October 28, 2018
Rev. Canon Dr. William J. Danaher Jr.
(This sermon has been transcribed from live video. Please click here to watch the video version.)
Years ago when I was in the first part – the first couple of months of being ordained, I had this incredible set of responsibilities. I was living in New Haven, Connecticut, which at that time was the poorest city in New England. It was the eighth poorest city in the country. And to give you some idea, we liked to think of Detroit as poor, and, rest assured, in those days Detroit did come in number one, but New Haven was surrounded by these suburbs that were part of New Haven, and these suburbs were fairly affluent, so the level of poverty in New Haven was significant 23 years ago.
I was trying to make my way as a priest and I was working as a full-time student. I was studying and trying to finish my PhD. And then I also was serving two churches which amounted to a ¾-time job. So I was serving as a chaplain at Yale University, and then I also served this church that was right on the edge of the intercity. And I would go during the week from the library where I was studying and toiling away and trying to get my dissertation going, and I’d walk through this area that was not very good. I would go to this church and I would celebrate the service, and then I would walk back to the library. My life was a set of just very tight destinations that I’d made it to just in time. I was as busy as I’ve ever been.
Have you ever had moments like that where you are just going to the next destination? While I was there, one day I was coming back from this church where I did my work, and I did such wonderful work. As I was crossing this huge street that separated the intercity from the campus of Yale, I suddenly heard this person next to me – I saw this commotion right next to me as I was crossing the street. I looked and I saw this man getting up from having fallen down. He was an older man and he was a larger man and he obviously had some troubles with mobility. The way he got up, he looked a little bit like a toddler. He kept his legs straight because his knees were not good and he put his legs wide and he pushed himself up. He got up and he turned to me and he said, “It’s alright, I’m okay.”
I realized that I had been so focused on the next thing that I had to do that I had barely seen him, that he was a blur in the cityscape around me. I have to tell you that my heart broke a little bit when he turned to me and said, “It’s alright, I’m okay,” because he assumed that I had seen him and he had seen me, and he had walked across that street with me but I had not seen him. As soon as I heard him say, “I’m okay,” I turned and I said, “That’s great, are you okay?” And then he said, “I’m fine,” and he made his way across the street.
But I was suddenly aware of the fact that there was so much of my life, while I was going from one destination to the next that I had blocked out – I was suffering from a kind of tunnel vision and it was affecting how I encountered the world around me. I was missing some of the grace of being a priest. I was missing those moments of grace, those divine appointments, those opportunities to reach out to another person.
I was working for an intercity parish and yet I hadn’t really seen the intercity. Have you ever had those moments in life in which you suddenly have your eyes opened to something that you haven’t seen before? By that I mean not just your physical eyes, I mean there is something in our spirit that suddenly you become aware of something that is so profound and important and you realize that you have been ignoring it for decades and it cannot be ignored anymore.
I think that these moments of epiphanies, these moments in which we see again, they have four qualities. The first is they almost always are hidden in plain sight. There’s something we should’ve noticed but we didn’t notice for one reason or another for a long time. The second is that they always reveal something powerful about ourselves, some kind of sense of ourselves that we had missed. The third is that they tend to help us recognize a kind of obligation that we have to another. Once things are seen, they cannot be unseen. And finally, in these moments, in these epiphanies when we see again as if for the first time, we see ourselves as part of a larger picture. Something larger than ourselves that we cannot control, a kind of reality we can only walk in with a measure of grace.
Now, everything in our gospel today has been about learning to see, and everything in the past week that we have experienced is an invitation for us to see. This site is something that we have to recognize that’s been around us and hidden in plain sight. It’s a truth that once we have seen it, we cannot unsee it. It’s a deliverance about something about ourselves that we have to recognize. And it’s something that makes us aware that we are part of things that we cannot control. The violence and the hate crime that happened in Pittsburg this week in the neighborhood of Spring Hill, at a time and a place where people were gathered together to give glory to God and to celebrate God’s presence in their life. In a synagogue. This is an indication to us – this is an invitation to see.
And the question you and I have to deal with is are we going to open our eyes or not? And the fear of course in opening our eyes to these wider obligations is we always are afraid that we will be asked to give things that we do not have. But my experience tells me that every time we have chosen to open our eyes, every time we’ve seen things that have been hidden in plain sight, every time we see ourselves differently, every time we’ve entered into this wider world, we’ve also seen moments of grace and hope. In fact, in those moments in which the scales fall from our eyes, even in those moments of disillusionment, we find that we can see things more clearly because when that illusion disappears from our eyes and melts away, we can see a kind of grace by knowing the real true relationship that is there.
So for too many years, we have been a nation that has been silently falling apart. For too many years, we’ve been a nation that has lost the bounds of social trust between us. For too many years, we have been involved in things that have tended to create polarization and distrust and even violence. And all of us have a piece in that. And all of us have an obligation to repair the world. And yet even in there, I want to suggest that there is grace. As much as I believe in a God who has love that is stronger than death and a Christ who has victory over the grace, I know that even in these places in which we encounter profound evil and hate, there is grace and hope and love and faith. And these things will endure. These things will have their victory in Jesus Christ.
So this morning as I was thinking about and praying about the people in Pittsburg, I thought of a moment when someone asked Fred Rogers who’s from the same neighborhood – right after 9-11 someone said to Fred Rogers, “What do you tell children when you encounter such profound evil?” And Mr. Rogers said, “I tell the children to look for the helpers. My mother taught me to do that. Look for the helpers, see all the people coming to help.” So today I’m asking you to not only see what has been hidden in plain sight, I’m asking you not only to see something that cannot be unseen. I’m asking you not only to see something about ourselves that we don’t want to see. I’m asking you not only to see something larger than ourselves. I’m asking you all to look for the helpers and maybe to look at yourself and see yourself as a helper too. How can you see yourself helping?
Our gospel today is all about sight and the lack thereof. We meet Jesus on His way to Jerusalem. He is staying in Jericho. And as He’s leaving the city, he is somehow approached as he walks through by a man named Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus. Known to history as blind Bartimaeus. And he asks Jesus’ healing presence in his life. What’s strange is that Bartimaeus, though he is blind, he knows that Jesus is there. Though he is blind, he sees Jesus with his ears. And the disciples do not see Bartimaeus. Even though they see him with their eyes, they don’t want him to see Jesus. But Bartimaeus persists and Jesus heals him. He goes and follows Jesus on the way.
Now, there are two things that you need to know about this passage that are not apparent to the naked eye. The first is that this is the last healing miracle of Jesus. And so, it is meant to be a kind of foreshadowing of what is going to happen to Jesus when He dies and rises again. All of the miracles that we remember in Mark and we know in the Gospel of Mark that Jesus has done many miracles, but the miracles that are remembered are all meant to somehow communicate to people the reality of Jesus’ resurrection. So all of these miracles are kind of foreshadowings of resurrection and new life. So when Bartimaeus chooses to follow Jesus on the way, he is following Jesus to His death and resurrection.
The second thing you need to know about this passage is that there is a kind of play that Mark seems to be doing that some people think is in this. Between a normal way of advancing in life and learning and seeing things anew, and the way things are seen through Jesus. There is some irony, so scholars have argued, in the fact that they use the term “Timaeus,” that Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus is mentioned because Timaeus is one of the most famous dialogues of Plato. And in it Plato says that the world has order and beauty in it, we just need to climb a chain of being in which our minds are renewed. And Plato places belief and faith, pistis, in beliefs that are opinions, doxa. That these things are not stable. In fact, what we need is episteme, we need knowledge of nous, the intellect that rules the world.
And so, in having that elaborate kind of moment in the background of this gospel, what Mark is trying to tell us is that it is through faith, not knowledge, through faith in Jesus that we find our way to the order and beauty of this world. It is only through Jesus that we are given eyes to see. It is only by looking at Christ that we find the way forward in our lives. It’s only by clinging to His death and resurrection that we find a way to hold together this broken but beautiful world.
The art I have for you today is two pieces. The first is on the cover of your bulletins. It’s by El Greco, the great Greek artist who was born in Crete and moved to Venice and Rome before having most of his career in Spain. El Greco paints this piece in 1570. He is calling to mind some of his teachers. He’s got a little bit of Titian’s emphasis on landscape, and a little bit of Tintoretto’s emphasis on staging the healing of Christ – the Christ healing of Bartimaeus takes place in the middle of the painting. And it happens in this incredible classical setting which is meant to call to mind that whole distinction I drew between Timaeus, the letter by Plato, and Christ’s gospel as it is stated in Mark.
What’s interesting about this painting is you have Jesus healing Bartimaeus in the center and all around them you have multiple movements and people are not seeing what’s going on. So you have in the forefront, this couple are kind of together and some people believe that that is the moment in which the parents of the blind person is there. You have another person gesturing in a different direction, you have people arguing. And then you have people in the background just having a conversation. All the while Jesus is healing Bartimaeus. And El Greco is trying to give us a point that sometimes we can miss the healing that Jesus is doing for all of our busyness. A little bit like the way that I had such tunnel vision and missed that man.
The other painting I have is actually from a sketchbook done by Jackson Pollock. This was done in 1937 and 1938. Pollock studied El Greco’s Christ Healing the Blind Man. It was in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it was something that he tried to base his entire career on – trying to capture the movement that El Greco was able to capture. And so you see sketches from that painting all around and, yet, in the center of it, you have a stunning, early and rare self-portrait of Jackson Pollock of himself. Pollock his looking for himself when he’s looking at the art. And Pollock is trying to find himself in his painting.
This I think is a commentary on Pollock and a commentary on us. Ten years he develops his drip technique that almost everybody knows, and that’s because Pollock despaired a little bit that art could actually communicate something with a beginning and an end, a coherent story, a way of seeing the world. And the great blessing he felt that he gave people as an artist was to show exactly what people could not see. Pollock paints himself and I think in some ways he tries to capture the animating spirit of El Greco. What I want to suggest to you today that the blessing of El Greco’s painting is that it depicted Christ. Christ is the movement in that painting. Christ is the message we deliver.
Now, all of this is an invitation for us to see. All of this is an invitation for us to see ourselves. All of this is an invitation for us to see grace. All of this is an invitation for us to see differently what is God asking you to see. Today we have a witness given to you by Kate Bell who does incredible work with our children. In it, she has an incredible testimony to how she teaches, which is to ask the children where do you see God today? This is a question for you. This a question for me even now and always to look for God in Christ and in seeing Him to see each other anew. May we do so by grace.