Seeing

Passage: Mark 10:46-52
Date: October 28, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Believe me when I tell you that if you Google “how many people did Jesus heal in Mark’s gospel” you will be directed to websites that you’ve never heard of and that might espouse a theology or an understanding of the Bible that you’ve never even imagined. Better to read the gospel through and count for yourself.

Which I did.Mark recounts the healing of eleven individuals, and then three times, the healing of many people. Today’s story of the healing of blind Bartimaeus is the last healing in this gospel. Maybe we should pay special attention to that.

After this story, Jesus enters Jerusalem, where he meets his death. Healing Bartimaeus is his last act as healer/teacher, and in this story, we see the culmination of so many themes that Mark has presented. If you’ve been in worship for the last month, or if you’re the type to go back and read or listen to the sermons online, you’ll know that Mark has continued to present the teaching that the first will be last, and the last will be first, and that those who would be great must serve.

And if you’ve been in worship for the last month or you keep abreast of the lectionary readings, you’ll remember that the disciples continue not to understand this teaching. They still want to be great in the worldly sense, have power and prestige, and leave the serving to others.

In this story, it is Bartimaeus who understands the teaching.Like any person in Jesus’ time who had a physical impairment, Bartimaeus lives at the bottom of society. He’s one of the last. He is considered unclean and is kept apart from any community. He must beg in order to receive any sort of sustenance, so he sits outside the gates of the city where a large number of people pass, hoping to receive mercy and maybe a piece of bread or a coin. He spreads out his cloak before him, where people can toss their charity.

We have not seen Bartimaeus before in this gospel, and the little we might know about him is from his name, which, translated from Aramaic, means either “Son of honor” or “Son of the Unclean.” The Greek and Aramaic are a bit confused.Perhaps Mark, great writer that he is, gives this man that name intentionally, as Jesus has come to restore honor to the unclean.

So picture in your mind’s eye – and close your eyes if you’d like – this scene of Jesus, and his twelve disciples, and a crowd of his followers, leaving the gates of the city. Maybe it’s a dry, dusty day with the Palestinian sun beating overhead. People are hot and their feet are dirty and they are starting their twelve-mile walk to Jerusalem. At the crossroads of the city gate, it’s noisy, but one voice rises above the din.

“Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” In the midst of the crowd, Jesus cannot see him but he can hear him, and so he stops. He stops, and it’s as if everything starts happening in slow motion.Gone is the bustle of the crowd, kicking up dirt, chattering with anticipation of reaching Jerusalem.Gone are the apathy and blindness about yet one more beggar. Gone is all pretense of what is great.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. It’s the same question he had asked of James and John a few verses earlier. They asked to be great, to be seated in honor. Bartimaeus simply says, “My teacher – rabbouni – let me see again.”

Now it’s entirely possible that for Bartimaeus, to ask for sight is to ask for greatness. If he is able to see, he can go to the temple, be ritually purified, and rejoin society. He will still be poor, but he won’t be destitute because he will have community.He can move inside the walls of Jericho and live.

But he doesn’t do that.Hearing Jesus say, “Go, your faith has made you well,” Bartimaeus sees and follows Jesus.He may decide that the gift of sight is a double-edged sword because if indeed he follows Jesus all the way into Jerusalem, he will see his teacher questioned at every turn. He will see his healer arrested and tried and convicted and killed.Would it be worth regaining his sight if it means seeing that tragedy and cruelty and sin?

* * * * *

On Friday as I read the paper I saw a picture of a young Yemeni girl, malnourished and starving. As I looked at it I thought, “I wish I hadn’t seen this.” It was too hard. Too hard to see that suffering; too hard to admit that she is one of millions of children who through no fault of their own live on the brink of dying. It’s too hard to be so deeply troubled and to feel so absolutely helpless.

Because my understanding of why she is starving gets deep into the political realities of war and power, of governance in Saudi Arabia and our country’s relationship with the Saudis.In a larger sense, I’m not sure what goal is worth achieving if it means children will die in the process of achieving that goal.

So we close our eyes to pictures that are too hard to see. We can choose blindness, and not be confronted with the aftermath of war and natural disaster and politics and plain old greed.And in closing our eyes, we become like Bartimaeus in a way, beggars for justice and hope, desperately in need of healing.

I hit a bit of a low point this week, which is not my usual place to be. I woke up at four on Wednesday morning with a pounding headache which eventually dissipated. I had coffee with a friend, who asked me how I was doing with everything that was going on, and I found tears springing to my eyes. Pipe bombs. Yemen. The caravan of migrants fleeing violence and death and what those 800 soldiers who’ve been deployed to the border will do.Attack ads from every side as midterm elections draw near.All of it.Plus a headache. And maybe some heartache.

So as I had coffee with my friend, I picked up the salt shaker on the table and said something like, “The good we do, the hope we have, is like a tiny grain of salt.It’s so small.But I guess that if you add one grain of salt to another, and another, and another, eventually there’s enough for a teaspoon, and then a salt shaker, and then a box of Morton’s with the girl and the umbrella, and eventually all that salt becomes a huge pile.”

Feeling so low I challenged myself to look for joy. And I found it, but it was so small. It’s like I had to squint to see it, or it’s so far away, I needed binoculars.I realized that if I am going to keep my eyes open to see the suffering of the world, I must also keep my eyes open to see the hope and the joy.

Do you know what I mean?


* * * * *

On Tuesday night at the Session meeting we had the privilege of meeting our new friend Benedicto Ixtamer whose art is on display one day more in the Gallery upstairs. He made a brief presentation about his work in Guatemala, and he reminded us of the deep poverty there, which is related to the thirty-year civil war, and prejudice against the indigenous people, and lack of access to education and medical care.

If you’ve seen Benedicto’s art, you know how joyful it is – full of color and people working together and a structure that feels whole and feels safe. I said something to Benedicto about the joy in his art, and he talked about painting in community. (I hope I have remembered this correctly.) He said he paints something, and everyone looks at it, and if it isn’t right, he paints it again, differently. Maybe the joy we see doesn’t come from the colors, or the composition, or the subject matter, but the community that allowed that art to emerge.

This week our financial secretary Darrel told us about attending a talk at the Alberta Rose Theatre by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Eli Saslow, who spoke about his book Rising Out of Hatred: The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist.It’s the story of Derek Black, a young man who was raised by White Nationalists and whose godfather was David Duke.

The book recounts the awakening Derek Black had in college, where, as one review states, “Some students protested Derek’s presence on campus, forcing him to reconcile for the first time with the ugliness his beliefs. Other students found the courage to reach out to him, including an Orthodox Jew who invited Derek to attend weekly Shabbat dinners. It was because of those dinners—and the wide-ranging relationships formed at that table—that Derek started to question the science, history and prejudices behind his worldview.” In a strange way, I see joy in Derek Black’s story too.

Maybe that’s how the world changes—one grain of salt at a time, one person at a time, one community at a time. When I read the stories of Jesus’ healing, he heals one person at a time.He doesn’t wave his hand over a crowd and pronounce everyone well; it is in the personal encounter that one is made whole. At the same time, Jesus never healed in private—it was always within a community, be it the community of a household, or the community of his disciples, or the community that came to see if this guy was for real.

It is in community that we are able to see each other rather than rely on our own memories or imaginations. It is in community that we remind each other to see the suffering and to see the joy. It is in community that we are healed by love and grace and hope.

So maybe in the coming weeks, you could think about someone who’s been missing from one of your communities. Maybe it’s someone who usually shares a pew with you, or someone in a book club, or someone you always run into on a walk or at the coffee shop. Think about that person and reach out to them; become a community of two.

I know it might not seem like much, but it might mean the world to that person. It might mean the healing of one person.And one person is healed, and another, and another…

The Reverend Beth Neel
Westminster Presbyterian Church
October 28, 2018