Sermon October 28th, 2018, St. Sauveur & Morin Heights
When I was at school in England, half way through high school, a new boy came into my year. His name was Dave and he had had polio when he was a child. He was occasionally in a wheelchair, on a bad day, but mostly he walked with two walking sticks. Awkwardly but effectively. Children can be cruel; we called him ‘spas’ but not for long. Firstly, Dave was a strong-willed, bright guy and gave as good as he got verbally. Secondly, because he walked with the canes and had weak legs which were encased in frames to support him, he was barrel chested and had enormously strong wrists, arms and chest. If you annoyed him, which we did regularly, he would grab you by the wrist and demand whatever apology he wanted. Lacking that, he would twist until submission.
One of his favourite demands for physical respect, thus directly confronting his disability, was to challenge any willing opponent to “chin ups”, of which we would be proud of 20. When Dave hit 100, he would ask if he had won. In a school which was heavily into sports as we'll as reaching university, the combination of Dave’s intelligence and his physical prowess soon meant that although his disability could not be ignored - it cried out to you - he rapidly achieved our respect.
I have had no contact with Dave since we left school, but Mr. Google knows everything so I looked him up. He has a BA, a Bachelor of Architecture and a Research Ph.D., and runs David B. Associates, an architectural firm which provides advice on Inclusive Design internationally, meaning design adapted to various disabling conditions, permanent or temporary. Talk about making what is perceived to be a disadvantage into an advantage.
Why am I telling this story? Well, because in good part that is what today’s gospel is about. The position of the disadvantaged in society. Dave was able through his own strength, and I am sure a very supportive network, to make a significant contribution to society.
Not everyone can do that and that is who the blind man in the Gospel symbolizes and represents.
We tend to focus on the Jesus’ miraculous healing of the blind man and appropriately so; it is a major part of the story. Jesus’ miracles are a major part of how we understand who He is. It is easy to understand that Jesus performs a miracle and a blind man can now see. But let’s take a better look at the blind man.
First, where was he? Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, meaning they were at or near the gate, on the edge of town. He was sitting at the side of the road. The blind man was geographically on the margins of society, as if to illustrate his social position. He hears a commotion and finds out who is passing by. So he cries out “Jesus, have pity on me”. The people around him try to shut him up; I imagine he was an embarrassment to some of Jesus followers, perhaps even the disciples.
Let’s take a little detour here. If we go back to last weeks’ Gospel, John and James, two of Jesus’ disciples, asked if they could sit at his left and right when he was in glory. Although they had the beginnings of an understanding of who Jesus was, they still saw Him in human and earthly terms. They saw His Kingdom as being one of power in the society of the day, and they wanted in. “Let us be your favoured lieutenants”, they were saying; “let us sit in the glow of your power and share in your authority.” They had no conception of the foolishness of their request nor of the consequences of their accepting to follow in Jesus’ path. So it is very possible that some of the people who tried to shut the blind man up were disciples.
Back to the story. When Jesus calls the blind man over to Him, the blind man throws off his cloak, probably one of his very few possessions. Remember the rich man who couldn’t or wouldn’t give away his riches in order to follow Jesus? Well, the blind man didn't hesitate to get rid of his possessions which were not rich at all. The question that Jesus asks the blind man is a key to this story. He asks “What do you want me to do for you?”.
“What do you want me to do for you?”. If I had to pick one sentence which crystallizes the message in this story, it is that. “What do you want me to do for you?”.
You could easily say that was an odd question because the answer was self-evident; give him back his sight. This assumes that once you overcome somebodies’ disability then everything is hunky dory. That person can move back into society and become a fulfilled person. How many examples do we need to see that this is not the case?
Our indigenous population is still suffering generations later the wounds of ill treatment starting from the arrival of the Europeans in North America. Some say that with all the tax and health care benefits and land deals accorded to the First Nations and the Inuit, they should be able to contribute to society, but equally we see that it is not that easy. It works for some, like my school friend Dave, but not for lots of people, who stay on the margins of society despite money being poured into the problem. Dignity and self confidence don’t necessarily come quickly or as a result of money.
The question therefore “What do you want me to do for you?” is the right question. Not just “Here is your sight” but “What do you really need?”. Sight alone may not be enough.
There is another story in Mark of Jesus healing a blind man, when he was in Bethsaida. The fact that Mark wrote them both into the Gospel means he was telling us something. Jesus spat on the man’s eyes, touched them with his hands and asked if he could now see. The blind man said he could see people but they looked like walking trees. So Jesus touched his eyes again and then he could see clearly. Healing doesn’t always work the first time.
We often don’t see clearly what following Jesus’ example looks like. As a church and as individuals. We are the church. Like the disciples, we partly understand discipleship but don’t always get it right. As our church’s significance wains, we imagine that the world no longer needs God, when perhaps the world no longer needs us. We are perhaps too embedded in the needs of our institution to focus sufficiently on the needs of the vulnerable.
They don’t need a church that wants to restore its place of honour in society; they need a church willing to risk itself on behalf of those who suffer. I don’t pretend to be able to do this personally any more than anybody else, but trying is the biggest part of the change. The blind man in today’s Gospel followed Jesus down the road not knowing where that would lead. The crucifixion was only a short time away so following Jesus was a courageous act, whether he knew it or not.
Another true story from current times, to finish. A few years ago, as a result of delivering Christmas baskets, we met a man who was living in filth and poverty not a million miles from here. He had suffered an industrial accident and lost most of his right arm. He lived in a small shack that was absolutely filthy; dirt, old food, used dishes everywhere. Many refused to go in because of the smell. His company was his dogs. The obvious need he had would be for a prosthetic arm but it didn’t take a genius to realize that this was only the beginning of the issue. In fact they had tried to fit an arm but it didn’t work for reasons I don’t understand.
The people delivering the Christmas basket asked him “What do you need?” His answer was a deck. His deck had rotted some time before and collapsed, so he had installed a plank from the ground to his front door. Precarious in summer, downright dangerous in the snows of winter. So a group of people built him a deck, with stairs and a fence and he stored some stuff on it and his dogs lay on it during the day.
Another time he said he was short of wood and people delivered some cords to his house. He died last year of a heart attack, aged 55. The vulnerable don’t live the longest.
“What do you want me to do for you?”. The answer may surprise you, may be less than you thought, but may be more like to restore dignity and self-confidence than what you had been prepared to give. The question of a vulnerable or marginal person is not “Let me tell you how I can fix your problem?” but “What do you want me to do for you?”.