Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, October 25, 2009.
Of all the Gospels, the one that suffers the most from being chopped up into little pieces for reading on Sunday mornings is the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the shortest of the Gospels and the fastest paced. It’s also masterfully constructed with themes that rise and fall and layers of meaning that emerge if you’re paying attention.
The Gospel of Mark is kind of like the TV show Lost. You can pick a random episode and watch it and even enjoy it … but there will be huge pieces that will just go right on past you unless you’ve been watching the whole series. But if you have, you just sit there saying, “Wow … that’s amazing.”
So really, the best thing to do is to read the whole Gospel of Mark at one sitting. And I really encourage you to do that. But since we can’t do that this morning, let’s just review a little bit and remind ourselves what’s been going on before we get to this morning.
Six weeks ago on Celebration Sunday we heard the story of Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. You remember that story, Jesus asks “Who do you say that I am.” And Peter says, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.” It’s this incredible moment of revelation – Jesus, who has been doing all these amazing things, is revealed as who he is – and we and the disciples are all feeling great because we had it figured out already. Peter and all of us got the answer right. Yes, he’s the Messiah.
But then like in any great story, there’s an immediate twist. While the disciples are planning the coronation scene in Jerusalem, Jesus says, “but here’s what you need to understand about being the Christ.” “I have to suffer and be killed and after three days rise again.” And Peter immediately refuses to hear this. And he even gets in Jesus’ face. He says, “No, Jesus, you didn’t hear me … you’re the Christ.” And Jesus shoots right back at him, “No Peter, YOU didn’t hear ME … that’s what being the Christ means.”
Now for the past 6 weeks, we’ve had this same thing happen again and again. As Jesus gets closer and closer to Jerusalem, three times he reminds his disciples what him being the Christ really means – not triumph but suffering and death. And every time the disciples absolutely refuse to get it.
Finally, last Sunday the contrast between the vividness of the description of what was to happen to Jesus and the depth of the disciples’ lack of understanding reached its peak. Jesus, for the third time and in graphic detail, tells the disciples “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem; and the Son of Man will be delivered to the chief priests and scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him and spit upon him, and scourge him and kill him; and after three days he will rise.” This is not a drill. This is real. And this is happening at the end of this road. And immediately after he says this, James and John, completely missing the point say “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” and ask him for positions of power for themselves.
It’s like asking the flight attendant if she has any more peanuts when she’s just told you to get into crash positions.
And so we arrive at this morning’s Gospel. Jesus is leaving Jericho, the last major stop on his way to Jerusalem. And his heart must be heavy not just because of what he is facing but because these friends who have been with him through so much still don’t understand what is happening. They are his friends and his disciples in one sense, but in another very real sense, Jesus has no friends. Jesus has no disciples because how can you truly be with someone when you refuse to listen to them? How can you follow when you refuse see where it is you are being led. And in that context, the story we hear this morning is nothing short of astounding.
Because onto the scene comes a nobody, a blind beggar, appropriately named Bartimaeus, which means “son of the worthy one.” And he begins to cry out to Jesus as he passes by. And as much as the disciples could not grasp who Jesus was and what he was about, somehow this blind beggar does. And our first clue is what he cries out,
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
First, look at what he is calling Jesus – Son of David. It’s a messianic title. Bartimaeus immediately recognizes Jesus as the Messiah. But then look at his posture. Unlike the disciples who see Jesus’ power and wonder how they can get it for themselves, Bartimaeus does just the opposite. Have mercy on me. He is acknowledging that in the face of the power of Christ he is powerless. The posture before Christ is not to have your hand out but to have your head bowed
And the disciples, in this great irony, are so blind themselves that their immediate reaction is to tell Bartimaeus – who is finally responding appropriately to Jesus – to be quiet. But Bartimaeus will not be silent and he cries out even louder. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stops. And here’s where it really gets interesting. Because in writing this story, Mark begins to use language that is unlike any he uses anywhere else in the Gospel. He starts using the language and imagery of baptism.
Jesus tells the disciples to call Bartimaeus, and the disciples do so by saying “Take heart; rise.” This is liturgical language. In Greek, tharsei, take heart or be comforted, was funeral language common to tombstones. And the word for “rise” is literally translated “be resurrected.” The invitation to come to Jesus is an invitation to death and resurrection.
And what does Bartimaeus do? He doesn’t just get up and walk over to Jesus … he casts off his mantle – he strips himself naked – the posture not only of baptism but of utter vulnerability – and naked and completely vulnerable he stands before Jesus.
Bartimaeus is presenting himself for baptism. He knows what the other disciples do not. He knows that baptism into Christ is about death first, and then resurrection. He knows the only posture for encountering Christ is stripping yourself of everything and standing before him in complete vulnerability. And Jesus, looking at him, asks him the same question he asked James and John last week: “What do you want me to do for you?”
And while James and John answered that question with a request for power … in the height of irony, Bartimaeus, this one who can see Jesus better than any one of the disciples ever has says, “Master, let me receive my sight.”
And even this request has more layers to it. There is the irony of the blind man being the only one who truly sees Jesus. But beyond that, Bartimaeus’ yearning is more than just for eyes that work. Being blind relegated him to the margins of the community. He was a discarded person and barely considered a person at all. Jesus had already begun to heal that breach by taking him from the margins, from the side of the road where the disciples were telling him to be quiet and calling him into the center of the gathered community. But the job wasn’t done yet. “Master, let me receive my sight” is more than just about seeing, it is a cry of “let me be whole.”
And in fact that’s the better Greek translation of how Jesus responds, “Go your way; your faith has made you whole.” And immediately Bartimaeus receives his sight. And then the most amazing thing of all happens. Mark tells us he “followed him on the way.” On the way to Jerusalem.
Of all the people Jesus has touched and healed throughout Mark’s Gospel, NONE of them followed him … until Bartimaeus. Others go home, go running off, go back to their families … Bartimaeus is the only one who knowingly follows Jesus on the road to the cross. In fact, you can say that in the whole Gospel of Mark, Bartimaeus is the only one who, with eyes wide open, truly follows Christ.
Something incredible happens when we hold this story of Bartimaeus up with the stories of the disciples leading up to it … and then hold both up to our own lives. A truth emerges. We can make all of our lives and particularly our lives as a Christian community so complicated. We can work so very hard at being wise as serpents that we forget to be innocent as doves. In our lives at home and at work, at school and at church, out in the world and in the silence of our room staring up at the ceiling as we try to go to sleep at night. Like James and John, we can make great plans and we can dream of power. We can shmooze the right people and use all the good business sense and pull all the right levers. We can buy all the insurance in the world to protect us from harm and strive somehow for that perfect balance where all the plates are spinning and all the balls are in the air in perfect synergy and symmetry. And we can do wonderful things … and at the end of it all, like James and John we will have entirely missed the point.
Or we can be like Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus, who teaches us that our baptism into Christ really is about dying to an old life, so that we can receive a new one. And it’s no wonder the other disciples didn’t want to hear that because on first blush it is absolutely terrifying because it is about giving up control of our lives and begging Jesus to come and change us. It means the depth of our faith is not measured by something we are used to, something we can control from a position of strength – like “how much have you accomplished” but by our ability to strip ourselves bare, stand before Christ and in those wonderful words of Richard of Chichester say “Take me as I am. Help me want nothing more than to see you more clearly, follow you more nearly, love you more dearly.” It means starting each day looking at that cross and saying, “Jesus, of all the things on my to-do list, of all the worries and anxieties, of all the things that crowd my mind and weigh on my heart, all I have to do today is love you and let you love the world through me.” And at the end of the day falling back into those arms knowing that no matter how that day went, it’s OK because the one thing that matters most in all the cosmos is the one thing that can never be taken away and that’s God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.
It sounds so easy … but of course it’s anything but. Just look how hard it was for the disciples to even consider it! And yet it is the life to which Jesus calls us in our baptism. A life laid at the foot of the cross. And I am convinced that the only way we can hope to live that life is together. And that living that life is the first and best and really only real reason for us being together.
And so in these uncertain times as we move forward into this uncertain future together, we need to remember Bartimaeus. To remember that it’s not only OK to admit we are powerless and to cry out to Christ for help but that’s what we’re supposed to do. To remember that opening ourselves up, stripping ourselves bare and being vulnerable to one another in this Body of Christ is the heart of the discipleship we share. To continually and lovingly challenge and support one another not to be more perfect or to produce more but to love Christ more deeply and to open ourselves up more and more to let Christ love the world through us.
You see we’re all just like Bartimaeus. We are all blind. Blinded by desire. Blinded by greed. Blinded by pain. Blinded by our own sense of power. But when we come together as Christ’s body we also see. We catch a glimpse of ourselves as God sees us – infinitely loved and infinitely free. And if we can hold that vision even for a second maybe we’ll even have the presence of mind and heart to cry out “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” And then hear that marvelous invitation to die so we might live: “Take heart. Rise.” And together, vulnerable yet whole, loved and free, follow him on the way to Jerusalem.