As in our world, needy people populate the Gospels. All kinds of need. Hunger and thirst. And fear. And pride. And misunderstanding. All kinds of captivities and oppressions.
But most remarkable for our reading, perhaps, are the healing stories. Jesus walks across the fields and through the streets, and there are people will all sorts of ailments and illnesses. Bodies that aren’t functioning correctly. Minds that are troubled. Spirits that seem to be possessed. And Jesus heals them. Sometimes because the sufferer has asked, but as often only because Jesus recognized their need. In the latter case, often nothing is asked of the recipient of such grace. He or she may not even know who it was that did the healing.
It’s amazing really. A bit challenging for us who have been so schooled in the efficacies of medical science. But, if you take them at face value, undeniably wonderful good news.
But healing stories in the Gospels are also more than they appear to be. More than miracles as examples of Jesus’ possessing Godly power. Much more than the physical impossibility of reversing this disability or that dysfunction.
A paralyzed man throws away his crutches and leaps for joy.
A man reaches his withered hand to Jesus, and, look, it become useful again.
A girl who everyone knows is dead sits up and rubs the sleep from her eyes.
Church, there’s more going on in each of these than our reason-limited ways of experiencing the world can take in… Particularly suspicious are the stories of those who, borrowing from our next hymn, “once were blind, but now they see.”
I’m not sure if it’s idiomatic, metaphorical or euphemistic, but the Gospel makes seeing and believing almost synonymous. “Blindness cured, sight granted miracles” in particular are more like illustrations about growing in faith than Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles’ taking off their dark glasses.
There’s another irony in the blindness to seeing miracles: often those who are physically blind have more insight than those for whom Jesus has been right before their eyes all along. Bartimaeus was blind the whole world around him, but he saw more clearly who Jesus was than those disciples who’d been seeing Jesus for almost three years.
Seeing “who Jesus is” — isn’t that a good working definition of Christian faith? The vision that leads one to want to follow this Holy One. We call it discipleship.
When we recognize Jesus as our Way, our Truth and our Life… when we begin to follow; come out from behind whatever we’ve used to hide; really start living — not on our own, but in God.
Seeing all of this, or even a part of this… well, in the dangerously-limited parlance of Pauline faith, promises that even someone without the physical ability to see can be “unblind.” Because seeing isn’t really about how you see the world or even that you think you can understand God. Seeing is about responding to something you intuit as being greater than yourself, even ultimate. Can you see yourself and let your life be remade in the light by which you are ironically both ‘small to inconsequential in comparison’ and, nonetheless, of infinite value?
In Mark’s account, this is what we’re told is what happened with Bartimaeus: he regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way. The next verse in Mark narrates the entry into Jerusalem. Bartimaeus’s first course in discipleship was the streets of Jerusalem on the way to the cross.
Think for a minute:
When and how and where have found yourself stumbling or fallen, and then somehow been lifted or almost physically picked up?
When were you confused or lost, or caught up in your illness or tied down by your injury — so you could barely walk or talk or see or hear rightly. But then somehow — you don’t know quite how, except to know it was not by your own power or will or ability — somehow, you were taken in hand, stood up, dusted off, mended even, and set moving along the right path.
Bartimaeus is sitting on the curb, maybe even stretched out in the gutter. And Jesus passes by. How’d he know? How’d he know who Jesus was? We can’t be sure.
But all of a sudden, the apparently blind one starts hollering and making a real ruckus from down where he’s at. You know, when you are passing someone on the street next time — we sometimes call them “street people” — and he or she is making some sort of unholy disturbance… Next time that happens, ask yourself, “Could that brother or sister be calling for God, trying to make sure Jesus has noticed that he might also tarry and heal?”
Jesus does notice Bartimaeus. Not only notices him. But calls him. Bartimaeus returns to the Lord and is restored. That turn of phrase interests me: returns to the Lord. It implies that the one in need already has some earlier experience, even if he’s unaware. And somehow life or God or grace find him a way back.
Bartimaeus is the last of the disciples to walk through that East gate into Jerusalem behind Jesus, with a palm branch in his hand and a Hosanna on his heart. But for all his place in the parade matters, he could have been the first.
Beloved, how do you need to be restored? What part of your life needs to be healed? Where is there brokenness the mending of which is beyond you?
I don’t want to life our expectations too high, though. I too see the attractiveness of the 180-degree about-face, the knock me down and I get up again changed, born-again… that overnight sort of reversal of all that’s rebellious or unholy or sick in my life.
But, I’m a bit skeptical too. Some changes are no doubt fast and immediate, AND God can do anything. But I guess I’m confessing: God’s not fixed me all at once very often. In my experience. most of my growth comes hard-earned and slow.
Returning to the Lord for restoration can be described in many different ways because it can take different forms. Reformation is one of those ways. There may be even easier and more modern synonyms for beginning to grapple with this reality:
Interestingly, only revitalization connotes a meaning both personal and corporate. The others are more about rearranging how we relate to one another in community. And church is about welcoming the stranger and running after the lost. It’s about calling the wanderer to return and helping the homeless find their place. Church is a restoration banquet for the ragtag and the riff raff from life’ s highways and by-ways.
In order to accomplish such a mission, the church must be first about community and secondly, constantly reforming. It’s interesting then how much resistance these “r” words can occasion in the church.
Today, we’ll all happily sing “A Mighty Fortress” as part of our Reformed heritage, even with a little pride. Will we be quite as open next week when the Worship SLG hosts a conversation about removing the pack two pews?
The “r” words are heard to threaten that something is going to changed. And change is often heard as a synonym for loss.
But we somehow miss the promise that it is in changing that we remain faithful.
As I said, revitalization is the only one of the more familiar modern words that can speak about making your own, internal, personal changes too.
Church, reformation isn’t just about splitting the one, holy, catholic church into two western branches. Or coming up with a new, more context-appropriate governance structure. Or removing a few pews. It’s about acknowledging that we each have our own blind spots. Oh, many of them are inherited, cultural challenges we share or bear together as a community. But even those… their reversal, it happens one by one as individuals are cured.
Beloved, this Reformation Sunday, with all the sturm and drang, the storms already on the horizon, maybe it’s time we look inward and ask ourselves, “Where, God, do I need to change?”
“What corners of my life needs reorganization?”
“Where does my spirit or heart or practice need to be revitalized?”
“Where am I implicated in, or even responsible for my own illness?”
“Where have I been resisting Jesus’ call to get up and be restored that I might move freely to a new place?”
Reformation-minded agitators and troublemakers, once their missions have been accomplished, become heros and visionaries. What was radical, new and threatening, becomes beloved, even sacrosanct tradition.
Is there somewhere you need to trouble your own waters?
Some agitation you might cause yourself on the way to vision?
Could you become your own best troublemaker?
Ok, it’s anxiety-producing, even scary. But it’s growth. Life. And the promise of change, instead of death.
Yes, even disciples of Jesus have vision problems. Blind spots. One of you described her blindness this week as the inability to see the forest for the trees.
Yep, big pictures are sometime hard to grasp and grapple with. But, beloved, how about beginning with a single tree? Is there a trunk right before your eyes,
An obstacle in your way that you’ve denied for too long?
We all have lessons left to learn. Work to do. Arrogance — pretending that we are above correction — is the root of all our blindness. It’s Reformation Sunday: dare to identify one aspect in your life where you’ll risk change in the hope of improvement.
Prune just one tree. Because healing isn’t about what you can accomplish, but about how Grace can make you grow, if you’ll let it…