Seeing is Believing
It's good to deal with one of the healing miracles of Jesus this morning. This is a text about someone who was lost and found, blind and wanted to see. Bartimaeus was a man who wanted to be reformed and renewed again so that he could see the world and everyone in it with new eyes and a changed heart.
Let's visualize the scene. We are on the outskirts of Jericho, 15 miles from Jerusalem, where Jesus is going to celebrate the Passover. He is surrounded by a crowd of pilgrims to whom he is talking as he walks, a common way of teaching for rabbis in those days. A crowd lines the road to cheer the passing pilgrims and Jesus as they walk by. It's a kind of mob scene-lots of excitement, lots of energy and exchange, with Jesus clearly at the heart of the event.
Suddenly, from the roadside comes a shout from a beggar sitting at the side of the road. "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!"
They try to hush him up. One translation of this text reports that they yelled at him, "Shut up!" But Bartimaeus is not easily cowed. Once more, he cries out again, with raw emotion, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Now if there is one thing teachers, rabbis, and ministers all have in common, it's that they all hate to be interrupted while they are talking. And Jesus was an absolutely inspired talker. He could have become irritated or put off. Jesus could have ignored these pleas from the beggar; he didn't know Bartimaeus from Adam. He could have asked someone to sshhh him up or drag him off the street-out of sight, out of mind. Invisible.
Instead, the Gospel says, Jesus stopped. He stopped for the blind beggar shouting to him from the edges. He called to Bartimaeus, who jumped up and threw off his mantle, the faster to respond to whatever Jesus had in mind for him.
"What do you want me to do for you?" asked Jesus.
A rhetorical question? Perhaps. But maybe the beggar did want to hustle some change, ask a question, or just receive some attention from a traveling rabbi.
Bartimaeus said simply what he wanted and what he believed Jesus could do: "Teacher, let me receive my sight."
And Jesus said to him, "Go your way; your faith has made you well."
And immediately, he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.
Now that is the last miracle recorded in the Gospel of Mark, the last story with a happy ending in this Gospel.
This past week I read an article about the first people in the world who, blind from birth, underwent successful cataract surgery. You can imagine the wonder with which they saw for the first time-the world. A sunset, a rose, an evergreen or birch tree-can you imagine seeing their beauty for the first time? Seeing color and shape and size. The article reports that one young woman was so stunned by all she saw that she closed her eyes again-for two weeks! When she opened them again, all she could say was, "O God, how beautiful!"
But everything was not so great as expected. The world turned out to be bigger and more complex than anyone knew. Unable to judge distances, the newly sighted people reached for things and overshot their reach and cracked their shins on furniture, which they saw only as objects without density or dimension. And seeing themselves for the first time in the mirror was a huge surprise, and even a terrible shock to some people.
The father of one of the young women wrote that his daughter had taken to shutting her eyes as she walked around the house; she felt safer that way. And a 15-year-old boy asked to be returned to the school for the blind. "I can't stand it any more," he said, "there is simply too much to absorb. It's driving me mad."
If receiving our sight is so problematic on a physical level, think for a moment how much more complicated it becomes when we begin to talk about it on a spiritual level. How many of us would share Bartimaeus' desire for sight if by sight we meant spiritual vision-seeing ourselves through the eyes of Jesus, seeing our world, our lives, our loves, our homes through the eyes of one with such incredible sight?
Like some of the cataract patients, we may prefer to stay in the dark. At least it's familiar; we know how to navigate, and we don't have to look at ourselves-warts and all. We often prefer to look only at what is within our reach and part of our view. We like to stay with what we know rather than venture forth into new life, new sight, new visions.
What would it mean if we received our sight?
Even when I was a child, kaleidoscopes intrigued me-all those colors and darting shapes whirling around in a tiny private world; beauty, illusion, and truth all swirling together. I thought it was a miracle!
And I will never forget the first time I went snorkeling, off the coast of Mexico. I saw a world I never knew existed, a world of gorgeous colors and graceful creatures, twirling seaweed and endless blue water. So shocked and thrilled was I, I had to come up for air!
I'm reminded of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem-"The world is full of the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil."
What does it mean for us to receive our spiritual sight?
"Vision," according to the English writer Jonathan Swift, "is the art of seeing things invisible."
All in the world is not beautiful, awesome, or joy-filled. If we saw humanity through the eyes of Jesus, we would see profound sorrow and great joy. We would see, too, that joy and sorrow have the same root. And it is because they have the same root that it is impossible to make happiness the chief end of life. The purpose of the human life is not to gain happiness for oneself; but perhaps it is, as Bartimaeus stated, "to receive sight."
Will Campbell, a wise, earthy Baptist preacher, tells a story about his own awakening vision as a follower of Jesus. When he was a teenager growing up in rural Mississippi, he witnessed a lynching. A black man was caught stealing at the mayor's house. The upstanding white citizens in the community reacted with gleeful rage. They tied the man to the back of a car and dragged him along a gravel road through the center of town, shouting hate and throwing rocks. Finally, they dumped him at the cemetery, leaving his broken body to fester in the blistering sun. Campbell remembers going down to the cemetery with his friends to make jokes and watch the man as he lay dying.
It wasn't until years later that Campbell remembered that incident as an adult and understood the cruelty and injustice of what he had done. He saw with new eyes the brutality and the horror of that day when he watched a man die at the hands of racial bigotry and hatred.
"We do not simply receive wisdom," the writer Marcel Proust suggests. "We discover it for ourselves after a journey through the wilderness, which no one can make for us."
If we are to risk receiving new sight, we have got to be prepared to let go of prejudice and fears that have narrowed our living and made our lives predictable and safe.
Gaining our spiritual sight-what would it look like? Our spiritual vision has to do with our values and with our personal blueprint for what is most important for our own life and the life of the world.
If we looked at our congregation this morning and sought within us a new spiritual vision, what would we look for? I think we could see CCB not only as an object of our love in community, but as an incredible instrument of God's love-a place to witness, within our walls and beyond, to peace, joy, sorrow, love, and justice.
Bartimaeus jumped up and stood before Jesus. He was ready to be healed and ready to receive his sight. How did you come to church this morning? And if Jesus were to stand in front of you asking that incredible question, "What do you want me to do for you?" Would you consider starting at the same place Blind Bartimaeus did-"Teacher, let me receive my sight"?
It's hard to live a sighted life. Most of us find it easier to stay in the dark. It feels safer, and in many ways it seems like less work. It's far more difficult to develop a vision and cling to it. It's hard to feel the pain of the world, to embrace what others fear, to walk down roads that others shun, to seek justice in a culture whose predominant value is individual greed. But spiritual sight is about making the invisible real in your own life and the lives of those around you.
Martin Luther had vision. He gave his life to work for spiritual freedom in the lives of believers.
Bartimaeus sought physical sight, but it was symbolic of a deeper hunger for spiritual sight. His faith made him well, which means that he was healed rather than simply cured.
Jesus had spiritual sight. He looked upon the world with compassion, hope, and love. If our hearts were as his, we would be as vulnerable to the cries of the world as he; and we would respond with open hearts and wide-open eyes.
What do you want me to do for you?
Teacher, let me receive my sight. Amen.