Year B, Proper 25: Opening the Eye of the Heart & the Adventure of Love
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year B, Proper 22: Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8, (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52
The Reverend Tyler Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
Opening the Eye of the Heart & the Adventure of Love
The story of blind Bartimaeus, the blind beggar at the roadside is much more than a mere healing story. The Bartimaeus story is the concluding bookend to a section of Mark’s Gospel that begins back in chapter 8: 22 where Jesus restores sight to the blind man in Bethsaida. In the intervening chapters, blindness is a constant theme that threads its way through the experience of Jesus’ closest disciples. Spiritual blindness, the persistent non-recognition on the part of the disciples of the person and work of the Jesus Christ as the only begotten Son of God made flesh for the salvation of the work, is Mark’s main thrust here.
To remind you of the story so far—recall that immediately after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah when Jesus tells Peter that he must undergo arrest, suffering, and death at the hands of the authorities, Peter is horrified at the prospect and pulls Jesus aside to try and shut him up. Peter’s idea of who Jesus is, his preconceptions, blind him to seeing Jesus as he really is, and he ends up creating Jesus in his own image of what the Messiah should look like. James and John, after seeing Jesus transfigured on Mount Tabor, argue with one another about who is the greatest, and later (after Jesus has taught them about the importance of becoming like a little child repeatedly) proceed to ask Jesus to grant their wish for power, prominence, and prestige.
Of course, the spiritual journey is all about coming to see in a new way. Following Jesus is an adventure into love: seeing ourselves and the world with the same eye with which God sees us—the eye of non-discriminating, all-encompassing, unconditional love. So often it’s our ideas about ourselves, others, and God that blind us to the reality of God’s presence and action in our lives. Ludwig Wittgenstein in his Philosophical Investigations puts it nicely: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Our ideas, our pictures determine how we see and how we see determines what we see.
So often, we’re blinded by our believed stories about being unlovable, and caught in a vortex of shame and self-hate. We’re blinded by labels we slap on people—drug dealer, criminal, illegal alien—which blinds us to the flesh and bone reality of an unrepeatable and precious human life created in the image and likeness of God in whom we are called to seek and serve Christ. We’re blinded by often unconscious images or beliefs about God inherited from parents, teachers, or church that keep us from accepting our acceptance, and hanging back like hesitant wallflowers at the banquet of divine mercy and love that has been in full-swing from the foundation of the world.
The spiritual journey is in some sense the process of letting these limiting pictures of ourselves, others, and God fall apart and fall away, of taking off the blinders and allowing ourselves to rest in and live from God’s unconditional mercy for us. Richard Rohr talks about the spiritual journey as a process of log-removal. We gradually come to see and recognize the ways that our vision is obscured and gently, lovingly, let the log drop out. We make the journey into love and our vision is gradually widened even if our physical eyesight continues to decline, or disappears altogether.
That’s why it takes courage to embark on the spiritual journey. Just think of Bartimaeus talking out of turn from the roadside despite the protestations of the disciples. Imagine the courage it took for him to step away from his staked out little patch of ground at the side of the road where everything was predictable and under control. Flinging off his cloak, Bartimaeus becomes a symbol of the courage to be vulnerable, the courage to open himself to something new, to make the journey away from his safe and settled life as a roadside attraction into new life with Jesus at its center. Bartimaeus is just one in a long line of adventurers away from captivity and blindness into freedom and perceiving in a new way. Abram and Sarai. Moses and the Israelites. Mary and Elizabeth. The disciples on the road to Emmaus. It’s no mistake the first Christians were called “people of the Way.”
When God speaks to Job out the whirlwind at the end his long disputation, it is a reminder to us that the world is not what we think it is. We are not who we think we are. God is not who we think God is. Whirlwinds shatter and destroy all that is fixed, settled, and stable. And Job’s long argument with God is on limiting pictures of who and how God operates (bad things happen to bad people and good things happen to the righteous). Job’s got God in a box and the box makes Job miserable. The boils all over Job’s body are a symbol of how constraining his picture of God is—it makes him sick, so sick he wishes he were dead.
More to the point, it blinds him to the awe and wonder of God who transcends everything we can imagine. Remember those passages from last week when God asks, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?... Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?” It’s as if God is pleading with Job, “Let go of your limiting pictures of who I am! Wake up to awe and wonder! Let the healing whilrlwind of my divine love free you from the pictures that have blinded you to gift.”
Today we hear Job’s reply to the importunate God’s pleading. “Now my eye sees you…” He sees because he’s seen through the picture that held him captive. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Job’s “despising himself” is about some kind of self-hatred. What is he really despising? Those limiting pictures of himself, the world, and God that made his life so miserable, that blinded him to the goodness and mercy of God and his marvelous works. He repents—that is he changes his mind and turns around—of his ideas about God and turns to an actual encounter with God as God is.
And what happens when Job makes the journey away from his ideas about how God should be? We get this over-the-top picture of abundance—gold rings, cadres of donkeys, fourteen thousand sheep, beautiful children, a long life. This is not some early version of the prosperity Gospel, but a poetic evocation of what happens when, with Job and Bartimaeus, we let our ideas, our preconceptions, our shoulds about ourselves, others, and God fall away like scales from our eyes and we see with childlike wonder, awe, and reverence.
Of course, Bartimaeus is healed of his blindness, but the community of followers around Jesus is also healed of their blindness to the last, the least, the lost, and left behind. As Jesus is leaving Jericho and Bartimaeus cries out from the side of the road—the marginalized, forgotten, voice from the ditch—the disciples around Jesus sternly order him to be quiet. Just as Peter tries to hush Jesus up when he speaks of his coming conflict, humiliation, suffering and death, the disciples around Jesus do their best to silence the voice the voiceless, to keep the son of Timaeus pacified and predictably contained at the roadside. But in the midst of all the hubbub, we get this beautiful little detail sketched with typical Markan economy—“Jesus stood still…” Somehow, despite all the commotion and the best efforts of the disciples to silence the cries of the suffering and the outcast, Jesus is able to cut through the noise, the distraction, and in stillness hear the voice of the voiceless one and invite him into transformative encounter.
We inhabit, of course, a culture of distraction where all manner of media soundbytes vie for our attention. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, the 24-hour news cycle all keep us caught up in a cycle of reactive crisis management and fear-driven anxiety. Worship—turning off the phone and turning to God in self-forgetful love—is one way we, too, stand still and inhabit that sacred pause long enough for the voices the distraction culture is designed to drown out to reach our ears and pierce our hearts. Each Sunday, with Jesus, we stand still and turn our attention away from ourselves that we might hear Bartimaeus’ cry when we leave this place.
In the subsequent exchange with Jesus Bartimaeus is healed, yes, but the disciples also have their eyes opened. The one who just moments before was silenced, shoved aside, and placed under a gag order is suddenly ushered into the inner circle to meet with Jesus: “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” These words are for Bartimaeus, certainly, but they are also for the disciples themselves. “Take heart” means open your hearts to the cries of world, recognize the ways in which we’ve acted more like gate-keepers of divine welcome than companions inviting others on a journey into belovedness. Let go of that limiting vision, that blindness, that sees the world according to who’s in and who’s out, voiced and voiceless, and live from the welcome with which God welcomes each of us without exception. “Get up” is a powerful challenge, to the disciples and to us, to shake off the dust of settled complacency and live into the indiscriminate hospitality and radical welcome that Jesus embodies. Get up is a call to live and give generously and sacrificially.
Gracious God, you come to restore eyesight to the blind, to set the captives the free, to show us that each one of your children is a highly favored one in your sight. Free us from those pictures of ourselves, others, and you that blind us to your unconditional mercy and loving-kindness. Give us the courage of your servant Bartimaeus that we might make the journey into a deepened sense of our belovedness that we might be that belovedness for others. Help us to stand still amidst the tumult to hear your voice, and the voices of those whom it is easy to forget—the sick, the needy, the homeless, the elderly, the children with nowhere to lay their heads. May our worship of you turn us from ourselves to their cries. May our worship of you enable us to be your hands and feet in the world that we might throw off our cloaks to feed, shelter, and heal the least of these whose face is your face, whose cry's your cry.