Wasn’t it the promotion for the second Jaws (the human hunting shark) movie that used the phrase: “Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water again.” Well, that is the way I feel this morning with the text before us.
Remember last week, the disciples James and John ask Jesus to do for them whatever they ask of him. Jesus asks them a question: “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they request to sit at his right hand and left hand when Jesus comes in his glory.
Here we are again, in this passage, with the very same question. It’s a different location, different person, in fact it’s a VERY different person. But it is the same set up. Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, a blind beggar is sitting by the road. He hears that Jesus is passing by and he starts to make a loud commotion. Jesus tells him to come on over and when Bartimeaus stands in front of Jesus, Jesus asks him the very same question that he asked his disciples: “What do you want me to do for you?”
I find that fascinating. And it made me think that maybe you and I need to have this question asked of us one more time, just to let us know that Jesus means business. Maybe we need to hear the question every week or even every day.”What is it that you want me to do for you?”
I remember when Deanne and I were at Ben Guiron airport leaving Israel (this was 20 years ago) We stood in line to have our passports checked and a pleasant but very serious young woman – who did not blink once – stared into our eyes and asked a series of questions: “Where did you go, who did you visit, did anyone you didn’t know give you anything?” We answered the queries honestly and the young woman thanked us. Not three minutes later a pleasant but serious young man, without blinking, stared into our eyes and asked the exact same series of questions. Clearly they were not playing around.
Well, neither is that more ancient Jew, Jesus. He is very serious as well.
Maybe it is with the same seriousness that we baptize week after week – we keep going to the same water, confronting the same mystery of inclusion and call. And the hope is that we will begin to appropriate it as a given. The word and the act will so imprint itself upon us that we will really claim, daily, that we are baptized, loved and empowered, that we are saved from our own self-absorption into the freedom of God’s grace.
It is fascinating to me that we have back-to-back scripture lesson hinging on the same crisis, the same question. Jesus and his disciples who ask self-serving question last week, move on to the region of Jericho.
Jericho, that famous city that is touted as the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, the city around which Joshua marched bringing the walls down. Jericho located at the north end of the Dead Sea – in one of the most barren, dusty, hot regions in the world. It sits in the West Bank of the river Jordan, in Palestinian territory but under the watchful eye of Israel.
Jericho stands at a very important crossroads that have existed for millennia – the route north/south from Galilee into the Negev Desert and east/west up a very steep terrain towards Jerusalem. The road today is the same road that Jesus took. In the narrative in Mark’s gospel, Jesus is beginning the steep climb that will lead to his passion and death. It is a rich and powerful scene.
Now, at this location, there is a gas station and a tourist stop (with good falafel – I’ve eaten there.) Some of us were there just last February – at this crossroads. And I can’t get the picture of Derry Stauffer, with Indiana Jones hat in hand, riding a camel, at that very spot. That memory has brought to life this scripture passage in a very peculiar way.
Anyway, it is at this dusty crossroads that the blind Bartimaeus sits. That is what his life is like, sitting in the dust and waiting – waiting for something to happen to him. He is probably sent out to the roadside by his family to help bring in some income. Perhaps this day, with a crowd coming, Bartimaeus thinks, and his relatives hope, that he might receive an increase in tokens or alms.
Now hang in there with me a bit here because I hope I don’t get too complicated but there is something that you need to know about this passage. In church, we read scripture lessons as disconnected stories – stories complete in and of themselves. But it is important, I think, to tell you that Mark wanted us to hear and read this story about Bartimaeus along with the story about the two disciples – to compare them, to have them converse with each other.
Remember, I told you that the very same question is asked in both narratives. Jesus asks his disciples James and John, who are the “insiders,” the very same question that he asks Bartimaeus, the “outsider.”
What is amazing is that the insiders, whom I presume should know better, request the best seats in heaven and the outsider just wants to see.
The insiders have sight – their eyes work – but they are so damned thick that they can’t see what is right before them.
The blind guy somehow knows exactly who is coming down the road – Jesus of Nazareth. Bartimaeus has, obviously, never seen Jesus, never traveled with Jesus, never heard Jesus preach or teach – but Bartimaeus has heard about Jesus and so Bartimaeus knows, that THIS is his chance – sitting at the crossroads of life – THIS is his opportunity to make something happen.
The disciples, in comparison, are almost nonchalant in imagining themselves sitting on the throne, while this blind man sits in the dust ready to pounce. He’s not going to let Jesus pass by. Now right there is a whole year of sermons packed into six little verses.
If only you and I had such passion and determination to come to Jesus. To see ourselves at crossroads of decisions, of actions – with natural gifts and also impediments, baggage, physical, mental, spiritual. And to see that in Jesus we are called to be whole and powerful. It would transform our lives. But most of us spend far too much time thinking ourselves unworthy, which is craziness.
Also, for so many Christians, faith is still about an inside/outside game. Throughout our history, disciples of Jesus Christ, good people – just like you and me – have built whole churches, and whole theologies and institutions, in fact whole political systems and cultures around the issue of who gets to come in and who remains outside. Who gets the eat the bread and who gets the crumbs. Who gets to vote and who doesn’t. Who gets to marry and who doesn’t. Who gets health care and who doesn’t. Who is faithful and who isn’t.
It is in our make-up, I think, it is in MY make-up anyway, that I want to discriminate, to separate, because I’ve got this insecurity, I want to know where I stand. It is human – everybody does it, every religion does it, every nation does it. But Jesus, I believe, wants us to have it another way. The kingdom way.
And so the blind beggar Bartimaeus, sitting in the dust by the side of the road on this no doubt hot and glaring day, represents everyone through out time who have been dismissed, ignored, forgotten, demeaned, or told to shut up. But like the women who wanted to vote, and the slaves who wanted to be free, and the freedom riders who wanted to ride a Greyhound, and the students who said “no” to Vietnam, and the workers who needed to unionize, and the illegal immigrant who needs a job, and gay and lesbians who want to get married, and the list goes on and on and on – and we have seen though out history that being hushed only pushes them on; it is no longer an option to remain in the status quo.
When you get to this point, when you get to the point where you get that feeling, or glimpse that opportunity – you have to risk it. You gotta eat, so you go to Rallys. You gotta move, you gotta get off the dime – and I want to say, then you gotta come to Jesus.
And while the insiders wonder about their status, sitting on the right and left hand of Jesus, while the insider is working on perfecting theology and narrowing the options, the outcast is getting it done, The blind man is seeing it right! The oppressed are working to be free, and the downcast are rising up – and it is all happening at the crossroads when Jesus passes by.
Think about your own lives. The only authentic spiritual experiences happen at the crisis of the crossroads, no? When you’ve got a decision to make. I can’t be this way anymore, I don’t want to feel this way anymore. I don’t want to be trapped. I don’t want to be so self-consumed anymore. I don’t want to hurt anymore. I don’t want it to be about ME anymore, when paradoxically it is just about finding who the real ME is.
Have you ever felt this way?
Another thing I love about Bartimaeus, as the outsider, is how often I feel, that it is the non-Christian who seems to live more Christ-like than a whole lot of self- proclaimed Jesus followers? The famous ones are Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh, but there is also that little old Jewish woman, and the brilliant Muslim man, and the seeker who calls herself an atheist, but who lives with compassion.
Somehow they all, and Bartimaeus who doesn’t see, they all get it – they know the secret. They may know Jesus better than I do, in fact they probably do. I don’t know why that should surprise us. I am not quite sure anymore why we should even worry about their status vis-a-vis Jesus or the kingdom.
And while I know the scripture well that declares one must know and claim the name of Jesus to go to heaven, passages like this one and others are just as numerous – ones that seek to broaden our understanding of the grace of God.
Jesus recognizes Bartimaeus and even says, “Go, your faith has made you well.”
Bartimaeus doesn’t believe in the virgin birth. Bartimaeus hasn’t had a resurrection appearance. Bartimaeus hasn’t said the Jesus prayer. Bartimaeus hasn’t confessed that he is a sinner. Bartimaeus isn’t a member of a church. Bartimaeus hasn’t read the Bible. Bartimaeus isn’t even a Presbyterian, he hasn’t studied Reformed Theology! He just wants to see. And he knows where to go. And he won’t let anything get in his way. If we would have such faith!
And of course – something very crucial, the Greek work translated here “made you well” is the root of the word can mean heal AND save. “Your faith has saved you.”
Maybe that is the definition of faith and salvation. Faith is not intellectual belief, holding on to a series of propositions – faith is rather connected to a recognition of your most basic human needs to be known, to be seen, to see, to be free. And salvation is not first and foremost about heaven in the by and by, but salvation is finding and accepting the freedom to be fully human the way God made you. That’s salvation.
The best books in the world are the ones you end up feeling: that is what I have felt all along. I remember reading Marcus Borg’s great book about faith and saying, I could have written those, that is how I have ALWAYS felt. Good art works that way too, or a beautiful piece of music – you recognize something of yourself in it – you are so drawn to it that sometimes you can have an out of body experience – Bach and Ratter make me feel that way and so does Springsteen, Bono and Beyonce!
And that is the way I feel about this story – YES. Yes, this is what I believe. Bartimaeus just wants to see. He wants freedom. He can’t be passive anymore. And really, isn’t that what you want? A deeper connection with God, yourself and with someone else, at least some ONE else?
And so from the dust Bartimaeus arises. Faith is found where the spirit meets the bone, where your greatest needs meets the invitation to arise and follow. Bartimaeus believed before he saw, believed before he knew, believed before the experience and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. So I guess my agitation to myself and to all of you is “Don’t be so analytical – get up and chase Jesus down.”