A number of years ago I was living in New York City, going through the motions of finding work as an actress by day and proofreading documents at a major corporate law firm by night. I was involved in a church. I had a lot of friends. Manhattan was a great place to enjoy food and theater, adventure and life. As time went on, I felt an urgeto get a little more involved in my church. I felt a pull to be of service, particularly to foreign students at Columbia University there in the neighborhood, so I began to be a volunteer conversation partner with them, then a real friend to them. I had a nudging to do more – I worked at the homeless shelter, the food pantry, the other various social action ministries of the church. I was compelled, in a way that I could not avoid, to volunteer on the pediatric AIDS ward at one of the city’s public hospitals. For several years one of the most important things in my life was the suffering, the joy, the grief, the delight I shared with the children in that exquisite, excruciating place. But there was one more thing – one at least – that was drawing me on. I had no words for it. I was, frankly, afraid of it. And one day on the subway on my way home from volunteering at the hospital, I understood what it was – the urging, pulling, nudging, compelling, drawing – and my cheeks flushed bright red and my heart began to race. I found a friend who knew me well and I said to her, “I think I may be being called to go to seminary!” And she said, “Oh well, Alison, of course you are!” Oh! I’d never realized. This was not what I’d expected and far from what I’d planned. It seemed to have been obvious to those who knew me well. I was the only one to whom this revelation came as news. I like to say that my call came collect, and it took me a while to accept the charges.
Have you ever had to be told something about yourself? Something obvious, as plain as the nose on your face, that had never occurred to you but was completely apparent to others? Has an outsider ever been able to explain perfectly a situation about a group you’ve been in, a place in which you’ve lived, a belief you’ve held, something about your family? Sometimes “outsiders” have the clearest perspective of all.
Such was certainly the case one morning as Jesus was zooming through Jericho on his way to be in Jerusalem for Passover. Scripture says, “They came to Jericho, and as (they) were leaving Jericho” - Jesus is flying through town on his way somewhere else. He needs to be in Jerusalem right away, and it’s a full day’s walk away. His time is so short, his mission is so far from complete; he knows what will come his way in one week’s time. And yet, the most “called” man in history makes time to stop and serve. This is a drive-by blessing, a blip in a busy day, but Jesus was never too occupied to stop and be present to someone who sincerely needed his help.
His disciples, his hand-picked trainees, were around him, as was a huge crowd. On the edge of the road sat a blind beggar we call Bartimaeus – we don’t know his personal name, just that he was the son of Timeaus. He was destitute, blind, one of the castoffs of society. And when he heard who it was that was going by he had the audacity to yell out, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” That’s quite an anomaly, really, if one remembers that in II Samuel 5:8 it is written, “the blind are hated by David’s soul.” Bartimaeus, the blind one, had seen something that all the people in Jesus’ inner circle had missed. He saw that Jesus was the Son of David, the Coming One, the One they had been waiting for. This little man on the outside of society, of respectability, of learning, and of the faith, had the perspective to see what all the others had missed, right in front of their functioning eyes. This man who had come to their town was not just a great preacher and healer; he was Heir to the Kingdom.
And what did the good citizens of Jericho do when Bartimaeus shouted out the most important insight in the world? They told him to shut up! Perhaps they weren’t really listening to what he said. Perhaps they were and decided it was too farfetched. Perhaps they were embarrassed by him. When I lived in New York City so many years ago, I always knew when dignitaries were visiting the U.N. – the homeless population on the West Side, where I lived, would mushroom as residents of the heat vents and cardboard boxes on the East Side were shipped out to preserve appearances. I wonder if the beggar Bartimaeus was experiencing some of the same dynamics of making social “problems” invisible. Perhaps the people around him did not want smelly, loud, filthy beggar Bartimaeus to be the departing Jesus’ last impression of their town.
Yet in this crush of people all calling out their petitions, Jesus’ ear does hear the insistent voice from the margins. He wants to hear the voice that others would silence. He hears the voice from the margin of the crowd, the margin of polite company. He immediately recognized it as special. I wonder if he heard the timbres of real faith in it. So for all the demanding throng around him, he stopped still in his tracks to hear the concern of the person who was perhaps most sincere, and in deepest need.
He tells a few around him to bring him the owner of that voice, and so the people who had just tried to hush up Bartimaeus now try to get him to his feet, dusted off and presentable as quickly as possible. “Take heart,” they say, “He is calling you!” That was all Bartimaeus needed to hear. Scripture says he sprang up to his feet, threw off his cloak, and made his own way to Jesus (I imagine the crowd must have parted before him like the Red Sea; this enthusiastic, flailing, odoriferous, blind beggar). What a wonderful response - Bartimaeus doesn’t saunter - he doesn’t feel his way forward cautiously, respectfully - he doesn’t take a moment to ask for assistance or a guide, he comes flying at Jesus. He flings off the cloak he had heretofore huddled under; that’s now a part of his previous life. What a beautiful response to a call. How trusting, how enthusiastic, how confident of grace. And this is not the end of Bartimaeus’ response but the very beginning; for when his sight is restored, he immediately begins to follow Jesus on the way. We, too, are to toss off our cloaks with a similar trusting abandon when we discern Christ moving through our lives. As you heard a few moments ago, that was hardly my own response! That cloak was the symbol of Bartimaeus’ infirmity. We have our own cloaks - a cloak of timidity, of fury, of depression, of low self-esteem, of dependency on another, of pride, of arrogance, of addiction, of ennui, of long-simmering resentment. A dear friend, a minister in Chicago, talks about the unholy trinity of emotions that can envelop people particularly as they reach middle age – envy, bitterness, and regrets; this at a time when they – we – realize that the choices we have made and the lives we have made are the ones we are going to keep. This all may be a cloak in which we hide, a cloak that binds us, or one which binds us and keeps us from joining the parade to Jerusalem. Bartimaeus recognized the source of his salvation. He sprang up, flung away his cloak, and never looked back at it.
Bartimaeus is healed, Jesus says, because of his own faith. He believed so deeply in the power of Jesus to make him whole, that he accessed that power and made his own healing possible. Jesus Christ no longer stands before us in body, but I believe we are meant to remember each time we think of Bartimaeus that our own faith has the capacity to make us whole. I just named many kinds of cloaks, of infirmities. Perhaps you have one or more that are not on that list. What would it mean for each of us to have the faith in Jesus by which we could throw off those cloaks? Through faith in Christ, we could be healed and freed of envy, bitterness, and regrets for example. How might we live then! Unfettered, free to soar. Through Christ we may be healed of envy, as we let our faith readjust our priorities. Envy loses its chokehold when we no longer desire that which someone else has – possessions, professional recognition, whatever we’ve decided we deserve. Christ transforms us into people who value instead love, compassion, relationships, mercy, justice, peace, God. These become the things for which we strive. When we see others excelling at these things, we rejoice. The bitter taste leaves our mouth, our souls, the acrid feeling that turns a day sour. Through our faith in Christ we believe that we are forgiven our sins, and so we can forgive ourselves. We may regret many things, some of them desperately, but we can let them go when we believe that, through Christ, our sins are forgiven and we are freed to live anew.
“What do you want me to do for you?” said Jesus to Bartimaeus. He had asked the same thing a short while earlier to James and John. They wanted seats of honor for themselves. Bartimaeus wants to see. What would be your answer if Jesus asked you: “What do you want me to do for you?” After sorting through your deepest desires, what would you say, and what would it say of you? In what ways do you know yourself to be blind?
And let us be reminded by our brother Bartimaeus to listen always for the faint voice on the margin, on the edge. If you know yourself to be Bartimaeus, to be the marginalized one, then like him yell out the truth you know. And for those of us who are not marginalized, let us remember that others can often teach us the most about ourselves – about what we hold dear. On the outside, looking in, they have the perspective to see what we are unable to. Their vision is an antidote to our myopia. We need to listen to those outside our churches, those who choose to be on the edges or whom the church has marginalized – they can teach us the most about who we are, what we want, what we believe. It would behoove us to listen to those outside the University, outside our families, outside the industrialized world, outside the faith. There are congregations today that forbid gay people to walk through their doors. What do all the people we’ve excluded have to teach us about God’s love and justice, and how it differs from our own? Might they not teach us that we are blind? What would we learn if we listened to the cries, the callings-out for mercy, from poor people in our midst and around the world? People we think mustn’t have good values – our values – or they wouldn’t have made the choices that have left them poor. What would they teach us, if we listened to them, about the structural advantages that have made us well-off – not our merit, not our values, not our faithfulness – structures that we like to think have evolved naturally, organically, fairly? What could those living in misery teach us about our sense of entitlement, our perspectives on equity and justice that favor – and flatter – ourselves? Might they not teach us that we are blind?
Who would Christ listen to, and for, if he were walking quickly through our communities today? Let us reflect on that in these days, and then listen to – and for – them too.
Herman Waetjen, A Reordering of Power, Fortress Press, 1989.