Sunday, October 29, 2006

Proper 25B

Isaiah 59:(1-4) 9-19; Psalm 13; Hebrews 5:12-6:1, 9-12; Mark 10:46-52

The folks who invented Daylight Savings must have known something about these last few Sundays in the season after Pentecost. Aren’t we all so grateful for the extra sleep, and for the light of the sun as our morning began! But we know that, although we only set our clocks back an hour, the shadows will seem to fall much earlier across this afternoon, and the afternoons ahead. The sun’s reckoning of daytime will end long before our own, before we’ve run all our errands and accomplished all the day’s tasks.

Shadows are also falling across our liturgical year. The flames of Pentecost are burning low, and there is not yet a star in the sky. In just a few weeks we will enter the season of Advent, the season of deep darkness in which we wait for the light of the world to come.

And yet….even as all this darkness is descending upon us, on the roads out there and on our journey in here, the lists of errands to run and tasks to accomplish are growing. Eight more family members will plan to join you for Thanksgiving. You have just a handful of weeks left to finish the afghan you’re crocheting for the holiday bazaar. Paperwork for end-of-the-year reports is starting to appear. The new Elmo doll your niece wants is out of stock. Have you started your Christmas cards yet? The darkness will be filled with noise and needs and demands and disappointments and crises and crowds and it will seem to be a miracle if we can be still, even for a moment, to pray – to cry out – something like this morning’s psalm, reshaped by one poet to read, “Light up our eyes with your presence, O God; let us feel your love in our bones.”

Shadows have also been falling across the gospel of Mark, from which we have been reading about Jesus’ life and love and work among us during this season after Pentecost. Today we hear he is leaving Jericho. But we will not hear about what happens next – Jesus’ triumphal yet terribly misunderstood entry into Jerusalem amidst cries of Hosanna. And though we will hear Jesus speak to his disciples about dark days ahead, we will not, in this season anyway, hear Peter say, I do not know him, or the crowds shout, crucify him. We will not hear Jesus cry out, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Mark’s gospel ends in darkness, even though the sun has already risen when the women visit the tomb, even though a dazzling stranger greets them there and tells them Jesus has been raised and wants them, with all the disciples, to meet him in Galilee. So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

If you’re waiting for more, there’s not any. That’s how Mark’s gospel ends. Alleluia? Happy Easter? Where are the happy, enthusiastic, confident disciples, fired up with their new mission and a clear, strategic vision for telling the good news, ready to win the world over for Jesus Christ? They remain in the dark – the darkness of wherever they are in hiding, the darkness of not knowing what has taken place, but most of all, the darkness of their own alarm and terror and amazement and fear that has blinded them from the very beginning.

That Mark has good news to tell, though, is evidence that the women eventually told their news to someone who listened. I wonder if it was Bartimaeus. It is rare and remarkable that Mark would give us the name of a blind beggar with a brief walk-on part – many scholars believe that Bartimaeus was a member of Mark’s community, known to them, his eyes still reflecting his own encounter with the light of the world. I wonder if Bartimaeus, wrapped in the darkness of the death of Jesus Christ, listened to the women and heard in his heart what he had heard on the road outside Jericho on a day not so long before: Jesus is near. Take heart; get up, he is calling you.

This morning’s gospel reading marks the end of journey along which Jesus has been teaching the Twelve about what it means to be called, what it means to follow on the way, what it means to be a disciple. The beginning of that journey, as we turn back the clock, was near the Sea of Galilee, where a deaf man was brought to Jesus. Ephphatha, be opened, Jesus had said, and immediately the man’s ears were opened. It is a story of healing, but also one of calling, of invitation, to all who will listen – ephphatha, be opened, be opened to my word, be opened to my vision, be opened to my way of living and loving, for it is not what your way has been.

Naturally, the first to stumble on Jesus’ way are the disciples, who see an abundance of loaves and fish as evidence of Jesus’ culinary skill, and not that Jesus, the Bread of Life, satisfies a deeper and more devastating hunger. Do you still not perceive or understand? Jesus asks them when they mention they’re a little short on dinner supplies one evening. Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?

Soon after at Bethsaida, a blind man is brought to Jesus. At first, the man’s sight is only partially restored. I can see people, he tells Jesus, but they look like trees, walking. And so Jesus lays hands on him again, and finally the man sees everything clearly. A strange story, but stranger still that it is not included in our lectionary, because it shines an uncomfortable light on Jesus’ struggle to help the disciples see everything clearly.

In the stories that follow, as we have heard for many Sundays now, the disciples are looking for a kingdom come, a future kingdom in which Jesus, having mightily defeated all who oppress God’s chosen people, takes up his rightful throne and seats the disciples in his cabinet. They are looking for a kingdom that looks like all the kingdoms they have known, in which power and authority are evidenced by strength and superiority.

Over and again, Jesus tries to illuminate the kingdom in their midst, the kingdom already here, in which power and authority are evidenced by vulnerability, by being opened, by being last of all and servant of all, by taking up the cross, by giving everything away, by being like a child, by living and loving out of gratitude for having already been saved rather than out of angling for a seat in throneroom. It is a new vision, and the disciples, but for a glimpse here or there, cannot see it.

And so we arrive at Jericho as the shadows are lengthening, and we meet Bartimaeus, an outsider, a blind beggar on the street. Remember that his disability would have been seen as the consequence of some sin, so that he was not only a burden but also a bad person in the eyes of others. His cloak was his only possession, just enough fabric to cover his bones and collect the few coins that were tossed his way. He was probably dirty and smelly. And he was apparently very loud, shouting over the already noisy crowd, Mark tells us, shouting and saying, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.

It is the last story of healing in Mark’s gospel. Light will fill Bartimaeus’ eyes just in time for him to see Jesus in the shadow of the cross, the gloom of the grave, the darkness of death. And yet Mark tells us, Bartimaeus followed him on the way, his confidence a counterpoint to the confusion, fear, and hesitation of the disciples, his purposeful steps to their stumbling. It is the response Mark hopes all his readers will make (including us) as we hear the good news and see that indeed, in Jesus the kingdom of God has come near, has come into our own places of darkness, into places filled with noises and needs and demands and disappointments and crises and crowds to light up our eyes with God’s presence, to let us feel God’s love in our bones, to share that good news so that, as when one candle gives its light to another, the light increases….

Dr. Susan Fleming McGurgan suggests, “Maybe the point of the Bartimaeus story is not his need, his begging, or his healing, but his calling. A call as powerful as the call of Simon and Andrew. A call as surprising as the call of Matthew or Mary Magdalene. A call as dramatic as the call of Paul. [We must] begin to understand that call and response lie at the heart of each and every gospel story.” Call and response lie at the heart of each and every one of our stories…. Simon and Andrew threw down their nets. Matthew left his tax booth. Mary Magdalene believed she could be loved. Paul, blinded by hate, learned a new way to see. Bartimaeus asked Jesus for a new vision. What happened when we were first called? Not one of them was perfect, and not one of us is, either – we all come with their own disabilities and doubts, sins and shortcomings, fears and failures. We all suffer from episodes of blindness – even, perhaps especially, those of us who can see.

And yet, just as the risen Lord called his disciples out from the dark hiding places of their disabilities, doubts, sins, shortcomings, fears and failures….just as he called them to meet him in Galilee, which was where, turning back the clock, he had first called them to follow him, so he continually calls each and every one of us when we stumble in shadow. Faith gives us the courage to see in the dark.

McGurgan continues, “[We must] embrace the truth that vocation is not defined by role or function. It is not defined by beauty, ability, charm, money, strength, or the possession of two working eyes. It is defined by something greater – something riskier – something far more profound – the courage to throw off what binds you and say ‘yes’ to the call.”

As the shadows lengthen, let us be opened to receive the light of the world, light that even the deepest darkness was unable to quench. Let us see the kingdom in our midst, and by our living and loving reveal it to others who cannot see.

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. Alleluia! Amen.

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