Sunday, October 28, 2018
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 25)
The Way of Exclusion
O Jesus Christ, teacher and healer, you heard the cry of the blind beggar when others would have silenced him. Teach us to be attentive to the voices others ignore, that we might respond through the power of the Spirit to heal the afflicted and to welcome the abandoned for your sake and the sake of the gospel. Amen.
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.
All readings for this Sunday:
Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Psalm 34:1-8 [19-22]
1. What are the things that keep us from perceiving God at work in our lives?
2. What is the connection between healing and faith?
3. How do you think James and John felt as they heard Jesus ask the same question of Bartimaeus that he had asked them?
4. How much time do we spend either jockeying for position, or blocking the path of healing for those in need?
5. What would it look and feel like for the church to "take heart"?
by Kate Matthews
At first glance, or taken out of context, this story about a blind beggar having his sight restored may appear to be simply another miracle story in the ministry of Jesus the healer. Encountering it within the larger narrative, however, we hear more clearly how God is speaking to our hearts today through this simple story of mercy, healing, and faith.
Jesus and the disciples are approaching the end of their travels. They're at Jericho, on the edge of Jerusalem, on the edge of suffering and death for Jesus. As they've traveled along, the disciples have been busy figuring out where they want to sit when their dreams of triumph and success come to realization. Somehow, much of what has gone before, much of what Jesus has said and done, much of who Jesus is, has gone right past them; they have failed to recognize what was right in front of them.
Missing what really matters
The cluelessness of the disciples is a theme one perceives when reading the short Gospel of Mark (the oldest of the four Gospels) from beginning to end, a helpful exercise for feeling its movement and hearing its message more clearly. Not long after the disciples have been bickering over their places in glory, a blind man by the side of the road, hindered rather than helped by those around him, instantly recognizes Jesus for who he is.
Not long after Jesus tells his followers that the last shall be first in his way of doing things, the disciples don't seem to object to a beggar being pushed to the edge of the scene, to the end of the line of people waiting to receive mercy from Jesus: Cynthia Jarvis observes that not one of the disciples speaks up for Bartimaeus when the crowd hushes him. We wonder, is anyone paying attention here?
Trouble brewing and a dangerous ministry
The setting for this healing story is important, despite Mark's rather odd, even abrupt account: "They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho…" (10:46a). We're not told what happened while Jesus and his disciples were in Jericho, but we could safely assume that Jesus' words and works were as dramatic, as compelling, as his past teachings and healings, or there wouldn't be a large crowd following him out of town.
Just outside Jericho is a good place for an impressive and important event: André Resner, Jr., reminds us that this was the same place where God worked an earlier miracle, in the story about Joshua and the walls that came tumbling down.
Healing in a dangerous place
Perhaps that miracle is a promising sign of what's about to happen. But Megan McKenna adds historical details about Jericho, describing it as a dangerous, even violent, place, filled with bandits but also with those who were fighting the Roman Empire. Mark has provided these last ten chapters as a prelude to the long and central account of Jesus' passion and death in Jerusalem, another place of intrigue and revolutionary groups seething with anger at Rome.
Jesus' journey, then, was not a sudden departure from a life of peaceful preaching in the countryside to the wild and dangerous ways of the city. There has been trouble brewing for some time now, and not just in Jerusalem. Here, then, on the outer edge of a significant and turbulent city, we witness an even more significant and graced event.
Inspiring a blessing
Despite the crowds that try to hush him, Bartimaeus cries out even more loudly. Lincoln Galloway writes that Bartimaeus understands himself, of course, as much more than simply "a blind beggar," and he resists the disciples' attempts to dismiss him or to speak for Jesus in this situation. Bartimaeus is an agent in the story because his "persistence," unlike the disciples' impatience, inspires "a wave of mercy, blessing, and change."
Don't we often define a person by some characteristic, by an adjective, rather than recognizing all of us as children of God? Fortunately, unlike many others in the Gospels (especially women), Bartimaeus is actually named. In a way, it seems to give him more individuality, more personality, more character.
Isn't it nicely symmetrical, too, that his name identifies him as someone's son, "the son of Timaeus," since he addresses Jesus as "son of David"?
Recognizing David's heir
While most scholars note the symmetry of two stories of men being restored to sight that bracket the long teachings about discipleship for the struggling, clueless followers of Jesus, they also find great significance in that title Bartimaeus uses in addressing Jesus.
The crowd may describe Jesus by his birthplace, Nazareth, but Bartimaeus knows better who Jesus is, and how to describe him: not only as King David's descendant (and, in a way, his heir), but also as the long-awaited Messiah, for whom his people hoped and waited. A.K.M. Adam actually finds this title, "Son of David," a more important factor in this story than the man's physical disability.
Where has Jesus come from?
Bartimaeus introduces this new recognition, this new perception of Jesus by acknowledging him as a descendant of both David and Solomon, who is known, David Watson notes, for his generosity and his healing powers.
The very next thing that happens in Mark's Gospel is the entry into Jerusalem, when the crowds greet Jesus' arrival with the words, "Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!" (11:10a). Surely, then, this is no accidental introduction of the title, "Son of David," and Mark's timing is excellent.
The margins of mercy
Jesus, of course, notices the man on the margins and hears his cry for help. Ironically, he asks the man the same question he asked James and John, when their minds were on their own power and glory.
From the margins, Bartimaeus not only knows what to ask for, he also grasps more fully who this man is who stands before him, and shows the insider-disciples how they should have acted themselves.
A sign of complete trust
Remember the rich man two weeks ago who could not give up everything and follow Jesus? While Bartimaeus doesn't possess much, the little that he has, his humble cloak, is something that he needs to survive, and casting it aside is a sign of his complete trust, his whole-life faith in Jesus.
Bartimaeus knows that he won't need that cloak again; he's confident that he won't be returning to his spot by the side of the road, begging in order to live. Resner describes this beautifully: "Faith sits, leaning forward, ready to leap at the opportunity to answer God's call...."
Travels coming to an end
Jesus is nearing the end of his travels, and his healing ministry as well, as Mark tells the story. This is the last account of a healing in Mark, and it goes much more easily than the last time Jesus healed a blind man (8:22).
This time, Jesus restores sight with just a word, and frees the man, a beggar formerly consigned to sitting by the side of the road, the margins of all that went on around him; Jesus tells him, "go on your way." Ironically, the man's response is not to go but to follow, an interesting contrast to Jesus' invitation earlier in the same chapter to the rich man, to "come, follow me."
A story of call and response
In fact, many scholars claim these stories are just as much about call as they are about healing. One man, the rich one, is explicitly invited to let go of what holds him back, and to follow Jesus, but he declines, with great sadness. (One could say that he has rejected his own healing.)
The other man, poor but in a deeper sense, spiritually rich, is freed of what holds him down or keeps him out, and he decides, presumably with great joy and gratitude, to "come, follow" Jesus, even on the way to the suffering and death that will come before the glory. An interesting contrast in invitation and acceptance!
Leaving exclusion behind
Bartimaeus chooses to follow what (and whom) he has spiritually embraced, this teacher Jesus. He freely decides to follow him on the way, no longer sitting alone by the side of the road but traveling on it with a band of companions.
In Mark's Gospel, he is the only one of the people healed by Jesus who then followed him on that way, according to A.K.M. Adam. Again, the timing of this incident can not be accidental.
A story of servanthood, between the lines
Between the lines of this story is the theme of servanthood. Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same haunting question he earlier asked the disciples, "What is it that you want me to do for you?" (v. 51). The answer could have been the same in both cases, for the disciples really needed help with recognizing the truth standing right before them, and where it would lead them.
Instead of "Give us glory," they could have said, "Give us hearts to see and understand and follow." That would take a miracle, too, it seems: the miracle of Resurrection, followed by Pentecost, when they would be filled with the Spirit. In the meantime, the disciples would have to travel the road to the cross, too.
Jesus models service
In this graced moment, however, Jesus, lives out the things he's been teaching his followers about true discipleship, "serving" the needs of a man on the margins. The disciples will eventually "get it," too, that is, except for one.
Where are the places and situations in your own life where God is at work, even if you don't recognize it? What is the connection between healing and faith? What are the things that keep us from perceiving the presence of God, or God at work, in our lives? Would we recognize Jesus if we encountered him?
Are we blocking the path of healing?
"When Bartimaeus adds 'son of David' to his naming of Jesus, you get the impression that he sees quite a lot for a blind man," Richard Swanson observes. It makes one wonder about the people on the margins of our churches and our communities who grasp the truth more than we "in the center" of church life do.
How much time do we spend either jockeying for position, or blocking the path of healing for those in need? In what ways have we followed "the way of exclusion"?
Whom are we missing?
Megan McKenna suggests that we check our own perception and attention, to consider whom we might not be acknowledging, or on whom we might prefer not to focus, or whose voices we may be silencing, in faraway lands and right under our noses, or better, "under our radar."
Out of sight, out of mind, and despite our modern communications and news reports, we can distract ourselves with the "more important" matters of our own lives.
A busy faithfulness
Ironically, the things that keep us busiest may actually be what we think are marks of faithfulness, the busy-ness of church and family life, and our own good behavior.
Walter Brueggemann observes that the church may have "lost its way" because it's preoccupied with "rules...morality...members and dollars...culture wars and church splits...[and]imposing our way on others in order to get everyone in the right on morality or doctrine or piety or liturgy…all as though we have not received mercy."
I'm reminded of words I once saw, from Richard Rohr: "We clergy became angry guards instead of happy guides, low level policemen instead of proclaimers of a Great Gift and Surprise both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed at the heart of all creation." What would it look and feel like for the church to "take heart," as Jesus commanded Bartimaeus?
Faith as a matter of life and death
Cynthia Jarvis challenges Christians who are secure and even comfortable to consider "those for whom faith is a matter of life and death"; we might say that they, like Bartimaeus, have nothing to lose and everything to gain. Bartimaeus doesn't care what people think, and doesn't let anything deter him from reaching Jesus.
For him, following Jesus isn't just a good idea, a fad, or a nice self-improvement program. It isn't "the thing to do," or a good habit to form. For Bartimaeus, as for so many others, trusting that Jesus cares about him and wills good for him is indeed a matter of life and death.
Finding ourselves in the story
If this is a story about values, as all stories of discipleship might be described (see David Watson, New Proclamation Year B 2009), then finding our place in this story means asking ourselves what we truly value, and for what we would be willing to leave everything behind.
What's the cloak we need to abandon? Who, or better, what is keeping us from reaching Jesus? In what ways have we experienced both inclusion and exclusion? Have we played the role of the crowd, or even the disciples, in this story?
Jesus as God's mercy
Walter Brueggemann's beautiful words on this text emphasize the theme of God's mercy, which did not begin with Jesus, although he calls Jesus "God's mercy among us." Instead, Brueggemann reminds us that this "wave of mercy" in Jesus continues the movement of God's mercy and grace as we have heard it told in the Old Testament.
Here, at the end of a long journey full of healing and teaching, at the edge of what is to come--suffering, death, and resurrection--we remember that the suffering and death of Jesus were "a continuing act of mercy. And those who received mercy are formed into a new community," Brueggemann writes.
Community as living mercy
That community would be us, in the church, a community of people who have received mercy and now have the opportunity, the responsibility, the call to extend mercy to all of God's children in need, to extend "that strange transformative reach from a center of strength to a center of need that changes everything and makes all things new."
Mercy makes all the difference in the world, whether the world knows it or not, but still, the world, Brueggemann says, waits for this tender mercy, even as it "falls apart in greed and anger and anxiety" (Brueggemann's book Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, is a wonderful source of prayers and reflections).
Transformed by mercy
Writers and thinkers can argue all they want about the existence of God (check out the bestseller list), but the naysayers themselves may be transformed by the mercy of God, a mercy extended by those who have already received it themselves, extended and shared and multiplied right before their own eyes, our own eyes, a miracle, a great wonder to behold.
Will our hearts be open to this all-important, healing, life-sustaining truth? How will we respond to its call?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (firstname.lastname@example.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Mark Twain, 19th century
"You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."
Antoine de Saint Exupery, 20th century
"It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."
Thomas Fuller, 17th century
"Seeing's believing, but feeling's the truth."
Tennessee Williams, 20th century
"There are no 'good' or 'bad' people. Some are a little better or a little worse, but all are activated more by misunderstanding than malice. A blindness to what is going on in each other's hearts...nobody sees anybody truly but all through the flaws of their own egos. That is the way we all see ...each other in life."
C.S. Lewis, 20th century
"I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."
Helen Keller, 20th century
"The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision."
Sebastian Barry, 21st century
"Because it strikes me there is something greater than judgement. I think it is called mercy."
Plato, 4th century
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle."
Stephen Levine, A Year to Live: How to Live This Year as If It Were Your Last, 21st century
"If there is a single definition of healing it is to enter with mercy and awareness those pains, mental and physical, from which we have withdrawn in judgment and dismay."
Richard Rohr, 21st century
"We clergy became angry guards instead of happy guides, low level policemen instead of proclaimers of a Great Gift and Surprise both perfectly hidden and perfectly revealed at the heart of all creation."
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