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October 26, 2015, 10:19 AM

Proper 25 Year B - Bartimaus in the dark

Proper 25

Year B

Christ the King, Quincy

    Great things, Thou hast done, O Lord, my God. I would name them and proclaim them, but they are more than I can tell. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen. 

 

    When I was about to be ordained, Charles Cornell, who was the supply priest at Christ the King before I was ordained, told me, warned me…really, of the “Five Stages of Preaching.”In the first stage, a priest’s sermons will begin with “In seminary my professors taught me…” In the second stage, priests begin to utilize a new introduction to their sermons: “This past week, my spouse said/did…” You can probably guess what Stage Three entails… “this week, my children…” Stage Four engages grandchildren as the impetus for a sermon, until finally you reach the Fifth and final stage of your preaching career: “Back in seminary, my professors taught me.”

    I mention that, because, of course, I am currently in the Third Stage of my preaching career, and whether they mean to or not, Abby and John are providing me with fodder for sermons week after week. 

    What sparked a new revelation was Abby’s homework this week. Every Thursday, Abby brings home her Friday Folder, filled with announcements and the past week’s classwork. And so, as a dutiful partner, I looked over her math homework, the glittery art project, and the worksheets  on Proper Nouns. I paused when I looked over the assignment—it was simple enough, Abby was asked to underline all the proper nouns in a story. Pretty basic 2nd Grade stuff. But then I realized something. If there is anything lacking from the Gospels, it is Proper Nouns. 

    What do I mean by that? Well, simple. Take away Jesus, John the Baptist, Peter, and Pilate, and how many Proper Names are we left with in the Gospels? Occasionally, like last week, we hear from James and John. But really, after the disciples are listed, we only hear from Peter as the Disciples’ representative. Think about the stories in the gospels…how do we name them? The Centurion. The Boy born blind. The ten lepers. The Syrophencian Demoniac. We come close to a name when Mark pairs his story of the Woman who heymmoragged for 13 years with Jarius’ Daughter, but the girl remains safely anonymous. And so, it really is remarkable when we come to this morning’s Gospel reading that we come across a proper name: Bartimaus, son of Timeaus. 

    In the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Bartimaus is the only named recipient of a miracle. John, whose gospel lists Jesus’ final sign as his resurrecting Lazarus, but even if you include Lazaraus, it is pretty incredible to have someone named in a miracle story. 

    So, to repeat Shakespeare’s famous question, what is in a name, anyways?

 

    In a word, everything. 

    Bartimaus is the first of several clues which Biblical Scholars point to in understanding the historicity of this miracle. My point this morning is not to answer the question of whether the miracles recounted in the Gospels are literally true, but that of all the miracles the Gospel’s recount, it is the story of blind Bartimaeus which probably has the pre-eminent claim to historical veracity. 

    The evidence, if not the proof, is in the details. 

    First, it is clear that the original story was told in Aramaic, the language of Jesus and of the earliest church. Mark, writing in Greek, some forty years after the events actually happened, has to go back and explain to his audience that Bartimaeus means son of Timaeus, while to some one who spoke Aramaic, like Jesus and his disciples, no such explanation would have been necessary. And though you cannot see it in the English translation, when Bartimaeus finally approaches Jesus, the word we read as “Master” was originally the Aramaic word “Rabbouni” which does indeed mean master or teacher. So the originally story dates back to  the earliest period of the Church when most Christians spoke Aramaic, not Greek. 

    Even the physical details of the story argue for its veracity. If you were a Jewish pilgrim headed up to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover at the Temple, the last gathering point, the neck of the funnel, if you will, was Jericho. Here from all parts of Israel, pilgrims gathered before ascending the steep Roman road which lead the last twenty miles up the hill to Jerusalem. So, here, at Jericho would be a perfect spot for a blind man who could support himself only by begging, to situate himself. Here were great crowds of religious people headed toward Jerusalem in a joyous and festive spirit primed to respond generously to the appeals of blind Bartimaeus. It would be sort of like the Salvation Army bell ringer who, at Christmas, gets the prime spot just outside of Scheels in Reno. 

    And if you look even more closely, another compelling detail appears. Listen again to how the reading begins: “And they (that is the Jesus and his disciples came to Jericho; and as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great multitude, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside.” With all these pilgrims milling around in Jericho, any place which Bartimaeus chose in the city would have meant that he would miss some potential givers. But by situating himself just outside the city as the road started its climb to Jerusalem, Bartimaeus was assured that every single pilgrim on their way to Jerusalem would pass by right in front of him. So again the story rings true. The details are all precisely right. Unless you dismiss all the miracle stories as a priori impossible, this story of Bartimaeus is certainly the most compelling credible of them all. 

    And this miracle story tells the truth in another way as well, for the blind Bartimaeus was a man of great vision, and it is the contrast between who is truly blind and who can see the truth, that this story is really about. 

    Immediately preceding the story of Bartimaeus comes last weeks Gospel’s where James and John are trying to convince Jesus that they should be allowed to sit at Jesus’ right hand when he comes in glory. On one level, it is a story about the necessity of humility, but on an even more important level, James and John, representing the whole of the disciples are demonstrating once again that they are totally blind, that they have no clue as to what Jesus’s Messiahship will really mean. 

    Immediately after the story of Bartimaeus comes the story of Palm Sunday which inaugurates the events of Holy Week. And throughout the events and tragedy of that week, the disciples still fail to see and grasp what Jesus is really all about. They swear their undying fealty to Jesus and then disappear when he needs them most. As Jesus dies on the cross they are in hiding, seemingly defeated and undone. For it is not until Easter some ten days after their encounter with Bartimaeus that they will finally be able to see and comprehend who Jesus really was and is. 

    Amongst all this blindness on the part of the disciples, only one person has the vision to see and the wisdom to proclaim Jesus true identity: the blind man Bartimaeus, who cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus, the Messiah, have mercy on me. It is the blind man who sees that to which the disciples remain blinded, Jesus true Messianic identity. 

    For Mark, the contrast is almost palpable: those who have eyes and ought to be able to see, cannot; only the blind Bartimaeus sees with the clear eyes of faith, the faith which then makes him whole. And now, we too can see why this story is so very important to Mark, and why he sets it here right at the most crucial moment in Jesus' pilgrimage up to Jerusalem. What Mark wants us to know is that on our own pilgrimage, on our individual walk with Jesus, we too, like the disciples and like Bartimaeus will find times when all is bright and clear and radiant, and times when we seem to only stumble over unseen obstacles in the dark. We. too, will have those wonderful moments when we see Jesus clearly face to face, and those moments when we grope, seemingly alone, in the shadows. In our live too, we will know, as each of us has known, periods of light and periods of deep darkness. That is what it means to follow Jesus. 

    But when those periods of darkness do descend, there is still more we can learn from Bartimaeus. We have all heard that when people loose their ability to see, their other senses often become more acute to compensate for the loss. I think that in some ways there is an analogy here to our own spiritual journeys. We are all, by nature active, purposeful people. When there is a problem, when there is some obstacle to overcome, we plan, we struggle, we find someway to move forward. Even in the darkest moments of our own lives, there is something, we want to believe, that we can still do the make things better. 

    There is nothing the matter with this, it is a part of who we are, and in many cases it is even heroic to see how people manage to keep going, keep moving in the face of those dark, silent, frightening moments which come into the lives of all of us. Maybe we turn to more fervent prayer, maybe we find a book to read, maybe we start or form a support group, maybe we start some new project, whatever the means, we try so very hard to just keep going, to make something happen, to make things better. 

    This is really well and good, these are the methods which have worked for us before when things became dark and threatening. And we rely on these tested methods to lighten our darkness, as we who can see rely upon our sight to show us the world around us. But there are times, when, like a person loosing their sight, even these methods fail us and we are left seemingly alone in the dark.
    Then are times, when there is literally, nothing left to do. 

    Sometimes these moments come suddenly in response to absolute tragedy for which we can find no reason, when all the world seems cold and hostile, and God, if he still exists seems far beyond our sight. Sometimes they come slowly, almost incrementally. We just get tired and worn out as one set back leads to another, and we loose any sense of hope for the future. Whatever the cause, the moment comes to each of us when there is really nothing we can see to do. Then what? Sometimes, it seems to me, there is nothing to do but to huddle and wait. Wait like Bartimaeus huddled by the roadside, waiting for Jesus to pass by. And perhaps when I least expect it, when I have grown so tired that I think the darkness will last forever, sometimes I hear a faint voice whisper that Jesus is about to pass by. And all I can do is to cry out in silence, "Jesus, Son of David, who ever you are, where ever you are, have mercy on me." And a voice with in me rebukes me saying, "If he hasn't heard you before, why should he stop now?' But still and plead, "Help me." And this time, even if just for a moment, he does stop and ask what I need, and like Bartimaeus, is say, "Master, let me see again." 

    And what happens is truly a miracle. Not that ever thing changes all at once, not that I suddenly see again, but rather that I catch a fleeting glimpse that Jesus does care and that he wants me to care too. And that caring, his care for me, and my care for others is the light which will never go out. 

    The light that dawns is never perfect. That shadows persist, and faint outlines are all that I can often see. But, I guess I have come to see and believe that the dark is never completely black. As we grow accustomed to the dark, as our other senses become more spiritually acute, we can make out the last trace of last evening's sunset, or tomorrow coming dawn. And, I hope I have learned that I can, and often must wait there, and not be too frightened by the shadowy darkness. 

    We must learn to experience the dark if we are to see a new day. We need to learn again, that fear and doubt, and disappointment are not the real enemy of faith, they are rather a means, sometimes by which we strip away that which passes for faith to find the kernel of true faith the lies with in. In the dark silence, and perhaps only there we can discern what is real and what really matters. As with Bartimaeus, sometimes it is only in the darkness that we can see that our Savior is near. 

    


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