May I just say how deeply grateful I am to each of you for the radical hospitality that you showed all the guests who joined us here for the past two days at our inaugural symposium. We take for granted finding our way in the space, and we forget that it can be confusing as a visitor to approach the buildings and grounds for the first time. Better signage is on our vision wish list of needed improvements to come. Signs can be really helpful when folks are running late, easily intimidated by a new place, or just flat out lost! The right kind of signage well-situated can even save lives.
On the other hand, the utility of some signs is baffling at first glance. Take for example, the ubiquitous “You are here” notice. Surely there can be nothing less helpful than to state the obvious. It only conveys meaningful information as it locates us in relation to other things, other places. Then,, it can be very useful. It can tell us if we’re “almost there”, just a few more blocks in this direction and finally we will have arrived.
Today’s gospel evokes a “You are here” image. We are told 3 times that Bartemeus is blind. That information constitutes the initial “You are here.” But then Jesus asks what seems like a silly question “What do you want me to do for you?”
And now, we get more information, we get the “You are here” with respect to another place and time, when Bartemeus answers “I want to see…again.”
When we come to God, there is any number of things wrong with us. It may be the more obvious things that drive us to God, but when we get there, God still leaves it to us to decide which affliction, which burden, we need God’s help to release.
In the case of Bartemeus, we have three important pieces of information. First, we know who his family is—he is the son of Timaeus. This is not someone whose illness has characterized his entire life to the point that he has been cast out of society and is no longer associated by name or reference to a family. Second, we know that, at one time, he could see.
And finally Jesus says that his faith has made him well.
To fully appreciate this story of the immediate healing of Bartemeus, we need to backtrack a bit to Mark 8:22-26, where another blind man is healed by stages. In the first stage, the man regains his sight but not clear sight. “I see men walking but they look like trees.” But in today’s story there is no spittle mixed with dirt. Jesus simply observes that Bartemeus’ faith has restored his sight.
Mark then shifts the narrative from “Jesus the miracle worker” to “Jesus the savior of the world” who offers his own life for ours and who invites us to follow in the way of his cross, a way that will lead to our own suffering. This is no journey where being at his right or his left hand will advantage us to anything less than greater suffering. In today’s gospel, the disciples finally understand that the logic in God’s kingdom is very different from the logic of the world.
In this context we hear the story of the second blind man. For, his ability to see clearly again is the miracle that enables him to follow Jesus. This is so much more than just making it possible to see where he is, but now to see where he must go. Like Job, now that sees clearly the awe and glory of God, he can make his way to repentance and finally to grace. Just as the earlier two-stage healing of the first blind man symbolized the beginning of the process of the disciples understanding discipleship, this second one-step healing symbolizes the sealing of that process. Effective discipleship begins with an honest and ruthless confession. The word “akolouthein” that Mark uses to describe Bartemeus following Jesus is the word that Jesus uses at the beginning of this narrative unit in Mark’s gospel when he invites anyone who wants to join him to take up their cross and follow him. Now the disciples “get it” and now they are invited—commanded—to tell the story. It is a story of taking chances, risking everything—including what others might think of them—and somehow calling it all joy.
Is this the call you answered? Or did you answer the call of another kind of god? A god that works like a genie in a bottle or a jolly old bearded man in a red suit? Did you stop at the “You are here” sign without referencing “here” to a “there” that might mean a life of suffering?
Is our worship here an approach to the throne of god who sits there like a disc jockey taking our requests? Or are we here to learn what it might take for us to pick up our cross and follow a God who requests everything of us? It seems to be the difference between “child-like” faith and “childish” faith.
Child-like faith allows us to rest confidently in God’s promises of peace and purpose in the very midst of chaotic circumstances and real failure. Through embodying such child-like trust in God our moral cores are hardened, our compassion for the suffering of others is deepened, and our wisdom about the ways of the world is sharpened.
While childish faith tumbles us into hopeless despair when disease strikes or a loved one dies, or despite our best efforts we fail utterly in our attempts to succeed at something. The despair then turns to crippling bitterness and, eventually, it feels as if we cannot find the energy to draw breath. The predictable outcome of a barter system with a genie god is agnosticism. There is truly no evidence that this god exists.
The mark of a mature disciple is a child-like faith. For weeks now we have heard Job’s laments against God accompanied by the psalmist’s search for God’s presence that seems to have deserted him. And yet, both are now coming out on the other side of their dark nights with Job declaring “I know you can do all things” and the psalmist replying “many are the troubles of the righteous, but the Lord will deliver him out of them all.”
The irony we see in this wider lens view on the biblical texts is that the child-like faith of the faithful allows for yelling at God, questioning God, and arguing with God; while childish bartering closes off conversation in the wake of disappointment. The only lesson the childish learn is they cannot make God do what they want; a lesson of limited value.
Whereas, the lessons that a true disciple learns are that God indeed precedes and follows us and is on our right and our left through the darkest night, and that although our anguish in that dark time is real, there is an iron hope woven throughout its fabric that prevents us from falling through the net of life to our spiritual death.
So we will have no more healing miracles in Mark’s gospel. It makes it all the more significant that the final one leaves us with some questions. What happened to Bartemeus that he could once see but now cannot? What else might Jesus have seen in him that needed restoring? Why didn’t Jesus automatically assume he needed to see?
But, closer to home, we are all “here” and the question for each of us is: To what is our “here” in relation? Do we understand that being healed is in order for us to follow God wherever God leads us? Are we ready to set aside childish faith with its list of requests for God and take on childlike faith that is open to God’s requests of us, because we have no fear of anything that lies ahead?
Bartemeus’ prayer “Jesus, have mercy!” is his legacy to the Church, being one of our oldest prayers. This prayer can be for us a gateway that opens us up to a serious and honest conversation with God around where we go from here. We are “here” Lord. Lord, have mercy on us.
The Rev. Dr. Cynthia Park
October 25, 2015