“And they called the blind man saying, ‘Take heart! Rise! He is calling you.'”
Maybe you saw the article recently on the front page of the Living section in the Times-Picayune entitled “Katrina Fat.” It made me feel a little better to know that I am not the only one who has gained weight since the storm, eating too much, eating mindlessly, eating emotionally, eating for comfort, eating between meals, eating at every restaurant that manages to reopen, eating foods that definitely were at one time off limits for me. The newspaper listed about 7 healthy habits a person might adopt to become more disciplined. I have tried to be faithful to them. I can do it for a day, 2 days maybe 3. But then suddenly I find myself eating a whole fried oyster poboy, fully dressed with fries. Whoops! How did that happen? How easy it is to fall into bad habits! How hard it is to attain and maintain good ones! How easy it is to gain weight! And how hard it is to lose it! You can spend a lifetime working out and staying in shape, and then, in a just a matter of weeks, blow the whole thing.
And then, just a few days later the paper published Chris Rose’s amazing article about his battle with depression, a battle being fought by so many grieving New Orleanians. What a heavy weight depression is. What a deep hole. Remember how Garp in The World According to Garp, would constantly warn his youngest child, Walt, to watch out as he swam in the surf for “the undertow.” For years little Walt thought that what his dad was saying was to watch out for “the Under Toad,” as if there was this huge frog lurking just beneath the surface of the water ready to suck him down and drag him out to sea. For Garp, the “Under Toad” was the metaphor for the threat of depression in his own life, always lurking just beneath the surface threatening to drag him down. We too have felt the downward tug of the beast. How hard it is some days to keep treading, to keep your head above water.
Why is life like that?–so easy to fall down, so hard to rise up? I have a theory to explain it: spiritual gravity. Just as there is a physical magnetic force that pulls us down, prevents us from rising into the atmosphere, I think there is a spiritual force as well that pulls us down as well, that makes it hard to rise up, to change, to reach the stars, to soar the heights. Scripture tells us “rise up,” “set your mind on things that are above,” “set aside every weight and run the race,” but how hard that is to do when the weight of the world is so heavy? This is spiritual gravity. And is there anything in this world that has the power to raise us up?
Goodness knows we have tried—all kinds of self-help programs to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, only to find ourselves fallen down down down. We need a power that can raise us up above all that pulls us under. I was thinking about all the slogans and mottos we have seen in New Orleans since the storm: Recover, Rebuild, Renew, Restore, Reclaim, Rebirth. I love all those words. I love that prefix RE. It means AGAIN. Same two letters we use to spell Resurrection—from the root Resurgence. It is the central conviction of our faith: that there is at work in every moment we live a power that defies gravity, defies depression, defeat, death, that raises us UP. It is the power of the resurrection. As strong as spiritual gravity is, there is something stronger still.
That’s what the story of Bartimaeus is about. Jesus was leaving Jericho. The next day he would be in Jerusalem where the defining events of the last week of his life, his death, and resurrection would transpire. According to Mark, this would be the last time he would heal someone before his crucifixion. It was there he encountered Bartimaeus, a man who was stuck in the downward spiral of spiritual gravity. Consider all the factors in his life keeping him down. He was a Gentile for one thing: Bar Timaeus, Son of Timaeus, a Greek name, a Gentile man in a Hebrew world, the target of deeply entrenched prejudice. He was blind: a severe handicap in our time, but it was even more so in Jesus’ day. It reduced him to the status of a beggar, rattling his cup on the street corner, begging for shekels, subsisting on handouts. It labeled him as a sinner as well, because it was a common belief that blindness was punishment from God for sin. So picture the blind beggar, the outcast and sinner, the dusty lump of rags, begging for shekels, everything in his world pulling in the same direction: down.
But then something happened to Bartimaeus that day that defied gravity. The story says that when he heard Jesus was coming down the street, he suddenly began to cry, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” The story says he made such a ruckus that the whole crowd began to scold him, putting him down, saying, “Shut up, Bartimaeus, sit down, Be quiet!” More gravity.
But Bartimaeus would not sit down, and he would not be silenced. He called to Jesus once, he called him twice, he called him Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, the only one in all of Mark’s Gospel who called Jesus by this sacred title, Son of David, a title reserved for the coming Messiah, as if he, of all people could see something not even Jesus’ closest friends could see: the truth about his identity. How is it that a blind man could see what no one else could see?
Someone once asked Helen Keller, “Isn’t it terrible to be blind?” She said, “Better to be blind and see with your heart than to have 2 good eyes and to see nothing.” All Jesus’ life he was surrounded by people who had 2 good eyes but who could see nothing. Or, should I say, who would see nothing. There is that kind of blindness too—the refusal to see. That’s the premise of Al Gore’s book, An Inconvenient Truth. Whether you agree with him or not on the subject of global warming, surely you agree with the premise that there are certain truths to which we blind ourselves, because if we were to see them, we might have to change. And we do not like change! It is so inconvenient! But Bartimaeus, with the eyes of his heart, could see what others refused to see with their eyes, that this Carpenter from Nazareth, yeah that one, the one with no army, no weapons, no wealth, no worldly power, was the One–and would not be silenced.
The story says that Jesus heard his cries and that he stopped his journey. Above the protests of the crowd, in spite of social stigma, counter to the prevailing culture, defying all that spiritual gravity, Jesus stopped the parade and called Bartimaeus to come. I love what happened next in this story. It tells us that when Bartimaeus heard Jesus call for him, he “threw off his cloak and sprang forward to meet Jesus.” I love that image of Bartimaeus throwing off that old flea infested rag that he probably slept in, ate in, begged in, lived in, probably the closet thing to a home he ever had. It was his shelter in the rain, his bed at night, his warmth in the cold, his armor, shield, protection, the most valuable thing he owned, the only thing he owned.
I think of a homeless man named Joseph who lived on the streets in our neigbhorhood, who slept sometimes on our front step, who wore layers and layers of heavy clothes, big boots, thick jeans, flannel shirts, an army coat and a bicycle helmet. Even if the weather was 102 outside, he would never take them off. They were his armor, his home, his fortress, his protection, his wall. Somewhere deep inside all those layers of dirt and grime and rags was a frightened, wounded man named Joseph. How hard it was to know him, reach him, help him, communicate with him. What a distance he maintained! I often wondered what it would have taken for him to give all that up, as Bartimaeus did, to throw off that old heavy coat, let it go, take a leap of faith, back into life, into the arms of God. For this is the promise: you make the leap, I’ll make the catch!
What about that leap? One of the great church fathers, Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th century Christian bishop, taught that the basic human sin is the refusal to change, the refusal to grow, the refusal to see, the decision to stay stuck, blind to the possibility of rising up, realizing our potential, becoming all that God has called and created us to be. We too have our own old cloaks to which we cling—old patterns, bad habits, our security blankets. Even when they are stifling, even when they don’t fit anymore, even when they don’t work for us anymore. We are a lot like Linus in the Peanuts cartoon strip sucking on his thumb, clinging to his security blanket, dragging it around with him wherever he went. When it was in the wash, he would nearly have a mental breakdown. In one cartoon, Charlie Brown asked Linus what he was going to do when he got too old to drag his blanket around. Linus pondered this a moment and then he said, “I’ve been thinking about having it made over into a sport coat.”
So do we! We may be adults, but still we still carry many of our childhood insecurities and dependencies. We just have made them over into sports coats. Heavy sports coats. But as long as we cling to these old cloaks of ours, we will never be able defy gravity, rise up, be whole. That’s what Bartimaeus was so willing to do. He knew he could not do it alone. But he knew he had to do his part. You know the old joke about “how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but the light bulb has got to want to change. How about this: how many Saviors does it take change a person’s life? Only one, but the person has got to want to change. Bartimaeus wanted to change, to make a leap.
I love that Jesus asked Bartimaeus: “What do you want me to do for you?” I think that may very well be the most important question we are ever asked. Not just what do you want for dinner, what do you want to wear, what do you want to buy? Not just what do your parents want you to want, what do you children want you to want, what does your boss want you to want? That’s just baggage, expectations, more gravity, more layers of heavy cloak. Deeper than that: “What do you want? What do you want?
That’s what Jesus asked Bartimaeus. Think about all the things Bartimaeus might have asked Jesus to do for him. He could have said, I want a hot meal. I want a drink. I want a job. I want a new cup. I want 1000 shekels. Jesus might have given him any of those things, but would it have really changed Bartimaeus’ life? Like the young woman I visited in a drug rehab unit. She had OD’d on pills. She had wrecked her car. She had been picked up by police. What did she want? She wanted money. She wanted out. She wanted somebody to fix her car so she could drive it. She wanted somebody to give her clean clothes. She wanted to be discharged so she wouldn’t lose her job. She wanted everything except to be set free of her addiction to drugs. That old heavy cloak. She wanted to rearrange chairs on the deck of the Titanic.
Not Bartimaeus. He wanted to turn that big boat around. He jumped up, he took the leap, he threw off his old life, he sprang forward into the arms of a new life, wanting nothing less than to be whole: “Let me receive my sight!” he cried to Jesus. In that moment he was healed. Jesus told him, as he told so many people who experienced healing and wholeness in his presence, “Your faith has made you well.” He told Bartimaeus, “Go your way.” But from that point on, the story says, Bartimaeus went Jesus’ way. He became a disciple. He made Jesus’ Way of love his Way of Life. The Way is Up. By the power of the resurrection, in every moment, it defies gravity. Even now.
I don’t know what is holding you down now, but “Take heart! he is calling you too.” You need not struggle against that Undertoad by yourself alone. There is in this world and in our lives on this road with us One whose power defies death itself. You too can rise up. You make the leap, he will make the catch. Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.