23rd October 2021
A Sermon preached by Canon Anna Macham, Precentor
Sunday 24 October 2021, 10:30, The Last Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Hebrews 7: 23-end and Mark 10: 46-end
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Around this time of year, I often remember a priest I once knew who I worked with earlier in my ministry and who died quite suddenly whilst still in post. This priest, who’s been dead over a decade now, and whose anniversary falls in a few weeks’ time, made a big impression on me when I was younger and still, perhaps, trying to find my own place as a priest in the Church. A big man and larger than life character, he used his position as a senior churchman to speak out fearlessly on social issues that then, as now, divide the Church, such as women priests and LGBT rights – something you don’t often see in senior members of the Church today, and that probably cost him further preferment, or promotion.
He was also, if you spoke to him, or knew him personally, one of the most un-PC people I have ever met. And, as an orthodox priest in the Anglo-Catholic tradition, he was just as insistent and forthright about matters of church to do with following proper form in prayer and dress as he was about justice. The singing of what he perceived to be the un-Christian hymn “Jerusalem” in church, or clergy who didn’t dress properly, he couldn’t stand. “I insist the cathedral clergy wear black shirts because it is a statement of history and origin, a uniform deeply rooted in tradition and monastic antecedents … (not) the floral extravaganzas more symptomatic of a photocollage of the Chelsea Flower Show than the hard work of saving souls,” he once wrote in a characteristically robust address.
But more than all of that, one of the things I most remember about this priest is the quality of his faith in the face of death. He died of pancreatic cancer, which meant that he got ill very fast and his decline was quite dramatic. I remember feeling privileged, in his final days, to take communion to him at home, when, shrunken and in bed, he told me very clearly and calmly that he wasn’t afraid to die, and that he knew where he was going. It’s hard to describe exactly, but this wasn’t stoicism or pious words, it was something real. He believed that he would be held to account, and- without having much time to get used to the idea that he was dying- said his prayers and prepared himself to meet God. In all the trauma and pain of that death, for him and his family and in a public role, it’s his faith that I’ve always remembered and taken to heart as years have gone by, that has stayed with me.
When I read the story of blind Bartimaeus we’ve just heard earlier this week, it made me think even more of this priest. Whatever we know about Bartimaeus, which isn’t really much judging from the length of this story, one thing is clear: this is someone who was outspoken, who wasn’t afraid of upsetting people and really didn’t care what they thought of him. The crowds in the story who were with Jesus in Jericho that day must have been excited. They were with Jesus, going up with him to Jerusalem. So when someone starts shouting from the roadside, it’s a pain, a nuisance. They try to tell Bartimaeus to be quiet. Yet he won’t be silenced. Bartimaeus even manages to be a bit subversive in his outspokenness. “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” he shouts- the first person in this Gospel to call Jesus by this messianic title, and to dare to do it loudly and in public, where presumably any passing Roman official could hear.
As a blind person, Bartimaeus was lowly and reduced to begging; the cloak that he throws off on the roadside when Jesus speaks to him and he responds would have been a cloak not for wearing in that hot and dusty climate but for spreading on the ground to receive money. He’s not the first person you’d expect to behave properly or well, certainly not the first person you’d expect to see Jesus for who he really is. Yet faith shines out of him, and, when Jesus asks him what he wants and he responds, he is healed. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus tells him.
Perhaps it’s desperation, perhaps he’d already had heard of Jesus and the stories of him healing people. Either way, Bartimaeus doesn’t have much to lose- either by upsetting people or drawing attention to himself through his lack of decorum. But his persistence in trying to attract Jesus’ attention shows, above all, the strength of his faith. When Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well,” the words “made you well” refer to physical healing. But for any early Christian reading or listening to this story, they would carry a wider and deeper meaning as well. Earlier in this section of the Gospel, Jesus asked his disciples the same question he asks Bartimaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” They asked not for healing but that Jesus would grant them to sit by his side in glory. They wanted power and prestige. They failed to understand what kind of leader or king Jesus really is, that he has come to serve, not to laud it over people. While Bartimaeus literally receives his sight, the irony is that the spiritual healing he receives is a gift that not everyone, including the disciples, are open or willing to receive. The key to salvation, whether literal or spiritual, is faith. That’s why anyone, even those excluded or overlooked from pure or polite society, can be saved. Faith is open to everyone, and often it’s the unexpected people who seem to have it most strongly. And faith consists not least in recognising who Jesus is and trusting that he has the power to rescue.
Of course, that’s not to say that faith always comes easily. There are times when it’s hard to have faith. Faith doesn’t guarantee long life, success or affluence- as the lives of the saints show. For the disciples, the journey towards faith is much slower and harder. The encounter between Bartimaeus and Jesus comes at a turning point in the story of Mark’s Gospel. It happens at Jericho, the last town to be passed by the pilgrim on the way to Jerusalem. The second part of Mark’s Gospel, which began with the healing of a blind man, now ends with the healing of Bartimaeus, another blind man, who also, crucially, receives spiritual sight. And now the story will move into its final section, where Peter finally recognises Jesus, and his idea of who he really is is turned upside down, as Jesus sets out on his journey towards the cross and the glory that is found there.
In one sense, Bartimaeus’s encounter with Jesus changes everything for him. He recognises who Jesus is, he clearly believes Jesus can help him, and, having been healed, he leaves his begging and he follows Jesus on the way, “the way” being the early Christian’s word for what we call “Christianity.” Bartimaeus, the blind and homeless beggar- in the upside-down logic of Mark’s Gospel- becomes the true model of faith, courage and discipleship. Yet in another sense, it doesn’t change him at all. Bartimaeus is still just as much himself, just as loud and outspoken, just as offensive to those who don’t like him as before, in his proclamation of God’s kingdom of peace, justice and joy. Following a call to serve doesn’t entail losing his personality or learning to fit in with others, any pious stereotypes of what he should now be as a Christian, any more than he did before, or becoming any less of a challenge to those who would prefer to maintain the status quo.
At this turning point in Mark’s Gospel, we are also at a turning point in the Church’s year. This Sunday is the last Sunday after Trinity. Having spent the Trinity season learning more of who Jesus is, we turn our thoughts now to the saints and to the kingdom and to the saints, all those countless followers of God, known and unknown, who have gone before us. We tend to think of the saints in a certain way, revering them on high, just as the Letter to the Hebrews sets Jesus on a pedestal, the High Priest who offered himself on Calvary and continually makes intercession for us in heaven. Yet not all of them were saintly and pious; many were awkward, difficult characters, outspoken in their concern for the dignity of all God’s people, and for God’s world. And just as Jesus’ high priesthood was achieved through his human suffering on the cross, so the saints of God in light are those who have been called not to the heavenly heights, but to step down the ladder, to challenge the comfortable and to share the same fate and the poor and to stand alongside those who have been disenfranchised and marginalised.
“Go; your faith has made you well.” When he sees the face of God in Jesus, Bartimaeus finds himself in a place of safety and of trust. He is no longer anxious but secure, confident that, whatever happens and wherever this journey of faith will take him, things will be alright. Faith isn’t always easy. Things get in the way, and we don’t have to be perfect. Like this Gospel, the whole of life is a journey of faith and getting to know Jesus better. Whether we find it easy or hard, whether we’re outspoken or quiet, the gift of faith is open to all of us. All we have to do is ask.