A sermon planned to be preached by the Rev. Joanna Leiserson at Christ Episcopal Church in Dayton, Ohio on Saturday-Sunday, October 27-28, 2018.
Job 42:1-6, 10-16; Psalm 34:1-22; Hebrews 7:23-28; Mark 10:46-52
I buried one of my cats recently. Poor Stuart. I picked him up a few years ago from a foster home because he looked and acted so sweet. But he had a lot of issues. He was an obese, bulimic cat with stressed-induced asthma who threw up every other day and wouldn’t use the litter box half the time. Every time we talked about him, we would say, “Poor Stuart.”
But I don’t think that Stuart thought of himself as “poor Stuart.” You would think that any creature with the medical problems he had would be a nasty sort—I think about the old story about the man who got scolded at work, then he came home and yelled at his wife, who yelled at her child, who turned around and kicked the dog—or cat, in this case.
But this cat didn’t kick back. Despite the kick that genetics and nature had dealt to Stuart, he was a beautiful cat. He was gentle and sweet. We labeled him “poor Stuart,” but that wasn’t the real Stuart. The real Stuart should have been called “sweet Stuart.”
Which bring me to Blind Bartimaeus. Poor Bartimaeus. It may not be fair to compare cats and humans, though Mark Twain did once, when he said, “If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.” But I think of Stuart when I hear the story of the one we call Blind Bartimaeus.
The funny thing is, though we know of him for all time as Blind Bart, it seems that he was not always blind. He asks Jesus, “My teacher, let me see again.” So it looks like he once had his eyesight. Somehow during his life—and it may have been only last year, who knows?—he lost his sight and been reduced to being a beggar because he couldn’t make a living all by himself. His own community deserted him the moment he got disabled.
At this moment of encounter with Jesus, he is blind. And when Jesus restores his sight, he is unblind. But still we label him as Blind Bartimaeus, as if that’s all he was, is, and ever will be (world without end. Amen.). But in fact, that’s not the real Bartimaeus. The real Bartimaeus has a real name, and has been exiled to the streets because he happens to be blind. When Jesus heals him, he not only restores his eyesight. He restores him to his community. That was the importance of Jesus’ healing ministry, to restore those who are ill to their community from which they were exiled because of their illness, whether that illness be leprosy, blindness, lameness, or demons.
Today’s readings, and Israel’s history, are all about restoration, restoring to wholeness, restoring to community. Job’s fortune is restored to him, A people are restored to Israel, eyesight is restored to a blind man, and community is restored to that same man, who is an outcast. God restores what they had before. God restores what was taken away from them, by accident or illness, or by deliberate intent through force, conquest, or social norms. When God restores, people can become their true selves rather than their poor selves or their blind selves. What God knows, and what we are still trying to learn, is that true humanity is lived in community. People are meant to live in community, in communion with one another. That’s why ostracism, or exile, is such a devastating punishment—to be denied that community. A community that makes a practice of putting people like Blind Bart into exile because of his blindness rather than caring for them is a broken community. And a community that exiles whole peoples is a broken community.
Jesus came to us to restore us—to restore our community, and to restore us to God. To welcome all the Blind Barts and welcome them back into the family of God living in harmony with one another—with one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
We don’t usually think of the Blind Barts much—the outsiders, the people who are marginalized, and the ones with labels. So I wonder, who are the Blind Barts among us now? Where are the places of exile to which we send them? How do we label them in order to keep them forever in their place? Blind Bart? Poor Stuart? Homeless Harry? Ex-sex offender Sam? How do these labels that we assign to people still shape us? For it is in our labeling that we can put Bart out in the streets by diminishing his condition. Homeless equals worthless. Unemployed equals lazy. Appallingly today, people have even put their revulsion into action. The shootings of African Americans in the Kentucky Kroger, the mail bombs sent to political opponents, and horrifyingly, the massacre of worshippers in the synagogue in Pittsburg, all show us what our labels can do to people.
By these labels we place whole peoples into an exile of poverty and hopelessness, or put them in danger of their life. Whether or not Bart became blind by accident or birth, he became exiled not by God, but by us his community and by the norms that excluded him and counted him as worthless. We may exile, but God always restores. God restores us to our real selves, the true community in which all people are valued and respected. The true community in which all people, blind or not, rich or poor, white or Native American or African American or Muslim or purple, are brought together in peace and respect and in wholeness and healing.
And then I think of the one holy Church, God’s beloved community. I really believe that the Church has existed for so long because it is centered, not on our individual selves, but on community. The community of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—gave us a model of a relationship of persons who are different and yet one. And we are rooted in a holy and life-giving community, exemplified by our baptism as one Body—Christ’s Body the Church. Community, not individualism, is our calling card.