“Mercy, Faith, and Following” Colchester Federated Church, October 28, 2018, (Mark 10:46-52) Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost/Reformation Sunday

Last Sunday Joan played “Feed the Birds” from Mary Poppins as part of the prelude, knowing that I would be preaching about service.  Mary Poppins is a classic movie that won a bunch of Oscars, and there’s a movie called Saving Mr. Banks which detailed how Mary Poppins was made by Walt Disney.  The movie is based on children’s books written by P.L. Travers.  Disney’s daughters read the books and loved them, so he promised that he would make a Mary Poppins movie.  Meanwhile P.L. Travers had no interest in Disney turning her books (which were inspired by her painful childhood in Australia) into a movie.  She only agreed because she was on the verge of bankruptcy.  So Saving Mr. Banks is about the difficult creative process of making Mary Poppins.  Unfortunately P.L. Travers wasn’t even invited to the Hollywood premier because the process of making it was so awful, got a ticket anyway, wept tears of rage for Disney destroying her work, and cornered him afterwards to tell him so.

Now one of the poignant scenes of Saving Mr. Banks is when the songwriting team is playing songs they’re working on.  P.L. Travers asks the writers in disgust if they think that Mary Poppins came to the Banks family to save the children.  You see, P.L. Travers’ father was an unsuccessful bank manager and an alcoholic who died when she was only 7.  Her mother had a hard time coping and relied on her sister, Helen.  It was Helen who kept the family together and inspired her niece to write about a magical English nanny.  The point of Mary Poppins was saving Mr. Banks who realizes what’s important and runs home to his family to go fly a kite together as her own beloved (and troubled) father never did.

There are multiple ways of seeing a story.  Knowing the backstory of P.L. Travers’ life helps us understand how she used Mary Poppins to redeem her father and save him in a way that she couldn’t as a child.  Remember that time and again we hear stories about seeing and sight in our Christian tradition.  Like that famous line from “Amazing Grace”—“I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind, but now I see.”

This morning’s text from Mark Chapter 10 is about being blind and then seeing.  Though we can’t lose the metaphorical meaning for all of us by only focusing on the physical healing of one blind man named Bartimaeus.  Yes, this is the story of Blind Bartimaeus—the final story of Jesus’ miraculous healings in the Gospel of Mark before his entry into Jerusalem at the end of his life.  Though this story focuses on the blindness of the disciples and ironically Blind Bartimaeus being the one who really sees Jesus.  Jesus’ encounter with Blind Bartimaeus shows two main points: the inadequacies of the disciples and the new social order Jesus created in his ministry.

The story leaves us with a whole lot of so what questions—are there people like Blind Bartimaeus who are crying out for help who we silence in our own time?  Do we believe that following Jesus offers us wholeness and transformation?  Do we see that a life of Christian discipleship is never easy but always worth it?

The Gospel of Mark is known for Jesus’ calls to radical discipleship. These calls happen as early as Chapter 1!  Jesus proclaims, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people” calling Simon, Andrew, James, and John to abandon their boats and fishing nets and become his companions immediately.[1]  We’re so optimistic for the disciples, thinking that these twelve people will help Jesus in preaching a new message to the people of Israel and the Gentiles in surrounding lands.  Yet by the final chapters, Mark shows Jesus crucified and abandoned—with the ultimate betrayal coming from one of his own.

The story of Blind Bartimaeus shows the failure and inadequacies of the disciples.  They’ve seen the mighty works performed by Jesus throughout the Gospel and still don’t get it.  The disciples are contrasted with Bartimaeus who is literally blind, but sees Jesus as the Messiah.  The disciples are spiritually blind and continue to be blind to the transformation that Jesus is offering.

On the way out of Jericho, Bartimaeus cries out for Jesus to have mercy on him.  Yet “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.”[2]   It wouldn’t be uncharacteristic for the disciples to be among those who ordered silence.  Earlier they spoke sternly to the people who brought children to Jesus for him to bless.  The disciples may have felt sympathy.

Though ultimately it’s Bartimaeus’ faith that makes him well.  When Jesus asks, “What do you want me to do for you?” he says, “My teacher, let me see again.”[3]  Although visually impaired, Bartimaeus comes to see in every sense of the word by working with Jesus to experience wholeness.  He joins the crowds of Jesus’ followers—following him on the way.  Bartimaeus responds to this act of mercy in his life by keeping the faith and following Jesus wholeheartedly.

We can also clearly see the new community created by Jesus, a community that embodies radical hospitality.  If Jesus is called to serve others, this must be true of Jesus’ disciples in every time and in every place.  The disciples apparent shunning of Bartimaeus is disturbing in light of Jesus’ teachings concerning the new community of believers that they’ve been hearing for ten long chapters in this Gospel.  Jesus gets criticized for associating with lepers, beggars, prostitutes, cripples, tax collectors, people possessed by demons, and many who sinned in the eyes of the religious authorities.  Jesus shows his followers that God’s values are different than good “pious” people may imagine.  We would hope that by the end of his life his own disciples would get that message loud and clear, only they don’t in Mark’s Gospel.  And then the attention turns to us.

Are there people like Blind Bartimaeus who are crying out for help who we silence in our own time?  Do we really believe that following Jesus offers us wholeness and transformation?  Do we see that a life of Christian discipleship is never easy but always worth it?

It’s often easier to not see the needs of others.  There are so many issues we face in our world that can break one’s heart.  Gun violence, folks from Mexico and Central America fleeing violence, war in general, hunger, systemic racism, the opioid crisis, 13 pipe bombs being sent to various people, 11 people dying at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh as they came to worship God just yesterday—there are days when it’s hard to look at the news and not feel hopeless.  There are moments when we see modern-day examples of Blind Bartimaeus crying out for help.  And if we’re really honest, we may want to be like those who sternly ordered him to be quiet. We don’t want to hear it.  We don’t want to see it.  We want to pass through those gates and be on our way.  Jesus’ disciples certainly wanted to do that because it’s hard to experience another person’s pain and brokenness.

It’s also hard to see people for who they really are if we can’t get past the outer exterior and our own judgments.  But a life devoted to Jesus and following his Way of love can transform us and make us whole.

Now a few years ago there was a news story about an important debate that took place in a maximum security prison in New York State.  I was on my high school’s Speech and Debate Team for two years so stories about the positive impact Speech and Debate has on peoples’ lives always catches my attention.  You see, three men incarcerated for violent crimes who are part of the Bard Prison Institute debated three undergraduates from Harvard University.  The prisoners won the debate having previously defeated debate teams from West Point and the University of Vermont.  Afterwards one of the Harvard students was quoted as saying, “They caught us off guard.”[4]

The Bard Prison Institute began in 2001 to give a quality Liberal Arts education to motivated and talented prisoners.  Of the 300 alumni who’ve earned degrees while in custody, only 2% have returned to prison within three years.  Compare this to 40% of ex-offenders returning to prison in New York State as a whole.  We can’t often make accurate predictions about people if we don’t even have the ability to see them for who they truly are.  Not for what they’ve done or haven’t done, but for who they truly are.  People who are given opportunities to grow and better themselves and then turn their own lives around can certainly catch us off guard.

Stories of being blind and then maybe truly seeing (whether watching Mary Poppins or in the Bible or New York State Prisons) end up being stories about grace.  How God longs for all of us to receive God’s grace freely given because there’s nothing we can do to earn it anyway.  Grace is what helps us to be disciples—going out into the world to follow the Way of Jesus.  Discipleship is never easy, but it’s always worth it.

In the end, everyone who receives God’s grace becomes a part of Jesus’ community.  We’re a community of people in the Church who receive grace and then can extend God’s mercy to all those like Blind Bartimaeus here and now.  Because like so many other stories of healing in the Bible, this restoration of sight is about wholeness and how following Jesus on the Way will transform us even now.  This is a story about what true sight looks like and how when we see others just for an instant with the love of God in our hearts—we can’t help but extend ourselves outside our comfort zones, our walls, our familiar places.  So thanks be to God for those moments when once we were blind, but now we see!  May it be so with us.  Amen.

[1] Mark 1:17.
[2] Mark 10:48.
[3] Mark 10:51.
[4] Leslie Brody, “Prison vs. Harvard in an Unlikely Debate,” The Wall Street Journal, October 8, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/an-unlikely-debate-prison-vs-harvard-1442616928