Sunday, October 25, 2009

Ol' Blind Bartimaeus

There's an old a capella Gospel song that starts with that line. A non-sequitor except that this week's Gospel reading is the account of Bartimaeus.

I even found a way to tie in Reformation Sunday!

I need to give a word of thanks to Rev. Kate Huey and "Weekly Seeds". Not only was the website and her writing a source of inspiration for this sermon, it's an almost inexhaustible resource for Scriptural commentary and daily inspiration. Check 'em out.

One last thing: My friend Khad Young has posted the first "Outlaw Preachers" podcast. Listen to it now, so when it goes viral and people are listening to it across the planet, you can brag about how you were listening to it before it was cool. (You will, of course, be wrong, the "Outlaw Preachers" podcast was never not cool. I will, however, never point that out to you in front of your friends.)

Mark 10:46-52

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here."
And they called the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, he is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?" The blind man said to him, "My teacher, let me see again." Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Standing by itself, the Gospel reading today is a really interesting and instructive account of the healing of a blind man. Bartimaeus hears that Jesus is passing by, and having heard about the miracles the itinerant Rabbi has performed, won't be quiet until he gets what he needs. He is rewarded, of course, and it's the last time Jesus heals anyone in the Gospel of Mark. There are important lessons here about faith, about persistence, about understanding our own need for restoration and healing in Jesus Christ.

More than that, though, Bartimaeus' stark, unpretentious faith stands in stark contrast to some of the people and situations we've discussed over the past couple of weeks or so.

Look, for example, at what Jesus asked when Bartimaeus jumped up and came to him. In last week's reading, James and John approached Jesus and asked him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Jesus' reply to them was, word-for-word, the same question he asked the blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?”

James and John had been with Jesus the whole time, and they understood, in part, who Jesus was – Peter had said it himself, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Most High God.” Yet James and John, for reasons of personal reassurance or ego or whatever, asked for positions of highest prominence and authority in the coming Kingdom. They wanted to be the drum majors, and the other apostles were angry not at the insolence and impropriety of the question, but because James and John asked first!

Bartimaeus wasn't looking for a throne or for recognition or wealth or prominence. The blind man simply wanted to see again.

Now, before this day, as far as we know Bartimaeus had met Jesus a grand total of zero times. He hadn't heard Jesus preaching, had not seen the miracles, hadn't eaten the bread with the 5,000 or watched Lazarus walk out of the tomb. People who had witnessed some or all of these miracles still disagreed about who Jesus was! The Pharisees had seen miracles and responded not by praising God but by plotting to kill Jesus!

Yet this blind man, whose whole world consisted of a patch of curb on a roadside in the outskirts of a violent little town, called out to Jesus with the title reserved for the Messiah, the Savior of Israel! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Small wonder that so many in the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus up, because not only was the title “Son of David” accurate, it was guaranteed to get a person either stoned by the Pharisees for blasphemy or crucified by the Romans for sedition!

But Bartimaeus wasn't looking to overthrow the Romans or discredit the religious leaders. He wasn't looking for free bread or to be entertained by a miracle or two. The blind man simply wanted to see again.

Perhaps in speaking to the blind man in precisely the same words he had said to James and John, Jesus was showing the Apostles what they should have asked. “Jesus, we've heard you talking about going to Jerusalem and being killed by the authorities and rising on the third day and we simply do not see. Our minds are blinded to what you are saying, that's why we're arguing over who is first, we just can't see the truth of what you're saying. Jesus, heal our inner blindness. We simply want to see again.”

Let's back up a little more, to our reading two weeks ago, where the rich young man runs up to Jesus and falls at his feet, desperate to find out what he must do to be saved. He was following the rules, keeping the laws, trying his hardest. Jesus said to him, “"You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." Yet this one thing was too much, and the young man left, imprisoned by all that he possessed.

Bartimaeus owned just one thing, his beggar's cloak, and by the time he walked up to Jesus that had been left behind, because the blind man simply wanted to see again. And when Jesus said, “Go,” Bartimaeus instead followed Jesus as he continued his journey toward Jerusalem.

In the Gospel reading two weeks ago, as Jesus watched the rich man depart, the disciples were quick to point out all that they had left behind. Perhaps one difference between the disciples and the rich man is this: when something we own is left behind, there is at least some expectation that it will be there when you come back. When Jim and Carol leave the lake house, they expect it to still be there when they drive up again, right? I don't forfeit ownership of my car when I walk away from it to come into church.

We know that the disciples still had access to the fishing boats and nets they had left behind, because not long after Jesus rose from the dead he appeared to them on the shore as they fished. This is in the 21st chapter of the book of John. They had returned to the security of what they knew – fishing. On the shore that morning, Jesus challenged Peter, and by extension the rest of them, to once and for all give up the safety of boats and nets for the Gospel.

And this was the opportunity that Jesus was offering the kneeling rich man: not to leave it all behind, but to destroy it completely, to let it go and to never come back. To have the freedom Bartimaeus enjoyed – the freedom to simply follow, to have no reason to look back over his shoulder.

Whether we're blinded by what we own, like that rich man, blinded by the correctness of what we believe, like the Pharisees, or blinded by our ambitions or need for security, like James and John and the apostles, we are as blind as that beggar on the Jericho Road – until, like Bartimaeus, we respond to Jesus' call.

This Reformation Sunday, when Protestants remember Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg, one of the things we are reminded of is the motto, “reformata et semper reformanda” – “Reformed and ever reforming.”

The beauty of the faith journey is that Christ's call and our opportunity to respond isn't a one-time event, but a series of chances to go deeper into relationship, to venture farther into the adventure of faith, to swim deeper into the ocean of grace.

Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” Will we respond with pleas for position, for security, for things to “do” in order to earn God's favor... or, in whatever context applies for us in that place and time, will we simply want to see again?

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