Let Me See Again
| Mark 10:46-52
||Sun, October 26, 2003
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Jesus travels to Jericho once. Today is that day. Surely it is a big day, with plenty on the agenda: people to meet, teaching and healings among the crowds, unexpected guests at table with him, arguments with the powers that be. But the text says nothing about the day Jesus spends in Jericho. It says: “They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho ...”. The one event recorded and remembered from that full itinerary is an unwelcome interruption on the way out of town: “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!’”
It seems a small footnote in history. This short story of the interruption on the highway out of Jericho - down below sea level on the steep road up Mt. Zion - hardly seems critical to Christian history. That is what many that day assume. They ‘sternly order’ the blind beggar to shut up. His ‘kyrie eleison’ is not sung as a plaintive chant. Bartimaeus is shouting to get Jesus’ undivided attention. His cry for mercy is a desperate demand. He calls Jesus “Son of David”. He names Jesus the rightful heir of the Messiah. He knows that this is his one chance to get a hearing with the Holy One of Israel. Bartimaeus will not be silenced in his determination to get to Jesus. Many find this beggar’s shouts rude and inappropriate. They order him to be quiet. He responds by raising the volume: “Son of David, have mercy on me!” This humbled blind beggar sitting by the roadside, clinking his cup, will not be silenced ... not on this day, not while the Holy One of God is so close at hand. This moment will not come again. He will not be silenced by the powers that find his cry offensive and outrageous.
Now notice that this story is no footnote in Mark’s gospel. It interrupts the story at a crucial moment. Jesus’ journey from his home in the north begins with the slow gift of sight for a blind man. The pilgrimage south takes his disciples on a slow journey to sight. Peter names him the Messiah but Peter cannot believe what he sees - a suffering servant instead of a potentate. And not Peter only, but also James and John and all the rest cannot see that Jesus is leading them down to a cross, not up to a throne. Now, at Jericho, Jesus reaches the turning point. Here he turns west for the final confrontation at the Temple. Tomorrow he enters on a donkey and they shout “Hosanna, hosanna”. In six days he will be convicted, tortured and crucified by the State. But first there is Bartimaeus’ interruption on the road outside Jericho.
Last Sunday morning I was on a plane traveling home from the outskirts of Chicago and the annual consultation of the Gospel and Our Culture Network. The pastors, lay people and seminary professors who gathered there are all wrestling with the cultural challenges that confront the church in North America. Much of the conversation over meals and in working sessions ponders how congregations become places that are prepared to hear that Jesus comes to confront the way we live, not to condone it. One respected Mennonite teacher wonders aloud: “Is there a way of intervening in the church shopping and church hopping of a consumer marketplace so there is a genuine conversion, not just a change in brand?” A theology professor reflects on the nature of a people who are ready to learn new ways. He says he suspects that a teachable heart begins with genuine humility. He notices that humility tied to humiliation. He hunches that many congregations are not eager to be humiliated by confessing that they do not know where Christ is leading the church in North America today. This is the one thing that churches and clergy are supposed to be experts on. To confess that the church and its ministers are blind to Jesus is to be humiliated. But what if it is the truth?
Perhaps the church we inhabit is ‘Bartimaeus United Church’, just past Jericho Beach. Perhaps the only faithful starting place for the church is to tell the humbling truth about our blindness to the purposes and ways of Christ here and now. Our ‘kyrie eleison’ is not made up only of guilt for wrong-doing. The mercy that we long for is a persistent cry for Jesus to stop and to heal the blindness that does not know the way to go. When others - in the church and culture - find this public display to be shameful and humiliating we will not cease and desist. This is the day we have waited for. Bartimaeus knows that this is the moment.
“Jesus stood still and said, ‘Call him here.’ Jesus stands still. Jesus stops. Jesus hears Bartimaeus’ rude prayers and does not ignore them. But he does not come to Bartimaeus. Jesus does not kneel down in an act of pastoral care, blessing the blind beggar by the road. He tells those who are in the crowd with him to “call him here”. And they called the blind man, saying to him, ‘Take heart; get up, he is calling you.’ First Bartimaeus calls for Jesus to have mercy. Then, three times in one verse the text tells us that Jesus calls Bartimaeus to come to him. We have reduced the language of ‘call’ to personal career choices. When we speak of our vocation we imagine that we are discussing the work that we have chosen or been chosen by. But this story of calling takes our language of vocation to a deeper place. This is a story about the vocation - the calling - of the church. This is what we are blind to in the church. We may be able to sort out whether or not God is calling us as individuals to a life of service in medicine or in teaching or in business or in music or in the family. But we are hard-pressed as a church to find clarity when it comes to our common calling as Jesus’ disciple here on this campus and in this city and in this denomination. So it is a crucial moment when Jesus stands still and calls ‘Bartimaeus United Church’ to come.
Bartimaeus leaps in response: So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.” He abandons his cloak, his warmth, his property. He springs up, risking a fall in his enthusiasm. He is eager to meet the Holy One of God. He knows that everything is about to change, that he will never be the same again. He is a church that is prepared for conversion to a new way of life. He is a church that expects to be made new by its encounter with Jesus. “Then Jesus said to him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ It is the same question that Jesus has just asked James and John. They approach him, asking for the moon: “Teacher, we want for you to do for us whatever we ask of you ... Grant us to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” They do not see. They imagine that he will soon be King of Israel and they want to be Secretary of State and Minister of Finance in the new regime. They are blinded by illusions of grandeur and fame. Jesus asks the same question of this blind beggar of a church: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ What will Bartimaeus United Church ask for? Perhaps it will ask for security greater than a cloak and a spot to beg for offerings. Perhaps it will ask for normalcy, for security, for wholeness and peace and quiet. Perhaps. But it does not. Instead, “The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again’.” Let me see again. Bartimaeus knows what it is to see. He has seen in the past, but has lost his vision. He is a church that once knew where Jesus was leading it. He is a congregation that has since lost its vision of the way forward. He is a people who do not know how to see the world anymore. His eyes have been clouded by the false images of a culture of excess and ease that blind him to the truth. He has been so focused on his own need that he can no longer see the pain that surrounds him. But now he dares to ask to see again. Bartimaeus believes that it is possible to see again - to see the world’s beauty and pain clearly, to see strangers as neighbours, to see the way that Jesus is leading his flock.
Jesus said to him, ‘Go; your faith has made you well’.” There is no need for Jesus to spit in the dust, to make mud packs for his eyes. There are no holy incantations or special prayers required. No sacrifices need to be made at the Temple. This healing comes mysteriously from within. Bartimaeus is given the miracle of a deep hope and a profound trust that we call ‘faith’. He is sure that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah, the Holy One of God. And he is convinced that his humble, determined cry will be noticed by the Christ. When he is called he leaps in response, letting go of everything in order to turn to a new future. And when asked what it is that he longs for Bartimaeus is prepared to receive the dangerous gift of sight. It is a dangerous gift because now he will see the way of the cross clearly and he will know the will of God that Christ intends for his life. Any congregation, any denomination, any church that is prepared to ask Jesus to overcome its blindness is asking for a wonderful and terrible healing. When our determined hope in the power of Christ to heal leads to our conversion from blindness to sight, the path we are to walk becomes clear: “Immediately Bartimaeus regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Sight is the wonderful and terrible answer to the church’s longing prayer. Now Bartimaeus sees the way that Jesus is going. Now the church leaves its begging on the margins behind. Now we follow Jesus with faith and hope and love on the way ... on the way to the aching anguish of Good Friday ... on the way to the empty void of Holy Saturday ... on the way to the shock of Easter Sunday that opens our eyes to a world transformed beyond all we dare expect and imagine. “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on us. Son of David, have mercy on us. Let us see again.”