Ask an actor what he or she says during a crowd scene in a movie or a play and you’re likely to get a whole host of answers. When I was in plays at my high school, my director always told us to say Peas and carrots, under our breath, peas and carrots, peas and carrots, over and over again. Something about the sibilance of all those s’s made our conversation seem more real, he said. But other actors choose different words, or different vegetables at least. One actor I know said that she was told to always just say potato, potato, potato. Rhubarb is apparently another popular choice for a nonsense crowd word. And one movie extra said that a director had told her to repeat the phrase strawberry pie balls. I don’t know what those are, exactly, but they sound delicious, and I find myself wondering how anyone who’s ever played in a crowd scene ever escapes being completely ravenous when the scene is over.
But real crowds, we know, don’t sound anything like that. Real crowds don’t sound so much like a low, constant murmur as they do random snatches of discussions that get pulled out of the air and knit together into one strange quilt of conversation. You can hear that man on his cell phone, that woman talking to her girlfriend, that gaggle of teenagers all talking at the same time. You can usually pick phrases out of a crowd, but rarely can you weave them together into a story that makes any kind of sense.
I would imagine that this was what Bartimaeus heard as he sat at his normal post outside the city walls of Jericho. Because if that ancient crowd was anything like the crowds we know, not everyone along that road was talking about the same thing. Bartimaeus wasn’t hearing a wash of just Jesus, Jesus, Jesus coming towards him, but bits and pieces of sentences, fragments of conversations about absolutely everything under the sun. That man was lamenting the state of the roads and why the Romans always seemed to be resetting pavestones just when he trying to get his cart to work. That woman was talking about the leading candidate for prefect and how he gets his hair to do that thing on the top of his head. This woman was complaining about the head coach of the local gladiators, suggesting that maybe he really shouldn’t be working with professionals. This man wondering where his son has run off to; that woman wondering if her daughter will ever have a child; that man ruing his lack of good footwear; this woman moaning about the heat. Words upon words, words that faded in and out, snapshots of discussions that continued on long after they passed by Bartimaeus’s well-tuned and attentive ears.
But in the midst of all of this hubbub, Bartimaeus started to hear something else, something that stuck out of the normal noise. He leaned forward and listened up, concentrated hard enough that he started to notice a pattern, a rhythm to the random phrases he heard popping out of the air. Jesus…Jesus, yes him…from Nazareth…heard that he said it’s harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle…but there were twelve baskets left over, twelve…the boy was foaming at the mouth, and then I thought he was dead, but he stood up and…put that child right there in his lap…he healed a blind man…healed a blind man…healed a blind man….
And suddenly, Bartimaeus wasn’t hearing fragments and broken pieces of conversation; suddenly he was hearing a story. He heard in that crowd the ancient story of the One Who Was Coming, the Messiah, the Son of David, anointed to heal hearts and nations, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to make the lame leap and the dumb sing. He heard in all of that hullabaloo a word for him, that the One Who Was Coming was here. And he heard it when Christ showed up, he knew it the moment Jesus was there. He recognized his presence, heard him pass close, and opened his mouth and yelled. He bellowed for all he was worth and would not stop until that Holy One himself stopped and listened. Which, of course, the Holy One did. It’s really no wonder Bartimaeus followed behind Jesus after his sight was restored. He had finally met the one who helped him to see – and not just to see, but to see how all of those little pieces fit together into one, great, improbable, magnificent story, a story for the world, a story for him. And those were words Bartimaeus wanted to hear for the rest of his life.
There is hubbub in our world. There is hullabaloo and crowd noise and clamor. There is debate and posturing, speeches and excuses and rationalizations. There is so much information out there that it sometimes feels like it makes about as much sense as a crowd of extras saying rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb as if it means something. And then there is noise of our own lives. There are conversations about jobs and futures, about calling and vocation. There are conversations about health and safety, about cure and comfort. There are conversations about how you’re raising the kids, and how you’re being a kid. There are conversations about how you’re caring for your parents, and how you’re caring for yourselves. There are conversations about time and effort and money. There are conversations you want to have, and some that you don’t, conversations on the phone, face to face, screen to screen, mouth to microphone. There are so many conversations with so many words that sometimes it feels like it’s hard to weave them together into something meaningful, into a story that says something to the world and to you.
And so we get out of the noise and come here to this place to worship and to find our place in the crowd of people all called God’s beloved. And we take time to pray, to be silent and discover what God might have to say to us. But Bartimaeus shows us another way to do this, to find the story, to find Christ. And that is by listening up, by leaning in and actually listening to all of that hullabaloo. Because God does not only speak to us in places set apart and worship made holy. God does not only speak to us in stillness and silence. God also speaks to us in the midst of all of those other words. God speaks to us when things are noisy, when conversations are difficult or fractured or incomplete. God speaks to us with the “still, small voice of calm”* when we are otherwise surrounded by things that sound a lot like rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb.
God speaks to us – we just have to be willing to pay attention, to notice when something piques our interest, catches our ear. We have to be willing to notice the news story that grabs our attention and won’t let go, the comment made by a friend that lingers long into the evening, that image haunts our dreams. We have to be willing to lean in to that little tug of the gut that says, listen here, pay attention here, this is for you. Christ is here for you, right here, leaning in to hear you, holding a holy stillness right in the middle of your life. Christ is right here, eager to hear what you want – healing, strength, comfort, bravery; a voice, a call, a home; justice, mercy, forgiveness; hands to work, a heart to love, eyes to see.
And this attention, this listening, is faith. It’s faith to believe that God might have a voice great enough to cut through the noise. It’s faith to believe that Christ is present, and that Christ has something to say to you, to all of these people called God’s own beloved, even those people in the crowd you find difficult to love. It’s faith to believe that even though you feel like you’ve been stuck sitting in the same place listening to the same noise for a long, long time, you still might hear Christ calling you to get up and run.
It’s faith to keep listening in a world with so much noise and to trust that you will hear a word spoken for you, to hope that you will pick up a thread of grace that God can knit together into a story of such redemption and love that it will fill your heart with indescribable joy. It’s faith to keep listening – and that faith makes us well. So lean in and listen up. And get up; take heart; Jesus is calling you.
*from John Greenleaf Whittier
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
25 October 2015
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia