A Sermon for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 25 – Year B – 25 October 2015, by John Edward Miller, Rector
Then Job answered the LORD: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’ Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”
– Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Jesus and his disciples 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.
Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and charity; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
What if you were waiting at a stop light, and the homeless man with a “Help me” sign called you by name? I daresay it would startle you, and awaken you to his presence. With so many panhandlers on the streets today, it is easy to let them blend into the scenery, as though they did not exist, or really need our help.
That could well have happened when Jesus and his entourage passed a blind beggar on their journey out of Jericho. The hapless fellow, whom Mark identifies as Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, would not have been an unusual sight in Judea. At that time the disabled were considered to be cursed, and were therefore pushed to the margins of society. The fact that Mark knows his name alerts us to take note of him, as Jesus did.
As the group of walkers drew near, Bartimaeus, the blind seer recognized that Jesus was with them. Perhaps he had overheard others talking about the teacher from Nazareth. All we can be sure of is that he summoned all the courage he could muster, and called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” We can imagine the group coming to a sudden halt as their master held up his hand, gesturing them to wait a moment and identify the outcast who apparently knew him.
Some of Jesus’ followers were not so charitable, though; they scolded the blind man, ordering him to be silent. Their myopic attitude is exactly the same one that they showed the children who were being brought to him in recent days. The common thread in these rude rebukes was that neither the children nor the blind had any status in society at that time. They were marginalized non-persons – the young because of their age and the blind because people thought that God had consigned them to darkness.
Jesus, however, was not like anybody else. He was all about the marginalized and the excluded, the have-nots and the hated. His ministry sought to include, to restore, and redeem. He was always ready to take the risk of reaching out to those whom the people of his culture despised and ignored. So, he was not about to walk on by, and treat anyone (much less this man who knew his name) like a no-body. Instead, he paid attention to the man’s plea for his mercy, and said, “Call him here.” When the onlookers heard Jesus’ invitation, they changed their tune, and saying, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” Casting off his ragged cloak, Bartimaeus bolted towards the sound of Jesus’ voice, and sinks to his knees before him.
Jesus then asks the same question he had posed to his disciples, James and John. He said, “What do you want me to do for you?” As you recall, those two brothers asked for status and power, thereby revealing their lack of trust in the way Jesus was showing them to live. But Bartimaeus simply asked, “My teacher, let me see again.” The way he addressed Jesus attests to his faith in his ministry. “My teacher” says a lot about his loyalty. And what he asked for would prove to be more for others than for himself.
So Jesus’ response to Bartimaeus was far different than his reply to James and John. He had challenged their blind ambition, hoping that the scales might fall from their eyes, that they might regain their focus on compassionate service. But they remained in the dark. It would take the awful experience of their Lord’s death, and the power of his resurrection finally to get their eyes on the ball. In this encounter with a stranger – a man who was actually blind but “saw” him nonetheless, Jesus sensed not only the beggar’s sincerity, but also his deep trust in him. Therefore he praised him, saying, “Go; your faith has made you well.”
And it was so. Bartimaeus regained his sight in an instant. We can picture him squinting in the brightness of a Palestinian day. As his focus cleared, he fixed his eyes on Jesus. Now he had a face to go with the voice of the one he so trusted, and that made the bond all the more complete. The episode ends in a simple, telling phrase: “and he followed him on the way.” On that amazing day, when Jesus transformed his life, Bartimaeus didn’t rush off to celebrate his good fortune. Nor did he use his new sight to pursue those who had abused him in the past, when he couldn’t defend himself. Instead, he remained with Jesus, and was grateful to be his follower.
Bartimaeus is a model for discipleship. His decision shows the consequence of real faith. It is inevitable that all of us will suffer blindness, in one form or another, to the focus of our calling. Even the vision of our precious ones baptized and sealed as “Christ’s own forever” will need to be clarified, from time to time, by God’s mercy. But once our blinded sight is healed, and we see Jesus clearly, our only true choice is to follow his lead.
This spring, the Douglas Southall Freeman High School class of 1966 will celebrate the 50th anniversary of our graduation. It was a great class, and I look forward to the gathering of old friends, and I do mean old. What I anticipate is being right back in the same social and academic dynamics as in yesteryear. It will be interesting to be among 68-year-olds still looking at the world with 18-year-old eyes.
Those eyes were mostly sharp and clear back in our teens. But in retrospect, I am aware that we failed to see many things that we should have seen and done something to correct. Many moments of illumination have occurred to me in the past 50 years, including those in college and seminary, marriage and ordination as a priest of the church. But even in high school there were times when my nearsightedness improved, and got a more comprehensive view of things as they were for others.
We were called the “Rebels” at DSF, and pep rallies before games featured spine tingling renditions of “Dixie” by our band, and the waving of Confederate flags as the cheerleaders led us in chants and songs to boost team spirit. I can honestly say that I associated all of these symbols and sounds with our school, and with sports teams, rather than with heritage, or the cause of the Confederacy. But of course, that was my privilege, since I am white, and could pick and choose what these things meant to me.
However, as I covered a basketball game for our school newspaper in 1966, I sat directly behind the Rebel bench. That perspective allowed me to see the team from behind, huddled and listening to their coach. They were still wearing their warm-ups. On the back of every jacket was a Confederate flag sewn from shoulder to shoulder. In this scene of uniformity, one player stood out from the rest. He was Leroy Jackson, and he was the lone African American student at our school.
Suddenly, I recognized the incongruity and injustice of what I was seeing. It just didn’t seem right. Everyone else in our high school had the luxury of being grateful for the chance to wear that jacket – everyone, that is, except that lone student whose ancestors had been imported as slaves.
As I approach my 50th reunion, I think of that moment. Our class gathering in 2016 will feature none of the pep rally accoutrements and uniforms of yore. I hope that my fellow classmate who once felt forced to wear that symbol in order to play for the Rebels will be there to see that we’ve gradually had our eyes opened, and that things have changed.
In all of this I have been encouraged by the example of our friend, Dr. Charles F. Bryan, Jr., and his insightful newspaper column entitled, “I Once was Blind: Growing Up in the Segregated South.” Published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in October 2014, the article is a reflection piece about growing up in Tennessee at the same time I was being raised in Richmond. The parallels in our experience are very strong. Neither of us could see what other children in under segregation could see – namely, the vast inequities due to race perpetuated in a nation founded on the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal.” As a prominent American historian, Charlie Bryan has contributed significantly to our culture’s self-understanding through his writings and the mission of the Virginia Historical Society, of which he was President and CEO until his retirement. Currently, his newspaper columns and recent book, Imperfect Past: History in a New Light, have been focused on our common experience, shedding light on institutions, and customs, and events that have shaped our everyday life.
It is in this latter phase of his work that Charlie chose write about his youthful blindness about the racial divide that affected the culture of his hometown. A book by Carl Rowan, the highly esteemed journalist and diplomat, revealed to him that blindness and sightedness are relative concepts. Rowan grew up in the same Tennessee town as Charlie had, but his view of life there was very different because he is a Black American. Seeing things as they were through his contemporary’s eyes was enlightening. It led Charlie to re-evaluate his own history, saying:
It was only when I began to study American history in depth and had my mind opened to other viewpoints that I developed some sense of the world from Rowan’s perspective. Tacitly my family and I had been agents of the injustices of the time by simply allowing them to exist. As the words of Amazing Grace proclaim, I once was blind, but now I see.
I wonder what injustices and wrongs I am blind to today? Worse yet would be to see them and do or say nothing.
“I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see.” We have sung those words often. And in our best moments, when the fog of blindness lifts, and we see clearly, we know that they are for all of us, as they were for Charlie Bryan and me, autobiographical words.
They certainly were for John Newton, who composed the great hymn to describe his experience of conversion. Newton was the one-time slave ship captain who became an Anglican priest, and then a tireless champion of abolition. In the medium of his most famous hymn, he was describing his recovery of the blindness of his heart and mind. Newton’s self-disclosure is about the “amazing grace” that gave him a kind of sight that recognized the evil that he had been doing as a depraved slaver.
But that is not all that the God of mercy gave him. With his eyes fixed on Jesus, Newton found that he could envision the way beyond the cruel excesses of his wretched existence to a loving, responsible life. And like Bartimaeus, Newton followed Jesus on the way.
That is the gift and the challenge of new sight. Once we have it, we begin looking circumspectly, discovering, maybe the first time, conditions and people to which we have been blind. The faith that has made us well, and given us new sight, is a challenge. What will we do with that vision? In the name of God, I pray for the courage to do what we are called to do. Amen.
 Again, there is a parallel to Jesus’ beckoning of the children: “Let the little children come to me, do not prevent them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.”