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Blind Spots

A sermon delivered Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on October 28, 2012.

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 10:46-52

Job 42:1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34:1-8 (19-22); Hebrews 7:23-28

Nancy Rockwell described a man she met in Boston who was blind, a man who had been blind since the age of 5 when he and his brother were throwing jackknives at the barn door. But when the boy threw his knife particularly hard, it hit the barn door handle first and boomeranged back and struck him in the eye. Infection from that injury took his other eye as well and as a result, he had been blind ever since. He told her he had some visual memories, what things looked like, and vivid colors and such. But in truth, it had been decades since he had actually “seen” anything.

Notwithstanding that injury, the boy grew up and eventually earned a Ph.D. in history from Columbia University. Despite that accomplishment, no university wanted to hire a blind professor and the man eventually landed a position as an administrator in government offices that offered services to other blind persons. He explained to her how bitter he had become at the injustice of that because he understood it as society’s rejection of his abilities and thus of the community’s rejection of him as a person.

Consequently, he hated stories in the Bible like this one about Bartimaeus who was healed by Jesus on the side of the road. With great insight, he claimed it wasn’t the blind who needed healing, it was the many sighted persons who failed to see that which was obvious to him, persons who wrongly concluded that blind persons could not live productively and who were instead to be pitied.

A koan is a story, dialog, or question in the tradition of Zen Buddhism generally inaccessible to rational understanding, leaving us to rely on our intuition. The beauty of a koan is that it sparks reflection, imagination, or stirs our curiosity.[1] “Does the soul have a body, or does the body have a soul?” No one knows the origins of that question but we can take note of the fact that it’s a question without an answer and because of that we can call it a koan.

The koan of body and soul pokes around in the issues of the question “what is normal?” With the story of Bartimaeus in our thoughts today, it raises the question of diminishment and curse, of sense and reason and the rule of the flesh. It raises questions of longing and hope, humanity and humility for most of us.

I

The cruelty of the betrayal of our bodies is a lesson we all eventually confront as we live ever-forward on the arc of life. Some might say these are fool’s questions, curiosities of which we can only ask but never answer with the kind of certainty we desire.

In the days following the resurrection, Jesus questioned John’s trust and asked him one morning about his love testing him deeply. In that conversation Jesus pointed the way we all follow as we age:  I’m telling you the very truth now:  When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go (John 21:18, The Message).

A highly regarded professor of religion at Harvard could not begin to imagine himself apart from his body. In his prime, as a brilliant scholar in a healthy body, he became the Dean of the Chapel at Princeton. It was the role he was destined to play in ministry in the midst of an academic setting where he could influence a generation of scholar ministers preparing themselves for lives that would contribute to the common good in the church and other varied places of service. But early onset Alzheimer’s robbed him of his speech and he had to resign. He lived in a diminished state for years sequestered away from the world of ministry and away from his colleagues and the lively stimulation of students who could have taught. Was his soul diminished? Somewhere in the silence of a body that had betrayed him, was a keen, alert, animal soul still intact hoping for freedom, hoping for connections with the human experience.

Forrester Church considers an adequate definition of religion as a body-soul issue and therefore defines religion as the tension created between the twin truths of having to

live and having to die.

Our creation as body and soul, as soma and psyche, is wrapped up in the contract of life that’s ours at our birth. That contract is unknown to you but is evident in every aspect of your life. You bear in your body the DNA of your biological families and those physical characteristics play themselves out in your body as surely as it did in theirs. Science is reshaping that notion and we can affect how those genetic issues are lived out, but they exist as a part of our creation.

II

Bartimaeus, the blind man in Mark’s story of Jesus, longed for sight because he longed for freedom. He longed for a place in the community, a community that had relegated him to sitting by the road with a cup in his hand so he could beg for the community’s pity.

What was he like? How did he accept this fate, this strange betrayal of two eyes that gave him no sight? Had the community ever taken the time to get to know him as a person or had they determined to ignore him, perhaps seeing him as a public nuisance and not as a person? Was he despairing or was he hopeful?

This past week John Franklin Stephens, a 30-year old Special Olympics athlete with Downs Syndrome, wrote an open letter in response to Ann Coulter’s insulting slur about the president when she referred to him as a retard. It was an unconscionable and insensitive comment to make, rough and raw no matter what your political views. In his letter, he rose with dignity above the fray of this kind of political verbal assault by responding to Ms. Coulter with more civility than she showed before or after.

He wrote: After I saw your tweet, I realized you just wanted to belittle the President by linking him to people like me.  You assumed that people would understand and accept that being linked to someone like me is an insult and you assumed you could get away with it and still appear on TV. I have to wonder if you considered other hateful words but recoiled from the backlash. Well, Ms. Coulter, you, and society, need to learn that being compared to people like me should be considered a badge of honor. No one overcomes more than we do and still loves life so much. Come join us someday at Special Olympics.  See if you can walk away with your heart unchanged.

A friend you haven’t made yet,

John Franklin Stephens[2]

John’s response helps me understand more completely what the book of Hebrews means when it says, “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2, NIV).

The day Jesus came walking by Bartimaeus was waiting as he had every day of his life, compliant and quiet. And overwhelmed by his recognition of what the passing of Jesus meant, all the longing in his heart gave him voice that intruded, interrupting the grand parade of the community that greeted Jesus. Blind Bartimaeus, not seeing a thing but hearing everything, knew his moment for transformation had arrived and he couldn’t hold himself back. He had been silenced all his life and when this moment arrived, he unleashed his voice and no one had the power to silence him. Bartimaeus had lived in a kind of limbo, outside the community, beyond their ability to see him, and outside the boundaries that should have included him more fully. And even though the disciples could see no better than the community, not being able to see past his blind eyes and his dented beggar’s cup, he refused to be quiet yelling all the louder for Jesus’ attention.

Interesting how the community responded by turning on him with vengeance to get him to go back to where he had been sitting, to shut him up, and to put him back in his place. In the Greek, the word epitamao is translated generally as “rebuke.” It’s a word used only a handful of times in the New Testament, mostly in the Synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. It’s used when Jesus rebukes the spirits and when he rebukes the wind. Then, it is used here as both the crowd and the disciples rebuke Bartimaeus.

III

We enjoy 20/20 hindsight vision in life, proud of reformations past even as we are blind to the present need for reformation and restoration. Our nation celebrated the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Though much progress has been made in the past 40 years, when King was preaching and protesting in the ‘60s, most of the important adults in my life, even my spiritual elders in the church, were shaking their Southern heads lamenting all the trouble he was causing in the world. Decades later, this “troublemaker” is a martyr for justice and considered a great moral hero, whose birthday is a national holiday.

But that doesn’t mean the issues of racism have been settled. Ignorance and superstition and blind hatred on all manner of issues continue unabated as we recognize that racism is not out there as much as it is in here (my heart).

These are the rhythms of transformation, particularly when in the upside down nature of the Kingdom of God the troublemakers are recognized and accepted as the community’s heroes.

In our growth as human beings made in the image of God, we are always moving from blindness to sightedness, learning to recognize our blind spots, moving from unfaithfulness to faithfulness.[3]

[1] Thanks to Nancy Rockwell for her insights in this story of Bartimaeus, “Body and Soul,” from her blog The Bite in the Apple, http://biteintheapple.com/bodyandsoul/

[2] John Franklin Stephens, “An Open Letter to Ann Coulter,” 10/23/12, http://specialolympicsblog.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/an-open-letter-to-ann-coulter/

[3] Mary W. Anderson, St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Evanston, IL, “Blind Spots,” Christian Century, 10/18/03