10.29.2009

Blind Bartimaeus & Plastic Forks, Among Other Things

(Sermon preached October 25th, 2009 @ SBCC)

They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
(Mark 10:46-52)


After a while all these healing stories sort of run together, don't they? Sometimes it's a leper, sometimes it's a woman. Sometimes the person seeks out the Great Physician for himself, and sometimes friends or family ask Jesus on their behalf. Sometimes the one being healed is on the brink of death; sometimes he or she has already died. Sometimes Jesus heals by touch, and sometimes the miracles happen by the power of his words. Sometimes the recipient of his healing is told to share the good news; sometimes he is cautioned to tell no one. But one thing is always the same, it seems. There is always a crowd of onlookers, watching the saga unfold like an episode of General Hospital.

This particular healing story begins with a man who just won't shut up. There are a couple of these in the gospels - people who are convinced that Jesus is the one who can release them from their suffering, and who won't take no for an answer. So Blind Bartimaeus is hollering up a storm as Jesus and his Disciples leave Jericho. "Son of David, have mercy on me!" Now, maybe the crowd of curious seekers and disciples was just tired out from a long day of keeping up with Jesus in Jericho. But they don't have the patience for the demands of this beggar. No matter that what he begs for is mercy. They respond with jeers. They rebuke him and tell him to be quiet.

He persists.

Apparently, he is loud enough to catch the ear of Jesus, even above the din of the moving crowd and their rude rebukes. "Call him," he commands.

Well, now that Jesus is interested in this blind beggar, the crowd suddenly gives him the time of day. Bartimaeus responds to their invitation by tossing his cloak aside - likely his one and only possession - and dashing to the feet of Jesus.

What Jesus says to him throws me for a loop. "What do you want me to do for you?"

Isn't that sort of obvious, Jesus? You're looking at a man who is not only obviously blind, but whose disability has wreaked havoc on his entire life. Without the capacity to see, Bartimaeus has been unable to hold a job, raise a family, make a life. Of course he wants to see! Did you ever doubt it?

And see he does. Jesus claims that his faith has healed him. And so the man who once was blind but now can see begins his new life by following in the footsteps of the one who made it so.

It's all pretty straightforward, right? Nothing terribly out of the ordinary, except of course for the extraordinary healing.

Except, well, the more I read this, the more it seems that Bartimaeus is far from the only blind man in the story. It seems to me that in some ways he is one of the few folks in the story who is not blind - figuratively speaking, of course.

Bartimaeus, though blind, sees who Jesus is. He sees this even before Jesus grants him his heart's deepest wish, for his eyes to behold light and dark and color and movement. Meanwhile, all those folks who had left behind their families and jobs to follow Jesus... well, they still don't get it. Here they are, filled with teachings about the Kingdom of God, and they think that they are supposed to help keep the beggars in their place. They think that they are supposed to protect Jesus from the low lifes who have nothing but a cloak and a gutter to call home. This crowd is as blind as bats. They are groping around in the dark crevass between what they believe and how they behave.

You want more proof of that? Consider what happened immediately before this little episode. Jesus had just pulled his disciples aside to warn them about what was coming. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise.

And then, without missing a beat, "James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came to him. "Teacher," they said, "we want you to do for us whatever we ask.""What do you want me to do for you?" he asked. They replied, "Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory."

Did you hear that? The same question, worded exactly the same way. "What do you want me to do for you?" And such a very different answer. Blind Bartimaeus wanted nothing more to see. And James and John had designs on the best seats in heaven. You tell me, who is truly blind?

The difference is this: Bartimaeus sees well enough to know that he is blind. But the disciples and the crowd have a much more serious disability, a moral disability, a spiritual sightlessness. They have compartmentalized the gospel from their lives. They think they are being faithful, yet they turn around and humiliate a man for seeking mercy.

Compartmentalization is one of humankind's favorite tools. It allows us to trick ourselves into believing the best about ourselves. It allows us to get away with things that are against our deepest convictions, because it allows us to separate our ethics, our actions, and their consequences.

It's what allows corrupt CEOs to exploit their workers, cheat their shareholders, and amass vast personal wealth while rarely missing a Sunday church service. But I think that's too easy a shot, too far from home. So far as I know, none of us are in charge of shady corporations.

But there is a form of compartmentalization that nearly everyone is guilty of, and it's the reason our poor earth is so beleaguered and abused. As Christians, we believe that God created the world, called it good, and charged us to be good stewards of its resources. And yet, don't we all, to some extent or another, allow ourselves to be blind to the environmental consequences of our actions?

Do we really contemplate where our trash goes when the big truck comes to pick it up once a week, or are we simply relieved that it's off our hands? Sure, we pull out the recyclables... most of the time. When it's convenient.

Consider this scenario from a book I picked up at the library recently. "Let's say I go to a food court at a mall and eat a meal with a disposable plastic fork. Let's say I use the fork for five minutes before one of the tines breaks (as always seems to happen) and I throw it out. The fork goes in the garbage and is buried in the landfill. Let’s say this particular type of plastic takes five thousand years to break down... for every minute I used the fork it spends a thousand years as waste: a ratio of one to 526 million, a number so large it is hardly meaningful to human minds.
On a scale that's easier to fathom, if we compressed the fork's five thousand year existence to one year, the form would have spent only six one-hundredths of a second as an object useful to me."

Yes, the things that are most often labeled "disposable" are the very things that take the longest to break down - if they ever really do. The concern isn't only for the earth, or the countless creatures whose habitats are destroyed by our wayward refuse. The chemicals in those plastics may have a very real effect on human health as well. Yet it would be quite inconvenient to connect the dots, decompartmentalize the compartments. If we start really taking seriously the ramifications of our faith and the results of our actions, well, we might have to make some inconvenient changes.

After reading about that plastic fork, I couldn't get it off my mind. Sure, I sort of knew that's how it worked, but I had never really thought about it before. I've allowed myself just enough blindness to toss away hundreds of plastic forks in my time - though not at Third Thursday Fellowship events, of course, because we all know that those forks are washed and reserved for next time. And then it dawned on me that we don't have to go to the mall food court to find the nearest source of disposable plastic. Every single Sunday, our worship service includes Communion. And almost every single Sunday we receive the cup of salvation in disposable plastic cups. The largest landfill on earth floats in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, somewhere between California and Hawaii. And it breaks my heart to think that it is a very real possibility that more than a few communion cups are tangled into the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

It is easier and a whole lot more comfortable to compartmentalize.

Even if the crowd recognized its blindness, I'm not convinced they would want to give it up anyway. I'm not convinced they want to see the truth, because the truth would demand them to change. If they had even a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, they could no longer cling to their own comfort first. If their eyes were open to Jesus' vision of justice, in which the first become last and the last become first, they could no longer clamor for the highest honor or the best seat. Yes, if the crowd were healed of their spiritual blindness, they would be profoundly inconvenienced.

How bold are we? When Jesus asks us what we want for him to do for us, are we bold enough to ask him to pull the scales from our eyes? Are we courageous enough to ask him to help us change, or do we want to stay in our comfortable cocoons, seeing only what we want to see?

It is a bold risk, for sure, but I’ve never once met a Christian who didn’t think that the grace of God was worth more than anything they’d left behind. The cost of discipleship may be high, but the rewards are great. Thanks be to God.

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