You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
I wonder how long he’d been sitting there. Had he been there all day, in the dust and the warm spring sun? I wonder if this was the spot he always sat in, his spot, the smooth stone of the city wall worn away into a comfortable curve by the leaning of his back, the smells and sounds of the city gate familiar and homey. I wonder how he found his way there. Did a friend or a neighbor lead him there at daybreak? Or did he find his way there himself in the dewy early-morning, the path made familiar by day after day of sleepy, heavy-eyed travel – walk slowly to the smell of Miriam’s freshly baking bread, turn right when you hear Hiram’s donkey braying in his stable, watch the step up near the bubbling waters at the mikvah, and finally slide yourself into your spot along the road, your place of begging business, your tiny crease in the busy world.
I wonder if, when he sat alone by the roadside, he spent time trying to remember what the world looked like. He hadn’t always been blind, you see. He had once seen the soaring starkness of skinny palm trees, the vastness of a solid blue sky, the infinite smallness of the first star on a dark, cloudless night. He had once marveled at the sights of the world and all that was in it – at the way his honorable father’s eyes had twinkled when teasing his mother, at the tiny wrinkles in the knuckles of his baby sister, of the brightness of a smile and the curve of a shoulder and the flash of sunlit hair. But all that had been years ago, and even though sometimes he was sure that his dreams had been full of color, when he woke he couldn’t quite remember green, or the rich ruby glow of wine, or the shade of his own golden-brown skin.
I wonder what they sounded like on that day. Surely he heard them coming – first the scattershot of voices carried by the wind, then the buzz and hum of a band of country pilgrims headed on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem for Passover. Did he sit up right away, arranging his face into just the right combination of kindness and need, draping his empty cloak over his lap to catch the coins tossed from generous hands? Or did he wait a moment, knowing that he would hear the difference in sound when the crowd rounded the bend in the road and could see him, taking those few extra seconds to linger in the cool curve of the stone behind him?
I wonder when he noticed the sound change, when he heard the buzz and hum grow into a roar. When did he realize that this was more than just a few families of pilgrims, that it was an enormous crowd – men and women and children, with accents from all over the land, their bodies buzzing with an excitement that made his own heart beat faster in his chest. I wonder how he knew that it was Jesus of Nazareth who was passing by. Did he hear snippets of conversation from the crowd, murmurings of dead children raised and live children embraced and bread broken and multiplied and shared? Did he catch the disciples still arguing over who was the favorite? Or did he just feel it when the Lord walked by – a stillness in the air that made his breath catch in his throat, a warmth like the sun on his upturned face?
I wonder what made him cry out. Where did that courage come from in the heart of this man who had always played by society’s rules, begged by the roadside like a good beggar should, lived in corners and darkness like a good blind man should? What did his voice sound like when he shouted down the road, his face turned to the place where that warmth had been? Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Did he even hear the crowds telling him to shut up, or was all he could hear his own desperate rasp of a cry and the pounding of his own heart? Again and again, Son of David, have mercy on me, have mercy on me, stop, stop and come back.
I wonder what it sounded like when the crowd shuffled and slowed and stopped. What did it feel like to have hundreds of people hushed and quiet, their attention focused on him as he waited, his ears straining to hear anything, his face turned, his body leaning into the place where that presence had passed by, waiting, longing. And then, a whisper coming down the lane, he is calling you, take heart, take courage, get up, you blind man, get up and go.
I wonder what it felt like to move, to feel the scratch of his woolen cloak as it slid off his knees, to hear the thump and jingle of coins as they fell to the ground, unheeded and unnecessary. What did it feel like to move out onto the road, to hurry down the path, sensing the still, expectant bodies all around, drawn along only by that presence, that warmth, that something out there. I wonder if it felt good – stretching out his legs, stretching out his arms, searching for this new thing, fearless in the face of his faith in this Jesus, standing directly in the Son, feeling this calm, warm, holy presence right before him.
I wonder what he thought when Jesus asked him what he wanted. Was it a thousand separate images of father and mother and family and bread and sky? Or was it just one word: green? I want green again. I want to see again, rabbi, and then the sound of those words – go, go on, your faith has made you well, and suddenly a flood of colors, the road and the trees and the sky in a tumble of greens and blues and dusty brown feet and bright white smiles. And the man standing before him with dark eyes as rich as wine. I wonder what it felt like to watch that man smile, turn his face towards Jerusalem and move along down the road, to feel the crowds begin to move along with him. I wonder what it felt like to choose: to look back at his place of sitting and to then turn away – to leave his cloak and his coins and his comfy cool curve of stone and to move along, to follow this man wherever he was going, whenever he might get there, however his life might be forever and forever changed.
I wonder where we find ourselves in this story. I wonder if today this Gospel is inviting us to draw near to Bartimaeus, to find ourselves at his side, to recognize something of ourselves in the man who has spent his life sitting in one place. After all, we find our way to this place by the same old sounds and smells – wake up and walk straight until you smell the incense, turn right when you hear the rustle of choir robes, slide yourself into the comfort of your pew. We lean back into the curve of this familiar worship, of our familiar prayer practices and scripture study and stewardship and service, day after day. And that sitting still, that sameness, that little crease of faith in a hectic and busy world can feel stable and steady and reassuring. But I wonder if this Gospel is inviting us into more, encouraging us, too, to take heart, get up, and move along. I wonder if this Gospel is reminding us that discipleship is not really about sitting still.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t fully embrace the familiarity of this worship, of our prayer and study and stewardship and service. How in the world could I stand in the pulpit at Saint Mark’s Church and say that? No, these familiar practices are critical to the life of discipleship. But just because our practices are the same every day doesn’t mean that our faith should be the same every day as well. In fact, these practices of discipleship are important not because they help us to sit still, but because they help us to move – to notice Christ’s presence, to summon the courage to call out for his mercy, to hear his voice calling us to something new. And he is always calling us to something new. Why would we ever imagine that God would call us only once? Why would we ever imagine that God’s process of transformation would simply stop? God wants more for us – more of us – than that. Our discipleship is a journey; it is “the way” not “the destination.” It is a path, a process, not a place where one hangs a plaque and says, Here I will sit from now until eternity. We are called by Christ again, and again, to come close to him, to learn to see the world anew, and to move along.
I wonder what it would feel like to move – to leap up from where we are now in our faith, in our discipleship, in our stewardship, and to move along the road. Perhaps you already feel like you’re already there, that, like Bartimaeus, you’re being transformed daily, that you’re moving along each and every moment because it just feels too good to stop. But for those times when you feel like you haven’t moved in a long time, when you feel like your faith has been sitting steady but perhaps a bit stale, remember – God is making all things new. God is present, here, on this road, loving you and longing to transform you – your call, your eyes, your faith, your whole life, this whole world. So lean in. Listen for that whisper down the lane, “Get up! Take heart! He is calling you.” I wonder what it would feel like to hear that voice this morning and to spring up and to move.
Note: I am much indebted to Jerome Berryman and the Godly Play curriculum for the language of this sermon. The "wondering" comes from him!
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
28 October 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia