Kathleen Moore Sermon October 25, 2015
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.
Two weeks ago, I visited New York City with my sister. She flew in from England, where she lives, and we spent a week doing the whole NY tourist trip. Sightseeing, we call it. Seeing the sights. One of the highlights was a ride to the top of the Empire State Building; actually, we went there twice, once to look at the city by day and once to see it by night. Both views were spectacular. We also toured Manhattan by bus and boat. We saw interesting architecture, the site of the 9/11 tragedy, Times Square, Central Park, and the apartments of famous people. It was all about looking at things. NYC is all lights and visuals. And it got me wondering: what if we were blind? What if we could not see? What would our experience be like then?
We depend so much on sight to experience, appreciate, and negotiate the world around us. And there are many kinds of seeing. We use words related to sight and vision in many different ways. The phrase “I see” can mean that we register something in the landscape with our eyes. It can also mean that we cognitively understand some abstract concept. Sight and vision are both literal and figurative.
Seeing is believing, we say. But sometimes we believe things that we can’t see. The Hubbell telescope has brought us amazing pictures of objects in space that we here on earth could never observe with our eyes. The European Organization for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world and is home to the Large Hadron Collider. Recently, scientists there verified the existence of the Higgs Boson, also known as the God Particle, thought to be the basic particle that gives all matter its mass. We can’t see it but now we know it’s there. Quantum physics has taught us that everything in our universe is matter and energy—what we see as a solid object, including ourselves, is, in the end, just a bunch of particles held together in a certain way by energy. As my favorite astronomer, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, tells us, we are made of star stuff!
And sometimes we see things that we do not or cannot believe. This is what is happening in today’s gospel story. Of course, the person who wrote Mark’s gospel in the first century could not possibly have been acquainted with space telescopes and quantum physics, but he surely understood that seeing is about more than just registering something with our eyes.
Today’s Old Testament reading from Jeremiah tells of God’s promise to restore the blind and the lame. Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, is the fulfillment of this promise. The prophet Isaiah, too, says that “the eyes of the blind will be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped”. In the New Testament, Jesus’s claim to Messiahship is based on his fulfillment of these Old Testament prophecies.
Images of blindness and restoration of sight through Jesus Christ abound in the New Testament. Jesus himself, in Luke’s Gospel, describes his messianic mission in those terms: The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed.
Mark’s gospel actually has 2 stories about Jesus restoring sight to the blind. The first is about a blind man whom Jesus healed in Bethsaida; the second is the story we heard in our gospel reading this morning in which Jesus healed a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus who was sitting by the roadside outside Jericho. These two stories form the “bookends” of a long teaching by Jesus about discipleship. He is trying to help the disciples (and us) understand what the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship”. Following Jesus is about more than just hanging out with him; the way of Jesus leads to the cross. The question for both the disciples and us is whether we understand that and are willing to walk it.
During his ministry, Jesus almost always made a connection between faith and healing. We hear him say, “Your faith has made you well” or “Your faith has saved you.” And where faith is absent, there is less healing. For example, in Mark’s account of Jesus’s visit to his home town of Nazareth, the skepticism of his friends and neighbors causes him to restrict healing to only a few people.
Bartimaeus is a case study in faith. He was a nobody, a poor blind beggar in a city, Jericho, that was full of important people. Herod had his winter palace there, and all the rich Roman families (the first century version of snowbirds) wintered in Jericho. And to get to Jerusalem you had to pass through Jericho. So Bartimaeus had a prime begging spot on the Jericho Road.
But Bartimaeus knew in his heart that he mattered to God, and when he heard that the Rabbi Jesus was passing by, he seized his chance. Despite the fact that people shouted at him to be quiet, he shouted out to Jesus twice to have mercy on him. And of course Jesus heard him and responded. Bartimaeus knew that he was a beloved child of God, and Jesus knew it too, and he rewarded him for his faith.
In both of the stories about restoration of sight, Mark draws a contrast between outsiders (Bartimaeus and the other blind man) who are able to see and the insiders (the disciples) who are not. The blind men’s problem is physical; the disciples’ problem is spiritual.
Bartimaeus may have been an outsider, but he was ready and eager for contact with Jesus—and he knew what his deepest desire was. He responded honestly and authentically to Jesus’s question, “What do you want me to do for you?” And his prayer was answered; and more. The miracle of his healing is due to his faith; this is what saved him—he was not only healed physically but received a much deeper and more profound salvation. He is healed and with his new, clear vision he makes a decision to follow Jesus. He becomes a disciple. He makes the way of Jesus—the way of the cross—his way. His healing is, to him, also a call to follow. The granting of physical sight to Bartimaeus is a symbol of the true insight necessary for any disciple of Jesus.
The healing of Bartimaeus shows the power of Jesus to heal those who know they are blind. Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews that was read earlier, tells us that Christ “is able for all time to save those who approach God through him.”
When we acknowledge our weakness and ask for God’s help, healing can begin. Whether we are blinded by a society that measures worth by the things we own, blinded by the pain of grief and loss, or blinded by a belief that we lack value in God’s eyes, our spiritual blindness, like that of the disciples, is our inability to recognize the truth of God. Once we are healed of our own blindness, we too can follow in the way of Jesus and see clearly enough to invite others to share in Christ’s healing.
Several years ago I stumbled on a film that has had a lasting impact on my thinking about faith. It is a German documentary film called “Into Great Silence” that was released in 2005. It portrays the everyday lives of Carthusian monks in a monastery high in the French Alps. The Carthusians follow a strict discipline of silence and the film has no soundtrack except for the ambient sounds of the monastery and the very occasional conversations that the monks are permitted. At the end of the film, one of the monks speaks directly to the camera. He is old, he is blind, and he has spent decades of his life in cloistered contemplation. He says that he is thankful for his blindness because God willed it for the good of his soul. He sees more clearly because he is not distracted by his sight.
So what do we learn from Mark’s story of the healing of Bartimaeus? First, that our faith, like that of Bartimaeus and the old monk, is the key to clear vision, healing, and salvation. And second, that God’s amazing grace goes well beyond a simple answer to a prayer. Bartimaeus gets a lot more than he asks for. He asks for the restoration of his physical sight, but what he receives in addition is the vision and insight to understand that the way of Jesus is the way of salvation. Not only his physical eyes, but also the eyes of his heart are opened, and he follows Jesus on the way.
Let us pray, in the words of our Book of Common Prayer, that Christ will strengthen our faith, open the eyes of our hearts, and equip us to follow him on the way, even to the cross:
Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking. Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.