Rev. Rebecca Messman
October 24, 2021
46 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. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 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.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 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.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.
Let us pray. Lord, startle us again with your truth so that we might not only see you but see ourselves and each other as you see us. And in my words, may your people hear your word. Amen.
An interesting thing happens to a child in a robe at the front of a church. They begin to feel … like the Holy Spirit, I guess. And I don’t mean peaceful and serene. Oh no. I mean they believe because people don’t really react to them that they must be invisible. And they can move in powerful, uncontrollable ways.
That’s how it was for me anyway, sitting in the regal pew at the front of the chancel at First Presbyterian Church Danville, my parents socked away in the pews and the choir loft. One Sunday, I had earned an entire box of Andes candies during Sunday School for saying all the beatitudes. And at some point during the sermon, stricken with hunger, I took the box out of my acolyte robe and began to eat the candy. Now, even though she was about 12 feet away on the other side of the chancel, the other acolyte, my friend Kelly must have seen the gleam of the green wrappers. Since she probably felt invisible and powerful too, naturally she motioned for me to throw her one. Throwing candy in a robe is harder than it looks, it turns out. On the third try, likely around when the Pastor was landing his third point in the sermon, I landed a mint right onto her lap.
As I think back on it, I would hazard a guess that my parents along with half the choir and the Sunday School teacher saw the whole ordeal. An elegant older woman named Lib Cuttle, who lived up to her last name, hurried over to us after the service, and said “I saw you tossing those candies… And I want to say,” I blanched, “when God gives you something good, share it like you mean it!” Then, she put her hand out and I slapped a mint into her soft hand.
As I recall, not a single person threatened to expel us from the acolyte gild, if there was such a thing. The result was a budding sense in me that I was accepted there. That I could be seen as I truly was and still bear the light of Christ. That there is a wild delicious love out there and it was worth throwing your whole life at. And, well, here I am. Still at the front of a church, still taking risks for candy and Jesus, still amazed by the generosity of God.
Today, I think of Blind Bartimaeus, sitting on his cloak, shouting out to Jesus from his normal spot on the Jericho road. I imagine he felt invisible but in a more desperate way. He was part of the landscape that many people chose to ignore, hoping the stoplight turns green. His name wasn’t even about him. It means son of Timaeus. What’s interesting there is that, depending on what translation one uses, his name could either mean Son of the Unclean or Son of Esteem. Maybe like all of us, he was a little of both.
Bartimaeus could not see and probably believed no one saw him, and yet he becomes one of the most significant people in the New Testament. The Bartimaeus story is short, just six verses, but in many ways, this story is a hinge on which swings the whole Gospel of Mark. The first half of Mark is set in Galilee. There, Jesus teaches in parables and tangles with the authorities. Jesus heals a bunch of people, like the woman who grabs his cloak. And yet most people remain blind to who Jesus is. Blinded by wealth, the rich young ruler goes away sad. Blinded by their ambitions, the disciples jockey for status around Jesus. Blinded by tradition, professional holy people take great offense at Jesus. And then, in the second half of Mark, right after this story, Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly with cloaks thrown before him. Even as his identity is uncloaked, Jesus is mocked, draped with a purple cloak as he faces the cross for all of us. And in the heart of the book of Mark, Bartimaeus sits on his cloak and makes the first public declaration that Jesus is the Messiah: “Son of David! Have mercy on me!” Even before his vision is restored, the blind man sees clearly. The invisible one, the last in line, he is the one who sees and follows first. That is a core Gospel message.
Another thing moves me deeply about this story. Bartimaeus had just one thing, one possession in the world, his cloak. That was it. That was all he had to shield himself from the sun and rain, from the dust and disgust of others. His cloak was his source of income, like a street guitarist leaving his case open to collect loose change. It was a security blanket and then some. And after so many years of being ignored, all of a sudden, he heard these lovely words from a formerly irritated crowd, “Take heart. Get up. He is calling you.” And that was enough. That and a wild hope hanging on this guy Jesus. That was what caused him to throw off his cloak and leap forward.
Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” I love that Jesus didn’t assume a particular answer. There is such dignity in that. And Bartimaeus responded, “Teacher, let me see again.” I love that Bartimaeus knew the answer. It takes spiritual maturity to know what you really want. So many people don’t. And it takes vulnerability to actually speak the words. That requires you to open yourself to hope. Bartimaeus threw off his cloak in hope, and it seemed like, at least according to Jesus, the healing was done at that point. “Go. Your faith has made you well.” And with his feet already on the move and his cloak in the rearview mirror, his vision came back and he joined Jesus on the way.
Today, here we are, the pandemic still draped over the globe like a cloak, making it darn near impossible for us to see much of anything down the road and harder for us to see each other. Some of you might have felt invisible during this stretch. Unwitnessed during one of the best or worst times of your life that would have ordinarily been deeply shared. There is ample data that shows that a basic human need is connection, to see and be seen, by other human beings. So, to feel unnoticed at work or invisible at school or ignored in your family, that is often a greater ache than conflict or illness. Sometimes people who feel unseen create conflict or become ill when what they desperately want is connection. And when the church faces so much uncertainty, hardly able to see Advent, much less the five year plan, and when the church feels invisible in the social landscape, it is hard indeed. So, maybe we understand Bartimaeus on the road better than we thought.
And we all have our cloaks, I suspect, those things to which we cling so that we are not exposed, so that people know how to treat us, so that we can manage all that we can’t see. We all have our cloaks. Maybe it’s wealth and influence enough to shield us from as many risks as possible. Maybe it’s credentials and personality and beauty enough to keep us from loneliness. For me, I love a good routine. I love to know what I am doing. I eat the same thing for breakfast and lunch. I love to throw on my cloak, head out into the world, and assure myself that the future will be more or less the same. There is nothing inherently bad about a cloak. And with the popularity of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, Halloween coming, they seem to be popular. Thanks to Zoom, you can wear a cloak over your work-out clothes and all seems normal.
However, the cloak can get heavy, can’t it? When we end a day feeling like all we did was amass or organize stuff. When we feel like our vision has grown dim and it’s been a long time since we felt childlike delight before God. When our routines and pandemic fears cover us like listless weather, the cloak can get heavy. The cloaks we keep around us can trip us up and make it very cumbersome to follow Jesus with the fresh vision of Bartimaeus. That is when our souls cry out from the roadside of our lives.
And when that happens, you can be sure Jesus will take notice. You can be sure people around you or friends you trust will start to say, “Take heart… Get up… he is calling you.” You can be sure Jesus will ask at some point, “What do you want?” And maybe you surprise yourself with the answer. Maybe you hear an answer from your own lips that you didn’t expect.
Maybe you leap up off that cloak and find yourself in a new ministry, like a church whose signature Bible quote is “Behold, I am doing a new thing.” That is how it is going for me. Apparently I am not alone. The Fall of 2021 saw the largest number of Americans starting new jobs in decades. It’s time to throw off the cloaks of how we have always done it and know that God meets us there with a new thing.
Maybe you throw off the cloak, committed to giving in ways that feel new and exuberant. When we give, we get to feel like kids again, marveling at what God has dropped into our laps, unwrapping the gleam of purpose, and tasting the sweetness of generosity that comes back to us when we pitch it to others. Do you know what the medical term is for inability to see what is close to you? Presbyopia. It means old eyes.
So, if that is you, you are invited to throw off the cloak and see your life and your church and the world in a new way. Maybe you call that neighbor who has been a real challenge for you politically. Maybe you put your phone away for an entire day so that your eyes awaken to your neighborhood. Maybe you read a poem or join the choir or spent an afternoon with a 3 year old as a way to bring color back to your vision. Maybe throwing off the cloak means noticing where the film of despair or the fog of anxiety or the scales of grief have clouded your vision and you let yourself be seen just as you are. Throw off the cloak. See your lift as a gift that has been dropped in your life and then share it like you mean it.
I learned recently that Lib Cuttle entered the church triumphant at age 101. She threw off the cloak of this mortal life and now walks with her God. She never had biological children but she mentored at-risk children and taught Sunday School for 80 years and she made people like me feel seen. My life is evidence that she changed the way the world looked through her bold discipleship.
I’ll end with a poem by Langston Hughes, a poet in the lineage of Bartimaeus.
I look at the world
From awakening eyes in a black face—
And this is what I see:
This fenced-off narrow space
Assigned to me.
I look then at the silly walls
Through dark eyes in a dark face—
And this is what I know:
That all these walls oppression builds
Will have to go!
I look at my own body
With eyes no longer blind—
And I see that my own hands can make
The world that’s in my mind.
Then let us hurry, comrades,
The road to find.