First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen
Mark 10: 46-52
“THE BLINDNESS WE CAN’T SEE”
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
February 24, 2019
They 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.
About two years ago, John Bell died. John was 69; he was married to Linya; retired Army; they had two children Matt and Robin. John had two grandchildren.
He was an elder, a clerk of session, and after his retirement he sported a long mane of silver hair that made him look a Civil War general. John and Linya were members of First Presbyterian for decades; they were both well known and loved. John was bombastic, impatient, and prone to give orders that emerged from his career as a sergeant. At his funeral I spoke of his inability to dice onions properly or cook bacon without creating havoc. We all wept; we all mourned the loss of the friend we had in John.
The week after John died the men’s breakfast gathered as we did each Monday. After the eggs were consumed and the coffee was replenished, there was a deep sense of absence around the table. John always sat in the same place each week. This Monday, his chair was terribly empty.
Another John, John Sudduth, broke the pall of silence in the room. “I always meant to ask him about his father. I wanted to know about his father and I just didn’t get around to asking.” For the next thirty minutes we talked about John. Slowly, as we reflected, it came to us. We knew a lot; we knew and loved John Bell, but there was so much more we didn’t know. And, then it really hit us, looking around the table of men who had lived decades together, looking around we realized, there is much more we don’t know than we do know about each other.
When we met the next week, I started off the conversation with a direction. “We’re going to go around the table. And you need to say something nice about your father. No crying or lamenting. Say something nice. If you don’t have something nice to say, make it up.”
Moving around the table, there were a few tears. Bob Sturtz told the story of being a young boy and terribly scolded by his father after he left a storm door unlatched causing a window pane to break when it swung open with the wind. He said, “my father never hit me, but he shook me that day and told me I was an irresponsible boy; I was causing my family to spend money we didn’t have. He shouted at me.” Bob smiled when said, later that day my father forgot to latch the storm door and another window pane broke. What he said next will stay with me for a long time. He started to weep. Bob said, “my father came and found me. He got down on one knee; he took hold of me; he apologized to me. I have tried to live my life the same way.”
Bob is in his early 90s. He has lived a great life. He has buildings named after him. But in that moment with us we got to see, to know the source of his life’s direction. A young boy who was given an apology. That made him who he is.
There were others powerful stories. One member of the breakfast spoke of how terrible his father was. He didn’t pull any punches about a life of poor form. In the end, he said, “something nice to say? Well, at the end of his life as he was dying I was the one who was tasked to care for him. I drew the short straw and I did it. As he died he told me of his childhood. It turns out his own father was worse. I could see where and how he became the man he was. So the good thing to say is that he was better than his own father.”
I shared these stories at the new member’s class last week. The purpose of my sharing was to say this, be curious about the people here. A church is a place where you can find so much life, so many lives, where the world and our life can become enriched, made more just by being curious.
The Monday breakfast where we talked of fathers was followed by other moments. We spoke of moments when our lives changed; we spoke of the people who shaped us; we spoke of childhood and parenting and becoming grandparents. It wasn’t a campfire in the woods where we were passing a talking stick and trying to reclaim the lost boy of our childhood. We just spoke of the key moments in life and we were amazed again and again. We were amazed by the roots we found. We knew the fruit, the person, the friend having shared so many experiences; it was great to see the root from which the fruit came.
Our passage today is about someone who can see who Jesus but yet he is blind. Bartimaeus can see who Jesus really is. He shouts to him Son of David have mercy on me; son of David have mercy on me. Usually it is only the demons who know who Jesus really is. He tells them to be quiet. Peter confessed his belief in Jesus, calling him the messiah, but that didn’t go well for Peter.
Bartimaeus is somehow different. He can see who Jesus is, he sees the root, the son of David. And he trusts, he has faith that Jesus is a man of mercy. He can see Jesus spiritually, but not physically. He’s blind. This passage is about seeing, how we see Jesus and see the world.
In August of 2017 I began preaching from Mark chapter one verse one. Today we read the passage where the life of Jesus is changing. Heretofore the gospel was about Jesus walking around, teaching, preaching, healing, arguing, walking on water, feeding thousands. Today, with Blind Bartimaeus, this all comes to an end. This is the last miracle of healing in Mark’s gospel. This is the last act of his ministry.
There is a great lesson here for us, a teaching to live. Ironically, it is hard to see; we may not be able to see the lesson about seeing. We may be blind here.
We can start to see the purpose when we realize this story didn’t need to be told. Healing blind Bartimaeus doesn’t move the story forward. Jesus is already making his way to Jerusalem; he has already been declared the messiah; we know he can heal people who are blind. Healing Bartimaeus doesn’t work to move us forward. But it does work as a conclusion.
Remember Mark was writing to a church deeply and bitterly divided. Everyone believe in Jesus, but what they believed about him was not the same. Even more, what they believe about Jesus was becoming more and more cosmic. The death and resurrection of Jesus was erasing his life and teachings.
The differences in in the early church though were not just about Jesus. People were also divided about each other. Parts of the church loved the Gentiles, others did not; parts of the church were egalitarian and others wanted strict separation of gender and class and ethnicity; parts of the church wanted to keep the kosher laws and morality codes of the Hebrew scriptures and others did not.
Here is where Blind Bartimaeus comes in. Knowing the cosmic views of Jesus that he was the son of David, but not being able to see people around him. Healing Bartimaeus doesn’t move the story forward, but it does serve as a conclusion, a living symbol of the church. We know who Jesus is; we can see him spiritually. Yet so often can’t see each other; we don’t really know each other. It is a blindness we cannot see.
I read an article this week in the New York Times that was very profound and poignant. It was written by a man who was abused by a Roman Catholic priest. It ruined his life. He walked the path of many who were abused: he became an addict, struggled mightily with depression and suicidal ideation. He went through bankruptcy and loss of his job and home. His story is all too common.
What was quite unique in his article was how he came to view the priest, the man who abused him. He said, the current crisis in the church “it’s not about priests who are straight or gay. Rather, it is about a void of intimacy. The predator lacks true friendship. His yearning for it takes on unfathomable proportions. He tries to figure out what is missing by violating another, a child.”
I was stunned by the level of grace and compassion the writer possessed. There must have been a long, painful path that led him to such mercy. I have all confidence this is not where he began, how he viewed his abuser as the story of his life unfolded, but it is a powerful conclusion.
His compassion reminded me of the very famous moment in the truth and reconciliation commission in South Africa. The rule of the commission was that if you came and confessed the misdeeds of Apartheid, then you would receive mercy. But you needed to make this confession before your victims. The famous story was a man who killed a father and son in the most horrific way. After his confession, the woman who lost her son and husband was given a chance to speak. Her speech was a request. She said, I have lost a son; I am in need in of one. I will forgive you if you come to me and be my son.
Like the man who was abused, the woman’s level of mercy and forgiveness is stunning. We could never ask this of someone. It is a divine; it is beyond imagining. To say to the man who killed your family I will forgive you if you let me love you. It is impossible. To look to the abusive priest and say, it was the need of friendship and intimacy gone terribly wrong. Yet this way of seeing the one who did wrong, to see them as something other than evil, it is the great conclusion of mercy. To see someone as beloved, to gain that sight after having lost it, this is the healing power of the gospel. Bartimaeus says, I want to see again.
Many, many people struggle with great loss, great pain, injury, abuse, violence. We can help, we can hope, we can support. Hopefully we won’t make it worse. We cannot demand the one who is broken forgives the one who broke the heart. Again, no one could ever expect or demand the level of forgiveness seen in the man who wrote the article for the Times.
Our calling, our life, our expectation is far more mundane. The expectation, what is fair to ask, is that we would see not only Jesus as Lord, but each other as beloved. We are not called to understand all the mysteries of the universe or unlock the theories of Einstein. We are called upon to see and know and hear and love those around us.
Blind Bartimaeus is not much help as a story about Jesus. Again, we know Jesus can heal people who are blind. That Bartimaeus can see who Jesus really is good, but not unique. That this was last act of mercy before entering Jerusalem is good. But there were thousands of people healed. What if this is not about Jesus; what if this is about us? The blindness we cannot see. We so often are blind to the people all around us.
So be curious; be mindful. Look to the people in this place and know more and more. You may not want a cup of coffee after worship; you may have a thousand things you need to do and get done. Well, set those things aside. Get a cup a coffee. Find someone you don’t really know; ask a friend a question of which you have no idea what his or her answer may be. If someone doesn’t want to talk, try another person. Be curious and look around you. You may just find the kingdom of God. Amen.
- Isaiah 54:11 - 17
- Mark 10:46 - 52