“Darkness cannot drive away darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Words from Dr. King. While much of what I have to preach today took shape earlier this week, this sermon has been profoundly re-written given the hate crime committed yesterday in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Later this morning, a group of us will re-make our sign out front on Delmar. Again our sign will say “We stand with our Jewish neighbors against hate.” This church stands justice. We stand to say Jewish lives matter. We stand against the tide of anti-Semitism that our ancestors in the faith cultivated. We stand with our Jewish neighbors. We stand for love. We will not be silent.
Bartimaeus: the Ultimate Disciple
Today we read the last story in Mark’s Gospel before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem. From here the narrative changes. The stories of healing, the sermons, the teaching on discipleship, they are all finished. Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. These last verses of chapter ten are what we call a pivotal moment. And here in Jericho Jesus meets Bartimaeus, the last disciple who will join his group before he goes to die, the last disciple who will follow Jesus before the resurrection. Jesus last follower is loud.
Much of today’s story pivots on questions of identity. By the standards of Jesus’ time and those of our own, Bartimaeus is perhaps not who we would identify as a priority for recruitment to the movement. He doesn’t have the influence. He doesn’t have the checkbook. He can’t even see. By all societal measures, Jesus would have been luckier if the rich guy he met a couple weeks ago up across the Jordan had joined the band. But that guy walked away when Jesus said he had to sell all his possessions.
The people of Bartimeaus’ own town try to quiet him down. They scold him. The townsfolk of Jericho think they know Bartimaeus’ identity. Blindness was understood as a result of sin, sin of the person or their parents. The blind were unable to farm, unable to make a living. They were left to beg. The people of Jericho think they know Bartimaeus. They believe Bartimaeus has no business asking anything of a prominent teacher. His neighbors try to keep him quiet. But Bartimaeus knows his teacher.
Bartimaeus persists. He gets louder. And he says something no one expects. “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” In Mark’s Gospel this blind beggar is the first one to identify Jesus with David the great king. Mark does not include a story of Jesus’ birth like Luke, a Gospel written later. In Mark, no one has yet connected Jesus to David’s line of anointed kings. Bartimaeus knows something about Jesus’ identity. Jesus is the promised one. Jesus is the Messiah.
This is a theme in Mark’s Gospel. The blind are able to see that which is hidden to those with sight. Jesus plays with this metaphor a few times. But with Bartimaeus the theme reaches its ultimate form. Blind Bartimaeus sees Jesus’ identity, just before their entry to the holy city. Just before the people shout Hosanna and wave palm branches, Bartimaeus names what sees: Jesus is “the son of David,” the true and rightful ruler, God’s anointed one. Bartimaeus knows this king will have mercy. Jesus’ reign is a reign of justice, love and healing.
We need Bartimaeus
I would argue that today of all days, we need this miraculous story. Yes, we need to know that God’s love can work miracles. We need to know that Jesus can bring healing. We need to know that a crowd can be turned. Notice, with one word from Jesus the same crowd who tried to shut Bartimaeus up, begins to encourage him. “Get up! he’s calling you.” We need this story of social healing today. We need to know the voices of exclusion can become voices of encouragement. But before that work can be done, we need Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus knew that he could not keep silent. Though the pressure was strong, he knew who Jesus was. He knew what Jesus could do, for him and for his people. Bartimaeus knew the stakes were too high to keep silent. When the crowd tried to scold him, he got louder. Bartimaeus knew, sometimes love needs to get louder. Love needs to stand up and run with reckless abandon. Love needs to risk looking foolish. For the sake of love, for the sake of truth, sometimes we need to get loud.
Holy Communion, we need Bartimaeus. We need people who believe in Jesus, who believe in justice, who believe in God’s power to heal. We need people who are willing to be loud for the sake of love. We need people who are willing to shout from the rooftops and from the street corners, “our faith is not about hate. Our faith is not about exclusion. Our faith is about justice. Our faith is about love.”
Migrants and Asylum Seekers Need your Voice
When we hear reports that refugees have begun to make their way in a caravan toward our border, how will we respond? Do not misunderstand me. I know that the question of the border is not simple. I believe in a strong border. I believe our border will be stronger if we do not mis-identify those who are trying find refuge in this country. Our border will be stronger if we do not invent stories about the people trying to come here. Our border enforcement will be stronger if we rely on truth instead of speculation and political opportunism.
Our church partners with Cristosal, a nonprofit in the violent region people are leaving. Will we listen when refugees us their stories of violence and terror? Will we have courage? Will we say to our fellow Americans, “you are mistaken about God’s beloved people in that caravan. You do not know them. Let me tell you of their faith, their love, their belief in the promise of America?” We need voices who have listened with love to the stories of suffering. We need voices who are willing to be loud and advocate for asylum and for safety. We need voices willing to say “Immigrant lives matter.” Say it after me if you believe it “immigrant lives matter.” Say it loudly, so that the people hear it. “Immigrant lives matter.”
The Transgender Community Needs your Voice
Today we also need voices that are willing to advocate with the transgender and gender-expansive community. This year Holy Communion has set a goal becoming more “fluent” in conversation with this community. There are already members of our congregation who identify as trans or nonbinary, but this conversation is new to many of us. Learning language and behavior that helps more fully welcome folks who identify beyond the gender binary will take work. Learning to stand up with the gender expansive community will take commitment. We will do this work.
We will do this work because our kids’ lives depend on this work. Our neighbors’ lives depend on our voices. Suicide rates in the trans community are among the highest of any group.
At Holy Communion we believe diversity is an expression of God’s abundance. That is true of race. It is true of religion. And it is true of gender expression. We need voices who will proclaim diversity of gender expression and identity is a gift from God. We need voices who will stand up to the silence and say people of all gender identities are loved by God. We need voices who will loudly say: “Trans lives matter.” Say it after me if you believe it. “Trans lives matter.” Say it loudly, so our young people can hear it, “Trans lives matter.” Trans lives are a witness to the abundant love of God.
The Example of Bartimaeus
Part of what makes Bartimaeus such a striking example is his courage. He is willing to shout over the voices of others. And part of what makes Bartimaeus’ story so important in this Gospel are the contrasts Bartimaeus sets. We already spoke of the contrast between this blind beggar and the rich young man who doesn’t follow Jesus. With Jesus the last are first and the first are last.
But another profound contrast exists in this passage. Bartimaeus, this unlikely follower, gets Jesus’ identity right when Jesus’ own disciples have gotten it wrong. Much of Mark’s Gospel features James, John, and Peter and all those guys misinterpreting Jesus. Like the people of Jericho they try to shield Jesus, to keep the little children away. They try and get Jesus to give them special seats of honor, to trust them with power. They do not understand the kind of leadership Jesus teaches. Bartimaeus does.
As a church we need to find the courage to acknowledge when our fellow disciples, even our ancestors in the faith, have gotten the message wrong. Across our history, the church has fanned the flames of sexism, homophobia, racism, xenophobia and so many other sins. The church has been complicit, and perhaps in no case more than in the great sin of anti-Semitism. For centuries, the church got the message dangerously wrong. In today’s Gospel we have an example of a voice that pushed back against the crowd, against those who thought they spoke for Jesus.
Christians Must Condemn Anti-Semitism
Every pulpit across America today should condemn yesterday’s acts in Pittsburgh. The murders committed yesterday were an act of anti-Semitic hate. This was an act of anti-American domestic terrorism. This crime was anti-Christian. Because of our history, Christians must condemn violence against the Jewish community with the strongest voice. We must stand with our Jewish neighbors against hate. We must stand together to say “Jewish Lives matter.” I invite you to stand with me and say loudly if you believe it, “Jewish lives matter.” Say it so that our neighbors can hear you. “Jewish lives matter.”
We must stand together, with Rabbi Myers of Tree of Life synagogue who earlier this year made a public demand for sensible gun control. We must stand together for laws and a culture which would make a crime like yesterday’s more difficult to commit. As Rabbi Myers said, “We deserve better.” They do. We do. You may be seated again.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a famous teaching at Union Theological seminary, where he answered the question “what is the purpose of inter-religious cooperation?”
What is urgently needed are ways of helping one another in the terrible predicament of here and now by the courage to believe that the word of the Lord endures for ever as well as here and now- to cooperate in trying to bring about a resurrection of sensitivity, a revival of conscience, to keep alive the divine sparks in our souls, to nurture openness to the spirit of the Psalms, reverence fo the words of the prophets and faithfulness to the Living God.
Will we stand with our Jewish neighbors? Will we pray for one another? Will we stand up for one another? Will we learn to follow in the way of Bartimaeus, to love out loud? In our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces, in the public square, will we stand up to hate? Will we raise our voice? Will we name God, living and active, even still among us?
Each and every life is precious to God. God loves each of you without measure. In a political climate of division, where voices of hate are growing louder, where racism is used for political gain, at times we must make a claim out loud for justice, for love. Sometimes hate acts quietly, in courtrooms, in boardrooms. We must not remain quiet in the face of hate. Lives are at stake.
We saw yesterday in Pittsburgh, We see daily in America’s trans community, lives are at stake. In the midst of a gun violence epidemic, when no change seems possible, we must get loud. Lives are at stake. We hear from our partners in Central America the stories of lives lost when asylum seekers with credible fear are turned away from our border and returned to a neighborhood ruled by violent gangs. Lives are at stake. We must not be silent.
I know Dr. King was right. Light can cast out darkness. I am grateful to serve in a congregation that is willing to be loud, to make a Holy Commotion, to shine a light. Because our faith invites us, like Bartimaeus, to know Jesus, the true Jesus. Bartimaeus got loud for love because he knew what was at stake. Bartimeus raised his voice so that his neighbor ould know Jesus the anointed one, the one who has come to bring healing, who has come to bring justice, who has come to bring courage, who has come to bring love. Love enough to cast out hate.