THE WAY HOME
The Rev. Helen Havlik
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 28, 2018
We know from the Gospels that Jesus trained disciples to carry on his ministry after he was gone. We also know that wasn’t easy. They know Jesus stands in the tradition of Israel’s prophets who called the people back to God, but Jesus has more in mind: a community of believers working together to share the good news of God’s love and forgiveness. Working together requires certain things of us: to live in community, to live simply and to serve humbly are just the beginning. Last week we heard Jesus say to James and John, “What is it you want me to do for you?” Even then, with all Jesus had tried to teach them, they respond, “Let us sit at your right and left hands in your glory.” Soon after, Jesus asks someone else the same question, and receives a very different response. I’m reading from Mark, Ch. 10, beginning with vs. 46. Here is God’s Holy Word.
What’s normal? That used to be an easy question. Normal’s healthy, ten fingers, ten toes, girl, boy, girl and boy meet and marry, girl keeps house, boy goes to work, kids come along with good table manners, grammar, courtesy, one agreed upon right way to do just about everything. Normal. Except. Except not all babies are created the same, not all girls are gifted in housekeeping, not everyone does everything the same way—we never really did. We just pretended everyone’s the same. And anyone who didn’t fit in the neat categories was at best ignored—or just hidden away, sometimes literally locked away, at worst, their existence kept a secret from even other family members. Often just whispered about—cousin Jim, the “family oddball,” who was… fill in the blank. Which comes first? Being pushed away because you’re different—or being different because you’re pushed away? And who’s to say what anyone is capable of being or doing given the right help, support—and love?
That was an unanswered question for most people for thousands of years, until the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law by George H.W. Bush in 1990. This truly unprecedented civil rights legislation guarantees that people living with disabilities have the chance to be included rather than excluded from the mainstream of American life. Oddly enough, given what Jesus says and does to include people, churches have been among the opponents of the ADA. Churches especially have pushed back against providing wheelchair accessible bathrooms and ramps and other items that allow people easier access to our buildings. Doing the right thing isn’t enough motivation—but often personally knowing someone who has a need sometimes has made us respond. The East Guilford Church where I served put a piece of plywood by the back door for wheelchair access, not ideal because you had to wheel across the lawn to get to it. It wasn’t just unsafe, it made anyone using it feel like they weren’t welcome in the building. But everyone agreed it was good enough until faithful member John Sergio, a double amputee, couldn’t use his pros-thetic legs anymore. A beautiful ramp was built with him in mind—and it became clear it wasn’t just John who used it. What it cost in terms of time and money has been repaid many times over in the goodwill it created in that community and the love of Jesus that it represents. What did we lose because we didn’t make it happen sooner?
The contrast between Bartimaeus and the disciples is stunning. While Bartimaeus has been begging by the roadside, the disciples, who really ought to know better by now, are picking and choosing who will have access to Jesus (they were the ones who wanted to stop the children from gathering around him), arguing over who is the greatest and asking to share power with him when he’s finally crowned king (James and John said it, but the others probably were angry because they didn’t get there first). We don’t know if Bartimaeus is blind from some tragic accident or disease. We do know that as a blind man, he would have been labeled a sinner who deserved his fate, shunned by the people around him, barred from the synagogue and possibly cut off even from his family, homeless. He lived by begging at the Jericho gate, a busy spot on the main road to Jerusalem. As Jesus and the disciples passed by that day, huge crowds of Passover pilgrims were on their way to worship in the Temple. Whether out of devotion to God or plain old guilt, they may have been generous to Bartimaeus. Still, even if he begged enough to live on, it wouldn’t have been much of a life, simply because he had no real home or place in his community.
Until that day. We don’t know how Bartimaeus heard about Jesus. Did he just listen to the talk around him on the crowded highway? Did he hear from people traveling through about a rabbi in Galilee who was different—who preached a gospel of forgiveness for sins and healed without hesitation anyone who found their way to him? Did Bartimaeus think about what he would do if this rabbi ever crossed his path? He couldn’t know for sure Jesus would even give him the time of day. And given how the disciples tried to protect Jesus from such people, would Jesus even be “allowed” to help him? But somewhere in his heart, Bartimaeus trusted that if he had the chance to ask for his sight, Jesus would give it to him.
In this meeting, the last event before Jesus enters Jerusalem for the last time, the people who should see don’t—the one who shouldn’t see does. As one scholar puts it, “The text is an invitation to come to Jesus and so to see; to see and so to follow Jesus.” (Lamar Williamson, Mark, p. 197) Obviously, such seeing isn’t a given—if our goal is only to get what we can for ourselves from our relationship with Jesus, then we’re not likely to see what he wants us to see. We’ll miss seeing the needs of those around us and the sacrifices he asks us to make on behalf of others; we’ll miss seeing the unconditional love Jesus shows us and all people from the cross. We’ll resist building the ramp. Bartimaeus “sees” who Jesus is even though he has never met him and can’t literally see him. That seeing leads him to cry out for help. That seeing leads him to leap up to ask for what he wants. That seeing leads him to throw away his begging cloak and to follow Jesus into Jerusalem and beyond, becoming a disciple. Jesus uses another word for seeing: faith. We often think of faith as merely believing a doctrine or a set of principles. When Jesus uses that word, it takes us all the way back to Adam and Eve whose sin wasn’t disobedience. Even before that, they didn’t see who God really was and so they didn’t trust God. And that lack of trust set the chain of events in motion that made them homeless.
For Bartimaeus and the disciples and us, the way home comes from trusting in the one who came into the world to restore us to community with God and with each other. The healing Bartimaeus received isn’t just about his eyesight—it means that he now has a place in society, his relationships are healed, his identity is now about his relationship with Jesus. He literally throws off the old life and starts down the road of new life as a disciple of Jesus—following him to the cross and beyond. Many scholars think that when we read a name in the gospel, it’s because that person became well known in the early church. Jesus helped everyone to see Bartimaeus as he really was—not a blind beggar tossed aside but a child of God whose worth was the same as everyone’s. Apparently Bartimaeus’ sight wasn’t the only thing restored—he left Jericho but found himself on the way home. In this and other healing stories in the Bible, the outcome is about finding where we belong—the ultimate home where when you go there, they have to let you in, just because you’re family. The famous spiritual teacher Ram Dass has said, “We’re all just walking each other home.” What do you want me to do for you? Jesus asked Bartimaeus. Let me see, he said. But he might also just as well have said, let me go home. And he did. With Jesus.