Sunday, October 28, 2012

Blind? Who, Me?

This is based on a sermon I gave in 2009.

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 striking 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 the positions of highest prominence and authority in the coming Kingdom. They wanted to be the drum majors, they wanted the corner offices, 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.

Bartimaeus hadn’t seen anything, of course. He spent his days right where he was that day, begging on the side of the road, wrapped in the one thing in this world he owned, a cloak, relying on the kindness of strangers to reach out of the black sea that surrounded him and give him food, or a little money, so that for that one day, he wouldn’t starve to death.

But one thing about sitting on the side of a busy road is that you get to hear a lot of stories. So maybe it isn’t accurate to say that Bartimaeus hadn’t seen the miracles. Maybe, when he heard about the feeding of the five thousand, he could see the barley loaves and taste the fish. When the conversations turned to healing – a leper cleansed, the dead raised, maybe he could see the look of wonder on the face of the one made whole… and when he heard that Jesus even made blind eyes see, maybe his heart burned within him, a strange, new sensation – the feeling of hope.

Funny how people who had witnessed some or all of the miracles still disagreed about who Jesus was! Tragic that the Pharisees and the Temple elite had seen those same miracles and responded, not by praising God, but by plotting to kill Jesus! Bartimaeus had seen none of this, but made up his mind about who Jesus was and is based solely on what he had heard, yet there was no doubt in his mind that Jesus was the Promised One of God.

So when he heard the crowd go by that day, and when someone told him what all the fuss was about, 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 only for the Messiah, the Savior of Israel! “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

Many in the crowd tried to hush Bartimaeus up, not because he was interrupting, but because not only was the title “Son of David” accurate, it was a proclamation 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 had no dreams of power, no hidden agenda. 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 that Bartimaeus was asking for the one thing they themselves needed!

For all they had seen, for all they had heard, James and John and the others couldn’t see what was really at stake. Perhaps they followed Jesus out of a great faith, but that faith was polluted by dreams of empire, by a desire to have what was in it for them. They were blinded by ambition.

James and John had asked for the places of highest honor in the coming Kingdom, the right and left hand seats next to the Throne of David. They should have said, “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.”

But, you see, unlike Bartimaeus, the disciples didn’t know that they were blind.

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, blinded to the truth by his great wealth, disabled by all that he possessed.

He didn’t know that he was blind.

Bartimaeus knew he was blind, and was willing to give up everything he owned to get – not what he wanted – but what he needed, from the Son of God.

As Jesus watched the rich man depart, and spoke about the eye of the needle, Peter was quick to point out all that they had left behind. But I wonder: had they really, at that point in the Gospels, left anything behind? Sure, they didn’t have anything with them, but the fishing boats, the families, their livelihoods were still there, waiting on them. We know this, 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. It wasn’t until after Pentecost that they gave up the safety of boats and nets for the Gospel.

Bartimaeus had no land, no wealth, and no sight. He owned just one thing, his beggar's cloak. Some scholars think that, in that day, the beggars’ cloaks were actually their “tool of the trade.” They spread out their cloak for passersby to throw money onto, and at the end of the day, whatever was in it was what he had to survive on. His cloak protected him from the weather. His cloak was his sleeping bag.

And Bartimaeus heard that Jesus was passing by and he threw off his livelihood, his protection, his one source of income and comfort. He just walked away. Bartimaeus knew he was blind, and simply wanted to see again. And notice something: when Jesus said, “Go,” and Bartimaeus was healed, there’s no mention that he went back for his cloak. Instead, he joyfully followed Jesus as he continued his journey toward Jerusalem.

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.

And here is the lesson for us: 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 is Reformation Sunday, when Protestants remember Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses on the door of the church in Wittenburg. Perhaps he didn’t realize it at the time, but in that act of protest, in his desire to call local church leaders to account for abdicating their responsibility to the Good News in favor of a desire for wealth and power, Martin Luther was throwing off his cloak – the security of the established church – in favor of following Jesus down the road to Jerusalem and all that it meant.

When we throw in our lot with the risen Christ, we may not fully understand all that it means to do so. We may well be less like Bartimaeus and more like the disciples, who though they followed imperfectly and with wildly inaccurate expectations, followed nonetheless, and through following grew into God’s will, day by day.

The motto of Reformed Theology is “reformata et semper reformanda” – “Reformed and ever reforming.” The beauty of Christ's call and our opportunity to respond, the good news of our individual and corporate faith journey is that it 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, to grow day by day into God’s will and the now-and-coming Kingdom of God.

Jesus asks of us, as he asked of James and John and of Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Will we respond with pleas for position, for security, like James and John? Will we seek things to “do” in order to earn God's favor, like the rich man? Or, in whatever context applies for us in that place and time, will we throw off our cloaks, acknowledge our blindness, and simply want to see again?

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