Their Eyes Were Watching God

Oct 28, 2018 by

Sermon for Sunday, Oct, 28, 2018              Paula Papky for MacNeill Baptist Church

Jeremiah 31:7 – 9            Psalm 126           Hebrews 7:23-28         Mark 10:46-52

This past week as I pondered this gospel lesson about Jesus and a blind man, up popped the title of one of my favourite novels:  Their Eyes Were Watching God.  The author is Zora Neale Hurston, an African American anthropologist and writer who studied Southern culture, its stories and music and   lifestyles.  This novel was first published in 1937.  Years later, it was Alice Walker  who re-awakened interested in this author, and along with Toni Morrison brought her to prominence again.  I love the book, but this week it was the title that shone out for me:  Their Eyes Were Watching God.

If you read enough of the Bible you begin to think those writers were intensely interested in blindness.  To us “blindness” sounds like a medical condition, like cataracts or glaucoma or short-sightedness.  My own eyes have worn glasses so long that I sometimes can’t find them when they’re not on me.  Maybe the medical conditions we call blindness are there in the Scriptures, but we don’t have enough information to deduce that.  There is no list of symptoms, no diagnosis, no treatment mentioned unless you count that earlier story of Jesus spitting into his hands and rubbing the spittle on the eyes of a blind man.  But what the Scripture writers, especially the prophets, were more concerned with is loss of insight; the failure to notice or perceive; lack of perspective; loss of faith in God.  They wrote about the eyes of the heart, about what we might call spiritual blindness.

Listen to Proverbs 28:27:  “Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but one who turns a blind eye will get many a curse.”  And here’s Jesus castigating the religious authorities, the Pharisees:  “You blind guides!  You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.”  You begin to understand that Biblical “blindness” could be physical, but often it is a metaphor for the refusal to accept truth.  Blindness is hardness of heart.

What we know about Bartimaeus is that once he had been a member of a family and a faith community but now he’s outside the wall, excluded.  We know he has lost the vision, lost hope of being part of God’s faithful people.  No wonder!  The rules of inclusion were strict.  The Book of Leviticus details the exclusion from worship of anyone who wasn’t whole and healthy, who was deemed unclean, physically or spiritually.  Not even the animals brought for sacrifice could be less than perfect.  People who were blind or lame or with a mutilated face or a limb too long were definitely excluded.  The irony is that the religious leaders were themselves blind.  They are rich and powerful yet blind to the plight of the poor.  You could say they overlook the need for compassion.  They do not notice cries for mercy.  They avert their eyes from the very people they should care for.  They do not see anything beyond their own needs nor do they keep watch over the vulnerable.  These are the ones Jesus condemns, the ones who cannot see him and his ministry.  And sometimes, even the disciples lose sight of the mission Jesus is on.

Someone asked me the other day, “Have you ever noticed the way the disciples get dumber and dumber – as they get closer to Jerusalem?”  And I hadn’t noticed.  I had completely overlooked it somehow.  But it’s worth noticing.  Jesus tells the disciples over and over his vision of the family he has called them to be part of, but they keep forgetting.  The vision grows dim when it should be coming into clear focus.  How does that happen?

Jesus is a teacher, so he probably experiences the same things that teachers of our own day experience.  You get everyone sitting down and quiet, and you teach a lesson to the class.  And maybe you notice some are looking out the window or sending texts or doodling while you’re teaching.  When the lesson ends, you have to go around and explain it all over again to each individual student.  You want to say as Jesus does, “How much longer must I be among you, must I put up with you?”  And you can imagine him saying under his breath, “Don’t you get it?  Didn’t I just talk to you about what lies ahead in Jerusalem:  my betrayal and death and rising?  And yet, some of you seem to have heard just the rising part.  You began arguing with one another about who was the greatest!  And one of you tattle-tales about some other people, not in our group, who are casting out demons.  Try to remember this:  whoever is not against us is for us!

The closer Jesus gets to Jerusalem, the more mixed up his disciples get.  Mark calls them “perplexed” and “greatly astounded”.  Jesus tells them three times about his coming death and then James and John come to him privately and say, “Psst!  Jesus!  We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”

And Jesus answers, “What do you want me to do for you?”

“Well,” they say, “we want to sit one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”  The other disciples get all riled up when they hear about it.  They all seem to be losing it, losing the vision Jesus offered them right at the beginning, when he said, “Come, follow me.  I will make you fish for people.”  By this he describes their mission of drawing people into a new family, a new community.

The irony is that as the disciples’ vision dims, look whose vision sharpens:  all those who aren’t yet followers but somehow see clearly who Jesus is.  There’s that foreign woman, a Syro-Phoenician Gentile, who has a daughter with an unclean spirit.  This mother sees Jesus and trusts him as a healer sent from God.  And for the woman’s trust in Jesus, her daughter is healed, no longer excluded from community.

And there’s a deaf man with a speech impediment who is healed.  You might say in non-medical terms he could then hear or understand Jesus’ message; His very presence among the Jesus followers said loud and clear of Jesus:  “He even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”  These likely aren’t medical stories about cures, any more than this morning’s choir anthem, Amazing Grace, is a medical story.  When we sing, “I once was blind, but now I see,” we know this is metaphorical.  And so are many of these healing stories.  What follows in Mark’s Gospel is the story of the feeding of the four thousand in chapter eight, a story of people restored to a life of dignity, having their hungers more than satisfied.

After this, Jesus needs to get away from the crowds for a while.  He instructs the disciples to get into a boat and take him over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  So they head out on the water.  Only, their stomachs start growling and they say to one another, “Oh, no!  We’ve forgotten the bread; we only have one loaf.”

And Jesus says, “Watch out – beware the yeast of the Pharisees and the yeast of Herod.”  And after a big pause, someone whispers, “It’s because we have no bread.  He must mean that.”

And then Jesus just about loses it.  “Why are you still talking about bread?”  You’d almost think he was talking to the Pharisees.  In fact, he uses some of the same words, chastising them for having eyes and yet failing to see; for having ears and failing to hear.  “Do you not yet understand?” It’s a rhetorical question.

The last healing Jesus does comes just before Jesus enters into Jerusalem.  It is the healing of Blind Bartimaeus.  Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving the city of Jericho.  And so, we picture a walled city.  There, outside the gates, sits a blind beggar, a man clearly cut off from family and community – otherwise he wouldn’t be out there alone and in the shameful act of begging.  Because of strict laws about uncleanness, he cannot be part of a worshipping community.  No one who wasn’t embedded in family and community  could possibly be part of a holy people and their holy God.   Bartimaeus might as well be on death row.

He has heard of Jesus.  People passing by speak about this teacher and healer.  His only hope in life is somehow to find a patron; to attract the attention of a patron, someone well-placed and with much honour, to take him on as a client.  He’s not looking for a one-time-only handout.  He’s looking for someone that will invite him into a long-term relationship.  And look who are already his clients:  tax collectors, prostitutes, foreigners, the destitute, all those deemed unclean.  Maybe, Bartimaeus thinks, I have a chance with this Jesus.

Bartimaeus calls out to Jesus as the crowd goes rushing past.  He calls Jesus by the highest honour title there is:  Son of David, by which he means, Messiah.  The man cries, “Have mercy on me!”  What he’s doing is begging Jesus, the honoured One, to remember what he owes to shamed people, to those whose lives have lost their meaning; those totally dependent on mercy as Bartimaeus is.

Nearby disciples order him to be quiet but he persists:  “Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And Jesus, the Messiah, knows he has an obligation to those who recognize and honour him.  And so, he restores the man’s sight, restores his life in community.  After the healing, the man follows Jesus, becoming part of a new family.

Well, all this talk about blindness makes me ask, what about us, the church?  Do we have blind spots?  Do we sometimes turn a blind eye?  Do we need new vision?  The world is changing rapidly and in North America the numbers of church members are falling.  You could say we have been blind-sided by the movement of people away from the church, even the ones who were raised in the church.  We find this hard to understand, that people are looking for other ways of having their spiritual needs met.  How do we change the way we look at things and the way we are seen by others?

Recently, tongue in cheek, we put on our sign:  “Worship at 11 am.  It’s not so bad.”  And Sandy mentioned that a Mac student stopped to take a photo of it.  She thought it was funny.  So, at least someone noticed us!  Maybe next we should put:  “Worship at 11 am.  It’s not for everyone.”  It’s true.  Not everyone wants to dig deep into an ancient text whose meanings require a lot of reading and thought.  And yet…we know that people of all faiths and of none are still interested in the big questions questions we ponder weekly:  what does it mean to live a good life?  How are we to think about death?  How do we build strong, caring communities?

Maybe we need to get new glasses.  Change our perspective.  We’ve done it before at MacNeill.  Look at the things we thought were unchangeable but later saw through new eyes:  male-only pastors; a male-only God (and okay, that one’s still in flux);  marriage as between male and female only; children at the communion table; humans having dominion over the earth.  When Jesus asks us, as he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” we might say, “Lord, it might be time for new glasses; new ways of seeing and of communicating.”

The people of Mark’s Gospel who can understand who Jesus is aren’t the Temple leaders or the rulers.  They aren’t the rich, even if they kept the commandments from their youth.  They’re not even Jesus’ own people, his family, his Galilean neighbours.  Even his closest disciples lose sight of him and of God in him.   It is the people who have nowhere else to look for mercy who are watching for God.  It is the destitute, the excluded, the abandoned, the women and children whom the disciples try to turn away but to whom Jesus says, “Come.”  It is the people whom even Jesus was about to pass by whose eyes were watching God, seeing God in Jesus Christ.  Amen.

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