Saturday, October 27, 2012

Pentecost +22B

One of the favourite devices in fairy tales is the unexpected reversal of fortunes – the frog that when kissed turns into a handsome prince, the scullery maid who morphs into a beautiful princess, the beggar who becomes king.  Fairy tales – the stories of peasants and gypsies and working class people – are a sort of oral folk wisdom, a magical tradition and a rich source of psychological insight.  Another variation is the riches to rags to riches story – the hero who starts off with apparently everything he could hope for, who loses the lot through the trickery (usually of a wicked stepmother or uncle), lives by his wits and finally through a combination of luck and cleverness and integrity wins back more than he ever had before with a beautiful princess into the bargain.  Puss in Boots is a good example of this sort of story. 

So we begin today with two beggars.  Job, who as we know was rather arbitrarily used as a pawn in a bet between God and God's offsider, ha-Satan the Accuser, has been sitting on the rubbish heap of his life for the last 43 chapters, refusing to go quietly.  He has progressed from self-pity to demanding justice, accusing God (fairly accurately, within the context of this story) of procedural unfairness, he demands to know the case against him, he demands that God show himself, explain himself – and in our reading last week, God finally speaks.  Our Gospel reading this morning begins with another beggar, Bartimaeus, which St Mark rather unnecessarily tells us means 'the son of Timaeus' – or unpacking that a little further since Timaeus means precious, or worthy, 'son of worthiness'.  Well at a symbolic level the name is already telling us that here is someone to watch out for, someone to emulate.  But in the meantime he is doing the only thing a blind person could possibly do in the days before social security, sitting by the side of the road at the gate of the city – which is to say, both marginalised and in the way – begging for his daily bread.

But the astounding coincidence is – and I suspect this is a coincidence the lectionary writers didn't plan – Bartimaeus behaves exactly the same way Job does.  In fact, I suggest, the stories of Bartimaeus and Job help explain each other.  To be brutally honest, both of these gentlemen are in the way.  They are a law and order problem, actually.  In the logic of the world they inhabit, both of them are supposed to accept that their plight is the result of some hidden fault and to stay out of sight, unacceptable, inexplicable and miserable.  But neither Job nor Bartimaeus accept that.  Neither of them are prepared to shut up.  And, getting ahead of myself for a moment, both of them see more clearly than anybody else.

In our reading last week, Job was reduced to silence again by God's response.  God doesn't outline the case against Job, neither does he justify his own actions but simply reminds Job that he is God.  Were you there, he asks rhetorically, when I laid the foundations of the earth or hung the stars in space?  In other words, do you really think with your limited perspective you can possibly know the truth of things, the chain of cause and effect?  Can you really apply your human standards of justice to the immensity of the whole created order and its divine author?  Well of course not, and Job is duly chastened, and falls silent again, not this time the silence of depression but the silence of wonder.  There is something, isn't there, about holding up our own heartache and suffering to the immensity of the universe itself, to the silence of the stars and the frightening abyss of the ocean – and allowing our own tightly clenched and self-obsessed souls to open in wonder to what is.  And the non-answer we get from the immensity of the universe and the silence of God is – paradoxically – an answer.  We are what we are, and we belong, and small as we seem to ourselves, we are a child of God.

But if God sounds cranky at Job for pestering him, the intervening chapters that we didn't read between last week and this put it into its proper perspective.  Because it's Jobs friends, the ones who kept telling him to be silent and to accept his situation, who get the right proper divine telling off. Eventually God tells them to ask Job to intercede for them, Job the persistent nuisance is the one God wants to hear from.  And in today's anti-climax, of course, all that Job had and more is restored to him because, in his distress, in his bitterness and depression and argumentativeness he insisted on being heard by God.

In the Gospel reading today, the Greek word that that particularly strikes me is squawk.  Bartimaeus doesn't just cry out, he squawks, or to use the colloquial Aussie, he carks like a crow - the Greek word is krazo – when he hears that Jesus of Nazareth is walking past.  This is a man who is sitting on the ash-heap of his own life, blind, utterly without prospect, a nuisance.  So he doesn't exactly speak up, he doesn't speak loudly or assertively – literally, according to the Greek, he squawks like an inarticulate creature.  Everywhere else in the Gospel, St Mark uses this same word to describe the cries of demons and irrational mobs.  It is an almost sub-human cry of distress – and yet – Bartimaeus is the only one who sees clearly what is going on.

What he hears is that this is Jesus the Nazarene – perhaps this is what the crowd is saying – and what he cries out shows that he sees more clearly than the disciples have done in both of the episodes that come just before this one in chapter 10 – 'Jesus', he squawks, 'Son of David, have mercy on me'.  Our ears should be pricking up at this – we know this one – Bartimaeus is making a big claim, because 'Son of David' is a title that belongs to the longed-for messiah, the once-and-future king of Israel who would be a descendent of the great king David and restore the glory of Israel.  Bartimaeus although blind, is the only one in Mark's Gospel who sees clearly who Jesus is.  Until the very end, that is, when the Roman centurion who has just crucified Jesus also gets it:  'truly, this man was the son of God'.

And this is where we need to notice that in this story – just as in the story of Job – there are three characters: Bartimaeus, Jesus, and the crowd, including the disciples.  Job, God, and Job's well-meaning friends who persist in doing more harm than good.  Because when Bartimaeus squawks in recognition, when the blind man sees clearly, the disciples and hangers-on try to shut him up.  'Be quiet!'  Unable to see, locked into his private world and socially marginalised as he already is, the disciples want also to make him voiceless.  Job's friends, of course, spent 40 or so chapters trying to do exactly the same thing to him.  'Stop pestering!' We need to pause and think about this one for a bit.  How often, effectively, have we given out the same message to the uncouth, the mentally ill or disabled that they disturb us, that they are in the way, that they do not belong in our ordered worship? How often have we given out the silent but clear message that children are welcome, so long as we don't see them or hear them, or have to do anything differently because they are here?  It's when our own agendas get in the way, especially our unacknowledged agendas, the ones that make our worship and our spirituality self-serving, that like Job's comforters or Jesus' fair-weather friends, we stop seeing clearly either who God is, or who we are.

And Jesus says to Bartimaeus – as more or less, God says to Job – 'what do you want me to do for you?'  It is the exact same question that Jesus asked James and John in our Gospel reading last week, and of course James and John gave the 180 degree wrong answer.  'We want to sit at your left and right hand.  We want to be important'.  Bartimaeus gives the right answer, the answer that makes him a true disciple: 'sir, I want to see'.  This of course is to unpack the story at the symbolic level, but Mark informs us this is how he means it when he wraps up the story by saying: 'and he followed him on the way'.  The only time in the whole Gospel that somebody healed by Jesus follows him on the way.  If you want to be a disciple, then your persistent prayer needs to be, 'Lord, I want to see'.

Though you might be quietly arguing the point with me, you might be thinking, 'yes, but.  How does that help somebody who is really blind?' And you are right.  Bartimaeus, like Job, is in physical distress, and we can't wriggle off by making it all symbolic.  Clearly, Jesus healed people.  Real sick people, blind, crippled, feverish people.  Even allowing for a bit of exaggeration in the Gospel stories, the traditions are just too clear on this for us to ignore it.  And Job, even if his character is fictional, represents any one of us, anyone who calls out to God in the extremity of real calamity or distress and hears – the silence of the stars.

But I don't think the two levels of hearing this story are unrelated.  Poverty, physical or mental illness, disability – isolate people.  The person suffering chronic illness learns to shut up, internalises rejection and experiences shame.    The released prisoner continues to wear the label of offender.  Even amongst God's people.  Even in the Church.  We don't have Jesus' power to heal, to remove or undo the circumstances that have damaged a person's life.

Except – as the body of Christ, the hands and feet and vocal chords commissioned to heal and speak words of grace – we are in the business of transformation.  This is a tricky word, transformation.  Transformed sore feet still hurt.  Transformed macular degeneration still leaves a black hole in the middle of your visual field.  Transformed conviction and imprisonment still leaves you with a police record.  But transformed suffering is grace-filled suffering, suffering that comes hand-in-hand with joy.  Suffering that is empowered to live with confidence and purpose.  And how, as the body of Christ, are we supposed to accomplish that?

 I think – by praying for the grace to see clearly.  Who we are.  Who God is.  Who the person next to you in the pew is.  The one in whom, whether you like it or not, you come face to face with Christ.  I often wonder what it is, when we pray for somebody in our midst, when together we lay hands on somebody and anoint them with oil and pray together for them – what it is about that that works?  Because, make no mistake, it does work.  There is healing, I hear time and time again of the healing that comes through this prayer.  The oil is just oil, set apart for a holy purpose.  We are just ordinary people, gathered together for a holy purpose.  And I think, what changes in our prayer of healing – is all of us.  That we get transformed into a community of care and grace.  A community that includes, that hears, and that sees.