This is a week that has been filled with meetings—with downtown leaders, with the Outreach Committee, the Creating More Just Community group, the taskforce working on issues around the redevelopment of our block, with ecumenical colleagues across the state, with grieving family members, families preparing for baptisms, and couples about to be married. I was so busy that I barely had a chance to take in the excitement of Grace’s participation in the downtown trick-or-treating on Wednesday, when thousands were welcomed to Grace and heard the spooky playing of our own Mark Brampton Smith. I did get to see the photos and videos that Pat posted to our facebook page and show all of the fun and excitement that was taking place.
Accompanying all of that, all week, has been the sound of the bells, as the technicians completed their work in time for this afternoon’s evensong and bells rededication. Many of us are looking ahead to events here at Grace, making plans for the coming months, talking about new opportunities for ministry and mission, or opportunities for deepening relationships among members in the congregation. The excitement is palpable all over Grace and in the soundwaves above and beyond Grace.
This week has also been a week of hatred and violence, with bombs sent in the mail, the killings of African-Americans in Kentucky, and then yesterday the shocking murders of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Whatever excitement and joy we may feel here at Grace as we gather this morning to celebrate a baptism and as we celebrate our newly refurbished bells is tempered by the grief, sadness, and anger we feel at the deep divisions in our nation, at the violence and hatred that surrounds us and threatens so many.
In all of this excitement and energy, it’s easy to overlook the power of a simple and apparently straightforward gospel story like the story of the healing of Blind Bartimaeus that we just heard. Jesus encounters a blind man who asks him for help. He restores his sight and goes on his way. It’s like so many other healing stories, in Mark and in the other gospels.
But wait! Let’s pause a moment and look it at it a bit more closely because this is Mark, and nothing is quite ever what it seems. In a simple story like this, Mark has packed layers upon layers of meaning. Let’s start with its location, both textually and geographically. First of all textually. It comes at the very end of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem. Jericho is 16 miles from Jerusalem, and this is the last thing that Mark mentions before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.
Secondly, this healing story takes places at the end of a long section in which Jesus talks extensively about his imminent crucifixion and resurrection, and what it means to follow him. This long section begins with another healing story, also of a blind man. In that earlier story, the healing took place in two stages. First, Jesus smeared saliva on his hands and placed them on the man’s eyes. The man could see but only indistinctly. So Jesus put his hands on the man again, and this time he was healed completely. It’s worth pointing out that in our story, Jesus spoke and the man was healed.
There’s one more connection I would like to point out. When the blind man encounters Jesus, he cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Remember the last two stories we read, stories that immediately precede this one. The rich man approached Jesus and said, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Later, James and John had a of Jesus, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The young man said; “What must I do; James and John, “Give us something; Bartimaeus cried out, “Help me.”
The young man, though Jesus loved him, turned away, for he had many possessions. James and John, though they had followed Jesus from Galilee, didn’t understand who Jesus was or what it truly meant to be his disciple. Bartimaeus cried out for Jesus, but was silenced, until Jesus himself took notice and told them to call Bartimaeus to him. When he heard that Jesus called for him, he sprang up, leaving his cloak behind and went to him. Unlike the young rich man, Bartimaeus left his possessions behind to follow him. And unlike every other person who was healed in Mark’s gospel, Bartimaeus continued following him; he didn’t go back home to his loved ones.
Like so many other stories in this section of Mark’s gospel, this is a story at least partly about discipleship, about following Jesus. We have seen failed disciples, who saw everything Jesus did, heard everything he said, and didn’t understand. We see would-be disciples who turn away, even though Jesus loved them, because the cost of following him was too high. We also see Bartimaeus, who, though he couldn’t see, recognized Jesus for who he was, “Son of David,” and asked only of Jesus, “Have mercy on me!” “Help me.” It was he who left everything behind and followed Jesus.
I find so much power in this story, power that translates to our own lives and our own struggles. We cannot see; we are blind. Perhaps like the twelve or like the young man, we are blind to Jesus, blind to Jesus’ love. Perhaps we have no idea what to say or do; so caught up in our own struggles, our uncertainty, despair, or sin. But if we can cry out, “Jesus, have mercy on me; Jesus, help me” recognizing that our own efforts will come to nothing, that our hearts are empty until we receive Jesus’ love and mercy, perhaps if we ask him for help, we may find the joy that allows us to spring up and follow him; perhaps we will find the help and healing we need. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on us!