and Grand Central Station and the exit and entrance ramps off 290 in Worcester. And well-traveled roads like the road from Jericho to Jerusalem. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a blind beggar in Jericho; there are lots of blind beggars in Jericho. But this story is about one in particular, Bartimaeus:  Timmy’s  boy.

We’ve heard plenty of these kinds of stories from Mark already about how Jesus healed people in and around Galilee before this journey began. We’ve heard about how he made the blind see and the deaf to hear and about how he healed the woman with the hemorrhage and raised Jairus’ daughter. So it comes as no big surprise that Jesus can make the blind son of Timaeus see.

Bartimaeus cries out: “Jesus, Son of David…have mercy on me!” making him the first person in Mark’s Gospel to use that title for Jesus. We’ve come all this way since the Jordan River, where God said Jesus was his “beloved Son.” We’ve heard Jesus speak of himself as the “Son of Man.” We’ve heard Peter recognize Jesus as “the Christ/the Messiah.” But now, as we near the city gates of Jerusalem and just before the crowds wave their palm branches and make the very same claim, Jesus is identified (by a blind man no less!) as the long-awaited son of King David. Timaeus’ kid “sees” what no one else has yet been able to see, that the dawn of a new day is on the horizon.

He also makes a scene. He cries out, and is initially silenced by the crowd. But he cries out all the more until he gets Jesus’ attention: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. And then Jesus invites him to come to him. I find that detail interesting; Jesus doesn’t go to Bartimaeus but rather calls Bartimaeus to come to him. I mean, the guy is blind! Wouldn’t Jesus be “compassionate” enough (given that he can see where he is going just fine) to walk toward Bartimaeus rather than making Bartimaeus grope in the darkness? I find this detail interesting because of what it literally says and because of what it metaphorically suggests: Jesus is no enabler. I don’t want to minimize the hardship of being blind or lame or deaf. But sometimes we can allow a person’s disabilities to define them. Sometimes we can let our disabilities define us. And when we do that, we stop being fellow travelers on a journey. There are hints of that here in that we don’t even know his name; he’s just Tim’s blind kid.

Sometimes we create dependency rather than truly serving our neighbor. There is a big difference between “helping people” because it makes us feel good or because we need to be needed and serving people because we see the image of God in them. Sometimes in our weakness others make us feel even weaker than we are, and then they do for us what we can and need to do for ourselves. The difference has to do with respecting the dignity of every human being. Have you ever been around a couple where the “caregiver” feels the need to answer all questions addressed to the “patient?” So Jesus treats Baritmaeus as a human being, as a beloved child of God. In so doing I think he is already working toward making him whole, which is about more than simply curing his retinal nerves.

After Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him, Bartimaeus “leaps up and tosses off his cloak”—before he regains his sight. This tossing of his cloak is a bridge-burning act. That coat is the means by which a blind beggar would gather in the coins tossed to him by others and shake them in. What Mark is telling us is that this man completely trusts that Jesus is about to transform his life, and that is about more than healing his blindness. He’s not going to have to beg anymore. And then once more, Jesus puts it back on Bartimaeus: “what do you want me to do for you?” It’s tempting to want to spoof a response, as if Bartimaeus might say: “hello…son of David, I’m BLIND…what do you think I want, cookies and milk?!” But I think this falls under that same heading: Jesus treats him as a person. Bartimaeus is asked to articulate what he wants, what he needs, what he desires.

I have no problem believing this happened this way because this is who Jesus is. But I also think that the story is laden with implications that ripple down through the centuries as well. I think we are meant to chuckle at how Timaeus’ blind kid sees better than the disciples who Jesus really is and what he is about. He regains his sight and becomes a follower “on The Way” which is to say that he’s headed to Jerusalem with them. He apparently has no illusions about what is coming, but he has been touched by the amazing grace of Jesus, for he was once blind but now he sees and that is such an amazing gift that he cannot but help to respond with his life.

I also think that we are meant to wonder about our own blindness or at least our blind spots. We tend to think we see it all, but that is a great illusion. Each of us sees what we want to see, or what we are able to see, and usually from a fairly narrow perspective. None of us have eyes in the back of our heads. None of us have 20/20 vision, at least not in a spiritual sense. Much is hidden from our understanding and always we are looking through a dark glass. Part of spiritual maturity is beginning to see things in new ways, from new angles. But I also think part of spiritual maturity is becoming more profoundly aware that we don’t see it all, that we don’t have all the answers, and that what we do see isn’t all there is to see. We therefore need others. In and through Christian community, Jesus helps us to see in new ways, especially by way of other people whose life experiences may be very different from ours. This is why a congregation like this matters so much if the goal is to grow in our faith.

In our own journeys, we may at times be tempted to sit back and wait for Jesus to come to us. But I think the journey begins in fact when we find ourselves groping in the dark and crying out, “Son of David, Jesus, have mercy on me” and we stumble along trying to find our way. Perhaps it is incumbent upon us to cry out in the darkness, to ask for what we need, and to do our best to get up and move. It’s not magic; it requires our participation and great risk. Is your desire to see strong enough for you to be willing to throw off the coat that you rely on in your present blindness? Jesus doesn’t make faith easy for us, I think, because he respects us too much. He insists that we come to him, not because he isn’t “pastoral,” but because the struggle to find him is part of the gift and part of the journey. Prayer is at least in part about learning to articulate what we need and there is spiritual growth that comes simply by learning to articulate what we are asking for, not because Jesus needs for us to do that, but because we need to do that.

One commentator puts it this way, which is a pretty good summary of what I hope you’ve been hearing me say today:
Discipleship depends upon whether or not we really want to see. To see our weary world as it truly is, without denial and delusion: the tough realities of and inconvenient truths about economic disparity and racial oppression and ecological destruction and war without end. And to see our beautiful world as it truly could and should be, free of despair or distraction: the divine dream of enough for all and beloved community and restored creation and the peaceable kingdom. (See Ched Meyers)
All of this is gift, and sheer grace. It is true that God really is the Giver; but we still need to receive that gift. I know that in this parish as across the diocese folks are praying about stewardship and their own giving – as we are in my household as well. There is no magic formula for this. But the move beyond “tipping” or acting as if the church is one more charity in the midst of a pledge drive is always rooted in this recognition that Jesus is the one who gives us sight, the one who claims and marks and seals us for the living God. In seeing who he is we begin to see who we are and recognize that it’s true: all that we are and all that we have is of God. The practice of faithful stewardship doesn’t end there but it always begins with our ability to see this, and then like blind Bartimaus we are called to respond. We who once were blind, now see. May we receive the gift of God’s amazing grace, and then continue to follow Jesus along the Way. 

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