Saturday, February 14, 2009

"Let us all see again."

Reflection for Morning Prayer, Rite 2, Diaconal Formation Class, February 14, 2009

Mark 10: 46-52 (NRSV) 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. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 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.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 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.” Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

“I am never going back to that church again.” My stunned wife and I looked across the table at our ten year old who had just burst into tears. He was not, and five years later, still is not the kind of kid who would normally make that kind of ultimatum. We could not argue with him. He had tried his best to fit in. My wife and I had repeatedly tried to educate the people in charge of the church class he was in. You see, when he was five, he was diagnosed with Tourette’s Syndrome. It’s a neurological disability that causes him to have vocal and motor tics. No, he does not have coprolalia, which causes people to scream and uncontrollably shout profanity. Even though it is the symptom most commonly associated T.S. thanks to the media, it is actually a rare symptom. My son Andy’s symptoms involve movement tics and clearing his throat over and over again. I am very proud of my son. Since he was small, he never hesitates to try and educate people who feel compelled to stop and stare. He is an extraordinarily brave young man. I probably would have wilted at that age under just half the scrutiny he gets on a regular basis. However, no matter what he did or how much we tried to educate them, the people in charge of his class made it clear that they did not appreciate his behavior and disciplined him for what they viewed as intrusive, disruptive misbehavior. They would set him aside in the corner and isolate him from the others. We later learned that they even allowed a discussion to take place in class about whether or not his condition was one of those “demon possessions” that Jesus healed. No, my little boy was not demon possessed, but I certainly was for a while after learning of that incident. My wife and I did the only Christian thing we could do. We listened to our son and we never went back.

I dredge up that very painful story to say this. Our reading from Mark this morning is a fine story. I am sure it has profound layers of meaning about the theology of healing and Christology based on how Bartimaeus used the term “Son of David” and so on. However, as I personally reflected on it, all that my experience with disabled people would let me hear was that same old crowd saying, “Shut up Bartimaeus!” “Shhhh, stay back there and be quiet. We’ve got important Jesus things going on up here in the front row. You will interrupt our God games.”

I have seen Bartimaeus all my life. Not only do I have a son with a disability, but I also grew up in a single parent home and was raised by a father on dialysis and in a wheelchair. I have had front row seats to witness that same exclusion from Jesus because “we don’t have handicapped seating—our bathrooms are downstairs and we are grand -fathered in.” God forbid, the very last place you would want to make room for everyone would be a church. “We can’t fit you into our agenda right now. We’ve got important things to do like paint that steeple with our building funds. It’s vitally essential, you see. So, shush with all that racket, just go on about your business. You are a square peg in a round hole, an intrusion into our otherwise comfortable front row seats.”

Blind Bartimaeus and all the others like him, lepers, the lame and the deaf, begged outside the temple gate where they were excluded. They sat by the pool of Bethesda or lived in shanties by the side of the road. They sat in the shadows and like my dad and my son, they felt the sting of religious words that blamed them for their predicament---cursed by God. One of the very few times I can ever recall my very devout dad crying was after a fellow Christian told him that he could be well if he only had enough faith. That misguided person made him feel like was suffering needlessly for his own spiritual failure of "not believing enough."

On one level, the crowd was right. Bartimaeus was indeed an interruption. The narrative in this Gospel has Jesus on the way, quickly moving from place to place right on up to the climax of the story. In fact, the next thing in this Gospel is the highly anticipated triumphal entry into Jerusalem. The sacred cadences of Holy Week are playing when it all come to a screeching halt. One dissonant voice calls out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The music stops. (Silence) “Hey, who said that?” “How dare anyone interrupt this parade? Jesus has an important schedule to keep, you know.” It was a rather rude and inconvenient interruption after all.

The interesting thing is that the Gospel story of Jesus is one long series of inconveniently placed interruptions. Bartimaeus interrupts Jesus. A centurion intrudes upon him on his way into Capernaum. Jairus interrupts Jesus and a woman with a hemorrhage intrudes upon Jesus on his way to Jairus' daughter. A very emotional woman bursts in and interrupts his dinner in the home of Simon. They are all interruptions. Yet, when we pay attention to the those stories we begin to realize that those incidents were not interruptions of his ministry, but rather the interruptions were his ministry. I believe the spirit may be whispering through these stories to say “ The work of God is quite often found in the context of that which is the most inconvenient.”
I work at the homeless shelter. I am there to serve the homeless. Sometimes I get so busy with programs, making sure the food is properly prepared and the washing machine is working and all that goes into running a homeless shelter that when a homeless person actually shows up at the front desk to see me, I catch myself wanting to say, “Ahhhhh, now is not a good time. Tell him to come back next Tuesday. I am too busy serving the homeless.” It’s easy to instantly spot what’s wrong with that picture.

Bartimaeus is physically blind as this story begins, but I cannot help but wonder if the text is telling us that the crowds were the ones who really were blind. They could not see what was really impotant. On one hand we have a blind beggar and on the other hand we have Jesus coming down the street---the very Jesus who has a pretty good track record of healing the blind. Bartimaeus has to call out and persevere over the crowds trying to shush him. My question is why wasn’t blind Bartimaeus, of all people, placed up at the front to start with? Probably for the same reasons that I get so busy serving the homeless that I cannot make room for a homeless person in my schedule or that we get so busy carrying out our church agendas that we cannot accommodate someone whose very presence is an inconvenient interruption.That is the most tragic kind of blindness: the eyes of our hearts are dimmed and we are closed off from seeing what is really important.

When Jesus stops and actually notices Bartimaeus, he does more than heal his sight. He opens our eyes and teaches us how to see.

What would it take for us to be willing to make room for those who are an interruption into our otherwise sanitized Jesus parades? What can be done to welcome a homeless person who smells from not having a shower in days? What about someone who speaks another language or is from a different culture than our own? Heck, what about a kid with Tourette’s Syndrome? It is inconvenient. It is an interruption, and that is precisely where God is most often knocking at our door. The role of a deacon may very well be to say to the crowd, “Psssst, the blind guy is really what Jesus is all about. Why don’t you make way through the crowd so we can get him a front row seat at this parade.”

I will say this: we ended up at our little Episcopal parish out in the cornfields, not because they have the most polished liturgy or the most spectacular facility. We ended up there because they welcomed a kid who sometimes makes some funny noises and sometimes twitches. They said, “Oh big deal. Come on in. You are all welcome at this table.”

Jesus said to Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” I think the appropriate diaconal response would be, “My teacher, let us all really see again.”