Lesson: Mark 10:46-52
“Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly.” Thank God. Literally. Bartimaeus won’t be told to shut up. Good for him. I like this guy Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus is a blind man. He depends on the generosity of his neighbors, but his neighbors can’t do more than maintain his current situation as a blind beggar. Bartimaeus wants more than that. You might think, “Well, of course he does.” But that isn’t automatically the case, and this is central to this story. Because when the people tell Bartimaeus to keep quiet, what they are saying to him is, “This is the best you can hope for.” Maybe they’re even saying, “This is just the way it is; this is normal.”
Somehow, Bartimaeus recognizes that his condition is not normal. Somehow, he hopes for more, even though, as Walter Brueggemann writes, the crowd always has a stake in pretending that something that really is abnormal – in this case, blind begging – is normal. Why? Well, it means no one has to change. If being a blind beggar is just normal, then the society doesn’t have to ask, “Why are some people forced to beg in order to survive, while others have more than enough? Why aren’t we taking steps to fix that? How could we fix it, if we wanted to? What is wrong with us and our society that we are allowing this abnormal situation to continue?” It would have been easy enough for Bartimaeus to conclude that his situation, unbearable as it is, is to just normal, now and forever. If he wanted more, that would be disruptive.
But Bartimaeus cries out. He’s heard of Jesus and uses the popular title associated with him: “Son of David.” Son of David points to Jesus as the awaited, saving Messiah, the bearer of new possibility, of a new reality here and now. He cries out, “Have mercy on me!” In other words, “Look at me, see me, see that the condition with which I am living and see the raw misery of it. This is not normal, Jesus.”
And yet, “many sternly ordered him to be quiet.” We don’t know why they silence Bartimaeus. Do they think Jesus has more important things to do? Do they think Bartimaeus is an annoying pest; are they thinking, “Not him again”? Maybe they were afraid the authorities would find out. Maybe the Romans or even their own religious authorities will get ruffled feathers if Jesus, this healer who works outside the approved channels, gets involved.
Jesus doesn’t hear him the first time, so Bartimaeus cries out more loudly. Isn’t this how it so often works? It takes more than one attempt to break through the silencers, to be taken seriously, even to be seen and heard. But Jesus does hear him, does see him, and he heals Bartimaeus.
Silence is complex. It can refer to awe before unutterable holiness. But, as we see in this story, it can also refer to coercion; some people silencing the voices of others. When someone, like Bartimaeus, breaks the silence, speaks up and says, “What looks ‘normal’ to you is hurting – or even killing – me,” it shakes things up. Often the response is, “Keep quiet. Don’t rock the boat.” This is a pattern we can see throughout history, and still today. Voices of dissent and voices on the margins are silenced with voter suppression and gerrymandering, pipe bombs and smear campaigns, gas lighting and mockery, censorship and blacklisting, mass incarceration and refusing to hire the quarterback who takes a knee.
The Christian Church is and always has been challenged to decide whether to sign on with the silencers, or with the silence breakers. On October 31, 1517, 501 years ago this week, the story goes that Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, attacking the corruption of the Christian Church. When the Church attempted to silence him with excommunication, Luther is said to have defended himself, with, “Here I stand. I can do no other, so help me God.”
Luther’s namesake, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” to the church. It was a response to the moderate white mainline Protestant pastors in Birmingham who tried to silence King and others in the Civil Rights Movement by labeling them extremists. This label discounted the urgency of the cause, and implied that King and the civil rights advocates were somehow dangerous, rather than racism. King wrote, “… though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.’ Was not Amos an extremist for justice: ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.’ … Was not Martin Luther an extremist: ‘Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.’ … And Abraham Lincoln: ‘This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.’ … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?” asked King.
There have been other times when the Church was the silence breaker. In 1992, some folks in the Presbyterian Church formed a coalition they called the More Light Churches Network. The More Light Network proposed to reinterpret Scripture and tradition in a fresh and freeing way in order to break the silence around gay and lesbian concerns. The movement took its name from a quotation by John Robinson, the spiritual leader of the pilgrims who founded the Plymouth Colony. Robinson said, “The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy word.” Robinson meant that Scripture continues to reveal new truth, the Holy Spirit keeps on opening up new and faithful possibilities, and so old and established interpretations are never the last word. The More Light Network found that Scripture does reveal good news about the rights of gays and lesbians who had long been silenced and made invisible in the church. Many of you can still recall how that “new light” disturbed and disrupted those who were committed to old patterns of silencing.
In the story about Bartimaeus and in each of these stories from church history, we can see that silence and silencing is a strategy for maintaining the status quo – in terms of power, wealth, and inclusion, and in terms of who is heard, who is seen, and whose stories are voiced. Silence breakers, on the other hand, are those who insist that the old patterns of power must be disrupted and reconfigured.
On the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Bartimaeus reminds us that silence breaking is deeply rooted in the biblical tradition. As William Sloan Coffin put it, the first person who said we should not mix religion and politics was probably Pharaoh. God, on the other hand, said, “Let my people go!” The God of the Bible most often appears at the margins of established power arrangements, whether theological or socioeconomic or political. That means the church at its most faithful is allied with the voices on the margin.
Just how do we do that? How does the church learn to be the silence breakers? How do we become allies of those who have been silenced? Jesus gives us an interesting clue. When the crowd passes the message along that Jesus has summoned him, Bartimaeus eagerly leaps to meet him. Jesus asks what seems like an obvious question. “What do you want me to do for you?” Doesn’t Jesus see that he’s blind? But Jesus offers Bartimaeus the dignity of asking him, a man long sidelined and silenced, to speak for himself. Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of David, refuses to assume he knows what is best for Bartimaeus. He gives him a chance to voice his deepest hope.
Many of you will remember one of our dear departed saints, Betty Stott. Years ago Betty told me a story about a Presbyterian Women’s group at another church that, for years, faithfully sent rolled bandages to Africa. They’d tear bed sheets into long strips and carefully roll them and pack them for use in the hospitals, where it was difficult to get gauze and adhesive. They finally stopped when they were informed that what the hospitals really needed were the bed sheets. For some time, the Africans had been unrolling the strips and sewing them back together.
Good-intentioned church people often presume to know what other people need. The church can be doing exactly what we think we’re supposed to be doing, and it can be all wrong. The church is always in need of reformation, because the church needs to be doing the work that God needs us to do. And that changes.
“What do you want me to do for you?” It might seem obvious how Bartimaeus would answer, how a person of color would answer, how a member of the LGBTQ community would answer, how an immigrant seeking asylum would answer, how a person suffering from poverty or hunger or any other form of deprivation or oppression would answer. … But what Jesus shows us is that we don’t really know. We need to ask, and we need to listen for the answer. The first step in being silence breakers is listening to voices long silenced. Listening even when it pushes us into uncomfortable territory. Asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” and not assuming we know the answer.
And perhaps the second step is accepting the transforming mercy that Jesus offers to Bartimaeus, because it is offered to all of us. The story goes on to say that after Bartimaeus regained his sight, he followed Jesus “on the way,” which means he became a disciple. “The way” means a new way of life. Jesus has not only restored the man’s sight; he’s made Bartimaeus his partner in his ministry to the children of God. The power of mercy and grace that Jesus gives Bartimaeus in the healing are now his to pass on. As Bartimaeus learned, restored vision takes us places we might not expect. Places where we are called to speak the truth, places where we are called to cry out when things are not normal, and when those who need to cry out cannot.
My friends, this past week was not normal. Pipe bombs sent to critics of the administration is not normal. Black citizens shot down as they shop for groceries in Kentucky is not normal. Eleven people dead in a synagogue in Pittsburgh is not normal. The response that we need armed guards in our places of worship is not normal. It doesn’t make any difference what political party you prefer: This is not normal.
Bartimaeus might have surrendered to the crowd, stayed silent, and remained unchanged; he might have left the world unchanged. That is what the crowd hoped for. We might stay silent as well. Silence is the privilege of those who can sit back and pretend that all these abnormal events have nothing to do with us. But on Reformation Sunday we celebrate that the slogan of the Presbyterian Church is “The church reformed, always being reformed.” God intends to transform us. God intends to transform us with mercy and grace because God loved Bartimaeus, God loves us and God loves the church just the way we are – and God loves us too much to let us stay that way. God wants healing, wholeness, shalom, grace and peace for every one of us. So we comfort each other after weeks like last week. We stand with each other. And then we figure out how to break the silence.
We never hear from Bartimaeus again in Mark’s gospel. We might imagine, however, that his discipleship included teaching others that the way to new life, new hope and new possibility is by breaking the silence. 
May it be so for you, and for me. Amen.
© Joanne Whitt 2018 all rights reserved.
 Walter Brueggemann, Interrupting Silence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), 76.
 Brueggemann, 72.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” published in The Christian Century, June 12, 1963, https://www.christiancentury.org/sites/default/files/downloads/resources/mlk-letter.pdf.
 Bruggemann, 108.
 Brueggemann, 2.
 Brueggemann, 83.