Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost by Donald Grayston

Lessons:

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Psalm 34:1-8, 19-22

Hebrews 7:23-28

Mark 10:46-52

 

 

“Jesus said to [blind Bartimaeus], ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ The blind man said to him, ‘My teacher, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way” (Mark 10:50-52).


Let me begin with a word of thanks to Martin for the privilege of preaching here this morning. Then let me offer a word of appreciation for the great state of Oregon, towards which I have warm feelings for three reasons. The first of these is that I have just spent four days in Ashland, at the magnificent Shakespeare Festival, at which I saw four plays, every one a winner. Second, I had the opportunity on the way down from Vancouver to stop in at the publisher of my book on Thomas Merton, Wipf and Stock, in Eugene, and meet some of the people who brought my book into reality. Third, because this morning I am having the opportunity to meet the people who were discerning enough to invite Martin to be your rector—you will not regret this decision.

My sermon: blindness and vision. In 2006 I went on a big walk in Britain—400 miles, one pair of boots, no blisters. Somewhere in Derbyshire I got lost, and found myself wandering across a farm with no workers apparent on it. Eventually, over a wire fence, I chatted with one of the farm staff who showed me on my map where I had gone astray, and where I wanted to go. I thanked him, and then for no reason in particular, I said to him, “I once was lost, but now am found”—to which he replied, “Was blind, but now I see”—and when I smiled at this, said, “Lapsed Methodist.” I once was blind, but now I see.

Some 45 years earlier, I was at the seminary, also in England, where I did the first two years of my theology. One morning, at 11 am, everyone in my class, the first year class, was having our morning coffee break—“elevenses,” as they call it there. But where was the second year class? A few minutes later they came in, wiping their eyes and blowing their noses. We asked them what had happened. They told us that the preaching instructor, Father Ellis, had given his famous lecture (of which we had never heard), on the illustrative use of the Bible in preaching. The passage he chose was this morning’s gospel, the story of blind Bartimaeus. We in the first-year class expressed our bemusement at their emotional response to a simple lecture, and assured ourselves that we, tough guys that we were, would never so react.

A year later we were the second-year class, and the morning came when Father Ellis was to give his now famous lecture. We nudged each other, and smiled knowingly to each other, as if to say, what happened to the second-year class won’t happen to us. I only remember a few of his lines, including his opening line: “Dawn … in Jericho!” But then in a very moving way, following as I later realized the method of St Ignatius, who encourages us to make ourselves present to a biblical situation—to see it, feel it, touch it, smell it, hear it, imagine ourselves inside of it—he gave his lecture. And yes, after the lecture we went down to elevenses wiping our eyes and blowing our noses, to be greeted by the incredulity of the new first-year class. With our fellows in the previous second-year class, and with Bartimaeus himself, we could say, we had to say, “I once was blind, but now I see.”

Back to John Newton’s hymn. Newton was a slave-trader when he was converted; and when he wrote his famous words—“I once was lost and now am found, was blind and now I see”—he was still working as a slave-trader, and didn’t stop that vile work until some years later. His blindness had only been partially healed. He could see some things, and not others. He saw “through a glass, darkly,” as Paul says in 1 Corinthians. Not everything was clear to him. In this regard he was similar to many of us if not most of us: we see some things clearly, there are other things we simply don’t see.

About five years ago, I read a book on the sayings of Jesus which included the sayings that are found in the Gospel of Thomas. This book is not part of the New Testament; it was found in the sands of the Egyptian desert in the 1940s, and quickly recognized as a document which goes back to the time when the official New Testament gospels were being written. It has no narrative, nor does it include the parables; it consists simply of wisdom sayings of Jesus, one of which hit me like a ton of bricks, to use a very useful old cliché; and here it is.

Know what is in front of your face, and what is hidden from you will be disclosed; for there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed.

Yes, know what is in front of your face—right here, right now. Immediately my mind went back to several important moments in my life when I had not known what was in front of my face. This quickly took me to another thought: what is in front of my fact right now, and am I seeing it and knowing it?

It is an important spiritual practice, I began to realize, to practise knowing what is in front of one’s face. Many of us set our faces mainly to the past, in guilt or shame or depression. Others of us look mainly to the future, in hope or fear or anxiety. What Jesus asks us in this saying to do, however, is to focus our line of sight on the present moment. If this becomes habitual, then past and future will click into focus, take their rightful places in support of the only moment in which we can live and see and know and make decisions, the present moment, the only moment when history and eternity can touch.

Does not every human being wish to be seen as he or she is, for what and who they are? The people with whom we share our lives want this; and we will only be able to see them as they want and need to be seen if we are present to them in the present moment, not pulled back into the past or thrust forward into the future. As an imperfect parent, I want to say how particularly important this is between parents and children.

What I am describing here is known as the contemplative approach: to be lovingly present to the present moment. I emphasize “lovingly.” It is possible, of course, to be present to the present moment in ways other than lovingly: to be angrily present to the present moment, or fearfully present, or manipulatively present. If, however, we are lovingly present to the present moment, we are present as Jesus was—present to himself, present to others, present to God. There is no passage in the gospels which suggests that Jesus permitted himself to be dragged back into the past or forward into the future. Living in God, and living in the present moment, he was able to see clearly. He never had to say, “Once I was blind, but now I see.”

We nourish this contemplative approach by contemplative prayer—prayer without words, silent prayer, silent meditation–simply giving ourselves time to be in God’s presence. The great practitioners of contemplative prayer, of whom Thomas Merton was one, tell us that if we wish to grow in clarity of spiritual vision, we will sooner or later need to commit ourselves to the daily practice of this silent form of discipleship.

As we grow in this practice, we will see those around us more clearly for who they really are, and we will also see where God is in the events and circumstances of our lives. “Blessed are the pure in heart,” says Jesus in the Beatitudes, “ for they shall see God.” And what does this mean—to see God? In saying this, Jesus is moving beyond the experience of Moses, who believed that we could not see God in his infinite immensity and live. Jesus meant something different from a physical seeing such as Moses was envisaging. He meant, I believe, that we can learn through practice to see God at work in the lives of others, in the life of the world, in the life of the planet itself, and in our own daily lives.

And yet the mystical tradition of our faith speaks of something more, something ultimate: the beatific vision, the vision of God in Godself. Here another statement from Father Ellis’s lecture comes to me: “His vision restored, he opened his eyes; and the first thing he saw was the face of his Saviour and his God.” Our Christian ancestors quickly came to the conclusion that, as Paul says in Second Corinthians, “God was in Christ.” In seeing Jesus, we are seeing God. That was their privilege, in the days of his flesh, one of course no longer available to us. What is available to us is to look for the work of the Spirit of God in the lives of those around us and in our own daily experience. In that regard, I commend to you another spiritual practice, the daily examen, as it is called: a time at the end of the day when you review the events of your day and seek to identify the instances when God wanted to be present to us, to speak to us, to call us into greater clarity of vision—on our way to the heavenly vision, the beatific vision.

There is a wonderful and memorable poem which holds up to us the possibility of the beatific vision, the moment when we will see with total clarity how it is that we have every moment of our lives been loved by God and invited to respond with love. This poem is called “General William Booth enters into heaven,” by Vachel Lindsay, an American poet of the early 20th century. Booth, as you may know, was the founder of the Salvation Army, and in his last years, became blind. His blindness is the starting point of the poem. I won’t read it all to you, but I will share with you some of the lines that have stayed with me since I read it for the first time in my senior year in high school. The strong beat, I should say, is meant to suggest the beating of the bass drum in a Salvation Army band. I offer it to you as encouragement to take into your daily consciousness the command of Jesus to know what is in front of your face, and so to move step by step from darkness to light, from blindness to vision.

 

And here’s the poem.

 

Booth led boldly with his big bass drum—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

The Saints smiled gravely and they said: “He’s come.”

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

Walking lepers followed, rank on rank,

Lurching bravoes from the ditches dank,

Drabs from the alleyways and drug fiends pale—

Minds still passion-ridden, soul-powers frail:—

Vermin-eaten saints with mouldy breath,

Unwashed legions with the ways of Death—

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

 

Jesus came from out the court-house door,

Stretched his hands above the passing poor.

Booth saw not, but led his queer ones there

Round and round the mighty court-house square.

Yet in an instant all that blear review

Marched on spotless, clad in raiment new.

The lame were straightened, withered limbs uncurled

And blind eyes opened on a new, sweet world.

 

O shout Salvation! It was good to see

Kings and Princes by the Lamb set free.

The banjos rattled and the tambourines

Jing-jing-jingled in the hands of Queens.

 

And when Booth halted by the curb for prayer

He saw his Master thro’ the flag-filled air.

Christ came gently with a robe and crown

For Booth the soldier, while the throng knelt down.

He saw King Jesus. They were face to face,

And he knelt a-weeping in that holy place.

(Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?)

 

Once I was blind, but now I see.

May it be so.