A sermon preached on October 25, 2009 based upon Mark 10:46 – 52.
A week ago Friday I took my son Bobby out of school in order to attend the funeral of a thirteen year old boy named Derek. Bobby hadn’t really known the boy — not really. Derek played on another youth soccer team that plays in New Jersey on the same elite level as my son’s team. A couple of times over the past two years Derek’s team had met Bobby’s team on a soccer field to compete for a victory.
Derek had taken his own life for reasons only God knows for sure. There were reports that he was taking a prescription medication for acne that has been known to depress a young person’s mood. There was also some suggestion that disappointment in how he’d performed in recent big soccer games played a factor.
He died on Monday; Bobby’s coach announced the boy’s death at practice on Tuesday. Shocked and disturbed by the news, the team decided that whoever could make it would attend the funeral on Friday together to show their respect to a fellow soccer player who had fallen into a pit of despair. Bobby and four of his teammates, along with their coaches and a couple of us parents found our way to this big Roman Catholic Church in Secaucus. It was packed – standing room only. As you might expect, there were hundreds and hundreds of very sad-looking young people in attendance, presumably calling to mind every little interaction they could remember of time spent with Derek, even if those shared memories were as seemingly insignificant as competing together a couple of times on a soccer field.
It was all very heart-wrenching of course, and yet in the horror there was also this strange confirmation of the sacredness of human life. Something terribly awe-inspiring was expressed by so much collective grief.
On a bleak Monday morning a teenage boy comes to the conclusion that his life is meaningless – that he himself is worthless. He decides to go ahead and extinguish the life that seems to him so terribly inconsequential. In doing so, he rocks the world of thousands of people to whom he was connected in ways both large and small, revealing, ironically, that the decision he had reached that gray Monday was dead wrong, and that his life absolutely did matter after all.
As the saying goes, our paths cross in this life, often “like ships in the night.” You are preoccupied with your stuff, and I am preoccupied with my stuff, and in our preoccupations we become almost invisible to one another. But we’re not, really. Soul calls to soul. We touch one another in ways we can barely imagine.
Once upon a time, the Gospel writer Mark tells us, the paths of two human beings crossed, apparently for the first time, in a small town called Jericho. A whole crowd of people was present, but in our story, two lives come to the forefront.
One of these human beings was a seeming “nobody”, a blind beggar who sat every day by the roadside, largely ignored, a sight so familiar to those who lived in the town that he had become in a certain sense invisible.
This nobody, however, had a name, and Mark gives it to us – most often in the healing stories of Jesus, the one healed goes unnamed. His name was Bartimaeus, meaning literally, “son of Timaeus”, identifying him as “somebody” to at least his parents. The naming of Bartimaeus in the story also reminds us once again of the importance of names: knowing a person’s name – calling them by name – is a simple thing, but when we do it, we take a stand against the cloak of invisibility that is so much a part of our world.
The boy who died had a name: He wasn’t just some boy who died — a statistic. He was Derek. He had parents who loved him — who wept for him at the funeral.
The other person in Mark’s story was, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. For the past two years he has been wandering about the country side, teaching and healing, with the numbers of people drawn to him steadily growing.
Recently, however, his seemingly aimless wanderings have given way to a very clear destination: he is now on his way to Jerusalem to confront the powers-that-be in the capital city. The people sense something earth-shaking will happen there; the liberation, perhaps, of the Jewish people from the oppression of the Romans. Jesus himself knows that he is going there to suffer and die, and in that knowledge he assuredly felt very much alone — almost invisible — despite the great, enthusiastic crowd that followed beside him.
Apparently Bartimaeus has heard of Jesus and the healings he has accomplished. He has heard rumors that he might be in fact the messiah, the “son of David.” Although he cannot actually see Jesus, he seems to sense more deeply the meaning of Jesus’ life than the others present.
And so as Jesus draws near, Bartimaeus begins to call out: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd seems irritated at first by his refusal to remain invisible. They yell, “Be quiet!” But he cries out all the more loudly: “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!!” Eventually he shouts loud enough for Jesus to hear him, and although Jesus is heading to Jerusalem, he pauses now to acknowledge Bartimaeus. “Call him to come here.”
Immediately Bartimaeus throws off his cloak – his single possession, which every day he had spread out before himself as he begged to collect what people gave him. Leaving his one possession behind, he comes quickly towards the voice of Jesus.
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. You may remember that Jesus asked exactly the same question 0f James and John in the passage that immediately precedes this one. They had come to Jesus to ask for special privilege in Jesus’ kingdom. Bartimaeus’ request is much more fundamental. “Teacher, I want to be able to see again.”
“Go,” says Jesus, “your faith has made you well.” His eyesight is restored!
This is the last event that Mark records before Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. It is clear that Mark is using eyesight as a metaphor for what it means to come to faith in Jesus. It involves going from blindness to sight.
There is a spiritual blindness that afflicts us human beings. We can not truly see the blessing that is our lives in the present moment. We can not perceive the depths of each eternal soul that we encounter in the lives of the people we bump into along life’s way.
This blindness is poignantly described in the play “Our Town” by Thornton Wilder. A young woman named Emily dies. In the spirit realm, she pleads to be allowed to go back to experience a single day of her life. The spirits try to persuade her not to go, but she insists, choosing the day of her thirteenth birthday. Her mother, her father and everything else from her life strikes her now as just so very beautiful, but in short order she is devastated by the knowledge that they – the living – are blind to this exquisite beauty. She flees back to the spirit realm. An old cynic named Simon Stimson speaks these harsh words:
“Yes, now you know. Now you know! That’s what it was to be alive. To move about in a cloud of ignorance; to go up and down trampling on the feelings of those… about you. To spend and waste time as though you had a million years. To be always at the mercy of one self-centered passion, or another. Now you know — that’s the happy existence you wanted to go back to. Ignorance and blindness.”
She had asked, “Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?” The stage manager replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe –they do some.”
According to Mark, even after two years of keeping Jesus’ company, the disciples themselves still suffer from this spirtual blindness. Bartimaeus the beggar stands alone as an example of one who has truly had the eyes of his heart opened by Jesus. Mark concludes the story with this detail: Having regained his eyesight, Bartimaeus, “followed him on the way.” “The way” is a term used in the New Testament as shorthand for the life of following Jesus. Beholding the true beauty and meaning of life, Bartimaeus follows after Jesus with his heart wide open, ready to endure, if necessary, the suffering that loving so deeply can bring.
Commentators point out that although this is obviously a “healing” story, it is also a “call story.” It resembles the call of the fishermen Simon and Andrew, James and John, who, upon being called by Jesus, drop their nets, leaving all behind, to go and follow where he leads.
Whether healing or calling, either way, there is a miracle of grace involved. Where does such faith come from that allows a person to perceive the true blessing, and in turn, to offer one’s lives as a channel of grace for others? It is a gift of divine grace. “We want to have our sight again,” we pray, asking for this grace. “Have mercy on us.”
As a young man, Thomas Merton lived in the sophisticated world of a New York writer. At age twenty-seven he fled from the world to enter a Trappist Monastery in Kentucky, having seen so clearly the blindness and misery of which Simon Stimson spoke to Emily.
Years later, however, Merton was surprised to experience the amazing grace which gives sight to the blind when he was out on a mundane outing from behind the walls of the monastery. In his journal, he describes the experience which came to him surrounded by ordinary human beings going about their lives in this world:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers…”
He concludes with these haunting words: “There is no way of telling people that they are walking around shining like the sun.”
When we’ve been there, ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.