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At the Side of the Road

A Homily from Mark 10:46-52

© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines

Virginia-Highland Church

October 26, 2003 (30th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

There are some times in our lives when a particular need is so pressing that nothing else seems important by comparison. If you’ve ever gotten lost in the woods, you know that – if a magic Genie were to appear while you were stumbling over tree stumps – your one wish would be to find your way home. The last time I had a piece of glass stuck in my foot (notice that I didn’t say the “only” time – there’s a reason I married someone with surgical skills) you could have offered me a winning lottery ticket; and I would have rather had the glass taken out.

Sometimes our needs are more serious and more dramatic. A sick child takes precedence over everything else that goes on in a home. A life-threatening injury can make even the worst financial or professional problems seem insignificant. A chronic ailment can be a constant barrier to the kind of life we want to live.

One of the key figures in our story today had just such a need. His name was Bartimaeus – literally “Son of Timaeus” in Aramaic; and he was blind. Mind you, Bartimaeus was not blind in an era of seeing-eye dogs, Braille, occupational therapy, and health insurance. He lived in a time where the sightless had to depend on the charity of others. If they were fortunate, their families cared for them. If they were not fortunate, they begged on the street.

Bartimaeus was not fortunate. He spent his days on the side of the busy highway from Jericho to Jerusalem; perhaps hoping that the faithful headed to the Holy City would curry God’s favor by throwing him a coin or two. More than likely, he caught as many curses and insults as he did coins. And, just like today , a blind pauper made a tempting target for the punches of bullies and the nimble fingers of thieves.

It is a gross understatement to say that Bartimaeus did not lead a happy life. All that he needed, though, was one thing to turn his life around. One simple change would have allowed him to leave the side of the road and actually walk upon it. All that he needed was his sight, and for that he needed a miracle.

Somehow, despite a miserable life that seems like barely a life at all, Bartimaeus managed to keep hoping for that miracle. In fact, our text for today takes us to the side of the road just as Bartimaeus’ miraculous opportunity is – quite literally – passing him by. Jesus and his followers are going through on their way to Jerusalem, a trip that will end in Jesus’ death and resurrection. On their way out of town, their group moves past the spot where Bartimaeus is begging for coins.

Bartimaeus hears more commotion than usual. Perhaps James and John are still arguing about who will sit at Jesus’ right and left hands in the coming Kingdom. Perhaps there is a crowd, still following Jesus for the spectacle or for the free food or to hear more of his teachings. Whatever catches Bartimaeus’ attention, he quickly figures out that it – at the center of the noise – is Jesus of Nazareth.

If we could freeze Bartimaeus at that very moment, it would be the perfect symbol of where almost everyone finds themselves at some time or another. It’s also a great snapshot of where much of the world is right now. Bartimaeus knows that his life is in shambles and broken; and he knows that he cannot provide what he needs to be whole and healthy and at peace. He sits in darkness, and he knows that only Jesus can offer him healing and hope; but he has no way to find Jesus. He cannot see, and with all of the shouting voices in the crowd, Bartimaeus does not know which one to follow.

Struggling in the darkness, wanting to find Jesus, but not knowing how to get to him. Some of us came into this place today feeling exactly that way. Some of us are here because someone lent us a hand and guided us to the place where we could find the presence of God.

Bartimaeus has no one like that. He shouts at the top of his lungs, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When he calls out, a lifetime of desperation and loneliness gives strength to his voice. Even over the noise of the crowd, some people there hear him.

Unfortunately, they are the wrong kind of people. They’ve come to Jesus for their own reasons. Some of them – like Bartimaeus – want a miracle; and they are too busy seeking that miracle to let someone else butt in. Some of them are there for the teaching. They want to hear Jesus’ theological musings; and they don’t want Him distracted by another one of the outcasts that He’s so fond of.

Whatever their personal reasons, the crowd tries to silence Bartimaeus. Let’s freeze frame again, because we need to pay close attention to the crowd. If Bartimaeus is a picture of our own needs and the needs of the world, the crowd is, sadly, an image of the Church. They have surrounded Jesus, each person crowding Him with their own list of expectations of what He can do for them. Their personal agendas have become a wall, one that boxes Jesus in, and keeps those with real needs out.

We don’t want to be part of that crowd. Today’s text happens to fall on both Reformation Sunday and the last week of our emphasis on stewardship, so it wouldn’t hurt to reflect on how those two topics relate to the grievous error of the crowd.

It’s an easy jump from there to stewardship. Stewardship is about what God asks of us. The crowd around Jesus was only concerned with what they were asking of Jesus. When our resources – our money and our time and our energy – are spent on what we want; they become a barrier to the work of God. We don’t want to be part of that crowd.

Not only is the crowd an excellent example of bad stewardship, it’s also a reminder of the situation of the Church in Martin Luther’s time. The Church had become so entrenched in secular institutionalism that it had become a wall between the people and God. Literally, faithful Christians were separated from the Scriptures, from the Eucharist, and from the transforming power of the faith they sought.

Today we honor Martin Luther’s decision to tear down that wall; to place the Scriptures and the Eucharistic body of Christ into the hands of the living body of Christ. Luther knew that it didn’t matter what the leaders of the Church said, it only mattered what God had said – and so he instructed us to seek our guidance first and foremost from the Scriptures. He knew that the Church did not provide our salvation – and so he instructed us to trust only in the grace of God. He knew that salvation could not be earned – and so he instructed us to rely solely on faith. When the Church tried to silence him, he persisted. Centuries later, we honor Luther’s courage today because our freedom as baptists and as part of the UCC comes directly from Luther’s willingness to seek Jesus and ignore the crowd.

Like Luther, Bartimaeus refuses to be silenced. He shouts again, even louder, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” That must have taken some guts, to lie defenseless and in the dark screaming the name of Jesus while a threatening crowd worked to silence him. Nevertheless, when Bartimaeus can’t find Jesus on the first try, he tries again.

It’s easy to forget that lesson in church. After all, Jesus is right here with us. But the truth is – it doesn’t always feel that way. We drink the wine and eat the bread to remember that we are indeed forgiven and welcome in the merciful presence of God; but sometimes that just doesn’t sink in.

Bartimaeus says – keep trying! Whatever that means for each of us, keep doing it. Keep praying, keep reading, keep studying, keep singing, keep preaching. Keep seeking. There are times when only God can come to us; but there are also those roadblock moments on our faith journeys that we can only get through if we keep pushing.

It works, just as it did for Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus calls into the darkness a second time. When he does, Jesus hears him and stops walking. Jesus tells the crowd, “Call him here,” and when He says it, the nature of the crowd changes. To borrow again from our theme for the day, they are reformed. They stop being an impediment to the work of God, and become its instrument.

That’s what it takes for reformation, for true change; the persistence of the faithful and the presence of Christ.

Hearing Jesus’ command, the crowd calls to the man, “Take heart; get up, He is calling you.” On hearing this, Bartimaeus gets up and – leaving his cloak, perhaps his only possession, behind – runs to Jesus. As several commentators point out that Bartimaeus has already learned the lesson that the rich man at the beginning of the chapter could not. At the word of Jesus he gives up all he has and answers the call.

Standing in front of the Son of God, Bartimaeus hears a question for which he immediately knows the answer. Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

It’s not an unimportant question. Bartimaeus has been shouting at the top of his lungs, begging – no longer for coin – but for the chance to meet Jesus. As one commentator [Texts for Preaching B] points out, it’s not a bad question to ask ourselves as well. What do we want from Jesus? Why are we seeking Him? Do we want wealth? Power? Prestige? Healing? Companionship? What are we here for?

I can’t promise you that any of us will get what we want from Jesus. Some of us will get what we seek, others will not; and we have no choice but to trust the wisdom of God as to why.

As people of faith, or even as people seeking faith, that does not stop us from trying. Bartimaeus answers Jesus, “Teacher, let me see again.”

Jesus responds, “Go, your faith has made you well,” and immediately Bartimaeus can see. Whaddya know about that? Jesus doesn’t say “I have healed you.” He doesn’t even do the theatrical, televangelist, “You are healed!” Jesus tells Bartimaeus that his faith has already healed him.

It wasn’t finally meeting Jesus that gave Bartimaeus his sight. It was having the faith to seek Jesus in the first place. Interestingly, the word that our NRSV translates as “made well” is the same word for salvation. It means completeness and restoration.

How often do we learn that, in our own efforts to seek the things that we believe will complete us, the journey itself changes us and we are already complete by its end?

Christianity, however, is not a self-help religion. Do not mis-hear the story of Bartimaeus. It was not faith in himself that healed him, that saved him. It was faith in Jesus, the Son of God.

Whatever darkness clouds our vision, whatever forces stand between us and salvation; we cannot let anything distract us from the one answer, the only answer that can restore us and make us whole: the merciful love of God, the physical presence of Jesus, the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Bartimaeus, who managed to see things pretty clearly for a blind man, understands this as well. Jesus has already sent him on his way. He is finally free to do whatever he wants. He can get a good job and work for some new clothes, a good meal, even a home. The future he has always dreamed of is now a reality. He can go anywhere.

And so he turns onto the road, joins the traffic that has always passed him by, and follows Jesus. The story doesn’t end with Bartimaeus’ healing – that’s what Jesus does, he heals people. At this point in the gospel of Mark, we’re not terribly surprised by that. The story ends when Bartimaeus responds by following on the path of Jesus.

In a few weeks, we will start again on that path ourselves with the beginning of the new Church Year in Advent. It is a road that begins with faithfulness and sacrifice. With much suffering and joy along the way, it ends, ultimately, in hope; a distant horizon of peace that Bartimaeus can see with his eyes; but that he apparently already saw with his heart.
With his vision restored, Bartimaeus could have gone to see anything. The wonders of the world were there for his pleasure. But he knew that, even though he could use what he had been given for any purpose, the only things worth seeing were those that Jesus would show him.

“The blind leading the blind” is an old cliché for being lost and confused; but in this case we would do well to follow the formerly blind man. Even without his eyes, he saw more clearly than those around him. Whether we sit by the side of the road, stand in the crowd, or find ourselves at its center offering the very presence of Christ; may we always follow in the footsteps of Bartimaeus and never quit seeking what God has in store for us.