Homily for a ministers’ retreat

This homily was given at the vesper’s service on 10 April 2012 during the spring retreat of the Pacific Central District chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association. As usual, the homily as delivered differed from the reading text below. Homily copyright (c) 2012 Daniel Harper.


The reading comes from the Gospel attributed to Mark, chapter 10, verse 46 to the end of the chapter:

As [Jesus] and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. Then Jesus said to him, “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.


The reading this evening tells about an incident that took place when the wandering rabbi and rabble-rouser Jesus was making his way towards Jerusalem where he planned to celebrate Pesach, or Passover. So this little story was supposed to have taken place just a day or so before Jesus overturned the tables of the moneychangers, just a few days before the first day of Pesach, just a few days before the Roman authorities who ruled over Jerusalem arrested Jesus on trumped-up political charges and then sentenced him to death by crucifixion.

Let’s review what happens in this story:

Jesus and his followers are passing through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem. They’re in a hurry; they need to get to Jerusalem in plenty of time for the first night of Pesach. But crowds gather, and people keep stopping Jesus to ask him questions. A rich man runs up and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus tells him he must sell what he owns and give the money to the poor. Jesus has long conversations with his followers; who, quite frankly, do not seem very quick on the uptake when Jesus is trying to teach them how to create heaven on earth. And everyone in the clamoring crowds seems to want some of Jesus’ time, to talk with him, to touch the hem of his robe. Jesus and his entourage are about to leave Jericho, with only a few miles to go before they get to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where it’s all going to go down: celebrating Pesach, of course, but also teaching, preaching, and challenges to the religious authorities.

And then poor blind Bartimeus cries out from the side of the road: “Mercy, O Son of David!” People in Jesus’ entourage tell him to be quiet, to shut up. But that just makes Bartimeus shout all the louder. “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Jesus hears him, and tells him to come up to him. So the entourage lets Bartimeus go up to Jesus; no doubt they were reluctant to do so, this is throwing off their whole schedule, but Jesus says it’s OK.

And then Jesus heals him.

And Bartimeus follows Jesus in the way.

I don’t know about you, but I find this to be a troublesome story. First of all, there’s that bit about healing. I’m a religious naturalist, and I’m somewhat skeptical that Jesus could actually heal Bartimeus’s blindness; I will say that I’ve known one or two fairly credible instances of Unitarian Universalist faith healing; but if I’m going to accept this business about faith healing, I’m going to want to accept it as a metaphor.

There’s another aspect of this story that’s even more troublesome. How did Jesus pick out blind Bartimeus’s voice from the clamor of the crowd, and know that it was worth his while to talk to this particular blind beggar? Because you just know that there were lots of people clamoring for Jesus’s attention. And you can be pretty sure that many of those clamoring for his attention didn’t really deserve his attention — I imagine some guy clamoring for Jesus to endorse a timeshare condo development on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and some woman who just wants his autograph for her collection.

But blind Bartimeus does deserve Jesus’s attention. And his metaphorical blindness is cured. And then he follows Jesus in the way of truth and goodness.

A little bit of heaven bursts into everyday life.

This story reminds me of something that happened to me nearly twenty years ago when I was first working as a Director of Religious Education. There was a child in one of the Sunday school classes who had been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD. While this child took medication for the ADHD during the week, the child’s parents decided it was best to stay off medication on the weekend. By the time Sunday school rolled around, the child was bounding off the walls — sometimes literally bouncing off the walls.

This child required my constant attention, and the constant attention of other volunteers in the program; taking up so much of our time, sometimes we wondered: should we be devoting all this time to one kid? — what about the other kids; were they getting shortchanged? — how much attention do we need to give to one person anyway? Of course the child with ADHD deserved our attention, but that was true of lots of other children, too.

We who are leaders in congregations all face these problems: the child with ADHD; the grown woman who’s always asking for our attention for no apparent reason; all the social justice causes we know we should devote time to; all these needs surrounding us like a crowd.

And this brings to mind one of the most amazing things about the great religious leaders. People like Jesus, Buddha, Laozi: they seem to just know where to place their attention. They seem to just know which people deserve their full attention, and which people they can walk by; when they hear blind Bartimeus’s voice through all those other clamoring voices, they know that’s the voice they need to pay attention to; and they walk past the guy offering condo timeshares on the Sea of Galilee.

Now of course the stories about these great religious leaders are told after the fact. Maybe in the moment they were far less sure of themselves than it seems in the stories about them. But I don’t think so. I think what made them great religious leaders was that they knew what was most important.

We can see this in Jesus. Jesus had a powerful relationship with his god; he drew his strength from his god, he loved his god with all his heart and all his mind, and thus he could love other people as he loved himself. And the strength that he drew from his god meant that he was so spiritually centered, as we would say today, he was so spiritually grounded, that he knew immediately which clamoring voice to listen to.

I am not that good, not by a long shot. I am not so spiritually centered. I often lose my sense of spiritual grounding. There are millions of things trying to attract my attention: the dozens of email messages I get every day; the people stopping by my office, the people who want my attention on Sunday morning, many of whom have great and serious needs. I cannot be equally attentive to all of them, and I often don’t know where to direct my attention. I’m sure I frequently walk right past blind Bartimeus.

This is one of the challenges we face as religious leaders, isn’t it? We have this definite goal in mind — roughly speaking, we want to create a heaven here on earth, an earth made fair with all her people one. There are a million worthwhile things that we need to do to reach that goal, more things than we can possibly attend to. And there are a million worthless things trying to distract us from that goal. I know I need time to become more spiritually grounded, but I often feel so busy that I don’t have the time to step back, and relax, and become more spiritually grounded. (And I know some of you do take that time, and that almost makes it worse for those of us who don’t; for if you can take the time, why can’t we?)

Here is what I try to remember:

Heaven is breaking in upon us at every moment. And chaos is breaking in upon us at every moment. Somehow we have to be able to distinguish the two. When someone calls out for our attention, as blind Bartimeus called out for Jesus’s attention, we have to judge whether it is just a distraction, or whether it is a sincere call for help which we can give; and if it is help which we can give, we have many such calls for help, not all of which we can respond to. To make these judgement calls requires deep spiritual grounding.

This is my hope for all of us here at this retreat: that we can regain our spiritual center, our spiritual grounding, our spiritual strength. If we are more spiritually grounded, more spiritually centered, we will be better able to know how to respond to the people like blind Bartimeus: we will be better able to heal those who need healing; we will be better able to help those who would follow us in the way of liberal religion.

And it is this that will bring us that much closer to making a heaven here on earth — or rather, it brings us that much closer to being able to realize it when heaven breaks in upon us, at a time when we least expect it.