Rev. Sarah Buteux
October 24, 2021
Proper 25, Year B
To view this morning’s service click here.
I don’t need or want a show of hands this morning, but how many of you have ever used the word “blind,” to describe a date or pointed out the “blindspot” in a persons’ thinking?
Have you ever lamented that your argument “fell on deaf ears,” or described something hopelessly uncool as “lame?”
Who, here, has come home after a “crazy” day at the office or declared a situation to be “totally insane,” claimed that you were “paralyzed” with fear or “crippled” by anxiety?
Or caught yourself saying something like, “let’s all walk over,” only to realize that at least one of you would be rolling. Or said, “Please rise,” knowing full well that there are people present who simply can’t? I have. I do it every week.
In fact, if we were playing ableist Bingo right now, I’d already be claiming the prize. I’ve said all of these things and more. I’ve said all of these things and worse.
And I’m sorry to say that it’s taken me much longer than it should have to be grateful for the people in my life who have gently corrected and redirected me along the way. I still have a lot of work to do in this area – A LOT!- and I’m pretty sure that most of you do too.
Not because we are bad insensitive people, but because ableism – which is discrimination in favor of the able-bodied- is baked into our culture, our society, our language, our architecture, and even and especially our churches.
It’s reinforced every time we use words that describe disabilities as synonyms for something we perceive to be negative, like using the word “blind” as a stand in for ignorance or “deafness” as a way to describe stubbornness or calling something “crazy” when what we really mean is that it simply doesn’t make sense.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we use the word “vision” in the church and wondering if it’s really ok, how we would stop if it wasn’t, and what we might say instead. In fact, once you start to think about it, once you really start to listen to the the words we use and look around at the ways we have structured our environments and our expectations, you begin to wonder if any of it is ok.
Because there are some things you can’t unsee once they are brought to your attention. Words that simply don’t sound the same once you realize how hurtful they truly are. When you stop, look, and listen, you realize that ableism is all around us, in our lives, in our institutions, and even here, in our scripture.
I mean, whoever wrote the gospel of Mark was absolutely using physical blindness as a synonym for spiritual blindness or ignorance. He just was. The Bible is a book full of rich symbolism, and I’m sorry to say that some of those symbols haven’t aged all that well.
Ableism is fully present throughout the Bible. And though I can’t change that, my hope, as we go along today, is that we can name the ableist parts for what they are and hopefully learn to do better.
I realize that it’s hard and I have no doubt that even as I try to do this right, I’m going to get some of it wrong. So please, keep calling me in when I miss the mark, because that’s how we all learn to do better.
Ok? Ok. Well, building on our work from last week, you all know that we’re in a particular section of Mark, the actual center of this gospel, which deals with the question of what it means to “see” Jesus of all people, as the messiah.
I say “of all people,” because a poor man from the outskirts of nowhere with no power or plan to conquer Israel’s enemies, was not what people were expecting when they used the word Messiah.
They were looking for a conqueror, someone who would take down Rome and put them back on top. But over these last 3 chapters, Jesus has been trying to get his followers to “see” things differently.
He’s been trying to get them to understand that the Messiah they have been waiting for has not come to exercise his power over others from the top down but to use his power to serve others from the bottom up.
Unfortunately, it’s such a reversal from what they were expecting that his disciples don’t get it the first time. Nor do they get it the second time or even the third time when he tries to explain it.
They are “blind” to what Jesus is trying to teach to them, and to drive this point home, Mark actually bookends this section with the healing of two men who are literally blind until they meet Jesus. Back in chapter 8, Jesus heals the blind man at Bethsaida and today he heals blind Bartimaeus.
The first healing back in Bethsaida is interesting because it doesn’t work at first. Jesus takes the blind man to the outskirts of the village, spits in his hands, puts his saliva on the guy’s eyes, and when the blind man opens them he can sort of see, but not very clearly.
Jesus actually has to do it twice before the man’s vision is fully restored. Though once it is, there is no rejoicing. Jesus is not ready for everyone to know he is the Messiah, so he tells the man to avoid the village and go straight home.
By the time we catch up with Jesus today, he’s outside of Jericho, just a day’s journey from Jerusalem, and much has changed. His disciples now know that he is the Messiah and Jesus is through with hiding it. He has explained that he has come to suffer and die and give his life as a ransom for many.
He has invited anyone who would be his disciple to take up their cross and follow him. Jesus has explained over and over and over that whoever would be the greatest among them must be last of all and a servant to all no matter how lowly or insignificant. And now here, right by the side of the road, is their chance to show him that they finally get it.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” cries a blind beggar. And what do the disciples and all of the people who have been following Jesus do?
They tell the guy to be quiet. They tell him to hush.
Jesus has places to go after all. He has people to see. There is important work to be done. Everyone is here to learn from this great teacher and there is only so much time in a day. They don’t want this little nobody getting in the way of their somebody. So they tell him to shut it.
But curiously, unlike all the other nameless people whom Jesus has already healed, this one isn’t just another nobody and he’s not about to be quiet. According to Mark, this one has a name: Bartimaeus. This one had a father, for “Bartimaeus” means son of Timaeus, literally “son of honor.
This doesn’t mean that Bartimaeus was any more important than any of the other people whom Jesus healed before, at least not in the grand scheme of things, but it does mean that Mark is doing something very intentional here.
He’s driving home the point that not only is this blind beggar on the side of the road a somebody, but by now Jesus’ disciples and all of the people following him should absolutely know that.
Bartimaeus may be poor and he may be blind, but he is still a human being with a name and a lineage, a family and a history, and if any of them had been paying attention they would realize that and treat him better.
Unfortunately, the disciples are still not there yet. Just like the man back in Bethsaida, they can see a little bit better, but they are still not seeing clearly.
And to really drive the point home once and for all, Mark has the blind son of Timaeus clearly and correctly identify the Son of David.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
“Call him here,” says Jesus. And backpedaling as fast as they can, the people finally decide to take the blind man seriously. They tell him to: “take heart; get up, he is calling you.”
Bartimaeus throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus. “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. And he says, “My teacher, let me see again.” To which Jesus responds: “Go; your faith has made you well.”
But unlike the man back in Bethsaida, Bartimaeus not only regains his sight immediately, Bartimaeus also decides to stay. Mark tells us that from that moment on “he followed Jesus on the way.” The last literally becomes first as Jesus’ and his disciples make their final descent toward the cross.
It is a beautiful scene rich with symbolism, but when it comes to questions of ableism, it’s also complicated. To lift up the blind man as the one who sees, and the disciples as the truly blind ones, makes Bartimaeus the hero of this story, but it also reinforces our careless and harmful use of ableist language.
The gospels themselves, in lifting up Jesus’ healings as signs of the coming kingdom, do so as well. I don’t think we can deny that. It’s just the way it is.
But in Jesus himself, I see something different. I don’t think he was healing people with disabilities and infirmities just to prove himself or show us a sign. And I certainly don’t think he was healing them because he saw them as less than – less than human, less than whole, of less worth, or less righteousness.
I think Jesus saw the blind, the deaf, the lepers, and the lame as people (full stop), as sons and daughters and children with names and families, hopes and dreams.
But in a world that treated them as less than human, that barred them from the temple, that assumed their infirmity was a punishment for sin, and that had failed to adapt in such a way that they could thrive in community, it would not have been enough for Jesus to simply say, “hey everybody, these folks are people too.” He had to heal them, not just for their sake but for the sake of those around them.
Writing for Medium, Steven Archer explains this so well. He says:
“Jesus knew that if he just simply declared (the disabled) clean and pure without changing anything physically about them, the religious leaders would disregard his words and continue in their ableism. Instead, Jesus changed the physical capabilities of those who had been outcasts so that the religious leaders could not deny them (access) to their faith practices.
… Jesus’ miracles of healing were not focused on making the “incomplete person whole” but rather to show their full humanity to those who had cast them out as worthless or lacking.”
And he concludes by saying:
“Rather than praying for the Holy Spirit to give sight to the blind or for the Deaf to hear or for the lame to walk, pray for yourself to receive a heart that sees their full humanity just like Jesus .…” (https://firstname.lastname@example.org/was-jesus-ableist-4d9d71c73248.)
Pray for yourself to receive a heart that sees their full humanity just like Jesus.
I can’t speak for any of you, but as the pastor of this church, this physical building, I find those words deeply convicting. Friends, when I have preached on this passage at my previous churches, I have talked about all the people we are content not to see – from migrant workers to kids in sweat shops – because we benefit from their suffering.
I don’t think I could ever preach that sort of sermon here, because First Churches, you are a congregation with a deep awareness of the needs around you and the ways in which the systems many of us benefit from, oppress people around the world.
You are not afraid to lift up the voices of the suffering even when it implicates you, and you are ever at the ready to give and march and show up as you are able to make things better. Watching you work locally with refugees and the undocumented, witnessing your care for the people of Haiti and children like Dhondup in India, I know full well that your hearts are open to helping everyone.
I knew when we called the meeting last Sunday to start talking about opening our doors for emergency shelter this winter, that your concern for our unhoused neighbors would be the primary factor driving your questions. And I love that about you.
But as we began the work of discernment around the shelter, we quickly realized that one of the greatest obstacles we would face is the limited access to our sanctuary and our lack of accessible bathrooms. First Churches, we have a sanctuary that can seat 500 people and exactly one accessible bathroom stall.
What does that say about our welcome to all? Churches have been granted exemptions from complying with the Americans with Disabilities Act because the cost to renovate old buildings is so high, but one stall in a multi-stall bathroom?
There are some things you can’t un-see once they come to your attention.
Some things you can’t un-hear when they are spoken out loud.
I don’t know how or when, but I’m hoping we can do better. If our vision is to welcome all into joyful christian community, then like the man in Bethsaida, we need Jesus to work on us a little more because we’re not quite where we need to be. …Not yet. …But with Jesus’ help we can get there. Like Bartimaeus, our faith can make us well. Amen? Amen.