Let Me See Again

Preached on October 25, 2015 at St. Andrew’s Anglican Church on Mark 10:46–52. Keep in mind that these homilies are longer than usual, as they are preached in a non-Eucharistic service:

Well, who doesn’t know or like today’s Gospel story about Bartimaeus, son of old Timaeus.  Bartimaeus has a place in society. His role is that of the blind beggar. As a beggar his job is to remind passers by that they have an obligation to give alms. What Bartimaeus doesn’t have though, is the right to be too obtrusive. Bart may beg, but he may not badger the teacher. After all, we will tolerate the poor as long as they don’t become too demanding.

Bartimaeus oversteps this social rule with his loud appeals. Heart-wrenching and profound: “Son of David have mercy on me!” We are told that these words stop Jesus. He stands still and calls the man to himself. In response Bart does two things which are totally uncharacteristic for a blind beggar. He throws off his cloak and he springs up. Beggars, especially blind ones, do not throw off their cloaks and spring up. Not if they know their place and their craft, or graft. Beggars cower and cringe. The fact that Mark records this unusual behaviour suggests that the transformation of Bartimaeus has already begun.

I wonder sometimes what cloaks and cows us… What is keeping us from approaching Jesus? Our propriety, our lack of trust or our politeness? Do we come to church Sunday after Sunday, cloaked and cowering, watching the liturgical parade go by, sitting through worship untouched, never once letting the prayers and the hymns, the readings and reflections, the love of Jesus, touch our hurt and sorrow, our losses and our wounds? Perhaps we cower and remain silent because we fear others would tell us to be quiet and not make a fuss.

Thank God for this boisterous, blind, beggar, Bartimaeus! He doesn’t think twice about throwing propriety to the wind. He not only stops Jesus in his journey, he also elicits the strangest question from Jesus, “What do you want me to do for you?” Hello?! Blind beggar! Isn’t it obvious what he wants?

Well perhaps not. Remember the Gospel from last week. In last week’s Gospel text, which precedes today’s, the disciples came off looking rather smug. They thought they had this Jesus all figured out. But not so! While Jesus talks to them about bearing crosses, they argue about who will be the greatest in the kingdom! If anyone is blind and deaf, they are. In both situations, Jesus asks the exact same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” What do James and John answer? “Grant to us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Do you hear the arrogance in those words? Do you “hear” the blindness in those words??? So here’s Bart today, and Jesus is not taking any chances; he doesn’t assume nothin’! After the arrogant answer of the disciples, it’s smart thinking to check what it is exactly that Bart wants.

But Bart, uncloaked and springing, unlike the disciples, our Bart wants the real change. He wants more than alms. He wants more than recognition, vain glory or prestige. He wants life!

Did you notice the interesting detail in his request? “My teacher, let me see AGAIN.” Blind Bart it seems had not always been unsighted and benighted. He had seen; he once knew colour, depth and shape. He once knew beauty and love and joy. He wanted it again. So do we, don’t we? And we too, no matter how awful life can be, have once known beauty and love and joy. And illness, physical—emotional—spiritual, can rob of us of all that.

And so Mark includes the sick a lot, and Jesus reaches out to the sick a lot. Because illness marginalizes us still today. When we suffer pain, physical or emotional, it keeps us from being able to participate fully in the life of the community. We can’t climb the steps as well as we used to, can’t drive after dark, can’t get out where we might infect others or be infected.When depression darkens our spirit, we don’t have the energy to invest in relationships or to see anything beautiful in life.

A few chapters earlier, Jesus healed the bleeding woman who touched the hem of his garment. Neither this poor woman nor our beggar Bart had friends to advocate for them. Both were pushed to the edges of society. Both take matters in their own hands. And both were commended by Jesus with the exact same words, “Your faith has made you well.”

The reaction of the crowd to Bart’s cries for help is interesting. First the crowd “sternly ordered” Bartimaeus to be quiet. Are they worried Jesus will be disturbed? Or are they using that as an excuse to quiet him because they are disturbed? Maybe they are disturbed by the reminder that there is pain in the world, they are disturbed by how close that pain has come to them—close enough to reach out and touch them, and they would just as soon not hear about it. They’d rather hear holy words from Jesus than the petitions of a sick man.

Let’s be honest; it’s darn uncomfortable when someone openly shares their need for help. It can be just as uncomfortable to walk past a beggar without reacting. I feel I did just about that a few days ago … and I feel ashamed about that, since I desire to be the face of Jesus in the world. A man walked into the community centre where I work, disheveled, asking for money and a place to stay. Instead of saying to him, take heart, sit down and have coffee, I immediately was on guard, not letting him touch my heart.  I just “tolerated” him while he made phone calls. I confess here this morning that I did not hear this man’s cries, and that I failed him and I failed Jesus.

Thank God Bartimaeus has better luck. He doesn’t keep his pain bottled up inside. He shouts, he cries out to Jesus. Far from avoiding emotional, hurting people, far from my own guarded heart only a few days ago, Jesus responded, called him over and faced the desperate hopes of a man in need.

I see in this Jesus story a human being in pain, who thankfully isn’t afraid to talk about it, and a community that initially is reluctant to hear his pain but eventually is willing to listen and to help. I pray in contrition that I may learn to do this next time.

Here’s a story about someone who was luckier than the man who I encountered a few days ago. Little or nothing in Annie’s life promised a rosy future. She was unschooled, hot tempered, nearly blind from untreated trachoma by age 7. Her mother died when Annie was 8. She and her little brother Jimmie were left with an abusive father and a dilapidated home. Two years later the father abandoned his children. Annie and her brother were sent to the orphanage for the poor.

Her little brother died a short time later. Annie was devastated; her life was lost before she had any, or so it seemed. Blind, poor, no one to help her see. But Annie cried out, just like Bartimaeus, for someone to take note of her. Lo and behold, a state official heard Annie’s plea and began securing some support for the rebellious and contrary teenager. After two unsuccessful eye operations, Annie was allowed to attend a school for the blind.

Her life changed dramatically. Annie quickly learnt to read and write. She also learned to use the manual alphabet in order to communicate with a friend who was deaf as well as blind. That particular skill opened the door to her future and a life of remarkable achievements. Anne eventually had several successful eye operations, which improved her sight significantly. She graduated as valedictorian of her class. A short time later, Anne accepted an offer to tutor a girl of 7, a girl who was spoiled, rebellious, stubborn, blind, deaf, and mute. That girl was Helen Keller, who credited Anne for letting her “see again.” Someone heard Annie’s cry for help, and Anne in turn reached into Helen Keller’s blindness in order to help her see again. And the rest is history, as we say.

“My teacher, let me see again,” Bartimaeus cried out. Whose cry for help do we need to heed? What if we learnt to throw off our cloaks of fear and embarrassment, and dared to talk about our pain? What if we learnt to make space for those who have trouble being heard, for those whose hardships have caused numbness and blindness of heart?

Today’s witness by Jesus summons us to this task. If we become like the disciples, telling folks to “shut up” we have no right to claim the name Christian. But if we become like the crowd, telling the hurting ones among us to “take heart” we may learn today’s lesson. Once we learn to listen and hear each other into loving speech, we will have begun to show one another the mercy and hope of Christ. Then we will exchange the arrogance and blindness of the disciples for the vision of God’s reign in Jesus where all blind beggars and bleeding women, all sinners and tax collectors, deaf and mute people have a place at God’s banquet of heaven. Our faith still has the power to heal us in this way.

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Pain … is pain … is pain

Here I go again — aching with a cold, my head pounding and my nose acting like a leaky faucet. In bed, feeling sorry for myself, annoyed at my body for not letting me work on that never-ending list-to-do. Poor me …

While I’m feeling sorry for myself, though, others have to contend with much worse — the pain of cancer eating the body, the pain of fading vitality and memory, the pain a broken relationship, the pain of losing a job and livelihood, the pain of having a home destroyed by fire or flood, the pain of a drained bank account resulting in unpaid bills and disconnected utilities, the pain of abuse and exploitation, the pain of a child or sister gone missing. While I’m busy suffering my little pain in a warm bed, someone else is suffering big pain elsewhere in the danger zones of daily life.

Pain, medical experts say, is an important “house alarm system.” Pain alerts us to potential or real damage requiring attention and care. Without an intact pain alarm system, our bodies and minds would suffer significantly more   as we would ignore way more injuries than is good for us.

Compared to most others, my aches and pains have been truly minor, for now — touch wood. Yet comparing with others is not the most helpful thing to do. Because each of us suffers pain in unique ways whether minor or serious. What is serious for one may be minor for another, and vice versa. A friend tried to minimize her anxiety over an impending diagnosis by telling herself that people in poverty-stricken areas of the world are much worse off than she is. Instead of these thoughts alleviating her anxiety, however, she almost slipped into denying her legitimate feelings in a very unhealthy way.

Physical pain is the most acknowledged of all, and the easiest to explain even though hard to remedy at times. Anything other than physical pain, however, seems to become nebulous, both to ourselves and to other people. Friends who suffer depression all have stories of being misunderstood, not taken seriously and even ridiculed. The social stigma that comes with mental illness adds insult to injury. Those who have never had pets ridicule those heartbroken over a pet’s death. Spiritual and emotional pain caused by feeling excluded and dismissed in one’s church community is “just in our heads.” On that note, Barbara Parson’s article in this week’s Commonweal Magazine is hard-hitting.

Why is it so hard to recognize, legitimate and attend to non-physical pain, our own and that of others? Why do we, often unwittingly, relegate emotional, mental and spiritual pain to the realm of subjectivity, thereby subtly implying a label of invalidity and triviality? Just because I cannot physically see or feel pain, doesn’t mean it is less real. The fact of the matter is that if emotional, mental or spiritual pain is not adequately acknowledged and tended to, it will eventually manifest itself in physical pain. Mind, body and spirit are intricately connected, affecting one another’s functioning in ways we’re not even aware of.

Bees1I may have been spared much physical pain in my life so far (again, touch wood …), but I’ve had more than my share of emotional, spiritual and, yes, ecclesial pain … It’s much easier to groan about a common head-cold and feel sorry for myself in bed than to live with deep inner pain that remains so invisible to the outside yet stings the inside as acutely as a thousand bees. More on that soon …

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