Sermon –“Re-Member, Re-Turn, Re-Vision”
Her name was Elsie and she was a stalwart member of our Tuesday morning Bible Study at United Community Church in St. Johnsbury. She and a small number of elders would gather with me on Tuesday to read the lectionary scripture for the coming week and so I use to call them my sermon writing consultation group. They took that very seriously lucky for me! The stories and wisdom they shared with me about how the particular scripture had touched their lives was always in some way the inspiration for the sermon I would deliver on Sunday.
One Tuesday morning, Elsie walked in with this (see the image above the sermon) made from wood; a project of one of her sons I believe. She took her usual seat in one of the wing back chairs in the parlor and just quietly set it on her lap. Of course, my curiosity got the best of me and before we even started, I asked her what is was. With a slight smile she held it up and turned the question back on me – “what do you think it is?” I stared at it for some time and answered “a word written in another language or perhaps some kind of code.” Her smile got bigger. “Look again” she said “can you see what it says?” After staring at it for another several minutes, I still only saw a bunch of oddly arranged dashes and I was racking my brain trying to recall – was this was some ancient language I was supposed to learn in seminary? No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t see anything more than some oddly arranged dashes and boxes.
This morning’s gospel is classified as yet another healing story or miracle story from Mark. Let’s widen our lens for a minute and see where this story takes place within the Gospel of Mark’s version of the Good News. If we look back at the reading just preceding it from the Gospel last week we see the story of the disciples arguing about who should sit at the right and left hand of Jesus when he comes to power and are taught once again that it is the first who will be last and the last who will be first. The passage just following this story is the triumphal entry into Jerusalem – what we refer to in the liturgical year as Palm Sunday. This story is the second story of Jesus healing a blind man. It happens in the gospel after what’s referred to as the third Messianic revelation. Big theological term which basically means the third time Jesus is revealed as the Messiah – the third time Jesus’ his death and resurrection are predicted. On either side like book ends of these three revelations are stories of Jesus healing blind men. But this healing story is different in some very important ways or perhaps this morning I should say – there is more to this story than meets the eye.
Re-Member: Looking in the Rear View
But before I launch into the gospel story, I want to take a minute to acknowledge this moment. Every time we have had some kind of milestone which this last year has looked like being able to share various parts of worship together I like to take a minute to take it in. This is the first time I am preaching to the congregation in the place that you call your spiritual home after months of preaching to an empty sanctuary.
This morning we remember what it was like for all of you to worship here – the special moments weddings, baptisms, memorial services and the little quiet moments. We also remember what this past 20 months as been like – forced to find a new way of worshipping together, new ways of being together. This morning we have re-membered this place – that is put ourselves back in it. In that way we have celebrated communion. Jesus said to the disciples and to us “do this to re-member me.” He wasn’t just asking them to recall him, he was inviting them to participate in putting the “body of Christ” back together again. And although we were never apart in spirit this morning we honor the fact that our faith is incarnational –it is an embodied faith. So as we look in the rear view mirror and remember let us also focus on re-embodying, remembering who we are as God’s beloved and what we have been called to do – love our neighbor as ourselves. However, if we only continue to “remember” – that is recall the past, we will never be able to move forward to “do a new thing” continue to create a church that is more about being the church than being inside the church, a church that is
re-membered in a way the truly includes everyone.
This morning’s reading from the prophet Jeremiah almost sounds like it could have been written for us, for this very moment. Listen again:
See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north,
and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth,
among them the blind and the lame,
those with child and those in labor, together;
a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come,
and with consolations[a] I will lead them back,
I will let them walk by brooks of water,
in a straight path in which they shall not stumble;
Yes, this morning we return – that is come back to this place but are we also willing to re-turn our hearts toward God, turn our hearts back toward God. If you have ever seen or used a pair of those coin operated binoculars you see on the front of your bulletin, you would also have seen the bright red knob in between the eye pieces. Do you know what it says? It says – “turn to clear vision.” And think about it if you’re trying to back out of some place (at least before the installation of rear view cameras) or going to pass a car on the highway – you would have to turn around so you could see your blind spots.
Our Blind Spots
In this morning’s gospel, Bartimaeus is described not just as a blind man but a blind beggar. And he has the gall to call out to Jesus as he passes by. Not just call out to him but to call him out as the Messiah! He calls him the “Son of David – the Messiah!” Let’s talk about the obvious first. He can’t see.
Today Bartimaeus would have certain rights under the American with Disabilities Act. A blind beggar in Jesus’ time would have been perceived by society and religious people to have been so afflicted because of sin and because of that not only be relegated to the outskirts of society but would have also been looked down upon. He was already blind and the crowd tried to render him mute as well, hushing him up as he persisted and yelled even louder.
What might have motivated him to do such a thing? Well really what did he have to lose? He likely already had been failed by all sectors of society, including family and religious observers, so a great teacher and prophet perhaps a messianic hero may be the last resort. He refuses to be silenced and turned away because his last best chance for healing is walking by. Perhaps one would more accurately say that Bartimaeus was not disabled but differently-abled. He hears the crowd and asked what the commotion is. In the NRSV it says he heard it was Jesus. It is what prompts him to shout. As a beggar he was use to using his voice to try and get what he needed – “Alms, alms for the poor!”
If we are lucky we’ll never know what it is like to live our lives with a disability. Recent statistics show that 61 million Americans live with some kind of disability and 1 in 3 have an unmet health care need because of cost. How do we define disability – well there are many criteria there is the more obvious like someone who uses a wheelchair, a cane, crutches, or a walker and also someone like Bartimaeus who cannot see, hear, speak, use stairs, walk or grasp small objects. Then there are the less obvious disabilities like mental illness or someone who has a special challenge learning. One in three Americans will face at least a 90-day disability before reaching age 65.
People who are differently abled are just one group of people for whom we have “blind spots” in our society and by that I mean people who we often see as less than fully human and therefore treat differently – people who are sometimes treated with great distain, hatred and even violence. So without going any further in this story it already gives us much to think about. If we examine our own hearts what are our “blind spots” – either the things we don’t see about the people we encounter or our short-sightedness – the ways in which we judge people after only seeing one part of who someone is.
Our Shortsightedness – The Cloak
What happens next in the story? – Jesus asks that the blind man be brought to him and what is Bartimaeus’ response he throws off his cloak and springs up! Bartimaeus throws off his cloak. I imagine it’s a cloak he wraps around his shoulders every night for warmth and security. A cloak he spreads out on the ground every morning to collect coins from passersby. A cloak he folds again to gather up each day’s meager earnings at nightfall. I am in awe of the trust Bartimaeus has in Jesus by the end of this story — a trust deep enough to enable him to cast aside what’s most familiar and safe, in exchange for “a way” that is new, and full of uncertainty. Isn’t that much like what we have had to do these last 20 months and continue to do now. What do our cloaks look like? What would give us the audacity and courage, the faith, and willingness to abandon everything and follow Jesus? The cloak for me represents our inability to see beyond the limitations we place on ourselves and each other. I am a sinner and I’ll only ever be a sinner, I’m lazy, I’m dumb, I’m – you fill in the blank. How does that cloak become the thing our lives are all about, how do we allow it to become the whole of who we are? This can be said for us personally and for the church.
Over-sight – What do you want me to do for you?
“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). It’s a striking question Jesus asks Bartimaeus. What kind of answer was Jesus expecting? Bartimaeus is a blind beggar; does Jesus expect an answer other than the one that Bartimaeus gives? He wants his sight back! But Jesus doesn’t assume what he needs – he asks him. He doesn’t reduce Bartimaeus to his blindness. Instead, he honors the fullness and complexity of a real human being who likely has many desires, many longings, and many needs.
In asking the question, Jesus invites Bartimaeus into the honest self-reflection essential to growth and healing and invites us to a revision or to re-vision what it means to love one another. It is at once a lovely and a terrifying question. It calls for radical honesty, vulnerability and trust.
It is an open question; a servant’s question. It is not the question of a genie, asking what wish he can grant. It is not a question of a privileged person. It is not the question of an abled-bodied person who presumes to know what this man needs. By asking this question Jesus changes the situation and shows his disciples exactly what he was just talking about, that the Son of Man came to be the servant of all. But Jesus doesn’t give him his sight back. He replies to Bartimaeus, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Jesus only reveals to Bartimaeus that it was Bartimaeus’s own faith that made him well. And not only is his sight healed but he is also then freed from the life circumstance of being a beggar. Bartimaeus was an outcast, excluded from society, literally outside of the city.
Though Bartimaeus is literally the blind man in the story, it’s the crowd — the blind man’s friends, his peers, his culture, his society — that renders him unseen. To their seeing eyes, the blind man by the roadside is invisible, and therefore expendable. His shouts and cries are not worthy of attention. His suffering is not important enough to warrant tenderness, patience, or even curiosity. When the invisible one dares to speak out, their response is to try and silence him, to shut him up. The only priority is to restore order, re-establish the social hierarchy, and maintain a status quo that keeps the privileged comfortable. But that comfort is precisely what Jesus renders impossible. Once the crowd sees Bartimaeus, they can’t unsee him. I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that Jesus heals the crowd first so that they can, in turn, participate in Bartimaeus’s healing. Once Jesus opens their eyes to his full humanity, they must respond with compassion: “Take heart; get up; he is calling you.”
So back to the story I opened with. Do you know what this says? Can you refocus your sight, can you turn to see clearly what is in front of you?
Take heart! Have courage! Jesus is calling us! Gracious God let us undergo a re-vision of the heart. Teacher – let us see again! Give us the insight to follow Jesus so that we may return to be re-visioned and re-membered into the shape of Love. Amen.