On the road – Mark 10:46-52

In school I was told that a preposition is a word you should never end a sentence with! ‘With’, by the way, is a preposition! (If you want to know how to not win friends and irritate people you can be even more pedantic and refer to this as ‘preposition stranding’ or ’sentence-terminal prepositions’!)

This rule, however, is no longer a rule. It stopped being a rule sometime in the 18th century! But by now you might be thinking that a discussion of prepositions is something you should never start a sermon with!

Except that ‘prepositions’ play a key role in our passage from Mark this morning. Jesus and his disciples and a large crowd were all leaving Jericho, we’re told. They were on the road. Bartimaeus, a name Mark helpfully tells us means ‘son of Timaeus’, was sitting by the road. They were on the road. He was by the road.

What is the significance of being on the road or by the road? What is the road all about?

If we go back to verse 32 things get a little clearer. There it says: “They were on the road going up to Jerusalem, and Jesus was walking ahead of them; they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid.” They knew! They all knew that Jesus heading to Jerusalem was a bad idea; that he was heading into danger. What they couldn’t work out was why he was setting such a cracking pace to get there. They were amazed and afraid and very confused.

Today’s reading, the healing of Bartimaeus, sits at the end of a section of material in Mark’s gospel which begins in chapter 8 with the partial, and then complete, healing of another blind man. In that story, Jesus puts spit on the man’s eyes and lays hands on him, but his sight is only semi-restored. “I can see people,” he says, “but they look like trees walking.” So, Jesus touches his eyes again, and this time, “…he looked intently and his sight was restored.”

And in between these two stories of blind men regaining sight, Jesus tells his disciples three times (in 8:31; in 9:31; and in 10:33) that the Son of Man must be betrayed, that he must suffer and die, and, that after three days, he will rise again. Three times they are told that the road they are on, the road marked with suffering as we sang last week, is also the road of commitment to God’s will, of sharing God’s love for God’s world.

Three times they are told, and they are still amazed and afraid and confused. They are like the first blind man seeing people like trees walking, seeing paths ahead to glory (check out verses 35 to 45) not paths that go via the cross.

And then we have the healing of Bartimaeus. A man who is not on the way, a man who is by way. A beggar. A man of no account, but despite all these things, despite being blind, Bartimaeus sees Jesus as a disciple should see Jesus.

“When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth,” verse 47 says, “he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd – perhaps the disciples too – do not make it easy for him. “Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” Bartimaeus is the first to use this royal title for Jesus. Later his disciples and others in the crowd will use it in Jerusalem.

And when Jesus calls, Bartimaeus responds as a disciple should respond. Verse 49 mentions ‘call’ three times! 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.” And Bartimaeus responds immediately. He throws off his cloak, perhaps his most valuable possession, springs up and comes.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asks. “My teacher,” Bartimaeus says – he puts himself in the place of a disciple – and he asks for the true desire of every true disciple, “Let me see again. Open my eyes that I may see…”

I was in the car a few weeks ago, listening to Radio National, and a story came on about the Queen’s 1954 royal tour and her visit to Shepparton in Victoria. The route to Shepperton took her along the causeway known as The Flats where people from the Yorta Yorta nation had made their homes after walking off the Cummeragunja mission in 1939. The local authorities realized the humpies and tin sheds of the community would be visible from the road, and so they hung hessian sacks along the road because, I quote: “the sight of the natives…was too unsightly for Her Majesty’s eyes.”

These Yorta Yorta people, like Bartimaeus, were by the roadside. They were thought unsightly, of no account, but, like Bartimaeus, their actions were the actions of true discipleship. It was in response to injustice, poor rations, cruel treatment, and the increasing removal of children, that they walked off Cummeragunja, inspired by Aboriginal Christian leaders, Jack Patten and William Cooper. It was one of the first mass protests by Aboriginal Australians and had a significant impact on events that followed, like the 1967 referendum.

Today the children born on The Flats and their children are working to protect the natural environment as Aboriginal voices become louder and louder in this country about environmental degradation and climate change. It was a real privilege as I mentioned in my report two Sundays ago to be involved with the Knit for Climate Action Campaign of Common Grace, a campaign led by Aboriginal people and CEO, Brooke Prentis.

There are times when those beside the roadside, those by the way, show the way for others, when those on the margins speak theology into the centre of our lives.

“Let me see again,” says Bartimaeus. “Your faith has made you well,” Jesus responds, and immediately, we’re told, Bartimaeus, “regained his sight and followed Jesus on the way.”

Sometimes it takes some of us a little longer to truly follow Jesus on the way.

I was reading a story last night from the controversial bishop, John Shelby Spong’s autobiography, where he talks about two men who both had a large influence on his life.

The first was David Watt Yates, rector of the university Episcopalian church, the Chapel of the Cross. He was, in Spong’s words, “a unique human being… A militant low churchman, a courageous, if not always inspiring, preacher, and a man of deep convictions, …a total abstainer from alcoholic beverages and a dedicated pacifist.” After WW2, when churches across the country were filled with people giving thanks, Yates led his congregation in prayers of repentance for having taken up arms against fellow human beings. It created enormous hostility, Spong says, but Yates was undeterred. Equally he spoke out about the evils of racial segregation – at a time when many churches in America preached that racial segregation was the will of God.

The other man who was influential was his professor in philosophy, Louis Katsoff. Katsoff was a committed atheist and when Spong told him he had taken philosophy to prepare him for becoming a priest Kastoff, quote; “conveyed to me that Christianity was a helpless hangover from another age and that I should not waste my life”.

Years later, however, Spong returned to the Chapel of the Cross to speak, and to his great surprise, he saw Professor Katsoff there – no longer an atheist, but a baptised and committed Christian. He visited him afterwards and asked how it was he’d been converted. “David Yates finally got to me,” Kastoff replied. Spong was astonished. “How could that be?” he asked. “You can think rings around him.”

“David didn’t outthink me,” Professor Katsoff replied, “he just outlived me.”

Bartimaeus out-lived, out-faithed, out-followed, out-discipled the disciples. In his willingness to follow Jesus on the road marked with suffering, on the road of commitment to God’s will, on the road of love for God’s world, he showed the other disciples the way too.

Blind Bartimaeus helped them to see. He helped them to see the road they were on and the one they were walking with.

Just as so many faithful others have helped us to see the road we are on and see the one we are walking with.

Two prepositions I will leave the sermon – on and with! Amen!