Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Finding Vision

Miss Kathleen Frazier lived on Bedford Avenue in Altavista, Virginia, in the house where most likely she had been born.  She had a spare bedroom with a private bath, left vacant by her mother’s death just a year or so before I was to occupy it after my sophomore year in college.  I came to Altavista to be the summer intern at the local Methodist church.  The lay leader of the congregation met me on a late spring Sunday evening and after initial pleasantries headed with me down the block towards Miss Kathleen’s house.  “I should tell you,” said he, “that the lady you’re going to be staying with is blind.  She can see a little bit, but she’s practically totally blind.”  And he added, “You’ll discover what an amazing person she is.”

Miss Kay, as she was known, had spent her entire adulthood as a music teacher in Altavista Elementary School.  She walked there and back every day that school was in session.  She sang in the church choir.  She was phenomenally well read.  Sometimes I would pass her room and see through the open door her sitting with a huge volume of Braille in her lap.  She frequently commented on what I was wearing or how I looked particularly good in the color blue.  One day she commented on a novel I had left beside the chair in which I’d been reading.  She didn't much like it.
She sometimes had a huge volume of Braille in her lap.

In retrospect, the most valuable lesson that Miss Kay taught me was how ambiguous blindness is.  To be sure, there is a vast difference between total blindness and partial blindness, however limited the latter might be.  But I realized very quickly how much I saw but did not truly look at.  I began to realize how much more she, nearly totally blind from birth, actually perceived than I did.  

Bartimaeus in the gospel story told by Mark was a blind beggar.  Apparently he had once been able to see, for the favor he asked of Jesus was “let me see again.”  Blindness in the gospel narratives is paradoxical.  The blind can frequently see what the sighted miss.  The vignette about Bartimaeus is about exactly that.  His is the only instance of a healing story in Mark’s gospel where the person healed is actually named.  And he is the one in this early gospel who first calls Jesus by the Messianic title “Son of David.”  So on one level the story is about names and identity.  Hold on to that thought because, as we shall see, it has something to do with the central point. 

Mark’s terse prose doesn’t tell us how Bartimaeus knew about Jesus, although at this point it is not at all unusual for his fame to precede him.  The picture Mark paints is of a noisy crowd of people who are surrounding Jesus on his way out of Jericho.  In all the commotion, Bartimaeus finds out that it is Jesus of Nazareth who is passing by, and that is enough to ignite his enthusiasm.  He begins shouting, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”  Maybe the crowd is used to loud-mouthed beggars and therefore used to putting them down and shutting them up.  Or maybe Jesus is carrying on a conversation or doing a bit of teaching along the road—we can speculate.  It could be, too, that the implication here is that Bartimaeus is using a politically sensitive title which the crowd is eager to avoid lest the authorities get worked up about Jesus.  Whatever the case, Bartimaeus is not about to hush. He just gets more insistent.  “Son of David, have mercy on me.” 

"Son of David!  Have mercy on me!"
The most dramatic moment in the narrative begins when Jesus simply stops.  Note that.  He stands still.  That, too, might be more than a tiny gloss on the main theme.   “Call him here.”  By this time in the story, it is becoming clear that this story has a function that far exceeds that of another miracle story.  “Call him.”  That tips us off that on another level this story is one about vocation.  It is about a calling and a response. 

 “Take heart, cheer up, Pal. He is calling you.”  And with that the moment arrives.  Bartimaeus in a gesture which seems to be brimming with enthusiasm indeed does take heart.  He throws off his old cloak and comes to Jesus.  Let’s pause the action for a second and take stock of what Bartimaeus is doing.  First, he has opened his voice full throttle and cried for mercy.  He has persisted in crying despite the crowd’s attempt to silence him.   And finally he springs to his feet and throws off that trademark of his beggarly life, the cloak.  In that way, Bartimaeus stands in marked contrast to the rich young man whom we recently saw in this gospel.  When Jesus invites him to come follow him, the young man goes away sorrowful for he has great possessions.  Bartimaeus, it would seem, is not only ready to give up what he has of a life but knows that if he is ever to see again he must seize the moment without second-guessing whether it will work out for him. 

Jesus repeats the question which he put to James and John when in the story immediately preceding this one when they too come to him asking for something.  “What is it that you want me to do for you?”  Jesus asks.  And so he asks that question of Bartimaeus.  That, too, is key to the meaning of this story.  What exactly do you want?  And what do you imagine that Jesus has to do with whatever you desire?  James and John were quite prepared with their request.  In a word or two, they wanted status and prestige, place and honor.  Disciples, even members of Jesus’ inner circle though they were, they had no grasp of what his Way entailed.  Perhaps Bartimaeus doesn’t know either.  But he knows that he wants to see again. 

Unlike the other story of a blind man being healed in this gospel, this one has no account of Jesus laying on hands or using spittle or commanding that someone go wash in order to gain sight.  He simply says what he often does.  “Go your way.  Your faith has made you whole.”  The implication here is not that faith is about believing that but rather about believing in.  Modern Christianity by and large doesn’t get that.  People spend enormous energy arguing about what is correct or not, what is God’s will about this or that, how you ought to think or how you should behave.  Faith is never really about those things, at least not centrally so.  It is about giving your heart, which is the root meaning of belief.  “My God, accept my heart this day and make it truly thine.”  It is quite literally falling in love with this indescribably wonderful Force that brings all things into being and keeps the universe in motion.  And it is this love that heals and saves us. 
"The way" from Jericho to Jerusalem is incredibly steep. 
The way of Jesus is even steeper.

Now the denouement of the story is that Bartimaeus, whom Jesus gives the command, “Go your way,”  actually uses that freedom and his restored sight not to go his way but to go Jesus’ way.  So Mark ends this passage with the thought, “He followed [Jesus] on the way.”

I said earlier that we’d return to the matter of identity and names.  In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus is quoted in a number of places making “I am” statements.  “I am the Good Shepherd.”  “I am the bread of life.”  “I am the Way, the Truth, the Life.”  “I am the true Vine.”  None of that is at all accidental.  But frequently, though not in the beginning so much, the Church has understood those statements to be about the uniqueness of Jesus as contrasted with the rest of us. But the issue is not ever that Jesus is about arrogating power to himself, or even asking to be worshiped.  He rather asks that his disciples follow him. And to follow Jesus inevitably means joining him in the way that leads through suffering and death.  The point is to sign on to his cause, not just his benefit package.  Jesus is on the way to suffering and death precisely because he has chosen to identify with the poor, the blind, the marginalized, the outcast, the ones who have been chewed up and spit out by the unholy alliance yoking political power and religious authority.  Who would be lingering in the background here upset at a messianic title being used to address Jesus?  You know who.  Those in power.  Make no mistake about it:  Jesus is going to Jerusalem and, as he himself predicted to his spiritually blind disciples, be killed.  And the reason is simple.  His teaching and preaching directly liberated those who were society’s poorest and least powerful in many cases.  His is a kingdom truly not of this world.  It is made of people like those little children in the story immediately preceding the one about the rich young man.  “Let the little children come to me and don’t stop them, for to such as them the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”

That is the way that Bartimaeus chose to go.  Jesus became not only the healer but the Way himself.  Did Bartimaeus stick with Jesus through the coming crisis?  Was he there during the last week, or did he revert to the old life?  We don’t know.  What we do know is that Bartimaeus for a tiny little slice of the gospel narrative embodies the essence of the faithful disciple.  He follows Jesus on the Way, and all who do that discover that the Way is indeed Jesus himself.  He is, for every Bartimaeus among us, “My teacher, Rabbouni.” He is the model.  Our model.

I do not believe I need to tell you that the deck is stacked against Bartimaeus today.  And if Bartimaeus is, as I have said, the kind of disciple that really gets it, gets the truth, and acts on it, then those like you and me who are paying attention to this formerly sightless beggar might be aware that there is a virulent hatred, growing in today’s world, of noisy beggars.  Beware if you are an immigrant, a foreigner, or a person who does not serve the purposes of those in political power or religious authority.  Be careful if you sit by the roadside because you are a refugee.   But in a wider sense, blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and tweet all manner of lies and evil against you falsely, and claim that you are undermining the system and threatening the security of everyone who matters.

Just observe who it is who is standing dead still and calling you.  Calling you.  Calling you.  Rejoice and be exceeding glad.  For great is your opportunity once you take that first step on that steep climb from Jericho to Jerusalem.  You will have a new identity,  and gradually a reworked self-understanding.  And most of all, you will have a vision.  You will be able to see again, and the first thing you’ll behold once your vision comes, is Jesus, “Rabbouni,” your teacher.

A sermon preached on October 28, 2018, on Proper 25, Year B, of the Revised Common Lectionary.  The Text is Mark 10:46-52.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2018

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