Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty, Senior Pastor
Hammond Street Congregational Church, UCC
October 28, 2018
Our lesson for the morning from Mark 10 is about a man who struggled all his life. Bartimaeus was a beggar and blind–a “no count” in first century Middle Eastern society. Some years ago, I remember speaking with Lori Spencer about her work with blind students. Lori said they are always ostracized in school and typically hang out with the special ed kids. They are never with the popular students. You know how it goes.
Interestingly and significantly, when our scripture opens, Blind Bartimaeus is on the outskirts of the city of Jericho. It is just where we would expect to find him, right? A marginalized man on the margins of the city. In the time of Jesus and Bartimaeus, Jericho has become “a dangerous, even violent, place” (Megan McKenna, On Your Mark: Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross). The city is alive with bandits and radicals who are fighting against the Roman Empire.
So added to the fact that Jericho is “a significant and turbulent city” (Katherine Matthews huey, “take heart”), it is also home to Blind Bartimaeus–a sad figure who has been shut out by society. For the centuries following this encounter, this beggar in scripture has been known by the adjective that describes him–“blind.”
As our lesson opens, Jesus is walking on the main road on his way to the temple in Jerusalem for Passover, about fifteen miles from Jericho. The custom of the day was when a rabbi or learned man walked along, a crowd of people would always gather to hear what the man of God or scholar had to say.
We know that Jewish law demanded that every male Jew over twelve years of age who lived within fifteen miles of Jerusalem visit the temple for Passover. And so the tradition was for the people who were unable to go to line the streets of the towns and villages where the Passover pilgrims passed by. They would wish them well on their spiritual journeys.
Incredibly, there were over 20,000 priests and as many Levites who served at the temple, and a number of them lived in Jericho. And while they normally would not all have been needed at one time and served in 26 rotations, all the priests were needed to serve during the Passover. So undoubtedly there was “a multitude,” as mark speaks of it, as the priests and Levites and pilgrims all made their way to the temple.
Certainly Jesus’ reputation had preceded him, and there would have been much interest at seeing this rebel with a cause. Blind Bartimaeus, who was sitting at the Northern Gate, would have heard about this healer from Galilee. Mark tells us that he asks what is happening and is told that Jesus is passing by, and so he immediately cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
It has been observed that the disciples don’t seem to mind that Bartimaeus has been pushed to the edge of the crowd (Cynthia Jarvis, Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 4). As we have been working our way through the Gospel of Mark this fall, you will remember that a repeated theme is the cluelessness of the disciples. Jesus is facing the brutal, tragic end of his life, and all the disciples can seem to think and talk about is what kind of privilege, what kind of glory is coming to them. So the great irony in this passage is, of course, that the disciples are spiritually blind. They clearly need help in seeing the truth before them. Spiritually, then, these followers of Jesus are vision-impaired. One commentator has said that for being blind Bartimaeus manages to see quite a lot! (Huey)
To return to the text, when Bartimaeus has his outburst, the crowd orders him to be quiet. What better illustration can we have than a blind beggar in the First Century always stands before a closed door– has zero status in any community? There is also no word of protest from the disciples. And so Mark tells us that Bartimaeus calls to Jesus even more loudly. It is at this moment when Jesus stops walking and asks the folks around him to call Bartimaeus, which they do by saying, “Take heart, rise, he is calling you.”
This is a wonderful moment. Amazingly, the beggar has caught the attention of this wonder working rabbi. Mark’s Gospel says: “And throwing off his mantle he sprang up and came to Jesus. And Jesus said to him, ‘what do you want me to do for you?’ and the blind man said to him, ‘master, let me receive my sight.” One theologian observes that in this moment, “It is the physically, literally blind who lead the figuratively and spiritually blind” (André Resner, Jr., the Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).
William Barclay says that the conditions are being set for a miracle, because there is first the sheer determination of Bartimaeus. “Nothing would stop his clamor to come face to face with Jesus.” It was borne of “a desperate desire.”
Second, the response of Bartimaeus, says Barclay in his Scottish way, “Was immediate and eager, so eager that he cast off his hindering cloak to run to Jesus the more quickly.” The blind man knew that it was necessary for him to seize the moment, because it might never come again.
Third, Bartimaeus knew exactly what he wanted. He wanted to be able to see. William Barclay says that “When we go to the dentist we do not ask…to extract any tooth, but the one that is diseased. It should be so with us and Jesus….when we go to Jesus, if we are as desperately definite as Bartimaeus, things will happen” (William Barclay, The Gospel of Mark).
This miracle of healing concludes with Jesus saying to Bartimaeus, “‘go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way.”
Some of you will remember that in 2003, I preached on the Stover stained glass window–here to my left. The Stover window panels and the Pfaff window panels on my right were the last of our sanctuary windows to be dedicated in June of 1960. The Stover window was donated by Inez Boyd, one of the great saints of Hammond Street Church, back when she was married to Frederick Stover.
When it came time to select a subject for the window, Inez met with the representatives of the Connick Studio in Boston and said she felt led to select “the miracle of healing the blind.” Fred Stover had a good friend who was blind, and Fred was a supporter of philanthropies for sightless persons. I have always thought of this window as portraying Bartimaeus, because it shows the dramatic healing of a blind man.
Bartimaeus spent a lifetime trying to see why he was here. And then he received a miraculous healing. William Barclay says Blind Bartimaeus was “a man of gratitude”: “Having received his sight he followed Jesus. He did not selfishly go on his way when his need was met. He began with need, went on to gratitude, and finished with loyalty–and that is a perfect summary of the stages of discipleship” (Barclay). Need, gratitude, loyalty.
I close with a story that speaks to all three of these stages:
A little girl stood near a small church from which she had been turned away because it was “too crowded.”
“I can’t go to Sunday school,” she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by.
Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and, taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday School class. The child was so happy that they found room for her, and she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship Jesus.
Some two years later, this child lay dead in one of the poor tenement buildings. Her parents called for the kindhearted pastor who had befriended their daughter to handle the final arrangements.
As her little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled red purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some sort of trash dump. Inside was found 57 cents and a note, scribbled in childish handwriting which read: “This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday school.”
For two years she had saved this offering of love.
When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying the note and the cracked pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion. He challenged his deacons to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building.
But the story does not end there.
A newspaper learned of the story and published it. It was read by a wealthy realtor who offered them a parcel of land worth many thousands.
When told that the church could not pay so much, he offered to sell it to the little church for 57 cents.
Church members made large donations. Checks came from far and wide. Within five years the little girl’s gift had increased to $250,000.00—a huge sum for that time (near the turn of the Twentieth century). Her unselfish love had paid large dividends.
When you are in the city of Philadelphia, look up Temple Baptist Church, with a seating capacity of 3,300. And be sure to visit Temple University, where thousands of students are educated.
Have a look, too, at the Good Samaritan Hospital and at a Sunday School building which houses hundreds of beautiful children, built so that no child in the area will ever need to be left outside during Sunday school time.
In one of the rooms of the building may be seen the sweet face of the little girl whose 57 cents so sacrificially made such remarkable history. Alongside it is a portrait of her kind pastor, Dr. Russell H. Conwell, author of the book, “Acres of Diamonds.”
Our Hammond Street staff, our members and friends, our mission, and our church building stand as testaments to need, gratitude and loyalty. This is our story. The prophecy of Isaiah reminds us of a young girl’s love for God: “And a little child shall lead them.” Her witness calls to mind the example of Blind Bartimaeus centuries before. Together these people on the margins remind us of a wise man’s words: “It’s only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye” (Antoine de Saint Exupery).
Copyright 2018 by the Rev. Dr. Mark Allen Doty