Helpless

It was a dark and stormy night, not long after I graduated from college. I went to bed early, then woke in the pitch black night and realized the power had gone out in my parents’ home. I thought immediately of my grandmother, who had a first-floor bedroom. I didn’t know the time; my electric clock gave no help, and this was long before a handy cell phone could help me. But I knew my night owl grandmother might still be awake. I pictured her helpless, unable to use her walker, helpless. I got out of bed, straining to see if any light might be shining. The thunder and lightning had ended earlier, but the rain continued; no moonlight broke through the clouds.

In the deep darkness, I felt my way blindly across the upstairs hall, guiding myself by the door knob of the linen closet, and then the bathroom, then across to the stairwell. I crept carefully down the stairs, toes exploring each step, hand on the railing. I knew its temporary end meant I had reached the landing and needed to turn right. I kept on, slightly more confident, but guarding against missing the last step. At the foot of the stairs, I took a left into our family room, the site of many obstacles. I waved my right hand in front of me, counting off in my mind to identify the upholstered texture of an armchair, the smooth cabinet of the TV, the sharp corner of the ledge in front of the big, brick hearth, and finally, aha!—the wide mantelpiece. I felt along until my hand touched the familiar textures of cardboard, brass and wax.

I struck a match and lit a candle. I could see again!

By the light of the candle I made my way to my grandmother’s bedroom, where I found her still sitting up in a chair across from her now-dark TV, relieved to see me, rejoicing to see at all.

Becoming blind is scary. Realizing you cannot see is world-altering. And realizing you’ve been blind to the truth can change your life.

Bartimaeus had the typical job for a blind man in his day. He was a beggar and sat by the road wrapped in his cloak. He could not see, so he listened carefully to the news being shared by all those who went by. When the word came that Jesus was near, he already knew the man by name and reputation. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!!!” He cried out so that everyone could hear. It must have seemed obvious what kind of help he wanted: relief from the perpetual darkness that limited his life, a return to sight, and a new beginning in which he could navigate and operate like all the sighted people who surrounded him.

It’s quite a scene, this short story. Jesus hears the man calling but does not go to him. He has the man come to him.

He has the blind man come to him.

Then he asks, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Some years ago, I was in a clergy support group where several of us were wondering what would come next for us in ministry and in life. The facilitator suggested role-playing as a discernment tool. We would rotate the role of God and bounce questions back to each other, in hopes the answers would become visible. Simple enough, but when my turn came, I was afraid to say the words out loud. I’m an extrovert, and sometimes I don’t really know what I think until I’ve heard myself try saying it out loud. That’s great if I agree with myself!!

But it’s not so great if I hear the words and have second thoughts about them.

In the clergy group, I knew my colleague, who was a close friend, was not actually God; what made me so anxious? Looking back, I think I might have been afraid of getting the real God’s attention.

Because think of standing right in front of Jesus and hearing him ask, “What do you want me to do for you?”

Think of having to answer that question truthfully, of having God’s full attention.

James and John never hesitated, demanding to be seated on either side of Jesus in his glory. He asked them, in all seriousness, whether they were prepared to go through all the things he would experience. This conversation comes right after Jesus predicts his own death for the third time.

By now you would think they would have a good idea what lies in store: arrest, torture, execution. You have to wonder if they actually believed him, if they even came close to understanding what he was saying.

I think they probably didn’t. Remember in a story a few weeks ago the disciples were arguing about who was greatest among them? We are probably looking at the agitators right here. I think they still imagined something glorious in earthly terms. They swore they could do what he asked of them, but he disappointed them with his answer. It was not his to give, not his to arrange the seating, not his to elevate them. They didn’t understand what was coming.

They were blind. Suppose they had answered like Bartimaues?

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

The blind man asked for vision to be restored.

I think back to the day almost a decade ago when I couldn’t bring myself to put into words what I wanted and needed from God. Had I done it, I might have seen a way forward. I might have been healed of my blindness about myself and my personal history. I might have seen things a new way instead of holding on stubbornly to my familiar, uncomfortable existence. I had a life that wasn’t wrong exactly but also not quite right. I had an uneasy sense that although I worked for God, I wasn’t quite following Christ’s lead. But it felt easier and safer to stay on the side of the road, wrapped in a cloak, than to call out for help. I guess I wasn’t ready that day.

Maybe that’s why I have a secret sympathy for James and John. After all, they were among the first to follow Jesus, leaving their father in the boat with his nets, leaving behind the work they knew so well and a family business besides. They left the comfort of their home town and family life and the local synagogue to go out on the road with a man who did wonderful things but attracted dangerous attention from the authorities, a man who kept telling them his end was coming.

Jesus heals two blind men in Mark’s gospel, bracketing the three predictions of Jesus’ death. The first, in chapter 8, gets a healing balm of Jesus’ saliva, then a laying on of hands. This one comes easier. It’s almost like Jesus went into town looking for a blind man to cure, just to make the point: the disciples were blind to what was about to happen. Weren’t they listening when he said the first would be last and the last would be first?

They didn’t understand who he was, or what he needed from them.

He asks Bartimaeus the same question he asked James and John.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

“My teacher, let me see again.”

If we really want to see what’s going on, we need to meet Jesus halfway.

I wasn’t ready that day in my support group, even though it seemed like a safe place to put things into words. I was afraid of the ways my life would change. I had gotten comfortable feeling my way around the house of my life, blind but managing. I couldn’t say the words out loud:

“Lord, I don’t know what you want from me. Help me to see it.”

When I finally did, a few years later, I felt like Bartimaeus. I called out for God’s attention. I got up off the side of the road. I threw off a cloak of self-protection. I asked for healing of my blind fear.

It felt like God said, “Your faith has made you well.”

I’ll confess that the changes that came into my life were a little scary at first. Everything didn’t become magically easy, the path smooth, the answers certain.
But I could catch a glimpse of where I was going, as if the dark house had been illuminated, the power restored.

“What do you want me to do for you?”

These stories aren’t about getting what we want. They are about feeling our way to the moment when we are ready for a revelation. They are about coming out of the deep darkness and striking a match to light the way. They are about casting aside the cloak of all that is in the past and following the one who came to save us. They are about seeing what God wants.

So, what do you want God to do for you?

Teacher, may we all see what you want for us. Amen.

(A sermon for Lent 2, NL Year 2 – February 21, 2016 – Mark 10:32-52)

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