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This sermon was originally preached on October 24, 2021 at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN. The live recording may be viewed here.
Lectionary Text: Mark 10:46-52
(The Blind Bartimaeus)
May the Breath of God who filled the lungs of Jesus fill my own lungs here, that with Her anointing I might breathe out Her proclamation: The promise of abundance to the Poor, the emptying of cages to the incarcerated, the lifting of the heel from the back of the oppressed, and the restoration of sight to the blind -- Oh Christ, may my words today manifest God’s Favor to your people in this moment and in this place, Amen.
Friends, first I want to thank you. As I sat down to write this sermon, I was consumed and overwhelmed, as per usual, unsure of which thread to pull. And what lifted me out of that overwhelm and set me on the path I’m taking you down today was finding prayer shawls in my closet that were woven by women I don’t know with the promise that the wearer -- i -- would be wrapped in prayer. I took out a teal one -- my favorite color -- and wrapped it around my body, and instead of praying, I simply sat and let myself be prayed.
Wrapped in that covering, I considered this week’s gospel story about the restoration of Blind Bartimaeus, and I recalled Luke 4:18-19 where Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth after 40 Days in the Wilderness, went to Synagogue on Sabbath, and, in front of everyone who “mattered” declared that the Spirit had come upon him -- like a prayer shawl, a divine covering -- to proclaim Good News and God’s favor for everyone on society’s margins.
And that’s when I decided that in the interest of full disclosure, I ought to make my own proclamation here today, not as a christ but as a preacher and pastor, in order that y’all might know now rather than later what you’ve gotten yourselves into -- or, rather, what Tom has gotten you into! -- by welcoming me to Oak Grove this year.
To that end, I want you to know that I am an aspiring abolitionist. I look and work for the Day of God’s Favor when prisons and police are obsolete and disbanded; when the incarcerated are restored to full citizenship; the disabled enjoy full accommodations and access to public life; and all those who’ve been marginalized or criminalized by circumstance, social location, or personhood are welcomed back into full participation in church, life, and culture. And I march in the movements for Black Lives, Native Land Rights, Queer inclusion, Disability rights, and prison and police abolition in large part because of texts_ like_today’s. So let’s dive in.
Contextually, the healing of the Blind Bartimaeus -- that is, the blind son of the honored one -- directly precedes Jesus’s Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, and marks the peak of a crescendo of Asks that’s been building over the course of the tenth chapter of Mark.
Two weeks ago we read about the Rich Young Ruler who had everything and yet still wanted more. Remember, he asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life but left aggrieved, not because he was denied eternity, but because Jesus held up a mirror in which he came face to face with his preference for property over people.
Last week, it was the brothers James and John who pretty boldly told Jesus to do whatever they asked of him, which was to give them seats of honor in His glory. Jesus’s response was a reminder, again, that his glory would come through suffering, and that those who seek greatness - which is what the brothers and the other ten were really after - become servants of all. Indeed, they too were handed a mirror in which to see their preference for position over people.
And thus we come to today’s Blind Beggar sitting on the side of the road. It’s worth noting that this road where he begs is the Jericho Road that connects Jericho and Jerusalem. It is so notoriously violent, dangerous, and difficult to navigate that it’s often called “The Bloody Way.” You may recall it was the setting of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10, in which religious folks ignored and stepped over a beaten and bloodied man, leaving his care to another of society’s outcasts who, unlike the rich young ruler of Mark, put his own _life_ on the line to rescue the man, and spent his own _money_ to ensure his recovery.
So that’s the road where Bartimaeus begs. He is a man who, importantly, has nothing but his cloak. He may wear it to keep warm, or lay it out to collect coins, but either way it is his sole possession and it is essential to his survival. When he hears that it’s Jesus who’s gathered the crowd, he yells out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” When he is shushed by the crowd, he gets even more disruptive and shouts even louder, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This stops Jesus in his tracks. Literally! Because this blind man sees and publicly names Jesus as he really is. When Jesus tells the crowd to make a way and bring the man to him, Bartimaeus rises. Again, In contrast to the Rich Young Ruler who was unwilling to give up any of his possessions for the sake of people like this blind beggar, Bart casts off his one possession, his cloak, and rushes to the Christ who says to him exactly what he said to the brothers who asked him for glory: “What do you want me to do for you?” And Bartimaeus asks to see.
And so he does.
And so, also, do we.
See, just like with his answers to the Rich Young Ruler and to James and John, and just like all his other healings and miracles, when Jesus restores Bartimaeus’s sight, he is not just making way to full inclusion for the outcast, he is also holding up a mirror and showing the crowd who they are, silencers of the Son of Honor.
Like so many other healings, including the healing in John 9 of the man who was believed to have been blind from birth because of his own or somebody else’s sin, this restoration reminds us that even in Jesus’s own time, poverty and marginalization were rarely the result of the poor person’s sinful choices, but of society’s decision to un-see them.
And if we’re honest we must confess that not a lot has changed. If anything, our cruelty has evolved. Beyond condemning, ignoring, or silencing unhoused beggars, these days we send in our police forces to steal and destroy what few possessions they have when their encampments are cleared. And why do so many support the clearing of homeless encampments from public parks? Because tent cities are linked to declines in property values. And we cannot abide the blind beggar asking for money, never mind sleeping in the shadow of the Rich Young Ruler’s home or headquarters. Because when we look at the poor, we are confronted with our own wealth. And that can be profoundly uncomfortable.
Statistics show that today’s poor are most often victims not of their own “irresponsible” choices, but of circumstances beyond their control but which we as a society have decided make them unworthy of having their most basic human needs met.
Maybe that circumstance is a job lost to Covid or another medical catastrophe that resulted first in bankruptcy, then foreclosure, and then homelessness for a family, who like mine, could afford a $700 mortgage but not $1500 in rent. Maybe their poverty is a result of living with Bipolar, or PTSD, or Autism, or fibromyalgia, or another medical diagnosis which requires more professional accommodations or time off for treatment than a multinational employer is willing to provide or pay for.
Or maybe their poverty is the generational curse of centuries of deliberate racial injustice. Across the Twin Cities and indeed the whole of central and North America, Native American poverty rates, which are the highest among all races, are the direct result of ongoing cultural erasure, land theft, and displacement to unsustainable reservations. And to this very day, Indigenous treaty-protected lands are under constant threat of being sold to billion-dollar international corporations eager to rape the earth of its oil, minerals, and crops, regardless of the cost to current inhabitants or their future generations.
Statistically we know that property ownership is by far the most effective way to establish and build generational wealth. And yet, across the USA Black families are still denied mortgages or charged higher interest rates for mortgages than their white peers. In fact just this week Kare 11 news reported that right here in MN the mortgage denial rate for Black borrowers is 3 times higher than that of white borrowers with similar financial qualifications.
Those living at or below the poverty line in my North Mpls neighborhood are, by and large, Black American descendants of enslaved Africans who were stolen from their profitable homelands centuries ago, trafficked to the Americas, and sold to white families whose generational wealth was built on theft of body and unpaid labor.
I myself stand here today as the descendent and beneficiary of at least one white family that trafficked in Black human lives and eventually birthed my maternal grandfather; and of another white family who settled, built wealth, and eventually raised my father on ancestral tribal lands stolen from Arapaho-Cheyenne Indians during the Oklahoma land rush of 1892.
My point is this: In the United States, we are often taught and believe the same lie Jesus’s contemporaries believed, which is that a person’s or family’s or culture’s poverty is a function of THEIR flawed character when it is actually the reflection of a nation’s soul. We are taught that wealth and access can be gained by anyone with the will to work, and that people who live in poverty, systemic or otherwise, do so because they refuse to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We do not see the ancient systems that bind some to free others.
Thus we are inclined to treat poor people either as projects of our own vanity, or, like the crowd following Jesus, as disruptive distractions to our celebrations of privilege. If we see them at all, it is to look down on them with pity or scorn. In this mirror we face our tendency to see projects and problems instead of people.
But Jesus’s message here is that the poor are not a distraction but a delight. It was Jesus’s honor to be stopped in his tracks, to be called and named and belong to the Blind beggar who didn’t belong anywhere. Indeed this story is one of restoration not just of the blind beggar’s sight, but of the privileged crowd’s soul, and crucially, all at once. This is a story of collective restoration that happened because the Son of David, Merciful One, gave his eyes and ears to all the people.
In his book Just Mercy, lawyer and activist Bryan Stevenson writes that, “Proximity [to the poor and oppressed] has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” He says, “My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. And the true measure of our character as a society “cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, the condemned. We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated.”
I would add that the inverse is also true: We are all freed when that mistreatment ends. And that, Church, is why I am an abolitionist: Because the same systems that criminalize others privilege me, and I want to be part of abolishing those systems rather than complicit in them. Because I want to join my voice with the ones crying out for mercy rather than those silencing that cry. I am an abolitionist because of what Maya Angelou and Emma Lazarus and Lilla Watson have taught, which is that all our liberation is bound up together, and that none of us are free until all of us are free. That is: None of us can see until all of us can see!
And I know from this text that freedom comes when Mercy falls to restore a blind man’s sight and to recover the humanity of the crowd around him.
I believe with my whole self that when Bartimaeus cried out, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” he was crying out for us all. His was the cry -- the plea and expectation -- of a blind beggar who needed to see and be seen. Blessed is the Merciful One whose answer that day restored his sight and the crowd’s soul. May that same Mercy restore and liberate us. Amen.