Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost
We’ve all heard the advice about buying real estate—it’s all about location, location, location. Well, turns out it’s also a good rule in biblical interpretation. Anybody who’s interested in knowing the deeper meaning of a biblical text can benefit a great deal by looking around its scriptural neighborhood. And this morning’s gospel reading is a good example of that.
At first glance, the story of Jesus and Bartimaeus looks like a typical healing story. Jesus helps a sightless beggar regain his vision. It’s a story that fulfills the promise of the prophet Isaiah, who said, “The eyes of the blind shall be opened.” But to really understand what kind of sight this story is meant to depict in Mark’s Gospel, we need to look at where it is told. It occurs immediately before Jesus enters Jerusalem to, as he knows and we know, be crucified. So the placement of this story is significant. When Jesus healed others and invited them to join him in his ministry, it seemed there was a future for them. But when Bartimaeus offered to follow Jesus, we know the road that Jesus invites him on leads to Jerusalem. So the only immediate future Jesus was referring to involved arrest, imprisonment, and execution.
What’s more, Mark says that at this invitation, Bartimeaus lept up and crossed the road. Like all beggars, Bartimeaus’ cloak was both a blanket and a means for panhandling. His cloak was spread out to gather coins. So, when Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, he was showing that he was prepared to give up his entire old life and begin anew.
But most striking is what happens to the disciples just before the healing of blind Bartimaeus. Throughout this section of Mark’s Gospel, it seems that the disciples’ ability to “see” things is pretty impaired. In fact, right before today’s text, Jesus asks James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?” We heard this text last week when ignoring everything Jesus was trying to get across to them, James and John said, “Grant us to sit at your right hand and your left, in your glory.” Then, today, Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?” And he replied, “Let me see again.”
In all of scripture, there is no greater distinction between people than what lies behind those two answers. Jesus comes with the power of God’s kingdom and says, “What can I do for you?” The response from the disciples is to ask to sit in a prestigious place. But Bartimaeus responds, “Let me see.” It’s obvious to anyone which answer to Jesus’ offer God wants us to give. But the question I think we are left with is whether or not we really want to have our eyes opened the way that Bartimaeus did. Because having your eyes opened to the realities of the world can mean opening your eyes to sacrifice. It can mean opening your eyes to suffering.
I’ve been an Episcopal priest now for almost 24 years. And one of the things I love about being a “senior cleric” is having the opportunity to advise some of my younger colleagues. One colleague of mine is currently in search processes with congregations that are seeking a new rector, and so I’ve been looking over some of the parish profiles for the communities he’s considering applying to. Those parish profiles, though all very different, have seemed to me to fall into two broad categories.
The first are the kind that said something like: We’re a large congregation with a lot to offer. Our beautiful sanctuary has amazing windows that inspire us to worship God. A large endowment enables us to maintain a full program. Our commitment to the elderly recently prompted us to review the accessibility of our sanctuary. Many of our members are influential in our city; they include business leaders, professional people, and former elected officials. Our last pastor inspired us with his preaching for more than 20 years, and we are looking for another polished preacher to inspire us to high ideals and move us to laughter and tears. Salary and benefits package are generous, and negotiable for the right candidate.
Then there are the profiles that say something like this: We are an aging congregation in a troubled city. There are problems with vandalism and gang violence in our area. For the past decade, our church has served as a reconciling force in our city. We minister to the poor, the immigrant, and the aging, as well as to those in our community who are financially well off but just as much in need of spiritual care as anyone. One of our greatest goals is to bridge the gap between groups of people—the affluent members of our city and those who are struggling to get by, the Anglo residents of our town and the people of color, the residents of our community who are accepted and those who have been told for whatever reason that they are not welcome. Our last rector was instrumental in helping us develop a thriving ministry to the growing Latino community in our area, and we desire a new rector with similar energy, imagination, and interests. People of courage are invited to apply.
Now, would it surprise you to learn that those two parish profiles were written for the same church? The difference between the profiles lay in what the parishioners of that parish were willing to see—both in their midst and in what they were called to do in the name of God.
And since they knew in their hearts that both were accurate descriptions of their congregation, they published both. The contrast was striking and conveyed a deep sense of integrity and faithfulness.
The truth is people see what they want to see. The Gospel of Mark provides plenty of examples of this. For all of Jesus’ incredible deeds in that book, his own disciples never saw that he had come to serve. Jesus made the deaf to hear, the speechless to sing, and the lame to dance. But the vision of the twelve disciples was clouded by expectations of their own advancement and assumptions about their own success. The irony is that, even in his blindness, Bartimaeus saw Jesus as the promised Son of David, the One who came to turn the world upside down. While Jesus’ own disciples were blind to the same reality.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked. “Give me eyes to see,” said Bartimaeus. And today we ask God to do the same for us. To give us eyes to see the possibilities rather than the obstacles to engaging in ministries to which God is calling us, both individually and as a parish church.
As one Biblical scholar notes, “Faith according to the Gospel of Mark is the determination to shed denial and face the world as it is, in order to struggle for what can be.” I absolutely love that statement. Listen to it again. “Faith according to the Gospel of Mark is the determination to shed denial and face the world as it is, in order to struggle for what can be.” I think that is exactly where the Church needs to be today.
Of course, all of this is even more important to consider given the events of yesterday in Pittsburgh. Having truly open eyes today means being willing to recognize that anti Semitism is not something relegated to the past. We who are blessed to live in Marin often express our pride over the atmosphere of religious pluralism and diversity we have in our county. But don’t kid yourself. Discrimination and even hatred of people of different faith traditions exists even here. It exists everywhere. And in the face of things like what occurred yesterday in the name of religion, we need to be a people who proclaim that yes, our eyes are wide open, and yes, we see intolerance and religious bigotry for what it is – evil. Because in the process, we will help others to see God’s amazing possibilities when we choose to truly live out God’s call to a radical, all-inclusive love.
In the midst of such tragedy, the good news today comes to us in a request from a man who could not see with his eyes but whose faith gave him vision. “Teacher, let me see again.” In effect, Bartimaeus says today, “Lord, let me toss aside my vain attempts for security and status, and let me follow Jesus, come what may.” That’s what it means to see through the eyes of faith. When Bartimaeus regained his sight, when he was free to go wherever his eyes led him, he chose to follow Jesus. But not just follow Jesus, follow Jesus on his journey to Jerusalem—on his way to sacrifice everything so that God’s hopes for humanity could be made manifest. This morning Jesus says, “What do you want?” For a person of faith or for a faithful church, the answer is the same: “to be led by the Spirit to serve the world in God’s name. To build and rebuild bridges back to each other and to tear down the walls that divide us. To normalize love instead of hate.” It is what Jesus was called to do and it is what we are called to do as well. Amen.