My mother-in-law has macular degeneration; perhaps someone you know does, too. Macular degeneration is a condition of gradual loss of sight; first the images are wavy or blurry, then eventually small dark spots appear in the center of your vision - like looking at a film where the middle of the film has burnt out, but you can still see around the periphery.
Even after she had to give up driving, for several years Mom could still read if the print was large enough, and the light was bright enough to give good contrast, but that time has now passed. Buttons on the phone, the microwave, and the TV remote are all hard to see, so she relies on her memory and touch; at this point she can still watch baseball – and that’s a very good thing.
Macular degeneration is treatable, but not curable; eventually my mother-in-law will lose her sight completely.
Bartimeus in today’s Gospel passage is man who lost his sight, and with it, the ability to work, and so he has been reduced to begging at the side of the road, just to sustain himself; there was no Social Security disability coverage in the first century AD. This is a brief scene, coming just before Jesus and the disciples head into Jerusalem for what will be Palm Sunday, the entry into that swirling nexus of religious, political, governmental, and military cross-currents of power.
A large crowd has gathered as Jesus and his followers are passing through Jericho– a large town seventeen miles to the west of the capitol. Bartimeus hears the noise and wants to know what all the ruckus is about. He’s told that Jesus of Nazareth is passing by, and he begins to shout for Jesus’ attention: “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
The people standing near Bartimeus try to shush him; it must have been annoying and distracting as they were trying to listen to whatever Jesus was saying – and maybe they were embarrassed and didn’t want other people thinking that they were the ones making a scene in public, and besides, this blind beggar was a nobody. I think that’s a pretty universal impulse, to not want to make a scene, be embarrassed, to think you should know your place, not get out of line.
But Bartimeus would not be deterred; he sensed that Jesus would be able to help him. Calling him “Son of David” was a way of referring to him as the Messiah, in King’ David’s line and tradition; one who was so blessed and anointed by God should surely be able to do something for him.
And he does catch Jesus’ attention, and so he asks Bartimeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” That’s a very important detail. Jesus is saying to this beggar, this “nobody”: “Tell me what you want, what’s important to you, what’s going on with you.” Jesus doesn’t just assume – even if he really does know; he listens to the man, affirms his dignity as a person with a story, a heart, a mind, intelligence, agency.
There are several things going on in this passage simultaneously; it can be read on at least three different levels. It is a story about healing; Jesus restoring the sight of a blind man. It’s also a story about how this blind beggar by the side of the road, this nobody outside the bounds of his community, had more spiritual vision and insight than most of the other people around him, and as soon has his physical sight was restored he was able to follow Jesus as a disciple – straight to Jerusalem,
no further questions asked, no looking back. And this passage is also about us, about the ways that we have lost our spiritual sight or vision, and may be malingering by the side of the road in our emotional and spiritual lives.
How does this happen? How might we lose our spiritual vision, our true connectedness to God, to ourselves, or to those who are dear to us? Every person here probably has a story about that, at some time or other; maybe it is in the past, maybe it’s where you are right now. It might have happened suddenly - as the result of tragedy or illness; losing your spiritual connection, your sight, might have happened slowly; each of our stories will be unique.
But something that we all have in common is the pace of life we live today – the pressures of schedules, drive for achievement (for yourself or your children), the relentless busy-ness we all face; and when we let that get the better of us, we can so easily lose our spiritual sight, let go of our end of the rope, God’s hand; and we either shrink back into ourselves or we spin out of control and find ourselves saying and doing things we later regret.
And we forget about those basic practices that keep us connected to God – prayer, worshipping with others as a community, being grateful, participating in the Sacraments, reading the Bible, offering ourselves in service to others; these foundational practices that work to keep our connection to God clear. When we drift away from these God can often seem far away, and we understand the Bible less, and we can’t really hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. It’s as though we’ve lost our spiritual muscle tone – like a patient who has lain in bed or been sedentary in a chair for too long – and we can’t fully appropriate the gifts God has given us or be the best person God has created us to be.
We need to have a regular practice and pattern of prayer, Scripture, community, and service to be the best person that God created us to be, and to do that we need to find ways to let go of some of the crazy-making pressures that assault us each day. Doing that together, as a community supporting one another, is what we do here at All Saints’; it’s part of our role in each other’s lives.
Jesus asked Bartimeus: “What do you want me to do for you?”
Bartimeus answered him: “My teacher, let me see again.”
What do you want the Lord to do for you? I hope and pray that your answer is “Let me have spiritual vision and connection, that I may enjoy, and love, and serve you all my days.”
Let us pray.
Be thou my vision, O lord of my heart
All else be nought to me, save that Thou art –
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, they presence my light.
Amen. ~ Hymn 487, Irish text
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 25, 2015