Sermon: I Want to See
Texts: Job 42:5; Jeremiah 31:7-9; Mark 10:46-52
Date: November 4, 2018
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Here’s a story that puts a biblical figure, the prophet Elijah, into a fairy tale. Once there was a poor, blind, old man who was married to his beloved. The couple had wished for children but had none. The man had a hard life, but he never complained. One day Elijah came to him as he was sitting by the river, and he said, “Even though your life has been hard, you never complained, and so God will grant you one wish. The poor man smiled. “What a wish! What a wish! I’m blind, I’m poor, and I’m childless. How will one wish satisfy all my problems? But give me twenty-four hours and I’ll come back with a wish.”
So he went home and told his beloved wife what had happened. She smiled at him and said, “Eat well and sleep soundly, for I know what you should wish.” The two of them enjoyed their soup and bread and slept well, dreaming beautiful dreams.
The man went back the next day and found Elijah. Here’s what he said: “I wish to be able to see my children eat off gold plates.” Elijah laughed heartily and granted his wish. The man and his wife—and the children they eventually welcomed–lived happily for the rest of their days.
Too bad Bartimaeus didn’t have a clever woman to coach him before he answered Jesus’ query, “What do you want me to do for you?” He had a simple answer: “My Teacher, let me see again.” There was more to his desire than functional eyes, though. The restoration of his sight would be a restoration to society that had sidelined and marginalized him because of his disability. It would be a restoration of potential to be something besides a beggar crouched by the side of the road.
The healing part of the story is very brief. Jesus doesn’t touch him or pray or say any magic words. He just says, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Bartimaeus’ sight is restored, but that’s not the end of the story. The end of it is that Bartimaeus “followed him on the way.” The fact that the healing itself is so short and abrupt has led several biblical scholars to conclude that is not a healing story so much as it is a “call” story. It’s more like the call to the first disciples to leave their fishnets to come and follow, or like the call to the rich man to leave his many possessions to come and follow, than it is like the other healing stories in Mark’s gospel. Although we don’t hear Bartimaeus’ name again in the gospel, the fact that his name is remembered at all implies he was remembered as a formerly blind man who became part of the early Christian movement.
One could say his eyes were just catching up with his soul, which was already inclined to trust and follow Jesus along the Way. It is apparent that he had heard tell of Jesus and his movement before Jesus came into his neighborhood.
Although blind, he already sees Jesus more clearly than many sighted people, as he calls him “Son of David”—connecting him with the expectation of a Messiah—and “Rabbi” (Teacher). He trusts Jesus as a source of mercy and power more completely than just about anyone else in the crowd that day; you can tell by the way he shouts out to Jesus even when other bystanders are trying to shut him up and shut him down. We don’t get to learn what Bartimaeus had heard about Jesus before their meeting, what made him shout out for his attention. He had probably heard stories of healings and exorcisms. But the detail about him joining the movement immediately upon regaining his sight makes me think he might have heard more than miracle stories.
It seems he wanted more than having a body part fixed; he wanted to be part of something. His healing provided an opportunity to join a movement in which he was already passionately interested, the Kingdom of God movement being led by Jesus. Maybe he had heard tell of the ideas and ideals that were part of Jesus’ movement–about hope and equality, about courage and blessing, companionship, forgiveness, and acceptance of many who had been looked down upon. Maybe he had heard about a new and expansive chosen family who looked to God as a loving parent rather than a fearsome judge. Maybe he was attracted, in a word, by the love emanating from Jesus. What a joy it must have been to look upon the face of love in those first moments of having sight restored as Bartimeaus looked into the eyes of Jesus. Maybe he recalled in that moment the verse from the book of Job: “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you…”
One doesn’t always need eyes to see a mighty love; it may be experienced in other ways. I was reading another story of blindness recently and was really struck by how love came into the story. It comes from Helen Keller’s memoir, as she writes about the day she met her teacher, Anne Sullivan, a day Helen calls “The most important day I remember in all my life…On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch and fell on my upturned face…Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle…Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour. I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.”
Isn’t there a commonality in the gospel story and this fragment of Helen Keller’s story—the common thread of being loved enough that one is not left by the wayside, isolated and marooned? There is no need more basic than the need to be loved; and following close on the heels of the need to be loved is the need to share love with another. To see oneself as worthy of love, and to see others as worthy of love—this is true sight, true revelation.
I had the privilege, along with a few others from EHCC and a good representation of the interfaith community to attend the Shabbat service at Kol Shalom yesterday. Rabbi Strasko had invited the wider community to come and be together in solidarity and grief around the murder of eleven people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg last weekend. In the course of his sermon he spoke about Dunbar’s number, 150. Here’s how Wikipedia explains it: “Dunbar’s number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships—relationships in which an knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British  Rabbi Strasko was referring to the concept to say that basically we are only able to think of 150 people as “us” and everyone else is somehow “other.” He also spoke about those 150 or so people being regarded as “subjects” while everyone else falls into the category of “objects.” It’s not a conscious thing; it’s just a feature of our biology, our anthropology. The result is that we subconsciously (at least) regard most of the world as “other,” and we don’t feel as warmly toward them as we do toward the 150 or so people in our stable relationship base. It’s a kind of nearsightedness that we all suffer from. , who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships.”
Real trouble starts when people see the “others” as less human, less worthy of dignity, love, and life. Extreme “othering” can result in violence like last week’s hate crimes in America, the African Americans shot while grocery shopping, the Jews shot while praying as the shooter shouted, “All Jews must die!” Extreme othering causes transgender people to be murdered at an appallingly higher rate than the general population. Extreme othering comes out in vile rhetoric, like calling migrants seeking political asylum “invaders,” or “vermin.”
It’s natural to see the 150 or so people in our circle in a warmer light than we see all the rest of the human beings in the world. We can’t help it. We can’t possibly love everyone the same way we love those who are closest to us. Nobody can. Even so, we can resist the inclination to disregard or disrespect or even discard and dispose of all the other folks. We can practice seeing other folks as equally loved by God, who is not limited by human biology and anthropology as we are.
The vision voiced by Jeremiah in the reading from Hebrew Scriptures today is a vision of God bringing all God’s children home. It’s a remarkably inclusive vision, folks gathered from every part of earth, walking together on the straight, smooth path God has prepared for them. Notice who is particularly called out as included in this procession: the blind and the lame, those with child, those in labor, together. The “lame” leapt off the page to me as I have been recovering from this broken leg. I know for sure that one thing including the “lame” means is that it’s a slow moving procession. Those who might have been left behind by ordinary, nearsighted human society are brought along; the procession will even pause as children are born along the way. The people will come weeping; it includes the grieving and the traumatized. But God will give them consolation as they go along. This is not a race, not a competition; it’s a majestic procession moving at a speed that takes everyone into consideration. In a great company they shall come home, God says.
I think it was Ram Dass who said of the human enterprise, “We are all just walking each other home.” How wonderful it would be to be able to expand our vision of the throng with whom we are walking home, to expand our peripheral vision to include those we don’t often see in our nearsightedness. Rabbi Strasko led us in a meditation as he was speaking yesterday, in which we first pictured the person we love the most, and then picture the bond between us like a ray of light. Then we pictured that same bond, that same light radiating out to our Dunbar number of 150 people. Then out to all the people in the neighborhood, on the island, in north Kitsap and King Counties, and radiating out from there. As Rabbi Strasko pointed out, no human is capable of sustaining that intensity of love to every person on earth; we’re not cut out for it. But there is value in practicing that radiating love, nevertheless; letting it radiate in imagination and letting it guide our human action.
When Bartimaeus said to Jesus, “Rabbi, let me see again,” he was literally wishing his eyes would work. We could make our prayer a plea for expanded vision. Rabbi Jesus, let me see all of humanity in the light of divine love. Let me see myself as worthy of love; let me see all sentient beings as worthy of love. I love imperfectly, but let me see the others outside my 150 or so network as loved and loveable. Let me see even the ones I hate with a perfect hatred as worthy of love. As I was meditating at Kol Shalom, I saw the light going out from me to my beloved as a rainbow of light, casting beautiful colors onto those I pictured in those brief moments. I would like to see all beings washed in that rainbow light, so that my speech and actions are more patient, more merciful, more compassionate.
Suppose Prophet Elijah granted us one wish. The poor childless blind man in our earlier story wished to see his children eating off gold plates. As a poor-in- spirit person, a nearsighted person, my wish is not for gold plates for my children but for a healing of vision that might lead to a healing of the planet. I want to see. I want to see all of us walking on a rainbow road together, a great throng walking one another home. Christ our healer, heal our vision until we can see all your children as worthy of love and beloved; and let farsighted vision inspire us to far-reaching compassion.