Nine years ago this week I preached this sermon at Saint Luke’s Parish in Darien. That congregation loved me through the unexpected death of my mom and the joy of new birth with the arrival of our second child a few months later. Whenever I read the story of blind Bartimaeus in Mark’s gospel—like I am this week in preparation for Sunday—I think about all of this again.
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t give us much in terms of background on the story of blind Bartimaeus. We don’t know how often he would gather himself together to go and sit beside that road outside Jericho. We don’t know how long he had been blind, or what caused his blindness. At some point in his life, his eyesight was lost, and he had to learn how to stumble around in the darkness making his way through life. And so he was there that day sitting in the dust trying to scrape together a few coins so he could buy some bread.
Then he hears a crowd coming up the road, and then someone says the name Jesus, and he wonders if this is the same Jesus he’s heard about. He asks those walking by him as the crowd gets nearer, and finally he learns that it is this same Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth. And so blind Bartimaeus stands up and begins shouting loudly, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” He’s shushed by those around him to be quiet, but he gets even louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Sometimes in life we are blindsided by something that leaves us numb. Things come at us so quickly we can’t quite distinguish where we’ve been or where we’re going. We drift. We stumble around in the dark. We hold out a hope that maybe things can change. We long for wholeness. And so we offer up a prayer, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
Sitting in the living room next to a hospital bed that has been delivered to my parents’ house by hospice care. I hold my mother’s hand; it’s colder now than what I used to remember. It’s only been five months since her diagnosis with cancer. The news came fast and in varying waves of good and bad: first a small lump, and then the possibility of more. And then nodules in the lung, but then two non-related stage 1 cancers, a very rare but positive diagnosis. Surgery followed, but recovery was slow. And then the call that brought me home.
The oxygen machine whirs nearby, helping her breathe. I whisper my love into her ear. I recount stories from my childhood. She smiles, and coughs out a laugh. She tells me how much she loves me but the surgery has proven to be too much.
My dad, brothers and sisters and I take turns by her side. We sit near her and pray. We squint back tears. We walk outside, and run to the pharmacy and try to plan meals. We play games with my nieces and nephews out on the back patio. Early on during those last two weeks, she sat in a wheelchair under an umbrella to be with us. Later, she is confined to the bed, and later still she is unable to talk. And then one morning her heart begins to beat more slowly, and we gather around, joining hands, praying. I anoint her with oil and give last rites. I kiss her one last time, and stroke her hair.
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”
“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks Bartimaeus. It’s an unreal sort of question; he must have been stunned. What went through his mind? Was he thinking how this could be happening to him, how his luck had changed?
I imagine he couldn’t truly fathom that Jesus was standing before him asking him what he wanted. He probably couldn’t take it all in. One minute he was begging beside the road wondering where his dinner is coming from, and the next minute he is being asked what this miracle worker can do for him. The words come rushing out of his mouth, “Teacher, let me see again.”
Bartimaeus wants the same thing all of us want. He wants to be healed. He wants the numbness to be taken away and replaced with something else, something he can’t quite put his finger on. He knows for certain that he doesn’t want to remain as he is. He wants to see again. He wants to be made whole.
And Jesus looks at him and says, “Go, your faith has made you well.” Immediately he can see again. He sees Jesus and the crowd of people, he notices the way the sun’s rays dance on the dirt road. He turns and looks at the city gates and the people coming and going from Jericho. The world is opened before him in new and unexpected ways.
It’s two months later, and I am sitting next to another hospital bed, Labor and Delivery at Greenwich Hospital. I hold Melissa’s hand as we await this new little one who is about to join us. Even though we don’t know the gender of this baby, we are convinced it’s another boy. We share stories and laugh between contractions and try to catch some rest. And then in those last painful moments of pushing, a new little one begins to cry, drawing in those first breaths of air and the doctor says, “It’s a girl!”
We are stunned. And then immediately, a wave of unexpected healing and joy and emotion wash over us both. We look at the face of this new little daughter, and try names on for size. We remember one of the last conversations Mom had with us about the baby, and how much she loved one particular name. We look at this dark-haired little bundle of crying humanity, and we know what we should call her.
I go out into the waiting room and make phone calls. I call my sister. “It’s a girl!” I shout. “What’s her name?” she asks. “Olivia,” I say. “Olivia Hope.” “Mom would have loved it,” and I know she’s right. I go back into the room and hold Olivia, and the world is opened up before me.
At the end of our story Bartimaeus makes an unexpected turn. He’s been made whole, and Jesus tells him he can go back home, but he knows his life will never be the same. He gathers his things and begins following Jesus. Every time I read this story, I am struck by that last line, “Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.”
What stuns me most of all is the very next sentence, the one we didn’t read, which details where Jesus is headed. You see, as soon as Jesus heals Bartimaeus, Jesus turns his sights toward Jerusalem and the triumphal entry. The very next scene details what the way of Jesus really is, it is none other than the way of the cross. Even though Bartimaeus is given wholeness, Jesus himself walks toward brokenness. It is this way that Bartimaeus walks in too; it is this road that he chooses to follow Christ along.
When we brought Olivia home, our 22 month-old Noah couldn’t quite get out her name. After giving it some deep thought, he shortened it. I point to his sister and say, “Who’s that?” “Hope,” he says. I am struck, befuddled. He hears her fussing in the other room and says, “Hope crying.” He gives her a kiss and says, “O Hope.” Over and over as I look at my squirmy, smiling daughter I hear him declare that promise of new life, that promise of hope.
And that really is the way that we join Bartimaeus on when we choose to follow Christ. We walk the way of the cross—it’s true—but it is none other than the way of life. When we are made whole, we see that there is no other way in our lives. It’s only in our brokenness and our blindness that we can fully understand the gift of life given to us by Jesus. It is only when we are healed that we can truly comprehend the significance of the cross. And so we walk in this way of his, knowing that it is only Jesus who can truly have mercy on us. Jesus is the only who can bring healing to our lives. He is the only one who can lead us into the way of hope. Amen.