The Gospel of Mark, from which are assigned readings over the course of this year have been drawn, has two major sections. In part one we read stories exploring Jesus’ identity. Who is this person who does such amazing things, teaches with incredible insight and authority, and forgives sins? Part two deals with his final journey to Jerusalem and all the events that transpire there.
Part one concludes when Jesus and his followers go to Caesarea Philippi, a pagan center about 30 miles north of their home base of Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee. Caesarea is an area riddled with springs that combine to form the Jordon River. These water sources create lush greenery in a region otherwise arid, desolate, and darn near uninhabitable.
Jesus “flees” to this remote location after Herod has John the Baptist beheaded. Jesus rightfully considers he might be next. Caesarea is in a region ruled by Herod’s brother Philip and thus is beyond the grasp of the ruthless tyrant who murders Jesus’ cousin. Think of it as being like fleeing to Elizabeth City if the governor of Virginia wants to do you in.
It is here Jesus asks his disciples who people believe him to be… a prophet, Elijah, who? And then he asks who they believe him to be. Peter famously responds, “You are the Messiah, the Christ, the one sent from God.” During this time of relative safety Jesus has the opportunity to reflect, to pray, and to strategize. He determines he must go to Jerusalem to confront the principalities and powers, even though he surely will die by doing so.
Jerusalem is about 105 miles from Caesarea Philippi. Tom Coxe and I made the journey last month by bus, but of course Jesus and his followers walked it. Their route took them through a lush, even swamping valley surrounded by barren mountains similar in scale to the Blue Ridge. Eventually they descended to Capernaum. After a brief rest they traveled down the Jordon River valley to the city of Jericho.
Now the valley itself is quit wide, flanked on either side by step cliffs and mountains. It is an extension of a continental rift running from deep in Africa to Lebanon. The Jordon River empties into the Dead Sea and is surprising narrow, no more than 25 to 30 feet across. Over the past few Sundays we have heard readings detailing the conversations of the travelers as they made their way leisurely along the riverbanks. Who is the greatest? What should we do about people not a part of our group who use Jesus’ name to heal? Does Jesus want to be bothered by children who approach him? What must a person do to inherit eternal life? Which of Jesus’ followers will sit at his side in paradise?
This morning Jesus and his entourage pass through Jericho. It is the oldest known city on earth, first inhabited more than 10,000 years ago. Our tour group spent a night there in an upscale hotel. From what I could tell, it was the only upscale thing in Jericho. The city today is located in a poverty ravaged, Palestinian-controlled region. Trash, rubble, and vacant lots abound. There is little greenery and little growing. The homes and neighborhoods we passed make Suffolk’s roughest areas look richly suburban. I noted several compounds – a block or two of dwellings surrounded by barbed wire topped walls with guard towers at the corners. Whatever ruins exist in Jericho either are not worth seeing or are not safe to visit because we loaded in our bus in the morning and took the main highway out of town.
Jericho is only 15 miles from Jerusalem so you might imagine Jesus and his followers have an easy day’s stroll to complete their journey. However, Jericho lies more than 800 feet below sea level, while Jerusalem sits on a mountain nearly 3,500 feet above sea level. Even our bus struggled to gain elevation at certain points along the way. Jesus and his band walk up the Wadi Qelt, a dry streambed carved in between deep, steep limestone cliffs. When I say there is nothing but rocks and dust in this wilderness, I mean there is NOTHING but rocks and dust in this wilderness. It is a shocking, yet magnificent sight. As a side note, Jesus uses this bleak location as the setting for his parable of the Good Samaritan.
Surely as they leave Jericho there is no more discussion about who is the greatest. They are thinking only about the arduous, physical task ahead. It is at this point a blind beggar by the name of Bartimaeus cries out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” At first the disciples try to silence the beggar, but Jesus stops and asks them to bring the man to him. “What do you want,” he asks? The response, “I want to see again.” Jesus, noting his faith, pronounces the blind man to be healed and immediately his sight is restored.
The text tells us Bartimaeus follows Jesus on the way. Take note he joins at the most physically demanding part of the journey. Presumably he is a part of the Palm Sunday experience, the events of Holy Week, is somewhere nearby when Jesus is arrested, is aware of the Crucifixion, and no doubt, along with the rest of the disciples, has some kind of encounter with the Risen Christ.
You don’t need to have lost your physical sight to be blind. John Newton, the former captain of a slaving ship, wrote in his hymn Amazing Grace, I once “was blind, but now I see.” If you will permit me to speak personally, let me tell you a little bit about my recent blindness.
It has been an amazing year for me. In addition to going to the Holy Land in September, in May I was able to go with a group of friends on a walking pilgrimage in North Umbria on the Scottish/English border. Our final destination was the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. Castle Beach, along the eastern side of the island on the North Sea, is strewn with round, smooth rocks of all sizes that are perfect for stacking. There are literally thousands of stone cairns along the stony beach, each one marking someone’s individual creation. Many are tangible signs of a personal prayer. It truly is an inspiring, holy location.
Some person or group took the time on a grassy area to make a labyrinth out of the stones (those of you this summer who attended the pot-luck dinner when I made a presentation about my trip will remember the pictures I showed of it). I said a brief prayer and entered into it. When I walk a labyrinth I move slowly and patiently toward the center, being mindful of everything I bring with me – who I am, where I have come from in life, my hurts, my joys, my losses, my loves. You all are a blessed part of what I carry with me as I wind my way to the center.
At the center of the labyrinth a pilgrim encounters God. It is a way of coming into God’s presence, or so the theory goes. The few times I have undertaken this spiritual exercise I stand quietly and wait, trying to let go of what is on my mind in order to be open to whatever might happen. I don’t know how long I stood in this beautiful seaside setting on a sun-splashed day, but at some point a thought came to me, an insight from beyond I hold to be the still, small voice of God: “I want to know that my life matters to me.” I want to know that my life matters to me. Had I been talking aloud it would have left me speechless. It was as if I had been given a diagnosis for something ailing me spiritually for a long, long time. After a while I began the slow, deliberate journey out of the labyrinth. I always use this time to ponder and pray over what I am to do with what I have received.
I know my life matters to a great many people. My “little hiccups” this have certainly confirmed it. And I believe God loves me deeply. So please don’t get me wrong, I am not suicidal, but I came out of the labyrinth with an unsettling awareness I am not sure why my life matter to me. I have lot of blessings to be sure: people who love me, people who care about me, a vocation I love, a place to serve as a priest I love and know that I am loved, God’s unfailing and unflinching love… I could go on and on. I know I matter to a great many people, but I am just not sure I matter to me.
I talked about this with maybe a half dozen people or so and learned I am not alone. It seems many of us locate our “matterness” in others. “My children need me.” “My grandchildren need me.” “People at work depend on me.” None of this is a bad thing at all. But maybe, like Job, if all of it was taken away, why would your life matter to you?
I have been living with this question now for several months. My “health hiccups” have helped me to “see” a few things to which I have been blind. I never felt like I was going to die, so facing my own mortality has not induced in me a panic-driven desire to live. Your thoughts and prayers have overwhelmed me. With all I am and all I have I thank you.
Here are the two things I thought about early last Sunday morning as a lied in the ER for a third time this month. First, I hated that you all would come to church, learn I had a setback, and be anxious and worried sick about me. I just hated putting you through that. Like the Monty Python movie, I could have lost an arm and all I wanted to do was let you know it was just a slight flesh wound. And while what I am dealing with is serious – and I am taking it seriously – compared to some of the people we are praying for, I am in a very, very good place health wise.
The other thing I thought about is I want to be dependable. When you come to church on Sunday your first thought ought to be something like “I wonder how I will meet God this morning” or “I can’t wait to offer up my prayers for myself and those I love”, not “Will Keith be here this morning?”
I want to know that my life matters to me. There is still much in this to which I am blind, but like Bartimaeus I am regaining some of the sight I had lost. My life matters to me because I am privileged beyond anything I can describe or deserve to stand in a place bridging for people the ordinary and the holy. I am not perfect at it, to be sure, but there is such a thing as amazing grace and I am absolute proof of it.
I always seem to end my sermon with a question and this one may be the most challenging, puzzling, or disturbing one ever. Yet I think it is profound and significant. Why does your life matter to you? If you have a ready and real answer consider yourself blessed. If you don’t, I invite you to join me in a prayerful journey of discovery. I invite you to join me in pleading, “Jesus, I want to regain my sight.” It will not be a one-time prayer, I promise you. It is more like walking the twisting path of a labyrinth where answers and insights give themselves up only over time. It is a journey I am willing to walk and to explore with you.