From the third verse of our Psalm this morning: Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death.
Though Bartimaeus was blind to many things, he clearly saw who Jesus was. From the Gospel of Mark: When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, Son of David, have mercy on me! Jesus then asked Bartimaeus What do you want me to do for you? and he responded, My teacher, let me see again.
Our readings today speak to the human capacity to move through life with eyes wide shut. Sometimes I think that we are to be pitied even more than Bartimaeus he knew that he was blind. In one of our Eucharistic prayers, we pray, “Open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us.” In other words, let our eyes be open to the God who is already there before us seeking us out. Sometimes we cannot recognize God at work in our lives and in the world because we are blinded by mundane details of our own lives of our own making. Or even worse by indifference and laziness.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews warns against this kind of spiritual blindness. His community has become dull in understanding. They cannot comprehend the truths about Jesus Christ and their responsibilities as recipients of this truth, so like babies, they must be bottle fed. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those who faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. He refers to the lukewarm believers that the author of the Book of Revelation describes so well: I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing. You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked (3: 15-17).
What is a lukewarm believer? Obviously it is someone who falls between the cold of disbelief of atheism and the white-hot rapture of, say, a snake-handling Pentecostal. But there s a universe in between those extremes, so I ll try to narrow it down a bit. An obvious description of a tepid believer could be described a one who goes through the motions of church because it is a necessary social convenience or perhaps a political convenience.
The clergy here at St. James s, myself included, have said that all are welcome here regardless of what one believes or does not believe, or where one may be on one s spiritual journey. The point of the letter to the Hebrews is that you have got to commit to the journey. Like Bartimaeus, the beggar, many lukewarm Christians have been sitting by the roadside for years, not moving a foot toward their eternal destination blind to the poverty of their abundance.Their sole preoccupation seems to be to collect the paltry alms that this world deigns to drop in their laps. This then provokes the question: How does a spiritually mature Christian act out of their faith?
The most obvious sign church attendance is not always the most telling sign. You do not have to be in church each Sunday to be a red-hot Christian of mature faith. No one is going to get into heaven just because of perfect church attendance. But you do cheat yourself out of the benefits of community if you are not here on a regular basis. You do cheat yourself out of the love of neighbor if you only show up on high Holy Days. You do cheat yourself out of Biblical and liturgical nourishment if you do not journey through the church year with us, if you attempt to reap Easter without first sewing Lent? You do cheat yourself and your children if you show up only at their baptisms and then, years later, at their confirmations. You cheat yourself if you show up long enough to be married here and then not again until your first child s baptism. You cheat yourself and your family if you do not take advantage of the educational, musical, and outreach opportunities offered here. You cheat yourself if you do not have a stake in this parish by which I mean allowing Randy, Torrence, and me to know you pastorally and, yes, by pledging. A lukewarm Christian cheats us too because we are bereft of their presence, their gifts, their friendship.
I didn t grow up in any church, and I knew full well that I was missing out on something. This past weekend when we were at the parish retreat in the mountains at Shrine Mont I thought to myself, What a gift. We are being fed intellectually, spiritually, communally and having fun at the same time. We re resting, hiking, and hanging out together. The children are playing with reckless abandon, having the times of their lives, while being looked after by their church family, who loves them. They don t yet understand the gift they have been given, this nourishing spiritual milk, but they will when they get older.
Seeing who Jesus is, or perhaps I should say, understanding who Jesus is and what he preached in the gospels can guide us out of our indifference and tepidness. Spiritual immaturity is blindness to the gospel. The question before us is this: What will we allow to go unchallenged today that will one day cause our grandchildren to shake their heads at how blind we were to the gospel? 1
We enjoy a certain 20/20 hindsight, proud of reformations past, proud of how far we ve come today. Our collective blindness toward slavery was exposed by the abolitionist movement; our collective blindness toward racism was exposed by the Civil Rights Movement; our collective blindness to sexism was exposed by the feminist movement; our collective blindness to poverty was exposed by Hurricane Katrina. We have much work to be done with regards to poverty, but at least now it is on everyone s radar screen screeching for attention.
Do you realize that worldwide 30,000 children die each day due to poverty? 6 million under the age of five die each year as a result of hunger, and 2 million die every year from infections spread by dirty water or the lack of toilets. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. 2 15 million children have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS. One in every five children born in the US is born into poverty, and more than 33 million U.S. citizens one in 10 households cannot afford to meet their basic food needs. To put this in perspective if they all stood in a line at a food pantry in New York, the line would stretch to Los Angeles and back. Twice. 3
So what will we allow to go unchallenged or what will we ignore that will one day cause our grandchildren to shake their heads in disbelief? Will we be shamed for our lack of interest in the genocide happening on the other side of the world, most especially in Darfur? Will one s gender or one s sexuality still be barriers to positions of leadership within the church? Will our insatiable desire for oil and our abuse of energy ruin God s green earth? More worrisome is the inherited blindness of each generation. If humankind continues on the path it is currently on then there will be no inheritance for generations to come to enjoy. I thank God that the Holy Spirit works through miracles, through political forces, through social action and through ordinary living to pick us up from where we have fallen, and to redirect us along right pathways.
Lastly, part of our spiritual maturity, which is part of discipleship, is knowing when and how to ask for help. Just as in our own prayers God knows our needs before we ask, it was obvious what the need of Bartimaeus was. But if we are truly to receive God s blessings for us, we must first acknowledge our own helplessness in order to receive. Jesus asks Bartimaeus to name his need. Can you imagine if Jesus came to you today and asked, What do you want me to do for you? Would you even know how to answer? Would you ask for your financial debts to be forgiven, would you ask for a good job, would you ask for respect and recognition, would you ask for your family to be taken care of, would you ask for good health and healing, would you ask for forgiveness, for mercy, for love? Would you ask for courage and purpose? Would asking simply for restoration be enough? For you, for the world, and those whom you love? Could you say, Look upon me and answer me, O Lord my God; give light to my eyes, lest I sleep in death.
1 Mary W. Anderson in The Christian Century (October 18, 2003).
2 UNICEF website
3 Church World Service brochure, 2006, What do you know about hunger?