Sunday, October 28, 2012

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sermon preached at the Church of All Saints, New Eltham
on Sunday, 28th October 2012

‘Let hearts rejoice who search for the Lord.
Seek the Lord and his strength,
seek always the face of the Lord.’ (Ps.105:3-4)
Those words come from the Introit for today’s Eucharist and remind me of a popular chorus:
Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus,
To reach out and touch Him,
And say that we love Him.

They reflect the story of blind Bartimaeus we heard in the gospel reading, the beggar who regained his sight as he cried to the Lord: ‘have mercy on me!’

The recovery of sight is one of the signs of the coming of the Messiah and heralding of a new age that Isaiah had prophesied.  In all there are five accounts of such healings in the gospels.  The synoptics (that is Matthew, Mark and Luke) all record a similar story of the healing of a blind man near Jericho.  John recounts the healing of a man at the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem and Mark records a third, earlier healing at Beit Saida close to the Sea of Galilee (8:22).  When you come to think of it, that’s not many, given that Jesus is regarded as the promised Messiah.

There are, of course, many churches these days that put a huge emphasis on miraculous external  healings, but it would appear that the gospel writers didn’t have quite the same interest.  So let’s look a little more deeply at this story and see if might say more than simply Jesus is a miraculous healer.

Firstly it’s important to note that this is the last miraculous healing recorded by Mark and occurs immediately before his final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  For the past few weeks we have been travelling with Jesus and his disciples as they moved south from the Galilee region towards the Holy City. 

We’ve heard a lot about the confusion of the disciples and their inability to grasp just what Jesus was about, despite all the teaching that Mark writes of during this period.  The earlier chapters of his gospel are full of miraculous healings culminating in that curing of the blind man at Beit Saida.  The account is immediately followed by Peter’s great declaration of faith at Caesarea Philippi: ‘You are the Messiah.’ (8:29)  From that point onwards things go downhill to the point when, as last Sunday’s gospel recorded, Jesus asks James and John what they want from him and they get into a squabble about places of honour in the Kingdom of God.  It’s clear that the disciples simply couldn’t understand – couldn’t see – what being Messiah, God’s anointed One, meant to Jesus.  Perhaps they should have gone to Specsavers…  And it will take a blind beggar to remind them.

The disciples might see Jesus on a daily basis but it was this blind man who really saw Jesus and identifies him in that great, constantly repeated cry, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’  Now that title, Son of David, might not strike us as very important but it is one of the titles of the Messiah and is the first time since Peter’s declaration that Mark shows someone acknowledging that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ.  So more than simply the account of a miraculous healing, this story concerns being able to see who Jesus is.  And that is a question for all of us: who is Jesus for me?

As we look more deeply into the story I want us to focus into that pivotal exchange between Jesus and Bartimaeus:  ‘What do you want me to do for you? … My teacher, let me see again’ and Jesus’ interesting response ‘Go, you faith has made you well’ (10:51)  At one level it would appear fairly simple.  Someone who is blind wants to see and is granted their desire because of their faith.  But there is a problem; Bartimaeus has not, actually, expressed faith, he has simply made a heart-felt request, much as we might say to a doctor, ‘for goodness sake, do something!’ 

What is of real interest is that question of Jesus, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’  Again it might seem an obvious question, but there’s something about it that speaks at a deeper level.  If Jesus said that to me that question, how would I respond? 

We need to recall that Mark only records that question on one other occasion when, immediately before this encounter, he addresses it to those leading disciples, James and John.  And they had asked for places in glory.  But the blind man asks the Messiah for sight. 

Now this request can be read in two ways: as one for physical healing or as one for what we might call ‘insight’.  The early Church Fathers speak a lot about inner, spiritual sight: the ability to see beneath the outer form into inner realities.  This aspect of sight is associated with something within us called the ‘eye of the soul’ found in the heart, the centre of our being.  It is here that we encounter God, in the depth of our being.  That oft neglected place which Jesus declared the source of blessing:  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Now, whilst Mark doesn't record the Beatitudes, we have here the account of a blind man given sight and are shown that this gift comes when the heart is purified of all that prevents such seeing.  The blind man’s cry, ‘have mercy on me’ should remind us of the way we are invited to cry Kyrie elision – Lord have mercy during the confession.  It connects with that cry of the psalmist: 
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not from your presence
And take not your holy Spirit from me. (51:11,12)

Without that ‘clean heart’ our souls become clouded and we no longer see the world through God’s eyes. We only have to consider the stories that constantly bombard us in the News that show how people react when their hearts no longer see clearly.  The unfolding story of Jimmy Savile is just one example of what happened when people don’t pay attention to what is going on.  Or the horrors inflicted on patients with learning difficulties caused when their nurses no longer saw them as people but as objects to be used at whim.  Unfortunately such stories are legion and, whilst we might distance ourselves from them, how often are we blind to the world around us?

As we come, week by week, to this celebration of the Eucharist we need to recall that question Jesus asked, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’  Like the disciples, we may want something for ourselves.  But we need to remember that when the eye of our heart only wants to fulfil self-centred desires, it becomes clouded, unable to see and is in danger of being corrupted.  Rather, as we come to the Eucharist:
‘Let hearts rejoice who search for the Lord.
Seek the Lord and his strength,
seek always the face of the Lord.’ (Ps.105:3-4)

When Jesus asked James and John what they wanted Him to do for them their first thought was – what can I get out of this?  That didn’t stop them being disciples; they continued to follow Jesus.  But it took a blind man to ask for that most important gift – sight. 

As we come to the Eucharist, what do we see?  A celebration in which we receive bread and wine that helps us on our way?  Or do we see, present beneath those outward signs, Jesus?  Is the eye of our heart fixed on Him?  Do we want to our soul to be awakened and walk more closely with Him? 

When Jesus opened the eyes of the blind man at Beit Saida He told him to go home: today, Jesus allows a man with new sight to follow Him to Jerusalem – to his death and resurrection.  Let us keep calling to Jesus to have mercy on us and open the eye of our soul so that, in the words of the great bishop, St. Richard of Chichester, we might see Him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow Him more nearly, day by day.


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