For various reasons that I will explain in a future blog, I have been tardy — well that’s an understatement — in posting blogs. Although there will be a gap when I go to Nepal (to be explained in another future blog), I promise to post something almost every week. So, here’s part of a sermon that I gave recently in Grand Rapids, Michigan. I hope you enjoy. The scripture I chose was Mark 10: 46?52, when Jesus meets the blind beggar Bartimaeus.
Good morning, and thank you for inviting me here to lead worship with you today. I was here for the General Synod a couple of months ago, and I’m delighted to be back in your wonderful city.
You’ve probably figured that our theme today is blindness – particularly the kind of blindness where we see only what we expect to see and thus miss what’s really important. At the risk of making a total fool of myself, I’m going to share a personal story. I have to tell you that is remarkable in its stupidity, and the only explanation I can possibly come up with is that I was pregnant at the time. Now, I’m not sure why that suffices as an excuse, but it’s the best I can do.
It happened in the springtime, right around Easter. A pair of mourning doves had made a nest just outside my kitchen window. There was a thin, gauzy half curtain such that I could watch the goings-on in the nest without their knowing. Once – just once – I found the nest unattended, with two tiny white eggs well nestled there. I found it auspicious, being in “the family way” myself, that these doves – these symbols of love and peace – had chosen my windowsill for their home.
It took me a few days to notice that the mother didn’t budge from her nest. All the while, the male sat watchful about twenty feet away, perched on the telephone while, cooing at her. At first, I was pleased, the mother incubating the future babies, the father alert and protective.
But then, something happened. Again, I can only excuse my subsequent behavior on my condition. But, as my due date approached, I also noticed that the female dove never left the nest. Hour after hour, there she was, blinking her eyes, nodding her head back and forth, but otherwise not a twitch. And I began to over-identify with her. There was the male, chirping at her from his perch of freedom, while she sat, devoted, attentive, and trapped in her motherhood. I kept waiting for him to bring her a worm or a seed or something. But no – just that constant harping.
My irritation grew. And then it began to fester. I am one of these lucky people who had a loving father and a good marriage, but suddenly every male in the universe became suspect. My husband, my father, my male colleagues at work, my dog – I began to eye them suspiciously. What selfishness lurked beneath the surface of the male species?
And, more importantly, what should I do for the poor dove? Should I take a small amount of bird feed and a bowl of water and put it on the sill close to the nest? My brain said that it was stupid to worry, and that one should not interfere with Mother Nature, but my heart was filled with empathy … and helplessness.
I asked my bird-loving friends what to do, and they were clueless. I researched it in bird books, but there was nothing on the proper care and feeding of an abandoned – well, not abandoned, but emotionally abused – mourning dove. Before invading her peace with the tender offerings of food and water, I – fortunately – called the Audubon Society’s help line.
An agreeable young woman answered the phone, and I explained my predicament. She was sympathetic as she acknowledged that this question had never come up before. She put me on hold while she went to ask one of the ornithologists.
When she got back on, she asked whether I was sitting down. When I said, “Yes,” she asked whether the male dove were still up there on the telephone wire cooing – that was her term, I called it yammering – at his mate.
When I said, “Yes, he is,” she said, with a slight chuckle, “Well, what you’re looking at is the female, not the male. It’s the father that’s sitting on the nest. They switch every twelve hours – she sits on the nest at night; he’s there during the day.
So there we have it – not only are doves the universal symbol of peace, but actual representatives of equality among the sexes!
(Well, I’m proud to say that I was humble enough to eat crow and apologize to all the men in my life.)
Now, you’re probably asking about the connection between my stupidity and our gospel lesson. Well, blindness – specifically spiritual blindness where we see the obvious and miss the truth – is a powerful theme in the Bible. Isaiah and the other prophets regularly scolded the Hebrew people for falling away: “Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes, who are deaf, yet have ears!” Jesus also chastised the Pharisees by calling them blind fools.
And not just the Pharisees. This gospel story comes at the end of a long journey from Sidon, to Tyre, back through Galilee, to Judea, and now Jericho, the last stop before Jerusalem and the crucifixion. When the disciples fail to recognize the miracle of the loaves and fishes, Jesus asks, “Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see?”
Just before this meeting with Bartimaeus, John and James are squabbling over which of them will sit closest to Jesus when Jesus comes into his glory. This naturally infuriates the other ten, who see the two brothers engaging in one-upsmanship. Throughout the whole long journey, Jesus has been trying – unsuccessfully – to explain what it means to be the Christ. He sees service; his followers see glory. You can feel his frustration. So, coming just after these arguments, the story about Bartimaeus adds an important new dimension to Jesus’ message.
Most of us struggle to find Christ in the people around us. We get distracted by looks, accents, style, externals. Not so with Bartimaeus. Blind though he was, he didn’t have any trouble recognizing Christ. In fact, he did a better job of recognizing Christ than everyone else in Mark’s gospel. The contrast between him and the disciples is laughable.
But there’s more – much more. Throughout the gospels, Jesus heals large crowds of blind, sick, and lame people. But none of them has a name. Except Bartimaeus. Of all of the poor and disabled people in all of the gospels, only this loud, in-your-face nuisance of a beggar, Bartimaeus, is given a name.
Why? — The name itself means “son of Timaeus,” so it is curious that he is referred to as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus.” It’s like saying, “Johnson, son of John,” or “Timaeus’ son, son of Timaeus.” What is going on?
There are several clues. First of all, Timaeus means honor. Secondly, the son of Timaeus — that is, the son of honor – refers to Jesus as the son of David – not once, but twice. Every Jew living in the time of Jesus knew that the Messiah – the king – would come from the house of David. But Bartimaeus is the only one in the entire gospel of Mark who honors Jesus in this way.
Third, he shouts. He is fearless. He knows something so important that he isn’t going to shut up, regardless of the consequences. There are a few episodes – but not many – in this gospel where people are loud. Mostly they are demons or nasty crowds.
Finally, Bartimaeus follows. This is the most significant clue. Blind Bartimaeus recognized Jesus for who he was, proclaimed it publicly, regained his sight, and became an apostle. That is so important, that I will repeat it. Unlike everyone else in Mark’s gospel, blind Bartimaeus recognized Jesus as the Messiah, announced it, and followed. That’s worthy enough – and unusual enough – to warrant a name.
In the children’s sermon this morning, I shared the story about The Little Prince. The fox is a special character, for he teaches the Little Prince how to tame – actually, how to love and to be responsible for – another living creature, whether it be a human being, a wild fox, or a thorny rose.
And then he shares his secret: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” The Little Prince ponders that lesson and realizes that he needs to return to his home planet to care for his special rose. He then explains to the narrator: “The eyes are blind. One must look with the heart.”
So it was with Jesus and Bartimaeus. The disciples were vying for honor – James and John wanted to be honored above the other ten. Jesus chided them, urging them not to be like the Gentile rulers who lord it over everyone else. The entire chapter of Mark discusses true as opposed to false glory – which is not of status, but in service. And then suddenly the picture opens, and the son of honor is on the roadside, begging. He alone recognizes Jesus as the son of David, the true king, the person who serves and the one who should be honored.
Bartimaeus alone can “see” Jesus with the heart, since he cannot see with his eyes. Bartimaeus has spiritual vision and can see the essential things – to use the words of the fox and the Little Prince – that the others miss entirely.
What about us? How do we look at the world? Imagine that you are walking up a dusty path in Palestine – or, better yet, in the slums of Grand Rapids, or Chicago, or Detroit. You come across a blind beggar shouting from the edge of the sidewalk. The person is dirty, smelly, nasty. Can you see only the visual image, or can you also see that person with your spiritual eyes? Can you see the helplessness, the hurt, the despair, the emptiness? Can you also see the hope? Does that person have a name, or is he or she just an anonymous drain on society? Can you see the possibility inherent in this lost and downtrodden individual?
Jesus could. Jesus could see with the heart. Jesus could see the love within that troubled body.
Think also about what that person sees in you. Will you be seen as a “child of God” or just “a person of privilege”? What wonders lie deep within you that only those with spiritual vision can see? Is it a heart of gold or the dark void of anger, misplaced glory, and spiritual blindness?
Consider a family member, friend, or colleague who has been troubling you in some way. Can you see past the obvious? Can you see the pain – and the possibility – that lie deep within that person? Your eyes aren’t going to help you – only your heart will.
This, for me, is the true miracle of the story: it is not that Jesus was able to cure physical blindness – but rather, that both he and Bartimaeus could see the essential but invisible truths that we all miss when we are using only our eyes. The hero in this story is not just Jesus, but also Bartimaeus.
Earlier this morning, we sang a hymn asking God to “open our eyes, that we may see glimpses of truth thou hast for us.” In a moment, we’re going to sing another hymn in which we pray, “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart.” Let us ponder the words as we sing this wonderful tune. We are asking for God to direct our hearts and minds and eyes so that we can see God in all things and Christ in all people.
If you can learn to see in this way – at least part of the time – then you will discover that you, like Bartimaeus, are the stuff from which miracles are made.