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October 24, 2021
Jacques Lusseyran was a blind resistance fighter in World War II who wrote about his experiences in a memoir titled And There Was Light. I learned about him when reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Learning to Walk in the Dark.[i] An accident during childhood left Jacques blind at a time when blind people were extremely marginalized. Doctors urged his parents to send him to a residential school for the blind in Paris, but they chose to keep him at the local public school so that he could learn to function in a seeing world. His mother learned Braille along with him. The school principal ordered a special desk for him that would hold his extra equipment. Most of all Jacques’ parents did not pity him. They did not call him “unfortunate” or bemoan what had happened. Instead they urged him to cultivate his attention to the world. Jacques’ father told him: “Always tell us when you discover something.”
Jacques developed an exceptional ability to “see” the world without seeing it. He could tell the difference among different trees by their sounds, for example. That sounds impossible at first, but why wouldn’t the leaves of an oak tree sound different from the needles of a pine tree, especially as the wind moves through them? The oak leaves and the pine needles would feel quite different under your feet. But you have to notice those differences. Jacques did notice.
When Jacques was captured by the Nazis in January of 1944 and sent to Buchenwald, at first his anger disoriented him, making him run into walls and trip over furniture. But he soon realized that no matter what the Nazis tried to do to him, they could not diminish the light within him. He held on to that light no matter what.
Jacques Lusseyran once wrote that “The seeing do not believe in the blind,” which might be the reason that so many biblical stories show blind people who desperately want to be healed. In the biblical stories other people often exclude them or pity them or dismiss them. Reflecting an ancient way of thinking, the Bible often associates physical blindness with spiritual blindness, as if people who can’t literally see also are unable to see God. That way of thinking even shows up in the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost, but now am found/was blind but now I see.” Being blind equals being lost. Being able to see again is to be found.
In today’s gospel Bartimaeus pays a price for being a blind person in the ancient world. He sits beside the road, dependent on what people will give him. The text calls him a blind beggar. He’s outside the city limits, outside of society, outside the realm of economic comfort.
But, like Jacques Lusseyran centuries later, Bartimaeus sees many things quite clearly. He might see in a different way. But he sees with purpose and with faith.
Bartimaeus sees that Jesus is the messiah. Even though Jesus is nothing like what people thought the messiah would be. Jesus not a military conqueror or a mighty king – at least not in the way people had hoped. And even Jesus’ closest followers haven’t been able to wrap their minds around the kind of messiah that Jesus is. But somehow Bartimaeus understands that Jesus is the promised one, the anointed one, the one who has come to wield power in unexpected ways. When Bartimaeus first cries out to Jesus, he says, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” Son of David. The title given to the messiah. A messiah who could be expected to listen and respond when a person cries out for mercy.
How is that you see Jesus? What would you call him if he were standing in front of you?
Bartimaeus sees that Jesus is the messiah. Bartimaeus also sees what it takes to follow Jesus. When the other people finally stop trying to silence him, do you notice what Bartimaeus does? He throws off his cloak, springs up, and comes to Jesus. He throws off his cloak. One of the most valuable possessions in the ancient world, especially to someone who has to beg in order to eat. The cloak represents warmth at night and dignity during the day and shelter along the way. But Bartimaeus is willing to leave it behind to go meet Jesus.
In this way Bartimaeus sees more clearly than the wealthy man we heard about a couple of Sundays ago. You remember him. The one who wanted so badly to inherit eternal life but was distraught when Jesus told him to sell his possessions. That man walked away from Jesus altogether.
Bartimaeus has only his cloak, but he shrugs that off before approaching Jesus with his request.
What is your cloak? What are you willing to leave behind or let go of in order to follow Jesus?
Bartimaeus also sees that it’s better to ask for healing than for status. Notice that Jesus asks Bartimaeus the same question that Jesus asked his disciples James and John in last week’s gospel. Jesus asks: “What do you want me to do for you?” It’s such an open question. So many possible answers.
Bartimaeus sees more clearly than James or John, who wanted Jesus to give them positions of glory seated on Jesus’ right hand and his left. Bartimaeus doesn’t ask for power or riches or revenge on the people who have excluded him. He simply says this: “My teacher, let me see again.”
What would be your answer to that question? What would you say if Jesus were standing in front of you asking: “What do you want me to do for you?”
When Jesus responds, Bartimaeus doesn’t just regain his sight. He regains his sight and follows Jesus on the way. Never mind that the way Jesus is headed is toward Jerusalem, where a cross awaits him. I suspect Bartimaeus had some sense that what was coming was going to be difficult. Bartimaeus hadn’t spent his entire life on the margins of society without learning how to recognize danger as it approaches. And yet he follows Jesus anyway.
The way of Jesus does not lead to safety. It does not lead to wealth or glamor or importance. The way of Jesus does lead to community. A community where it is OK to speak out loud what you need, what you long for. A community where status and possessions are not important. A community where people lead with humility and service. A community where people seek to see each other – truly see each other – and the gifts that every person can offer.
Perhaps what today’s gospel calls us to do is to see differently. To trust that in the midst of uncertainty, we can attend to the world and to other people with the same love that we have received from Jesus. In this way we no longer have to fear the darkness but can know it as a gift.
In the words of Wendell Berry: “To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight, and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.”[ii] Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] See Learning to Walk in the Dark, starting on page 102.
[ii] Ibid., p. 92
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Rafters will explore how to serve God and God’s mission for their lives. Rolling River Rampage VBS is for children who will be 4 years old by October 1, 2018 with the oldest completing Grade 5 in June.
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